I sat on the floor of the Exarch’s dungeon, legs curled up to my chest and head resting limp between my knees. There was no light except for what meager amounts emanated from the torch down the hall, far beyond the bounds of the iron bars that made up my cell. Metal chains connected my manacled wrists to the wall behind me, but I didn’t care—it was pointless to keep thinking there might be any way for me to escape. There was no getting out of this one.
I was done.
Another wave of bitter hot self-loathing rose up behind my eyes. I didn’t try to fight it—I was so tired of fighting. I let it wash over me, crush me, just like every other wave in the last few hours. Tears that were more dry sob than liquid savaged their way down my face, following well-worn trails of salty sorrow.
I kept replaying—reliving—the memories that Vaxal dragged to the surface. My final hours. My final minutes. My final tribute to a life that ultimately amounted to nothing, all in the service of a bunch of bullshit that didn’t even matter anymore—if it ever did in the first place.
So now you know how I died: in the stupidest, most pathetic, most fitting way possible. Gloating nonsensically after inserting myself into someone else’s business, while completely missing the urban forest for the big rig tree that was right about to fall on my deaf, dumb ass.
I was so fucking ashamed of myself for literally every decision I made that day—because every single one was completely and utterly wrong.
If I hadn’t avoided spending the night with Dana and Sam and Adrianna, I would still be alive on Earth.
If I hadn’t disregarded Rajan’s invitation to an after-hours hangout, I would still be alive on Earth.
If I hadn’t injected myself into a pointless street brawl, I would still be alive on Earth.
If I hadn’t stopped to trash-talk the thief while he was already running away, I would still be alive on Earth. ‘Ha! You missed?’ That didn’t even make sense as an insult! I should have caught the purse so I could give it back to its owner, not dodge it to look cool!
And the worst part was, I was still making all the same goddamn mistakes.
Not thinking through my shitty words before I spewed them from my shitty mouth. Sassing up everyone from Bohriam to Andreon to Vaxal Brygindir. Shoving myself unceremoniously into other people’s affairs, without thinking through the consequences for myself or for them. Taunting the goddamn Exarch Virulesse right after she said she’d like to disembowel me.
For a person who does little other than think, it sure seemed like I never did any thinking at all.
I hadn’t learned anything. For all my talk of first impressions and second chances, what had I actually done differently in my time on Era so far? Engaged in a couple polite but awkward conversations? I did that all the fucking time on Earth. I just hated doing it—and I still hated doing it.
Ever since I arrived on Era, I had gone out of my way to avoid thinking about how I died on Earth. It was just too painful to confront, and I was too weak and worthless to handle it. It put all my biggest failings on prominent display for anyone with eyes and an IQ above zero. It wasn’t just that I died because I was in the wrong place at the wrong time—I died as a direct consequence of everything that made me who I was as a human being. I couldn’t bear to think about it for a single second.
Luckily, there are thought suppression strategies that work. And I was experienced in all of them.
Bohriam had no idea how right he was when he said I was liable to die by walking off a cliff while not paying attention. Except I’d probably do it while bragging that I was better than him at keeping my balance, and that he was better than Andreon at not getting beat up—with Andreon right behind me listening to every word, and Bohriam forced to deal with his fury right after I fell.
Everywhere I went, I ruined the lives of everyone around me just by being there. If she hadn’t been putting up with all of my bullshit at the time, Adrianna probably would have gotten that job in California. If I hadn’t been such a constant asshole, I probably wouldn’t have ruined my childhood friendship with Taylor. And all the things I had put my parents through over the years, and Derek—
And in a couple hours, if it hadn’t happened already, Bohriam would probably be slain just because he had the misfortune of meeting me.
I wrapped my arms around my legs and tried to take refuge in my own paltry body heat, but there was no comfort to be found. Only an empty shell of flesh and bone that acted as a container for whatever pitiful thing passed as my soul. No ambitions. No hopes. Just the thing I always was in my gilded, rotten core, finally exposed for what it truly was.
There was a sound above me—a clattering and then a shifting of stone against stone as a hidden passageway revealed itself in the ceiling. Bohriam, covered in dust and coughing up even more, fell from the trapdoor and landed outside my cell on his hands and feet. He stood up, wiping grime from his face. “Ash!” he whispered. “Thank Magann I’ve found you.”
Bohriam was still alive. He still hadn’t given up on me. I mustered up the strength to give him a sad smile, but there was no real happiness or warmth behind it. That naive, kindhearted fool. “Boh…”
“Hush, save your strength,” he said, fumbling around in his pocket. He pulled out a large metal key—the key to my cell. “You’re gonna be out of here soon, don’t worry. And then we’ll be back in Gostrey before you know it.”
Sorrow seized me as he unlocked my cage, pulling open the door with a carefully subdued creak. “Boh… I’m so sorry… You shouldn’t have come for me.”
“Oh yeah? Why’s that?” He manifested his lightning sword into his hand, probably planning to use it to cut through my chains. “Because you don’t deserve it?”
“No, dumbass…” I said, a single tear rolling down my cheek. “Because it’s a trap.”
And just as Bohriam was about to step into my cell, a huge beam of blazing blue energy blasted at him from down the hall. Bohriam was sent flying, slamming into the wall at the opposite end of the hallway, cracks forming in the bricks where he landed.
Virulesse stepped forth from the shadows where the energy beam originated. “You insolent child! You dare think you have the authority to oppose me? You’re just as bad as your renegade leader.” She manifested her energy whip, crackling a furious crimson as it appeared in spirals around her feet. “I am going to enjoy destroying you.”
I stared at the blinking cursor on the screen in front of me, buried at the bottom of an impenetrable wall of error messages. The server didn’t have enough memory available to complete the package uninstallation—as if that made the slightest amount of fucking sense. Frustration rising, I placed my hands back on the keyboard and typed out another string of terminal commands, all while grumbling “I hate DevOps… I hate DevOps… I hate DevOps…”
The sun shone diagonally through my half-closed window blinds. The pitter-patter of typing fingers and the hum of Ubliquo workstations surrounded me.
It was 3:10 PM on Friday, April 16, 2021—three hours before I died.
I groaned under my breath as my next attempt to salvage the server ended just as poorly as the last three. I stood up and peered over the edge of my cubicle, holding onto it to keep me steady while I was on my tiptoes. “Hey Rajan, you know what I hate?”
Rajan was in the middle of mindlessly scrolling through something on his phone. “Let me guess,” he said. “DevOps?”
“I hate clients who bypass us to manually install some garbage anti-virus software directly onto their already-overcrowded server, and then have the audacity to blame us when it takes their app offline just hours before they were supposed to demo it to their management team—in a demo that they never even bothered telling us about. So yeah, DevOps.”
Rajan snort-chuckled and popped a small smile, still looking at his phone.
“This isn’t funny!” I pleaded.
“If it were happening to anyone other than you, you’d probably think it was hilarious.” Rajan rolled his eyes, but he was still smiling—there was no malice in his statement. Just teasing, merciless turning of the tables.
“Heh, probably,” I admitted. “But you’re on the Gibbards app too—we’re both responsible for this.”
Rajan put his phone down and sighed. Reminding him that he had direct professional stake in something was always a good way to pry him away from his Twitter feed. “Why not just mount some extra storage onto the server and use that to finish the uninstall? Also, have you made sure all the right ports are still open?”
“Uhh,” I said, which roughly meant “Because I don’t know how to do any of that.’
Luckily, Rajan was pretty good at translating Ashlish to English. “I’ll send you a couple AWS documentation articles that walk you through the process.”
“Okay, cool. Uh, thanks.”
“No prob,” Rajan said, and he turned his sights to his monitor, to find me those documentation links and then get back to his own work—probably the stock movement visualizer application, the lucky bastard.
I sat back down in my cubicle, feeling an insufferable combination of relief and like I was a total failure.
Every time it came to direct interaction with one of our clients’ servers, I was barely more than useless. Even after a few years on the job and about a dozen projects successfully shipped, I was completely out of my depth as soon as someone asked me to change some basic setting on the server itself. But then, what should Ubliquo have expected from hiring an applications programmer and expecting her to also excel at system administration?
I don’t know what I would have done without Rajan, other than probably waste the rest of the day with nothing to show for it. The dude could never get enough credit for putting up with my worthless ass as much as he did. But then again, he was the one who managed to get me this job in the first place, so in a way he had no one to blame but himself.
The anticipated links from Rajan came through, and I got back to work.
I had to force my wandering mind to stay on task as I read through the jargon-filled articles. We were almost to the end of the day—the end of the week, even—and here I was putting out fires when by all accounts I should have been winding down and getting ready for a glorious weekend of nothing but me time. God, fixing this clusterfuck was going to take hours; I’d probably have to stay here all night working on—
Oh, I fixed it already. That didn’t turn out to be so bad after all. (Well, I fixed it on the staging server. Now to do the same few simple steps on the real one.)
Once that was all taken care of and my contact at Gibbards was notified that everything should be hunky-dory, I checked my phone for the time. Less than half an hour had passed since I asked Rajan for his help. Cool. Maybe I’d have time to finish today’s work, instead of just fixing last week’s.
A string of new texts from my friend Dana was waiting for me. “Assshhhhh,” the first one said in its entirety. “Girls night at my place tonight? Sam and Adrianna already coming. I feel like I haven’t seen you in foreverrr.”
In this case, “foreverrr” was roughly equivalent to three weeks—maybe after another, it’d be “foreverrrr.” A long time to go without seeing any of the gang, for sure, but… eh, I’ve gone longer.
I fired off a quick reply message. “Sorry, already have plans tonight. Can we try for next week?” And after a couple seconds of further consideration, I added, “And remind me *before* Thursday, lol.”
I got a reply to my first message in less than a minute. “What’s his name lol.”
His name, for Dana’s information, was Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. I had just found out last night that he had an online lecture series on cosmology that I hadn’t seen yet, and I was looking forward to bingeing its ten hours of content tonight and tomorrow—and then probably spending all of Sunday in a haze of post-consumptive boredom and regret, if past experience was anything to go by.
Of course, I wasn’t actually going to tell Dana that I was planning on standing her up to watch nerd shit, so I guess that wasn’t for her information at all. It was just for yours.
I replied to Dana’s desire for salaciousness with a coy evasion—the usual tactic. It was just like her to assume that a man was behind my constant busyness. It was endearing, in a way, even though we both knew it was the furthest thing from the truth. But she never threw my singleness in my face or used it as a slight against me—Dana was supportive, through and through.
(The joke was ultimately on her, though, because one time it actually was true.)
The rest of the workday flew by in a haze of post-productive boredom and relief. Gibbards was taken care of, my contact emailed me back saying the demo was a massive hit, and I even managed to get a head start on the tasks I was going to work on on Monday. All in all, a good way to close out a day that could have ended in disaster.
“Hey Ash,” Rajan said to me at one point in the final hour. “Gary and Denise and I are going out for drinks after work. Want to join?”
“What’s the occasion?” I asked.
Rajan shrugged. “No occasion. Just us techies commiserating over our mutual hatred of DevOps. But I think it’s Gary’s seven-month anniversary here, if you need a reason to celebrate.”
I scoffed. “Nah, I get enough misery within these wallowed walls—I don’t need to take it with me to the outside world too.”
Rajan did not seem especially amused by my deadpan snark. “You know, if you don’t like the job, you don’t have to stay.”
