Kamie Anne Do
Venturing into the [Dead Lands] wasn’t considered a great idea when [Broken Horizons] was just a game on Grace’s screen. Willingly crossing over to go exploring had been her first terrible idea. The fact that she and her team had run into a pack of the [Hounds of Fate] should have been the end of that terrible idea, and all future ones, because as far as Grace knew (and Kamie had no information to the contrary) encounters with the [Hounds of Fate] were a singular event. As in, if the Hounds caught you, that was it. You were never seen again.
Except that hadn’t happened.
Grace and everyone she was with had escaped after watching the Hounds tear into buildings full of the [Disjoined].
It was probably the most terrifying battle Grace had ever witnessed, up to and including the desperate struggle against the [Hungry Shadow’s] forces in the [High Beyond].
She’d sworn when she’d reached the [Heart Fire] that she was never going to let herself be anywhere near the Hounds or one of the [Disjoined] again.
“Forward! Don’t let them escape!” she roared, hurling herself over the [Dead Lands] remains of a shattered wall.
That she was chasing a trio of [Disjoined Glitchworkers] through a [Dead Land] version of [Dragonshire] was at odds with her earlier declaration. That she and her team had managed to descend below the [Dead Lands] they were familiar with and had found another copy of [Dragonshire] which looked significantly more hellish was worrying. Odd and worrying had been the order of the day since Grace had arrived in the [Fallen Kingdoms] though, so she wasn’t that surprised at her life was once again beset by concerns like that. What was a bit surprising were the [Hounds of Fate].
At her side, flanking her and moving with a swiftness that rivaled her own, two of the Hounds ran soundlessly.
There hadn’t been any negotiation. No pleading from the [Adventurers] that they be spared, or even the wag of a tail from the [Hounds of Fate]. Grace’s team had come back to the [Dead Lands] because that was where the fight was and they’d found the battle against the [Disjoined] well underway when they got there, with the [Hounds of Fate] tearing apart the [Disjoined] by the dozens, only for the [Disjoined] to rise up again.
For their part, the [Disjoined] couldn’t stop the Hounds either, but their battle was not without cost. Where a [Disjoined] bled, the ghostly white of the [Dead Lands] peeled away into strips of harsh static.
Grace had seen what those burns looked like in the living world and while she wasn’t an expert on [Dimensional Physics], she felt reasonably sure that burning holes in the fabric of the world was the sort of thing she should be putting a stop to.
“They’re diving down again!” Battler X called out. “Do we follow them deeper?”
There were, it turned out, spaces in the [Dead Lands] that were soft, or perhaps just glitched. Spots that could lead to still darker reflections of the living world.
“Definitely! Nothing bad ever came from delving too greedily or too deeply!” Grail Force said, sarcasm dripping from every word.
Grace couldn’t blame her. She wasn’t exactly sure how they were going to get out of whatever layer of hell they’d descended to as it was, the deeper they went the more it felt like encountering a Balrog would be one of the more pleasant possible outcomes.
On the other hand though, even if they stopped running, she knew the Hounds wouldn’t.
“I won’t fault anyone who wants to turn back,” Grace said. “This is certifiable, danger to self and others, madness. Me though? I’m in this to the end.”
“Right there with you boss!” Battler X said.
“To Infinity and Beyond!” Buzz Fightyear said, because where else was laughter more needed than down among the dead.
Yawlorna was good with note taking. She’d learned early on in her schooling that writing down the things she was learning was an essential component to solidifying them in her memory. Listening to Xardrak expound on the nature of life and death left Yawlorna wondering if remembering what she was learning was really the best idea.
“It sounds like you’re saying there’s no real difference between life and death,” she said. “And you’re saying life and death are two distinct states with no overlap between them.”
“Correct,” Xardrak said. “And incorrect.”
“Thank you, that answer is both useful and useless,” Yawlorna said.
“Excellent! You are proving to be a fine student,” Xardrak said.
He was still trapped in his prison, but more and more, Yawlorna was coming to see that the prison didn’t hold him. He held it. As a shield, to protect himself from the rest of world and as a weapon, to annoy and aggravate those who came to him for answers.
“I feel as though I would be a finer student if I understood what we’re talking about anymore now than I did when I walked in here,” Yawlorna said. “Instead, I’m pretty sure I’ve lost countless brain cells and know even less than I did before.”
“Splendid!” Xardrak said. “Continue on and you should have your studies mastered for sure.”
“I know you don’t have many amusements here, but I assure you the mocking is not helping,” Yawlorna said.
“But it’s not mockery at all,” Xardrak said, his tone strangely earnest. “I am perfectly serious. Understanding [Immortality] is not a trivial matter. Nor is it a complicated one. The principal breakthroughs are ones of internalized perspective rather than insights gained from atop a mountain of other learning.”
“So you’re saying the contradictions are the point, and if I can understand them, then I’ll be able to grasp the rest of what you’re trying to explain?” Yawlorna asked.
She left her notebook on the podium Glimmerglass had the staff bring in before she had to leave. Pacing wasn’t helpful, but standing in place was intolerable.
“I am not saying that at all,” Xardrak said. “It’s not through understanding that you will gain the proper perspective on [Immortality]. There is no bridge to this that you can build plank by plank. The only path forward is to leap from the edge of your certainty out into the unknown void.”
