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?