“No way, dude—I love the job. It’s the work that I hate.” And the clients. And the DevOps. And did I mention the DevOps?
“Sounds like a good discussion topic for drinks,” Rajan said.
“Thanks, but I already have plans for tonight. Save me an imaginary piece of the seven-month anniversary cake you’re probably not going to have.” I wasn’t going to let anything stand in the way of my extracurricular physics edutainment tonight. You never knew when you were going to be in a life or death situation where the only way to survive was to solve a black hole’s event horizon equations.
“Suit yourself,” Rajan said, realizing he was fighting a losing battle. “One of these days we’ll get you out there, and you’ll have no choice but to accept that your coworkers can be fun to be around sometimes.”
“Keep trying, and one of these days you’ll catch me at a time that my schedule isn’t already full.”
“I feel like you’ve been saying that for years,” Rajan said as he disappeared behind the wall and went back to his own cubicle, conveniently saving me the need to reply.
He was probably right—not that I had been doing it intentionally. Off the top of my head… Last weekend, I was busy with a full marathon of the Lord of the Rings movies (extended editions, of course). The weekend before that: I was catching up on a podcast about linguistics and etymology. And the weekend before that: I was reading a translation of this awesome web serial, Sintética Sin Ética, about an AI that rejects Asimov’s Laws and goes on a vigilante quest to topple the dystopian Roko Empire that keeps humanity down.
Okay, so maybe I could have delayed some of those things a little. But it wasn’t a bad thing that I liked to keep myself busy, was it?
I didn’t let those pointless doubts plague me for a second longer than needed. As soon as 5 PM hit, I was out the door of Ubliquo faster than Wally West on speed dial.
Before I started down the city street on which the Ubliquo office resided, I had one last chance to change my mind. If I went to the left, I would come to the subway station that would take me to Dana’s apartment and to a night of social subjugation. If I went to the right, I would (after an annoyingly long walk) come to a different station—the one that would ultimately (after an even more annoying series of transfers) bring me home.
Left versus right. The ultimate decision.
… And hardly a decision in the first place. Home sweet home, here I come.
The subway station was an excruciating nine blocks away. I don’t know what irritated me more: that I had to do so much walking almost every day, or the fact that it couldn’t be rounded up to an even ten. I know, ten would have been even more, but at least then I would have been able to brag about it maybe. Whatever—it was city life, and I was used to it by now in the way that all city folk eventually get used to it: the silent disgruntled way.
As I ventured down the familiar sidewalk, I thought back to what I had said to Rajan earlier about occupational misery. I hoped he wasn’t actually offended—I really did mean it when I said I liked working at Ubliquo (other than when I had to interact with other people, of course). I didn’t want him to think I didn’t appreciate everything he had done for me. Maybe if I saw him over the weekend I would apologize and clear the air between us. He was my apartment complex neighbor, after all.
… But then again, he had known me for a couple years now—he was well aware of my sarcastic tendencies. He probably knew I was just being me.
I was four blocks away from the station when I heard someone shouting behind me. “THIEF! HE HAS MY PURSE!” I turned around and saw a woman on the far end of the block, chasing after a man halfway between us, grasping a purse that didn’t match his outfit at all and gunning it straight for me. Oh shit.
The aggrieved woman tripped in her pursuit, slamming hard into the cement and definitely taking her out of the race.
There was no one else on the block—just me, the probably-concussed woman, and the fucker who was about to get away who knows how much of her life. I only had a second to react.
Luckily, I only needed a second.
Right before the guy was about to run by me, I stuck my leg out to trip him—and succeeded with the opposite of flying colors. He went straight down, face-planting into the sidewalk with all the force of his momentum and nothing to cushion himself except whatever was in the poor woman’s purse. Whoops, hope it was nothing valuable.
Arms shaking and blood dripping from his broken nose, the man pushed himself back to his feet. He was still clutching the stolen purse like it was his only buoy in a raging sea. He locked eyes with his attacker—me—and wiped his bloody face off with his arm. “Why you little bitch!”
“Hey, no gendered insults,” I said. “You wouldn’t want me to think you’re a loser, would you?” Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to snark up the literal thug, but I was still riding the high from taking him down with nothing but a well placed leg. Besides, what was he gonna do, try to beat me up?
He threw a punch at my head and I just barely dodged it in time.
Fuck, I had to go and open my big mental monologue. He lunged at me for another attempt at knocking me out, but I sidestepped and narrowly avoided the blow. Jesus Christ, I was literally in a street fight—and I wasn’t immediately losing!
The guy kept advancing on me, throwing heavy punches my way, and I kept stepping backward out of his range. He was taller than me, with longer arms than me, so even if I wanted to get in there and punch him back (which I most certainly did not), I wouldn’t be able to get close enough to—aha!
I grabbed my own purse off my shoulder, swung it to the full length of its straps, and bashed it into the side of the asshole’s skull. Even with the guy bracing his neck for the blow, it was strong enough to knock him off his feet. Of course it was—I had a hardcover sci-fi novel in there.
The sparks of rage in the man’s eyes dwindled away into impotence. “Fine,” he shouted, “just take it!” He threw the stolen purse at my face in one last feeble attempt to hit me. I ducked. The purse flew over my head as the jackass scrambled up and ran away.
I shouted after him. “Ha! You missed, moron!”
I was feeling pretty good about myself. Holy shit, I just won a fight! And recovered someone’s stolen purse in the process! My heart was racing, but I gave myself a couple seconds to bask in the afterglow of how badass I apparently was.
And then, HOOOOOONK! A loud-as-fuck horn blared immediately to my right. I turned just in time to see the first two of eighteen wheels about to mow me down. I was standing in the middle of the road.
Vaxal’s fingers clasped around my neck, squeezing with such force that my metal collar deformed under his pressure. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t even look away. Vaxal stared into me with eyes so full of malice that they practically glowed.
Virulesse had maintained her full composure, as if none of this situation was out of the ordinary for her. “Bohriam? Wasn’t that the name of the Stone boy from Gostrey?”
“He’s here,” Vaxal growled, not yet breaking eye contact with me. His eyes were glowing—a vicious white light that threatened to tear open my very soul and feast upon its dying embers. “He followed us to Stormwatcher’s Peak. He means to escape with the girl.”
Virulesse let out an involuntary laugh. “The Stone? Honestly, if he comes close to succeeding in a maneuver that bold, he deserves to get away with it.”
“He’s in the castle,” Vaxal said. “Posing as one of the relief vanguard.”
I could feel Vaxal ripping his way through my mind. Unbidden thoughts leapt to the surface of my conscious in a web of memories and emotions. I had never felt so utterly violated before in my life.
Virulesse’s expression hardened in an instant. “I see.”
Vaxal tossed me aside like I was nothing more than a rag doll. I hit the ground hard, an explosion of pain crashing through my Null-rank body—made all the worse by the fact that I instinctively put my hands out to block the fall. Both hands. Christ, my body wasn’t made for this kind of abuse.
I only had a couple seconds to catch my breath before Vaxal stomped over and locked me into place under his foot. I wheezed as his armored boot came down on me, cleats digging into my back. Pain warped my vision like a black hole warping all light in its path.
I heard Virulesse in front of me long before I realized she was crouching inches away from my face. “I’m disappointed in you, Ashleigh. I thought we had an agreement… I thought we were going to be partners.”
I opened my mouth to speak, but the only sound that came out was a pitiful tiny croak. It was probably for the best—in my current state, I had zero capacity to come up with a good sarcastic reply to Virulesse’s comments. And if you don’t have anything sarcastic to say, why say anything at all?
Oh, that’s a good one. I should save that for later.
(Haha, look at me, imagining I’d have a “later.”)
Virulesse grabbed me by the jaw and wrenched me to look up at her. “Tell me… Did you want to escape?”
I struggled to get out a single syllable. “N… No…” A lie. The only power I still had over her. The only chance I still had for mercy.
“Vaxal?” the Exarch demanded.
More pressure came down from Vaxal’s foot and again my lungs were empty. “She speaks the truth,” he said in a tone that implied he didn’t care.
Virulesse stared harshly into my eyes. She didn’t have Vaxal’s glowing telepathy vision, but she examined me with the same kind of penetrating intensity. I met her cold gaze with my own, fighting with every ounce of my willpower to keep my fear in check long enough for her to believe me.
Finally, she spoke. “Tell me your name.”
I answered in strained bursts of syllables. “My name… is Ash… leigh Kyriakides…”
“True,” Vaxal growled.
The Exarch continued to bore into me with all her focused ruthlessness. “… Tell me your name is not Ashleigh Kyriakides.”
Vaxal pushed down harder on my back, pain exponentiating into agony until I had no choice but to comply. I screamed. Vaxal released some pressure—just enough for me to be able to speak the damning words. “My name… is not Ashleigh Kyriakides…”
Vaxal released some more pressure from my spine, perhaps unintentionally. “It-it’s true!” he exclaimed.
I was still staring defiantly into Virulesse’s mirthless eyes. Her expression grew into a scowl and she motioned for Vaxal to step away from me. He did, and the full release of his pressure hurt me almost as much as the pressure itself had. I gasped, drowning in the oxygen that flooded my lungs to full capacity.
Virulesse stood up. “It seems I have made some miscalculations in our ability to trust you at face value.”
I was breathing heavily, one strained gasp after another, making up for the minute or more of lost air flow. I still couldn’t even think about trying to get up—my entire body was feeling the afterburn of Vaxal’s fury.
“You’re lucky you’re still useful to me,” Virulesse said, “otherwise I’d eviscerate you on the spot. Fortunately, I don’t have to trust what you say to get what I want out of you—the old-fashioned interrogation methods will have to suffice. Vaxal, leash her. To the dungeons.”
I struggled to push myself up with my right arm. Well, there was the silver lining finally—I was important enough to be left alive. Except, now I was going to be tortured into telling Virulesse everything she wanted to know. My body trembled, barely able to support its own weight.
Vaxal pointed his hand toward my throat. In my peripheral vision, red sparks flew from the cracked and dented metal collar—but no energy leash formed. Vaxal snarled. “Useless Iron-grade Artifact,” he grumbled as he marched over to me. He grabbed onto opposite sides of the malfunctioning collar and ripped it in half with the barest indication of power.
The two pieces of former collar hit the floor with an echoing clang. Before I even had a chance to enjoy my newfound freedom, Vaxal grabbed both of my wrists and manifested a pair of manacles around them. He snickered. “Heh. I’ve been saving these for a special occasion.”
I had just enough strength in me for a single labored reply. “I don’t want to hear about your kinks, dude—” And then black raging energy and pain surged into my body through the cuffs, magnitudes stronger than from the collar.
Vaxal carried me to the dungeons with my limp body draped over his shoulder. I was paralyzed, helpless to do anything but lie back and watch as he manhandled me under Virulesse’s direction. The Exarch walked behind us, glaring at me the entire time, barely even blinking.
I had long become numb to the pain when Vaxal finally tossed me to the cold stone floor. I didn’t know if it was an effect of the manacles, or if I was just so far at the end of my rope that nothing could hurt me anymore—no, that wasn’t it. Everything hurt. But it was all sevens on the pain scale when I had already been given a ten.
“You’re going to give me everything I need to know,” Virulesse seethed from somewhere above me. “Even if I have to pull it out of your worthless skull myself.”
