Sep 22, 2021 4:22 PM
Baruti encounters a harried bureaucrat
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"What happens if you use two decorations of the same kind?"

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"The short answer is that you can't. But which one would you have wanted to double?"

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"It would have depended on what doubling did. If doubled Scales gave resistance to magical injury, or if doubled Engravings enhanced Spirit magic ability."

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"Ah! No. But if there is one thing you want above all else to refine your mask towards, I do know a technique, depending on what it is. You would need to balance some things strangely, and probably change to a full-head mask, but for example, if you wanted to engrave the whole mask to enhance a pure Spirit rune as strongly as possible, it can be done. It would depart from the usual realm of my choices and constrain some things—a hybrid rune can't be enhanced that way—but it can be done, if you want to. You might like to hear the list of usual Complications before you decide whether to try it."

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"I would like to hear that list anyway, I think," he says firmly. 

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"Complications: Mismatched Eyes, Many-Mawed, Twisted Rune, Overburdened, Divided, Hunger, Stolen Face, Beacon, Possessed, and Sundered. I think I've explained the first four already. Divided means your mask has two forms, which you must craft separately and then combine into one; you can shift your mask's form at will, but it will divide your soul to match, pulling your personality apart into the aspects that are most drawn to one mask and the aspects that are most drawn to the other. Most people find that they get along with themselves reasonably well, but for some it turns out to be a very bad idea. Hunger gives you an insatiable hunger and a drain on your lifeforce that can only be balanced by regularly feeding on death. Stolen Face lets you flawlessly impersonate anyone whose face you remove from their body and attach to your mask, but requires that you do this at least once to complete and bond the mask. Beacon makes all your thoughts and feelings obvious to anyone who interacts with you while you're wearing the mask. Possessed gives the mask a resident spirit, who can access its powers as easily as you can; I'd introduce you to some candidates and let you decide how well you could get along with them. Sundered gives the mask a damaged appearance and the power to sense other nearby mask-bearers and their powers; but it also lets them dimly sense you in return."

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"Does Stolen Face require that the face donor die? That they not consent?"

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"It does not require either, but there are only a few hours after you leave my domain in which you can still complete your mask, and you might not find anyone in time."

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"Would it work with my own face?"

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"Only if you were a different person from yourself—with Divided, for example."

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"Alright. If I wanted to take Mandible and otherwise optimize my ability to make masks as much as possible, what would you recommend?"

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The mist swirls thoughtfully, then,

"The most helpful possible mask for learning to make masks as well and quickly as possible would be a full-head Paper Skull with, hmm, your Hollow/Ethereal eyes would work nicely actually, and you could keep the Human nose, and Mandibles and a pure Spirit rune and Engravings and Trinkets and Flowers, Overburdened to add Tendrils and Feathers, Possessed by a spirit who knows something of mask-making, and Sundered to give you the mask-sense. Except that that's not quite right, because the thing you should really do, if what you want above all else is to learn mask-making, is get nearly all the way through making a mask a hundred times in all different configurations and materials and each time change your mind and start over at the end. And then take a mask that's Possessed and Sundered and has Trinkets and otherwise whatever features you like. Or, if you wanted the very most helpful possible mask for a mask-maker and didn't care about anything else, let me design something for you that's off the script entirely."

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"I don't necessarily want to optimize for mask-making at the cost of everything else,  but I at least want to know what tradeoffs I'll be making if I do. Can I say, 'okay, go off-script' without making a commitment?"

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"Yes. Whether to bond to a given mask is your own choice; all I can do is help you make them. Would you like to see the mask I would make for someone who wanted to be a mask-maker more than absolutely anything else?"

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"Yes, I would."

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The partly-finished mask unravels, and a whole new set of tools appears. The Assistant guides his hands through a swift and bewildering series of operations. First he pinches off a bit of soulstuff from the heap and spins it into thread, then he braids the thread into a cord, then coils the cord into a disk, sewing it to itself along the way with neat little stitches using more spirit-thread. Around this central core he molds more soulstuff like clay until the original disk is completely obscured, not even visible to the soulsight spectacles, fully melded into the whole... except when, moments later, he carves into the clay to make an engraving of an open eye, whose pupil reveals the center of the spiral. On the back of that piece he carves a rune that is almost certainly pure Spirit; this, then, becomes the forehead of the mask, and he sculpts eyes beneath it, then the rough shape of a face.

