URGY Serial

Uhh, Reincarnation Goddess? You Forgot to Give Me the System

Beginning of an Era – Chapter 7

We followed the river along its course for the next ten or so minutes, as it snaked its way from the depths of forest-land to the shallows of… elsewhere-in-the-forest-land. Hey, I can’t always be a poet.

Keeping my balance on the waterhopper was a lot easier than I expected it to be. I would have thought that ten minutes of uninterrupted T-posing would have been a pain, that I might lose my balance at some point and tilt too far in one direction and send myself crashing into a riverbank, but no. I briefly wondered if magic was helping me stay perfectly balanced.

Or maybe I just had a better sense of balance than I thought. It’s not like my corporate desk job gave me many opportunities to see how long I could stand straight up with my feet together. So on we went down the river, Master T and T-pprentice, unwitting maestros of mobility.

It still looked dumb as hell, though. I loved every second of it.

“So why are these called waterhoppers?” I asked. “We’re not exactly hopping across the water, here.”

A few feet ahead of me, Bohriam shrugged. “I dunno. It was catchy? Also, ‘waterglider’ was already taken.”

I was about to ask what the hell a waterglider was when I heard a disturbing sizzly sound at my feet. The pale yellow static discharges that my waterhopper had been giving off were now a pale shade of orange, and getting darker by the second. “Uhh, Boh? Is the waterhopper supposed to do that?”

Boh glanced over his shoulder at my feet, careful not to rotate his body too much. “Hmm? Yeah, that just means it’s running out of charge. Don’t worry; we’ll be there soon.”

Normally I would have been fine taking his assurance at face value, but I have a bad habit of worrying about things when people tell me not to. “What’ll happen if it runs out of power before we get there?”

“Then it’ll drop and you’ll fall into waist-deep water…”

“Oh.”

“… Full of creatures you couldn’t possibly imagine…”

“Oh…”

“… Mostly harmless fish species you probably don’t have on Earth.”

“You’re just fucking with me now, aren’t you?”

Bohriam twirled around and tilted backward to keep advancing. “I swear, I’m telling the truth. This river really has things like trout and salmon.” He was trying really hard to keep a straight face, and utterly failing.

“Fuck off,” I said, smiling just as hard.

A minute later, the town of Gostrey was finally within sight. As we left the thick foliage of the forest behind us, I could see that the river opened up ahead into a lake in the middle of some wide-reaching grasslands. The town stretched around the left side of the lake, a mile or two of houses and I guess whatever else a lakeside town on Era would have. Businesses? Movie theaters? Okay, probably not movie theaters.

The fields on the right side of the lake (and extending along the river) looked like they were mostly farmland, considering how uniform the flora over there looked compared to the rest of the plains. Also, there were a couple barn-ish looking buildings. That helped give it away.

I wondered why it didn’t look like anyone was living on the farm side of the lake. At least on Earth, I was under the impression that old school farmers would live in the middle of or right next to their farmland, so they could be out and working it as quickly as possible every day. But  maybe that wasn’t as important in a world where you could just hoverboard yourself across the lake every morning.

All in all, it looked like a quaint little RPG starting town—not that its inhabitants would think of it in those terms, probably. More than anything, I was looking forward to having a real place to rest for the night and—hopefully—get something to eat.

Bohriam piloted his waterhopper to the town-side edge of the river and stepped off it, onto dry land. I followed his lead. Goodbye, Master T.

“We can walk the rest of the way from here,” Bohriam said. “It shouldn’t be too long.”

“I’m starting to think sentences like ‘It shouldn’t be too long’ and ‘We’ll be there soon’ mean something completely different in Beleric than what they mean in English,” I said, rolling my eyes.

“I take it you’re not a fan of traveling?”

“More like, I’m not a fan of walking. On Earth, humans have invented all sorts of machines to help us get from one place to another faster.” Honestly, my legs were still a little sore from our escape from Speedy before. I was kind of amazed that Bohriam still had the energy to keep going.

“Well, unless you’re about to invent a landhopper, we need to do this the old-fashioned way,” Bohriam said. “Which to us in Beleria, is the current-fashioned way.”

“Fiiine,” I sighed.

“I could always pick you up again and carry you the rest of the way,” Bohriam sarcastically suggested.

I actually thought about it. “Would it make you look more heroic to your townsfolk? And is it good to look heroic here?”

Bohriam simply shook his head and sighed. “We better hurry if we want to make it before nightfall.”

He manifested his lightning sword again and touched its electrified tip to the waterhoppers on the edge of the river, recharging them in an instant. Their static sparks became pale yellow again, and they started hovering back down the river in the direction we came from. “Waterhoppers are usually scripted to return to their point of origin after you’re done with them,” Bohriam explained. “It’s good courtesy to send them back for future travelers.”

And so we started the next leg of our journey, on our own four legs. I opted not to further interrogate Bohriam about life on Era for now; I was too exhausted. To our right, the sun was finally receding behind distant eastern mountains—snow covered peaks against a backdrop of deep sunset pink. For a second, I regretted spending so much of my life on Earth indoors and in the dark. How much beauty like this did I shun on Earth in favor of spending yet another evening playing video games that didn’t matter?

Maybe that was something else I could fix with this second chance.

Bohriam also opted not to ask me further questions about Earth yet, though I could tell he had plenty. I didn’t know Boh very well, but I had the feeling he was distracted thinking about something a lot more serious. Whatever it was, I decided it probably wasn’t my place to intrude.

With the full departure of the sun over the horizon, a series of bright lights ignited on the top of the mountain chain. Three different lights on three different peaks, each one a different color: red, green, and purple. At this distance I couldn’t tell whether the lights were from magic beacons or magic fires or even just plain colored LEDs—but that didn’t stop me from snickering to myself and thinking Heh, Gondor is calling for aid.

Then a bunch of lights turned on in the river right beside me—and they were moving!

“Looks like the phosfish are waking up,” Bohriam said, casually glancing at the river. “Do you have those on Earth?”

I looked more closely into the water, and now I could see that each of the little white lights was actually a fish, merrily swimming up- or down-stream. Each fish emanated a soft white glow from its fins, scales, its entire body. “Phosphorescent fish? No, I don’t think we do.” I watched as one of the little tykes swam around aimlessly, guided by the light of all its neighbors. It was pretty cool.

“They only glow like this a couple weeks of the year,” Bohriam said. “The rest of the time, they’re absorbing sunlight and biding their time before the next, uh…” Bohriam trailed off, looking away awkwardly.

“… The next mating season?” I guessed out loud. Bohriam’s bashful reddening of the face was enough to tell me that I guessed right. Aww, Boh was shy about biology around girls. How cute. “It’s okay dude, I’m a big girl. I know all about the birds and the bees.”

The color drained from Boh’s face and he suppressed a shiver. “Well I’m glad you’re not entirely unprepared for the wildlife on Era.” He forced himself to look ahead and focus on our destination once more.

… Umm. What the fuck was the deal with birds and bees on this planet?

