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

Month: June 2021

Beginning of an Era – Chapter 22

“Well… My name is Ashleigh… as you already know.”

Virulesse stared at me with such a blank expression that I almost thought I broke her. Woo, I was off to a great start.

“And I’m twenty-two years old—although, I don’t know what that translates to in terms of Era’s orbital period—but anyway, I’m a—was a—software developer… But I guess you wouldn’t know what that is either… so maybe I should just take this from the top.” Jeez, this was so much easier when I had Elder Hammond’s Eye of Truth to grease the wheels on my explain-o-meter. I took a deep breath, gathering and organizing my thoughts. “So Earth has these things called computers and about eighty years ago a bunch of scientists figured out—”

Virulesse held up a hand and I bit my tongue. “Stop. Let’s take this one thing at a time, shall we? How did you come to leave your old world—I believe you called it Earth?” I nodded. “How did you come to leave your Earth behind and find yourself on Era?”

I breathed a sigh of relief. That was one question I definitely knew how to answer. “That’s easy. I died.”

The Exarch quirked an eyebrow at me. “You died?”

I nodded. “And next thing I knew, I was in some kind of afterlife realm, talking to Seriphen—the Goddess of Reincarnation.” I described my encounter with the goddess, and all the things she had told me. The ‘greater multiverse,’ the collective psychic subconscious, and all the different worlds out there, each with their own System. “And then she poofed me away, and I woke up on Era. Somewhere near Gostrey, to be precise.”

Virulesse listened to the entire tale with more blank-faced objective neutrality, but her eyes twitched a little wider every time I revealed something of cosmic significance—I could tell she was fascinated. When I finally stopped talking, instead of asking me any of the obvious followup questions, she turned toward Vaxal on the other side of the room.

“All true,” Vaxal said. Oh, right. Telepathic lie detector. At least I wouldn’t have to go through the trouble of convincing Virulesse to believe all of this cliché fantasy bullshit.

“Remarkable…” Virulesse said. “Not only are there worlds beyond our own, but there is also life after death…”

“Only for some people,” I reminded her. “The overwhelming majority of people just… stop existing.” Recalling the way Seriphen had casually relegated billions, possibly trillions of souls to oblivion while having the power to save them still filled me with a cold anger. There was no real afterlife after all—no heaven, no hell, no salvation except for the lucky fucking few.

“True,” Vaxal said, his voice hoarse like a rockslide falling down another rockslide.

“A pity,” Virulesse said. “That would have made things much easier. Ashleigh, do you know why you were granted this reincarnation?”

I shrugged my shoulders. “No idea. I’m just really lucky, I guess.” Or really, really unlucky, more likely.

“Did you do anything in your life on Earth to set yourself apart from the rest of the people? To set yourself above them? Did you lead a life of exceptional virtue? Extraordinary vice? Anything of the sort?”

“Not really,” I said. “I mostly just kept to myself, reading books and playing games and doing my job. I didn’t really get out much, or talk to people outside my friends and family all that often… To be honest, it was kind of a pathetic life.”

“Completely true,” Vaxal rasped.

I turned around. “Hey!”

Vaxal smirked toothily at me. Ugh, whatever. I probably deserved it.

Virulesse pondered aloud. “Hmm… Perhaps there’s some sort of minimum threshold of worthwhile living that most people end up meeting, but which you did not. And thus, you were reincarnated so that you could fulfill the quota for a sufficient life.”

“Okay, now you’re both just ganging up on me. But I don’t think so. I mean, I was boring, for sure—but I was far from the top-1%-of-the-top-1% of Super-NEETs that might make that idea make sense. Seriphen said I was one of the ‘lucky few’—there are probably millions of people on Earth who lived just as little as I did. And that’s just on Earth. If you multiply that across all the other worlds in the multiverse, it’s probably billions of people at least. That doesn’t sound like a ‘few’ anymore to me.”

“I suppose you are correct,” Virulesse said, another note of disappointment coloring her voice. “Are you a virgin?”

“What the fuck,” I said, “that’s personal!”

“Answer the question, Null-rank,” Vaxal growled from across the room.

Virulesse continued to stare at me with savagely emotionless eyes, waiting for an answer.

“Ugh, fine. No, I’m not.” What was it with magical thinking and the idea that female virginity held special power? Power over a certain subset of guys, maybe. I guess this was just one more multiversal cultural constant I would have to deal with. Hur-fucking-rah, the patriarchy was literally infinite.

“Did you die a virgin?” Virulesse asked.

No.

“True,” Vaxal said.

I turned to him again. “Could you stop?”

Virulesse didn’t let the interrogation slow down for a second. “How did you die?”

I averted my eyes from her penetrating gaze, ashamed. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Why not?”

“You know, for a knowledge exchange, I sure seem to be doing all the knowledge sharing so far. How about I ask the next couple questions and you go on the defensive for a change?”

“You will have your chance to ask questions when the time is right,” the Exarch stated. “Remember—this is just the beginning of a long and fruitful partnership in pursuit of higher truths.”

