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