After another minute or two of walking, we finally—seriously, FINALLY—made it to the edge of town. It’s not like there was a fancy entrance archway we were able to walk under and suddenly be in Gostrey; it was more that the grass we were walking on slowly turned into dirt, and then into stone, and then we started passing the most outlying buildings.

Part of me was disappointed that there was no special fanfare to herald our arrival. The rest of me thought well, that’s only logical. Everyone in town is probably getting ready for bed right now. But still, this was my first RPG town! Couldn’t I at least get a small overview cutscene when I walked in?

As if on cue, a villager came running down from a side street and turned toward us, his expression simultaneously awash in both relief and urgency. “Bohriam!” he shouted as he ran. To my side, Bohriam did nothing to indicate that this unnamed villager was a threat, so following his lead, I calmly waited for the villager to reach us. As calmly as I could, at least.

When the man did reach us, he paused for a couple seconds to catch his breath. The way he hyperventilated after that sprint, I wondered if he was related to Bohriam. Or maybe heavy breathing after running was more common in this world, as a side effect of whatever the Seven Sevens System did to people’s bodies. Or maybe—

“Thank Kelenor,” the villager said between breaths. “I came as soon as Rikaine said she saw you from the watchtower. Are you okay? Where’s the rest of the Aegis? And who’s this?”

“My name is Ash,” I said. “I’m from another world. Your friend Bohriam saved my life.”

The villager looked back and forth between me and Bohriam, astonished. I couldn’t tell whether he didn’t believe me or whether he was surprised that weak Stone-rank Boh was able to save anyone. Either way, I counted it as a victory in my “score Bohriam some cheap hero points” personal quest—because I knew what came next wouldn’t be easy for him.

Bohriam cut through the villager’s bewilderment with grim conciseness. “Sollimer, send for Elder Hammond immediately. There’s no easy way to say this, but… Everyone in the Aegis is dead.”

Characters: Ash, Bohriam, Sollimer

Beginning of an Era – Chapter 6

Bohriam and I set out at a much less strenuous pace in the direction he claimed was north. Curiously, planet Era appeared to rotate in the opposite direction as Earth—the sun was setting in the east instead of the west. (And yes, I did make sure with Bohriam that the Beleric terms for north/south/east/west all meant the same directions as in English. Although, I guess there was still the simple possibility that my new buddy Boh was actually just a moron. Hmm.)

During the silence that ensued, I put some more thought into my predicament. I was in a world with a System, and I had the feeling that everyone on the planet was enrolled in that System—everyone except me. I was a lowly human in a world full of gods and wizards and monsters the likes of which I couldn’t imagine.

Or at least, until proven otherwise, that’s what I was going to assume this world was full of. I hadn’t played many RPGs or read many LitRPGs back on Earth. I was more of a science fiction and puzzle game gal, to be honest. I bet you never would have guessed that, right?

So, here I was, a literal statistical anomaly in a world where people had literal stats. So far, I had heard references to STR, AGI, MAG, and ATT. Strength, Agility, Magic, and… Attack? Or maybe it was something like Attention—Bohriam had mentioned the ATT stat in the context of skill with magic, and it was a common enough trope back on Earth that fantasy magic required hella concentration.

Four stats so far, with who knew how many more to go. And then there were the Classes, and the Ranks, and who knew how many more components this System had. Okay, literally everyone else on the planet knew, but I was having fun so far trying to figure out all the blanks on my own. It was a good way to pass the time while my aspiring hero guided me silently through the wilderness.

“I think it’s my turn to ask questions, by the way,” Bohriam announced. “You said before that I would have to wait until later.” He looked up into the sky, pointing to an empty spot where the sun was about an hour ago. He dragged his finger exaggeratedly in an arc until it was pointing at the sun. “Well, it’s later.”

Ugh, I really didn’t want to answer all of Boh’s random wacky Earth questions. I had so many other things to do with my brain right now instead. But… “Ugh, you’re right, I did say that. So… Ask away, I guess. But don’t get too personal—I really don’t like talking about myself.”

I’m a very private person by default, unlike the typical stereotype of a young adult American woman. I even consider it a point of pride that nobody knows the “real me,” not even my parents. And I don’t mean in that edgy emo way—I just like keeping my business to myself. Although, my therapist would say that’s why I don’t have any friends.

(That’s a joke. But if I did have a therapist, I bet they would say that.)

Bohriam’s face lit up like a kid on Christmas morning. “Okay, first question. Are you really from another world?”

… In retrospect, I don’t know why I was worried about personal privacy.

“Yes, I am. Is that really so hard to believe?” Maybe I was being hard on him. It’s not like anyone on Earth believed in other worlds that harbored human life. A few hours ago, I would have been just as incredulous.

“Yes, it is,” Bohriam said. “I’ve been the laughingstock of my village for years for thinking other worlds existed. Other worlds with other people. People who might know as little about Era as we know about them. But… they had to exist. Otherwise my Personal Quest would have been a joke, just like everyone said.”

I blinked in surprise. “Oh yeah, you mentioned something before about a Stone Quest or something… What’s that all about?”

Bohriam smirked at me. “Nope; you’re gonna have to wait until it’s your turn again.”

Damn. He was becoming more powerful every second. My own snark-tongue had better watch its pompous ass.

While trying to dissociate from the accidental thought of tongues in asses, Bohriam hit me with his next set of questions. “Anyway, you said your world doesn’t have the Seven Sevens System? And it doesn’t have magic? Like, at all?”

I shrugged. “Nope. On Earth, magic is just a thing that exists in stories and fairy tales. A long time ago, we used to call anything we didn’t understand ‘magic,’ but then we got pretty good at figuring out how the world really works. Physics, gravity, biology, all that jazz.”

“Oh, so you do have magic; you just call it by its academic names and stuff. The aetheric field, gravitational plane manipulation, Rank-Alchemy Theory.”

“Wrong, wrong, and wrong. My world doesn’t have any of that. And we don’t have the Seven Sevens System to begin with, so none of us have Stats or Ranks or whatever else the System gives you. All we have is our bodies and our brains.” I was very pleased though to hear that Era had some form of academic science already. If I was lucky, I might be able to find a university to hole up in while I learned everything I needed in order to survive here.

Bohriam looked at me curiously. “So what things did your people used to call ‘magic’ that they don’t anymore?”

“Mostly things like… You know how lightning bolts can come from the sky during a bad storm? Ancient humans were all like, ‘What are these mystical beams that strike from the heavens? Must be magic, I guess.’ But now we know that it’s actually just from energy building up in the clouds and such.”

There was a long moment of silence. Then Bohriam said, “No offense, but people from Earth sound kind of stupid.”

“That’s what I’ve been saying my entire life.”

“On that note,” Bohriam said, “earlier you told Grennick that you died on Earth and were reincarnated here. Is that true?”

“Yes, it’s true that I said it, and yes, what I said is true.” Honestly, I still didn’t quite know how to feel about that. Of course I was glad to still be alive—that much should go without saying. But I mean, the fact that an afterlife existed for me and not necessarily for everyone else. Seriphen did say I was one of the “lucky few” who get to be reborn… I don’t know. It just seemed kind of unfair.

