Part 29: Only Love Could Be So Cruel
Act Two Chapter Twenty-One - National Lampoon's Homunculus HouseA short recap:
We were kidnapped from the Mere of Dead Men shortly after destroying the King of Shadows. The shadow gargoyles who abducted us were acting on the orders of Nefris and Lienna - the headmaster of the Academy of Shapers and Binders and the matron of the Veil Theatre of Mulsantir respectively. These sisters operated on us, removed the shard of the Sword of Gith from our chest, then dumped us in the spirit trap in Okku's barrow, infecting us with the spirit-eater curse. Nefris then sent her daughter, Safiya, to recover us and bring us to Lienna - but a coup by a wizard named Araman brought that plan to an end and left us adrift in wild Rashemen.
After much messing about, we eventually discovered and interrogated the Slumbering Coven of the Sunken City: a group of hags that possessed untold knowledge and wisdom. They had advised Nefris and Lienna on their plan to give us to the spirit-eater curse... specifically by guiding them to consult with the dead god Myrkul. We're now travelling to Nefris' Academy to see if we can also talk with Myrkul. However, the Academy is in the hands of the Red Wizard Araman, who seems to have some prior connection to the spirit-eater curse. And we're still not sure what Nefris and Lienna were planning to do with us once we became the new spirit-eater.
So let's find out, shall we?
: State the destination.
: The Academy of Shapers and Binders, in Thay.
: That path was shut by the Red Wizard, Nefris, when she last departed the Room of Doors.
: Nefris? That would mean that my mother really is the Red Wizard who's been visiting Lienna. I suppose that shouldn't surprise me...
: Shall I break the seals that she set in place?
: Yes. Break the seals.
: [The golem is silent for a long moment, its face impassive. You begin to wonder if it has gone dormant once again - but then...]
By the end of this sequence, we should know a bit more about Nefris' character and what she was trying to achieve. We'll also find out what happened at the end of NWN2. And not too long after, we'll have a pair of conversations that will explain everything.
* * *
Thay's a dry and dusty place. Ask Gann what he knows about the Thaymount and he says:
: Very little. Few spirits live there, and ones that scout too close do not return. It is shrouded in mystery, like much of the territories enfolded by the robes of the Red Wizards.
The Academy is guarded by Epic-level gnolls, which is nuts. How would you get an Epic-level gnoll in the first place? Is it by killing adventurers? In which case, how much XP is a 1st-level adventurer?
I suppose the answer is simply RED WIZARDS or something.
Anyway, here it is, the Academy of Shapers and Binders. Motto: "Nothing is immutable."
Inside is... messy. Remnants from the coup, presumably, though it's been a week since Araman took over.
What's the point of being a slave-owning nation if you're not going to use slaves to clean up? Or, you know, just cast Disintegrate on the corpses because you're all wizards.
This is Master Djafi. Like Safiya, he's a nice Red Wizard.
: Master Djafi! I was worried that you might have... I mean, I was told that my mother...
: I'm afraid so, my dear. I'm so sorry. If there was anything I could've done for her, I'd have done it. Nefris was a friend.
: But there was no stopping Araman once he'd gained momentum.
: I know you did your best and... and I'm glad you did not share my mother's fate.
: He's looking for you, you know. He's told the surviving masters to keep an eye out for you and your... friends here.
: I'm not sure where he is now. Word is, he's trying to find a way to kill the Founder, but that may prove difficult.
: You mean the founder of the Academy?
Odd. I thought Nefris, the headmistress, was top dog of the Academy?
: The fact is, no one's ever seen her before. The popular beleife is that she lived most of her life in a private sanctum beneath the Academy, but who knows how that got started?
: The Academy was founded hundreds of years ago. Now, I don't teach numerology, but unless I miscalculate, I would say Araman is... oh... a few hundred years too late.
: So he's trying to kill someone who's most likely already dead?
: Yes. And he is a very... driven, shall we say, individual. Even if the Founder is dead, he won't stop until he's seen her with his own eyes.
: And given your blood ties to the old regime, Safiya dear, I don't think threatening detention will have the impact it used to. Many here will be after your job.
: Perhaps there are still some left who might aid us in making Araman's tenure a short one... He didn't... he didn't kill all the masters of the Academy... did he?
: Not all - just those who resisted Araman, or who he thought might resist. Master Poruset is working in his lab right now, and Master Inarus is teaching class. They may be willing to help you.
* * *
Djafi is Safiya's father figure, in a way. Safiya never actually knew her biological father, and to be honest she doesn't really care - for reasons that will become apparent. Djafi's the closest we get.
: I'll tell you what I know, though I'm not sure it'll be useful. It's such a peculiar place, this school. People drawn here always have many facets, but most they hide from public view... and with good reason.
