Uhh, Reincarnation Goddess? You Forgot to Give Me the System

Category: Arc 1 – Beginning of an Era (Page 1 of 3)

Beginning of an Era – Chapter 22

“Well… My name is Ashleigh… as you already know.”

Virulesse stared at me with such a blank expression that I almost thought I broke her. Woo, I was off to a great start.

“And I’m twenty-two years old—although, I don’t know what that translates to in terms of Era’s orbital period—but anyway, I’m a—was a—software developer… But I guess you wouldn’t know what that is either… so maybe I should just take this from the top.” Jeez, this was so much easier when I had Elder Hammond’s Eye of Truth to grease the wheels on my explain-o-meter. I took a deep breath, gathering and organizing my thoughts. “So Earth has these things called computers and about eighty years ago a bunch of scientists figured out—”

Virulesse held up a hand and I bit my tongue. “Stop. Let’s take this one thing at a time, shall we? How did you come to leave your old world—I believe you called it Earth?” I nodded. “How did you come to leave your Earth behind and find yourself on Era?”

I breathed a sigh of relief. That was one question I definitely knew how to answer. “That’s easy. I died.”

The Exarch quirked an eyebrow at me. “You died?”

I nodded. “And next thing I knew, I was in some kind of afterlife realm, talking to Seriphen—the Goddess of Reincarnation.” I described my encounter with the goddess, and all the things she had told me. The ‘greater multiverse,’ the collective psychic subconscious, and all the different worlds out there, each with their own System. “And then she poofed me away, and I woke up on Era. Somewhere near Gostrey, to be precise.”

Virulesse listened to the entire tale with more blank-faced objective neutrality, but her eyes twitched a little wider every time I revealed something of cosmic significance—I could tell she was fascinated. When I finally stopped talking, instead of asking me any of the obvious followup questions, she turned toward Vaxal on the other side of the room.

“All true,” Vaxal said. Oh, right. Telepathic lie detector. At least I wouldn’t have to go through the trouble of convincing Virulesse to believe all of this cliché fantasy bullshit.

“Remarkable…” Virulesse said. “Not only are there worlds beyond our own, but there is also life after death…”

“Only for some people,” I reminded her. “The overwhelming majority of people just… stop existing.” Recalling the way Seriphen had casually relegated billions, possibly trillions of souls to oblivion while having the power to save them still filled me with a cold anger. There was no real afterlife after all—no heaven, no hell, no salvation except for the lucky fucking few.

“True,” Vaxal said, his voice hoarse like a rockslide falling down another rockslide.

“A pity,” Virulesse said. “That would have made things much easier. Ashleigh, do you know why you were granted this reincarnation?”

I shrugged my shoulders. “No idea. I’m just really lucky, I guess.” Or really, really unlucky, more likely.

“Did you do anything in your life on Earth to set yourself apart from the rest of the people? To set yourself above them? Did you lead a life of exceptional virtue? Extraordinary vice? Anything of the sort?”

“Not really,” I said. “I mostly just kept to myself, reading books and playing games and doing my job. I didn’t really get out much, or talk to people outside my friends and family all that often… To be honest, it was kind of a pathetic life.”

“Completely true,” Vaxal rasped.

I turned around. “Hey!”

Vaxal smirked toothily at me. Ugh, whatever. I probably deserved it.

Virulesse pondered aloud. “Hmm… Perhaps there’s some sort of minimum threshold of worthwhile living that most people end up meeting, but which you did not. And thus, you were reincarnated so that you could fulfill the quota for a sufficient life.”

“Okay, now you’re both just ganging up on me. But I don’t think so. I mean, I was boring, for sure—but I was far from the top-1%-of-the-top-1% of Super-NEETs that might make that idea make sense. Seriphen said I was one of the ‘lucky few’—there are probably millions of people on Earth who lived just as little as I did. And that’s just on Earth. If you multiply that across all the other worlds in the multiverse, it’s probably billions of people at least. That doesn’t sound like a ‘few’ anymore to me.”

“I suppose you are correct,” Virulesse said, another note of disappointment coloring her voice. “Are you a virgin?”

“What the fuck,” I said, “that’s personal!”

“Answer the question, Null-rank,” Vaxal growled from across the room.

Virulesse continued to stare at me with savagely emotionless eyes, waiting for an answer.

“Ugh, fine. No, I’m not.” What was it with magical thinking and the idea that female virginity held special power? Power over a certain subset of guys, maybe. I guess this was just one more multiversal cultural constant I would have to deal with. Hur-fucking-rah, the patriarchy was literally infinite.

“Did you die a virgin?” Virulesse asked.

No.

“True,” Vaxal said.

I turned to him again. “Could you stop?”

Virulesse didn’t let the interrogation slow down for a second. “How did you die?”

I averted my eyes from her penetrating gaze, ashamed. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Why not?”

“You know, for a knowledge exchange, I sure seem to be doing all the knowledge sharing so far. How about I ask the next couple questions and you go on the defensive for a change?”

“You will have your chance to ask questions when the time is right,” the Exarch stated. “Remember—this is just the beginning of a long and fruitful partnership in pursuit of higher truths.”

“Bullshit,” I said, “the time is now.” Virulesse was good at her politics; I had to give her that. She had successfully distracted me with the interrogation whirlwind for a little while, but now I was back on track. “You say this is a partnership? Then play your part: tell me, partner, what the fuck is skyball?”

“It’s a sport,” Virulesse said tersely. “Hardly of any consequence to our endeavors.”

Well, that was an evasive answer if I ever heard one. “How is it played?”

“I don’t know all the rules and regulations,” she said, sounding bored. “As a provincial governor I try not to waste my time on such banalities as skyball. But if you want to skip ahead to discussing our respective cultures, tell me more about Earth. How advanced are its strongest nations?”

“No, we’re still on skyball. Answer my question, Exarch-rank.”

“Exarch isn’t a Rank; it’s a title. I’m a—” Virulesse cut herself off before she said anything more.

If there was still any doubt in my mind, that confirmed it. All her talk of wanting to trade intel with me was just that: talk. All the teases of answers coming eventually were nothing more than teases, designed to keep me talking and sharing and divulging for as long as she could without giving anything in return. And I was so desperate to make sense of this whole nonsensical world that I played along way longer than I should have. But not anymore.

Except…

Except Vaxal was still towering in the corner, with the power to incinerate me with nothing more than a thought. And who knew how much stronger his boss was?

It didn’t matter whether or not I figured out Virulesse’s motivations or schemes. I was trapped, with no way out except to refuse to play their games and probably be killed for it. I was powerless. Just like Vaxal had told me.

The silence only lasted for a second, and Virulesse resumed her unfinished statement. “I am a duly appointed Exarch of Beleria, chosen by the King himself after his successful insurgency against former King Bylas. While you are within my borders, you will submit to my authority. Do you understand?”

I shrank down in my seat. “Yes,” I replied meekly.

“Good,” Virulesse said. “Now, back to the topic at hand. Would you say Earth’s civilization is advanced? Politically, industrially, technologically? Despite the lack of a System to give it order?”

“Yes to all of the above,” I said. What choice did I have? It was either answer the Exarch’s questions about how the primitive people of Earth were able to invent democracy despite their cosmic feebleness, or face her wrath.

“True,” Vaxal announced, to no one’s benefit.

“Although, naturally, a single human from Earth would stand no chance in combat against even an Iron-rank human from Era, correct?”

“From what I’ve seen so far, probably not.” Telepathy, speed, fire, lightning, the list went on and on. Heck, even machine guns probably wouldn’t do much to level the playing field, if the Gray Guard’s energy shields had anything to say about it.

“True.”

“If a human from Era were to be transported to Earth—whether via reincarnation or otherwise—do you think it would be possible for them to keep the Seven Sevens System?”

The question caught me off guard, and I slowed down to think it through. “I guess it’s possible… I mean, I was able to come here without giving up my lack of System, so maybe?”

Virulesse nodded, deep in thought. “And… Do you think it might be possible to travel to Seriphen’s realm intentionally? Without dying?”

Wait a minute… I replayed Virulesse’s line of questioning in my head, looking for the thread of motivation that tied it all together. I found it quickly—staring me in the face, a big blinking neon sign that shouted “how hard would it be to conquer Earth?” Holy shit.

“Well?” Virulesse asked.

“Um… I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe? With the right kind of magic?” I was freaking out, but I managed to hide it—mostly.  I couldn’t let Virulesse just waltz across the multiverse and take over my home planet, could I? And even if I didn’t think it was possible, I didn’t know it was impossible. I had to answer truthfully, or face the consequences.

“True.”

“I see…” Virulesse said. “Vaxal, make a note for me to review the available literature on teleportation Artifacts. I know there aren’t many left, but—” She glanced sideways at me, realizing she was on the verge of divulging something new. “Just make the note.”

