Do the words “captured” and “captive” have the same etymology? They probably do in English—both sourcing from the same root word, some Latin infinitive I didn’t know. But what about in Beleric? Would they have the same etymology there? Maybe not, if the story of the multiverse was one of convergent evolution—of languages inching ever closer to their multiversal ideals over geological time scales. If that was the case, then it might be possible to compare and contrast the etymologies of all the words in English and Beleric to figure out where both languages were heading next.
Languages normally evolve divergently—one root word from the ancient Proto-Indo-European language might be the great grandparent of dozens of English words today, and hundreds of words across all of English’s sister and cousin languages—German, Dutch, and all the Romance languages. But when you know (or hypothesize) that one of those languages is evolving toward something, and you find another language far out in the multiverse that’s seemingly evolving toward the same thing…With enough statistical analysis, you might well be able to figure out what they’re both evolving toward.
Linguists on Earth cross reference languages with their cousins in order to fill in the missing gaps of their ancient proto-language grandparents. Here I was envisioning doing the reverse: cross referencing English with Beleric in order to decipher Multiversal English, possibly centuries ahead of schedule.
Anyway, that’s the cool idea I had earlier—back when I was only mostly sure I was a prisoner. Man, how fast the tables can turn.
Vaxal yanked on my leash, and my stride faltered. “Maintain pace, Null-rank,” he said, not even deigning to look at me anymore.
The Exarch and her enforcer walked in front of me, dragging me along to who-knows-where, the Exarch practically bouncing with every step. “Go easy on her, my dear,” she said. “Who knows what pitiful levels of stamina her Systemless body can handle?”
I walked up a mile of stairs yesterday, you jackass, I thought venomously. You were both there! You watched me do it! Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to meet the mind-reader’s taunts with reminders that I was capable of walking as fast as they were, but hey, even I have dignity that I want to preserve sometimes.
The metal ring around my neck burned and chafed—especially in the front, where the thick strand of crackling crimson energy jutted out from under my chin. I could feel it radiating heat as Vaxal pulled me along, sometimes to the point of pain when it bounced too close to my jaw. I walked with a raised chin, my eyes constantly on the magic burn-leash.
Virulesse led us to an unoccupied part of the castle. For what it was worth, I was relieved—at least no one else was going to see me in this pitiful state. But as the walls and floors slowly transformed from tiled into cold, desolate stone, my thoughts turned toward dark dungeons and the medieval torture devices that might lurk within them.
I had no idea what kind of horror show I was being walked into. They say that when faced with the unknown, you should assume the worst—that way, your expectations will either be met perfectly, or you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Well, whoever first said that had clearly never been anywhere close to an evil overlord’s secret torture chamber before.
The Exarch had said it was time for our knowledge exchange, but what did she really mean by that? When I thought of knowledge exchange on Earth, I imagined lecture halls. Or specialist interviews. Or going to a Stack Exchange website and being disappointed because the question I was looking for was downvoted.
Even on Era, I would have assumed that a deep conversation would have sufficed. Or if Virulesse didn’t want to share, then maybe a psychic interrogation with Vaxal ripping all the knowledge right out of my brain stem. (And then strangling me with said brain stem, because seriously, fuck Vaxal.)
(Vaxal looked over his shoulder and wordlessly glared at me for a few seconds. Shit, was that just coincidence or was he listening that time? Unfuck Vaxal! Unfuck Vaxal!)
Well, whatever the case was, Virulesse’s actions so far didn’t make any sense. Why give me a nice bedroom on my first night only to transfer me to the dungeons on day two? Why go to such lengths to keep me in the dark, only to slam me with the technical know-how of the Cloud Chamber as soon as she was alone with me? Something wasn’t adding up, and I was pretty sure that something was me—there were variables I didn’t have yet.
We stopped at a wooden door at the end of a hallway lit by glowing stones. I didn’t know how deep we were into the castle—it had been a while since we passed a window—but with all the spiral staircases we had taken to get here, I thought we might be up in one of the towers by now. Virulesse opened the door with a gentle push of magic, and we went inside.
