URGY Serial

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

Beginning of an Era – Chapter 18

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.

Characters: Ash, Virulesse, Harah, Vaxal, Dammodel

Beginning of an Era – Chapter 17

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.

Fuckin’ politicians, am I right?

Characters: Ash, Virulesse, Vaxal, Dammodel, Mycan, Lustrum

Beginning of an Era – Chapter 16

Over the next day and a half I had a hell of a lot of time to myself to think, so that’s exactly what I did. Brainstorming. Hypothesizing. Planning escape routes. Poring over every single thing I had seen and heard since waking up in Seriphen’s realm, in an attempt to figure out as many of the blanks in the Seven Sevens Sudoku as I could.

Long story short: I came up blank.

I just couldn’t do it. I saw no way out of this mess. I couldn’t figure out a viable way to escape the Exarch and her ‘harbingers’ without knowing exactly what they were capable of, and I couldn’t figure out what they were capable of without knowing a whole lot more about the System and their levels of advancement within it. Either I didn’t have enough pieces for this puzzle, or I just wasn’t smart enough to be able to put them together in a useful way.

My captors weren’t needlessly cruel, at least. They fed me when I was hungry, gave me water when I was thirsty, and made pit stops every so often so I could take care of other biological necessities. It wasn’t glamorous—but if there was one thing Seriphen had unwittingly turned me into, it was a survivor. I could deal. For now.

For a little while, every time I was presented with a new kind of food, I was hesitant to try it. There’s this concept in molecular chemistry called chirality—which is basically about how, if a molecule is a certain kind of asymmetric, it’ll have a left-hand version and a right-hand version. Maybe its individual atoms will be in a slightly different order (thumb-finger-finger, as opposed to finger-finger-thumb) or it’ll have some other angle that can’t be flipped mirrorways. But the point is, because of that non-flippability, the left-hand versions and the right-hand versions will have different chemical properties.

Now, leveling up from chem to biochem, most amino acids are chiral molecules—and all life on Earth uses the left-hand versions of them. There’s no special reason why. It just so happens that, when the left and right hands were thumb wrestling over the future of the primordial soup, the left hand won. Theorists with nothing better to do often wonder if life on other planets could have evolved the opposite way.

But if it did, it’s good that it’s so far away from Earth—because opposite chirality and its different chemical reactions mean that right-handed amino acids are incompatible with humans. A right-hand apple in the mouth of a left-hand Eve has the potential to be completely lethal—or at least, it won’t provide any nutrients her body can digest.

There was the slimmest of possibilities that life on Era was right-handed—and that gave me pause. How would I know if this strange meat was safe to eat without looking at it under a microscope? I couldn’t. All I could do was pray that if humans were able to evolve here, that they were the same kind of humans I was used to dealing with.

Also, there was the fact that I had eaten last night and I hadn’t disintegrated yet. Maybe all that paranoia was for nothing.

I did manage to come to some insights about my predicament, scattered though they were. In all likelihood, Virulesse didn’t have the same all-seeing eye of truth as Elder Hammond. Back in Gostrey, she had to turn to Vaxal for confirmation of my wild story. And again on the trail to her Estate, she spoke of consulting some higher ‘authority.’ It wasn’t an ironclad deduction, but in these circumstances I’d take all the circumstantial evidence I could get.

So, Vaxal the enforcer had access to abilities that Virulesse the Exarch did not. What did that mean? Was Vaxal a higher Rank than Virulesse? A higher Level? Or maybe just a different Class? Argh, I knew nothing about Classes yet, except that they existed. And that maybe there were seven of them.

I was starting to regret not letting Boh correct me in my speculation on our way to the library. That was definitely a blunder, in retrospect.

The palanquin came to a sudden, silent stop. With a now-familiar glow of symbols and a vertical crack dissolving into reality, the wall opened out into Vaxal’s savage sneer. “We’re here,” he growled, and he turned around expecting me to follow him. Hey man, you don’t need to tell me twice. I was resoundingly eager to leave that cramped box behind and stretch my legs before setting eyes on my next Provincial Prison.

I jumped down from the palanquin, finally putting to good use all my experience with school bus back door fire drills. I followed Vaxal around to the front of the palanquin, where Virulesse and the others were already waiting. Virulesse looked at me expectantly, eager to see my first reaction to her Estate. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what kind of reaction to give her. Because looking past Virulesse and her harbingers, all I saw was…

A cliff.

A great big wall of slatey gray rock, painstakingly carved out of the mountain. On our left and right sides, hundreds of feet away, I could see where the true slopes of the mountain chain began, making it even more clear that the wide flat crater we were standing in had been literally excavated out from the mountainside.

“Well?” Virulesse said.

“Uhh… It’s a very nice… wall, you got there. Really ties together the whole mountain basin aesthetic.” Not gonna lie, I really expected a palace. Or at least a capitol building.

Virulesse sighed, firmly pressing her fingers to her forehead with her eyes closed. “Look up, genius.”

I did as the Exarch ordered, and… Oh my god.

Hundreds of feet up in the air, there was a palace built into the side of the mountain. It was like something straight out of Middle Earth. It spanned for hundreds of feet, sticking out of the cliff face more than I would have thought was structurally possible—towers and castle spires clawing their way into the sky like tree limbs reaching for the sun. At the right time of evening, the shadow cast by that colossus must have been monstrous.

It was the kind of megastructure that would have taken a lifetime to build for most of Earth’s history—but who knows how long it would’ve taken on Era with magic? One of the fields of magic that Bohriam had mentioned on our way to Gostrey was ‘gravitational plane manipulation.’ I didn’t know what a gravitational ‘plane’ was, but looking at this structure and its halfway-Lovecraftian architecture, I had a feeling that this might be an example of it.

A satisfied smile crept across Virulesse’s face. “I suppose you don’t have anything like this on Earth, considering your tragic lack of access to magic.”

Interesting. I hadn’t quite considered the possibility that magic also existed on Earth but that none of its inhabitants had access to it. But I quickly realized that idea was just as unfalsifiable right now as my Neat Idea #1, and I pushed it out of my mind. “Ehh,” I said casually with a shrug of the shoulders, “we’ve got a few mountaintop castles. But this… Okay, I’ll admit it, this is pretty cool.”

“Just wait,” Virulesse laughed. She turned to one of the harbingers, the one with blue armor with silver trimmings. “Mycan, would you like to do the honors this time?”

Mycan nodded and stepped in front of the party. He took a couple slow, very deep breaths, with his arms spread a little bit from his body. Energy gathered around him, crackling in the air like lightning caught in a whirlpool. It spun around him, gaining speed and luminosity until the man was nearly unrecognizable behind a blurring, thrumming vortex.

Then in a motion so smooth I could barely see it, he stood up straight and brought his arms as far apart as possible—and for a single second, all the lightning froze in place around him. It was like time stood still. A hundred tangled bolts of lightning hung in the air like in a painting.

And just as quickly, it was over. Mycan brought his arms and fists forward, and with a scream he launched all the lightning at the cliff face. Each bolt roared through the air and slammed against a different section of the cliff, blasting out rock—no, not out, in—pushing massive swathes of the cliff face deeper into the mountain, with a level of force I couldn’t even begin to imagine.

Smoke and dust were everywhere. The air itself smelled like blackened charcoal. When  the aftermath of the one-man hurricane cleared away, I could see exactly what Mycan had done to the mountain. From ground level all the way up to the base of the palace, a hidden stairway had been revealed, winding left and right all the way up the cliff face. Holy shit.

Virulesse seemed pleased by my slack-jawed reaction. “Ashleigh Kyriakides, I welcome you to the heart of Viskavia—Stormwatcher’s Peak.”

Characters: Ash, Vaxal, Virulesse, Mycan

Beginning of an Era – Chapter 15

When I woke up, I had a seething headache and a bruise the size of a baby watermelon on the back of my head. Where was I? How did I get here? My brain was so full of fog that I could barely see. As my thoughts cleared and my vision unblurred, full consciousness returned to me, one languid synapse at a time.

I was half-lying down on a cushioned seat, my legs hanging limply toward the floor. I pushed myself into an upright position, discovering several more aching muscles in the process. What the fuck, did I lose a fight with a mechanical bull? There was another seat across from me, with the same velvety cushioning and silver-brown embroidery that couched my own worthless ass. And though it was empty, it didn’t take me much longer to realize who that seat was meant for.