: Who would you like to hear about?
: I could tell you what you'd already know, I suppose. Or... I could tell you embarrassing stories about her.
Oops. Ah, well, don't worry, we can make it back up.
: Oh, come now, Safiya. Don't be so self-conscious. My stories of you are endearing.
: Some things never change. When she was a little girl, she was such a shy little thing - rarely said anything at all. She used to follow her mother everywhere she went, hiding in the folds of her red robes.
: But when the time came for her to get her first head tattoo, she was so excited, she went from classroom to classroom, telling everyone what tattoo she wanted to get. Know what it was?
A sweet little story, right? Little piece of fluff that gives opportunities for an Influence boost, correct?
It's a reminder that our quiet Red Wizard, our Epic-level arcane spellcaster, is also someone's daughter. That, at some point, she was a child... and still is, in some respects. It was on her mother's orders that Safiya rescued us from Okku's barrow, despite not knowing a thing about us or what her mother intended.
It's also a pattern that repeats itself in the rest of our companions. Gann's personal story has been about reconciling himself with his parents; Kaelyn still plays the part of the headstrong child to her wise old grandfather; even Okku the bear-god is considered to be the junior partner in his telthor clan. And the fifth companion also matches the pattern, literally and figuratively.
You can try to ask Djafi about the voices in Safiya's head as well. This gives a big drop in Influence (as you'd expect, it's a major breach in confidence) and Djafi doesn't seem to understand the question, as though he doesn't know what you're talking about. Next update, though, we'll see that he does know and is lying to preserve Safiya's dignity out of kindness... again, an interesting pattern.
Finally, I'd just like to note that Safiya's first choice of tattoo (until Nefris made her change it) was an image of creation, not destruction. This says a lot about her, her relationship to the Red Wizards, and even her relationship to her mother.
* * *
The Academy's a mixed bag. For every peaceful classroom...
...there's another chamber with hostile students in it. Again, like the fight in the Veil back in Act 1, 'students' goes in scare-quotes.
"Mixed bag" also describes the Academy in terms of gameplay. It's mostly puzzles, but the few fights there are are difficult (tedious) because everyone's a high-level Wizard. There are also very few opportunities to regain Spirit Energy - there are two Maverick Fire Elementals outside and a handful of Dread Wraiths in a locked storeroom inside, and that's about it. It's not too bad on a Suppressive playthrough, but a high Craving PC will struggle... especially if they get stuck on a puzzle. Or if they overlook a tiny little object with a key item inside that is required to complete a puzzle and spend hours and hours trying to figure out something that is impossible with no hint or clue or suggestion that they should check the tower again, goddamnit.
Let's have a quick tour. Important locations on this level include the, ah, "library"...
...and Master Poruset's workshop.
Feed the Mysterious Box a Spirit Essence and it releases a wave of damaging energy, granting us the Malleate Spirit crafting feat. We can now use Pristine Spirit Essences to craft the most powerful item enchantments.
We'll look at Master Inarus and Artesh's golem-fighting ring in the next playthrough.
There are three areas in the Academy; the Classrooms are the first. Our next destination is the Headmistress' Tower.
Looks like Nefris' office got ransacked. There's still some important info hidden amongst the wreckage, though:
: [Its pages are mostly filled with a cryptic scientific shorthand that was possibly only readable to Nefris. There is, however, a legible table of contents.
: [Turn to "Division."]
: [Certain elements of the myriad formulae in this section have been circled or otherwise highlighted, and there is one final equation at the section's end that is circled in its entirety.]
: [Interleaved with the scientific scratch work are sets of data - the results of experiments, perhaps. The names of the subjects of these experiments have been scribbled out beyond recognition.]
: [Turn to "Synthesis."]
: [By far the longest section of the journal, there is evidence here of hundreds of experiments on the subject.]
: [The experiments do not appear to have gone well. Nefris has noted failure at the conclusion of each one.]
: [These notes tend to grow more despondent later in the section. Her scrawl is larger and more volatile, and the messages themselves indicate growing frustration.]
: [The last experiment contains a schematic for the layout of a pair of rooms divided by a wall of bars, a single door between them.]
: [Its results are crossed out haphazardly. Below them, she has written a single phrase - "What else?"]
: [Turn to "Replication."]
: [This section contains dozens of pages' worth of equations - or rather, one equation that varies slightly each time it is rewritten.]
: [Lore Failure] [The equations are complete gibberish to your eyes, and yield no additional insight.]
: I think my mother was attempting to solve a brutally difficult equation... and she couldn't get either side to balance.