“How did you die?” Bohriam asked.

My face reddened and I looked off to the side. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Oh, um, sorry,” Bohriam said. “A different question, then. If Earth doesn’t have stats, how do you tell when you’re getting stronger? Or faster?”

“By keeping track from one month to the next how much weight you’re able to lift, or how quickly you can run a certain distance.”

“That seems awfully boring.”

“It is. People on Earth don’t really keep track of how strong or fast they are, unless they’re professional athletes.”

It was getting late in the day. The eastern sun looked like it was about an hour away from setting. The sky in that direction was a crisp baby blue with hints of sunset salmon and orange. I wondered briefly if we would have to camp out in this forest, or if Boh’s town would be just through the next thicket of trees.

After a few more minutes of trivial Earth questions, we came upon a river cutting through the forest and blocking our path. It wasn’t strong—it flowed like a gentle stream, with zero turbulence or foam. But it was wide, at least 25 or 30 feet from one side to the other, and I really didn’t feel like going for a swim.

“Please tell me there’s a bridge somewhere nearby.” If there wasn’t, my next request was going to be Please throw me to the other side.

“Oh, I guess you don’t have waterhoppers on Earth either.”

“If it’s the water-elemental form of the insect known as the grasshopper, then no, we do not.”

“Nothing like that,” Boh said. He started scanning the shoreline on our side of the river. “Let’s see… Aha, there.” He pointed at something half buried in the dirt near the water. I followed him over to it.

It was a circular metal disc about as wide as a Frisbee, and about half a centimeter thick. Bohriam plucked it out of the ground and wiped off a layer of dirt and dust, revealing a polished smooth surface. “Oh, good, there’s more than one.” He pointed again. I followed his finger to a second and third disc wedged into the ground. Following his command, I grabbed one of them.

The discs looked the same on either side: perfectly flat and smooth. They didn’t look like they would glide very far like an actual Frisbee, but if thrown at the right angle, they looked like they’d do great at skipping on the water. “So how do these work?” I asked. “Do we throw them to the other side of the river, and then they magically teleport us to where they landed?”

Bohriam shook his head. “Just follow my lead.”

He placed his waterhopper on the edge of the river, halfway into the water, and I did the same. Then he manifested his kickass lightning sword again, revved it up (or gently poured some mana into it, I don’t know) until it had a good aura of static about it, and then he touched the tip of the sword to each waterhopper disc, one after the other.

The discs became infused with electrical energy and rose up a couple centimeters from the ground like we were in full-on maglev territory. Bohriam casually stepped onto his disc, and it supported his weight effortlessly without sinking back down.

There was a time in my life when such a display would have blown my mind the fuck open. Dude just used a sword as a battery for a magic levitating trash can lid. But I have only so much capacity to be surprised, and I had already hit my limit for the day. So when Bohriam said “Hop on,” I just rolled with it and hopped onto my waterhopper, mentally adding waterhoppers to my List of Things to Think “What the Fuck” About Later. It was a pretty long list already.

But then Bohriam T-posed and began piloting his disc around by leaning forward like on a Segway. Limit broken.

“What the fuck are you doing?” I asked.

Bohriam tilted his arms to turn back around to me. “You need to hold your arms up like this to move it. Basic waterhopper Artifacts read your posture and intent to know how to move.”

Seriously?” I didn’t know whether to laugh or be dumbfounded. Inventing an entirely new emotion was starting to look like a good option, too.

“Well, with these models, yeah. If you’re a racer you can get one with the posture safety-lock turned off, but for amateurs like us, it’s just easier this way. Come on, Gostrey is only a few minutes downstream.” He arm-tilted his way back around, and I realized it looked like he was pretending to be an airplane, and my reaction to waterhoppers instantly fell squarely on the laugh side.

But you know what? I was a stranger in a strange land. Whatever customs and culture I knew clearly did not apply here. If this was an acceptable mode of transportation for these people, I could roll with it. I bit back on my laughter and raised my arms like Bohriam. I willed myself forward, and the waterhopper brought me out onto the water.

And lo, I followed my T-posing savior down the River Styx, standing atop my magic levitating telepathic trash can lid.

Characters: Ash, Bohriam

Beginning of an Era – Chapter 5

“I hate it, but not as much as I hate the alternatives,” I said. T-minus fifteen seconds until slaughter. The soldier was close enough now for me to make out the features on his face. He was one that I hadn’t nicknamed yet. Black hair and thick beard, face covered in dirt and sweat and blood. I now christened him Speedy.

Bohriam un-manifested his sword back into whatever pocket dimension whence it came. “Alrighty then,” he said nervously. “I hope we have enough AGI for this. Follow me.” And in as much time as it would have taken for me to blink, he pivoted 180 degrees and took off in a sprint in the exact opposite direction of Speedy.

As soon as my mental reflexes caught up to me, I took off running after him.

I poured all the energy I had into my legs. They were still sore from earlier, but I pushed through the pain with all the adrenaline-fueled instinct of a deer running for its life from a wolf. Except this time, there were no metaphorical headlights to stop me.

It had gone down to T-minus ten seconds until impact, and I had no idea whether I was gaining or losing ground against Speedy. I had no way of knowing without turning around to look, and turning around to look was a surefire way to get myself killed. My world had only one direction: forward. The forest behind me was an unknowable abyss, and for once in my life I had to be okay with that.

All I did know, running forward at top speed, eyes centered on Bohriam’s back, was that I was losing ground against Bohriam. Shit. I redoubled my efforts to go as fast as humanly possible. And then I tried to go even further beyond, because I knew that was physically possible in this world.

A gruff shout from behind me. “Fireball!” A quick whooshing noise. And then a blast of fire hit the tree to my left and it exploded in flames.

Again. “Fireball!” This time, a tree to my right. The fireball crashed against the thin trunk of the tree, hitting it with enough force to snap it in half and send the flaming, decapitated treetop toppling toward the ground. Come on, that’s not even fair!

I veered left, dodging what I could of the firestorm of leaves and branches. The head of the tree smashed into the ground with a heavy crack that echoed throughout the forest and shook the ground enough to almost knock me off balance.

I wasn’t going to be able to keep this up for much longer. The muscles in my legs were shrieking in agony, overworked to the point that they already felt like they were on fire. I had to think fast, pun not intended, to come up with a way to survive this.

I mentally blitzed through everything I knew so far. I was in a world of stats, magic, and RPG mechanics. I was Level 1 or 0, if I even had a level at all, and my aggressor was probably a lot higher than that. Speedy had access to fire magic by merely invoking the name of—aha. Maybe I could fight fire with fire.

Still looking straight forward at the distant Bohriam, I tried aiming my hand behind me, fingers spread apart, and I shouted. “Fireball!”

… And nothing happened.

Shit. I tried again. This time with feeling. “FIREBALL!!!” And again, nothing happened except I felt like I was shooting up in the Darwin Award leaderboards.