There was a constant back-and-forth swaying motion as the floating palanquin I was in was pulled away from Gostrey.

I took a deep breath, holding it in for a solid ten seconds before letting it out in a big huff of warm air. Okay, Ash, this was no time to panic. It might look like you’re being carted off to who-knows-where as the Exarch’s newest sacrificial lamb, but…

… But… That’s exactly what was happening. Shit, what had I gotten myself into?

Despite all the inherent awfulness of the situation, I couldn’t help but laugh. My second life was turning out to be a real roller coaster of fuck-uppery so far. I almost wished I was the kind of girl to keep a journal, because a diary of this shitshow of a reincarnation would have been comedy gold.

My time on Era so far, by Ash Kyriakides:

Day 1: Narrowly avoided death, twice, by running away really hard.

Day 2: Sold into slavery.

I really should have put more effort into finding a pen and paper back when I had the chance. Writing out my List of Things to Find Out and my hypotheses on Era’s physics system were still the top things on my To-Do List, in case you were wondering.

Oh well. At least Bohriam and the rest of Gostrey would be safe now, if Virulesse was a woman of her word. I couldn’t even blame Elder Hammond for turning me over, considering what was at stake. His duty was to his people, and I was just… just an outsider. As ashamed as I am to think it, I don’t know if I would have done any differently in his shoes.

Also, he did say he was sorry.

Man, I fucked up on so many levels. I woke up on Era in the middle of a blood-soaked battlefield after some kind of rebellion, and I never thought to ask anyone why they were having a rebellion in the first place. Way to miss the forest for the trees, Ash. I was so caught up on dumb things like the name of the planet that I forgot to ask, “Hey, are there going to be consequences for that failed attempt to fight for your freedom???”

Maybe you can forgive me for being overwhelmed by all the other things that were going on at the time—but I can’t. My tunnel vision over System mechanics and multiversal lore almost got me killed.

And that’s when I realized what I had almost done in Gostrey. And I screamed.

Do or die. Those were the exact words that had run through my mind when I threw myself into the line of fire in front of Boh. I knew it was reckless, I knew it was reckless enough to get me killed—and I was okay with that.

My body was shaking and I was fighting back tears. Oh God, I came so close to—I had nearly decided on a whim that life on this planet wasn’t worth living. That oblivion would be preferable to whatever evils Gostrey struggled to liberate itself from.

No. No, no, no. I couldn’t let myself think that way. It didn’t matter that I watched Virulesse incinerate a random bystander just to make a point. It didn’t matter that Vaxal was enjoying the devastation he wrought upon Andreon. It didn’t matter how sick this world’s monsters were, because it would NEVER be better to let myself die. It couldn’t be.

I clung to my legs in fetal position, trembling, whimpering out my self-disgust until I was as hollow as the sobs themselves. I couldn’t let that happen again. I could never let myself become that close to being suicidal. Not after—

Not after everything I had been through on Earth.

A circuit diagram of runic symbols began glowing on the wall to my left. The wall opened up, revealing itself to have been a door all along—and revealing the Exarch Virulesse herself, wearing a smile that wasn’t nearly as comforting as she thought it was. It barely reached her eyes. “Shh shh shh… Hush now, my dear; it’s all right. You’re safe with me.”

My mind whirled in a dozen different directions. Oh god, I was displaying weakness. What would these psychopaths do to someone they thought was so far beneath them in power? I had to regain control of myself. Divert their attention. I buried my emotions back into the dark trenches of my soul where they belonged. “Where are we going?” I said it as dispassionately as I could.

All I could see out the door behind the Exarch was the dirt path we were on, a wide grassy plain, and a mountain range in the distance. It looked like the same snow-capped mountain range I had seen yesterday, although not the same peaks—so we were probably going north.

If Virulesse was surprised by my quick turnaround in character, she didn’t let it show. “To the Provincial Estate, of course.” She climbed into the palanquin and sat down across from me. “It’s about a day’s ride north of here.” She crossed her legs and let herself sink back into her seat, confident that I posed no threat to her. She smirked. “I do hope you don’t get motion sick.”

The door closed on its own, and the palanquin resumed its steady forward movement. The only light in the space filtered in through the wide glass-covered sunroof above.

“Unless this thing can go ten times faster, I don’t.” I hadn’t expected her to be so forthcoming about where we were going. My inner cynic quickly rationalized it as meaning Virulesse thought there was zero chance I could escape. Considering it took magic I didn’t have to even create a door in this thing, she was probably right. “And what will happen once we get there? Forgive my ignorance; this is my first time acting as a political prisoner.” Shit, no—don’t remind her she has power over me!

“Political prisoner?” Virulesse laughed mirthlessly. “Heavens, no! You’re to be my guest—and soon enough, hopefully my teacher.”

Wait, what? “Wait, what?”

“If what you claimed about yourself in Gostrey is true… And I have it on good authority that it is… Then you might be one of the most important people on the planet.”

“Whoa there,” I said. “I’m already pretty full of myself—it’s probably not a good idea to go encouraging me.”

“I want to learn from you,” Virulesse said. “The things you must know… Secrets about our cosmos that the rest of this planet’s people are too simple-minded to care about. The deeper truths behind the fundamental physics of the System. The secrets of your world and my own…”

Fuck. The one thing that could truly seduce me to the dark side. “I want to learn those things too… But I hate to rain on your parade, but I’ve only been on Era for a single day. I don’t even know yet what Rank comes after Iron.”

“Then perhaps we can learn together.”

It was hard to say no when my obvious evil counterpart was offering me everything I had been looking for. Lucky for me, it was just as easy to say nothing at all.

Virulesse raised her hand to my face. This time, I didn’t flinch away. She gently lifted my chin and turned my head to the side. “Remarkable… You look just like the people of this world. Are you even human?”

I swiveled my head away from her delicate grasp. “I’m just as human as every other person on my original world. Although, maybe we both just call ourselves human but we’re actually completely different species. It’d be hard to tell without some kind of interbreeding program—which, please, no.” There I went again, incepting terrible ideas into Virulesse’s mind. That one had to be at least a three-pointer.

“I would not thrust you into such circumstances if you didn’t desire it,” Virulesse replied. “Like I said, you’re safe with me.”

Her loaded phrasing didn’t exactly inspire confidence in me.

Virulesse continued. “Though it is quite curious that your people call themselves humans as well… And that we even speak the same language. How is it that you were able to learn Beleric in less than a day?”

“Oh, that’s actually the one secret of the multiverse I’ve been able to figure out so far. There’s this thing called the collective psychic subconscious, where older worlds are more in tune with the greater multiverse. When I got here, I was confused by how everyone here was speaking English—that’s my world’s name for this language—until I remembered the collective psychic subconscious. My hypothesis is, the older a world is, the more likely it is to share its languages and cultural components with other old worlds.”

In stating out the epochal Hypothesis #1 for the first time, I realized it led to some delightful cosmic questions I had been overlooking so far. Like, worlds had different ages? Did that mean Time was a thing that existed inside universes and outside them, so that their relative ages could be compared? I didn’t even want to begin trying to comprehend whether Einstein’s theory of relativity made sense in that regime. And yet… fuck yeah, yes I fucking did.

An overhead cloud blocked out the sun and thus also most of our light.

“An intriguing idea,” Virulesse said, putting a finger to her chin in thought. “And a terrible hypothesis.”

“What? Why?”

“Do you have a way to travel to other worlds on command to compare them?”

I scoffed. “Hardly. That may as well be impossible, from what I know.”

“Then your hypothesis is unfalsifiable, and therefore pointless,” Virulesse said. “After all, experimentation is one of the central pillars of scientific conquest. What good is a hypothesis if it cannot be tested?”

“Huh. You’re… absolutely right.” Ugh, how had I missed something so trivial? Hypothesis #1 didn’t have any real explanatory power; it was just handwavy post hoc theorizing at best. I felt like an idiot, even more so than usual. Even if the idea behind it was true—which I still thought it was—it was barely deserving of the label ‘hypothesis.’ And as a scientist, labels mattered. “Although, I’m glad to hear that people on Era know how to do proper science.”

“I should certainly hope so; I studied for two years at the University of Thannica. I’d hate to find out all that was for nothing.”

Two years didn’t sound like a lot to me, but Virulesse said it with a distinctly braggartly tone. Note to self: find out where Thannica was. That was probably where I wanted to be eventually.