“Bullshit,” I said, “the time is now.” Virulesse was good at her politics; I had to give her that. She had successfully distracted me with the interrogation whirlwind for a little while, but now I was back on track. “You say this is a partnership? Then play your part: tell me, partner, what the fuck is skyball?”

“It’s a sport,” Virulesse said tersely. “Hardly of any consequence to our endeavors.”

Well, that was an evasive answer if I ever heard one. “How is it played?”

“I don’t know all the rules and regulations,” she said, sounding bored. “As a provincial governor I try not to waste my time on such banalities as skyball. But if you want to skip ahead to discussing our respective cultures, tell me more about Earth. How advanced are its strongest nations?”

“No, we’re still on skyball. Answer my question, Exarch-rank.”

“Exarch isn’t a Rank; it’s a title. I’m a—” Virulesse cut herself off before she said anything more.

If there was still any doubt in my mind, that confirmed it. All her talk of wanting to trade intel with me was just that: talk. All the teases of answers coming eventually were nothing more than teases, designed to keep me talking and sharing and divulging for as long as she could without giving anything in return. And I was so desperate to make sense of this whole nonsensical world that I played along way longer than I should have. But not anymore.

Except…

Except Vaxal was still towering in the corner, with the power to incinerate me with nothing more than a thought. And who knew how much stronger his boss was?

It didn’t matter whether or not I figured out Virulesse’s motivations or schemes. I was trapped, with no way out except to refuse to play their games and probably be killed for it. I was powerless. Just like Vaxal had told me.

The silence only lasted for a second, and Virulesse resumed her unfinished statement. “I am a duly appointed Exarch of Beleria, chosen by the King himself after his successful insurgency against former King Bylas. While you are within my borders, you will submit to my authority. Do you understand?”

I shrank down in my seat. “Yes,” I replied meekly.

“Good,” Virulesse said. “Now, back to the topic at hand. Would you say Earth’s civilization is advanced? Politically, industrially, technologically? Despite the lack of a System to give it order?”

“Yes to all of the above,” I said. What choice did I have? It was either answer the Exarch’s questions about how the primitive people of Earth were able to invent democracy despite their cosmic feebleness, or face her wrath.

“True,” Vaxal announced, to no one’s benefit.

“Although, naturally, a single human from Earth would stand no chance in combat against even an Iron-rank human from Era, correct?”

“From what I’ve seen so far, probably not.” Telepathy, speed, fire, lightning, the list went on and on. Heck, even machine guns probably wouldn’t do much to level the playing field, if the Gray Guard’s energy shields had anything to say about it.

“True.”

“If a human from Era were to be transported to Earth—whether via reincarnation or otherwise—do you think it would be possible for them to keep the Seven Sevens System?”

The question caught me off guard, and I slowed down to think it through. “I guess it’s possible… I mean, I was able to come here without giving up my lack of System, so maybe?”

Virulesse nodded, deep in thought. “And… Do you think it might be possible to travel to Seriphen’s realm intentionally? Without dying?”

Wait a minute… I replayed Virulesse’s line of questioning in my head, looking for the thread of motivation that tied it all together. I found it quickly—staring me in the face, a big blinking neon sign that shouted “how hard would it be to conquer Earth?” Holy shit.

“Well?” Virulesse asked.

“Um… I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe? With the right kind of magic?” I was freaking out, but I managed to hide it—mostly.  I couldn’t let Virulesse just waltz across the multiverse and take over my home planet, could I? And even if I didn’t think it was possible, I didn’t know it was impossible. I had to answer truthfully, or face the consequences.

“True.”

“I see…” Virulesse said. “Vaxal, make a note for me to review the available literature on teleportation Artifacts. I know there aren’t many left, but—” She glanced sideways at me, realizing she was on the verge of divulging something new. “Just make the note.”

“Yes, my Exarch.”

Virulesse returned her full attention to me. “Now then, let’s move on to Earth’s technological capabilities… I believe you mentioned something called ‘nuclear weapons’ earlier? Tell me about those.”

“No,” I said. “I’m not going to help you conquer the multiverse. Especially not starting with my home planet.” Consequences be damned, I couldn’t just let her expand her tyranny beyond the bounds of Era. Even if it meant being killed on the spot for displeasing her—my one life was nothing compared to the seven billion on Earth.

Virulesse grinned, her eyelids drooping in smug delight. “What makes you think you can stop me?”

I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t say anything. Any answer I could give other than a basic “I can’t” would have been total bullshit. I didn’t have any real power to stop the Exarch Virulesse. It was possible that no one on Earth did, either. Even nuking her from orbit might not be enough, for all I knew. And at that point, with nuclear fallout and all the casualties that would ensue, would that really be an option?

Virulesse saw through my silence for what it was and her smile widened. “Do you come from a powerful family, Ashleigh?”

The idea was so wrong it was almost laughable. “Yeah, and I have a bridge back on Earth I’d love to sell you,” I said sarcastically.