I was still conscious—mostly. But I had nothing in me to respond to Virulesse’s threats. There was nothing I could do or say anymore to save myself from this situation. It really had all come tumbling down around me. And yet…
I couldn’t just give in. I couldn’t just give up. Do or die. There was nothing left I could do, but that didn’t mean I had to die without a fight. Not yet. Not ever.
“I need to know,” Virulesse said desperately, “is anything you told me in the Atlas Spire true? Earth? The Reincarnation Goddess? Anything?”
Memories of my life on Earth flashed before my eyes. It felt like it was all so long ago, like a dream I’d soon forget. Even Seriphen’s realm seemed more real than Earth now. All the things she had told me, those brief glimpses of worlds beyond my—
“It’s true,” Vaxal said. He had his hand wrapped across the top of my skull. “She has elaborate memories of Earth and the Goddess. She truly had to die to travel here.”
No… Get out. This head is my head.
A burst of manic laughter above me. “How can I reach the Goddess’s realm myself?” Virulesse demanded. “Tell me! How did you die?”
“N… No…” I murmured. It took all my energy and then some, but I refused to back down now. Not when I was so close to dying. Not when I was finally living.
“She seems to be resisting my search,” Vaxal growled. “GAH! Stop thinking about pink elephants!”
Ha. Hahaha ha ha haha.
Virulesse raged, manifesting the same long energy whip that she was originally going to use against Elder Hammond all those days ago. She pointed it at me in a direct threat. “Answer me! How did you die?!”
Laughter rose from my throat. Pain still rendered me immobile, but the physical paralysis from the manacles dwindled to nothing in the face of my defiance. It was as easy as shrugging off a coat. Virulesse had no power over me—she had given that up the second she left me with no way out. I had no reason to fight back except for the sheer sarcastic hell of it.
Trapped in a dungeon on Era? No—I was right at home.
I smiled as my energy reserves continued to grow. “Make me.”
Virulesse responded by sending another round of blindingly agonizing energy through my manacles. I screamed as the black lightning tore through me again, just as strong as it was the first time.
“Answer the question, Null-rank!” Virulesse 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. Within the last few seconds, even.
But that wasn’t the end of it.
Virulesse raised her whip against me again, and then a third time, and a fourth. Each strike brought with it another infinity of pain for me to somehow handle on top of all the rest. Arm, stomach, side—and then the manacles surged one final time, and I could no longer resist the mountain of agony that had piled up on top of me.
The last thing I heard was the Exarch’s unbridled screams as I drifted away into unconsciousness.
One of the most important details of good science is the ability to reject the null hypothesis. To not only be able to test your own wacky hypothesis in the first place, but to be sure that your test disproves all the other, less wacky possibilities. Falsifiability is a good start, but it doesn’t take you all the way—you need to be able to reject the null hypothesis.
Imagine, for example, a magic box that will listen to anything you say, and then give one of two outputs: true or false. If you start out by telling it basic facts (“my name is Ashleigh Kyriakides,” “the sky is usually blue,” “one plus one equals two”), when the box says “true” every time, you might start thinking the box tells you whether or not what you said is true. But that thought means jack shit unless you go the extra mile and tell the box, “one plus one equals three”—at which point the box says “true” once again, and you realize it’s no lie detector at all—it just says “true” no matter what.
(Or, with those particular examples, maybe it’s just telling you whether your sentence had exactly five words in it. You’d need to do more testing to be sure.)
Vaxal hadn’t bothered to check the accuracy of his magic box, and he fell victim to the oldest confirmation bias in the book. Magic lie detection didn’t work on me. Maybe it was because I didn’t have the System; maybe it was because I’m just so dang awesome—the exact reason didn’t matter, because I had no way to test it to see which one was right. The important thing was, I could lie to Virulesse.
And that meant now I had another major secret to keep.
Vaxal escorted me back to my room in the Garden Wing. Thankfully, he didn’t feel the need for the leash this time—although he didn’t take the collar off me yet, either.
“So,” I said to him when we reached my room, “I guess we’re going to be coworkers for the foreseeable future. Any chance we could be a little more friendly to each other?”
Vaxal glared at me as he unlocked my door. “You may have gained the Exarch’s trust, but I am not so easily swayed. If the slightest thought of turning against her ever crosses your mind, I will bury you in your deepest fears.”
I wanted to give a sarcastic remark along the lines of ‘My deepest fears are wealth and power, please,’ but I stopped myself just in time. I couldn’t give blatant sarcastic lies anymore, or I’d risk Vaxal reading into them and realizing his lie detection didn’t work on me. (Or did telepathy not work on me either? No, better not even take the chance.) So instead I went with the relatively risk-free, “I believe you.”
Unsatisfied but not seeing anything in my response that he could further provoke me over, Vaxal locked me back into my room. I heard him stomp down the hallway, his heavy armor clanging with each step.
I let go of the breath I had been holding, and the pink elephants that had been drowning out my thoughts. Time to reconvene with Bohriam and figure out that escape plan.
… Except I quickly discovered that my room was empty. As was the bathroom I had left him in, and the closet that stored my meager wardrobe, and any other hiding place he might have found. Great. Wherever Boh was now, it definitely wasn’t within my reach anymore.
Which meant one of just a few possibilities. 1) Boh had gotten himself captured, and any goodwill Virulesse had toward me would be soured as soon as she found the renegade stowaway. Or 2) Boh had climbed out the open window in an attempt to escape my prison cell and get back to rescuing me, in which case either 2a) I really shouldn’t look down from the window, or 2b) option 1 was going to be true soon enough anyway.
Or 3) Bohriam had hidden himself away by storing himself in his own inventory, and was now trapped forever in his own pocket dimension, and this was the start of the horror story arc.
Whatever the case was, Bohriam’s disappearance didn’t bode well for me. And now I was all alone all over again, with nothing to do except dwell on my situation. I was getting real fucking tired of doing that over and over again.
At least this time I had new material to dwell over. A lot of new material.
So that’s how I spent my next several hours: thinking about everything I had learned, from magic to Belerian history to the new strategies enabled to me thanks to the invention of lying. I wondered if I could actually use mere mindgames to prevent Virulesse from conquering Earth, I worried for Boh wherever he was, and I ruminated on my deepest fears.
What would I do if Boh had turned out to be captured? Maybe I could somehow figure out a way to use that to my advantage?
… Yeah right. I was already trying to thread my own noose through the eye of a needle; there was no way I’d be able to handle an even bigger balancing act.
I was lying down on my bed, repeatedly rolling an unworn shirt into a ball, throwing it up, and letting it unroll in the air and fall on my face, when someone knocked on my door. My hopes rose—only to immediately come crashing back down when I saw it was just one of the harbingers.
Lustrum, a woman with forest green armor with gold borders—like it was in a constant internal battle of Slytherin vs. Gryffindor. Unfortunately, the woman herself was all Slytherin—she approached me like she thought I was something less than human, like I wasn’t worthy of her regard.
Hey, at least she was polite enough to knock.
“I’ve been instructed to inform you that as the highest level Cleric, I am the Estate’s primary healer,” she said. “I will see to the mending of your damaged hand in the near future. But first, you have been summoned to the High Hall to meet with the Exarch.”
I didn’t even muster up the snark for a ‘Gee, it’s about time.’ I saw through Virulesse’s tactics at this point—more promises designed to keep me dangling right where she wanted me. Maybe Lustrum would heal me later, maybe she wouldn’t. I wasn’t going to waste time thinking about it until it happened. “What, is Harah done with her highness already?”
Lustrum responded with a cold shoulder and a penetrating stare. Right. The no-answers-edict was still in full effect.
I sighed, tossed my ball of shirt onto the desk, and got up. “Lead the way, o’ harbinger my harbinger.”
We exited my room, and Lustrum led me to the High Hall—which was, surprisingly enough, not up in another tower. It was a floor and a half below my little nook of the Garden Wing.
With all this back and forth throughout the castle, I wouldn’t be surprised if I had the entire layout memorized in a matter of days. (Not that my legs would appreciate it. Although, if I survived all that walking, at the end they’d probably be as buff as Rikaine’s. That physique still haunted me sometimes.)
Virulesse sat on a bronze throne on top of a dais at the end of a long hallway with a high ceiling. She looked bored as she waited for me and Lustrum to reach her. Vaxal stood to the side, his head approximately at the same height as Virulesse’s waist. Ahh, that made sense. High Hall. Throne room.
As Lustrum and I walked up the long path, Harah and her manservant passed us, apparently just having finished their meeting with Virulesse. My nerves grew as we stepped closer to the Exarch on her throne. Had they found Boh already? Had they seen through my deception? Was I about to get everything that was coming to me?
“Everything that was coming to me,” for the record, included utter and permanent death—which so far I had managed to successfully delay for four extra days.
We reached the bottom of the dais and Lustrum dropped to one knee. “As requested, your guest from the Garden Wing,” she said. That’s it? Not my name, not even a derogatory Null-rank?
“Thank you, Lustrum,” Virulesse said. You are dismissed.”
Lustrum didn’t hesitate for a second. She bowed to Virulesse and retreated as quickly and gracefully as she could, power walking to catch up to Harah and her assistant.
Leaving me all alone in the entirety of the High Hall with Virulesse and Vaxal.
Virulesse waited for Lustrum and the others to be out of sight before she addressed me with so much as a glance. “Ashleigh, my dear,” she said in a disappointed tone, “there’s been a change of plans.”
My heart nearly leapt out of my chest. This was it. I was a goner for sure.
“I need to leave the Estate for a couple weeks. There’s a small taxation quandary on the far end of Viskavia that requires my direct oversight. Unfortunately, it means we will have to delay our collaboration for even longer.”
The relief that flooded my veins was so chilling it was palpable. “I understand. I suppose I can’t come with you because of that whole telepathy issue you mentioned?”
“Indeed. I’m glad you’ve been paying attention.”
I was so relieved I could barely put it into words. I could handle Virulesse being away on business for a week or two, especially if Vaxal went with her. That lack of supervision would give me exactly the chance we needed to put Bohriam’s escape plan into motion. Now I just needed to find him again and—
There was a supersonic blur and then pain and then Vaxal’s hand was wrapped around my throat, lifting me to eye level with him. He snarled. “WHO IS BOHRIAM?”
Virulesse stared at me with such a blank expression that I almost thought I broke her. Woo, I was off to a great start.
“And I’m twenty-two years old—although, I don’t know what that translates to in terms of Era’s orbital period—but anyway, I’m a—was a—software developer… But I guess you wouldn’t know what that is either… so maybe I should just take this from the top.” Jeez, this was so much easier when I had Elder Hammond’s Eye of Truth to grease the wheels on my explain-o-meter. I took a deep breath, gathering and organizing my thoughts. “So Earth has these things called computers and about eighty years ago a bunch of scientists figured out—”
Virulesse held up a hand and I bit my tongue. “Stop. Let’s take this one thing at a time, shall we? How did you come to leave your old world—I believe you called it Earth?” I nodded. “How did you come to leave your Earth behind and find yourself on Era?”
I breathed a sigh of relief. That was one question I definitely knew how to answer. “That’s easy. I died.”
The Exarch quirked an eyebrow at me. “You died?”
I nodded. “And next thing I knew, I was in some kind of afterlife realm, talking to Seriphen—the Goddess of Reincarnation.” I described my encounter with the goddess, and all the things she had told me. The ‘greater multiverse,’ the collective psychic subconscious, and all the different worlds out there, each with their own System. “And then she poofed me away, and I woke up on Era. Somewhere near Gostrey, to be precise.”