“Fireball!” That time it was Speedy. His magic missile hit the ground just behind my feet, exploding in a blast of heat and flame that lifted me ten feet into the air and sent me spinning out of control. I screamed. This was how I was going to end.

Ahead of me, Bohriam skidded himself to a stop, turning around while manifesting his lightning sword again. He started running toward me, toward Speedy, raising his electrified blade and roaring like he was charging up to go Super Saiyan and then he brought his sword down in a definitive slash even though he was still at least fifty feet away from Speedy and the slashing sword unleashed a literal lightning bolt of energy that arced parallel to the ground and hit Speedy square in the chest.

That was what I saw in bits and pieces during the chaotic few seconds when I was tumbling through the air. And then Bohriam caught me. “Gotcha!”

It was far from a graceful landing, and even further from painless. I only had a split second to find my bearings again before Bohriam threw me over his shoulder and got back to running. I screamed again.

For a second I tried to think of a good joke about Bohriam being a literal pick-up artist, but then I saw that Speedy was still hot on our tail. Whatever damage Boh’s lightning bolt did, it wasn’t enough to seal the deal.

With his free arm, Bohriam held up a wooden bow for me. “Take it!”

“Where the fuck did this come from?!”

“Inventory!”

Oh, right. Magical hammerspace. I took the bow, then he held up a couple arrows to go along with it. I took those too.

“Don’t aim for the head,” Boh shouted. “Too small a target.”

Normally I would have been perfectly okay with not shooting to kill, but this situation was anything but normal. I was being carried over the shoulder of a fantasy hero who was apparently a weak one even though he could  shoot lightning bolts out of his sword. This was the craziest day of my life, by at least a dozen orders of magnitude. I wondered if for Boh and Speedy this was just Tuesday.

Focus, Ash. You’re not out of the woods yet. I tried aiming the bow and arrow at Speedy, which was a lot harder than it already would have been, thanks to being slung over a shoulder that was already moving at top speed over uneven terrain. It would’ve been real nice if this bow had some crosshairs.

I aimed. I pulled back. My puny arm struggled against the tension of the bowstring. I fired. The arrow hurtled through the air, missing Speedy entirely. It hit the base of a tree far behind him, lodging itself into the tree’s bark with little fanfare. Damn. I was hoping it would at least explode or something.

I had one more arrow. I strung it back as far as I could, holding myself as steady as I could on this bumpy terrain, knowing how completely the odds were stacked against me. But if there was one thing I knew from years of anime and Terry Pratchett, it was that a one in a million shot was just dramatically improbable enough to be a near guaranteed success. Come on, literary clichés. Don’t let me down now. I launched the arrow.

It flew through the forest wind faster than I could see. And it hit… nothing. I lost sight of it completely. I had no idea where the arrow went, except that it clearly hadn’t hit Speedy, who was still chasing after us with all the intensity of a medieval Usain Bolt.

“Out of arrows,” I shouted at Bohriam.

“Me too,” Boh shouted back.

I resisted the urge to admonish him—what kind of poor excuse for an RPG protagonist only leaves home with two arrows? Then I realized he had probably used all his arrows up in the battle with the Gray Guard that I crashed. Then I realized he also probably wasn’t the protagonist of this adventure. At risk of sounding way too egomaniacal with my newfound cosmic destiny, that honor probably belonged to me.

“Do you have any more of those lightning grenades?” I asked.

“The what?”

“The thing you used back on the battlefield!”

“Oh, the Kineosphere,” Bohriam said. “Only one, but I’ve been saving it for a special occasion.”

“It would be a pretty damn special occasion if we survived this! Use it!”

Bohriam hesitated for another few seconds before manifesting the Kineosphere out from his Inventory and into his hand. It was a ball of dark gray metal a couple inches wide, covered with about a dozen short cylindrical rounded spikes. It kind of reminded me of the mines from the old Windows Minesweeper game, except a lot sillier. Bohriam dropped the Kineosphere onto the ground below us.

“What are you doing?!”

“Wait for it…”

I waited for it. I watched as the Kineosphere receded into the distance, camouflaged among fallen branches and dead leaves from bygone years. Speedy didn’t seem to have noticed the dropped sphere, his furious eyes focused only on me. Eep.

And then he reached our landmine.

The Kineosphere burst up from the ground at just the right time to slam straight up into Speedy’s chin, immediately exploding into a beam of lightning that engulfed his skull and shoulders, blasting through the trees and into the sky and who knows how far beyond that. The beam’s luminosity seared my vision, forcing me to close my eyes lest I be rendered temporarily blind by the afterimage.

When I was finally able to open my eyes again, Speedy was no longer following us. His body lay on its back on the forest floor, feet limply pointing up. I couldn’t tell if he was dead or alive, or whether he even still had his head. Honestly, that was okay with me. I wasn’t sure which possibility would have been worse—that I had just taken part in a murder, or that the people of this world could survive lightning bolts to the face.

“He’s down,” I said.

Bohriam slowed his run to a walk and then to a staggering halt. “Thank Magann.” He dropped to his hands and knees. I politely dismounted, noting that Magann was a much more reasonable name for a local deity.

“Well that wasn’t fun,” I said. “Let’s never do it again.”

“It could’ve gone a lot worse,” Bohriam replied. “Luckily he tried using fireballs on you.”

Luckily?

“I mean, I knew we had a chance as soon as I heard him verbalize his magic. Only people with really low MAG and ATT need to do that. Does Earth really not have the Seven Sevens?”

“Dude, I once again have no idea what you’re talking about, so I’m gonna guess no, we don’t. And I’m also gonna guess that, whatever system of sweet magic you have on this planet, I don’t have it, considering my own attempts at verbalized fireballs went up in smoke. Uhh, in no smoke, that is.” At least now I knew what Seriphen’s fuck-up was. (Hint: It was me, as it always is.)

Bohriam nodded, deep in thought. “Well, we can worry about that later. For now, we need to get back to my town—a couple miles north of here. I need to tell them that they don’t have an army anymore.”

Characters: Ash, Bohriam, Speedy

Beginning of an Era – Chapter 4

“We’re gonna play a little game called Twenty Questions,” I said.

Bohriam pushed himself onto his knees. He still looked like he was in pretty miserable condition, hands covered in dirt and his forehead bump already starting to swell, but at least his breathing was mostly back to normal. Deep and rejuvenating, rather than the ghastly shallow horror show it was a few minutes earlier. Maybe he had superhuman healing speeds after all?

He looked up at me with a mixture of stupor and unparalleled awe. “You… I’ve waited so long to meet you. I have so many questions.”

“Nope,” I said immediately. “I have more. You’re gonna have to wait your turn.” I was done being on the defensive, reacting to events as they unfolded around me instead of having any active say in my destiny. (Which, as of my brief conversation with Seriphen, I was glaringly aware that destiny was a thing that existed, and furthermore, it was a thing that I apparently had.) It was time for me to go on the offensive, to become proactive, to take the reins on this runaway train before it steamrolled me back to the netherworld. And I wasn’t going to budge a single inch on that.

“Can I at least ask your name?” Bohriam said.