“True,” Vaxal declared.

What?!

“Then you and I are more alike than you know,” Virulesse said, taking my statement at face value. “The Syndane family has held power in Beleria for countless generations. Since the days of Impruss Canyndir, we have grown from merchants into nobles into political advisors—and now we hold two of the seven provinces of Beleria. Even as dynasties rise and fall around us, the Syndane family expands its territory.”

What the fuck. At no point in my life on Earth did I ever own a bridge, or any other kind of real estate—unless you count the lease on a crappy apartment. My family was no more powerful than any other third-generation immigrant family—which was to say, not powerful at all. Either Vaxal was flagrantly lying to his ruler, or his lie detector didn’t work on me.

“But we are nearing the limits of our expansion on Era,” Virulesse continued. “Beleria has reached a wondrous stability under the rule of the Silver King, which we dare not threaten to upset. And the countries across the sea, I’m sorry to say, far outrank us militaristically. But beyond Era…”

It was too much for me to keep up with. Names, places, dynasties, secrets—I might be able to lie. A way to fight back—if I could keep this discovery in just my own head. Shit, I had to change mental gears. “So what you’re saying is, your family is so weak, that the lowest-hanging fruit for expanding your power base now is in an entirely different universe?”

My remark had exactly its intended effect. Virulesse scowled at me, all her villainous waxing abandoned. “Do you still think it wise to taunt me, Null-rank?”

I raised both of my hands in submission. “No, I’m sorry; I only want to understand. This is still a lot for me to take in, I’m sure you can imagine.”

“Yes, I can quite imagine,” Virulesse said. God, what a self-absorbed prick.

The beginnings of a plan were forming in my mind. It was risky, but I was already in twenty thousand leagues over my head. Do or die. All I needed now was a lot of luck, even more luck, and to start talking Virulesse’s language. “And… I want to understand what’s in it for me. How my… cooperation will be rewarded.”

That caught her interest. “Oh?”

My words were so unnatural to me that I had to drag out every single one by force. “If we do collaborate to conquer the multiverse… Surely with countless worlds out there, you could spare one for me? I think I could lead a pretty darn useful vassal state under your banners, if you would allow it. A world entirely dedicated to experimentation with foreign Systems.”

If there was one way to absolutely blind a power-hungry tyrant, it was to get them to realize their insane ambitions were too small. Virulesse had said nothing about conquering the entire multiverse, but that was the next obvious step after taking over a single other world. Virulesse had to realize, as I had, that the Seven Sevens System probably wasn’t the weakest System in the multiverse. If she could subdue Earth, why not a world with another System? And then another, and another, until her empire had enough combined might that no one could oppose it?

A million times easier said than done, of course, but would-be conquerors never think about all the thousands of would-be conquerors who failed before them.

“If you give me the chance, I guarantee I can prove my leadership capabilities to you,” I said. Fun fact about the extent of my leadership capabilities: the one time I was selected to be the leader on a group project in high school, a week later the entire group mutinied against me. Turns out most people don’t like getting assigned research on the weekend. Who knew?

“True,” Vaxal said, with a hint of shock in his voice.

Virulesse’s pensive expression softened. “Your offer intrigues me. Naturally, I would prefer to have you as a willing subject—but I must say, I didn’t expect such a quick change of heart. What are you really after?”

The second key to blinding a power-hungry tyrant? Making them think your own insane ambitions pale in comparison to theirs. “Isn’t it obvious? Earth. I want to protect my people.”

Virulesse smiled, and I knew I had her in my grasp. “Your loyalty to your people is admirable. We have a deal. You’ll have your Earth, as soon as I’m done with it.”

Virulesse had to know that such a deal meant nothing. Neither I nor anyone else on Earth had the power to stop her if she changed her mind. Paying lip service to an unenforceable deal for the sake of getting me on her side? It was a price so low that she may as well pay it just for fun.

Vaxal interrupted us. “Exarch, message from Harah. She requires your presence in the High Hall as soon as possible.” He had his HUD up, a glowing purple hologram-screen with white borders. Neat, it apparently had direct messaging functionality.

Virulesse sighed. “We’ll have to resume this later,” she said to me. “A productive first session—the first of many to come.”

She barely waited for me to stand up alongside her before walking toward the door at a brisk pace. “Vaxal will show you back to your room,” she said as Vaxal opened the door for her.

I nodded. “I look forward to working with you,” I lied.

Vaxal grinned as he gave his final affirmation to the Exarch. “True.”

Characters: Ash, Virulesse, Vaxal

Beginning of an Era – Chapter 21

Do the words “captured” and “captive” have the same etymology? They probably do in English—both sourcing from the same root word, some Latin infinitive I didn’t know. But what about in Beleric? Would they have the same etymology there? Maybe not, if the story of the multiverse was one of convergent evolution—of languages inching ever closer to their multiversal ideals over geological time scales. If that was the case, then it might be possible to compare and contrast the etymologies of all the words in English and Beleric to figure out where both languages were heading next.