Okay, so it wasn’t a dungeon after all—but it was far from the room I had been granted in the Garden Wing. A couple nice-but-old chairs, a wooden table, a rug of faded red and gold, and a whole lot of dusty must and musty dust. There was a window on the opposite side of the room, letting in a whole lot of natural light. (And it kind of looked like we were higher up? It was still hard to tell.) And… on the wall to my left, there was a solitary bookcase, filled from floor to brim with dusty, musty books.
Hell yeah; if this was going to be my next prison cell, I would not complain at all.
Vaxal slammed the door shut and de-manifested the energy leash attached to my collar. Virulesse put her arms out in a stretch. “We’re finally alone,” she said. “Now it’s time for the fun to begin.”
I hesitantly touched my fingers to the front of my metal collar. There was no leftover heat whatsoever. “What, are you gonna have your way with me now that no one’s watching?” I ignored the fact that Vaxal was watching, his lumbering self having taken position in the shadows beside the door.
“Don’t be so crass,” Virulesse said, rolling her eyes. “If I wanted that, I had the entire ride back to the Estate to make it happen.” She casually sat down in one of the cushioned chairs, crossing her legs and fully relaxing.
I couldn’t tell if she was serious, and that did more to unnerve me than any of my sarcastic defenses could overcome. Welp, let’s just change the subject. “So why are we here, all alone?” I glanced back at Vaxal, hoping he would permit the question. My left ring finger still throbbed whenever I remembered to notice it. Vaxal’s stiff expression didn’t falter.
“Ashleigh, you represent a… rather unique threat to the natural order of things.”
“Tch. Tell me something I don’t know.”
“I am,” Virulesse countered, with enough gravity behind the words that it sent a chill up my spine. “Here you are, an impossible girl—a human without the Seven Sevens System. Someone from another world—no—another universe. Someone with a head full of such profound secrets that I can imagine wars being fought over you. And in case you didn’t notice, one of the gifts of the Seven Sevens System is the ability to read minds.”
A big-ass metaphorical light bulb went off right above my head. “… So you’ve been keeping me isolated, so no one can get to the secrets of nuclear weapons before you.”
Virulesse blinked. “What are… No, never mind that. Yes—I’ve been keeping you isolated, so as to keep you away from any prying eyes and ears. And intentionally not engaging with your… abundant curiosity, lest you decide to return the gesture and leak dangerous knowledge with no regard for where it seeps.”
The metaphorical light bulb grew a couple watts brighter as all the missing variables fell into place. Virulesse’s game of asymmetric information warfare wasn’t a petty mindgame for the sake of grinding my gears; it was a deliberate strategy to minimize my chances of going around and telling everyone about the nature of the multiverse (you know, like I had been doing since the first minute I got here). She wasn’t worried about revealing state secrets to me—my knowledge was the state secret.
I mean, I do have a tendency to share random pieces of obscure knowledge to make myself seem smarter than I actually am. In case you hadn’t noticed.
“You could’ve just told me that’s what you were doing,” I said.
“And miss out on this rare opportunity to drive mad someone who would so clearly take it personally?” Virulesse scoffed. “Where’s the fun in that?”
… I swear, I need to just stop letting myself think my assumptions are ever right or wrong. Because they’re always both.
“Well congratulations,” I said, “you got me caught. Now what’s the next step in your master plan?”
Virulesse gestured to the empty chair beside her. I started walking over, eager to give my pitiful-stamina legs another chance to rest. “Now that we’ve dispelled all the pretenses, I’d like to get to that knowledge exchange I’ve been promising for so long. The search for structure behind your System and mine.” I could see that fire behind her eyes again, a ravenous hunger for knowledge and power. “Shall we pick each other’s brains?”
I sat down. “As long as you don’t mean that literally, hell yeah.” This was it, the conversation-with-an-intellectual I had long been waiting for. Far from the circumstances I would have expected, of course, but at this point I wouldn’t be a choosing beggar. It was time to learn what Classes were, and what Rank came after Iron, and how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop. The dream was finally coming true.
“So, Ashleigh Kyriakides. Tell me everything about yourself.”
Oh. Oh no. My worst nightmare.