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