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

Month: May 2021

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

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