Overall it's... not not a skull. There is definitely something notably skull-like about it. But it's not quite a human skull, and there are parts that are hardly skull-like at all. Perhaps elements of Demon? It's hard to be sure.

Once he has the basic shape formed, the next stage is—well, probably these are the Decorations, or some off-script equivalent. Antlers? It has antlers now? They sweep up from the mask's temples to curve around above the head like a halo or crown, deeply grooved in a pattern reminiscent of abstracted woodgrain.

After a brief pause, the Assistant guides his hands back to the mask's forehead and has him carve out two more eye-shapes above and below the Hollow-looking left eye, then add more material into the right eye to divide it into three smaller eyes, for a total of seven. Then comes the engraving: over and over, he carves thin, smoothly curved lines into the mask's surface, inside and out, following some invisible contour map that only the Assistant can see. The lines are barely visible once placed. As he passes over the nose and mouth areas of the mask, he seems to incidentally shape them into an odd sort of beak-like arrangement that flows perfectly into the skull-like shape of the rest of the face.

Finally, when the whole mask from the end of the chin all the way up to the tips of the antlers has been patterned with those smooth-flowing lines, he spins an enormous amount of soul-thread and crafts about a hundred different individual little oddments from a bewildering variety of materials some of which don't even seem to be soulstuff at all—is that his diamond in there? But each of them, once it has been tied to the antlers by soul-thread, fades out into the same translucency as the rest of the mask: half-visible to the mundane eye, crystal clear to soulsight.

The end result, when the guidance stops, is a translucent silvery-black mask that looks like an alien skull made of moonlight and shadows, with seven asymmetrical eyes and elaborate antlers full of dangling beads and charms. The barely-visible engravings give the whole thing a sort of liquid rippling look.

"There!" says the Assistant, sounding a little out of breath. "I think that's the best I can do. You'd need a spirit to complete it—I can introduce you to some candidates if you like. The eyes are meant to let you see everything at once in as much detail as possible; I expect them to be a little overwhelming to start with, but it should be possible to get used to them with practice. The mouth and nose aren't special by themselves; they're just there to balance the rest. I put in as many Trinkets as I could, but that means they're underpowered right now, about half strength; you'd have to spend a long time taking them apart and putting them back together before you could get ones that will fully restore someone from the brink of death. Still, Trinkets are one of the best places to start if you're learning maskmaking, the more the better. The rune is pure Spirit and I supported it with engravings but the engravings are mostly taking advantage of the rune to hold the eye situation together; they won't help you all that much with learning Spirit magic faster. And I carved channels in the antlers that will let you add Tendrils once you're a little farther along, but I recommend waiting on that as long as possible because there could be side effects if you mess up the placement, and even if you do it perfectly, they're going to rebalance the whole system and you'll probably only be able to sustain about six Trinkets at a time maximum once they're all filled in. And if I've done it right, installing the Tendrils will also enhance the eyes to the point where you'll have to get used to them all over again."

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Baruti is awestruck.

Baruti likes making things with his hands. He's bounced through dozens of favorite crafts in his time, achieving high journeyman levels of skill at least in most of them. 

It helps, in following along with and understanding what is happening.

He is still completely blown away.

"This is amazing," he says when they're done. "I would love to meet candidate spirits. Can you explain everything at some point--I have so many questions--"

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"I'll do my best but it's surprisingly hard to explain, you know, the considerations get so complex... anyway, I should probably introduce you to your candidate spirits first. Here."

The ever-present mist rises, obscuring the trees. A luminous figure, visible only to soulsight, steps hesitantly into view. She looks like a blurry, faded afterimage of a plump woman with long curly hair, drawn on the air in faint traces of moonlight.

"This is Ylir," says the Assistant. The figure nods. "She was a mask-maker. Not as good as me, but then, very few people are. She's thoughtful and curious and likes to figure things out; she would make a good companion for a mask-maker who plans to stay out of trouble and focus on studying and understanding magic." Nod nod goes Ylir. "She won't be as good a fit with a more adventurous sort, though; if you're planning to lead a dangerous life, it would be best to choose a spirit who's happier with that sort of thing." Ylir nods very firmly.

