Being second-in-command had never been Balegritz’s idea. Being anywhere in the chain of command hadn’t been his idea either. That was all Hermeziz’s fault.
Which was not a surprise.
Of his two mates, Hermeziz was the one who was the least willing to deal with taking orders from an idiot, and Hermeziz consider virtually everyone he ran across to be an idiot.
To be fair, he considered Balegritz to be an idiot nine times out of ten too, but that was a more affectionate sort of idiot – an idiot in the sense of ‘what kind of idiot would want to be with me?’
That Illuthiz backed Hermeziz up on the claim that Balegritz would make not only a fine second-in-command to Captain Yawlorna, but even the ideal one was also not surprising. Illuthiz knew as well as Hemrziz did that Balegritz would never put himself into that position, but seemed to believe that bearing the responsibility it entailed would be ‘good for him’.
And that it would free her to continue doing the research she wanted to do, rather than being tapped for a leadership role herself.
Unfortunately, she was right on both counts. Balegritz did take to the command position just as well as his mates thought he would. And they both got to continue their research projects uninterrupted. Or as uninterrupted as their precarious circumstances allowed.
“If we make it back home, you do know that we’re going to be the research specimens, not anything we bring back,” Hermeziz said, observing a five leafed, purple flower that might or might not be added to the collection of local flora they were building.
“What we’re going to be is fabulously wealthy,” Balegritz said. “We’ll be able to sell the things we bring back for a fortune deep enough that we can go for a swim in it.”
“Our appearance fees should be impressive as well,” Illuthiz said, extracting a single blade of grass with a painter’s brush to keep its root system intact.
“I don’t think they pay cadavers much for appearing in an autopsy,” Hermeziz said. “Or maybe I’m being too positive. Can’t assume there’ll even be enough left of us to do an autopsy on.”
Illuthiz carefully placed her grass blade into the specimen vial she was holding, seated the vial into its foam holder in their collection box, and then walked over to Hermeziz and wrapped him in a hug.
Balegritz rolled his eyes. Hermeziz’s complaints weren’t subtle calls for affection, but they were effective. At least with people who understood him.
On the upside though, if Illuthiz was taking cuddle duty for the moment it meant Balegritz was free to test the water samples they’d taken for microbial life. He placed a single drop on the slide he’d prepared and brought the scanning lens to his eyes when he heard the footsteps creeping up behind him.
The muscles in his back tensed, but he was able to bite back the shout that hammered at the back of his teeth.
He hadn’t been this jumpy before the accident, before seeing so many of his shipmates crushed and burned and…and that thought wasn’t leading anywhere he needed to go.
He hadn’t been this jumpy before suffering the long term, traumatic event which he was still enduring. Part of enduring it though was staying true to himself, and Balegritz was not the sort who stabbed first and asked questions never.
He knew the footsteps weren’t a threat. They were too small and too regular. They weren’t creeping. They were trying to approach cautiously. Because he looked very scary to the little people who called this world home.
Not that they were all little.
Just most of them.
Even the frighteningly powerful ones.
“Can we help you?” he asked, without turning around.
“Is now a good time to interrupt you?” Lost Alice asked.
Balegritz put the slide down on the clean top of his collection box and raised the scanner from his eyes.
Lost Alice wasn’t exactly a friend, but they’d fought together. That brought a level of respect and growing camaraderie despite their differences. A friendly welcome was, therefor, much more appropriate than a defensive growl and summoning his new [War Spear].
“It’s as good as any other,” Balegritz said, turning to see that Lost Alice had two other humans in tow.
The two newcomers were vaguely familiar but Balegritz couldn’t place a name or occupation to either one. They didn’t seem to be [Adventurers], given how they were standing with Lost Alice as a shield, but they each held packages, so perhaps they were simply waiting for an introduction?
“Well, we didn’t want to interrupt your experiments,” Lost Alice said. “But we thought you might be interested in taking part in another one.”
“Another one what? Another monster fighting session?” Hermeziz asked. It wasn’t an unreasonable question, though Balegritz thought it was the wrong time of day to be fighting more [Undead].
As Balegritz pondered what else it could be, Hermeziz and Illuthiz untangled themselves and came over to stand by him.
Not that Balegritz needed the support.
But he still appreciated it.
“Not another xp run,” Lost Alice said. “Not at the moment at least. What we had in mind was another experiment. One that you’re uniquely qualified for in fact.”
Balegritz peered past Lost Alice, inspecting her two tagalongs and noticed that they both looked disturbingly eager at the prospect of experimenting on him.
Balegritz did not want to be experimented on.
But if it was for Science?
Of all the messages Claire could have received as Lady Midnight, a plain and simple mail posting with the “From:” address of “Wrath Raven” was the very last thing she expected to see.
“Are you okay?” Starchild asked, helping Claire sit down on the low wall they were walking beside.
Claire didn’t miss that Starchild had summoned her [Storm Staff] to hand and was gathering magic as they spoke.
“We’re not under attack,” Claire said. “I…I just got a surprise.”
She wanted to say more but her thoughts were too jangled.
Wrath Raven wasn’t just any [Battle Rager]. She wasn’t even just a max level [Battle Rager]. She was Claire’s max level [Battle Rager]. A character Claire had sunk more hours than she could count into. A character Claire should have been except for the, in hindsight, foolish desire to see the new content on a level appropriate alt.