… Okay. Maybe I could budge a single centimeter. “Okay, yeah. My name is Ashleigh Kyriakides. You can call me Ash.” I’d have said that’s what all my friends call me, but by now I realized all my old friends thought I was dead. Oof. That was going to hit me later. “And you already introduced yourself as Bohriam, right?”

He nodded. “Bohriam Sen Kahl, from the Kahl branch of the Sen family line. But you can call me Boh.”

A weirdly informative answer. But hey, we were already on a first name basis, so I wasn’t about to argue with the results. “Okay then, Boh. First question: Magic. It’s real?”

He glanced side to side, like it was the dumbest question he never expected and he wanted to make sure he wasn’t getting pranked. “Uhh… Yeah?”

Hoo boy, progress! “Alrighty then. Next question: How the hell are you speaking English? How do I understand anything you’re saying?”

Bohriam eyed me suspiciously. “Funny; I was going to ask how you were speaking Beleric if you’re supposed to be from another world.”

Oh hell no. That was a path of cosmic wonkery I wasn’t prepared to nosedive into just yet. “So you heard what I said to the soldier knights, huh? The… What’d they call themselves, the Gray Guard?”

Bohriam nodded. “That’s why I saved you. It’s my Stone-rank Personal Quest to save someone from another world, so when I heard what you said to Grennick, I… You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you.”

My face must have glazed over into the same look I used to get when I would try to explain my job to my parents. “What gave it away?”

“The fact that you didn’t interrupt me right away with another question,” Bohriam said. “You seem like you would be an interrupter.”

Hey,” I rebuked. And then I smiled. “You’re a real perceptive one. I like you.”

“Thanks, I hope.”

“Anyway, next question: What’s the name of this planet, anyway? Uh, by ‘planet’ I mean ‘world,’ if you don’t know what a planet is.”

“I’m not an idiot—I know what a planet is. And in Beleric, its name is Era.”

“‘Era’ like, the period of time?”

Again, Bohriam looked at me like I was asking a trick question. “… Yes?”

Well, that was one inconsequential mystery I could cross off the list for all time. Yeah, I know that not knowing the name of the planet probably wouldn’t have done me any harm in the long run—it’s not like my old life ever hinged on me knowing I was on ‘Earth’—but it was a real weight off my shoulders to be able to pin a name to the hunk of rock I was standing on. A massive, pointless placebo effect, but an effect nonetheless. Era. I was on Era.

Also, it was nice to know that these people knew what planets were. Maybe I wouldn’t have to reinvent all of modern science for them. “Okay… Cool. I’m from Earth, by the way.”

“‘Earth’ like, the element? The thing that rocks are made of?”

Way to get ahead of yourself, Ash.

“I don’t think you’re playing the game right, by the way,” Bohriam said.

“Huh?”

“You said we’re playing Twenty Questions, right? Unless you’re a really weird kind of lateral thinking telepath, I don’t see how the questions you’re asking are going to help you figure out what I’m thinking of.”

“… You know the game Twenty Questions?”

“Sure, why wouldn’t I?”

Because it’s from my world, you culture-appropriating jackass. There was zero reasonable explanation for why both Earth and Era would have, of all things, a stupid parlor game in common. It was nearly as ridiculous as us both speaking the same langua—

“Say, Bohriam, you wouldn’t happen to know how old the Beleric language is, would you? Like, how many generations of your ancestors you would have been able to hold a conversation with before you couldn’t understand most of what they were saying?”

“That’s a very weird question,” Bohriam said. “But I happen to have spent a lot of time reading history books, so I happen to know that the answer to this question is about four hundred years. Before that, the scrolls look like another language entirely.” He beamed like he’d been waiting his entire life for that knowledge to finally make itself useful, and now that it had, he was on top of the world. Boy could I relate.

Four hundred years. About the same age as Earth’s modern English. “Of course! The collective psychic subconscious!”

Era’s Beleric and Earth’s English were the same because they had both evolved within the last few hundred years, when our collective psychic subconsciouses were more in tune with the greater multiverse. Era didn’t steal Beleric from Earth, and Earth didn’t steal English from Era—they both probably stole it from some other world that had it for thousands more years.

It made a disgusting bit of sense. English was a hodgepodge of vocabulary from other languages and rules from other grammars. Maybe all those instances of linguistic adaptation and evolution were just instances of English inching its way closer to being Multiversal English, one ungainly word at a time.

And there was no reason to think English was special in that regard—maybe the same was true for other “young” languages on Earth. Heck, maybe it was true for a lot of random things on Earth, if the Twenty Questions example was anything to go by. In fact…

Maybe the invention of role-playing games on Earth in their entirety was just our first glimpse through the cosmic looking glass, at the real shape of the many worlds outside our own boring event horizon.

This was a monumental discovery, and it needed to be given a name befitting of its importance. Since I still lacked a way to write things down, for now I had to settle for engraving it in my mindscape:

HYPOTHESIS #1: The newer and bigger something is in Earth’s cultural zeitgeist, the more likely it is to also exist on Era.

I gazed upon the sentence etched into my mind’s eye with nothing short of absolute pride. This was the discovery of a lifetime. Sure, it was only my first guess at an explanation for all this bullshit, and I was probably getting ahead of myself yet again, and there was a chance I was completely off the mark, but I didn’t care. This was me at my best, figuring out elegant solutions to impossible problems. This was a win, and I was going to savor it.

“… Are you okay?” Boh asked. “You’ve been kind of vaguely staring into the trees and smiling for a couple minutes now.”

“Yeah, Boh, I’m great.” I was still smiling, still vaguely staring at a distant point in the canopy of the forest. “I just had an incredible realization about the universe.”

“Oh, okay. Cool. Because the Gray Guard is just a minute or two from catching up to us.” He pointed behind me. “And I could really use some backup in this fight.”

“What?!” I turned around. In the distance, at the edge of my line of sight, one of the soldier knights from before was stealthily creeping toward us—and then he realized we knew he was there, and he started running full steam ahead.

“Make that half a minute,” Boh said casually. He held out his arm and a sword manifested itself in his hand, static electricity crackling on the full length of its blade. “Please tell me you’re at least an Iron-rank. If you can’t carry this fight by yourself, I might lose the confidence I’m pretending to have.”

I stared at the soldier knight, unable to avert my eyes. “Um, I don’t know what an Iron-rank is, so I’m probably not.”

“Wait, you’re serious?”

“I’m serious.”

“Does Earth not have…”

“Earth does not have.”

Bohriam looked at the stampeding soldier, then back to me, then back to the soldier. “Wow, um, okay then.”

“…”

“How do you feel about some more running?”

Continue reading

Beginning of an Era – Chapter 3

Bohriam and I ran until we reached the end of the field, and then we kept running straight into the forest—dodging tree trunks and bundles of foliage and never looking back. I was out of breath after the first minute. As a cubicle-dwelling programmer and occasional gamer girl, my body was not exactly in the peak of early 20s physical condition. But I was apparently miles ahead of Bohriam, gasping for breath in front of me like he was going to pass out at any second.