“Yes, my Exarch.”

Virulesse returned her full attention to me. “Now then, let’s move on to Earth’s technological capabilities… I believe you mentioned something called ‘nuclear weapons’ earlier? Tell me about those.”

“No,” I said. “I’m not going to help you conquer the multiverse. Especially not starting with my home planet.” Consequences be damned, I couldn’t just let her expand her tyranny beyond the bounds of Era. Even if it meant being killed on the spot for displeasing her—my one life was nothing compared to the seven billion on Earth.

Virulesse grinned, her eyelids drooping in smug delight. “What makes you think you can stop me?”

I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t say anything. Any answer I could give other than a basic “I can’t” would have been total bullshit. I didn’t have any real power to stop the Exarch Virulesse. It was possible that no one on Earth did, either. Even nuking her from orbit might not be enough, for all I knew. And at that point, with nuclear fallout and all the casualties that would ensue, would that really be an option?

Virulesse saw through my silence for what it was and her smile widened. “Do you come from a powerful family, Ashleigh?”

The idea was so wrong it was almost laughable. “Yeah, and I have a bridge back on Earth I’d love to sell you,” I said sarcastically.

“True,” Vaxal declared.

What?!

“Then you and I are more alike than you know,” Virulesse said, taking my statement at face value. “The Syndane family has held power in Beleria for countless generations. Since the days of Impruss Canyndir, we have grown from merchants into nobles into political advisors—and now we hold two of the seven provinces of Beleria. Even as dynasties rise and fall around us, the Syndane family expands its territory.”

What the fuck. At no point in my life on Earth did I ever own a bridge, or any other kind of real estate—unless you count the lease on a crappy apartment. My family was no more powerful than any other third-generation immigrant family—which was to say, not powerful at all. Either Vaxal was flagrantly lying to his ruler, or his lie detector didn’t work on me.

“But we are nearing the limits of our expansion on Era,” Virulesse continued. “Beleria has reached a wondrous stability under the rule of the Silver King, which we dare not threaten to upset. And the countries across the sea, I’m sorry to say, far outrank us militaristically. But beyond Era…”

It was too much for me to keep up with. Names, places, dynasties, secrets—I might be able to lie. A way to fight back—if I could keep this discovery in just my own head. Shit, I had to change mental gears. “So what you’re saying is, your family is so weak, that the lowest-hanging fruit for expanding your power base now is in an entirely different universe?”

My remark had exactly its intended effect. Virulesse scowled at me, all her villainous waxing abandoned. “Do you still think it wise to taunt me, Null-rank?”

I raised both of my hands in submission. “No, I’m sorry; I only want to understand. This is still a lot for me to take in, I’m sure you can imagine.”

“Yes, I can quite imagine,” Virulesse said. God, what a self-absorbed prick.

The beginnings of a plan were forming in my mind. It was risky, but I was already in twenty thousand leagues over my head. Do or die. All I needed now was a lot of luck, even more luck, and to start talking Virulesse’s language. “And… I want to understand what’s in it for me. How my… cooperation will be rewarded.”

That caught her interest. “Oh?”

My words were so unnatural to me that I had to drag out every single one by force. “If we do collaborate to conquer the multiverse… Surely with countless worlds out there, you could spare one for me? I think I could lead a pretty darn useful vassal state under your banners, if you would allow it. A world entirely dedicated to experimentation with foreign Systems.”

If there was one way to absolutely blind a power-hungry tyrant, it was to get them to realize their insane ambitions were too small. Virulesse had said nothing about conquering the entire multiverse, but that was the next obvious step after taking over a single other world. Virulesse had to realize, as I had, that the Seven Sevens System probably wasn’t the weakest System in the multiverse. If she could subdue Earth, why not a world with another System? And then another, and another, until her empire had enough combined might that no one could oppose it?

A million times easier said than done, of course, but would-be conquerors never think about all the thousands of would-be conquerors who failed before them.

“If you give me the chance, I guarantee I can prove my leadership capabilities to you,” I said. Fun fact about the extent of my leadership capabilities: the one time I was selected to be the leader on a group project in high school, a week later the entire group mutinied against me. Turns out most people don’t like getting assigned research on the weekend. Who knew?

“True,” Vaxal said, with a hint of shock in his voice.

Virulesse’s pensive expression softened. “Your offer intrigues me. Naturally, I would prefer to have you as a willing subject—but I must say, I didn’t expect such a quick change of heart. What are you really after?”

The second key to blinding a power-hungry tyrant? Making them think your own insane ambitions pale in comparison to theirs. “Isn’t it obvious? Earth. I want to protect my people.”

Virulesse smiled, and I knew I had her in my grasp. “Your loyalty to your people is admirable. We have a deal. You’ll have your Earth, as soon as I’m done with it.”

Virulesse had to know that such a deal meant nothing. Neither I nor anyone else on Earth had the power to stop her if she changed her mind. Paying lip service to an unenforceable deal for the sake of getting me on her side? It was a price so low that she may as well pay it just for fun.

Vaxal interrupted us. “Exarch, message from Harah. She requires your presence in the High Hall as soon as possible.” He had his HUD up, a glowing purple hologram-screen with white borders. Neat, it apparently had direct messaging functionality.

Virulesse sighed. “We’ll have to resume this later,” she said to me. “A productive first session—the first of many to come.”

She barely waited for me to stand up alongside her before walking toward the door at a brisk pace. “Vaxal will show you back to your room,” she said as Vaxal opened the door for her.

I nodded. “I look forward to working with you,” I lied.

Vaxal grinned as he gave his final affirmation to the Exarch. “True.”

Characters: Ash, Virulesse, Vaxal

Beginning of an Era – Chapter 21

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.

Characters: Ash, Vaxal, Virulesse

Beginning of an Era – Chapter 20

Don’t think of a pink elephant.

There’s a funny thing in psychology—or maybe it’s more appropriate to say in reverse psychology—where trying to suppress a certain thought makes it stick in your mind longer, harder. Your brain can’t just turn off a thought, because keeping “don’t think Thing” in the background of your mind just primes your brain to bring Thing back to the foreground. The technical term for the phenomenon is ironic process theory, but it’s easier to summarize the concept with that age-old mind-game expression: Don’t think of a pink elephant.

So, trudging through the golden halls of the Provincial Estate with the Exarch’s mind-reading enforcer right behind me, how was I supposed to avoid thinking about Stone Cold Stormtrooper Luke back in my prison room?

Luckily, there are thought suppression strategies that do work—and any psychologist worth their weight in DSM-5 manuals should be able to teach them to you. Chief among them: redirecting all your attention to a different thing instead.

You might not be able to turn a thought off, but you can certainly drown it out.

“Sooo…” I began, unsure of what I was going to say next until I had already said most of it. “Normally right about now I’d feel obliged to make some kind of small talk, maybe ask how long you’ve been working with the Exarch—but I guess you’ve all been instructed not to answer any of my questions? Uhh, that wasn’t a question; I just intoned it like one.”

Shit, now I was thinking about Dammodel and his subtle defiance of the rules. I didn’t want to get him in trouble, either. Double shit, now I was thinking about recent visitors to my room. Pink elephants. Distraction. Don’t think about anyone. Don’t think about thinking. Fucking hell, I just lost The Game.

“Anyway,” I continued, “I could understand if it was state secrets you didn’t want me finding out—I respect your governmental authority here; I don’t want to throw anything out of balance—but, like, skyball? Is it really that dangerous for me to know what kinds of sports you have here? Or maybe I’m way off track and it’s nothing about dangerous knowledge—maybe this is just your policy for all prisoners here. I mean, if that’s what I am. Is that what I am? Uh, hello? You still there, Vax?”

I turned around. Vaxal was still there, glaring at me with such profound animosity that it chilled me to the core. He looked like he wanted to rip out my throat and strangle me with it. Christ, I wasn’t even trying to annoy him that time!

He exhaled a deep, burning breath through his nose—literally, charcoal black smoke poured out, like he was giving it his all to not blast me with fire breath. “I idly wonder,” he said. “Do any of your fingers hold particular cultural significance on Earth?”

“Well, I guess the left hand ring finger is pretty important,” I said, holding it up for display. “We use it for wedding rings if you’re married—although, come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone on Era yet with—”

Vaxal’s arm shot out at lightning speed. He grabbed my ring finger with his giant, gauntleted hand, and snapped it back with an audible crack. I screamed. The pain of the broken bone hit me instantly, a wall of red hot agony that drowned out every sense I had.

You come from a powerless world, yet you think you know what it is to face power,” Vaxal hissed, more threatening than I had seen him since Gostrey. I hissed too, mainly because it was the only way I could get my screams under control. Vaxal continued. “If you want to learn anything, little scientist, learn that we have power over you. If you want to ask anything, ask the Exarch how you may earn a visit from our healer. Do you understand?