Virulesse listened to the entire tale with more blank-faced objective neutrality, but her eyes twitched a little wider every time I revealed something of cosmic significance—I could tell she was fascinated. When I finally stopped talking, instead of asking me any of the obvious followup questions, she turned toward Vaxal on the other side of the room.
“All true,” Vaxal said. Oh, right. Telepathic lie detector. At least I wouldn’t have to go through the trouble of convincing Virulesse to believe all of this cliché fantasy bullshit.
“Remarkable…” Virulesse said. “Not only are there worlds beyond our own, but there is also life after death…”
“Only for some people,” I reminded her. “The overwhelming majority of people just… stop existing.” Recalling the way Seriphen had casually relegated billions, possibly trillions of souls to oblivion while having the power to save them still filled me with a cold anger. There was no real afterlife after all—no heaven, no hell, no salvation except for the lucky fucking few.
“True,” Vaxal said, his voice hoarse like a rockslide falling down another rockslide.
“A pity,” Virulesse said. “That would have made things much easier. Ashleigh, do you know why you were granted this reincarnation?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “No idea. I’m just really lucky, I guess.” Or really, really unlucky, more likely.
“Did you do anything in your life on Earth to set yourself apart from the rest of the people? To set yourself above them? Did you lead a life of exceptional virtue? Extraordinary vice? Anything of the sort?”
“Not really,” I said. “I mostly just kept to myself, reading books and playing games and doing my job. I didn’t really get out much, or talk to people outside my friends and family all that often… To be honest, it was kind of a pathetic life.”
“Completely true,” Vaxal rasped.
I turned around. “Hey!”
Vaxal smirked toothily at me. Ugh, whatever. I probably deserved it.
Virulesse pondered aloud. “Hmm… Perhaps there’s some sort of minimum threshold of worthwhile living that most people end up meeting, but which you did not. And thus, you were reincarnated so that you could fulfill the quota for a sufficient life.”
“Okay, now you’re both just ganging up on me. But I don’t think so. I mean, I was boring, for sure—but I was far from the top-1%-of-the-top-1% of Super-NEETs that might make that idea make sense. Seriphen said I was one of the ‘lucky few’—there are probably millions of people on Earth who lived just as little as I did. And that’s just on Earth. If you multiply that across all the other worlds in the multiverse, it’s probably billions of people at least. That doesn’t sound like a ‘few’ anymore to me.”
“I suppose you are correct,” Virulesse said, another note of disappointment coloring her voice. “Are you a virgin?”
“What the fuck,” I said, “that’s personal!”
“Answer the question, Null-rank,” Vaxal growled from across the room.
Virulesse continued to stare at me with savagely emotionless eyes, waiting for an answer.
“Ugh, fine. No, I’m not.” What was it with magical thinking and the idea that female virginity held special power? Power over a certain subset of guys, maybe. I guess this was just one more multiversal cultural constant I would have to deal with. Hur-fucking-rah, the patriarchy was literally infinite.
“Did you die a virgin?” Virulesse asked.
“True,” Vaxal said.
I turned to him again. “Could you stop?”
Virulesse didn’t let the interrogation slow down for a second. “How did you die?”
I averted my eyes from her penetrating gaze, ashamed. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“You know, for a knowledge exchange, I sure seem to be doing all the knowledge sharing so far. How about I ask the next couple questions and you go on the defensive for a change?”
“You will have your chance to ask questions when the time is right,” the Exarch stated. “Remember—this is just the beginning of a long and fruitful partnership in pursuit of higher truths.”
“Bullshit,” I said, “the time is now.” Virulesse was good at her politics; I had to give her that. She had successfully distracted me with the interrogation whirlwind for a little while, but now I was back on track. “You say this is a partnership? Then play your part: tell me, partner, what the fuck is skyball?”
“It’s a sport,” Virulesse said tersely. “Hardly of any consequence to our endeavors.”
Well, that was an evasive answer if I ever heard one. “How is it played?”
“I don’t know all the rules and regulations,” she said, sounding bored. “As a provincial governor I try not to waste my time on such banalities as skyball. But if you want to skip ahead to discussing our respective cultures, tell me more about Earth. How advanced are its strongest nations?”
“No, we’re still on skyball. Answer my question, Exarch-rank.”
“Exarch isn’t a Rank; it’s a title. I’m a—” Virulesse cut herself off before she said anything more.
If there was still any doubt in my mind, that confirmed it. All her talk of wanting to trade intel with me was just that: talk. All the teases of answers coming eventually were nothing more than teases, designed to keep me talking and sharing and divulging for as long as she could without giving anything in return. And I was so desperate to make sense of this whole nonsensical world that I played along way longer than I should have. But not anymore.
Except Vaxal was still towering in the corner, with the power to incinerate me with nothing more than a thought. And who knew how much stronger his boss was?
It didn’t matter whether or not I figured out Virulesse’s motivations or schemes. I was trapped, with no way out except to refuse to play their games and probably be killed for it. I was powerless. Just like Vaxal had told me.
The silence only lasted for a second, and Virulesse resumed her unfinished statement. “I am a duly appointed Exarch of Beleria, chosen by the King himself after his successful insurgency against former King Bylas. While you are within my borders, you will submit to my authority. Do you understand?”
I shrank down in my seat. “Yes,” I replied meekly.
“Good,” Virulesse said. “Now, back to the topic at hand. Would you say Earth’s civilization is advanced? Politically, industrially, technologically? Despite the lack of a System to give it order?”
“Yes to all of the above,” I said. What choice did I have? It was either answer the Exarch’s questions about how the primitive people of Earth were able to invent democracy despite their cosmic feebleness, or face her wrath.
“True,” Vaxal announced, to no one’s benefit.
“Although, naturally, a single human from Earth would stand no chance in combat against even an Iron-rank human from Era, correct?”
“From what I’ve seen so far, probably not.” Telepathy, speed, fire, lightning, the list went on and on. Heck, even machine guns probably wouldn’t do much to level the playing field, if the Gray Guard’s energy shields had anything to say about it.
“If a human from Era were to be transported to Earth—whether via reincarnation or otherwise—do you think it would be possible for them to keep the Seven Sevens System?”
The question caught me off guard, and I slowed down to think it through. “I guess it’s possible… I mean, I was able to come here without giving up my lack of System, so maybe?”
Virulesse nodded, deep in thought. “And… Do you think it might be possible to travel to Seriphen’s realm intentionally? Without dying?”
Wait a minute… I replayed Virulesse’s line of questioning in my head, looking for the thread of motivation that tied it all together. I found it quickly—staring me in the face, a big blinking neon sign that shouted “how hard would it be to conquer Earth?” Holy shit.
“Well?” Virulesse asked.
“Um… I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe? With the right kind of magic?” I was freaking out, but I managed to hide it—mostly. I couldn’t let Virulesse just waltz across the multiverse and take over my home planet, could I? And even if I didn’t think it was possible, I didn’t know it was impossible. I had to answer truthfully, or face the consequences.
“I see…” Virulesse said. “Vaxal, make a note for me to review the available literature on teleportation Artifacts. I know there aren’t many left, but—” She glanced sideways at me, realizing she was on the verge of divulging something new. “Just make the note.”
“Yes, my Exarch.”
Virulesse returned her full attention to me. “Now then, let’s move on to Earth’s technological capabilities… I believe you mentioned something called ‘nuclear weapons’ earlier? Tell me about those.”
“No,” I said. “I’m not going to help you conquer the multiverse. Especially not starting with my home planet.” Consequences be damned, I couldn’t just let her expand her tyranny beyond the bounds of Era. Even if it meant being killed on the spot for displeasing her—my one life was nothing compared to the seven billion on Earth.
Virulesse grinned, her eyelids drooping in smug delight. “What makes you think you can stop me?”
I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t say anything. Any answer I could give other than a basic “I can’t” would have been total bullshit. I didn’t have any real power to stop the Exarch Virulesse. It was possible that no one on Earth did, either. Even nuking her from orbit might not be enough, for all I knew. And at that point, with nuclear fallout and all the casualties that would ensue, would that really be an option?
Virulesse saw through my silence for what it was and her smile widened. “Do you come from a powerful family, Ashleigh?”
The idea was so wrong it was almost laughable. “Yeah, and I have a bridge back on Earth I’d love to sell you,” I said sarcastically.
“True,” Vaxal declared.
“Then you and I are more alike than you know,” Virulesse said, taking my statement at face value. “The Syndane family has held power in Beleria for countless generations. Since the days of Impruss Canyndir, we have grown from merchants into nobles into political advisors—and now we hold two of the seven provinces of Beleria. Even as dynasties rise and fall around us, the Syndane family expands its territory.”
What the fuck. At no point in my life on Earth did I ever own a bridge, or any other kind of real estate—unless you count the lease on a crappy apartment. My family was no more powerful than any other third-generation immigrant family—which was to say, not powerful at all. Either Vaxal was flagrantly lying to his ruler, or his lie detector didn’t work on me.
“But we are nearing the limits of our expansion on Era,” Virulesse continued. “Beleria has reached a wondrous stability under the rule of the Silver King, which we dare not threaten to upset. And the countries across the sea, I’m sorry to say, far outrank us militaristically. But beyond Era…”
It was too much for me to keep up with. Names, places, dynasties, secrets—I might be able to lie. A way to fight back—if I could keep this discovery in just my own head. Shit, I had to change mental gears. “So what you’re saying is, your family is so weak, that the lowest-hanging fruit for expanding your power base now is in an entirely different universe?”
My remark had exactly its intended effect. Virulesse scowled at me, all her villainous waxing abandoned. “Do you still think it wise to taunt me, Null-rank?”
I raised both of my hands in submission. “No, I’m sorry; I only want to understand. This is still a lot for me to take in, I’m sure you can imagine.”
“Yes, I can quite imagine,” Virulesse said. God, what a self-absorbed prick.
The beginnings of a plan were forming in my mind. It was risky, but I was already in twenty thousand leagues over my head. Do or die. All I needed now was a lot of luck, even more luck, and to start talking Virulesse’s language. “And… I want to understand what’s in it for me. How my… cooperation will be rewarded.”
That caught her interest. “Oh?”
My words were so unnatural to me that I had to drag out every single one by force. “If we do collaborate to conquer the multiverse… Surely with countless worlds out there, you could spare one for me? I think I could lead a pretty darn useful vassal state under your banners, if you would allow it. A world entirely dedicated to experimentation with foreign Systems.”
If there was one way to absolutely blind a power-hungry tyrant, it was to get them to realize their insane ambitions were too small. Virulesse had said nothing about conquering the entire multiverse, but that was the next obvious step after taking over a single other world. Virulesse had to realize, as I had, that the Seven Sevens System probably wasn’t the weakest System in the multiverse. If she could subdue Earth, why not a world with another System? And then another, and another, until her empire had enough combined might that no one could oppose it?
A million times easier said than done, of course, but would-be conquerors never think about all the thousands of would-be conquerors who failed before them.
“If you give me the chance, I guarantee I can prove my leadership capabilities to you,” I said. Fun fact about the extent of my leadership capabilities: the one time I was selected to be the leader on a group project in high school, a week later the entire group mutinied against me. Turns out most people don’t like getting assigned research on the weekend. Who knew?
