As Bohriam mournfully filled Elder Hammond in on the slaughter of Gostrey’s entire fighting force, I went to town on that plate of food Andreon had brought me. Apparently, it wasn’t rude in this world to chow my face off while taking part (from the sidelines) in a serious conversation. Seriphen was wrong—I hadn’t been reincarnated in another world; I died and went straight to heaven.
“And for the rest of the battle I pretended I was already dead,” Bohriam said, bitterly turning away from Elder Hammond’s non-judging eyes. “Exactly as Jonakan ordered me to do.”
Oof. That had to be a real teabag to the self-esteem. I made a mental note to never make fun of Bohriam for being weaker than your average bear—and then I realized that might be the treatment I was in for on this planet, if I couldn’t find a way to fend for myself soon enough. Gulp.
Hammond nodded acceptingly. “You did your duty to Gostrey, Bohriam Sen Kahl. You survived so that someone could warn us of the danger we face. There is no shame in that.” He spoke slowly, enunciating each word with an air of wisdom that really made me buy into the whole Elder title schtick. (Plus, he was being nice to my boy Boh. After what I had seen from the rest of the Fay family, I had to give him credit for that.)
“Except I almost didn’t,” Bohriam said, passing me a sidelong glance.
Hammond followed Bohriam’s line of sight straight to me, currently stuffing my face with the last of the bread. “Uh, hi,” I said through the mouthful.
The elder smiled amiably at me. “So how did you enter the picture?”
I swallowed the last of my meal. For a world without Earth’s agricultural engineering, those were some bomb-ass veggies. Heck, maybe Era had taste-amplifying magic. I’d have to ask at some point. “Well, this might be a little hard to explain, but… I’m actually from another world, except I died, but then in the afterlife the Goddess of Reincarnation told me I was going to be reincarnated—and then I was, here. I woke up in the middle of—well, the aftermath of—the battle, and then the Gray Guard was going to kill me, but Bohriam jumped up and pulled me out before they could. And then we ran for a while, walked for a while, ran for a while more, T-posed for a while, and now I’m here.” Huh, that wasn’t so hard to explain after all. Once I got started, it actually kind of all flowed out effortlessly. Why can’t I always be that good at explaining things?
The runes on the surface of Elder Hammond’s left eye stopped glowing green—wait, when had they even started glowing? Wait, there were runes on his eye??
Hammond breathed in, then let out a heavy sigh. “I believe you,” he said. “Or rather, I believe that you believe you are telling the truth—and that’s good enough for me.”
God damn it. Fuckin’ truth-Sharingan up in this bitch. That was something I would have to worry about too? Oh well. At least I didn’t have to ask about telepathy anymore. One question down, seven hundred seventy seven more to go.
“She’s telling the truth?” Bohriam said, expression lighting up again like a kid on his birthday.
“Hey!” I said. “I thought you already trusted me!”
“I do,” Bohriam said, flustered. “But I trust Elder Hammond even more.”
Well, I couldn’t argue with that. Dude was Dumbledore with a built-in lie detector.
“She is,” Hammond answered. “Congratulations, Bohriam. You’ve finally found what you’ve been waiting for.”
And there was my opening. “Yeah, about that… What’s the deal there? Bohriam mentioned something about some kind of prophecy?” If I was going to have some kind of cosmic destiny, it was high time I got proactive in figuring out what it was. Or at least preparing myself for what it might be.
Elder Hammond blinked in surprise. “Huh. In all my years, I’ve never thought of Personal Quests as a form of prophecy—but I suppose in this case, it may have been true. A Personal Quest is never meant to be impossible.” Now he was looking at Boh. “No matter how incredible it may seem.”
Bohriam looked like he was about to stammer out some self-defensive comeback, but I beat him to speaking. “What’s a Personal Quest?”
Hammond looked back at me with one of those expressions of bewilderment that I was so used to invoking, his mouth slightly agape and tilted to the side. His eye glowed another truth-detection pulse at me. “You’re kidding.”
“That’s the thing,” Bohriam said. “Ash is from another world… A world without the Seven Sevens.”
“You don’t have the System?” Hammond asked. I shook my head. “No stats? Class? Magic?” I shook my head again, again, and again. “How is that possible?”
“Well, right before the reincarnation Goddess sent me here, she realized I wouldn’t be compatible with the System here because Earth—my original world—doesn’t have a System of its own.”