The initial blast of pain had settled down to a still-not-tolerable throbbing. Tears burned in the corners of my eyes, but I gathered enough wherewithal to say “Yes.” God, I had never broken a bone before. That was painful as unlubricated fuck.

Apparently satisfied, Vaxal calmed down and turned me back around by forcefully pushing on my shoulder. “The Exarch awaits. Do not test her patience.”

So on we went, out of the Garden Wing and into the Sky Wing, with all my willpower focused on keeping my mouth shut in the face of indomitable pain. At least now I didn’t have to worry about having to manually redirect my thoughts to hide my secrets—shit, I mean, what secrets? Distraction. Insert lengthy mental monologue about some trivial harmless subject here.

… Why am I never able to get into a lengthy mental monologue tangent when I really need one?

After ten or so more minutes of me trying to force my brain to come up with some random Era observation that I could riff on to keep myself occupied, we arrived at our destination. “We’re here,” Vaxal announced. Aw man, and I had just come up with a really good one! It was about cross-referencing word etymologies.

Maybe I’ll tell you about it later.

We were standing beside a large, bluish-gray door in a curved hallway. Vaxal opened it with magic and demanded I go inside.

“You’re not coming with me?” I said. I immediately regretted asking such an unauthorized question, but Vaxal didn’t seem to notice the transgression.

“The Cloud Chamber is for the sole use of the Exarch Virulesse and her admitted guests,” Vaxal recited, none too thrilled. Whoa, did that count as answering one of my questions? Vaxal must have been really peeved that there was a space he couldn’t be the Exarch’s lap dog in.

I walked into the room, opting to get out of Vaxal’s sight before he realized his mistake and punished me for it. What I saw inside nearly took my breath away.

The Cloud Chamber was a gigantic rotunda—both in breadth and height—on the same level as some buildings in their own right. It was like someone had taken a church’s interior, doubled it, and then transplanted it into the middle of the castle. It was a wide open space, and perfectly circular—the curve of the hallway outside was all due to it wrapping around this one huge room. I looked up, following the walls as they curved closer together, to where they should have met in a dome on top of the chamber—but swirling white clouds blocked my view of the center of the ceiling.

Swirling clouds! Indoors! That was when I realized I felt a surprisingly strong breeze blowing from my left to the right. And judging by the rotation of the clouds at the top of the room, that wind must have been blowing around the entire perimeter of the chamber. Well, if you can make a whirlpool out of water by walking around a circular pool enough, there was no reason you couldn’t use magic to do the same thing with air.

Virulesse was seated on the floor in the center of the chamber. No throne, no chairs, no furniture whatsoever. She smiled when she saw me. “Over here,” she called out. Her voice echoed disturbingly well in the spacious chamber. “Before you disturb the currents.”

I hurried to the center of the chamber as gracefully as I could. On Earth, I was never the one to break the currents in a whirlpool if I could help it. I sat down a few feet in front of Virulesse, not quite sure if that’s what she wanted. I relaxed a little when she didn’t protest.

She was leaning back, her legs stretched out in front of her, basking in the stillness of the air. Here in the middle of the vortex, you could hardly tell there was any vortex at all. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” she asked. “A perfect harmony of the atmospheric elements.” She pointed up at the puffy mass obscuring the ceiling. “There are scripts throughout the room that funnel its ambient energy into the eternal cyclone around us. Water gets pulled toward the center, as if drawn into a drain—and the Wind flows ever around.”

“It’s incredible,” I said.

“Once enough energy has been gathered—about once every five days or so—the cloud above us becomes a raging nimbus, and the final element is added: Lightning. Perhaps you can imagine, it’s a very unstable combination. That’s when the rest of the scripts activate. The excess energy is either vented into the sky, or stored in power wells for later use.” She closed her eyes and exhaled softly. “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.”

My mind was reeling trying to keep up. This was the most I had heard about Era’s magic system since I got here, and it was being info-dumped on me all at once. Elements, Artifacts, scripts—I tried to commit every detail of what Virulesse said to memory, knowing that I probably wouldn’t have time to think through the implications of it all until much later.

The moment strung along, spiraling down the drains of time just like all the water vapor in the room spiraled toward its center. Virulesse stared at me expectantly. “What, no sarcastic remarks? No shrewd followup questions?”

“What are we doing here?” I heard myself ask abruptly. My voice was steady, despite the continued throbbing in my hand. I had to remind myself I could handle it—I was a big girl; I could deal with a little pain until they let me see the healer. Virulesse wouldn’t let me suffer any permanent damage… Right?

The Exarch returned her gaze to the mists above us and smiled gently. “I often come to the Cloud Chamber to think—to meditate, if you will. Whenever I’m faced with a difficult problem and I need the serenity of nature’s balance to center myself. Whenever I need to adapt my methods in the face of an ever changing world.” She raised an arm, gesturing to nothing in particular. “Wind is the element of adaptation, after all. And when you stop being my little secret, the whole world is going to have to adapt to you.”

All thoughts of my swollen broken finger evaporated as the Exarch’s statement hit me like a metaphorical punch to the face. “What.”

Virulesse chuckled, and the echoes of her laughter rang out eerily in all directions. “Ashleigh, you’ve been on Era for four days now—surely by now you’ve realized your very existence here is going to shake the foundations of our world?”

“I’ve kind of had a lot on my mind recently,” I said. She was right; I was going to be a big deal when word got out about me—and I hadn’t given it an ounce of thought. Just daydreaming about System Sudoku and maybe finding a way to ascend to godhood. And on one night of comfortable weakness, about all the friends and family I had left behind.

“No doubt,” Virulesse said pompously. “Well, allow me to add to your plate.” She stood up, motioning for me to do the same and follow her. I didn’t have much choice but to obey—I was still a prisoner, here. I think.

As we walked toward the door, Virulesse continued to speak. “If you were in my position—one of the highest rulers in one of the most powerful kingdoms on the planet—and you found someone in your territory claiming to be from another world—a world where the laws of magic are either different or altogether nonexistent—what would you do with her?”

For once in my lives, I managed to think before I spoke. “I would lock her up as soon as possible, and not tell her anything at all about my world unless absolutely necessary. I wouldn’t know what kind of threat she would pose if she was able to combine her own world’s magic system with this one. But, that’s also exactly the knowledge I would want to gain from her. A path of power that no one else on my world would be able to combat.”

Virulesse smirked with a single corner of her mouth as we reached the edge of the room. “Is that what you think I’ve been doing?”

“If I asked anyone what you’ve been doing, would they be allowed to tell me?”

“Why don’t you ask and find out?” Virulesse said.

“… What have you been doing?”

Virulesse placed her hand on the door and opened it with a small thrust of energy. “Distracting you.” Vaxal stood on the other side of the door, menacingly tall in front of us, grinning with sadistic pleasure. Before I had time to comprehend what was going on, he reached for my throat—and latched a cold metal collar around my neck. As his hand fell back to his side, a crackling rope of red energy stretched down from my neck to his hand—a leash.

“What are you doing?!” I shrieked.

Vaxal flexed his hand and energy surged into me, filling my body with a brand new kind of agony. I fell to my knees, screaming. Vaxal jerked me back up.

“I’m doing what I wish I could have started days ago, if there weren’t so many prying eyes around,” Virulesse said, her voice overflowing with hungry passion. “It’s finally time for us to have our knowledge exchange.”

Characters: Ash, Vaxal, Virulesse

Beginning of an Era – Chapter 19

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

Beginning of an Era – Chapter 18

Virulesse was a dirty liar—basement or not, the interior of the castle of Stormwatcher’s Peak was gorgeous. From the moment we crossed the threshold of those bronze double doors, I was met with nonstop tableaus of rich, royal splendor.

The floors of the castle were covered in a repeating tile pattern, squares and diamonds and octagons in an endless sea of blood red and navy blue and vibrant marigold yellow. The walls and ceilings, where they weren’t covered with ornate tapestries and murals, seemed to be made of solid gold—which I didn’t believe for a second. There was no way this planet had that much gold lying around, even if Viskavia was the richest province in the land. Plus, solid gold was a terrible base for structural integrity—it had to just be gold plated or something.

People with lesser souls might think that such an exuberant display is gaudy. Even so, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the level of detail every step of the way—and I have a pretty legit cosmic soul, according to Seriphen, so my opinion must be right.

Virulesse can take her false modesty and shove it down Vaxal’s enforced anal sphincter.

As we walked the hallowed halls of the Provincial Estate (still in silence, because hell if I was going to admit out loud that I was impressed), I paid close attention to the murals painted on the ceilings and high walls. They mostly depicted epic battles, opposing armies on battlefields drenched in magical combat—a general in one painting leading the charge with a flaming sword; someone in another riding atop a tsunami in a T-pose with glowing eyes, in the moments before the flood eviscerated his enemies below.