On the bright side, it turns out running for your life is a real boon for one’s energy reserves, so I was able to keep up with him without all of my lungs burning away to nothingness. Just 95% of them.

After a few minutes of full-speed sprinting, Bohriam came to a staggering stop in the middle of the forest, leaned over with his hands on his knees, and hyperventilated like there was no tomorrow.

I briefly considered making a joke that I don’t normally let men kidnap me to the middle of a secluded forest on the first date, but I decided against it. Partially because I didn’t want to give the wrong idea, and partially because I really needed to start working on my first impression skills.

(But mainly because I, too, was in desperate need of fresh oxygen now that we had stopped.)

Suddenly, a silvery-purplish aura rose up from the ground around Bohriam. He grinned through pained breaths of air. “Finally… It’s happening…” The aura grew until it encompassed his entire body, a translucent glow of pure magical energy. Then it faded away, along with Bohriam’s smile. “No… Just… Level up…”

And then his eyes lost focus and he fell unconscious, face-first into the ground.

Well okay then.

With my own breathing finally getting back under some semblance of control, I took a moment to evaluate my situation. I was lost in a mystery forest, on a planet I didn’t even know the name of, with a mysterious magical hero boy who said he had been waiting for me for years—which meant I was either part of a hilarious mistaken identity scenario, or I was the subject of a goddamn transdimensional prophecy. For my sake, I really hoped it was the former.

Creeping nervously closer, I examined the unconscious fantasyman.

Bohriam looked like he was about average height, or maybe a little less. His plain face was mostly smooth, only marred by the little bit of chin stubble that looked like it had grown since a recent shave. He had a messy mop of black hair and, although I couldn’t see them right now, vividly clear brown eyes.

He couldn’t have been more than eighteen, maybe nineteen years old—and yet, he was wearing the same silver armor as all the other dead bodies on that battlefield, complete with streaks of other people’s blood. I didn’t want to know what kind of world would thrust young people into vicious battle like that. Especially since Bohriam appeared to have just as much superhuman endurance as me—which was to say, he didn’t have any at all.

Or maybe he did now, since he mumbled something about leveling up right before he passed out. Could a single level up bring someone from standard-mundanity to super-humanity? I really had no way of knowing. Shit, I probably could have made a list of all the things I didn’t know about my new world order.

… Actually, that sounded like a great idea. Both for my own sanity and so I wouldn’t accidentally forget some trivial thing, like asking Bohriam after he wakes up why the hell the people on this planet speak English.

If you’re not a programmer, there’s something you should know about us: we love making lists. Lists and spreadsheets. Those things are our jam, the way sports bars and having friends are the jam of non-programmers. We write things down, we bookmark them, we file our thoughts away to save them for later. That’s our secret. If you’ve ever met a software engineer that you thought was smart because they knew a lot, you’ve been caught up in the lie. We’re not smart because we remember a lot; we’re smart because we write things down so we won’t have to remember them.

Oh, and I guess some of us are also smart because we like reading physics blogs in our spare time, but that’s beside the point.

Anyway, shortly after I decided to make my List of Important Things to Find Out, I realized I couldn’t, because I wasn’t reincarnated with a pencil or paper. It was the first time I had been without a writing instrument on my person in years, and I felt completely naked. It was traumatizing.

(I’m kidding… Mostly.)

So with the first item on my “pre-list list” becoming “find a way to write a list,” I finally had time to think.

I tried to remember the handful of D&D sessions I played with my older brother when I was a little kid. I doubt we even played by the rules (I wasn’t old enough to care about rules yet), but every little scrap of memory would help me. Or maybe I was barking up the wrong tree and this world’s rules would be completely different and my childhood memories would mislead me to a quick and gruesome death. It didn’t matter either way, because my memory bank came up blank. I’m sorry, Derek. I failed you again.

I took a wide look around the forest I was in. Thanks to the density of leafage, I couldn’t see much more than maybe a few hundred feet in any direction. Aha, that was something—these looked like deciduous trees, and the leafage was full green, so at least I knew which half of the year this part of the planet was in.

… Unless this was a magic forest. Oh god, I was really going to have to rebuild my knowledge base from the ground up, wasn’t I?

I continued scanning the horizon until I came across a grizzly bear in the distance. Oh shit. Deer in the headlights mode again. (I know, I had already been through much worse in the last hour, but you can’t just turn off those primal fear instincts.) I stared unmoving at the bear as it walked along in the distance, until it—oh god—turned its head toward me.

The bear looked me over for a few seconds, grunted, stood up on its hind legs, raised its right arm, and it flipped me off with its middle claw. Then it got back down and kept walking on its merry disgruntled way.

What the fuck. That bear just flipped me off! It looked straight at me and gave me the finger! There was no mistaking any of that series of movements. That bear just saw me and consciously, sentiently, rejected me.

The master-class absurdity-loving cynic in me started laughing. Of course I’d jump from letting down gods to letting down bears. It made as much sense as anything else in this wonderful sequel of a life so far. I laughed so hard that the bear started walking faster to get away from me, and that made me laugh even harder.

And then I shut up, because I realized those soldier knights might still be out there.

Behind me, Bohriam stirred on the ground. “What… Where am I?” He rubbed his forehead where he faceplanted into the ground. It looked like it was already bruising.

I turned around to face the freshly rested standard-human on the ground. Finally, my chance to get some answers. “Hey there, slugger,” I said. “I have some questions for ya. Try to keep up.”

Continue reading

Beginning of an Era – Chapter 2

The last thing you ever want to hear a literal god say as they’re bringing you back to life is, “Shit shit shit oh fuck.” As far as variations of “oops” go, it’s one of the more impactful of the bunch. And it’s one that I never imagined I’d hear out of the mouth of a cosmic deity. Not that I knew it was an “oops” at the time—back then, I didn’t know what it meant. But it wouldn’t be much longer until I found out.

***

When I woke up, I was lying in the middle of a grassy field—and surrounded on all sides by men in suits of armor, holding swords and other weapons in my direction. Holy shit.

My first instinct was to jump back in fear, but I was frozen in place by one of them stepping forward and holding the tip of his blade to my throat. Deer, meet headlights.

“State your Rank and Class,” he snarled at me. “Before we tear it out of you.”

It took everything I had to keep my voice steady, and it still wasn’t enough. “Uhh… Entry level developer… Class of ‘17?”

My enraged interrogator looked like an action warrior straight out of a movie I would never watch. Shoulder-length hair, all of it a charred dark gray and flowing back like a glorious mane of vengeance. He had a two-inch scar on his right cheek, and atop his left eye was… a monocle? At that point, my fears were split between thinking Seriphen accidentally sent me back to the middle ages, and thinking Seriphen accidentally sent me to the far future, after World War 3 and nuclear armageddon, to a point when knights with swords existed again and wore monocles.

The man grimaced. “Is this a joke to you? I suggest you take a look around and think very hard before you speak again.” The other knights, just as monstrous and just as unhappy, took that as their cue to all shift into more battle-ready postures.