The palanquin came to a stop once more. Virulesse placed her palm on the wall, feeding energy into the runes to open a hidden door. She jumped back outside. “I think I’m going to walk with my harbingers the rest of the way. It isn’t often that I let myself enjoy the natural beauty of the Viskavian countryside.”

She was halfway to closing the door on me when I interrupted her. “Wait. You say I’m going to be your guest at the Provincial Estate. Does that mean I’ll be able to leave of my own free will?”

The Exarch chuckled softly. “Of course not. We wouldn’t want your knowledge to fall into the wrong hands, now, would we?” She closed the door and it sealed itself nonexistent.

No, I thought to myself in the darkness. I suppose we wouldn’t.

Characters: Ash, Virulesse

Beginning of an Era – Chapter 14

“What do we have here?” Virulesse said. “How peculiar… A Stone-rank at your age?”

Oh shit. Oh fucking shit. It was bad enough when I thought she was going to murder Elder Hammond right in front of everyone, but now she was standing mere feet away from me, all her attention on the one person she would probably want to kill even more.

Bohriam, for his part, was scared fucking stiff and speechless. All things considered, that was probably for the best.

“Who is this boy?” Virulesse asked no one in particular—and therefore probably everyone. “Is he… What’s the politically correct way of saying this… Mentally capable?”

Boh stuttered out his rehearsed response. “M-my name is Bohriam Sen Kahl. From the Kahl branch of the Sen family line. I’m a Level Sixty-sev—Sixty-eight Stone-rank and my—”

Elder Hammond spoke up. “He’s a good lad, as capable as any of us—though he’s been tasked with a rather unique Personal Quest—”

Virulesse glared. Without breaking eye contact with Bohriam, she raised an arm and pointed her open palm to the side. Wordlessly, she launched a fireball that instantly incinerated a random Gostreyan who had been watching from another part of the crowd. Dozens screamed and scrambled away from the smouldering ash of what used to be their neighbor. Virulesse spoke loud enough to cut through the horror. “Do not interrupt us, Renegade Hammond. We are having a conversation.”

Fuck. Holy fuck. She just killed someone just because Elder Hammond interrupted her. This woman wasn’t just an evil overlord—she was batshit insane. And yet, I was pretty sure she conveyed to everyone exactly the message she was trying to send.

The Exarch returned her full attention to Bohriam. “Are you not strong enough to ascend?” She had none of the cold-blooded fury that she had worn a few seconds ago. Instead, she watched Bohriam with casual curiosity. “Even as a Stone, at Level 68 you must have seen plenty of combat, won plenty of fights… In fact, you might even have been a useful addition to that pathetic army Gostrey called its ‘Aegis’.”

Fuck. If this conversation went on for even one more sentence, there was little chance of Boh making it out alive. Not in a world of magic truth-easing and lie detector eyes. Did Virulesse have that ability? Was she already using it? No, that didn’t matter—Vaxal had it too. If she wanted, she could just have Vaxal pull the truth right out of him.

But this was also a world of evil magical tyrants and ruthlessness I couldn’t imagine. Could I really survive here for long without Boh? Did I even want to? Maybe it was time for a little do or die action on my part. Before I had time to talk myself out of it, I took a small step forward. “Hey! If you think a Stone-rank at his age is crazy, you should check me out!”

“Ash, what are you doing?!” Boh said.

I half-expected Virulesse to swat me away like a gnat and for my swatted head to snap right off its neck and go flying down the street—but instead she glanced sideways at me, her monocle faintly glowing as her eyes slowly widened.

“Fascinating…” Virulesse breathed. Her lips parted into a mesmerized smile as she studied me. “You’re not registering on my Inspection Oracle at all… Even the Godlight Guardians aren’t strong enough to do that…”

I nodded proudly, hiding all my terror behind a smile of imaginary confidence. “That’s right; I may as well be invisible. But the thing is, I’m even weaker than Boh here.” Thank you, Grennick the Gray Guardsman, for giving me at least this piece of intel I could work with. The rest, for worse or worse, was up to me.

Ash,” Boh warned again, but Virulesse ignored him.

“What are you?” she asked.

“I’m nothing,” I said. “I don’t have the Seven Sevens System. I’m a Null-rank.”

At that point I noticed Elder Hammond in the background calmly and quietly directing other Gostreyans out of the plaza. Good. At least someone here was a responsible adult. What I was doing was just as likely to get everyone here killed as it was to distract Virulesse from any one person. What was I thinking? What was my endgame here? Focus, Ash. What am I doing, so I can do it most effectively?

Elder Hammond. I was giving Elder Hammond time to come up with a real plan. To get his people out of the danger zone, to hopefully distract the Exarch from me and Boh as well. I had to hope he would be on my side—because I sure wasn’t doing myself any fucking favors.

Incredible,” Virulesse said, filled with wonder. “I’ve never heard of such a thing being possible. And yet…” She turned to look at Vaxal, who was standing next to the empty palanquin with his arms crossed, an expression of impatient disdain on his face. He gave the Exarch a slight nod. She turned back to me. “… I believe you. What’s your name?”

“My name is Ashleigh Kyriakides. But my friends call me Ash.”

Virulesse smirked. “And what should I call you?”

Gulp. I bowed my head. “You can call me whatever you want, honorable Exarch.”

She laughed. It took most of my willpower to not nervously join in the laughter—I was pretty sure if I did that, I was a goner for sure. Instead I held my ground, tense like I never was before, hoping to God—or maybe to Magann—that I wasn’t making an utter fool of myself.

“I can tell from your name that you’re not a native Viskavian,” Virulesse said. “Denalythe, perhaps? Or maybe Austerdane?”

Yes, good, conversation. I just had to keep Virulesse’s attention long enough for Bohriam to realize he should be getting out of here! God damn it, Boh! Read the room! At least half of the former crowd had dispersed at Elder Hammond’s silent instructions, but Boh seemed to be painfully oblivious to it. That just meant I would have to keep Virulesse’s attention away from him even longer.

(… Of course my first boss fight in a fantasy world would be to prolong a casual conversation. God, I was not prepared for this.)

“Neither of those,” I said. “You probably haven’t heard of the place I’m from.”

“Is that so?” Virulesse chuckled. “Try me—I’m well versed in global politics.”

“Uh… Hoboken, New Jersey?”

Virulesse raised her eyebrows, clearly surprised to be met with a location she hadn’t heard of. “Where on Era is that?” she asked rhetorically. Of course people would still rhetorically ask that.

“It’s… not.”

“What?”

“It’s… not on Era,” I said. “It’s on another world… I’m from another world.”

Virulesse stared at me in a mixture of confusion and shock for a long few seconds. She whipped her head around to Vaxal, who had dropped the veneer of displeasure and was staring at me with the same level of shock and disbelief. Virulesse returned her gaze to me, and I watched her expression morph as she processed my revelation—from astonishment, to excitement, to primal sadistic glee.

“Renegade Hammond,” she called out without breaking eye contact with me. “I believe I’ve found an arrangement you would be amenable to.”

Hammond was standing near Vaxal, one of the only Gostreyans left out of what had recently been a sizable crowd of onlookers. “Your will is mine, honorable Exarch.”

“I will spare this town and all its inhabitants,” Virulesse said. “I will forget your little rebellion ever happened and never come back… in exchange for the Null-rank.”

Uhh. Shit. Beside me, Bohriam tensed.

Elder Hammond bowed his head to the Exarch. “Gostrey graciously accepts your mercy. I am sorry, Ashleigh Kyriakides.”

Fuck. No. I didn’t want to get Virulesse’s attention that hard. She took a step toward me, reaching a hand up to my face, and I stepped back. “Um, do I get any say in this?”

Virulesse kept walking toward me. “My dear, we are going to learn so much from each other…”

Yeah, like how to be an evil overlord’s plaything. No thanks. “I am a big fan of learning… But on the other hand—” I spun around on my feet and ran away as fast as I could.

God, I fucked that up. Why did I say anything at all about where I’m from? Now I was on the radar of the goddamn evil empire, and I was powerless to do anything about it. But hell if I was going to let them catch me without a fight—as futile as I knew it was.

“Ash, no!” Bohriam shouted.

Behind me, I heard Virulesse chuckle gently. “Vaxal?”

The last thing I heard was Bohriam frantically shouting “Ash!” as something flew at me at lightning fast speed. I don’t know whether it was a weapon, an energy attack, or Vaxal himself—but it hit me before I could make it halfway down the street, and the world quickly faded to black.