I noticed some recurring characters in the murals, too—especially when it came to those prominent displays of elemental magic. Fire sword general was one of them, as was a woman whose main claim to fame was apparently in lifting entire mountains and throwing them at her opponents. I didn’t know whether all these paintings were supposed to be renditions of actual historical events, or stories from mythology, or a mix of both, or if they were just cool pieces of artwork.

At least there were no portraits of Virulesse herself. That would have been too gaudy even for me—though, I guess those would probably be closer to the throne room. (There had to be a throne room in here, right? Who ever heard of an Exarch without a throne?)

(Disregard the fact that you’ve probably also never heard of an Exarch with a throne.)

We were on the second floor now, or maybe the first non-basement floor, walking through an indoor arboretum. It was like a slice of the castle had been hollowed out and transformed into the Exarch’s personal rainforest.

“The Viskavian Exarchy is a recent acquisition by the Syndane family,” Virulesse monologued with pride. “So I haven’t had much time to give the Estate a personal touch yet. But the Garden…” She beamed as she admired a blue-leafed fern. “I made sure the Garden would be finished quickly.”

There were a couple groundskeepers on duty as we passed by, who were all too eager to drop their garden shears and… magic glowing hammers?… and abase themselves before their boss, proclaiming how glad they were that she was back, how they hoped she had a productive venture, and so on. For the life of me I couldn’t tell whether they were acting out of genuine adoration for their glorious leader or out of totalitarian fear. If it was the latter, then good job, guys—the act was totally believable.

It was like that for most other people we saw, too. An awkward bow of submission here, a stilted “All hail the honorable Exarch” there; and Virulesse seemed to neither notice nor care that there was this indeterminate tension running through all her underlings. But hey, I just got here—who am I to judge the workplace culture?

A duo of less agreeable people ran into us at a crossing of some hallways. The woman who led the pair was an old curmudgeonly type with a glare that could scare her wrinkles straight, if she ever looked in a mirror. The young man at her side seemed like he was only there to be eye candy and maybe to provide occasional physical labor.

“There you are!” the woman said. “We’ve been looking for you since we heard that the West Gate was accessed. We need your signature on a couple documents. The tax situation in Marsingale is throwing that whole sector’s budget into a hodgeracket—” She stopped mid-sentence upon realizing there was an unfamiliar face in the ensemble. She eyed me disdainfully. “Who’s this?”

Virulesse turned to me, sighing. “And this, my dear Ashleigh, is where we must part ways. My duties as governor beckon. Vaxal will show you to your room from here.”

Great, I was going to continue my tour of the Estate with the world’s most captivating tour guide. Maybe I could keep myself entertained by staring at his constantly-shifting armor until it gave me a headache. As if responding to my mental sarcasm, Vaxal grumbled under his breath. Hey, Vaxal, if you’re reading my mind, fuck you. He gave no further reaction. Well, fuck you anyway.

“But before we part ways for the night,” Virulesse said, “do you have any requests? Food, water… perhaps a change of clothes?”

I looked down at my Earth clothing—an old pair of jeans and a plain fuchsia T-shirt that I hadn’t changed out of in days. Yeah, I could go for a change of clothes right about now. But more importantly, Virulesse’s duties as Exarch reminded me of something that had been at the top of my list for a while. “Yes to all of the above. But also, could I have some paper and something to write with? Actually, make that a lot of paper.”

Virulesse studied me curiously, unsure of my motivation. I decided to push my luck with an explanation.

“We’re going to be science partners, right? Unlocking the mysteries of the universe? I’m going to need to be able to write down my thoughts—my observations—so I don’t have to keep it all in my head. So, paper and pen. And a ruler. And a protractor and drawing compass, if you have any lying around. Heck, just get me anything that looks vaguely scientific and I’ll find a way to use it.”

Virulesse relented with a shrug. “As you wish. I’ll have Mycan check the supply chambers and bring you what we have in stock.”

“Thank you,” I said with a slight nod of my head.

And without a second thought, Virulesse waved me and Vaxal away and turned back to the old woman. Vaxal grabbed me by the shoulder and pulled me along. “Follow me, Null-rank,” he growled. The harbingers stayed behind with the Exarch.

As we departed down the hall, I heard the old woman rasp her admonishment to Virulesse. “Science partner? What in the legacy of Skrayfin are you wasting your time on now?”

Virulesse’s reply was less than patient. “Harah, how many times do I have to tell you—if you can’t find me, always try the Transender?”

I couldn’t hear any more than that before we were out of earshot—but I was too excited to care. I was finally getting pencil and paper! Or pen and paper. I was getting a writing instrument and paper!!!

It had been such a dreadful experience, not being able to write anything down these past few days. No way to take notes, no way to archive thoughts for later—having to remember everything manually like I was some schmuck from the Dark Ages. But now I’d be getting my digital memory back (to a degree), and I could free up brain space for more important things.

Like figuring out a way to escape this clusterfuck I’d trapped myself in.

I was also delighted that Virulesse had agreed to the other items I requested. I didn’t actually need or want a protractor and compass—I’m not that nerdy. But compasses typically had a needle point at one of the ends, which gave them offensive stabbing power.

Okay, maybe I am that nerdy—I was starting my escape plan by arming myself with a goddamn weapon of math instruction.

A few minutes later, we arrived at what was to be my room. Vaxal opened the door with the same Crouching Magic, Hidden Doorway technique I had already seen plenty of other times. “You will stay here, in the Garden Wing,” he said through gritted teeth. “The Exarch will send for you in the morning—or whenever she so desires.”

I took my first steps into the room. “Got it—Virul will send you to fetch her new toy whenever she gets bored. Or maybe whenever she has nothing better for you to do.” I don’t know why I decided to antagonize Vaxal like that, but it was damn fun—especially since he couldn’t do much to retaliate. What was he going to do, scowl harder at me?

Vaxal scowled harder at me, snarled, and slammed the door shut in my face.

Heh. Totally worth it.

I gave a cursory look over my new room. Honestly, it was pretty nice—and big, too. It looked more like a fully equipped guest bedroom than a dungeon cell for a prisoner. A nice queen-sized bed, a full complement of furniture, a wide open window with a long view across the mountain… and a side room bathroom. Thank God—I’d be able to take a bath tonight.

I was still a prisoner, though. As expected, there was no knob on my side of the door. I was stuck in here until someone magically unlocked the room from the other side.

But for now, I was okay with that. It had been a long fucking day, and I was just happy to have a place to rest. A place I could be alone without being towed across the Viskavian wilderness. A place I could, for better or worse, call my home for the foreseeable future.

I fell onto the bed and let its cool embrace hold me until the night was at its peak.

***

There was a knock on the door. “Come in,” I shouted, but it was hardly necessary. Since when did a prisoner need to give permission for their warden to enter their cell?

I was sitting on the window ledge, leaning back against the wall. My right leg was curled up in front of me, with my left stretched out under the window. A gentle midnight breeze washed me with its chill as I watched the stars above.

The door opened, and someone stepped in. There was a pause for a few seconds before a male voice spoke. “I brought the supplies you requested,” he said uncertainly. “And some new clothes.”

I glanced over my shoulder at the intruder. It was one of the harbingers—the one with pink armor with silver highlights. His arms and hands were completely empty. “You’re not Mycan. Dammodel, right? Where are the—wait, nevermind. Hammerspace inventory.”

“Mycan had some other obligations to take care of,” Dammodel said. He materialized a neat stack of folded clothing, with what looked like a leather-bound tome and an old school metal pen on top. “We didn’t have some of the things you were looking for, but here’s an empty journal and a pen. Oh, and it’s a magic pen—it’ll never run out of ink.”

I smiled wistfully. “Thanks, you can just drop it on the desk over there. I’ll sort through it in the morning.” I went back to my stargazing, leaving Dammodel to do his duty.

After setting down the items, I heard him walk up beside me at the window. There was another long, unsure pause before he spoke again. “What are you looking at?”

I exhaled heavily. “You have constellations, right? Wait, never mind, you’re not allowed to answer that. Well, my world has them. Ancient cultures used to dream up myths around the shapes that the stars make.” I pointed into the sky, tracing out some imaginary outline. “Maybe one would look like a person holding a sword, and then people would wonder why the gods etched that legendary warrior into the night sky. Who was he? What did he do?

“Now we know it’s all just coincidental shapes. The stars in constellations aren’t even close together—they can be quadrillions of miles away from each other.”

I stopped, catching a glimpse of some bright colored lights on distant mountain peaks. I had seen them twice before now, but intervening clouds had kept them concealed for most of the night. I wondered if these were the same lights I had seen on my way to Gostrey—except these ones were purple, gray, and orange.