Languages normally evolve divergently—one root word from the ancient Proto-Indo-European language might be the great grandparent of dozens of English words today, and hundreds of words across all of English’s sister and cousin languages—German, Dutch, and all the Romance languages. But when you know (or hypothesize) that one of those languages is evolving toward something, and you find another language far out in the multiverse that’s seemingly evolving toward the same thing…With enough statistical analysis, you might well be able to figure out what they’re both evolving toward.

Linguists on Earth cross reference languages with their cousins in order to fill in the missing gaps of their ancient proto-language grandparents. Here I was envisioning doing the reverse: cross referencing English with Beleric in order to decipher Multiversal English, possibly centuries ahead of schedule.

Anyway, that’s the cool idea I had earlier—back when I was only mostly sure I was a prisoner. Man, how fast the tables can turn.

Vaxal yanked on my leash, and my stride faltered. “Maintain pace, Null-rank,” he said, not even deigning to look at me anymore.

The Exarch and her enforcer walked in front of me, dragging me along to who-knows-where, the Exarch practically bouncing with every step. “Go easy on her, my dear,” she said. “Who knows what pitiful levels of stamina her Systemless body can handle?”

I walked up a mile of stairs yesterday, you jackass, I thought venomously. You were both there! You watched me do it! Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to meet the mind-reader’s taunts with reminders that I was capable of walking as fast as they were, but hey, even I have dignity that I want to preserve sometimes.

The metal ring around my neck burned and chafed—especially in the front, where the thick strand of crackling crimson energy jutted out from under my chin. I could feel it radiating heat as Vaxal pulled me along, sometimes to the point of pain when it bounced too close to my jaw. I walked with a raised chin, my eyes constantly on the magic burn-leash.

Virulesse led us to an unoccupied part of the castle. For what it was worth, I was relieved—at least no one else was going to see me in this pitiful state. But as the walls and floors slowly transformed from tiled into cold, desolate stone, my thoughts turned toward dark dungeons and the medieval torture devices that might lurk within them.

I had no idea what kind of horror show I was being walked into. They say that when faced with the unknown, you should assume the worst—that way, your expectations will either be met perfectly, or you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Well, whoever first said that had clearly never been anywhere close to an evil overlord’s secret torture chamber before.

The Exarch had said it was time for our knowledge exchange, but what did she really mean by that? When I thought of knowledge exchange on Earth, I imagined lecture halls. Or specialist interviews. Or going to a Stack Exchange website and being disappointed because the question I was looking for was downvoted.

Even on Era, I would have assumed that a deep conversation would have sufficed. Or if Virulesse didn’t want to share, then maybe a psychic interrogation with Vaxal ripping all the knowledge right out of my brain stem. (And then strangling me with said brain stem, because seriously, fuck Vaxal.)

(Vaxal looked over his shoulder and wordlessly glared at me for a few seconds. Shit, was that just coincidence or was he listening that time? Unfuck Vaxal! Unfuck Vaxal!)

Well, whatever the case was, Virulesse’s actions so far didn’t make any sense. Why give me a nice bedroom on my first night only to transfer me to the dungeons on day two? Why go to such lengths to keep me in the dark, only to slam me with the technical know-how of the Cloud Chamber as soon as she was alone with me? Something wasn’t adding up, and I was pretty sure that something was me—there were variables I didn’t have yet.

We stopped at a wooden door at the end of a hallway lit by glowing stones. I didn’t know how deep we were into the castle—it had been a while since we passed a window—but with all the spiral staircases we had taken to get here, I thought we might be up in one of the towers by now. Virulesse opened the door with a gentle push of magic, and we went inside.

Okay, so it wasn’t a dungeon after all—but it was far from the room I had been granted in the Garden Wing. A couple nice-but-old chairs, a wooden table, a rug of faded red and gold, and a whole lot of dusty must and musty dust. There was a window on the opposite side of the room, letting in a whole lot of natural light. (And it kind of looked like we were higher up? It was still hard to tell.) And… on the wall to my left, there was a solitary bookcase, filled from floor to brim with dusty, musty books.

Hell yeah; if this was going to be my next prison cell, I would not complain at all.

Vaxal slammed the door shut and de-manifested the energy leash attached to my collar. Virulesse put her arms out in a stretch. “We’re finally alone,” she said. “Now it’s time for the fun to begin.”

I hesitantly touched my fingers to the front of my metal collar. There was no leftover heat whatsoever. “What, are you gonna have your way with me now that no one’s watching?” I ignored the fact that Vaxal was watching, his lumbering self having taken position in the shadows beside the door.

“Don’t be so crass,” Virulesse said, rolling her eyes. “If I wanted that, I had the entire ride back to the Estate to make it happen.” She casually sat down in one of the cushioned chairs, crossing her legs and fully relaxing.

I couldn’t tell if she was serious, and that did more to unnerve me than any of my sarcastic defenses could overcome. Welp, let’s just change the subject. “So why are we here, all alone?” I glanced back at Vaxal, hoping he would permit the question. My left ring finger still throbbed whenever I remembered to notice it. Vaxal’s stiff expression didn’t falter.

