A day of training with Obby left Rose itching to show off the new tricks that she’d learned. So, of course, no one was around to show them off to!
“Jamal? You up to anything interesting?” Rose asked over their private channel.
“Yep.” Jamal managed to squeeze an inordinate amount of delight into a single word.
“You want company?” Rose asked. She’d gone off and spent most of the day without him but she was still worried about being left out.
Because that was rational.
Jamal deserved to have fun stuff just for himself too.
But she had something cool to show him.
“Only if you don’t mind getting muddy,” Jamal said, a laugh sneaking around the curves in his words.
“Muddy? You? I’ve got to see this. Where are you?” Rose asked.
“Give me a moment and I’ll throw you a party invite,” Jamal said.
Living in a world with a heads up display was so unspeakably convenient that Rose had managed to lose all sense of it being deeply weird too.
With a thought she could pull up a mini-map of the area around her, and with another call up a map of the entire surrounding region. The larger map was of limited use since any area she hadn’t been to personally was covered in a “fog of war”, but even so it made things like navigating to one’s friends so much simpler than it had been on Earth.
The party requests appeared before here and Rose tapped it without thinking twice, to discover she was in a party with not only Jamal (who was listed as Matt Painting, as usual) but also a half dozen other people.
“Welcome Rip Shot!”, “Howdy”, “Hi there!”, and other variants on the same theme sprang up in party chat the moment she joined.
“Oh, uh, hi,” Rose said, feeling like her old, shy self for a moment.
Or maybe her new shy self?
Rip Shot hadn’t been much of a socialite before the [World Shift] stuck her other half into her body. If anything Rip was more used to interacting with groups of people, which wasn’t saying much.
“I hope I’m not interrupting the mud stuff?” Rose said and searched for Jamal’s marker on the map.
He was over in the inhabited part of town.
At a [Pottery Studio]?
“We’ve got plenty of mud to sling around,” someone named ‘Aegis Eyes’ said. “Come on over and we’ll sling some at you.”
“I don’t think that’s a winning sales pitch dear,” someone else named Homey Badger said.
“We’re working on our [crafting] skills,” Matt Painting said, and Rose wasn’t sure if it was Matt, Jamal, or if both of them were having enough fun with it that the difference was irrelevant.
“I leave you along for a few hours and you took of [Pottery]?” Rose asked.
“No, not at all,” Jamal said. “I took up [Pottery], [Woodworking], [Herbalism] and [Singing].”
“What? Wait, you can’t sing, we both got kicked out of music class cause we were terrible,” Rose said.
“You were terrible, because you never practiced, I was mediocre, because my stupid voice kept cracking,” Jamal said. “And you know what one nice thing about being a magic construct of iron and gears is?”
“Yeah, I get it,” Rose said. “But [Pottery] though? And [Woodworking]? How did you have time to pick all that stuff up? I was only gone for a couple of hours, not a couple of weeks!”
“That’s the cool thing – we come pre-built with a lot this stuff just waiting for us to use it,” Jamal said. “I mean I’m not the world’s best [Potter] or anything but I can do it with, like, no problems. And it’s fun! You’ve gotta try it out!”
His delight was infectious and despite being soul crushingly eager to show off the things Obby had taught her, the idea of slinging some mud around and making a vase or two grew more and more compelling to Rose.
She quickened her pace a bit, holding back her real speed as it occurred to her that Jamal’s foray into arts and crafts had given her the perfect excuse to keep her new abilities secret for a while and then spring them on him and the rest of their party when it would surprise the hell out of everybody.
Imagining the looks on their faces was so delicious that Rose was sorry she’d even considered spilling the beans early.
“Hey, is it okay if we don’t tell the others what we figured out today?” she asked Obby on a quick private channel.
“Ooo, looking to bust out your new stuff when they least expect it?” Obby asked, sounding as delighted with the idea as Rose felt with it.
“If its okay?” Rose asked.
“It’s perfect,” Obby said. “I wish I’d thought to suggest it.”
“It’s not, like, bad tactics or something to not let the group know what I can do?” Rose asked.
“If we come across a fight that’s tough enough and that we’ve got time to prepare for, you can explain what you can do then,” Obby said. “If you want to. By then you might even be able to do more. So you’d be saving time. Otherwise waiting to use them until a moment when they can have the most impact? I think happy surprises and mysteries like that can make life a lot more fun for everyone. Or almost everyone. You’ve got to judge your audience’s tastes. In this case I think you’re definitely safe though. You know I’m onboard, you probably have a good idea how Jamal will react, and Tessa, Lisa, Claire, and Starchild have an appreciation for dramatic reveals, if I’m reading them right.”
“Thanks!” Rose said and dropped the channel.
Jamal was having fun with people. She didn’t want to intrude on that, but it was such a rare thing to see him opening up to anyone but her, and he sounded so happy, Rose knew she had to be there to share it with him.
What else were best friends for?
The research results hadn’t come in yet but Yawlorna already saw she was going to need to revise all of the assumptions they’d made.
