Sep 22, 2021 4:34 PM
Baruti encounters a harried bureaucrat
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She nods again, and turns and slithers back into the mist.

The next spirit is a—hummingbird? No, that's a humanoid body being propelled by those speed-blurred wings—but they don't hold still long enough for an anatomical study, instead constantly flitting through the air from side to side and up and down and forward and back and at all sorts of other angles.

"This is Fel. They were one of the first wildfolk mask-makers. Like Cold River, I think they would have insights into aspects and traditions of mask-making that I myself know little about. They want to be matched with someone who will lead an interesting and exciting life; if you intend to settle down eventually and retire to less active pursuits, I recommend embodying them first."

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"That shouldn't be a problem," he says, "even if I ultimately manage to save my world, there will still be plenty that can be done in such a manner for however long it takes to embody them."

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Fel flits in a jagged zigzaggy circle around Baruti, considering him from all angles, and then zips away back into the mist without waiting to be dismissed.

"I think they're not enthusiastic about the partnership but would be willing to listen to a pitch if you wanted to make one. Let me see... those were definitely all my best mask-makers, I'll just take a quick peek outside to see if anyone else wants a look at you..."

The mist in the clearing drops precipitously, until there are barely a few wisps left clinging to the dirt. An elusive sense of presence lifts from the area.

 

Half a minute later, the mist rises again. "Brr, stepping outside is always a trial. Just one more. This is Gauru."

A tall, broad-shouldered spirit steps out of the mist. He seems human, except for the size; he rather towers above Baruti, at what must be seven or eight feet. His spirit-clothes are bulky and fur-lined and he has what looks like a massive war-hammer slung on his back.

"He dabbled in mask-making but it wasn't his main strength. He said—I've probably got this a bit scrambled, I'm too uncomfortable in the spirit-space to be a good listener—that he heard from Ylir that someone tried to kill you, and he wants to ask why, and if your story moves him and you have a use for a mask-maker of middling skill who is also a skilled singer, a well-read historian, and an accomplished philosopher of law, he'd like you to consider him as a possibility."

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...He nods, slowly. 

"In my world, magic is something that individual people do, paying a price in pain and the risk of personality alteration for power. Different people have different tolerances for how much of this tradeoff they are willing to make. The strongest, those most willing to pay the price and able to handle the results without becoming a danger to those around them, are called Great Mages. They're reasonably rare, both because most aren't suited to it and because those who might be suited to it don't always find a teacher, and magic is very, very hard to pick up on one's own. Great Mages have ever been known to die, but it's very rare; any mage worth their salt can de-age themself indefinitely, and Great Mages are nearly invariably the equal of any danger that isn't another Great Mage." He takes a deep breath. "I'm a Great Mage. A little less than a month ago, one of my peers, a woman I respected greatly, was killed with no warning. We attempted to investigate, but the event was occluded by a great deal of magical static that apparently resisted all attempts to past-scry the event. It was immediately obvious that something had gone badly wrong, but it wasn't apparent that it was still going wrong until the second death, less than a day later. That one most of us didn't find out about immediately, distracted as we were by our forensic investigations. By the time we found out about it, it had been accompanied by a third." His fists clench unconsciously. "I immediately realized that it had to be one of us behind it. 'Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action.' There was no way a non-Great Mage without any of us colluding with them would have managed to kill three of our number within such a short span of time. I shared this insight with my colleagues. Unfortunately, several of them responded unproductively, by immediately accusing each other and using the occasion to bring up old grudges. The next several deaths were...not directly caused by the initial murders. Those of us with sense attempted to band together for protection, but that strategy was fractured the first time a group was wiped out, apparently by an unidentified traitor in their midst. 

At that point, I saw the writing on the wall, and determined that the best way to weather this storm, however it fell out, was to hide my own survival. I refreshed myself on a technique I had developed and not shared, and waited for the murder attempt to come. When I felt the magical pressure on my wards, I resisted for a plausible length of time, then blew up my citadel in a burst of chaos magic and teleported away. I had a hiding spot prepared, but apparently the chaos aspect of my escape rerouted my trajectory, and I landed elsewhere."