: [Several pages after the equation are blank, and you find a remarkably thin key concealed in a hollow carved into these pages.]
tl;dr we got a key from a book
It sounds like a lot of jibber-jabber, but wait until you find out what the Academy's speciality was before passing judgement.
There's a scrap of paper in the fireplace that reads:
"Seal the door."
Oh, this door?
: [Four hemispherical sockets have been bored into the door itself, apparently by its maker. There is nothing else resembling a keyhole anywhere on the door.]
: [An inscription has been engraved across the center at eye level. It reads as follows:]
Four wayward souls, four incomplete
Unique in flaw with fates foregone
Four hidden now, each place indiscreet
Assemble here, advance the pawn
Imitated and damned, imagined and splintered
Four reunited souls, their door thus reentered.
This is the overarching quest for the Academy. Four souls, four keys, to open the sealed door.
So why tell us how to open it? This is normally a massive plot hole in D&D dungeons but I think on this occasion it makes sense. Nefris wanted us to open the door - it's Araman she's trying to keep out, and evidently she doesn't think much of his logic skills.
* * *
Slightly more interesting than that is the idea that this is an Academy for the shaping and binding of souls.
Listening in on the classroom lectures is very illuminating.
: What about that? Can you duplicate a soul?
: Atsu, what do you think?
: And why is that?
: The only way to keep the qualities of a soul pure is to split them off of the original, rather than duplicate them.
: But then of course neither of the split pieces can ever be completely whole again.
: You've kept up on your readings, Atsu, clearly. But what has he failed to do?
: Moswen, what do you think?
: He's assuming something can't be done just because it hasn't yet.
: Precisely. What are we here for, Atsu, if not to challenge such notions?
: Yes, there is a natural flow to all things, and yes, it is preordained by the gods.
: But do not mistake these for the "laws" the mindless chattel take them to be.
: For the gods, too, are bound by laws. Indeed, the first gods came into being because a higher law dictated a need for order in the multiverse.
: If there are laws above even the greatest lawmakers, then none of their lesser laws is absolute.
: We have at our disposal all the tools of the gods. Magic, reason, and will.
: The structures they impose can be unmade.
: Who better than their most underestimated creation to shed light on their imperfection?
: So let's say I have a soul, and I split it. Which piece retains the memories?
: Moswen, you look like you know.
: I thought I did, but now I'm not sure.
: Why is that?
: Well, wouldn't the memories be in both?
: Interesting. Explain.
: Memory exists independent of a soul, but may imprint itself throughout a soul, if the memory is strong enough.
: So the same memory might find its way into both parts after the split. Or it might just exist in one.
: And it might be stronger in one than it is in the other.
: But given its independence, unless it is erased, memory will continue to bind the two pieces together, even after the split.
: Take heed, class. Erase those memories carefully, or you'll have some very disoriented homunculi when you implant the split souls in tomorrow's lab.
: Your projects last week showed no promise.
: I am inclined to fail all of you. I tire of your excuses.
: When I assign a project that no one yet has successfully completed, I want to see you attack it.
: In this field, our greatest innovations come from our mistakes as much as our successes.
: I don't care if you weren't able to get the intended result as long as the result you did get was interesting.
: How is it that you think we've come as far as we have at this school?
: It isn't through success, I can promise you that.
: Mistress Zerzura - why would removing a soul make the mind deteriorate?
: Hmm... think of the soul as a library, if you will. A vast store of information.
: The mind is a patron of that library. In every one of its evaluations, it references a part of the soul.
: A mind is a logical entity, but that logic is meaningless without a foundation - a proper means of putting it in perspective.
: It calculates, but it needs inputs from within as well as without.
: Take away that reference material, and the mind is without a cause for its reasoning. And so it atrophies.
Phew, that's a lot of words! But consider that we never speak to Nefris in the game, despite being an important character that set the plot of Mask into motion in the first place. These lectures (and our conversations with Safiya, and... other people...) are the closest we get to understanding Nefris' character beyond the tiny snippet we saw in the Slumbering Coven's dreamscape.
Some of these lectures suggest character traits; Nefris appears to have been an extremely determined and stubborn old woman who shared her daughter's atheism. The others hint at important plot points that will be explicitly stated later on.
This classroom contains one of the key-souls we need to open Nefris' door.
: I'm trying to solve this challenge problem that Headmistress Nefris left open to all of us. It's theoretically impossible, but she says she managed to do it herself.
: Are you aware that Nefris is dead?
: I am, and I'm very disappointed. I'd hoped to study more closely with her. But that's business in Thay. You get used to it.
: Meanwhile, now that she's gone, if I can solve this problem, I'd be the only person in the whole school to get it.
: Why are you working on an impossible task?