Characters: Ash, Bohriam, Virulesse, Hammond, a cloud of human shaped ash

Beginning of an Era – Chapter 13

As most other people ran away from the fiery explosion and the ensuing whirlwind of flaming debris, Bohriam ran headlong into it—the perfect picturesque caricature of a stupid superhero thinking only of rescuing others before himself. Or at least, that’s what I assumed was going through his pure naive heart. Maybe he had just completely lost his mind. And maybe I had too—because I was chasing after him.

Gee, you’d think I hadn’t been paying any attention when Bohriam told me to steer clear of danger like my life depended on it.

The street around the destroyed building was covered in a cloud of thick gray smoke, obscuring visibility more than a few feet. Not slowing down his sprint at all, Bohriam manifested a shirt out of his inventory and held the cloth covering over his mouth and nose.

I hid my face behind the crook of my elbow. “Bohriam, don’t!” But what was I telling him not to do? Run head first into the danger? I still knew fuck-all about what was dangerous on this world. Oh shit—could there be asbestos in this debris?

A huge gust of wind burst forth from the center of the street, emanating out in all directions, blowing away all the smoke and haze. I shielded my eyes with my arm until the tempest died down.

Standing in the middle of the street where the burst of wind had come from was a tall man with ghoulishly pale skin. Armor covered his body from his neck down, bumps and spikes on its surface constantly shifting like it was made of 4-dimensional liquid metal. Behind him stood three other blatant anime villains, with a floating palanquin in the middle of the group, its interior hidden behind a closed door.

The tall man’s arm was raised high, holding a spherical, cracked, glowing stone reminiscent of the phos-rocks I had seen last night. The other hand, he had wrapped around the skull of a Gostreyan man hanging limply in front of him.

The tall man spoke with a deep, naturally hoarse voice. “Do you still wish to defend your home, gosling?”

The Gostreyan stuttered out a “N-n-no sir!” The tall man released his armored-clawed grip on the Gostreyan’s skull. The Gostreyan fell to his hands and knees, groveling.

The cracks in the tall man’s stone orb deepened and he unmanifested it into his inventory. He looked out over the edges of the street. A small crowd had gathered around the scene. I took an instinctive half-step back—this was someone I did not want to mess with. My Olympian snark would probably get me killed in a matter of seconds.

The tall man’s voice boomed as he addressed the crowd. “People of Gostrey! I am Vaxal Brigyndir, enforcer of the will of the Exarch Virulesse, the lawfully appointed ruler of the province of Viskavia. Your little rebellion has failed! I announce the presence of the Exarch herself, Virulesse Syndane, here to judge this town for its treason against Beleria!” He gestured to the floating palanquin, whose occupant was notably not getting involved yet.

“Anyone who stands in our way will be annihilated,” Vaxal thundered. “Now, direct us to your Council of Elders, and the path of destruction we carve into your streets will be gentle.”

Damn, that guy stole my “take me to your leader” chance!

Also, shit, it was the fuzz, we were all gonna die.

On my left, Bohriam hadn’t moved since the tall man—Vaxal—had started speaking. Good. As a member of the Gostrey Aegis—the only remaining member—the Exarch and her entourage probably wouldn’t think twice about killing Boh on the spot if they noticed him and realized who he was, no matter how small a role he played in yesterday’s battle itself. Judging by how Boh was trembling in fear, he was probably thinking roughly the same thing.

A shout came from elsewhere in the street. “Murderers!” Andreon, the spoiled brat from last night, ran screaming through the crowd into the wide clearing around Vaxal and his accomplices. “Gray Guard scum!” He manifested a curved dagger of blue steel into his hand, pointing it at Vaxal. “I’m going to kill you for what you did to Jonakan!” He charged at Vaxal with full superhuman speed.

The ends of Vaxal’s mouth raised into a grin as Andreon closed the distance. Shifting into a fighting stance, he drew back his fist in preparation for a full power punch.

Andreon reached Vaxal and stabbed the dagger forward—and almost faster than I could comprehend, Vaxal’s arm thrust out, leaving a trail of red sparks and flame in its wake. Vaxal’s palm met Andreon’s face, his fingers wrapping around Andreon’s head. It was like Andreon hit a brick wall. In that single unseeable instant, all of Andreon’s forward momentum was cancelled. A shock wave of scalding wind followed the path of Vaxal’s outstretched arm, with Andreon’s skull its epicenter.

Vaxal grabbed Andreon’s dagger in his left hand while Andreon recoiled in place from the palm strike. The dagger was so small in Vaxal’s giant gauntlet that it looked more like a toy than a weapon. Vaxal held the blue blade casually between his middle finger and thumb. Then he snapped his fingers—and the blade cracked in half like glass.

Andreon manifested another weapon—a smaller dagger, it looked like, maybe a knife—and he jammed it into Vaxal’s wrist. The attack caught Vaxal by just enough surprise that he let his grip on Andreon falter. Andreon gracefully dropped to the ground, and sprung immediately forward into an attack at waist level.

Vaxal reacted to the attack just in the nick of time, jumping to the side as Andreon slashed through empty space. “I’m not Gray Guard,” Vaxal said. “But I am the one who hired them.”

“They killed my brother!” Andreon spat.

“Then perhaps they deserve a bonus!”

Andreon screamed, running forward with nothing but his fists and a fuckton of fury.

Vaxal tore the knife out of his wrist and threw it at the ground with enough force to embed it in the stone of the road. He dodged Andreon’s volley of jabs effortlessly, moving his bulky frame with a speed and control I couldn’t imagine. As fast and furious as Andreon was, he wasn’t landing a single blow.

“Enough of this!” Vaxal said, and he stopped trying to dodge. Andreon connected with a punch to the chest powerful enough to sound like a sonic boom. Vaxal didn’t even move.

In a blink, Vaxal brought his hand up, grabbing Andreon under the chin and lifting him a foot in the air. Both of Vaxal’s eyes began to glow a blinding bright white. “What do you most fear?

Struggling against Vaxal’s grasp, Andreon couldn’t look away from Vaxal’s blinding eyes. Andreon’s own eyes began to glow just as fervently.

Living with humiliation?” Vaxal laughed. “You’ll get no such honor from me.” He threw Andreon into a nearby building with enough force to send Andreon straight through the wall.

Vaxal crouched, preparing to jump after Andreon to continue the fight (and probably leave a crater where he stood in the process), when a new voice rang out from inside the palanquin. “That’s enough, my dear—you’ve had your fun.”

Vaxal powered down, releasing an aura of energy I hadn’t even realized was surrounding him. “As you command, my lordess.”

The palanquin’s doors swung open, revealing the Exarch in all her modest glory. Next to Vaxal Brigyndir’s humongous armored frame, Virulesse Syndane looked downright human. Black shoulder-length hair and smoothly tanned skin on a slim body that wouldn’t have looked out of place on Earth. She looked like she was about my age, maybe a couple years older. And though she lacked all the bulging muscles that Rikaine or her friend Vaxal had, it could not be denied that this woman emanated power.

“Besides,” she said, “haven’t you noticed? Our true adversary has finally arrived.”

I turned around to the other side of the crowd and saw Elder Hammond casually walking up to the Exarch’s party. “You should not have come all this way.”

Virulesse jumped down from the floating palanquin, an exhilarated smile on her face. She manifested a monocle in front of her left eye. It began to glow a deep green as she stared at Elder Hammond. Then she burst into laughter. “You think you can fight me? You’re a disgrace to your Rank, old man.”

Hammond shook his head. “There is no fight to be had here, honorable Exarch. Gostrey submits to your authority.”

“That wasn’t your position yesterday,” Virulesse retorted.

“Yesterday, you turned us into derelicts and widows. Today, I ask that you spare us our lives and what little dignity we have left.”

Virulesse laughed. “Spare you? You dared to revolt against the kingship of Beleria! An example must be made.”

Hammond hung his head gravely, resigned to whatever fate the Exarch had in mind for him. “Then exemplify.”

Virulesse manifested a long whip made of pure crackling energy. She walked toward Hammond, her grin growing more sadistic with each callous step.

But before she reached Hammond, her monocle started glowing once more, and she let her energy whip vanish. Her vicious smile was replaced with an expression of curiosity as I realized she was looking directly at me—wait, no, at Bohriam.