“The [Hounds of Fate] probably aren’t eating the [Disjoined],” Glimmerglass said. “We don’t know much about them, or I don’t at least, but according to the standard lore, they don’t devour the souls they grab. Supposedly they drag the lost souls off to ‘their true destinations’, which are somewhere beyond the reach of even the deepest magics from before the fall.”
“We saw some people get caught by them when we arrived here,” Kamie Anne Do said. “This was different. When we got here it was like their were dogs playing fetch and the souls they snapped up were the sticks. They were a lot, I don’t know, angrier I guess, with the [Disjoined].”
“Maybe it’s because the [Disjoined] aren’t supposed to exist?” Yawlorna asked. “Tessa told us about the ones that tore apart the [Heart Fire] in [Sky’s Edge] and unleashed that shadow thing that almost ate us all. That doesn’t sound like the work of something that’s meant to be a part of this world.”
“That would suggest that there’s no proper destination for the [Disjoined] either,” Glimmerglass said. “Otherwise the Hounds would probably just bring them there.”
“Why bother with that effort when they can just tear them to pieces and be done with it?” Battler X asked., standing propped against Kamie
“Creatures, or spirits rather, of that echelon are bound by more laws than you or I,” Glimmerglass said. “The Hounds have a purpose and serve it always. Unless the [Disjoined] are something old, from when the Hounds were created, I would imagine the Hounds would treat the souls of [Disjoined] like any other soul if they could. Also, tearing a soul to pieces doesn’t destroy. It’s merely an inconvenience.”
“And you know that how?” Yawlorna asked, curious over what sort of mad man did research like that.
“A century or so back, the [Kingdom of Horns] was menaced by an unkillable [Lich] named Xardrak. We stopped his plans dozens of times and finally met him in battle in the center of his lair. He had a machine for transferring his soul to a new body and we used it to tear his soul in half, and then half again, and then half again, and so until his [Aura of Invincibility] was diluted enough that we could kill all the copies we made.”
“That sounds horrifying on almost every level I can think of,” Yawlorna said.
“It’s worse that that,” Glimmerglass said. “Even torn to ribbons, his soul still came back three more times before we finally stuffed it into a bottle of frozen air and buried him to get a few decades of peace.”
“It sounds like you expect him to come back again?” Yawlorna asked.
“It’s more or less inevitable, although I think by the last time even he was getting tired of his own nonsense,” Glimmerglass said.
Yawlorna paused to consider what sort of terrible intellect might have driven someone to push themselves past death time and again in the face of the odds that Glimmerglass and her kind could bring against them.
They must have had a vast and terrible intellect indeed, she decided.
And a useful one.
“How tired of fighting do you think he might have gotten?” Yawlorna asked as a vast and terrible plan began to form inside her.
Sometimes when the world turned upside down, the only thing to do was share the ridiculousness.
“Do you get how messed up this is?” she asked a patient Tessa.
“This Azma sounds like she was supposed to be the end boss for the expansion if what you’re saying is true here too,” Tessa said. “So, yeah, that does seem kind of messed up that she’s working on our side now.”
“Oh, no, no, no. She’s definitely not on our side,” Hailey said. “I talked with the lore monkeys. She is absolutely on her own side. Always.”
“They had a fondness for that sort of character didn’t they?” Tessa asked.
“Don’t even get me started on what a psych profile on the writers would look like,” Hailey said. “I mean, nice people, fun to talk with, but wow were their imaginations kinda terrifying.”
“Eh, I mean we’re sort of walking in their imaginations now aren’t we?” Tessa asked. “All this stuff, everything in the [Fallen Kingdoms], it was either made by them or they were psychically channeling what it already looked like.”
“I guess,” Hailey said. “We still don’t have any conclusive answers on which of those is true, and I don’t think anyone who could work it out has had time to care about it yet.”
“It doesn’t seem to be terribly important either,” Tessa said. “Unless the people back on Earth can change what’s happening here.”
“That’s a definite no,” Hailey said. “Remember what I said about the EE staff getting insta-absorbed the moment they tried to change anything? Part of me coming here was just imagining the change I could make.”
“Huh, that’s interesting. What was the other part?”
“BT,” Hailey said. “I could feel her reaching out to me as I reached out to her. Or I could feel me reaching out to me. It really felt like I’d been split in two and fusing back together was the only thing that would make the ache of missing the other part of myself go away.”
“Do you still think of yourself as Hailey or as BT?” Tessa asked.
“Both? If that makes sense,” Hailey said. “It depends on what I’m doing. In battle, I’m 110% BT. Chatting with you, I’m around 95% Hailey.”
“I’m more or less the same with Pillowcase and Tessa, though its been handy to keep a little mental distance between the two sides. I think that’s how we were able to get Glimmerglass back into the mix.”
“I’ve looked for my other alts,” Hailey said. “No luck though. I don’t think they exist without me around.”
“I’m pretty sure they do,” Tessa said. “I know one that just reached out to a guildmate of mine.”
“Mine don’t show up on searches though,” Hailey said.
“Hers didn’t either,” Tessa said. “And Glimmerglass didn’t show up when I searched for her either.”
“So, wait, does that mean there are parts of us wandering around out there?”
“Yeah. And I think that means what we are now is a lot stranger than anything we’ve seen so far.”