Bohriam and I escaped from the Provincial Estate with little further danger. He led me through the maze of hallways and stairways and secret passageways like he had lived here for years—carefully avoiding detection by any of the castle’s guards, none of whom had any idea yet that their Exarch was dead. They carried on about their business like it was any other day, only casually speculating on what the ruckus downstairs had been, while Bohriam and I fled like invisible phantoms under their very noses.
It was like something from a dream—I was overwhelmed by the surreality of it all. We were actually going to survive. Against all the impossible odds, despite all the obstacles and adversaries that had sprung up between me and my freedom, I was going to live. As we passed unseen through the shadows of the Exarch’s castle, as weak and exhausted as I was from the events of the last several days, the entirety of our escape became a blur of images and emotions and elations that I could barely process.
We left the castle through a wide open window, where it was only a small leap to some stable terrain below. We were on top of the mountain—I recognized some of the peaks from the view I had from my room in the Garden Wing. Far across the western expanse of forests and grasslands, a bright rising sun was banishing the last traces of darkness on a world where stillness reigned.
Bohriam took me to the path he originally had to climb to reach the Provincial Estate. It snaked its way down the mountain, far away from the cliff whose mile-long staircase I had to endure. We descended together in silence, Bohriam helping me keep my footing wherever the terrain became dangerous. Everywhere else, gravity did most of the work—the only reason I could still move was because I was already in motion. Newton’s first law. I wanted nothing more than to collapse, to get some restful sleep like I hadn’t since before I died on Earth—but that same delirious haze kept me moving forward.
I woke up at one point, not knowing when I had fallen asleep or for how long. Bohriam was carrying me in his arms. The mountain was somewhere behind us—we were on the relatively flat plain of the Viskavian wilderness now. The howling of atmospheric winds had been replaced by the sound of overgrown grasses and weeds brushing up against Bohriam’s armor. He noticed me shifting and staring up at him incoherently. “Shh,” he softly commanded. “Rest.”
Yes, sir, I thought, and that was all the permission I needed to drift back into slumberland.
The next several hours were even more of a blur. Half-asleep and half-awake, I let Bohriam carry me for who knows how many miles. Dreams of Virulesse’s tortures—both those fulfilled and those promised—still kept me from the restful sleep I craved. The burns of the manacles, the scars of the whip… My left-hand ring finger thrummed with the echoes of half-forgotten pain.
During my more conscious stretches, I kept my eyes closed and let my mind roam freely until Bohriam’s steady strides rocked me back to sleep. I had been through so much over the last five days—or was it six days at this point? I didn’t know anymore—I was on a planet named Era, and I couldn’t even keep track of time.
On Earth, I had probably been given a funeral by now. I wondered briefly who might have shown up for it. My parents, at minimum. Adrianna and Sam and Dana, hopefully… Rajan? A couple other people who used to know me? Such a small footprint to leave behind. A paltry final chapter to a book that never ventured to break its own genre conventions.
But this book had a sequel.
For whatever unfathomable reason, Seriphen had given me a second chance—and now more than ever, I was determined to use that second chance to its fullest potential. I had been through so much since Seriphen reincarnated me, learned so much, and I had still only barely scratched the surface of what was out there—both in terms of Era’s Seven Sevens System, and all the multitudes of worlds that lay beyond my reach. And just as I always did, I was already piecing together multiversal secrets I had no right to know.
Infinity divided by two is still infinity. If you took two random points on a truly infinite number line, the odds are pretty high that those two points will be infinitely far apart. (I’d say the odds are infinitely high, but I wouldn’t want to anger the mathematicians. No; I’ll just say the odds are asymptotically approaching 1 and anger everyone else instead.)
So, the fact that there are only 12,776 worlds between Era and The Unmade? That was pretty strong evidence that there are only a finite number of worlds—not the “countless” worlds I had been assuming. Earth, Era, The Unmade… There may only be tens of thousands of worlds, or there may be millions—but however many there were, it was a number that could be reached by basic counting. The universes themselves might be infinitely large on the inside, as Earth’s universe was speculated to be, but they were not infinite in number.
I still wasn’t sure what it meant that there were however many worlds “between” Era and The Unmade. The knowledge had come from a vision that was beyond my control, perhaps even beyond my human comprehension—but as the eldritch entity unleashed its ancient knowledge onto me, the concept translated itself into my mind with the English word “between.”
I didn’t think it was meant in a literal number-line way, a string of worlds to be traversed one after the other like a cosmic doubly linked list. But on the other hand, it also wasn’t a mere statement of spatial separation—like that there were X many galaxies between the Milky Way and Galaxy GN-z11. All I could really say for sure was that there was some kind of underlying structure to the worlds of the greater multiverse, and that with the right cosmic vantage point, we might someday be able to figure out what that structure was.
I thought about the existence of The Unmade, and all its frightening implications. I had tried to envision the greater-multiversal instantiation of Cthulhu, and something close enough existed to answer the call. Earth’s entire idea of eldritch horrors and lovecraftian entities was a manifestation of the collective psychic subconscious. We didn’t have their names right yet, but we had the heart of it: that dark powers lurked in the deepest recesses of reality.
And somehow, the combination of the Seven Sevens mind-reading power with my System-less mind was enough to create a real connection to The Unmade. (For vague definitions of “real,” at least.) It was the first thing I had seen that truly qualified as a glitchy interaction between my Null-rank self and the System. Exactly the kind of thing Virulesse wanted out of me. Exactly the kind of thing I should have been excited to discover.
If that one existed, there were probably others.