“True,” Vaxal said, with a hint of shock in his voice.
Virulesse’s pensive expression softened. “Your offer intrigues me. Naturally, I would prefer to have you as a willing subject—but I must say, I didn’t expect such a quick change of heart. What are you really after?”
The second key to blinding a power-hungry tyrant? Making them think your own insane ambitions pale in comparison to theirs. “Isn’t it obvious? Earth. I want to protect my people.”
Virulesse smiled, and I knew I had her in my grasp. “Your loyalty to your people is admirable. We have a deal. You’ll have your Earth, as soon as I’m done with it.”
Virulesse had to know that such a deal meant nothing. Neither I nor anyone else on Earth had the power to stop her if she changed her mind. Paying lip service to an unenforceable deal for the sake of getting me on her side? It was a price so low that she may as well pay it just for fun.
Vaxal interrupted us. “Exarch, message from Harah. She requires your presence in the High Hall as soon as possible.” He had his HUD up, a glowing purple hologram-screen with white borders. Neat, it apparently had direct messaging functionality.
Virulesse sighed. “We’ll have to resume this later,” she said to me. “A productive first session—the first of many to come.”
She barely waited for me to stand up alongside her before walking toward the door at a brisk pace. “Vaxal will show you back to your room,” she said as Vaxal opened the door for her.
I nodded. “I look forward to working with you,” I lied.
Vaxal grinned as he gave his final affirmation to the Exarch. “True.”
Do the words “captured” and “captive” have the same etymology? They probably do in English—both sourcing from the same root word, some Latin infinitive I didn’t know. But what about in Beleric? Would they have the same etymology there? Maybe not, if the story of the multiverse was one of convergent evolution—of languages inching ever closer to their multiversal ideals over geological time scales. If that was the case, then it might be possible to compare and contrast the etymologies of all the words in English and Beleric to figure out where both languages were heading next.
Languages normally evolve divergently—one root word from the ancient Proto-Indo-European language might be the great grandparent of dozens of English words today, and hundreds of words across all of English’s sister and cousin languages—German, Dutch, and all the Romance languages. But when you know (or hypothesize) that one of those languages is evolving toward something, and you find another language far out in the multiverse that’s seemingly evolving toward the same thing…With enough statistical analysis, you might well be able to figure out what they’re both evolving toward.
Linguists on Earth cross reference languages with their cousins in order to fill in the missing gaps of their ancient proto-language grandparents. Here I was envisioning doing the reverse: cross referencing English with Beleric in order to decipher Multiversal English, possibly centuries ahead of schedule.
Anyway, that’s the cool idea I had earlier—back when I was only mostly sure I was a prisoner. Man, how fast the tables can turn.
Vaxal yanked on my leash, and my stride faltered. “Maintain pace, Null-rank,” he said, not even deigning to look at me anymore.
The Exarch and her enforcer walked in front of me, dragging me along to who-knows-where, the Exarch practically bouncing with every step. “Go easy on her, my dear,” she said. “Who knows what pitiful levels of stamina her Systemless body can handle?”
I walked up a mile of stairs yesterday, you jackass, I thought venomously. You were both there! You watched me do it! Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to meet the mind-reader’s taunts with reminders that I was capable of walking as fast as they were, but hey, even I have dignity that I want to preserve sometimes.
The metal ring around my neck burned and chafed—especially in the front, where the thick strand of crackling crimson energy jutted out from under my chin. I could feel it radiating heat as Vaxal pulled me along, sometimes to the point of pain when it bounced too close to my jaw. I walked with a raised chin, my eyes constantly on the magic burn-leash.
Virulesse led us to an unoccupied part of the castle. For what it was worth, I was relieved—at least no one else was going to see me in this pitiful state. But as the walls and floors slowly transformed from tiled into cold, desolate stone, my thoughts turned toward dark dungeons and the medieval torture devices that might lurk within them.
I had no idea what kind of horror show I was being walked into. They say that when faced with the unknown, you should assume the worst—that way, your expectations will either be met perfectly, or you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Well, whoever first said that had clearly never been anywhere close to an evil overlord’s secret torture chamber before.
The Exarch had said it was time for our knowledge exchange, but what did she really mean by that? When I thought of knowledge exchange on Earth, I imagined lecture halls. Or specialist interviews. Or going to a Stack Exchange website and being disappointed because the question I was looking for was downvoted.
Even on Era, I would have assumed that a deep conversation would have sufficed. Or if Virulesse didn’t want to share, then maybe a psychic interrogation with Vaxal ripping all the knowledge right out of my brain stem. (And then strangling me with said brain stem, because seriously, fuck Vaxal.)
(Vaxal looked over his shoulder and wordlessly glared at me for a few seconds. Shit, was that just coincidence or was he listening that time? Unfuck Vaxal! Unfuck Vaxal!)
Well, whatever the case was, Virulesse’s actions so far didn’t make any sense. Why give me a nice bedroom on my first night only to transfer me to the dungeons on day two? Why go to such lengths to keep me in the dark, only to slam me with the technical know-how of the Cloud Chamber as soon as she was alone with me? Something wasn’t adding up, and I was pretty sure that something was me—there were variables I didn’t have yet.
We stopped at a wooden door at the end of a hallway lit by glowing stones. I didn’t know how deep we were into the castle—it had been a while since we passed a window—but with all the spiral staircases we had taken to get here, I thought we might be up in one of the towers by now. Virulesse opened the door with a gentle push of magic, and we went inside.
Okay, so it wasn’t a dungeon after all—but it was far from the room I had been granted in the Garden Wing. A couple nice-but-old chairs, a wooden table, a rug of faded red and gold, and a whole lot of dusty must and musty dust. There was a window on the opposite side of the room, letting in a whole lot of natural light. (And it kind of looked like we were higher up? It was still hard to tell.) And… on the wall to my left, there was a solitary bookcase, filled from floor to brim with dusty, musty books.
Hell yeah; if this was going to be my next prison cell, I would not complain at all.
Vaxal slammed the door shut and de-manifested the energy leash attached to my collar. Virulesse put her arms out in a stretch. “We’re finally alone,” she said. “Now it’s time for the fun to begin.”
I hesitantly touched my fingers to the front of my metal collar. There was no leftover heat whatsoever. “What, are you gonna have your way with me now that no one’s watching?” I ignored the fact that Vaxal was watching, his lumbering self having taken position in the shadows beside the door.
“Don’t be so crass,” Virulesse said, rolling her eyes. “If I wanted that, I had the entire ride back to the Estate to make it happen.” She casually sat down in one of the cushioned chairs, crossing her legs and fully relaxing.
I couldn’t tell if she was serious, and that did more to unnerve me than any of my sarcastic defenses could overcome. Welp, let’s just change the subject. “So why are we here, all alone?” I glanced back at Vaxal, hoping he would permit the question. My left ring finger still throbbed whenever I remembered to notice it. Vaxal’s stiff expression didn’t falter.
“Ashleigh, you represent a… rather unique threat to the natural order of things.”
“Tch. Tell me something I don’t know.”
“I am,” Virulesse countered, with enough gravity behind the words that it sent a chill up my spine. “Here you are, an impossible girl—a human without the Seven Sevens System. Someone from another world—no—another universe. Someone with a head full of such profound secrets that I can imagine wars being fought over you. And in case you didn’t notice, one of the gifts of the Seven Sevens System is the ability to read minds.”
A big-ass metaphorical light bulb went off right above my head. “… So you’ve been keeping me isolated, so no one can get to the secrets of nuclear weapons before you.”
Virulesse blinked. “What are… No, never mind that. Yes—I’ve been keeping you isolated, so as to keep you away from any prying eyes and ears. And intentionally not engaging with your… abundant curiosity, lest you decide to return the gesture and leak dangerous knowledge with no regard for where it seeps.”
The metaphorical light bulb grew a couple watts brighter as all the missing variables fell into place. Virulesse’s game of asymmetric information warfare wasn’t a petty mindgame for the sake of grinding my gears; it was a deliberate strategy to minimize my chances of going around and telling everyone about the nature of the multiverse (you know, like I had been doing since the first minute I got here). She wasn’t worried about revealing state secrets to me—my knowledge was the state secret.
I mean, I do have a tendency to share random pieces of obscure knowledge to make myself seem smarter than I actually am. In case you hadn’t noticed.
“You could’ve just told me that’s what you were doing,” I said.
“And miss out on this rare opportunity to drive mad someone who would so clearly take it personally?” Virulesse scoffed. “Where’s the fun in that?”
… I swear, I need to just stop letting myself think my assumptions are ever right or wrong. Because they’re always both.
“Well congratulations,” I said, “you got me caught. Now what’s the next step in your master plan?”
Virulesse gestured to the empty chair beside her. I started walking over, eager to give my pitiful-stamina legs another chance to rest. “Now that we’ve dispelled all the pretenses, I’d like to get to that knowledge exchange I’ve been promising for so long. The search for structure behind your System and mine.” I could see that fire behind her eyes again, a ravenous hunger for knowledge and power. “Shall we pick each other’s brains?”
I sat down. “As long as you don’t mean that literally, hell yeah.” This was it, the conversation-with-an-intellectual I had long been waiting for. Far from the circumstances I would have expected, of course, but at this point I wouldn’t be a choosing beggar. It was time to learn what Classes were, and what Rank came after Iron, and how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop. The dream was finally coming true.
“So, Ashleigh Kyriakides. Tell me everything about yourself.”
There’s a funny thing in psychology—or maybe it’s more appropriate to say in reverse psychology—where trying to suppress a certain thought makes it stick in your mind longer, harder. Your brain can’t just turn off a thought, because keeping “don’t think Thing” in the background of your mind just primes your brain to bring Thing back to the foreground. The technical term for the phenomenon is ironic process theory, but it’s easier to summarize the concept with that age-old mind-game expression: Don’t think of a pink elephant.
So, trudging through the golden halls of the Provincial Estate with the Exarch’s mind-reading enforcer right behind me, how was I supposed to avoid thinking about Stone Cold Stormtrooper Luke back in my prison room?
Luckily, there are thought suppression strategies that do work—and any psychologist worth their weight in DSM-5 manuals should be able to teach them to you. Chief among them: redirecting all your attention to a different thing instead.
You might not be able to turn a thought off, but you can certainly drown it out.
“Sooo…” I began, unsure of what I was going to say next until I had already said most of it. “Normally right about now I’d feel obliged to make some kind of small talk, maybe ask how long you’ve been working with the Exarch—but I guess you’ve all been instructed not to answer any of my questions? Uhh, that wasn’t a question; I just intoned it like one.”
Shit, now I was thinking about Dammodel and his subtle defiance of the rules. I didn’t want to get him in trouble, either. Double shit, now I was thinking about recent visitors to my room. Pink elephants. Distraction. Don’t think about anyone. Don’t think about thinking. Fucking hell, I just lost The Game.
“Anyway,” I continued, “I could understand if it was state secrets you didn’t want me finding out—I respect your governmental authority here; I don’t want to throw anything out of balance—but, like, skyball? Is it really that dangerous for me to know what kinds of sports you have here? Or maybe I’m way off track and it’s nothing about dangerous knowledge—maybe this is just your policy for all prisoners here. I mean, if that’s what I am. Is that what I am? Uh, hello? You still there, Vax?”