I can be a very obedient deer, especially when being held at bladepoint, master-class snark-tongue or not. (Suddenly I was very relieved that I didn’t think to say that as my class and rank.) I looked past the grizzled warriors, to the field beyond, and what I saw horrified me.

Bodies, dozens of them, strewn about the landscape like ragdolls dropped on the floor. All of them knights like the ones standing above me, and all of them dead. It was the most gruesome thing I had seen in my lives.

“Oh my God… Did I do that?” It was horrible. Could the massive amount of energy that Seriphen used to push me into this universe have created this literal field of destruction, killing all those in its radius except for these lucky few survivors?

“What? No—You just showed up here in a flash of light right as we were finishing up our battle. The victory you see before you belongs to none other than us, the Gray Guard of Beleria!” The other knights all raised their weapons and cheered—until Mr. Interrogator silenced them with a decisive swipe of his arm.

“Now hear me, intruder,” he continued. “You may have fooled my Inspection Oracle, but no matter what or who you are, if you are an enemy of the Court of King Valion, the Gray Guard will show you as little mercy as it showed these rebels.” He gestured to the bodies behind him. “So I’ll only ask one more time: state your Rank, your Class, and your allegiance.”

Welp.

I started to raise my arms in what I hoped would be recognized as a universal gesture of submission—but the stiffening of the knights’ stances in response to my movement made me stop in my tracks. I spoke slowly, loudly, and utterly without confidence. “I can explain everything…”

“By all means,” Mr. Interrogator said.

“I’m… from another world, and I’m unfamiliar with your ways?”

There was dead silence for the longest ten seconds of my life. Then, Mr. Interrogator broke out into heavy, hearty laughter, shortly followed by all the rest of them. I joined in too, more out of nervousness than any real understanding of the joke. Unless the joke was me; I knew that one pretty well.

“This one’s funny,” one of the knights said. “Let’s kill her quickly.”

“Yeah,” Mr. Interrogator agreed, grinning as he raised his sword for a lethal slash.

“Wait wait wait!” I screamed. “The Goddess Seriphen just reincarnated me here! I don’t want to die again so soon!”

“There is no such goddess,” Mr. Interrogator said, and he prepared to strike.

I closed my eyes and braced myself for the end. For a second I hoped that heaven had second life speedrun leaderboards, because surely I was going to break records with how fast I got my second ass second handed to me. Heh. I snickered out loud. Second Life was already the name of a real video game. Oh God, I was going to spend my final moments alive thinking about that dumb old video game Second Life.

Mr. Interrogator spoke solemnly. “May your soul forever rest in the palm of—uhrgh!

For a second I thought that was a stupid name for a local deity, but then I heard two other knights shriek, the shuffling of feet, and weapons being drawn. I opened my eyes to the circle of knights, down from seven to five, all focused on something far behind me. Mr. Interrogator, still standing, had an arrow sticking out of his chestplate.

“Show yourself, coward!” one of the knights called out.

“There!” another pointed. “Behind the body!”

Something round flew through the air and hit the pointing knight in the head, knocking him out—and then zapping him with a bolt of lightning. He fell limp to the ground.

“Grennick! What does the Inspector say about his Rank and Level?”

Mr. Interrogator’s monocle began glowing a deep green. “Low stats, hardly any STR… It’s just a Stone-rank!” His sword disappeared into thin air, and was replaced by a large bow. A second later, his metal gauntlets disappeared and were replaced with three-fingered archery gloves. He pulled back on an arrow. “You have no chance, Stone! Surrender quietly, and we’ll let you live a proud life of servitude to Beleria!”

The magical lightning grenade that knocked out the last knight magically shot back into the air at head height, and slammed straight into the unprotected skull of another knight. And then another. And then it zipped straight for Mr. Interrogator, who blocked it by creating a magic purple forcefield shield in front of him. The lightning grenade exploded against it, releasing a cloud of black smoke that covered all of us.

In the midst of all this action, several thoughts raced through my head. First, I realized that this world’s collective psychic subconscious was apparently not well developed enough to intuit the existence of the Goddess Seriphen. That was a very pointless epiphany right now, and I forced myself to save it for another time. Second, in what was quickly becoming a common refrain, I realized oh shit, magic is real.

Oh, and I also realized I might survive this after all. That was important too I guess.

A hand grabbed me and pulled me off the ground. I didn’t even resist when it kept pulling me and I had to run to keep up. Behind me, I heard the last two knights—Mr. Interrogator and the asshole who wanted to kill me quickly—get knocked out by other magical means. Mr. Premature Eradication may have shrieked like a little girl.

My savior and I reached the edge of the smoke cloud, and I could finally see that he was just a kid—just a few years younger than me, panting with exhaustion. “Don’t stop running—they won’t stay down for long,” he raced to say between breaths. “My name is Bohriam Sen Kahl, and I’ve been waiting for you for the last four years.”

And that’s when everything clicked. A world with a System. Magic. Classes. Stats. Levels. Medieval knights and mysterious young heroes.

I wasn’t just reincarnated in a brand new world.

Oh God-fucking-shitting-fuck of a shit-fuck… I’m in an RPG world.

Continue reading

Beginning of an Era – Chapter 1

I screamed in agony as another jolt of electricity seared through my manacles. Third degree burns marked my bound wrists, and pain marked everything else.

“Answer the question, Null-rank!” the Exarch screamed as she flooded energy into her Lightning Whip. Sparks of raw metaphysical power crackled from its coils.

I struggled to speak through heaving breaths. “Not until you say the magic word.

The Exarch revealed her fury with a single primal scream. She raised the whip above her head and unleashed the barest trickle of its power onto me. 

 The tip of the weapon slashed through my jeans halfway down my shin, leaving a skin-tearing trail of red in its wake. It hurt like hell, but I had been through worse. ‘Twas but a flesh wound. A scratch.

It wasn’t a record scratch, but it was probably the closest I was going to get on this planet.

Cue the freeze frame.

Hi. You’re probably wondering how I got here. Me, just an ordinary girl with no superpowers, being tortured for information by the tyrannical “Exarch” of this fantasyland? Well, it all started a few days ago…

***

The first thing I remember thinking after dying was, Oh shit, there’s an afterlife after all. The second thing I remember thinking was, Oh fuck, I’m fucking dead.

I found myself floating in an endless abyss. No sight, no sound, no feeling except for some fleeting tingly-ness in what used to be my chest. That made sense, I guessed. I was leaving all those Earthly mortal fleshy things behind me—my soul had no need for ear canals or pain receptors, after all. As the darkness grew deeper with every passing second, I braced myself for the inevitable transition to Whatever Comes Next.

And then she flipped on the lights.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” a gentle voice said. “I wasn’t expecting compan…”

Turns out I wasn’t floating in an endless abyss at all. Way to get ahead of yourself, Ash. I was standing (with my body) in the middle of what looked like… a normal living room, adorned with various furnishings and knick-knacks and fancy old paintings hung up on the walls. Normal except for the fact that the floor, ceiling, and every wall was a solid white surface that practically radiated light.