“It’s all just so big… My universe is at least 46 billion light years wide. I used to think that was unfathomably big. And it is, don’t get me wrong—but now… Now there’s this universe, too. And who knows how many more.” I looked back at Dammodel, who surprisingly enough was still listening attentively to my ramble. “Uhh, sorry about that. Didn’t mean to dump on ya.”

Dammodel shrugged. “It’s a big world. Personally, I like knowing that no matter how much of it I might see, there’ll always be more. But maybe that’s because I’m an Adventurer.”

You and me both, kid. Except I’m not an adventurer by choice, and I hate the prospect of Ultimate Knowledge being forever out of reach, and also you’re at least ten years my senior—but I appreciated the attempted empathy all the same.

I looked back out the window. “And then there’s the fucking moons! There’s no conceivable way their whole setup makes sense. Earth was already a big outlier for having such a large moon, and then Era has three of them? And their orbits! It’s utterly maddening.”

Standing next to me, Dammodel peered up at the three moons of Era. “We call them the Dancers. Because they’re constantly going back and forth between each other.” He pointed at them in succession. “Hira, Lira, and Shira. They trace out a figure-eight pattern, swapping places a couple times a night.”

A massive lightbulb went off inside my head. “I thought you weren’t supposed to answer any of my questions.”

Dammodel smiled. “This time, you didn’t ask.” He turned to leave, checking on the way to make sure that the supplies he had dropped off were still there. “She’s not all bad, you know,” he said at the door. “The Exarch Virulesse is… driven, in her own way. Searching for something that might not exist. Maybe it’s the same thing you’re looking for.”

I didn’t respond. He departed, and I was alone once again—with just my thoughts and the entire cosmos to keep me company. I looked up at the moons, those solemn specters of Era’s irrationality.

I pondered everything that Dammodel had said to me. It just so happened that a perfectly flat figure-eight was one of the few stable orbit shapes that solved the three-body problem.

Characters: Ash, Virulesse, Harah, Vaxal, Dammodel

Beginning of an Era – Chapter 17

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?

Characters: Ash, Virulesse, Vaxal, Dammodel, Mycan, Lustrum

Beginning of an Era – Chapter 16

Over the next day and a half I had a hell of a lot of time to myself to think, so that’s exactly what I did. Brainstorming. Hypothesizing. Planning escape routes. Poring over every single thing I had seen and heard since waking up in Seriphen’s realm, in an attempt to figure out as many of the blanks in the Seven Sevens Sudoku as I could.

Long story short: I came up blank.

I just couldn’t do it. I saw no way out of this mess. I couldn’t figure out a viable way to escape the Exarch and her ‘harbingers’ without knowing exactly what they were capable of, and I couldn’t figure out what they were capable of without knowing a whole lot more about the System and their levels of advancement within it. Either I didn’t have enough pieces for this puzzle, or I just wasn’t smart enough to be able to put them together in a useful way.

My captors weren’t needlessly cruel, at least. They fed me when I was hungry, gave me water when I was thirsty, and made pit stops every so often so I could take care of other biological necessities. It wasn’t glamorous—but if there was one thing Seriphen had unwittingly turned me into, it was a survivor. I could deal. For now.

For a little while, every time I was presented with a new kind of food, I was hesitant to try it. There’s this concept in molecular chemistry called chirality—which is basically about how, if a molecule is a certain kind of asymmetric, it’ll have a left-hand version and a right-hand version. Maybe its individual atoms will be in a slightly different order (thumb-finger-finger, as opposed to finger-finger-thumb) or it’ll have some other angle that can’t be flipped mirrorways. But the point is, because of that non-flippability, the left-hand versions and the right-hand versions will have different chemical properties.

Now, leveling up from chem to biochem, most amino acids are chiral molecules—and all life on Earth uses the left-hand versions of them. There’s no special reason why. It just so happens that, when the left and right hands were thumb wrestling over the future of the primordial soup, the left hand won. Theorists with nothing better to do often wonder if life on other planets could have evolved the opposite way.

But if it did, it’s good that it’s so far away from Earth—because opposite chirality and its different chemical reactions mean that right-handed amino acids are incompatible with humans. A right-hand apple in the mouth of a left-hand Eve has the potential to be completely lethal—or at least, it won’t provide any nutrients her body can digest.

There was the slimmest of possibilities that life on Era was right-handed—and that gave me pause. How would I know if this strange meat was safe to eat without looking at it under a microscope? I couldn’t. All I could do was pray that if humans were able to evolve here, that they were the same kind of humans I was used to dealing with.

Also, there was the fact that I had eaten last night and I hadn’t disintegrated yet. Maybe all that paranoia was for nothing.

I did manage to come to some insights about my predicament, scattered though they were. In all likelihood, Virulesse didn’t have the same all-seeing eye of truth as Elder Hammond. Back in Gostrey, she had to turn to Vaxal for confirmation of my wild story. And again on the trail to her Estate, she spoke of consulting some higher ‘authority.’ It wasn’t an ironclad deduction, but in these circumstances I’d take all the circumstantial evidence I could get.

So, Vaxal the enforcer had access to abilities that Virulesse the Exarch did not. What did that mean? Was Vaxal a higher Rank than Virulesse? A higher Level? Or maybe just a different Class? Argh, I knew nothing about Classes yet, except that they existed. And that maybe there were seven of them.

I was starting to regret not letting Boh correct me in my speculation on our way to the library. That was definitely a blunder, in retrospect.

The palanquin came to a sudden, silent stop. With a now-familiar glow of symbols and a vertical crack dissolving into reality, the wall opened out into Vaxal’s savage sneer. “We’re here,” he growled, and he turned around expecting me to follow him. Hey man, you don’t need to tell me twice. I was resoundingly eager to leave that cramped box behind and stretch my legs before setting eyes on my next Provincial Prison.

I jumped down from the palanquin, finally putting to good use all my experience with school bus back door fire drills. I followed Vaxal around to the front of the palanquin, where Virulesse and the others were already waiting. Virulesse looked at me expectantly, eager to see my first reaction to her Estate. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what kind of reaction to give her. Because looking past Virulesse and her harbingers, all I saw was…

A cliff.

A great big wall of slatey gray rock, painstakingly carved out of the mountain. On our left and right sides, hundreds of feet away, I could see where the true slopes of the mountain chain began, making it even more clear that the wide flat crater we were standing in had been literally excavated out from the mountainside.

“Well?” Virulesse said.

“Uhh… It’s a very nice… wall, you got there. Really ties together the whole mountain basin aesthetic.” Not gonna lie, I really expected a palace. Or at least a capitol building.

Virulesse sighed, firmly pressing her fingers to her forehead with her eyes closed. “Look up, genius.”

I did as the Exarch ordered, and… Oh my god.

Hundreds of feet up in the air, there was a palace built into the side of the mountain. It was like something straight out of Middle Earth. It spanned for hundreds of feet, sticking out of the cliff face more than I would have thought was structurally possible—towers and castle spires clawing their way into the sky like tree limbs reaching for the sun. At the right time of evening, the shadow cast by that colossus must have been monstrous.

It was the kind of megastructure that would have taken a lifetime to build for most of Earth’s history—but who knows how long it would’ve taken on Era with magic? One of the fields of magic that Bohriam had mentioned on our way to Gostrey was ‘gravitational plane manipulation.’ I didn’t know what a gravitational ‘plane’ was, but looking at this structure and its halfway-Lovecraftian architecture, I had a feeling that this might be an example of it.

A satisfied smile crept across Virulesse’s face. “I suppose you don’t have anything like this on Earth, considering your tragic lack of access to magic.”

Interesting. I hadn’t quite considered the possibility that magic also existed on Earth but that none of its inhabitants had access to it. But I quickly realized that idea was just as unfalsifiable right now as my Neat Idea #1, and I pushed it out of my mind. “Ehh,” I said casually with a shrug of the shoulders, “we’ve got a few mountaintop castles. But this… Okay, I’ll admit it, this is pretty cool.”

“Just wait,” Virulesse laughed. She turned to one of the harbingers, the one with blue armor with silver trimmings. “Mycan, would you like to do the honors this time?”

Mycan nodded and stepped in front of the party. He took a couple slow, very deep breaths, with his arms spread a little bit from his body. Energy gathered around him, crackling in the air like lightning caught in a whirlpool. It spun around him, gaining speed and luminosity until the man was nearly unrecognizable behind a blurring, thrumming vortex.

Then in a motion so smooth I could barely see it, he stood up straight and brought his arms as far apart as possible—and for a single second, all the lightning froze in place around him. It was like time stood still. A hundred tangled bolts of lightning hung in the air like in a painting.

And just as quickly, it was over. Mycan brought his arms and fists forward, and with a scream he launched all the lightning at the cliff face. Each bolt roared through the air and slammed against a different section of the cliff, blasting out rock—no, not out, in—pushing massive swathes of the cliff face deeper into the mountain, with a level of force I couldn’t even begin to imagine.

