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

Month: April 2021

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

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