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Gauru frowns, nodding slowly along with this explanation. He signs something, noticeably more slowly than Arten and in what might be a different language.

"He says that he should not be your top choice—really, you'd recommend Cold River? All right—but he agrees that your cause is just, and he would assent to join you if you wished."

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"Why Cold River? Is it because she has a different maskmaking tradition?"

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More slow signing.

"Yes, and because he respects you for reasons he thinks she would share."

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He nods slowly and thoughtfully. 

"I'm not sure that she and I ought to work together forever, but I do respect what I've seen of her so far."

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"I'm sure you would be able to reembody her eventually," says the Assistant. Gauru nods.

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"Alright. Did you want to speak with Arten before talking to her again?"

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"Yes, I think that would be a good idea."

Gauru waves, makes a gesture, and walks away through the mist.

"He says good luck," the Assistant translates.

A few moments later, Arten returns, and immediately starts signing animatedly.

"He agrees that you and Cold River are likely a good match," says the Assistant. "He says that the way she is not a nice person is mostly about differing expectations. Among her own people she was seen as a deliberate and careful thinker, but that same way of being, when she's among different people who expect different things, can have them seeing her as lazy, callous, and indifferent to urgency. She doesn't want to fall in with a naive partner who will be shocked and disappointed by the way she is."

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"Oh," he says. "Yes, I think we would probably be a good match. That's not even slightly what I was concerned about. I can relate to it."

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Arten nods and signs some more.

"He says he suspected as much. Do you want to choose her, then?"

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Arten waves goodbye and darts away into the mist, and Cold River slithers out again, this time moving closer to examine the mask. Her tongue flickers, as though investigating how it tastes.

"Then if you are satisfied with your mask and your partner, we can complete the mask and bond the three of you together."

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He smiles slightly at both the mask and at Cold River and bows.

"I am entirely satisfied."

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The snake slithers into the mask. As her ethereal body touches it, he might catch a glimpse of startling iridescence, colours flaring in her ghostly scales as her spirit-form merges with the mask; and when the tip of her tail vanishes into it with a flick, it settles slightly more heavily in his hands, though not nearly a forty-foot-long snake's worth of heavy. The Assistant guides him to take off his soulsight spectacles, and the mask is still just barely visible as the Assistant guides him to put it on. A soap-bubble shimmer with a gentle weight like thick paper, it rests against his face, held there by nothing at all...

...and then gets somehow lighter and more solid all at once, as colour floods into it like spilled ink, the inner surface suddenly opaque to him. There is a sense of what the mask is, its powers and where they come from: the eyes, the trinkets, the antlers with their hint of potential for future connection. The rune, which is indeed full Spirit. The spirit, a watchful presence within; he can tell directly that as soon as the bond is complete, she'll have as much access to the powers of the mask as he does. Until then, the mask is inert, offering no powers to either of them.

There is a sense that the three-way bond between spirit, mask, and bearer is nearly settled, and all he has to do to complete it is sort of... lean his mind into it, be satisfied with this outcome and put that satisfaction at the forefront of his mind and give it a little push until the magic clicks into place. Or he could refuse it, and take the mask off and try again.

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He is not going to do that. He thinks about his satisfaction, the appreciative respect he has for Cold River and the awe he has for the Assistant's design, and leans. 

click

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The bond completes; the magic blooms.

Seeing through the mask's eyes is just as disorientingly informative as the Assistant led him to expect.

Physically, he can see more clearly than he ever has in his life, with hints of alien colours accenting the ones he's used to—a glow of heat in his hands that's a red deeper than red, the faint rainbows in the pale silvery mist showing a gleam along their inner edge of a violet beyond violet. Details are sharper, and sharper still if he focuses. His peripheral vision is not narrowed by the mask's occlusion but expanded by its magic; he can't actually see the inside of his mask anymore, and he can see things above and to the sides at a wider angle than before, with a broader range within that angle visible in detail before it starts to blur out at the edges.