Characters: Ash, Bohriam, Vaxal, Andreon, Virulesse, Hammond, some poor gosling with a raging headache now

Beginning of an Era – Chapter 12

I found myself sitting in fetal position, in front of a desk too small to be used, surrounded by children half my size, all of them screaming or laughing or pushing each other without care. A warm breeze blew through the outdoor classroom from over the nearby lake. It seemed only to energize the little demons.

At the head of the mob of youngsters, a middle-aged woman took a seat on the grass. “Good morning, class.”

In less than a second, the chaos ceased and all the kids turned obediently toward their teacher. A chorus of shrill voices besieged me. “Good morning, Miss Carmenie!” I silently suffered through it by staring straight ahead and trying to imagine nicer things—like being dead again.

“All right. I know I said that we would be practicing our addition and subtraction today, but first, we have a special guest.”

Carmenie looked at me expectantly for five excruciating seconds. Fine, I can take a hint. “Uhh, hi everyone. My name is Ash.” God, this was the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever had to live through—in either life.

Another chorus of screeching voices. “Good morning, Ash!” Christ, these miscreants were well-trained.

Miss Carmenie continued her preamble. “So for the first half of the day, we’re going to go over the components of the Seven Sevens System again.”

A chorus of groans and exaggerated sighs. Me too, kids. Me too. I’d take math over a recap lesson any day of the week.

Carmenie didn’t let the collective disappointment slow her roll. “So who wants to help me in reciting the seven stats song?”

And just as little kids are wont to do, the mood instantly changed from grumpy to excited as half of the class eagerly raised their hands, and another half of the class enthusiastically shouted “Me!!!”, and one overage student of the class put her face down between her legs and wished she was anywhere else.

That one student’s name? Ashleigh Fucking Kyriakides.

HP is for Hit Points, and it gives you lots of life!”

It was less of a song and more of a chant, really. Not that this kindergarten schlock was worthy of any kind of artistic critique.

STR is for Strength, and it makes you really strong!

The kids pretended to flex their nonexistent muscles and giggled in the pause between lines. Why, God? What did I ever do to deserve this?

DEF is for Defense, and it makes you tougher to hurt!

I’m sorry, Jesus. I’m sorry, Buddha. Seriphen, Flying Spaghetti Monster—whoever I have to apologize to in order to make this nightmare go away.

AGI is for Agility, and it…

Fuck this. I would rather take my chances learning the System on the fly than have to sit through another single second of this torture. I stood up and walked away, not making eye contact with anyone, whether student or teacher. Miss Carmenie was just doing her job; I couldn’t hold any of this against her.

DEX is for Dexterity, and…”

I’m sorry, Boh. It was a good idea in theory—but in practice, you’d have better luck making me the star quarterback of the Super Bowl. And you already know how much I care about things like sportsball.

I don’t know whether the class finished the song after I left. As far as I care, maybe they’re still singing it to this very day.

***

“You’re back early,” Boh said. “I hope you didn’t get kicked out for bad behavior.”

I found Boh on his way out from Rikaine’s house, presumably having just finished whatever business he had with her earlier. I didn’t want to crawl right back to Rikaine’s house, but I didn’t exactly have anywhere else to go—it’s not like I had a map of Gostrey I could refer to for better places to loiter. Actually, getting a map sounded like a good idea.

“Sorry, Boh, but as an adult who’s had more years of schooling than those kids know how to count, I just couldn’t handle being put back in a baby-grade toddler learning environment. Call it a matter of pride.”

“Oh,” he said, nervously scratching the back of his neck. “Well, it was worth a shot. I guess I could try to find you some basic System mechanics scrolls in the library, but—”

“Gostrey has a library?!” I needed a map of Gostrey now more than ever.

“Yeah, but don’t get your hopes up too much. It’s pretty small, and it’s mostly fiction.”

My mind went wild with possibilities. Even if there wasn’t anything along the lines of an Encyclopedia Systematica, there was still a huge amount I could learn about Era through its fiction. What were the kinds of narrative arcs that people found compelling here? What genres did people use for escapism on a fantasy world? Holy shit, would the Campbellian monomyth be different here than what I was used to on Earth? And what would it say about human evolutionary psychology either way? So many potential doctoral thesis topics!

“Ash? I think you’re doing that distracted epiphany thing again.”

“Huh? Yeah, sorry, thinking.”

“I’m starting to think the reason you need me is because you’re going to end up absent-mindedly walking off a cliff while pondering the inner workings of the universe,” Boh said.

I shrugged and smiled. “You’re probably right about that.” A third reason I needed a map of the area as soon as possible. “Just keep me away from cliffs and sharp pointy objects and you’ll be Stone-plus-plus before you know it.”

Bohriam hesitantly grinned. “I don’t know what that means, but it sounds like a good thing.”

“Yeah. Anyway, which way to the library?”

“Oh—you wanted to go now?”

“I mean, I don’t want to interrupt you if you’re busy—I know you’ve probably got all sorts of Aegis duties from Elder Hammond. You could just tell me how to get there and I can find it myself?”

Bohriam sighed. “No, there’s not much in the way of town defense I can do as a mere Stone-rank. Besides, I should probably go with you in person to make sure you don’t get into any trouble.”

That’s the spirit! I didn’t say. “You sure?”

“Yeah,” Bohriam nodded. “Plus,” he added, smirking, “it gives me a chance to hear all about your first day at school.”

I groaned as I started following Bohriam down the road. “You fiend. You planned all of this just to embarrass me, didn’t you.”

Bohriam snickered. “Actually, no, but I will admit it’s a pretty funny side effect. I hope you got something useful out of it, at least.”

Actually, I had learned a lot from my time in the class, as short as it was. I learned that there were seven stats—HP, STR, DEF, AGI, DEX, and I already knew about MAG and ATT from yesterday. Seven stats in a System named the Seven Sevens? There was a pretty good chance that the seven stats were one of the seven sevens of the System—a System with seven primary components, each of which could be broken down into seven divisions.

I already had some good candidates in mind for the other six primary components. Classes, ranks, levels, maybe elements… Heck, maybe I was even right in my wild brainstorming about there being seven moons. I explained my progress so far in reverse engineering the System as we walked down the mostly-empty streets of Gostrey. The few times a passerby overheard me, I could tell they were extremely confused, and it brought an unexpected smile to my face.

“And you got all that from what little you heard yesterday plus the fact that there are seven stats?” Bohriam asked. “That’s pretty good. Although, you’re wrong about there—”

“Hey man, let me enjoy this victory for at least a few seconds before tearing me back to reality.”

“But I thought you wanted to learn everything you could about the Seven Sevens System,” Bohriam said.

“I do, but I’m on a roll right now with the deductions. Am I at least mostly right about what I was saying?”

“Well, yeah, but—”

Booyah! “Well that’s good enough for me until I read the rest in a book. Call it another matter of pride.”

Bohriam was silent for a few seconds, then shrugged. “Suit yourself.”

We had reached a main road, wider and busier than most of the town I had seen so far. Busier in the sense that it had tens of people instead of twos, mostly owing to the many vendor stalls on the side of the road. A real life street bazaar! There were people selling food (on that note, I was getting pretty hungry again), people selling weapons, people selling… uh, rocks? Okay, I’d have to ask Bohriam about that one.

“By the way, if you want to check out the open market, it’s usually less crowded later in the afternoon,” Bohriam said. “Also usually better deals, but I’m guessing you don’t have any money in the first place. Maybe you—”

Bohriam’s travel tip was cut off by a building exploding a couple blocks ahead of us. There was a stunned moment of silence from everybody in the market as heads turned and people processed what was happening.

And then Bohriam the Brave started running in the direction of the burning debris, not hesitating for a single second.

Characters: Ash, Carmenie, Bohriam, twenty little demonspawns

Beginning of an Era – Chapter 11

I awoke to the sound of metal clattering against the floor, and a feminine voice whisper-shouting “SHIT!” Opening my eyes to far too much sunlight for this early in the morning, I saw a ceiling I didn’t know in a bedroom I didn’t recognize. Where the hell was I?

Oh, that’s right. I died.

At the edge of the room, a woman half-clad in armor was tiptoeing between the closet and a collapsed pile of… well, the other half of her suit of armor. Rikaine Lin Rain, I presume. She caught me staring at her mid-stride. “Hey there,” she said. “Sorry ‘bout the noise.”

Honestly, this was already so much better than the last few times I woke up.

Reaching down, she poofed the toppled breastplate and helmet into her inventory. “Don’t worry, I’ll be out of your hair in a second.” She turned around and poofed the items right into the closet, where they manifested on top of and around a wooden stand built for the purpose. Heh, inventory-based item hauling. That was a neat trick.