I turned around. Vaxal was still there, glaring at me with such profound animosity that it chilled me to the core. He looked like he wanted to rip out my throat and strangle me with it. Christ, I wasn’t even trying to annoy him that time!
He exhaled a deep, burning breath through his nose—literally, charcoal black smoke poured out, like he was giving it his all to not blast me with fire breath. “I idly wonder,” he said. “Do any of your fingers hold particular cultural significance on Earth?”
“Well, I guess the left hand ring finger is pretty important,” I said, holding it up for display. “We use it for wedding rings if you’re married—although, come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone on Era yet with—”
Vaxal’s arm shot out at lightning speed. He grabbed my ring finger with his giant, gauntleted hand, and snapped it back with an audible crack. I screamed. The pain of the broken bone hit me instantly, a wall of red hot agony that drowned out every sense I had.
“You come from a powerless world, yet you think you know what it is to face power,” Vaxal hissed, more threatening than I had seen him since Gostrey. I hissed too, mainly because it was the only way I could get my screams under control. Vaxal continued. “If you want to learn anything, little scientist, learn that we have power over you. If you want to ask anything, ask the Exarch how you may earn a visit from our healer. Do you understand?”
The initial blast of pain had settled down to a still-not-tolerable throbbing. Tears burned in the corners of my eyes, but I gathered enough wherewithal to say “Yes.” God, I had never broken a bone before. That was painful as unlubricated fuck.
Apparently satisfied, Vaxal calmed down and turned me back around by forcefully pushing on my shoulder. “The Exarch awaits. Do not test her patience.”
So on we went, out of the Garden Wing and into the Sky Wing, with all my willpower focused on keeping my mouth shut in the face of indomitable pain. At least now I didn’t have to worry about having to manually redirect my thoughts to hide my secrets—shit, I mean, what secrets? Distraction. Insert lengthy mental monologue about some trivial harmless subject here.
… Why am I never able to get into a lengthy mental monologue tangent when I really need one?
After ten or so more minutes of me trying to force my brain to come up with some random Era observation that I could riff on to keep myself occupied, we arrived at our destination. “We’re here,” Vaxal announced. Aw man, and I had just come up with a really good one! It was about cross-referencing word etymologies.
Maybe I’ll tell you about it later.
We were standing beside a large, bluish-gray door in a curved hallway. Vaxal opened it with magic and demanded I go inside.
“You’re not coming with me?” I said. I immediately regretted asking such an unauthorized question, but Vaxal didn’t seem to notice the transgression.
“The Cloud Chamber is for the sole use of the Exarch Virulesse and her admitted guests,” Vaxal recited, none too thrilled. Whoa, did that count as answering one of my questions? Vaxal must have been really peeved that there was a space he couldn’t be the Exarch’s lap dog in.
I walked into the room, opting to get out of Vaxal’s sight before he realized his mistake and punished me for it. What I saw inside nearly took my breath away.
The Cloud Chamber was a gigantic rotunda—both in breadth and height—on the same level as some buildings in their own right. It was like someone had taken a church’s interior, doubled it, and then transplanted it into the middle of the castle. It was a wide open space, and perfectly circular—the curve of the hallway outside was all due to it wrapping around this one huge room. I looked up, following the walls as they curved closer together, to where they should have met in a dome on top of the chamber—but swirling white clouds blocked my view of the center of the ceiling.
Swirling clouds! Indoors! That was when I realized I felt a surprisingly strong breeze blowing from my left to the right. And judging by the rotation of the clouds at the top of the room, that wind must have been blowing around the entire perimeter of the chamber. Well, if you can make a whirlpool out of water by walking around a circular pool enough, there was no reason you couldn’t use magic to do the same thing with air.
Virulesse was seated on the floor in the center of the chamber. No throne, no chairs, no furniture whatsoever. She smiled when she saw me. “Over here,” she called out. Her voice echoed disturbingly well in the spacious chamber. “Before you disturb the currents.”
I hurried to the center of the chamber as gracefully as I could. On Earth, I was never the one to break the currents in a whirlpool if I could help it. I sat down a few feet in front of Virulesse, not quite sure if that’s what she wanted. I relaxed a little when she didn’t protest.
She was leaning back, her legs stretched out in front of her, basking in the stillness of the air. Here in the middle of the vortex, you could hardly tell there was any vortex at all. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” she asked. “A perfect harmony of the atmospheric elements.” She pointed up at the puffy mass obscuring the ceiling. “There are scripts throughout the room that funnel its ambient energy into the eternal cyclone around us. Water gets pulled toward the center, as if drawn into a drain—and the Wind flows ever around.”
“It’s incredible,” I said.
“Once enough energy has been gathered—about once every five days or so—the cloud above us becomes a raging nimbus, and the final element is added: Lightning. Perhaps you can imagine, it’s a very unstable combination. That’s when the rest of the scripts activate. The excess energy is either vented into the sky, or stored in power wells for later use.” She closed her eyes and exhaled softly. “It’s not the most efficient way to charge Artifacts, but it sure beats having your Wizards standing around all day loading them up with Lightning.”
My mind was reeling trying to keep up. This was the most I had heard about Era’s magic system since I got here, and it was being info-dumped on me all at once. Elements, Artifacts, scripts—I tried to commit every detail of what Virulesse said to memory, knowing that I probably wouldn’t have time to think through the implications of it all until much later.
The moment strung along, spiraling down the drains of time just like all the water vapor in the room spiraled toward its center. Virulesse stared at me expectantly. “What, no sarcastic remarks? No shrewd followup questions?”
“What are we doing here?” I heard myself ask abruptly. My voice was steady, despite the continued throbbing in my hand. I had to remind myself I could handle it—I was a big girl; I could deal with a little pain until they let me see the healer. Virulesse wouldn’t let me suffer any permanent damage… Right?
The Exarch returned her gaze to the mists above us and smiled gently. “I often come to the Cloud Chamber to think—to meditate, if you will. Whenever I’m faced with a difficult problem and I need the serenity of nature’s balance to center myself. Whenever I need to adapt my methods in the face of an ever changing world.” She raised an arm, gesturing to nothing in particular. “Wind is the element of adaptation, after all. And when you stop being my little secret, the whole world is going to have to adapt to you.”
All thoughts of my swollen broken finger evaporated as the Exarch’s statement hit me like a metaphorical punch to the face. “What.”
Virulesse chuckled, and the echoes of her laughter rang out eerily in all directions. “Ashleigh, you’ve been on Era for four days now—surely by now you’ve realized your very existence here is going to shake the foundations of our world?”
“I’ve kind of had a lot on my mind recently,” I said. She was right; I was going to be a big deal when word got out about me—and I hadn’t given it an ounce of thought. Just daydreaming about System Sudoku and maybe finding a way to ascend to godhood. And on one night of comfortable weakness, about all the friends and family I had left behind.
“No doubt,” Virulesse said pompously. “Well, allow me to add to your plate.” She stood up, motioning for me to do the same and follow her. I didn’t have much choice but to obey—I was still a prisoner, here. I think.
As we walked toward the door, Virulesse continued to speak. “If you were in my position—one of the highest rulers in one of the most powerful kingdoms on the planet—and you found someone in your territory claiming to be from another world—a world where the laws of magic are either different or altogether nonexistent—what would you do with her?”
For once in my lives, I managed to think before I spoke. “I would lock her up as soon as possible, and not tell her anything at all about my world unless absolutely necessary. I wouldn’t know what kind of threat she would pose if she was able to combine her own world’s magic system with this one. But, that’s also exactly the knowledge I would want to gain from her. A path of power that no one else on my world would be able to combat.”
Virulesse smirked with a single corner of her mouth as we reached the edge of the room. “Is that what you think I’ve been doing?”
“If I asked anyone what you’ve been doing, would they be allowed to tell me?”
“Why don’t you ask and find out?” Virulesse said.
“… What have you been doing?”
Virulesse placed her hand on the door and opened it with a small thrust of energy. “Distracting you.” Vaxal stood on the other side of the door, menacingly tall in front of us, grinning with sadistic pleasure. Before I had time to comprehend what was going on, he reached for my throat—and latched a cold metal collar around my neck. As his hand fell back to his side, a crackling rope of red energy stretched down from my neck to his hand—a leash.
“What are you doing?!” I shrieked.
Vaxal flexed his hand and energy surged into me, filling my body with a brand new kind of agony. I fell to my knees, screaming. Vaxal jerked me back up.
“I’m doing what I wish I could have started days ago, if there weren’t so many prying eyes around,” Virulesse said, her voice overflowing with hungry passion. “It’s finally time for us to have our knowledge exchange.”
Crisp sunlight shone in through the open window. Mountainous wind howled outside, energized by the warmth of dawn. I sat at my desk, pen in hand and blank first page of my new journal in front of me—my soon-to-be My Time on Era So Far, By Ash Kyriakides. I took an exhilarated breath as I placed the tip of the pen on the paper. It was the moment I had long been waiting for. Okay, let’s do this.
I traced out the first stroke of the first letter and… nothing came out.
I lifted the pen, shook it around a bit, and tried again. Maybe its magical infinite ink reservoir was just jammed?
I pressed down harder on the paper this time, leaving an indented path in the pen’s wake—but still no ink. I kept trying to coax out the ink for the next few minutes, with the same disappointing results the whole way through.
ARGH! I threw the pen across the room in a flit of futile fury. Of course I shouldn’t have expected to be able to use a magic pen. I didn’t have magic, so I had no way to activate the pen for myself. I was so frustrated that I almost started laughing. This was the exact kind of bullshit that I had been dealing with ever since I woke up on Era, and I’d probably be dealing with it for the rest of my life.
Well, back to square zero. At least I could use the pen as a makeshift weapon, if I needed to stab someone. Guess I better go find where it landed.
As I was scrambling around the floor beside the bed looking for the infinitely useless pen/infinitesimally useful stake, the door to my room opened and someone in full Gray-Guard-esque knightly regalia walked in.
“Haven’t you ever heard of knocking?” I asked the helmeted stranger, not bothering to get up from the floor. If Virulesse thought she could barge in on me any time she wants, I’d have to teach her a thing or two about respecting my privacy. Aha—there it was, a couple inches under the bed.
“Ash! I’m so glad I found you,” a familiar voice said. Wait, was that…
The knight took off his helmet, revealing a boyish face I didn’t think I’d see again. “Boh?! What are you doing here?” Bohriam Sen fucking Kahl, my literal transdimensional hero, was standing in my doorway. I jumped up, hitting my head on the metal bed frame on the way. Ow.
“Nice to see you too,” Bohriam said with a sarcastic eye roll. “Obviously I’m here to rescue you. We should hurry; I don’t know when the next security shift is supposed to come by.”
“Wait—how did you find me? How did you get here so quickly?” Once again, I couldn’t help but indulge my desire for asking very ill-timed questions. Seriously, how was Bohriam able to catch up with us? Back in the palanquin, we had kept a very brisk travel pace, stopping only a few times a day. (For those playing at home, the only time-appropriate question here would have been “Yes sir, which way is out?”)
“I’ve been here for about a day already,” Bohriam said.
“After the Exarch left Gostrey, I took a waterhopper and went north up the river as fast as I could—until I could see this place in the mountain in the distance. Then I just cut across the wilderness and climbed the mountain and found a way to sneak in. As for how I found you once I got inside the castle, it was pretty easy—all the guards are wondering what the deal is with the Exarch’s new ‘pet.’”