: It's what we do here. Nefris taught us that a critical mind puts us above the laws of men and gods.
: She used to say that laws are formed by the arrogant and presumptuous, and our work here is a message to them that such arrogance will always be questioned by those with minds and wills of their own.
The problem is this:
Twelve mephits, both fire and ice, in a room, six either side of the bars. We need to get all the ice mephits on one side and the fire mephits on the other to complete the task. The mephits must be switched in pairs (so there's always six either side) and can only be moved with a teleporter, which targets the closest mephit and no other. The mephits are typically uncooperative.
And what do we get?
: It was the headmistress' hope that she could funnel the energy from one impossibility into the other. That is, in undoing the flow of the mephits, she might be able to undo the splitting of the soul.
: I don't know if she ever got it to work, but I've heard she devoted decades to the research. Seems shaky to me, but that was never an obstacle for the headmistress.
* * *
The other three key-souls are hidden in the Instructors' Quarters, the third part of the Academy.
It's practically deserted, apart from a few gnolls and a wild elemental in someone's chambers.
We can even visit Safiya's old room, with pieces of old constructs scattered about the place.
Some of the rooms (and the corridors) have mirrors placed in a strange configuration. Clicking on them turns them to face new directions.
One of the instructors' chambers has a pair of pit fiends held in summoning circles.
: As usual, Oronock, you are mistaken. We have never seen this mortal before.
: Not the sight, my slow-witted associate. The smell.
Koraboros was one of the servants of Ammon Jerro, an enemy/companion of ours from NWN2. Koraboros broke free of Ammon's control due to our interference and later attempted to kill the both of us in an ambush.
: Koraboros? Oh yes. In fact, we attended his demotion ceremony quite recently, before we were... called here.
: A delicious affair, by all accounts. There's nothing quite so satisfying as watching an accomplished devil reduced to a bubbling, oozing mass and writhing in pain for several hours.
: A severe one, too. I heard that word of a number of serious misjudgments on his part reached the ears of Baalzebul himself. Well... whatever a slug has for ears.
: But surely you have not come to us to catch up with old friends.
The pit fiends are merchants, and you can buy and trade loot with them if you wish. However, that's only a fraction of their business interests at the Academy... more important is their line in souls.
Excess souls produced by the Academy's experiments are passed along to these two fiends. Souls extracted in this way bypass the usual process of judgement at the Fugue Plane and passage to their afterlife, instead going directly to serve the devils in their Blood War against the demons.
But these two also have possession of a number of unique souls that we desire.
: I'm looking for four souls with unique flaws.
: Mm. Yes, we thought you might be. You... have that look about you.
: Don't play coy, Thael-ka - it's too easily confused with your penchant for cretinism. We can offer you something of that description, mortal - a soul that has been marked for damnation.
: It is what we do to claim ownership of a soul while its host still lives. This specimen is in a rare transitional stage - its host is dead, but it has not reached Avernus to begin its sentence.
: What do you want in return?
: We require a compatible soul in trade. The soul you want is rare. We'd like the same.
I can do that, that's easy.
Huh. Okay, well, not impossible...
: No, no! Of course not. That would hardly be fair.
* * *
At the far end of the Quarters is the Academy's infirmary.
: Safiya has brought you - good. It is as Nefris hoped.
: Bebtu, what are you doing here? Who did this to you?
: Don't worry yourself. I have done this by choice... and with your mother's help. It was a success!
: If this was a success, I'd hate to see what a failure looks like.
I told you Nefris was helping us. Bebtu must have one of the key-souls.
: This... was all I could do to reassure her. An apprentice's greatest honor.
: So what is it you're carrying?
Remember when I told you the Red Wizards were practically a religious order?
Was I right or what?
No, seriously, there's barely any difference between the Academy and a monastery or seminary. So the Red Wizards complete equations and sacrifice slaves instead of reading scripture and praying... but the goals, the aims are the same: to understand the human soul.
: You must know, must have seen, that a soul is necessary for a person's survival. Nefris, through some insight she never imparted to me, seemed to know something of the mechanics of this.
: When it became necessary to hide an object from Araman, she realized that the most perfectly concealed thing in the world is a soul. It cannot be uncovered or singled out from any other.
: It cannot be replicated or falsified. It can be taken by force, but at the risk of destroying it. Long as I live, it remains safe. Should I die, it escapes and is lost to Araman forever.
: How can I get what I need from you?
: You would need to locate my soul and bring it back to me. For my own safety Nefris did not disclose its location to me, but she was fond of hiding things in plain sight.
Okay, sounds like we have our work cut out for us. We'd best get started right away.
Oh, wait a minute... there's someone else in the infirmary. Hello? Who's there?
Son of a-