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"I don't think we'll be a good fit," he says to Ylir apologetically. "I need power so that I can go back to where I came from and stop the people who tried to kill me."

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Ylir makes a sympathetic face, nods understandingly, waves goodbye, and steps backward into the mist. Moments later, a different figure emerges. This one appears to be some sort of off-brand centaur, with a deer's body and a human's head and torso.

"This is Arten," says the Assistant. "A worse mask-maker than Ylir, but much better-suited to a life of adventure and hardship." Arten makes some rapid hand-signs, which the Assistant translates as, "He says he's pleased to meet you and you should wait until all the candidates have had their say before deciding who to run with but he likes the look of your soul and he'd be happy to be your partner." More hand-signs. "Especially if—ah, yes, I forgot to mention, but one of the reasons I built your mask the way I did was that if I give you a foundation for modifying it later, that makes it easier to develop further modifications after that. Untangling a bonded spirit is a very, very tricky business, but it can be done, and Arten would like to have a body again eventually. You'd need a replacement spirit unless you learned how to rebalance the mask very thoroughly, but I imagine it will be possible to find volunteers somewhere in your journeys."

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He bows to Arten. "I shall, indeed, meet with everyone before making a decision, but you seem like a suitable prospect and I would be happy to build you a new body." He looks at Arten thoughtfully. "--If I choose to partner with someone else, can I just make him a new body here and now? That is to say: I can certainly construct a human body with my own magic. Are the spirits here bound in some way such that they can only go into masks and not bodies."

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Arten smiles slightly.

"My candidate spirits made agreements to enter masks, on terms that are generally kept private. Even if it would be possible to embody them here, it would void their agreements."

Sign sign sign. "He says he thinks a century or so of being a mask-partner sounds lovely, it's just that he'd expect to get restless eventually." Sign sign. "He wishes you well." And Arten turns and vanishes into the mist, leaving behind dainty ethereal hoofprints that fade out after a few seconds.

The next spirit... is a snake. They're just. A snake. A really big snake, the kind that'll squeeze you to death and then swallow you whole and roll around for the next week looking like a sock with a tennis ball in it while you're digesting.

"This is Cold River," says the Assistant. "Very well acquainted with mask-making theory, although the traditions among the serpentfolk are very different from the ones I'm familiar with. I recommend her to both mask-makers and adventurers." The snake's tongue flicks the air. She regards Baruti with glittering eyes. "She's had some trouble finding a partner because most people don't want to work with serpentfolk, but perhaps you'll have a different perspective. She wants me to be very clear with prospective partners that she isn't what they'd think of as a nice person and she won't cooperate with whatever they're doing simply because they're the one wearing the mask; if you want her help with something, you need to make a convincing case for why it's a good idea from her point of view. She also doesn't want to be matched with anyone who'll object to a dark sense of humour."

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"I don't object to a dark sense of humor, or to serpentfolk," he says, tilting his head. "I would want a better idea of how 'not a nice person' and 'has to convince her it's a good idea from her point of view' work out in practice, I think."

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Cold River tilts her head to a matching angle.

"There is, hmm, something of a cultural divide, I think," the Assistant explains hesitantly. "Among those with human faces, there is an expectation that a mask-partner will be helpful to the mask-bearer by default, unless there's a specific disagreement between them, a clash of personalities or a difference of opinion about the task at hand. Among serpentfolk—I'm not sure I have this right—the expectation is that before action comes debate, and unilateral action can be taken unilaterally but cooperative action requires consensus. Am I on the right track?"

The snake dips her head in a graceful nod.

"As for 'not a nice person'... I'm at a loss to explain that one, I'm afraid. Maybe I can ask Arten once I've finished showing you the best candidates. The spirits can speak to each other when they're not summoned here, and Arten can sign to me, but they can't make sounds or scents or colours in this form so their ability to communicate here is limited."

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"Ah. I understand. Please understand that I have no philosophical objection to such an arrangement, I just want to make sure I choose the spirit who best fits with my goals."

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