Smoke and dust were everywhere. The air itself smelled like blackened charcoal. When  the aftermath of the one-man hurricane cleared away, I could see exactly what Mycan had done to the mountain. From ground level all the way up to the base of the palace, a hidden stairway had been revealed, winding left and right all the way up the cliff face. Holy shit.

Virulesse seemed pleased by my slack-jawed reaction. “Ashleigh Kyriakides, I welcome you to the heart of Viskavia—Stormwatcher’s Peak.”

Characters: Ash, Vaxal, Virulesse, Mycan

Beginning of an Era – Chapter 15

When I woke up, I had a seething headache and a bruise the size of a baby watermelon on the back of my head. Where was I? How did I get here? My brain was so full of fog that I could barely see. As my thoughts cleared and my vision unblurred, full consciousness returned to me, one languid synapse at a time.

I was half-lying down on a cushioned seat, my legs hanging limply toward the floor. I pushed myself into an upright position, discovering several more aching muscles in the process. What the fuck, did I lose a fight with a mechanical bull? There was another seat across from me, with the same velvety cushioning and silver-brown embroidery that couched my own worthless ass. And though it was empty, it didn’t take me much longer to realize who that seat was meant for.

There was a constant back-and-forth swaying motion as the floating palanquin I was in was pulled away from Gostrey.

I took a deep breath, holding it in for a solid ten seconds before letting it out in a big huff of warm air. Okay, Ash, this was no time to panic. It might look like you’re being carted off to who-knows-where as the Exarch’s newest sacrificial lamb, but…

… But… That’s exactly what was happening. Shit, what had I gotten myself into?

Despite all the inherent awfulness of the situation, I couldn’t help but laugh. My second life was turning out to be a real roller coaster of fuck-uppery so far. I almost wished I was the kind of girl to keep a journal, because a diary of this shitshow of a reincarnation would have been comedy gold.

My time on Era so far, by Ash Kyriakides:

Day 1: Narrowly avoided death, twice, by running away really hard.

Day 2: Sold into slavery.

I really should have put more effort into finding a pen and paper back when I had the chance. Writing out my List of Things to Find Out and my hypotheses on Era’s physics system were still the top things on my To-Do List, in case you were wondering.

Oh well. At least Bohriam and the rest of Gostrey would be safe now, if Virulesse was a woman of her word. I couldn’t even blame Elder Hammond for turning me over, considering what was at stake. His duty was to his people, and I was just… just an outsider. As ashamed as I am to think it, I don’t know if I would have done any differently in his shoes.

Also, he did say he was sorry.

Man, I fucked up on so many levels. I woke up on Era in the middle of a blood-soaked battlefield after some kind of rebellion, and I never thought to ask anyone why they were having a rebellion in the first place. Way to miss the forest for the trees, Ash. I was so caught up on dumb things like the name of the planet that I forgot to ask, “Hey, are there going to be consequences for that failed attempt to fight for your freedom???”

Maybe you can forgive me for being overwhelmed by all the other things that were going on at the time—but I can’t. My tunnel vision over System mechanics and multiversal lore almost got me killed.

And that’s when I realized what I had almost done in Gostrey. And I screamed.

Do or die. Those were the exact words that had run through my mind when I threw myself into the line of fire in front of Boh. I knew it was reckless, I knew it was reckless enough to get me killed—and I was okay with that.

My body was shaking and I was fighting back tears. Oh God, I came so close to—I had nearly decided on a whim that life on this planet wasn’t worth living. That oblivion would be preferable to whatever evils Gostrey struggled to liberate itself from.

No. No, no, no. I couldn’t let myself think that way. It didn’t matter that I watched Virulesse incinerate a random bystander just to make a point. It didn’t matter that Vaxal was enjoying the devastation he wrought upon Andreon. It didn’t matter how sick this world’s monsters were, because it would NEVER be better to let myself die. It couldn’t be.

I clung to my legs in fetal position, trembling, whimpering out my self-disgust until I was as hollow as the sobs themselves. I couldn’t let that happen again. I could never let myself become that close to being suicidal. Not after—

Not after everything I had been through on Earth.

A circuit diagram of runic symbols began glowing on the wall to my left. The wall opened up, revealing itself to have been a door all along—and revealing the Exarch Virulesse herself, wearing a smile that wasn’t nearly as comforting as she thought it was. It barely reached her eyes. “Shh shh shh… Hush now, my dear; it’s all right. You’re safe with me.”

My mind whirled in a dozen different directions. Oh god, I was displaying weakness. What would these psychopaths do to someone they thought was so far beneath them in power? I had to regain control of myself. Divert their attention. I buried my emotions back into the dark trenches of my soul where they belonged. “Where are we going?” I said it as dispassionately as I could.

All I could see out the door behind the Exarch was the dirt path we were on, a wide grassy plain, and a mountain range in the distance. It looked like the same snow-capped mountain range I had seen yesterday, although not the same peaks—so we were probably going north.

If Virulesse was surprised by my quick turnaround in character, she didn’t let it show. “To the Provincial Estate, of course.” She climbed into the palanquin and sat down across from me. “It’s about a day’s ride north of here.” She crossed her legs and let herself sink back into her seat, confident that I posed no threat to her. She smirked. “I do hope you don’t get motion sick.”

The door closed on its own, and the palanquin resumed its steady forward movement. The only light in the space filtered in through the wide glass-covered sunroof above.

“Unless this thing can go ten times faster, I don’t.” I hadn’t expected her to be so forthcoming about where we were going. My inner cynic quickly rationalized it as meaning Virulesse thought there was zero chance I could escape. Considering it took magic I didn’t have to even create a door in this thing, she was probably right. “And what will happen once we get there? Forgive my ignorance; this is my first time acting as a political prisoner.” Shit, no—don’t remind her she has power over me!

“Political prisoner?” Virulesse laughed mirthlessly. “Heavens, no! You’re to be my guest—and soon enough, hopefully my teacher.”

Wait, what? “Wait, what?”

“If what you claimed about yourself in Gostrey is true… And I have it on good authority that it is… Then you might be one of the most important people on the planet.”

“Whoa there,” I said. “I’m already pretty full of myself—it’s probably not a good idea to go encouraging me.”

“I want to learn from you,” Virulesse said. “The things you must know… Secrets about our cosmos that the rest of this planet’s people are too simple-minded to care about. The deeper truths behind the fundamental physics of the System. The secrets of your world and my own…”

Fuck. The one thing that could truly seduce me to the dark side. “I want to learn those things too… But I hate to rain on your parade, but I’ve only been on Era for a single day. I don’t even know yet what Rank comes after Iron.”

“Then perhaps we can learn together.”

It was hard to say no when my obvious evil counterpart was offering me everything I had been looking for. Lucky for me, it was just as easy to say nothing at all.

Virulesse raised her hand to my face. This time, I didn’t flinch away. She gently lifted my chin and turned my head to the side. “Remarkable… You look just like the people of this world. Are you even human?”

I swiveled my head away from her delicate grasp. “I’m just as human as every other person on my original world. Although, maybe we both just call ourselves human but we’re actually completely different species. It’d be hard to tell without some kind of interbreeding program—which, please, no.” There I went again, incepting terrible ideas into Virulesse’s mind. That one had to be at least a three-pointer.

“I would not thrust you into such circumstances if you didn’t desire it,” Virulesse replied. “Like I said, you’re safe with me.”

Her loaded phrasing didn’t exactly inspire confidence in me.

Virulesse continued. “Though it is quite curious that your people call themselves humans as well… And that we even speak the same language. How is it that you were able to learn Beleric in less than a day?”

“Oh, that’s actually the one secret of the multiverse I’ve been able to figure out so far. There’s this thing called the collective psychic subconscious, where older worlds are more in tune with the greater multiverse. When I got here, I was confused by how everyone here was speaking English—that’s my world’s name for this language—until I remembered the collective psychic subconscious. My hypothesis is, the older a world is, the more likely it is to share its languages and cultural components with other old worlds.”

In stating out the epochal Hypothesis #1 for the first time, I realized it led to some delightful cosmic questions I had been overlooking so far. Like, worlds had different ages? Did that mean Time was a thing that existed inside universes and outside them, so that their relative ages could be compared? I didn’t even want to begin trying to comprehend whether Einstein’s theory of relativity made sense in that regime. And yet… fuck yeah, yes I fucking did.

An overhead cloud blocked out the sun and thus also most of our light.

“An intriguing idea,” Virulesse said, putting a finger to her chin in thought. “And a terrible hypothesis.”

“What? Why?”

“Do you have a way to travel to other worlds on command to compare them?”

I scoffed. “Hardly. That may as well be impossible, from what I know.”

“Then your hypothesis is unfalsifiable, and therefore pointless,” Virulesse said. “After all, experimentation is one of the central pillars of scientific conquest. What good is a hypothesis if it cannot be tested?”