She flashed me a quick smile and waved goodbye, leaving the room and shutting the door behind her, presumably to give me more time to sleep if I wanted to. I didn’t know what time it was or how long I had slept, but there was no way I was going back to sleep now. I was starting to remember all the insane details of my day yesterday, and my mind was racing thinking of all the possibilities that today might have in store.

Not to mention, it was too damn bright to fall back asleep. Jeez, was Era a million miles closer to its star than Earth was to the Sun?

So, with no real reason to stay in bed other than the fact that I probably looked like crap (an excuse that’s never stopped me before), I got up and followed Rikaine out into her living room.

I found her leaning over a silver metal chest two rooms over, its lid open as she reached inside. Wisps of steamy air were escaping from the edges of the open lid, dissipating out into the suspiciously kitchen-like room we were in. Just like Elder Hammond’s staff right after he slammed Andreon with the heat blast, the sides of the chest were covered in glowing red runes that formed an esoteric circuit diagram around the entire chest. Could it be?

Rikaine pulled out a canteen and shut the lid with a heavy thud.

Yes! Refrigerators were still a thing! Thank you, magic! Except, wait, that meant refrigerators would be a thing for everybody on Era except me. Fuck!

The circuit of runes dimmed to a passive background glow as Rikaine knocked back her canteen with a hearty chug. She breathed a sigh of quenched satisfaction when she was done. “So, are you gonna stand there all day like a skinpuppet or are you gonna introduce yourself? Actually, wait, do you even know Beleric? Can you understand me?”

I hadn’t realized Rikaine knew I was there, so the sudden attention caught me off guard. “Oh, uh, hi. I’m Ash.” Note to self: never get into a situation where I had to find out what a skinpuppet is. A decade of fantasy tropes under my belt was more than enough to make me afraid of something that fantasy people thought they should call a skinpuppet. “Yeah, I can speak Beleric. Although, I know it from my world as English.”

“Huh. Weird.” She shrugged. “Well, Rikaine’s the name. Rikaine Lin Raine. Nice to meet ya.” She walked past me into the living room, where she promptly dropped herself onto the couch and kicked her legs up onto the ottoman. She patted the cushion on the other end of the couch. “Come on, have a seat.”

I didn’t really have anything else to do at the moment, so I had the seat.

Rikaine took another long swig from her canteen. From her expression, I got the distinct impression that the beverage was something harder than mere water—a lot harder.

“Please tell me that’s beer in there,” I said, “and that you have enough to share.”

She disengaged her mouth from the canteen. “No way, girl! I’m just coming down from my night shift. You’re just starting your day.”

“Fair enough. I could probably use it later, though.” Ha—at least I was right that it was something alcoholic. Although, speaking of alcoholic, this probably wasn’t the best first impression I could be making. Didn’t I say I was going to work on that? (I swear, I’m not an alcoholic. I’ve just had a hell of a yesterday so far.)

Rikaine nodded emphatically. “I hear ya. Maybe tonight then.”

“Yeah… Maybe.”

Oh boy, was I feeling awkward—and I knew exactly why. I could tell, this chick was one of the guys. From her short-cut brown hair to the booze she so casually downed first thing in the morning, Rikaine gave off the vibe of a total bro. Not to mention the bulging upper body muscles—her arms were beefy as heck. Either Rikaine was a total gym rat, or this was what everyone had to look forward to in the higher Ranks.

All that, wrapped up in a package just an inch or two taller than me. (I was 5’ 5”, for the record.) Rikaine looked like she’d be right at home fraternizing with the soldiers of the Gostrey Aegis, whereas I’d be right at home in a dark corner on my laptop, researching a new API in one tab and listening to some heavy metal in another, only realizing once the clock struck midnight that I never turned on the ceiling light when evening crept up on me. And why would I have? My computer screen provided perfectly good illumination on its own.

… Anyway, my point is, Rikaine and I were from two totally different worlds, and I had never been able to get along with her type before. But new life, new me, right? Maybe things would be different now. Maybe I could find a way to bridge that gap and make nice with someone I had nothing in common with. Maybe—

Someone knocked on the door and Rikaine jumped up to answer. Thank god, saved again. I could offer Rikaine my olive branch of friendship later. It was probably for the best, since I hadn’t been able to come up with a better opening than So I heard all your friends in the Aegis were dead. That’s rough, buddy.

“Hey, Boh,” Rikaine said. “Your girl’s in here. Wanna come in?” She thumb-pointed in my direction.

A familiar voice answered her. “She’s not my… Yeah, thanks.”

I stood up from the couch. “Actually, if that’s Bohriam, could we take this party outside?” Rikaine looked at me curiously. “I uh… Okay, no offense, I really appreciate you letting me drop in unannounced and stay the night, but you’re still a stranger and I don’t trust you yet. Bohriam’s also a stranger, but he’s the one person on this planet that I trust—him and maybe Elder Hammond—and I don’t do too well around too many strangers at once. I’m kinda feeling really out of my comfort zone in here, honestly.”

I don’t like talking about my anxieties, but if I was marking Rikaine for potential future friendship, I couldn’t exactly ditch her at the first opportunity without being truthful about why. Or at least, mostly truthful.

Rikaine looked back out the door for some kind of response from Bohriam.

“Well, I was here for both of you,” Boh said, “but I have a lot to talk to Ash about. I’ll see you later, Rikaine?”

Rikaine shrugged. “Suit yourselves. I need some shut-eye anyway.”

Oh my way out, Rikaine addressed me with a smile. “If you’re free tonight, swing by and we can have that drink.”

I smiled back and nodded. “Thanks again for letting me borrow your bed last night.”

“No problem—you’re more than welcome to borrow it anytime you want,” she said with a wink, and my mental assessment of Rikaine’s personality instantly shifted from 80% buff to 80% butch.

Outside, Bohriam was looking the best I’d ever seen him. (He was wearing clean clothes instead of blood-stained armor. It wasn’t a high bar to pass.) “Hey there, Stone Cold Bohriam. How’s it hanging?” He looked at me like he couldn’t tell if I was a master wordsmith or if I needed mental help. “Uhh, nevermind. It’s an Earth saying. What I mean is, how are you?”

“Better than yesterday, thanks. Sorry I kinda zoned out after we made it to Gostrey. I had a lot on my mind.”

“No problemo, Bohremo. I know you were probably distracted thinking about all your Aegis friends being dead now.”

“…”

“…”

“… Yeah. I was.”

… Fucking hell. What was wrong with me?

“Anyway,” Bohriam continued, “I was doing some thinking last night, and I think you’re still in danger.”

“Come again?”

“Listen, so—” He pressed what I could only assume was an invisible (to me) button on his arm, and waved his hand in the air in front of us. A big translucent holographic screen popped up in the air where he waved, purple with green borders. Holy shit, the Seven Sevens System came with a HUD!

Quests > Personal Quests

Save the life of someone from another world.

“So, my Personal Quest was to save the life of—stupid question, you can read this, right?”

“One hundred percent,” I said.

“Okay, cool. Everyone’s HUD auto-translates into their own language, whether it’s Beleric or Cynthural or Lojban or whatever else people speak in the furthest reaches of Era. But it’s good to know that written Beleric is similar enough to written English for you. Anyway—my Quest clearly states that I need to save the life of someone from another world, right?”

“Right,” I said, trying to think of ways I could munchkin the HUD’s auto-translation function. Teach Bohriam an ancient language and use the HUD to recover its lost alphabet? (Too bad I didn’t know any ancient languages with lost alphabets.)

“So, the Quest should have been completed yesterday when I saved you from Grennick and the Gray Guard… Unless you weren’t actually in any danger of dying then.”

“What? But Grennick was two seconds from cleaving into my neck with a sword that looked pretty darn lethal. Not to mention Speedy throwing literal fireballs at me.”

“I know,” Bohriam said, “it sure looked like you were about to die—which is why I blew my cover and stepped in. But the System doesn’t lie—if you were actually in any danger of dying on that battlefield, the Quest would have marked itself complete as soon as I got you out of there. I wouldn’t still be Stone-rank. And so—I think you’re still in danger.”

Well, shit. Despite the seriousness of the situation, I couldn’t help but snicker. “Heh. Still taking your Personal Quest as prophecy, I see.”