“That sounds very poetic, but leaping into a void seems kind of pointless if you can’t see what’s on the other side or far wide the void you need to cross is,” Yawlorna said.
“What makes you think the void can be crossed?” Xardrak said.
“If it can’t why would you try to leap it?” Yawlorna asked.
She hated teachers who talked in riddles. Teachers were meant to educate, not mystify. Clear, simple, and precise communication, that was what a teacher needed to offer in her view. A teacher purposefully trying to confuse students wasn’t new in her experience. She’d had plenty of undergraduate instructors who’d either not known the material they were presenting or were uninterested in dealing with the teacher requirements of their contracts. They’d made her life miserable, but she’d passed their courses through sheer stubborn determination, which was looking to be the same strategy she would need to employ with the [Lich] in front of her.
“Because you can? Because you won’t know if you can’t until you try? Because even experiments which yield negative results still give us information?” Xardrak said, the flames in his bony eye sockets seeming to plead with Yawlorna to listening to what he was saying. “Or maybe because what you’re looking for is within the void itself.”
“I’m not going to understand this, am I?” Yawlorna asked.
It should have sounded dispirited, a moment of defeat as she abandoned the idea that had driven her to seek out the help of one of the most dangerous people in the world. It should have, but it didn’t.
“Exactly,” Xardrak said. “Continue.”
“Immortality itself is a paradox,” Yawlorna said, something new percolating inside her. “At least here. In this world, in death, there’s still life. The [Adventurers] speak of it for themselves and for everyone else too. They pass through a place they call the [Dead Lands] and are reborn in the living world thanks to the [Heart Fires].”
“Do you see the flaw there now?”
“They’re dead in this world, but they’re alive in the other one,” Yawlorna said. “So they’re not dead at all. Except their bodies can be obliterated and there’s no sign of a ghost that gets left behind.”
“So they are both dead and not dead,” Xardrak said.
“If they’re not dead, then that’s why they can come back to life. They’re lives never really ended. All they need is a spark of [Heart Fire] to repair or create a physical host for their spirits to inhabit.”
“But if that was true, why wouldn’t it be sufficient to simply repair the body with healing spells?” Xardrak asked.
“Perhaps it requires an element of divinity to reunite a spirit with it’s host body?” Yawlorna guessed, though she felt like she was drifting from the right answer.
“If divinity was required, then how would the [Adventurers] who are healers be able to resurrect their teammates without access to a [Heart Fire]?” Xardrak asked.
Another conjecture formed in Yawlorna’s mind but she clamped her jaw shut and paused for a moment before continuing.
“That’s the wrong question,” she said. “All of these are the wrong questions.”
Xardrak gave a small nod as the fire in his eyes danced.
“Life and death are the same,” Yawlorna said. “We still exist whichever state we’re in. No! We’re not in either state at all.”
She felt like a galaxy was exploding behind her eyes.
“We’re not alive or dead. Our bodies may be either, or to one extent or another both at the same time, but we, who and what we really are, we’re something more than that.”
“Yes,” Xardrack said, with a satisfied air about him. “Now, how would you like to become a [Lich]?”
All Baelgritz ever really wanted was to be able to spend time, writing papers, with the people he loved in the same room, working on their papers too. Oh, he had other ambitions. And he wasn’t inclined to spend all of his time writing papers. He did have other hobbies. But fundamentally, a nice little rainy afternoon alone with Illuthiz and Hermeziz, maybe with some nice tea and snacks, that was his heart’s dearest with.
He’d resigned himself to not getting that when they crash landed and Yawlorna made him her second in command. He’d been busier then, and surrounded by more people than he preferred, but it had been tolerable at least.
His present circumstances however were not.
“There are a lot of people here,” Hermeziz said gazing out at the convention hall where [Monsters] of every shape and size were still steadily gathering.
After his and his partner’s discovery that they could not only level but also gain new powers, word had gotten out and Baelgritz, Illuthiz, and Hermeziz had become far more in demand than he’d ever imagined any of them would be.
“Are we supposed to talk to all of them?” Baelgritz asked. “We’ll die of old age first!”
“The guilds who brought them in are organizing the schedule,” Illuthiz said. “We’ll be speaking with some [Beast Tamers] first to bring them up to speed on what we’ve learned. They’ll be the ones who handle training the rest.”
“[Beast Tamers]?” Hermeziz asked. “That seems more than a little insulting to all this people.”
“The guilds are aware of that,” Illuthiz said. “It seems that [Beast Tamers] will make the best ambassadors because they have both translation magics and the ability to use what we teach them to enhance their [Heart Bonded Beasts]. I gather it will be the beasts who will do most of the actual instruction since they’ll be able to speak to what it feels like to develop new abilities.”
“I can’t believe the [Adventurers] are onboard with this?” Baelgritz said. “We’re powering up their foes by doing this.”
“Well, not all their foes,” Illuthiz said. “And I think they can feel it too.”
“Feel what?” Hermeziz asked.
“The world thinning. Like it’s being devoured from within and without,” Illuthiz said. “The [Monsters] here may have been foes to the [Adventurers] before, but against what’s coming everyone’s going to have to fight.”