“Huh. You’re… absolutely right.” Ugh, how had I missed something so trivial? Hypothesis #1 didn’t have any real explanatory power; it was just handwavy post hoc theorizing at best. I felt like an idiot, even more so than usual. Even if the idea behind it was true—which I still thought it was—it was barely deserving of the label ‘hypothesis.’ And as a scientist, labels mattered. “Although, I’m glad to hear that people on Era know how to do proper science.”

“I should certainly hope so; I studied for two years at the University of Thannica. I’d hate to find out all that was for nothing.”

Two years didn’t sound like a lot to me, but Virulesse said it with a distinctly braggartly tone. Note to self: find out where Thannica was. That was probably where I wanted to be eventually.

The palanquin came to a stop once more. Virulesse placed her palm on the wall, feeding energy into the runes to open a hidden door. She jumped back outside. “I think I’m going to walk with my harbingers the rest of the way. It isn’t often that I let myself enjoy the natural beauty of the Viskavian countryside.”

She was halfway to closing the door on me when I interrupted her. “Wait. You say I’m going to be your guest at the Provincial Estate. Does that mean I’ll be able to leave of my own free will?”

The Exarch chuckled softly. “Of course not. We wouldn’t want your knowledge to fall into the wrong hands, now, would we?” She closed the door and it sealed itself nonexistent.

No, I thought to myself in the darkness. I suppose we wouldn’t.

Characters: Ash, Virulesse

Beginning of an Era – Chapter 14

“What do we have here?” Virulesse said. “How peculiar… A Stone-rank at your age?”

Oh shit. Oh fucking shit. It was bad enough when I thought she was going to murder Elder Hammond right in front of everyone, but now she was standing mere feet away from me, all her attention on the one person she would probably want to kill even more.

Bohriam, for his part, was scared fucking stiff and speechless. All things considered, that was probably for the best.

“Who is this boy?” Virulesse asked no one in particular—and therefore probably everyone. “Is he… What’s the politically correct way of saying this… Mentally capable?”

Boh stuttered out his rehearsed response. “M-my name is Bohriam Sen Kahl. From the Kahl branch of the Sen family line. I’m a Level Sixty-sev—Sixty-eight Stone-rank and my—”

Elder Hammond spoke up. “He’s a good lad, as capable as any of us—though he’s been tasked with a rather unique Personal Quest—”

Virulesse glared. Without breaking eye contact with Bohriam, she raised an arm and pointed her open palm to the side. Wordlessly, she launched a fireball that instantly incinerated a random Gostreyan who had been watching from another part of the crowd. Dozens screamed and scrambled away from the smouldering ash of what used to be their neighbor. Virulesse spoke loud enough to cut through the horror. “Do not interrupt us, Renegade Hammond. We are having a conversation.”

Fuck. Holy fuck. She just killed someone just because Elder Hammond interrupted her. This woman wasn’t just an evil overlord—she was batshit insane. And yet, I was pretty sure she conveyed to everyone exactly the message she was trying to send.

The Exarch returned her full attention to Bohriam. “Are you not strong enough to ascend?” She had none of the cold-blooded fury that she had worn a few seconds ago. Instead, she watched Bohriam with casual curiosity. “Even as a Stone, at Level 68 you must have seen plenty of combat, won plenty of fights… In fact, you might even have been a useful addition to that pathetic army Gostrey called its ‘Aegis’.”

Fuck. If this conversation went on for even one more sentence, there was little chance of Boh making it out alive. Not in a world of magic truth-easing and lie detector eyes. Did Virulesse have that ability? Was she already using it? No, that didn’t matter—Vaxal had it too. If she wanted, she could just have Vaxal pull the truth right out of him.

But this was also a world of evil magical tyrants and ruthlessness I couldn’t imagine. Could I really survive here for long without Boh? Did I even want to? Maybe it was time for a little do or die action on my part. Before I had time to talk myself out of it, I took a small step forward. “Hey! If you think a Stone-rank at his age is crazy, you should check me out!”

“Ash, what are you doing?!” Boh said.

I half-expected Virulesse to swat me away like a gnat and for my swatted head to snap right off its neck and go flying down the street—but instead she glanced sideways at me, her monocle faintly glowing as her eyes slowly widened.

“Fascinating…” Virulesse breathed. Her lips parted into a mesmerized smile as she studied me. “You’re not registering on my Inspection Oracle at all… Even the Godlight Guardians aren’t strong enough to do that…”

I nodded proudly, hiding all my terror behind a smile of imaginary confidence. “That’s right; I may as well be invisible. But the thing is, I’m even weaker than Boh here.” Thank you, Grennick the Gray Guardsman, for giving me at least this piece of intel I could work with. The rest, for worse or worse, was up to me.

Ash,” Boh warned again, but Virulesse ignored him.

“What are you?” she asked.

“I’m nothing,” I said. “I don’t have the Seven Sevens System. I’m a Null-rank.”

At that point I noticed Elder Hammond in the background calmly and quietly directing other Gostreyans out of the plaza. Good. At least someone here was a responsible adult. What I was doing was just as likely to get everyone here killed as it was to distract Virulesse from any one person. What was I thinking? What was my endgame here? Focus, Ash. What am I doing, so I can do it most effectively?

Elder Hammond. I was giving Elder Hammond time to come up with a real plan. To get his people out of the danger zone, to hopefully distract the Exarch from me and Boh as well. I had to hope he would be on my side—because I sure wasn’t doing myself any fucking favors.

Incredible,” Virulesse said, filled with wonder. “I’ve never heard of such a thing being possible. And yet…” She turned to look at Vaxal, who was standing next to the empty palanquin with his arms crossed, an expression of impatient disdain on his face. He gave the Exarch a slight nod. She turned back to me. “… I believe you. What’s your name?”

“My name is Ashleigh Kyriakides. But my friends call me Ash.”

Virulesse smirked. “And what should I call you?”

Gulp. I bowed my head. “You can call me whatever you want, honorable Exarch.”

She laughed. It took most of my willpower to not nervously join in the laughter—I was pretty sure if I did that, I was a goner for sure. Instead I held my ground, tense like I never was before, hoping to God—or maybe to Magann—that I wasn’t making an utter fool of myself.

“I can tell from your name that you’re not a native Viskavian,” Virulesse said. “Denalythe, perhaps? Or maybe Austerdane?”

Yes, good, conversation. I just had to keep Virulesse’s attention long enough for Bohriam to realize he should be getting out of here! God damn it, Boh! Read the room! At least half of the former crowd had dispersed at Elder Hammond’s silent instructions, but Boh seemed to be painfully oblivious to it. That just meant I would have to keep Virulesse’s attention away from him even longer.

(… Of course my first boss fight in a fantasy world would be to prolong a casual conversation. God, I was not prepared for this.)

“Neither of those,” I said. “You probably haven’t heard of the place I’m from.”

“Is that so?” Virulesse chuckled. “Try me—I’m well versed in global politics.”

“Uh… Hoboken, New Jersey?”

Virulesse raised her eyebrows, clearly surprised to be met with a location she hadn’t heard of. “Where on Era is that?” she asked rhetorically. Of course people would still rhetorically ask that.

“It’s… not.”

“What?”

“It’s… not on Era,” I said. “It’s on another world… I’m from another world.”

Virulesse stared at me in a mixture of confusion and shock for a long few seconds. She whipped her head around to Vaxal, who had dropped the veneer of displeasure and was staring at me with the same level of shock and disbelief. Virulesse returned her gaze to me, and I watched her expression morph as she processed my revelation—from astonishment, to excitement, to primal sadistic glee.

“Renegade Hammond,” she called out without breaking eye contact with me. “I believe I’ve found an arrangement you would be amenable to.”

Hammond was standing near Vaxal, one of the only Gostreyans left out of what had recently been a sizable crowd of onlookers. “Your will is mine, honorable Exarch.”

“I will spare this town and all its inhabitants,” Virulesse said. “I will forget your little rebellion ever happened and never come back… in exchange for the Null-rank.”

Uhh. Shit. Beside me, Bohriam tensed.

Elder Hammond bowed his head to the Exarch. “Gostrey graciously accepts your mercy. I am sorry, Ashleigh Kyriakides.”

Fuck. No. I didn’t want to get Virulesse’s attention that hard. She took a step toward me, reaching a hand up to my face, and I stepped back. “Um, do I get any say in this?”

Virulesse kept walking toward me. “My dear, we are going to learn so much from each other…”

Yeah, like how to be an evil overlord’s plaything. No thanks. “I am a big fan of learning… But on the other hand—” I spun around on my feet and ran away as fast as I could.

God, I fucked that up. Why did I say anything at all about where I’m from? Now I was on the radar of the goddamn evil empire, and I was powerless to do anything about it. But hell if I was going to let them catch me without a fight—as futile as I knew it was.