“Only when it makes sense to,” Bohriam countered. “Other people have quests whose clear conditions could pop up a million different ways, a million different days. But mine… It’s not every day that you meet an alien who would die without your intervention.”

“Hard to argue with that kind of logic.” I got the feeling that Bohriam was the kind of guy who enjoyed lateral thinking puzzles and using logical deductions to his advantage. No wonder we got along so well.

But also, damn, I was literally an alien now! Why hadn’t I demanded that someone take me to their leader yet?

Probably because Bohriam took me willingly as soon as he had the chance. Yeah, Boh was definitely all kinds of pragmatic.

“So, what should we do about that?” I asked.

“Well besides the stupid answer of, I become your 24/7 personal bodyguard until someone wonders why you need a personal bodyguard and attacks you to find out… I’m not sure. But one thing I do know is, you probably need to get up to speed on how the Seven Sevens System works as fast as possible. And I think I have an idea for how you can do exactly that.”

Characters: Ash, Rikaine, Bohriam

Beginning of an Era – Chapter 10

Remember when I said it would hit me later that everyone I used to know on Earth would now think I was dead? As I lay in Rikaine Lin Rain’s unfamiliar bed, struggling to fall asleep amid fears of an uncertain future and dread at what might lurk in Era’s darkness, it became later.

My life on Earth was over. And not just in the literal way. Everyone I used to know—all my friends, as few as they may have been; all my coworkers; my family—I would never see any of them again. Dana would never pay me back that $15 she still owed me from a year ago. My work buddy Rajan would never again have to deal with my incessant whining about the management at Ubliquo. Hell, I would never find out if they made another good Star Wars movie! I was dead, and there was no going back.

Oh god, my parents. Their only daughter was dead to them and I had no way to tell them otherwise. And after everything else they had been through… I couldn’t put them through that—except I was. And I would be every day for the rest of both of their lives.

It was torture. I mean, you know I rag on myself all the time. (And for good reason: I suck.) (Haha, see what I did there?) But this was a kind of mental torment I wasn’t used to. This was real. This was deep. It wasn’t just something I could get over the same way I got over everything else, by closing myself off and treating life as one big joke. This was something that would require extensive therapeutic intervention and processing

Were therapists even a thing that existed on Era? Ugh.

I hated that I was starting life over again at square one. I hated that I needed to open Rikaine’s bedroom’s curtains because I didn’t even know whether I should be afraid of the dark on this planet. I hated that I was in a world where everyone’s personal stats were magically and accurately quantified, except for mine. Maybe Bohriam had 10 STR, or maybe he had 100 STR, but what did I have? Not even zero STR—my stats were a big fat NULL in the great cosmic database of life. I was a gaping void, a glitch in the Matrix. Stat-less, Class-less, System-less in a world that wouldn’t know what to do with me.

What was I thinking earlier, thinking that I could use my knowledge of Earth plus Era plus Seriphen’s realm to decipher the secrets of the greater multiverse? How could I decipher jack shit about the multiverse if I couldn’t even figure out my place on Era? It’s not like my software development knowledge would be any help here—Era didn’t have computers. (That was one thing I did make sure to ask Bohriam when we were on our way to Gostrey.)

No computers, no internet. And I thought I might be able to cultivate science on Era and bring them to greater technological heights? I didn’t even know how transistors worked! What was I going to do, dedicate the next decade of my life to inventing them based solely on the fact that I know things named ‘transistors’ are possible? No. In that moment, I couldn’t imagine dedicating myself to anything. Even sleep seemed too daunting.

Unsupervised in this fantasy world stranger’s house, I didn’t even want to snoop through their belongings and furniture. I could have answered so many questions for myself if I had done a little bit of exploring when I got here—did Era have refrigerators? Air conditioning? Any kind of electrical tech? Instead I explored myself straight into the bedroom, and straight into bed, where I lay wide awake ever since.

At least Era had beds. Not as comfy as Earth mattresses, but still. At least Era had fucking beds.

When Elder Hammond and I first arrived at Rikaine’s house, we had to wait outside for a few minutes for Bohriam to reach the watchtower and tell Rikaine about me, so Rikaine could use magic to remote unlock her door—or to deactivate the wards on her house, or whatever she technically did. God, people used magic to lock their doors here. I wouldn’t even be able to lock my own doors on Era.

I turned my head to the side and looked through Rikaine’s bedroom’s window, out into the open night. Two of the moons I had seen earlier were visible through the small pane. They had traveled a good amount over the last couple hours, arcing over large swaths of sky just like good ol’ Luna used to do. I wormed my way up the mattress a couple inches, so I could look at a slightly different angle of the sky. The third moon was still there, hot on the trail of the two moons it had been leading earlier in the night.

This bothered me. A lot.

In physics, there’s a concept known as the three-body problem. It basically states that if you have three gravitationally bound objects—like three stars, or three planets, or three moons—then the math to solve their trajectories is hard as fuck. Two objects? Easy peasy; Isaac Newton’s got our back. But as soon as you add a third? Utter, inescapable chaos. To the point that eventually, billions of years of orbits down the line, you’re probably going to get a cataclysmic collision unless the bodies started their orbits in just the right way.

So how the fuck did Era, a planet that was probably billions of years old just like Earth, have three big, close moons in its sky?

Those motherfuckers should have crashed into each other eons ago and left a big nasty asteroid belt around the planet. Except clearly, they hadn’t. They were just continuing to mind their own business, despite all the laws of physics that said this kind of system shouldn’t be possible.

I could understand if it were just three solitary bodies out in the wilderness of galactic space, far from any intervening sources of chaos—but these pieces of shit were natural satellites, all tangled up with the orbit of Era itself around the yellow star at the center of the system. Even if the moons had miraculously stable orbits on their own, they didn’t exist in a vacuum. (Well, you know what I mean.) Tides, planetary alignments, all sorts of things should have thrown that stability out of whack.

So, what the fuck was the explanation for this? Obviously one of my assumptions about reality was wrong, but which one? I could think of a couple possibilities off the top of my head:

1) They weren’t natural satellites—they were man-made, or magic-made, or alien-made to have perfectly unnatural orbits.

2) The laws of physics were slightly different in this universe. That sounded like a fun possibility to explore later on.

3) I was still dead, and none of this was real. Not as fun. Let’s ignore that one.

4) This entire reality was actually a computer simulation, and I had discovered the one place where the programmers skimped on the details.

5) The moons in the system were part of the System. There were actually seven moons, and the other four were just hiding.

When I thought of that fifth possibility, I broke down into manic restless laughter. This kind of system shouldn’t be possible, my ass. I knew nothing about Era’s System. Who was I to say what should or shouldn’t be possible?

Someone with a cosmic fucking destiny, that’s who.

It wasn’t fair that I had a second chance at life and almost everyone else wouldn’t. Of all the people on Earth, what were the odds that anyone else I used to know were also among Seriphen’s “lucky few?” Out of all the billions, probably trillions, of people in the multiverse? It was a sick joke. Why me? I was just some schmuck from New Jersey. Why did I deserve reincarnation when my parents, my brother, my friends, everyone I used to know would probably get nothing more than oblivion?

Immortality was possible. Seriphen had shown me that. Yet, the gods of the greater multiverse had seen fit to hoard it for themselves and their lucky few. It wasn’t just cruel—it was evil. Seriphen and the rest of her pantheon had the ability to end Death itself by giving reincarnation to everyone. By not doing so, they were complicit in the deaths of countless sentient beings.

As I lay in Rikaine Lin Rain’s unfamiliar bed, I made a vow: if I ever found a way out of this world, if I ever found a way back into Seriphen’s realm—whether by death or magic or something even more esoteric—I would do everything in my power to end her monopoly on reincarnation. To make sure no death ever had to be final. To make sure no one would ever have to go through what my parents had gone through again.

I was never much of a religious type, but that night I prayed. I prayed to Seriphen that I was wrong about her actions as Goddess of Reincarnation, that there was something I was missing about how souls in the greater multiverse truly worked. I prayed that she would give me the System she failed to give me when sending me to Era. I prayed that she would tell my parents I was still alive, even if they didn’t believe her. I prayed that she was on my side, because I couldn’t handle being alone anymore.

I never got an answer—at some point between the tears and the self-loathing, I finally fell asleep.