“Ashleigh, you represent a… rather unique threat to the natural order of things.”

“Tch. Tell me something I don’t know.”

“I am,” Virulesse countered, with enough gravity behind the words that it sent a chill up my spine. “Here you are, an impossible girl—a human without the Seven Sevens System. Someone from another world—no—another universe. Someone with a head full of such profound secrets that I can imagine wars being fought over you. And in case you didn’t notice, one of the gifts of the Seven Sevens System is the ability to read minds.”

A big-ass metaphorical light bulb went off right above my head. “… So you’ve been keeping me isolated, so no one can get to the secrets of nuclear weapons before you.”

Virulesse blinked. “What are… No, never mind that. Yes—I’ve been keeping you isolated, so as to keep you away from any prying eyes and ears. And intentionally not engaging with your… abundant curiosity, lest you decide to return the gesture and leak dangerous knowledge with no regard for where it seeps.”

The metaphorical light bulb grew a couple watts brighter as all the missing variables fell into place. Virulesse’s game of asymmetric information warfare wasn’t a petty mindgame for the sake of grinding my gears; it was a deliberate strategy to minimize my chances of going around and telling everyone about the nature of the multiverse (you know, like I had been doing since the first minute I got here). She wasn’t worried about revealing state secrets to me—my knowledge was the state secret.

I mean, I do have a tendency to share random pieces of obscure knowledge to make myself seem smarter than I actually am. In case you hadn’t noticed.

“You could’ve just told me that’s what you were doing,” I said.

“And miss out on this rare opportunity to drive mad someone who would so clearly take it personally?” Virulesse scoffed. “Where’s the fun in that?”

… I swear, I need to just stop letting myself think my assumptions are ever right or wrong. Because they’re always both.

“Well congratulations,” I said, “you got me caught. Now what’s the next step in your master plan?”

Virulesse gestured to the empty chair beside her. I started walking over, eager to give my pitiful-stamina legs another chance to rest. “Now that we’ve dispelled all the pretenses, I’d like to get to that knowledge exchange I’ve been promising for so long. The search for structure behind your System and mine.” I could see that fire behind her eyes again, a ravenous hunger for knowledge and power. “Shall we pick each other’s brains?”

I sat down. “As long as you don’t mean that literally, hell yeah.” This was it, the conversation-with-an-intellectual I had long been waiting for. Far from the circumstances I would have expected, of course, but at this point I wouldn’t be a choosing beggar. It was time to learn what Classes were, and what Rank came after Iron, and how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop. The dream was finally coming true.

“So, Ashleigh Kyriakides. Tell me everything about yourself.”

Oh. Oh no. My worst nightmare.

Characters: Ash, Vaxal, Virulesse

Beginning of an Era – Chapter 20

Don’t think of a pink elephant.

There’s a funny thing in psychology—or maybe it’s more appropriate to say in reverse psychology—where trying to suppress a certain thought makes it stick in your mind longer, harder. Your brain can’t just turn off a thought, because keeping “don’t think Thing” in the background of your mind just primes your brain to bring Thing back to the foreground. The technical term for the phenomenon is ironic process theory, but it’s easier to summarize the concept with that age-old mind-game expression: Don’t think of a pink elephant.

So, trudging through the golden halls of the Provincial Estate with the Exarch’s mind-reading enforcer right behind me, how was I supposed to avoid thinking about Stone Cold Stormtrooper Luke back in my prison room?

Luckily, there are thought suppression strategies that do work—and any psychologist worth their weight in DSM-5 manuals should be able to teach them to you. Chief among them: redirecting all your attention to a different thing instead.

You might not be able to turn a thought off, but you can certainly drown it out.

“Sooo…” I began, unsure of what I was going to say next until I had already said most of it. “Normally right about now I’d feel obliged to make some kind of small talk, maybe ask how long you’ve been working with the Exarch—but I guess you’ve all been instructed not to answer any of my questions? Uhh, that wasn’t a question; I just intoned it like one.”

Shit, now I was thinking about Dammodel and his subtle defiance of the rules. I didn’t want to get him in trouble, either. Double shit, now I was thinking about recent visitors to my room. Pink elephants. Distraction. Don’t think about anyone. Don’t think about thinking. Fucking hell, I just lost The Game.

“Anyway,” I continued, “I could understand if it was state secrets you didn’t want me finding out—I respect your governmental authority here; I don’t want to throw anything out of balance—but, like, skyball? Is it really that dangerous for me to know what kinds of sports you have here? Or maybe I’m way off track and it’s nothing about dangerous knowledge—maybe this is just your policy for all prisoners here. I mean, if that’s what I am. Is that what I am? Uh, hello? You still there, Vax?”

I turned around. Vaxal was still there, glaring at me with such profound animosity that it chilled me to the core. He looked like he wanted to rip out my throat and strangle me with it. Christ, I wasn’t even trying to annoy him that time!