Still locked in a gaze of total astonishment, Hammond looked me up and down like he was seeing me for the very first time. “Remarkable… A Stone-rank at your age… No—not even Stone-rank. A No-rank… A Null-rank…”
Heh. Null-rank. I could vibe with that. “Is Stone the earliest rank?”
“Yes,” both Elder Hammond and Bohriam responded. They exchanged stares for a couple seconds. Bohriam turned away first, looking to the ground as forlornly as before.
Elder Hammond continued his explanation. “Everyone on Era is Stone-rank when they’re born. A blank slate of low stats, no experience, and all the potential in the world. But it is not until one’s teenage years—usually 15 or 16 or so—that a Stone receives their first Personal Quest from the System. Usually, it’s something simple to understand. Winning a difficult battle. Overcoming a personal fear. Sometimes, a Personal Quest will be a little more… esoteric. Gathering a certain set of Artifacts. Discovering a particular secret.”
“… Saving the life of someone from another world,” I said. Man. I knew Bohriam was supposed to be weak, but I had no idea that he was still at the baby stage. The same weight class as kids and teenagers—I mean, I was pretty sure Bohriam was still a teen, but at the far end of the teenage years. Not the middle, where all his peers were probably completing their own quests left and right. That couldn’t have been easy on his psyche.
Hammond nodded. “A Personal Quest is meant to challenge oneself, to incubate personal growth. It would go against the very nature of the System for a Personal Quest to be insurmountable. In fact, I had never heard of an ‘impossible’ Personal Quest until young Bohriam told me his own.” He turned to Boh, chuckling. “And even then, it seems it was just as possible as any other! All it required was a little bit of patience, and the courage not to give up hope.”
I couldn’t tell what Bohriam was feeling in that moment, as he stared intensely at the floor, scrubbing all hints of emotion from his face. Shame from having given up hope? Bashful pride from having not given up? Relief that he wouldn’t be the butt of Andreon’s conceited bullying anymore?
Or maybe it was still guilt from being the only survivor of the Gray Guard’s attack.
“Regardless,” Hammond said, turning back to me, “a Stone typically completes their Personal Quest within a year or so of receiving it. And when that happens… When the Stone finally proves himself worthy of the path of the System… He ascends to Iron-rank.”
“What’s Iron-rank?” I asked.
Elder Hammond sighed and smiled softly at me. “I can tell that you have many more questions, but I have many more duties—and there are only so many hours in the night. Let us retire now, and perhaps reconvene in the morning.”
“Wait! Um… What about me? Where should I go?” Suddenly I realized I was not only powerless on this world, but completely destitute as well—and that I had only managed to ignore it thus far because Bohriam had been guiding me every step of the way. But I was on the verge of losing that rock. Bohriam had a life here to get back to, and I had a life I needed to start. But how could I, with no food, no money, without even a place to sleep? Oh god, I didn’t even have a change of clothes!
Bohriam opened his mouth to speak, but closed it without saying anything. Maybe he was about to offer to let me stay at his place, then thought better of it. If so, I was glad I didn’t have to verbally turn him down. I was grateful to him for saving my life and all, but… We just met, dude. I don’t trust you that much yet. Although, in a weird way, him not actually making the offer made me trust him slightly more.
Elder Hammond considered my question for a couple seconds. “Hmm… Rikaine Lin Rain is on watchtower duty tonight. Her house is available, and not too far from here. I can take you, if you’d like.”
I nodded. An empty house was just what I needed right now. Peace and quiet and space to think and get my bearings without having to worry about the person in the next room being able to snap my head off by snapping their fingers.
“Excellent,” Hammond said. “Bohriam, go to the watchtower and update Rikaine on the situation. Make sure if she does have to go home before dawn, she knows not to disturb her guest.”
“Yes sir,” Bohriam said.
This was it—I was leaving my rock behind. My first night alone in Gostrey, in Beleria, on Era, in a universe far from anywhere I knew as home. The chill of night seeped its first probing tendrils into me and I couldn’t help but wonder: was that the last warmth I would feel for a while?
Bohriam hadn’t left yet. “Um. I’ll see you in the morning, Ash. Sleep well.”
As Hammond led me into the moonlit townscape, I nursed a small smile. No. No, it was not.