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