Characters: Ash

Beginning of an Era – Chapter 9

As Bohriam mournfully filled Elder Hammond in on the slaughter of Gostrey’s entire fighting force, I went to town on that plate of food Andreon had brought me. Apparently, it wasn’t rude in this world to chow my face off while taking part (from the sidelines) in a serious conversation. Seriphen was wrong—I hadn’t been reincarnated in another world; I died and went straight to heaven.

“And for the rest of the battle I pretended I was already dead,” Bohriam said, bitterly turning away from Elder Hammond’s non-judging eyes. “Exactly as Jonakan ordered me to do.”

Oof. That had to be a real teabag to the self-esteem. I made a mental note to never make fun of Bohriam for being weaker than your average bear—and then I realized that might be the treatment I was in for on this planet, if I couldn’t find a way to fend for myself soon enough. Gulp.

Hammond nodded acceptingly. “You did your duty to Gostrey, Bohriam Sen Kahl. You survived so that someone could warn us of the danger we face. There is no shame in that.” He spoke slowly, enunciating each word with an air of wisdom that really made me buy into the whole Elder title schtick. (Plus, he was being nice to my boy Boh. After what I had seen from the rest of the Fay family, I had to give him credit for that.)

“Except I almost didn’t,” Bohriam said, passing me a sidelong glance.

Hammond followed Bohriam’s line of sight straight to me, currently stuffing my face with the last of the bread. “Uh, hi,” I said through the mouthful.

The elder smiled amiably at me. “So how did you enter the picture?”

I swallowed the last of my meal. For a world without Earth’s agricultural engineering, those were some bomb-ass veggies. Heck, maybe Era had taste-amplifying magic. I’d have to ask at some point. “Well, this might be a little hard to explain, but… I’m actually from another world, except I died, but then in the afterlife the Goddess of Reincarnation told me I was going to be reincarnated—and then I was, here. I woke up in the middle of—well, the aftermath of—the battle, and then the Gray Guard was going to kill me, but Bohriam jumped up and pulled me out before they could. And then we ran for a while, walked for a while, ran for a while more, T-posed for a while, and now I’m here.” Huh, that wasn’t so hard to explain after all. Once I got started, it actually kind of all flowed out effortlessly. Why can’t I always be that good at explaining things?

The runes on the surface of Elder Hammond’s left eye stopped glowing green—wait, when had they even started glowing? Wait, there were runes on his eye??

Hammond breathed in, then let out a heavy sigh. “I believe you,” he said. “Or rather, I believe that you believe you are telling the truth—and that’s good enough for me.”

God damn it. Fuckin’ truth-Sharingan up in this bitch. That was something I would have to worry about too? Oh well. At least I didn’t have to ask about telepathy anymore. One question down, seven hundred seventy seven more to go.

“She’s telling the truth?” Bohriam said, expression lighting up again like a kid on his birthday.

“Hey!” I said. “I thought you already trusted me!”

“I do,” Bohriam said, flustered. “But I trust Elder Hammond even more.”

Well, I couldn’t argue with that. Dude was Dumbledore with a built-in lie detector.

“She is,” Hammond answered. “Congratulations, Bohriam. You’ve finally found what you’ve been waiting for.”

And there was my opening. “Yeah, about that… What’s the deal there? Bohriam mentioned something about some kind of prophecy?” If I was going to have some kind of cosmic destiny, it was high time I got proactive in figuring out what it was. Or at least preparing myself for what it might be.

Elder Hammond blinked in surprise. “Huh. In all my years, I’ve never thought of Personal Quests as a form of prophecy—but I suppose in this case, it may have been true. A Personal Quest is never meant to be impossible.” Now he was looking at Boh. “No matter how incredible it may seem.”

Bohriam looked like he was about to stammer out some self-defensive comeback, but I beat him to speaking. “What’s a Personal Quest?”

Hammond looked back at me with one of those expressions of bewilderment that I was so used to invoking, his mouth slightly agape and tilted to the side. His eye glowed another truth-detection pulse at me. “You’re kidding.”

“That’s the thing,” Bohriam said. “Ash is from another world… A world without the Seven Sevens.”

“You don’t have the System?” Hammond asked. I shook my head. “No stats? Class? Magic?” I shook my head again, again, and again. “How is that possible?”

“Well, right before the reincarnation Goddess sent me here, she realized I wouldn’t be compatible with the System here because Earth—my original world—doesn’t have a System of its own.”

Still locked in a gaze of total astonishment, Hammond looked me up and down like he was seeing me for the very first time. “Remarkable… A Stone-rank at your age… No—not even Stone-rank. A No-rank… A Null-rank…”

Heh. Null-rank. I could vibe with that. “Is Stone the earliest rank?”

“Yes,” both Elder Hammond and Bohriam responded. They exchanged stares for a couple seconds. Bohriam turned away first, looking to the ground as forlornly as before.

Elder Hammond continued his explanation. “Everyone on Era is Stone-rank when they’re born. A blank slate of low stats, no experience, and all the potential in the world. But it is not until one’s teenage years—usually 15 or 16 or so—that a Stone receives their first Personal Quest from the System. Usually, it’s something simple to understand. Winning a difficult battle. Overcoming a personal fear. Sometimes, a Personal Quest will be a little more… esoteric. Gathering a certain set of Artifacts. Discovering a particular secret.”

“… Saving the life of someone from another world,” I said. Man. I knew Bohriam was supposed to be weak, but I had no idea that he was still at the baby stage. The same weight class as kids and teenagers—I mean, I was pretty sure Bohriam was still a teen, but at the far end of the teenage years. Not the middle, where all his peers were probably completing their own quests left and right. That couldn’t have been easy on his psyche.

Hammond nodded. “A Personal Quest is meant to challenge oneself, to incubate personal growth. It would go against the very nature of the System for a Personal Quest to be insurmountable. In fact, I had never heard of an ‘impossible’ Personal Quest until young Bohriam told me his own.” He turned to Boh, chuckling. “And even then, it seems it was just as possible as any other! All it required was a little bit of patience, and the courage not to give up hope.”

I couldn’t tell what Bohriam was feeling in that moment, as he stared intensely at the floor, scrubbing all hints of emotion from his face. Shame from having given up hope? Bashful pride from having not given up? Relief that he wouldn’t be the butt of Andreon’s conceited bullying anymore?

Or maybe it was still guilt from being the only survivor of the Gray Guard’s attack.

“Regardless,” Hammond said, turning back to me, “a Stone typically completes their Personal Quest within a year or so of receiving it. And when that happens… When the Stone finally proves himself worthy of the path of the System… He ascends to Iron-rank.”

“What’s Iron-rank?” I asked.

Elder Hammond sighed and smiled softly at me. “I can tell that you have many more questions, but I have many more duties—and there are only so many hours in the night. Let us retire now, and perhaps reconvene in the morning.”

“Wait! Um… What about me? Where should I go?” Suddenly I realized I was not only powerless on this world, but completely destitute as well—and that I had only managed to ignore it thus far because Bohriam had been guiding me every step of the way. But I was on the verge of losing that rock. Bohriam had a life here to get back to, and I had a life I needed to start. But how could I, with no food, no money, without even a place to sleep? Oh god, I didn’t even have a change of clothes!

Bohriam opened his mouth to speak, but closed it without saying anything. Maybe he was about to offer to let me stay at his place, then thought better of it. If so, I was glad I didn’t have to verbally turn him down. I was grateful to him for saving my life and all, but… We just met, dude. I don’t trust you that much yet. Although, in a weird way, him not actually making the offer made me trust him slightly more.

Elder Hammond considered my question for a couple seconds. “Hmm… Rikaine Lin Rain is on watchtower duty tonight. Her house is available, and not too far from here. I can take you, if you’d like.”

I nodded. An empty house was just what I needed right now. Peace and quiet and space to think and get my bearings without having to worry about the person in the next room being able to snap my head off by snapping their fingers.

“Excellent,” Hammond said. “Bohriam, go to the watchtower and update Rikaine on the situation. Make sure if she does have to go home before dawn, she knows not to disturb her guest.”

“Yes sir,” Bohriam said.

This was it—I was leaving my rock behind. My first night alone in Gostrey, in Beleria, on Era, in a universe far from anywhere I knew as home. The chill of night seeped its first probing tendrils into me and I couldn’t help but wonder: was that the last warmth I would feel for a while?

Bohriam hadn’t left yet. “Um. I’ll see you in the morning, Ash. Sleep well.”

As Hammond led me into the moonlit townscape, I nursed a small smile. No. No, it was not.

Characters: Ash, Bohriam, Elder Hammond

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