Then, overlaid on top or intertwined between the physical aspect of vision, there is also the soulsight. The pile of spirit-scraps on the tree-stump worktable, visible under the spectacles and invisible without, are visible again in far greater detail, a difference in keeping with how much better he sees physical things with the mask than he did before. He can also see a shifting glimmer in the mist, an indication that it has a spiritual aspect; he can see his own soul embodied in himself, if he looks closely enough at his body, and when the mist rises and drops again to reveal a tall standing mirror, he can see the spirit bound up in his mask, ethereal scales twining impossibly under its surface. The soulsight layer is noticeably separate from the physical layer, and has noticeably different boundaries and limitations—different things occlude it, to a different degree—but, looking at any given object or place in the world, the two forms of sight meld seamlessly into a unified whole.

On top of that is a hint of something else. He can, just barely, access a third layer of sight that shows him not sense-data but pure information, knowledge about the things he looks at. It's vague and elusive and largely overwhelmed by the other two, but it detects the Assistant's attitude of excited pride in their workmanship, and Cold River's thoughtful curiosity, and the fact that the mist is the closest thing the Assistant has to a body.

He also breathes easier, with the mask on, like his body just has more energy than it did a minute ago. Logically speaking this is probably the passive effect of the Spirit rune—but he doesn't need logic to know that; he can feel it, with the mask-sense his mask also grants him. It's a mask-maker's mask-sense, attuned for fine detail at short range instead of clear warnings at long. With it, he can perceive the exact shape and nature of his mask, and the movement of the spirit within as she examines it.

(The Assistant does good work,) comes a soundless whisper into the back of his thoughts. Cold River communicates more in concepts than in words, although it seems she's starting to pick up his languages through the bond, because the concepts are structured partly using his own vocabulary. (I think we will do very well together, you and I and this mask.)

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He grins. 

(I agree.) He tries to see if he can sense anything about her languages. 

"Thank you. From the bottom of my heart," he says to the Assistant. 

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The main sense he gets about Cold River's languages is that they're not associated with the medium of sound, the way languages he's familiar with are; he can get a vague glimpse of how their writing works, a complicated structure of linked rings and spirals flowing from one ideogram to the next, but can't pin down any vocabulary yet. His access to her languages is more muted than the reverse.

"You're welcome!" says the Assistant. "I'm so glad I could make you a mask you're pleased with! I can try to explain it now if you like? Oh, I should've thought ahead, you'll be moving on now that it's complete... we still have a little time, though. Hmm, where to begin... Do you have any questions?"

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"What was the purpose of the additional materials you incorporated? I think I saw my own diamond in there."

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"Trinkets can be made of nearly anything, and I though the diamond was interesting so I used it. Because of the way the magic balances, the best arrangement of Trinkets is one where no two Trinkets are made of the same set of materials; that's part of why it gets so much harder to balance them correctly as there get to be more of them. A Trinket can be made from just about anything as long as it's the right size and you can get it to bind to the magic properly. Spirit is the easiest medium to work with for that, because it has no physical substance to get in the way, so you can focus on the magic, whereas if I had to use leather string or metal settings, I'd have to also get the physical material to hold together appropriately at the same time."

(Yes, that's familiar,) Cold River agrees, although the Assistant can't hear her. (We do it differently, but I recognize the principle.)

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"What can you tell me about the shape of the mask? It clearly isn't standard Skull, exactly; I think I can see elements of Demon?"

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"It draws on the magic of the Skull shape, but not fully; it doesn't draw on Demon, although there's superficial similarities. The shape and the mouth and nose are things I had to sort of trade away to get the important parts fully supported; that's why it has a beak. There are ways to make beaks magical but they're very tricky to balance and it's much easier to use them as a null entry for mouth and nose magic when the mask has a lot going on in other areas."

(That, on the other hand, is all unfamiliar to me. Face-shapes and feature-shapes in the human-faced mask-making tradition work very differently than they do among the serpentfolk.)

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