Maybe not entirely foolish, Lady Midnight said. I am partial to existing after all.
Which was true. Having met the side of herself that Lady Midnight represented, Claire would still make the same choice even if she got to choose again.
But maybe she wouldn’t have to?
“Someone reached out to you?” Starchild asked.
Claire blinked at her.
“How did you know that?”
“Just a guess,” Starchild said. “With nothing here to disconcert you that much, the next likely candidate was someone speaking to you on a private channel.”
“It’s not that,” Claire said. “I got an email. From my main character.”
“Wait, your main reached out to you? She, or he, exists independently of you? Like with Tessa and Glimmerglass?” Peter asked.
“I guess so,” Claire said. “It’s weird though. When I tried to reach her, I got nothing. It was like she wasn’t online, or didn’t exist.”
“What did she say?” Starchild asked. “In the email.”
Claire scanned it again. It didn’t take long.
“Three words. ‘We should meet’. That’s it,” Claire said.
“Is that how you pictured her speaking?” Peter asked.
“Sort of?” Claire said. “She’s one of the [Berserker] subtypes, a [Battle Rager], so the times people were doing roleplaying in the group, I always played her as taciturn and goal driven. But with friends, or small groups, she was more open and expressive. This reads like an interaction she’d have in a pickup group.”
“Is it perhaps not her?” Starchild asked.
“Maybe? Who else would pretend to be her though?”
“It would have to be someone who knew of your connection to her,” Peter said. “And, if they’re faking her identity, probably someone who’s not exactly friendly.”
“Do you have any enemies?” Starchild asked. “Or does your main have enemies might be the better question?”
“I don’t think so,” Claire said. “I never played the game at the level where serious drama like that happened.”
“Uh, are you sure you played the game then?” Peter asked. “Cause I’ve seen serious drama in the most casual and laid back guilds, like ever.”
“Eh, okay, that’s fair,” Claire said. “I just mean I was never part of any feuds like that. [Broken Horizons] was always about relaxing for me. I didn’t care if whatever piece of super loot we were going for went to someone else. We ran the dungeons we could manage so many damn times, we all got everything anyways. Or a new expansion hit and the old stuff was all junk a week later.”
“What if it actually is her?” Starchild asked. “Are you going to meet with her?”
“I would like to,” Lady Midnight said. “I suspect we’d have some interesting notes to compare.”
“Though that could be a bad thing too,” Claire said. “I can’t really get a read on her feelings about me from three words, and Wrath Raven isn’t the most subtle person in the world when it comes to expressing her disapproval.”
“You know, we do have a local expert on ‘other selves in other bodies’ here. Two of them in fact, or maybe even three, depending on how you count them,” Peter said. “Think we should ring up Tessa and Glimmerglass?”
[Vampires] were supposed to be fearsome [Undead]. Creatures of the night, shunned by mortals, tortured soul who nonetheless got to live eternal lives of debauchery so long as they consumed the living at every opportunity.
Vixali wasn’t sure anyone who believed that had ever met an actual vampire, and certainly not one of her subjects.
“We come from different bloodlines,” she said, pinching the bridge of her nose. It did nothing to quell the headache throbbing behind her eyes, but it was than sinking her claws into the nearest member of her court, though that was mostly true because she liked Qiki.
“Being different from us means they’re not required to swear fealty to you according to our traditions,” Qiki said. “Technically there’s no requirement that says they can’t if they wish to though.”
“There’s also no requirement that says I can’t order them to be attacked on sight,” Vixali said.
“They are rather powerful,” Qiki said. “It would thin our ranks out rather noticeably if your subjects tried to enact that command.”
“You say that as though it were a bad thing,” Vixali said, looking up to find Qiki rolling her eyes at Vixali’s lack of regal reserve.
“My [Queen], we, your loyal subjects, will of course follow your every whim, even unto the point of completely senseless and wasteful personal sacrifice,” Qiki said, leaving no doubt that she would do nothing of the sort. “But perhaps you may wish to consider a useful discovery I have made recently.”
“And that would be?” Vixali asked.
“You are very,” Qiki sat onto Vixali’s lap, facing her, “very”, she lifted Vixali’s head up with just a light touch under Vixali’s jaw, “silly when you are hungry.”
“I am not feeding on the [Adventurers] in case they have been corrupted by the [Hungry Shadow],” Vixali said, staring into her subordinate’s eyes.
Qiki was undeterred.
.”We did agree to that, yes,” she said. “But we did not agree that you should starve yourself to death in the process.”
“The only other options are the townsfolk, and feeding on them will create larger scale problems for us,” Vixali said, trying not to fall into the shifting colors around Qiki’s pupils.
One [Vampire] couldn’t mesmerize another, both tradition and the nature of their magics attested to that.
What one soul could do to another was less well defined though.
“We can ask Lost Alice about that,” Qiki said. “She moves in their world, but she knows ours. You could make her an ambassador, or something of the sort.”
Vixali sighed, defeated.
“Yes. I can do that,” she said. “And I’ll just stay down here. Out of sight of the rest of the Court. Communing with the darkness or whatever, until I’m able to get some proper blood in me.”
“You don’t need to wait,” Qiki said. “The [Adventurer’s] blood is suspect, but you know mine is pure.”
She tipped her head to the side and barring her neck a bare inch from Vixali’s waiting lips.