“Ash, no!” Bohriam shouted.

Behind me, I heard Virulesse chuckle gently. “Vaxal?”

The last thing I heard was Bohriam frantically shouting “Ash!” as something flew at me at lightning fast speed. I don’t know whether it was a weapon, an energy attack, or Vaxal himself—but it hit me before I could make it halfway down the street, and the world quickly faded to black.

Characters: Ash, Bohriam, Virulesse, Hammond, a cloud of human shaped ash

Beginning of an Era – Chapter 13

As most other people ran away from the fiery explosion and the ensuing whirlwind of flaming debris, Bohriam ran headlong into it—the perfect picturesque caricature of a stupid superhero thinking only of rescuing others before himself. Or at least, that’s what I assumed was going through his pure naive heart. Maybe he had just completely lost his mind. And maybe I had too—because I was chasing after him.

Gee, you’d think I hadn’t been paying any attention when Bohriam told me to steer clear of danger like my life depended on it.

The street around the destroyed building was covered in a cloud of thick gray smoke, obscuring visibility more than a few feet. Not slowing down his sprint at all, Bohriam manifested a shirt out of his inventory and held the cloth covering over his mouth and nose.

I hid my face behind the crook of my elbow. “Bohriam, don’t!” But what was I telling him not to do? Run head first into the danger? I still knew fuck-all about what was dangerous on this world. Oh shit—could there be asbestos in this debris?

A huge gust of wind burst forth from the center of the street, emanating out in all directions, blowing away all the smoke and haze. I shielded my eyes with my arm until the tempest died down.

Standing in the middle of the street where the burst of wind had come from was a tall man with ghoulishly pale skin. Armor covered his body from his neck down, bumps and spikes on its surface constantly shifting like it was made of 4-dimensional liquid metal. Behind him stood three other blatant anime villains, with a floating palanquin in the middle of the group, its interior hidden behind a closed door.

The tall man’s arm was raised high, holding a spherical, cracked, glowing stone reminiscent of the phos-rocks I had seen last night. The other hand, he had wrapped around the skull of a Gostreyan man hanging limply in front of him.

The tall man spoke with a deep, naturally hoarse voice. “Do you still wish to defend your home, gosling?”

The Gostreyan stuttered out a “N-n-no sir!” The tall man released his armored-clawed grip on the Gostreyan’s skull. The Gostreyan fell to his hands and knees, groveling.

The cracks in the tall man’s stone orb deepened and he unmanifested it into his inventory. He looked out over the edges of the street. A small crowd had gathered around the scene. I took an instinctive half-step back—this was someone I did not want to mess with. My Olympian snark would probably get me killed in a matter of seconds.

The tall man’s voice boomed as he addressed the crowd. “People of Gostrey! I am Vaxal Brigyndir, enforcer of the will of the Exarch Virulesse, the lawfully appointed ruler of the province of Viskavia. Your little rebellion has failed! I announce the presence of the Exarch herself, Virulesse Syndane, here to judge this town for its treason against Beleria!” He gestured to the floating palanquin, whose occupant was notably not getting involved yet.

“Anyone who stands in our way will be annihilated,” Vaxal thundered. “Now, direct us to your Council of Elders, and the path of destruction we carve into your streets will be gentle.”

Damn, that guy stole my “take me to your leader” chance!

Also, shit, it was the fuzz, we were all gonna die.

On my left, Bohriam hadn’t moved since the tall man—Vaxal—had started speaking. Good. As a member of the Gostrey Aegis—the only remaining member—the Exarch and her entourage probably wouldn’t think twice about killing Boh on the spot if they noticed him and realized who he was, no matter how small a role he played in yesterday’s battle itself. Judging by how Boh was trembling in fear, he was probably thinking roughly the same thing.

A shout came from elsewhere in the street. “Murderers!” Andreon, the spoiled brat from last night, ran screaming through the crowd into the wide clearing around Vaxal and his accomplices. “Gray Guard scum!” He manifested a curved dagger of blue steel into his hand, pointing it at Vaxal. “I’m going to kill you for what you did to Jonakan!” He charged at Vaxal with full superhuman speed.

The ends of Vaxal’s mouth raised into a grin as Andreon closed the distance. Shifting into a fighting stance, he drew back his fist in preparation for a full power punch.

Andreon reached Vaxal and stabbed the dagger forward—and almost faster than I could comprehend, Vaxal’s arm thrust out, leaving a trail of red sparks and flame in its wake. Vaxal’s palm met Andreon’s face, his fingers wrapping around Andreon’s head. It was like Andreon hit a brick wall. In that single unseeable instant, all of Andreon’s forward momentum was cancelled. A shock wave of scalding wind followed the path of Vaxal’s outstretched arm, with Andreon’s skull its epicenter.

Vaxal grabbed Andreon’s dagger in his left hand while Andreon recoiled in place from the palm strike. The dagger was so small in Vaxal’s giant gauntlet that it looked more like a toy than a weapon. Vaxal held the blue blade casually between his middle finger and thumb. Then he snapped his fingers—and the blade cracked in half like glass.

Andreon manifested another weapon—a smaller dagger, it looked like, maybe a knife—and he jammed it into Vaxal’s wrist. The attack caught Vaxal by just enough surprise that he let his grip on Andreon falter. Andreon gracefully dropped to the ground, and sprung immediately forward into an attack at waist level.

Vaxal reacted to the attack just in the nick of time, jumping to the side as Andreon slashed through empty space. “I’m not Gray Guard,” Vaxal said. “But I am the one who hired them.”

“They killed my brother!” Andreon spat.

“Then perhaps they deserve a bonus!”

Andreon screamed, running forward with nothing but his fists and a fuckton of fury.

Vaxal tore the knife out of his wrist and threw it at the ground with enough force to embed it in the stone of the road. He dodged Andreon’s volley of jabs effortlessly, moving his bulky frame with a speed and control I couldn’t imagine. As fast and furious as Andreon was, he wasn’t landing a single blow.

“Enough of this!” Vaxal said, and he stopped trying to dodge. Andreon connected with a punch to the chest powerful enough to sound like a sonic boom. Vaxal didn’t even move.

In a blink, Vaxal brought his hand up, grabbing Andreon under the chin and lifting him a foot in the air. Both of Vaxal’s eyes began to glow a blinding bright white. “What do you most fear?

Struggling against Vaxal’s grasp, Andreon couldn’t look away from Vaxal’s blinding eyes. Andreon’s own eyes began to glow just as fervently.

Living with humiliation?” Vaxal laughed. “You’ll get no such honor from me.” He threw Andreon into a nearby building with enough force to send Andreon straight through the wall.

Vaxal crouched, preparing to jump after Andreon to continue the fight (and probably leave a crater where he stood in the process), when a new voice rang out from inside the palanquin. “That’s enough, my dear—you’ve had your fun.”

Vaxal powered down, releasing an aura of energy I hadn’t even realized was surrounding him. “As you command, my lordess.”

The palanquin’s doors swung open, revealing the Exarch in all her modest glory. Next to Vaxal Brigyndir’s humongous armored frame, Virulesse Syndane looked downright human. Black shoulder-length hair and smoothly tanned skin on a slim body that wouldn’t have looked out of place on Earth. She looked like she was about my age, maybe a couple years older. And though she lacked all the bulging muscles that Rikaine or her friend Vaxal had, it could not be denied that this woman emanated power.

“Besides,” she said, “haven’t you noticed? Our true adversary has finally arrived.”

I turned around to the other side of the crowd and saw Elder Hammond casually walking up to the Exarch’s party. “You should not have come all this way.”

Virulesse jumped down from the floating palanquin, an exhilarated smile on her face. She manifested a monocle in front of her left eye. It began to glow a deep green as she stared at Elder Hammond. Then she burst into laughter. “You think you can fight me? You’re a disgrace to your Rank, old man.”

Hammond shook his head. “There is no fight to be had here, honorable Exarch. Gostrey submits to your authority.”

“That wasn’t your position yesterday,” Virulesse retorted.

“Yesterday, you turned us into derelicts and widows. Today, I ask that you spare us our lives and what little dignity we have left.”

Virulesse laughed. “Spare you? You dared to revolt against the kingship of Beleria! An example must be made.”

Hammond hung his head gravely, resigned to whatever fate the Exarch had in mind for him. “Then exemplify.”

Virulesse manifested a long whip made of pure crackling energy. She walked toward Hammond, her grin growing more sadistic with each callous step.

But before she reached Hammond, her monocle started glowing once more, and she let her energy whip vanish. Her vicious smile was replaced with an expression of curiosity as I realized she was looking directly at me—wait, no, at Bohriam.

Characters: Ash, Bohriam, Vaxal, Andreon, Virulesse, Hammond, some poor gosling with a raging headache now

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