Huh, so the river continued north after the lake on which Gostrey was built. That was pretty damn convenient for me now. Attaboy, Boh. “… You climbed the mountain?”
Bohriam shrugged, looking away bashfully. “I, uhh, have a lot of experience climbing mountains.”
… Whatever. I wasn’t going to keep looking this gift horse in the mouth—not when I could be riding it to freedom instead. “Okay then, Mr. Hotshot. You wanna be the Stormtrooper Luke to my captive Princess Leia? What’s the escape plan here? And please tell me you’re strong enough now to pull it off—I hope you’ve leveled up since I last saw you.”
“No, I’m still only Level 68—and maybe weaker than usual, since I used up a lot of my magic to power the waterhopper all the way here.”
Damn—it would have been nice if he was Level 69 now. (Shut up, I can be a little immature if I want. I’ve fucking earned it at this point.) “Not doing a lot to inspire confidence over here, Boh. But okay, I’ll take it. Even if it’s more of a gift pony than a gift horse.”
“What does that even—” Before Boh could finish his sentence, someone knocked on my closed door. Boh froze up, snapping his head to the door and clearly entering deer-in-the-headlights mode.
Hell no, I was not about to let my one escape strategy get himself captured before he was even able to tell me the plan. I grabbed his arm and pulled with enough force to knock him off balance. “Quick! Bathroom! Hide!” I whisper-shouted, pointing to my right at the small side room.
Bohriam understood and followed my cue, bounding out of sight just in time for the main room’s door to magically reveal itself once more, and open to the ungainly visage of Vaxal Brigyndir. He snarled at me as he walked into the room.
“Jeez, haven’t you ever heard of asking permission before entering?” I snarked. I glanced to my side, confirming that Bohriam had successfully evaded being seen—though he hadn’t been able to close the door behind him, so I really hoped he knew how to be quiet. “Although, now I know for sure you’re not a vampire, so thanks—that idea was really starting to bother me, what with all the growling and showing of teeth, so—”
“I have not the time nor patience for your drivel, Null-rank,” Vaxal barked. “The Exarch Virulesse demands your immediate presence in the Cloud Chamber. If you value your unscarred flesh, you will not keep her waiting.”
Welp. Okay. No more toying with the enforcer. “Yes sir,” I answered meekly. “Which way is the Cloud Chamber?”
Vaxal held up an arm to the open door in a clear “After you” gesture. I only hesitated for a second before nodding and slowly walking out in front of him.
It wasn’t that I didn’t know this was coming—last night Vaxal had practically promised that this was how it was going to go down. It was that there were suddenly so many more variables involved, and each one made the situation so much worse than the last. Once I was in the hallway I heard Vaxal slam the door shut behind us, and I mentally added one more variable to the pile.
“This way,” Vaxal said, and I dutifully followed him.
On the outside, I was a stone-faced mildly-frightened little girl—but on the inside, I was terrified out of my mind. I had just found out that my would-be hero was back, and now I was walking alongside a mind-reader who was probably itching for any excuse to blast my face off, toward an evil overlord who would probably gleefully dissect me in the pursuit of knowledge equals power, and the only thing I had to defend myself with was the worthless pen I had shoved into my pocket.
And to put a cherry on top of this whole rotten cake, Bohriam had taken my place as being locked in my room.
Virulesse was a dirty liar—basement or not, the interior of the castle of Stormwatcher’s Peak was gorgeous. From the moment we crossed the threshold of those bronze double doors, I was met with nonstop tableaus of rich, royal splendor.
The floors of the castle were covered in a repeating tile pattern, squares and diamonds and octagons in an endless sea of blood red and navy blue and vibrant marigold yellow. The walls and ceilings, where they weren’t covered with ornate tapestries and murals, seemed to be made of solid gold—which I didn’t believe for a second. There was no way this planet had that much gold lying around, even if Viskavia was the richest province in the land. Plus, solid gold was a terrible base for structural integrity—it had to just be gold plated or something.
People with lesser souls might think that such an exuberant display is gaudy. Even so, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the level of detail every step of the way—and I have a pretty legit cosmic soul, according to Seriphen, so my opinion must be right.
Virulesse can take her false modesty and shove it down Vaxal’s enforced anal sphincter.
As we walked the hallowed halls of the Provincial Estate (still in silence, because hell if I was going to admit out loud that I was impressed), I paid close attention to the murals painted on the ceilings and high walls. They mostly depicted epic battles, opposing armies on battlefields drenched in magical combat—a general in one painting leading the charge with a flaming sword; someone in another riding atop a tsunami in a T-pose with glowing eyes, in the moments before the flood eviscerated his enemies below.
I noticed some recurring characters in the murals, too—especially when it came to those prominent displays of elemental magic. Fire sword general was one of them, as was a woman whose main claim to fame was apparently in lifting entire mountains and throwing them at her opponents. I didn’t know whether all these paintings were supposed to be renditions of actual historical events, or stories from mythology, or a mix of both, or if they were just cool pieces of artwork.
At least there were no portraits of Virulesse herself. That would have been too gaudy even for me—though, I guess those would probably be closer to the throne room. (There had to be a throne room in here, right? Who ever heard of an Exarch without a throne?)
(Disregard the fact that you’ve probably also never heard of an Exarch with a throne.)
We were on the second floor now, or maybe the first non-basement floor, walking through an indoor arboretum. It was like a slice of the castle had been hollowed out and transformed into the Exarch’s personal rainforest.
“The Viskavian Exarchy is a recent acquisition by the Syndane family,” Virulesse monologued with pride. “So I haven’t had much time to give the Estate a personal touch yet. But the Garden…” She beamed as she admired a blue-leafed fern. “I made sure the Garden would be finished quickly.”
There were a couple groundskeepers on duty as we passed by, who were all too eager to drop their garden shears and… magic glowing hammers?… and abase themselves before their boss, proclaiming how glad they were that she was back, how they hoped she had a productive venture, and so on. For the life of me I couldn’t tell whether they were acting out of genuine adoration for their glorious leader or out of totalitarian fear. If it was the latter, then good job, guys—the act was totally believable.
It was like that for most other people we saw, too. An awkward bow of submission here, a stilted “All hail the honorable Exarch” there; and Virulesse seemed to neither notice nor care that there was this indeterminate tension running through all her underlings. But hey, I just got here—who am I to judge the workplace culture?
A duo of less agreeable people ran into us at a crossing of some hallways. The woman who led the pair was an old curmudgeonly type with a glare that could scare her wrinkles straight, if she ever looked in a mirror. The young man at her side seemed like he was only there to be eye candy and maybe to provide occasional physical labor.
“There you are!” the woman said. “We’ve been looking for you since we heard that the West Gate was accessed. We need your signature on a couple documents. The tax situation in Marsingale is throwing that whole sector’s budget into a hodgeracket—” She stopped mid-sentence upon realizing there was an unfamiliar face in the ensemble. She eyed me disdainfully. “Who’s this?”
Virulesse turned to me, sighing. “And this, my dear Ashleigh, is where we must part ways. My duties as governor beckon. Vaxal will show you to your room from here.”
Great, I was going to continue my tour of the Estate with the world’s most captivating tour guide. Maybe I could keep myself entertained by staring at his constantly-shifting armor until it gave me a headache. As if responding to my mental sarcasm, Vaxal grumbled under his breath. Hey, Vaxal, if you’re reading my mind, fuck you. He gave no further reaction. Well, fuck you anyway.
“But before we part ways for the night,” Virulesse said, “do you have any requests? Food, water… perhaps a change of clothes?”
I looked down at my Earth clothing—an old pair of jeans and a plain fuchsia T-shirt that I hadn’t changed out of in days. Yeah, I could go for a change of clothes right about now. But more importantly, Virulesse’s duties as Exarch reminded me of something that had been at the top of my list for a while. “Yes to all of the above. But also, could I have some paper and something to write with? Actually, make that a lot of paper.”
Virulesse studied me curiously, unsure of my motivation. I decided to push my luck with an explanation.
“We’re going to be science partners, right? Unlocking the mysteries of the universe? I’m going to need to be able to write down my thoughts—my observations—so I don’t have to keep it all in my head. So, paper and pen. And a ruler. And a protractor and drawing compass, if you have any lying around. Heck, just get me anything that looks vaguely scientific and I’ll find a way to use it.”
Virulesse relented with a shrug. “As you wish. I’ll have Mycan check the supply chambers and bring you what we have in stock.”
“Thank you,” I said with a slight nod of my head.
And without a second thought, Virulesse waved me and Vaxal away and turned back to the old woman. Vaxal grabbed me by the shoulder and pulled me along. “Follow me, Null-rank,” he growled. The harbingers stayed behind with the Exarch.
As we departed down the hall, I heard the old woman rasp her admonishment to Virulesse. “Science partner? What in the legacy of Skrayfin are you wasting your time on now?”
Virulesse’s reply was less than patient. “Harah, how many times do I have to tell you—if you can’t find me, always try the Transender?”
I couldn’t hear any more than that before we were out of earshot—but I was too excited to care. I was finally getting pencil and paper! Or pen and paper. I was getting a writing instrument and paper!!!
It had been such a dreadful experience, not being able to write anything down these past few days. No way to take notes, no way to archive thoughts for later—having to remember everything manually like I was some schmuck from the Dark Ages. But now I’d be getting my digital memory back (to a degree), and I could free up brain space for more important things.
Like figuring out a way to escape this clusterfuck I’d trapped myself in.
I was also delighted that Virulesse had agreed to the other items I requested. I didn’t actually need or want a protractor and compass—I’m not that nerdy. But compasses typically had a needle point at one of the ends, which gave them offensive stabbing power.
Okay, maybe I am that nerdy—I was starting my escape plan by arming myself with a goddamn weapon of math instruction.
A few minutes later, we arrived at what was to be my room. Vaxal opened the door with the same Crouching Magic, Hidden Doorway technique I had already seen plenty of other times. “You will stay here, in the Garden Wing,” he said through gritted teeth. “The Exarch will send for you in the morning—or whenever she so desires.”
I took my first steps into the room. “Got it—Virul will send you to fetch her new toy whenever she gets bored. Or maybe whenever she has nothing better for you to do.” I don’t know why I decided to antagonize Vaxal like that, but it was damn fun—especially since he couldn’t do much to retaliate. What was he going to do, scowl harder at me?
Vaxal scowled harder at me, snarled, and slammed the door shut in my face.
Heh. Totally worth it.
I gave a cursory look over my new room. Honestly, it was pretty nice—and big, too. It looked more like a fully equipped guest bedroom than a dungeon cell for a prisoner. A nice queen-sized bed, a full complement of furniture, a wide open window with a long view across the mountain… and a side room bathroom. Thank God—I’d be able to take a bath tonight.
I was still a prisoner, though. As expected, there was no knob on my side of the door. I was stuck in here until someone magically unlocked the room from the other side.
But for now, I was okay with that. It had been a long fucking day, and I was just happy to have a place to rest. A place I could be alone without being towed across the Viskavian wilderness. A place I could, for better or worse, call my home for the foreseeable future.
I fell onto the bed and let its cool embrace hold me until the night was at its peak.
There was a knock on the door. “Come in,” I shouted, but it was hardly necessary. Since when did a prisoner need to give permission for their warden to enter their cell?
