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 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.”