He exhaled a deep, burning breath through his nose—literally, charcoal black smoke poured out, like he was giving it his all to not blast me with fire breath. “I idly wonder,” he said. “Do any of your fingers hold particular cultural significance on Earth?”

“Well, I guess the left hand ring finger is pretty important,” I said, holding it up for display. “We use it for wedding rings if you’re married—although, come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone on Era yet with—”

Vaxal’s arm shot out at lightning speed. He grabbed my ring finger with his giant, gauntleted hand, and snapped it back with an audible crack. I screamed. The pain of the broken bone hit me instantly, a wall of red hot agony that drowned out every sense I had.

You come from a powerless world, yet you think you know what it is to face power,” Vaxal hissed, more threatening than I had seen him since Gostrey. I hissed too, mainly because it was the only way I could get my screams under control. Vaxal continued. “If you want to learn anything, little scientist, learn that we have power over you. If you want to ask anything, ask the Exarch how you may earn a visit from our healer. Do you understand?

The initial blast of pain had settled down to a still-not-tolerable throbbing. Tears burned in the corners of my eyes, but I gathered enough wherewithal to say “Yes.” God, I had never broken a bone before. That was painful as unlubricated fuck.

Apparently satisfied, Vaxal calmed down and turned me back around by forcefully pushing on my shoulder. “The Exarch awaits. Do not test her patience.”

So on we went, out of the Garden Wing and into the Sky Wing, with all my willpower focused on keeping my mouth shut in the face of indomitable pain. At least now I didn’t have to worry about having to manually redirect my thoughts to hide my secrets—shit, I mean, what secrets? Distraction. Insert lengthy mental monologue about some trivial harmless subject here.

… Why am I never able to get into a lengthy mental monologue tangent when I really need one?

After ten or so more minutes of me trying to force my brain to come up with some random Era observation that I could riff on to keep myself occupied, we arrived at our destination. “We’re here,” Vaxal announced. Aw man, and I had just come up with a really good one! It was about cross-referencing word etymologies.

Maybe I’ll tell you about it later.

We were standing beside a large, bluish-gray door in a curved hallway. Vaxal opened it with magic and demanded I go inside.

“You’re not coming with me?” I said. I immediately regretted asking such an unauthorized question, but Vaxal didn’t seem to notice the transgression.

“The Cloud Chamber is for the sole use of the Exarch Virulesse and her admitted guests,” Vaxal recited, none too thrilled. Whoa, did that count as answering one of my questions? Vaxal must have been really peeved that there was a space he couldn’t be the Exarch’s lap dog in.

I walked into the room, opting to get out of Vaxal’s sight before he realized his mistake and punished me for it. What I saw inside nearly took my breath away.

The Cloud Chamber was a gigantic rotunda—both in breadth and height—on the same level as some buildings in their own right. It was like someone had taken a church’s interior, doubled it, and then transplanted it into the middle of the castle. It was a wide open space, and perfectly circular—the curve of the hallway outside was all due to it wrapping around this one huge room. I looked up, following the walls as they curved closer together, to where they should have met in a dome on top of the chamber—but swirling white clouds blocked my view of the center of the ceiling.

Swirling clouds! Indoors! That was when I realized I felt a surprisingly strong breeze blowing from my left to the right. And judging by the rotation of the clouds at the top of the room, that wind must have been blowing around the entire perimeter of the chamber. Well, if you can make a whirlpool out of water by walking around a circular pool enough, there was no reason you couldn’t use magic to do the same thing with air.

Virulesse was seated on the floor in the center of the chamber. No throne, no chairs, no furniture whatsoever. She smiled when she saw me. “Over here,” she called out. Her voice echoed disturbingly well in the spacious chamber. “Before you disturb the currents.”

I hurried to the center of the chamber as gracefully as I could. On Earth, I was never the one to break the currents in a whirlpool if I could help it. I sat down a few feet in front of Virulesse, not quite sure if that’s what she wanted. I relaxed a little when she didn’t protest.

She was leaning back, her legs stretched out in front of her, basking in the stillness of the air. Here in the middle of the vortex, you could hardly tell there was any vortex at all. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” she asked. “A perfect harmony of the atmospheric elements.” She pointed up at the puffy mass obscuring the ceiling. “There are scripts throughout the room that funnel its ambient energy into the eternal cyclone around us. Water gets pulled toward the center, as if drawn into a drain—and the Wind flows ever around.”

“It’s incredible,” I said.

“Once enough energy has been gathered—about once every five days or so—the cloud above us becomes a raging nimbus, and the final element is added: Lightning. Perhaps you can imagine, it’s a very unstable combination. That’s when the rest of the scripts activate. The excess energy is either vented into the sky, or stored in power wells for later use.” She closed her eyes and exhaled softly. “It’s not the most efficient way to charge Artifacts, but it sure beats having your Wizards standing around all day loading them up with Lightning.”