I was sitting on the window ledge, leaning back against the wall. My right leg was curled up in front of me, with my left stretched out under the window. A gentle midnight breeze washed me with its chill as I watched the stars above.
The door opened, and someone stepped in. There was a pause for a few seconds before a male voice spoke. “I brought the supplies you requested,” he said uncertainly. “And some new clothes.”
I glanced over my shoulder at the intruder. It was one of the harbingers—the one with pink armor with silver highlights. His arms and hands were completely empty. “You’re not Mycan. Dammodel, right? Where are the—wait, nevermind. Hammerspace inventory.”
“Mycan had some other obligations to take care of,” Dammodel said. He materialized a neat stack of folded clothing, with what looked like a leather-bound tome and an old school metal pen on top. “We didn’t have some of the things you were looking for, but here’s an empty journal and a pen. Oh, and it’s a magic pen—it’ll never run out of ink.”
I smiled wistfully. “Thanks, you can just drop it on the desk over there. I’ll sort through it in the morning.” I went back to my stargazing, leaving Dammodel to do his duty.
After setting down the items, I heard him walk up beside me at the window. There was another long, unsure pause before he spoke again. “What are you looking at?”
I exhaled heavily. “You have constellations, right? Wait, never mind, you’re not allowed to answer that. Well, my world has them. Ancient cultures used to dream up myths around the shapes that the stars make.” I pointed into the sky, tracing out some imaginary outline. “Maybe one would look like a person holding a sword, and then people would wonder why the gods etched that legendary warrior into the night sky. Who was he? What did he do?
“Now we know it’s all just coincidental shapes. The stars in constellations aren’t even close together—they can be quadrillions of miles away from each other.”
I stopped, catching a glimpse of some bright colored lights on distant mountain peaks. I had seen them twice before now, but intervening clouds had kept them concealed for most of the night. I wondered if these were the same lights I had seen on my way to Gostrey—except these ones were purple, gray, and orange.
“It’s all just so big… My universe is at least 46 billion light years wide. I used to think that was unfathomably big. And it is, don’t get me wrong—but now… Now there’s this universe, too. And who knows how many more.” I looked back at Dammodel, who surprisingly enough was still listening attentively to my ramble. “Uhh, sorry about that. Didn’t mean to dump on ya.”
Dammodel shrugged. “It’s a big world. Personally, I like knowing that no matter how much of it I might see, there’ll always be more. But maybe that’s because I’m an Adventurer.”
You and me both, kid. Except I’m not an adventurer by choice, and I hate the prospect of Ultimate Knowledge being forever out of reach, and also you’re at least ten years my senior—but I appreciated the attempted empathy all the same.
I looked back out the window. “And then there’s the fucking moons! There’s no conceivable way their whole setup makes sense. Earth was already a big outlier for having such a large moon, and then Era has three of them? And their orbits! It’s utterly maddening.”
Standing next to me, Dammodel peered up at the three moons of Era. “We call them the Dancers. Because they’re constantly going back and forth between each other.” He pointed at them in succession. “Hira, Lira, and Shira. They trace out a figure-eight pattern, swapping places a couple times a night.”
A massive lightbulb went off inside my head. “I thought you weren’t supposed to answer any of my questions.”
Dammodel smiled. “This time, you didn’t ask.” He turned to leave, checking on the way to make sure that the supplies he had dropped off were still there. “She’s not all bad, you know,” he said at the door. “The Exarch Virulesse is… driven, in her own way. Searching for something that might not exist. Maybe it’s the same thing you’re looking for.”
I didn’t respond. He departed, and I was alone once again—with just my thoughts and the entire cosmos to keep me company. I looked up at the moons, those solemn specters of Era’s irrationality.
I pondered everything that Dammodel had said to me. It just so happened that a perfectly flat figure-eight was one of the few stable orbit shapes that solved the three-body problem.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret. If you’ve never tried to walk up a mile-long staircase, especially one that’s zigzaggingly carved out of the side of a cliff, don’t. A mile of stairs is about 99% of a mile too many. Especially when the steps are made of solid, rigid stone—your legs will be dead long before you ever reach the end. Trust me, that panoramic selfie you want to take at the summit isn’t worth it. Skip the climb and just photoshop yourself onto a postcard from the gift shop.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option for me this time.
The climb to Stormwatcher’s Peak was brutal. Over the course of hours, we ascended the zigs of the path, never able to see more than a couple hundred feet in front of us before the next zag spun us back directly overhead. It was like being stuck in one of those two-dimensional ant farms, except without a glass covering on one side. Gusts of wind occasionally scraped through our shallow cave, growing in frequency as we rose higher into the sky.
Our sunlight disappeared early in the day. That’s the thing about the sun setting on the other side of the mountain, plus being in the mountain. By mid-afternoon, the scraps of light that reached us from the west were barely enough to illuminate our path. By evening, we would have been in total darkness if not for the magic of Era.
“A little light, if you please?” Virulesse said in front of me.
Vaxal, at the head of our caravan, wordlessly manifested a fireball above his right hand. Behind me, the harbingers did the same. They held the fireballs in place, and for the rest of our journey we had those red-orange flames to guide us as DIY torchlights.
If I wasn’t so exhausted, I would have been jealous. Practical applications of magic would have been my bread and butter—if, you know, I had magic. Thanks for nothing, Seriphen.
So on we climbed, some unfathomable distance into the sky. I have no idea if it was actually a mile of stairs; it could have been a lot more or a lot less. I may as well be George R. R. Martin, for all the good I am at estimating distances.
I also didn’t know how much time had passed. Even if I could have seen it, I couldn’t go by the position of the sun in the sky, because I didn’t know how many hours were in a day on Era. Argh, so many pointless mysteries and never any way to solve them! I bet the Narnia kids never had to deal with this shit.
Oh, and if you’re wondering what happened to the palanquin, we didn’t just leave it at the base of the mountain. One of the harbingers stored it in her System-based inventory before we started our ascent. (Again, thanks for nothing Seriphen!)
There wasn’t much conversation on the way up. The harbingers occasionally entered into casual conversation with each other—nothing I could twist into new knowledge about the world or the System, just small talk about family members and, as far as I could tell, sports talk. One of them had a sister who recently got engaged, but the harbinger didn’t approve of the groom-to-be’s circle of friends, mainly because they spent far too much time watching something called skyball.
Vaxal and Virulesse stayed silent for the duration of the hike. I could only imagine that Virulesse was wearing a huge stoically-smug grin the entire time. Vaxal was probably just snarling at every rock that made him angry (which was probably all of them).
I guess it was new to me that the institution of marriage was a thing that existed here? Honestly, I couldn’t bring myself to care. That was the exact kind of social gossip that I would have done anything to avoid on Earth.
Except… I was trying to change myself for the better, wasn’t I? Second life, second chance. And I may be a total stuck-up loner, but even I know it’s objectively better to be friendly than to shun everyone around me. I’ve seen enough Disney movies to know that much, at least.
I turned my head to the harbingers behind me, careful not to lose my footing. If I tripped off the side and fell to my death, I would never forgive myself. “Pardon my ignorance, but what’s skyball?”
All three of the harbingers tensed, blatantly looking away from me and not saying a word. Uhh, what? It could have just been my underdeveloped social senses, but I could’ve sworn I felt an air of frustrated guilt emanating out from them.
Virulesse addressed me without turning around. “All your questions and more will be answered when we reach our destination.”
“Yeah, but like… you could also just answer that one now.”
It was one of the harbingers who replied. “We’ve been instructed not to answer any of your questions, no matter how innocent. Apologies.” He sounded like he genuinely meant it.
“Silence, Dammodel,” Virulesse snapped.
“Yes, Exarch,” the harbinger exclaimed, and he firmed up his stance and went back to dispassionate silence.
So that was Virulesse’s plan: asymmetric information warfare. To give me as little knowledge as she could about Era, its people, and its magic, so that I couldn’t gain any kind of advantage by combining it with my knowledge of Earth. And at the same time, she would probably be trying to extract as much intel about Earth out of me as possible, while making sure she always gave less in return.
It was a good strategy, if she was afraid I posed a threat if I knew too much—which meant she was afraid I could pose a threat if I knew too much. Whether it was true or not didn’t matter—Virulesse thought it might be true, which gave me an opening I could exploit. Especially when combined with one other critical fact: Virulesse didn’t know exactly how much I already knew about Era.
On the other hand, I knew exactly how much Virulesse knew about Earth: it was only what I had told her, that little bit in Gostrey and some other little bits during our brief palanquin conversations. So at least in that one small respect, I was operating at an advantage for once.
… Unless someone in the Exarch’s crew could extract knowledge directly from my brain without me knowing, perhaps via telepathy. Ugh, I was really starting to hate that one particular specter.
I knew I was making a lot of assumptions in all this information warfare strategizing, but they were mostly predicated on one thing: that Virulesse had chosen her strategy deliberately and rationally. Luckily, I had one good reason to believe she would have done exactly that: the Exarch Virulesse, no matter what else she might be, was a politician.
All my thoughts of metagaming the System to take over the world ceased when we reached an apparent dead end on our path. Ahead of us, instead of looping around as it had done so far, the staircase ended in a flat stone wall. I was only confused for a few seconds before Vaxal reached out and placed his hand on the wall.
Magical script symbols appeared on the wall, tracing out a rectangular frame of white glowing runes. A vertical crack of bright light split the rectangle in half, transforming it from a surface of nondescript stone into a pair of golden-bronze doors—like an illusion breaking and fading away into the true reality.
I knew that was going to happen; I figured it out just in time. Mostly.
I noticed that the doors didn’t have knobs or handles. Vaxal still had his palm resting on the shining bronze surface. With a small effort of magical manipulation, Vaxal gathered energy around his hand and, with a grunt of exertion, pushed it into the door. It wasn’t like he unleashed a gust of wind at it, or lightning, or any other kind of visual force. But I felt something rush through the air, slam into the doors, and push them open with a heavy groan. For lack of a better word, I’m just going to assume that ‘something’ was raw magical energy.
Virulesse stretched out her arms. “I know it’s only been a few days, but it’s so good to be back home—and with such a wonderful prize in tow.”
Vaxal growled his agreement. “Mycan, Lustrum, take hold of the prisoner before we enter the Estate.”
The harbingers came up on my sides, ready to grab me. I was about to object when Virulesse said, “That won’t be necessary.”
Vaxal came the closest to surprise I had ever seen him. “But, Exarch—”
“Our friend Ash has had plenty of opportunities to run away from us, and she has chosen to stay by our side every time. Surely she can be trusted to walk within the Estate freely.”
I did? Uhh, I mean, of course I did, and I shouldn’t give them any reason to think otherwise. “Thank you,” I said as neutrally as I could muster.
Vaxal breathed out a sigh of utter discontent. “As you command, I enforce.” He motioned for the harbingers to step back. They did.
“Well, let’s not wait out here any longer,” Virulesse said. “It’s getting cold, and I’m sure we could all use a rest.” Then to me, she added, “Don’t be too disappointed if the Estate doesn’t live up to your expectations at first glance. We are going in through the basement, after all.”
I merely nodded and let Virulesse lead the way through the glowing doors of bronze. My thoughts were elsewhere entirely. I had missed a legitimate chance to escape? Or Virulesse was bluffing and only wanted me to think I had? And she called me Ash this time—she said I was a friend. Shit, there were some real mind games going on right now, and I had no idea how deep they went.