The next time I woke up, it was almost night. Bohriam had laid me down on a patch of grass, my head resting on a bundle of cloth for a makeshift pillow. I sat up and found him crouching a few feet away, gloomily staring into a campfire of his own making. Wisps of orange flame danced against the twilight, their reflections cackling in Bohriam’s heavy brown eyes.
I crawled over to join him by the fire. It wasn’t especially cold, but there was something soothing in those rippling flames. “Why the long face?” I asked.
He glanced over at me, his trance broken. “Hmm?”
“You look like you’re contemplating a thousand little miseries over here. Believe me, I would know. What’s wrong?”
Bohriam turned back to the fire. “You wouldn’t understand.”
He was right. I probably wouldn’t understand—my track record for understanding other people’s miseries was a big misery of my own. “Then… Could you explain it to me? Seriously, you should be happy right now. You saved me, you finished your Personal Quest, you advanced to Iron-rank… What more could you possibly… Oh fuck, I didn’t thank you yet for saving me, did I? Seriously, from the bottom to the top of my heart, thank you.”
“It’s not that,” Bohriam said. He stared into the dancing embers for a long time before speaking again. “I… never killed anyone before I met you.”
Bohriam continued. “First the Gray Guard soldier who chased us through the forest, and now the Exarch Virulesse… I know I had to do it to protect you, to protect both of us. And I don’t blame you for any of it; I made all my own choices.” He sighed, and the exhalation pressed the campfire’s flames back for an ephemeral second. “I knew it would happen eventually, especially after I joined the Aegis, but… I don’t think I like what I’m turning into.”
“And what do you think you’re turning into?”
Bohriam smiled at me, but the edge of malaise never left his eyes. “The same thing as everyone else.”
Bright sunlight and morning warmth nudged me awake, and I found myself curled up in the same spot as last night. The charred remains of Bohriam’s campfire were still there, as was the man himself, walking up from the riverbank about fifty yards away. Oh, hey—we were at the river.
Stretching out and breathing in the fresh country air, I cautiously rose to my feet, testing my balance. I still didn’t have much energy… but all the aches and pains of yesterday were gone. I felt completely refreshed, albeit extremely hungry—I guess twenty-plus hours of sleeping outdoors will do that to you.
“Good morning,” Bohriam said as he walked back into our miniature campsite. “I was worried you might never wake up. How’d you sleep? Oh, also, breakfast.” He manifested a bright red apple from his inventory and tossed it to me.
I caught the apple with both hands and took a moment to mentally congratulate myself for the successful catch. “It was the best sleep I’ve ever had on this planet—which isn’t saying much, but… It was good. I’m good. Thanks.” Upon closer inspection, the fruit wasn’t quite an apple, but it looked close enough—and tasted close enough, too. I bit into the fauxpple, skin and all, relishing every juicy drop.
“There’s more where that came from if you’re still hungry,” Bohriam said, chowing down on his own imitation apple.
“Yes please—but only one at a time. I don’t know how long I’ve gone without eating, and I don’t want to hurt myself by binging on a brutalized stomach.”
I ended up going through another two fauxpples before I forced myself to stop. That was enough for now—I’d have all day to fill my bottomless pit of an appetite. And then I’d have all of tomorrow, too. Damn was it good to be free again.
With breakfast taken care of, Bohriam and I walked down to the river, finally ready for our return trip to Gostrey. Twin waterhoppers were already waiting for us, thanks to Bohriam’s exploration efforts while I was still asleep. I watched as Bohriam tapped his lightning sword against each one, making them rise with maglev energy, my mind a mishmashed mess of unrelated thoughts and regrets. I barely paid any attention as we kicked off in our T-poses down the river.
I never had the chance to say goodbye to Dammodel. I know it was stupid to think about, maybe even a miniature Stockholm syndrome, but he was the only person who remotely tried being nice to me during my imprisonment. They were probably going to kill him for that insubordination, eventually.
It was shitty in all the ways I had come to expect from this planet. Dammodel tried so hard to be a nice person. He even brought me that stupid pen, even though I couldn’t use Artifacts—
“Wait… I can use waterhoppers!”
A couple feet away from me, Bohriam looked confused. “Um, we already knew that?”
“But I don’t have the System! I couldn’t use other Artifacts.” The waterhopper had worked for me the first time I used it, and I never even thought to question it. What the fuck—how was I able to operate a magic levitating telepathic trash can lid and not a goddamn pen?
“Oh. Yeah, probably because I charged it for you.”
My mind reeled. Bohriam had charged the waterhopper for me. The pen had no such power source. Artifacts could still interface with my mind, no matter how System-less it was—my T-pose telepathic motion was proof of that.
A monologue from Virulesse sprung forth from my memory. The excess energy is either vented into the sky, or stored in power wells for later use. It’s not the most efficient way to charge Artifacts, but it sure beats having your Wizards standing around all day loading them up with Lightning.
Power wells. Lightning. Bohriam’s sword. “I can use Artifacts if I don’t need to power them myself!”
We hovered down the river no faster than a casual walking pace, but I felt more powerful than ever before. Virulesse and Vaxal wanted me to believe that my Null-rank meant I was powerless in this world, that I was a weakling whose only purpose was to be stepped on by those with actual power. And I was a weakling—so weak that my STR stat was literally nonexistent.
But I wasn’t powerless. I could use waterhoppers. I would be able to use plenty of things, if I could find power wells for them. And who knew what else I would be able to do, once I really started digging into the nuances of the Seven Sevens System?
I was never much of an optimist on Earth when it came to the future. But right now, with Boh at my side and the wind at my back, I couldn’t help but think: maybe life on Era wouldn’t be so bad after all.