My mind was reeling trying to keep up. This was the most I had heard about Era’s magic system since I got here, and it was being info-dumped on me all at once. Elements, Artifacts, scripts—I tried to commit every detail of what Virulesse said to memory, knowing that I probably wouldn’t have time to think through the implications of it all until much later.

The moment strung along, spiraling down the drains of time just like all the water vapor in the room spiraled toward its center. Virulesse stared at me expectantly. “What, no sarcastic remarks? No shrewd followup questions?”

“What are we doing here?” I heard myself ask abruptly. My voice was steady, despite the continued throbbing in my hand. I had to remind myself I could handle it—I was a big girl; I could deal with a little pain until they let me see the healer. Virulesse wouldn’t let me suffer any permanent damage… Right?

The Exarch returned her gaze to the mists above us and smiled gently. “I often come to the Cloud Chamber to think—to meditate, if you will. Whenever I’m faced with a difficult problem and I need the serenity of nature’s balance to center myself. Whenever I need to adapt my methods in the face of an ever changing world.” She raised an arm, gesturing to nothing in particular. “Wind is the element of adaptation, after all. And when you stop being my little secret, the whole world is going to have to adapt to you.”

All thoughts of my swollen broken finger evaporated as the Exarch’s statement hit me like a metaphorical punch to the face. “What.”

Virulesse chuckled, and the echoes of her laughter rang out eerily in all directions. “Ashleigh, you’ve been on Era for four days now—surely by now you’ve realized your very existence here is going to shake the foundations of our world?”

“I’ve kind of had a lot on my mind recently,” I said. She was right; I was going to be a big deal when word got out about me—and I hadn’t given it an ounce of thought. Just daydreaming about System Sudoku and maybe finding a way to ascend to godhood. And on one night of comfortable weakness, about all the friends and family I had left behind.

“No doubt,” Virulesse said pompously. “Well, allow me to add to your plate.” She stood up, motioning for me to do the same and follow her. I didn’t have much choice but to obey—I was still a prisoner, here. I think.

As we walked toward the door, Virulesse continued to speak. “If you were in my position—one of the highest rulers in one of the most powerful kingdoms on the planet—and you found someone in your territory claiming to be from another world—a world where the laws of magic are either different or altogether nonexistent—what would you do with her?”

For once in my lives, I managed to think before I spoke. “I would lock her up as soon as possible, and not tell her anything at all about my world unless absolutely necessary. I wouldn’t know what kind of threat she would pose if she was able to combine her own world’s magic system with this one. But, that’s also exactly the knowledge I would want to gain from her. A path of power that no one else on my world would be able to combat.”

Virulesse smirked with a single corner of her mouth as we reached the edge of the room. “Is that what you think I’ve been doing?”

“If I asked anyone what you’ve been doing, would they be allowed to tell me?”

“Why don’t you ask and find out?” Virulesse said.

“… What have you been doing?”

Virulesse placed her hand on the door and opened it with a small thrust of energy. “Distracting you.” Vaxal stood on the other side of the door, menacingly tall in front of us, grinning with sadistic pleasure. Before I had time to comprehend what was going on, he reached for my throat—and latched a cold metal collar around my neck. As his hand fell back to his side, a crackling rope of red energy stretched down from my neck to his hand—a leash.

“What are you doing?!” I shrieked.

Vaxal flexed his hand and energy surged into me, filling my body with a brand new kind of agony. I fell to my knees, screaming. Vaxal jerked me back up.

“I’m doing what I wish I could have started days ago, if there weren’t so many prying eyes around,” Virulesse said, her voice overflowing with hungry passion. “It’s finally time for us to have our knowledge exchange.”

Characters: Ash, Vaxal, Virulesse

Beginning of an Era – Chapter 19

Crisp sunlight shone in through the open window. Mountainous wind howled outside, energized by the warmth of dawn. I sat at my desk, pen in hand and blank first page of my new journal in front of me—my soon-to-be My Time on Era So Far, By Ash Kyriakides. I took an exhilarated breath as I placed the tip of the pen on the paper. It was the moment I had long been waiting for. Okay, let’s do this.

I traced out the first stroke of the first letter and… nothing came out.

I lifted the pen, shook it around a bit, and tried again. Maybe its magical infinite ink reservoir was just jammed?

I pressed down harder on the paper this time, leaving an indented path in the pen’s wake—but still no ink. I kept trying to coax out the ink for the next few minutes, with the same disappointing results the whole way through.

ARGH! I threw the pen across the room in a flit of futile fury. Of course I shouldn’t have expected to be able to use a magic pen. I didn’t have magic, so I had no way to activate the pen for myself. I was so frustrated that I almost started laughing. This was the exact kind of bullshit that I had been dealing with ever since I woke up on Era, and I’d probably be dealing with it for the rest of my life.

Well, back to square zero. At least I could use the pen as a makeshift weapon, if I needed to stab someone. Guess I better go find where it landed.

As I was scrambling around the floor beside the bed looking for the infinitely useless pen/infinitesimally useful stake, the door to my room opened and someone in full Gray-Guard-esque knightly regalia walked in.