I turned around slowly, taking it all in, until I came to the source of the voice: a woman standing in the doorway between rooms, her finger still on the light switch.

She wore a white dress that looked like it was ripped straight out of the Greek goddess playbook, and her hair was a perfect platinum blonde. Her flawlessly smooth skin was about four shades darker than my own homebody pale—which just furthered my suspicion that this woman was literally Aphrodite, minus two thousand years of whitewashing.

She stared at me with an expression of bewilderment that I recognized from many an occasion during my life. It was the expression of an antisocial teacher slowly realizing they wouldn’t have their office hours to themself. “You’re not… Oh. You’re… Oh.”

Since I had already spent most of my life letting people down, it didn’t faze me in the slightest to start my death by letting down gods. Maybe the spiritualists were right after all when they said life is meant to prepare us for the next life. In any case, I figured I should probably try to make a good first impression anyway, in case Aphrodite here was in charge of deciding whether I should be sent to the Good Place or the Fun Place.

“Hi,” I said. “I’m dead, right?”

The woman snapped herself out of her whatever and met my eyes for the first time. “Oh! Um, yes. You are dead. I am very sorry for your loss.”

“Or maybe I’m only on the brink of death, and this is one of those hyper-hypnagogic hallucinations from my pineal gland going ham on my brain, and in just a few more seconds it’ll all return to nothing.” Whoops, so much for first impressions.

The woman stared at me, a different kind of bewilderment taking over—but one that I was equally familiar with. “… I have no idea what half of that means, but no, that’s not what’s happening here.”

“That’s exactly what my near-death-experience brain hallucination would tell me, though.”

The woman rubbed her temples and sighed. “Epistemologically speaking, anything that ever happens could be your near-death-experience brain hallucination and you would never know for sure. If you want to play it that way.”

“Hmm. Good point.”

“Besides, I read it in your aura. You’re 100% dead, kiddo.”

Did she just…? Okay, I’ll admit there’s a lot I don’t know about the Greek pantheon, but I’m pretty sure that none of them ever used the word kiddo. “Um, you’re not Aphrodite, are you?”

“Who?” And then she laughed. “Oh, you mean the old Earth legend! No, that’s all fake. Earth humanity’s collective psychic subconscious wasn’t well developed enough two thousand years ago to be in tune with the shape of the greater multiverse. Only the major religions from the last, let’s say, five hundred years, are even remotely close to true.”

“Uh… Earth doesn’t exactly have any major religions much newer than two thousand years old…”

The mystery goddess stared blankly at me with the same awkward smile for several uncomfortable seconds. “… Anyway! My name is Seriphen, and I am the Goddess of Reincarnation! Congratulations on your cosmic destiny!”

My what? “My what?”

“Your name is Ashleigh Kyriakides, is it not?”

“It is, but my friends call me Ash.”

Seriphen held out her arm and materialized a clipboard out of thin air. Then a pair of reading glasses materialized on her face as she read from the paper. “Ashleigh Kyriakides, daughter of Jonathan Kyriakides and Alessandra Sabin-Kyriakides. Twenty-two years old. Software Engineer at Ubliquo International, whatever that means. Died of—”

“Okay, I get it, you know everything about me. Can we move on?”

Seriphen let go of the clipboard and it faded away into a thousand motes of light. “Anyway, the point I was leading up to is, you may have died on Earth, but your soul’s journey isn’t over yet. Unlike the vast majority of people who just cease to exist when they die, you are one of the lucky few who have been granted a second chance—a chance to be reborn!”

“Oh, wow. I mean, I kinda got that already—I know what ‘reincarnation’ means—but still, wow. Really?” Never in my life had I been able to hold back my master-class snark-tongue, and it looked like that wasn’t going to change in my death, either. I was trying, though. Give me credit for that, at least.

Thankfully, Seriphen didn’t seem to mind. “Really,” she intoned proudly.

“So I’m just going to wake up back on Earth and somehow make a full recovery from… what just happened?” And thus also be able to write off this entire experience as my near-death pineal hypnagogia after all…

“Oh, no,” Seriphen said. “You can’t go back to Earth. Your body is dead there, no way around it. You can only be reborn in a different world.”

“Whoa.” I suddenly remembered Seriphen’s earlier allusion to “Earth humanity,” the implication being that there were humans on other planets. Wait, not just other planets—she said “reborn in,” as opposed to “reborn on.” She was using ‘world’ as a synonym for ‘universe.’

And then I realized she had casually stated that humanity has a collective psychic subconscious, and people have auras that can be read, and clearly people also have souls, because holy shit, there’s an afterlife after all, and I was suddenly starting to realize just how deep into the rabbit hole I already was. It was overwhelming in the best way possible.

“I have so many questions,” I said.

“Naturally,” Seriphen replied. “But it is not my role to grant you knowledge beyond your position.”

“Oh. I guess that’s fair.” A disappointing yet wholly reasonable answer, the likes of which I should have expected from every book I’ve ever read and every movie I’ve ever seen. The gods of narratology prepared me well for this moment. But the next time I had a couple hours to think, I was going to go crazy trying to figure out the cosmology of the ‘greater multiverse.’ “So, where am I going to be reincarnated? Am I going to be reborn as a baby and not remember my life as Ash Kyriakides?”

Seriphen waved her arm and images of fantastical landscapes appeared floating in the air between us. A floating mountain range covered in blue vegetation. An entire city built on top of a platform suspended in the crater of a giant volcano. “There are many worlds in existence, each with an entirely unique System. The Drifting Plains and their Glasswalker System, Nazahar and its Phoenix Wheel… It would take far too long to describe them all. But for you… I think I know the perfect world. Its System will challenge you in ways befitting of your… ahem, inquisitive personality. And no, you won’t be reborn as a baby. You’ll be sent forth as you are now, minus any damage your body incurred from its recent demise.”

“Okay… Cool.” As rad as being reborn might be, I probably would have turned it down if it meant forgetting my current—uh, my former life. Contrary to popular belief, I quite liked being me, and I didn’t want to lose that. “So how does this work? Do you have a magic button you can press to send my soul or my aura or whatever to wherever you chose?”

Seriphen chuckled. “No matter what world you’re from, humans are always so physical. Yes, I can do it with a button, if you’d like.” She materialized a palm-sized metal box with a big red circular button into her hand. It may as well have been the Platonic ideal of “magic button.” Then she pressed it with an audible click. “In 15 seconds, you’ll find yourself in a world unlike any you’ve ever imagined.”

Wow, this was really happening. In just a matter of seconds I was going to be reincarnated in a world with a System that would uniquely challenge me.

Uh…

“Seriphen, one more question before I go. What’s a System?”

“Huh? You’re joking, right?”

“…”

“… Wait, Earth is the one without a System, isn’t it…”

“…”

“Which means your aura won’t be compatible with…”

“…”

Seriphen’s face went almost as pale as mine. She looked at the button in her hand, then back to me, then back to the button. “Shit shit SHIT OH FU—”

And then it all returned to nothing.

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