“Haven’t you ever heard of knocking?” I asked the helmeted stranger, not bothering to get up from the floor. If Virulesse thought she could barge in on me any time she wants, I’d have to teach her a thing or two about respecting my privacy. Aha—there it was, a couple inches under the bed.

“Ash! I’m so glad I found you,” a familiar voice said. Wait, was that…

The knight took off his helmet, revealing a boyish face I didn’t think I’d see again. “Boh?! What are you doing here?” Bohriam Sen fucking Kahl, my literal transdimensional hero, was standing in my doorway. I jumped up, hitting my head on the metal bed frame on the way. Ow.

“Nice to see you too,” Bohriam said with a sarcastic eye roll. “Obviously I’m here to rescue you. We should hurry; I don’t know when the next security shift is supposed to come by.”

“Wait—how did you find me? How did you get here so quickly?” Once again, I couldn’t help but indulge my desire for asking very ill-timed questions. Seriously, how was Bohriam able to catch up with us? Back in the palanquin, we had kept a very brisk travel pace, stopping only a few times a day. (For those playing at home, the only time-appropriate question here would have been “Yes sir, which way is out?”)

“I’ve been here for about a day already,” Bohriam said.

“What? How?!”

“After the Exarch left Gostrey, I took a waterhopper and went north up the river as fast as I could—until I could see this place in the mountain in the distance. Then I just cut across the wilderness and climbed the mountain and found a way to sneak in. As for how I found you once I got inside the castle, it was pretty easy—all the guards are wondering what the deal is with the Exarch’s new ‘pet.’”

Huh, so the river continued north after the lake on which Gostrey was built. That was pretty damn convenient for me now. Attaboy, Boh. “… You climbed the mountain?”

Bohriam shrugged, looking away bashfully. “I, uhh, have a lot of experience climbing mountains.”

… Whatever. I wasn’t going to keep looking this gift horse in the mouth—not when I could be riding it to freedom instead. “Okay then, Mr. Hotshot. You wanna be the Stormtrooper Luke to my captive Princess Leia? What’s the escape plan here? And please tell me you’re strong enough now to pull it off—I hope you’ve leveled up since I last saw you.”

“No, I’m still only Level 68—and maybe weaker than usual, since I used up a lot of my magic to power the waterhopper all the way here.”

Damn—it would have been nice if he was Level 69 now. (Shut up, I can be a little immature if I want. I’ve fucking earned it at this point.) “Not doing a lot to inspire confidence over here, Boh. But okay, I’ll take it. Even if it’s more of a gift pony than a gift horse.”

“What does that even—” Before Boh could finish his sentence, someone knocked on my closed door. Boh froze up, snapping his head to the door and clearly entering deer-in-the-headlights mode.

Hell no, I was not about to let my one escape strategy get himself captured before he was even able to tell me the plan. I grabbed his arm and pulled with enough force to knock him off balance. “Quick! Bathroom! Hide!” I whisper-shouted, pointing to my right at the small side room.

Bohriam understood and followed my cue, bounding out of sight just in time for the main room’s door to magically reveal itself once more, and open to the ungainly visage of Vaxal Brigyndir. He snarled at me as he walked into the room.

“Jeez, haven’t you ever heard of asking permission before entering?” I snarked. I glanced to my side, confirming that Bohriam had successfully evaded being seen—though he hadn’t been able to close the door behind him, so I really hoped he knew how to be quiet. “Although, now I know for sure you’re not a vampire, so thanks—that idea was really starting to bother me, what with all the growling and showing of teeth, so—”

“I have not the time nor patience for your drivel, Null-rank,” Vaxal barked. “The Exarch Virulesse demands your immediate presence in the Cloud Chamber. If you value your unscarred flesh, you will not keep her waiting.”

Welp. Okay. No more toying with the enforcer. “Yes sir,” I answered meekly. “Which way is the Cloud Chamber?”

Vaxal held up an arm to the open door in a clear “After you” gesture. I only hesitated for a second before nodding and slowly walking out in front of him.

It wasn’t that I didn’t know this was coming—last night Vaxal had practically promised that this was how it was going to go down. It was that there were suddenly so many more variables involved, and each one made the situation so much worse than the last. Once I was in the hallway I heard Vaxal slam the door shut behind us, and I mentally added one more variable to the pile.

“This way,” Vaxal said, and I dutifully followed him.

On the outside, I was a stone-faced mildly-frightened little girl—but on the inside, I was terrified out of my mind. I had just found out that my would-be hero was back, and now I was walking alongside a mind-reader who was probably itching for any excuse to blast my face off, toward an evil overlord who would probably gleefully dissect me in the pursuit of knowledge equals power, and the only thing I had to defend myself with was the worthless pen I had shoved into my pocket.

And to put a cherry on top of this whole rotten cake, Bohriam had taken my place as being locked in my room.

Characters: Ash, Bohriam, Vaxal

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