Tessa tasted blood. Pain radiated through her body. Her ears would not stop ringing. But something else bothered her more.
“How are we alive?” she asked, only barely able to hear her own words.
Lisa took hold of her arm and said something but it was drowned out by the explosion induced hearing loss.
You’re not wrong, Pillowcase said. We are lot less damaged than we should be. Check out the freezer we wound up in.
Tessa cast a hazy glance behind herself and saw the dent she’d left in the metal back of the small glass doored freezer unit she’d been bomb blasted into.
Glancing down at her arms, she saw numerous cuts and scrapes, but they were small.
Why aren’t they gushing blood? Tessa asked. And, wait, a dent? We left a dent in metal? How? Why aren’t my bones powder and my organs jelly now?
“Look at me,” Lisa said, her words penetrating the ringing at last.
Or was the ringing diminishing?
Tessa swept her gaze over to Lisa who looked wonderful. No. That wasn’t right. Lisa was wonderful, but she looked disheveled. Almost like a bomb had hit her and blasted her halfway through a wall. Tessa’s thoughts and sense of balance did a loop-de-loop together before returning to the same zip code as clarity.
“Look at me,” Lisa said again, taking gentle hold of Tessa’s face.
Tessa did as instructed and tried to hold still despite how the world was spinning.
“Okay, you’re eyes are focusing. That’s good,” Lisa said.
“Woah, yeah, sorry,” Tessa said. “I…that was a lot.”
“It was. Let’s help the others before another one of those things shows up okay?” Lisa said.
Right. The others!
Rose was on her feet. Jamal was trying to get there with Rose’s help. Weirdly, from their positions and the damage to their clothes, it looked like Rose had managed to shield Jamal with her body, but Jamal had still suffered more from the blast.
Hailey was tending to Lady Midnight, or Claire to call her by her Earthly name, and from the next room in Starchild emerged looking none the worse for the wear.
“You’re all still alive? Excellent,” Azma said, stepping into the hole in the shop’s rear wall which the nanobot had greatly expanded.
Lisa whirled on her.
“Before you grow too agitated,” Azma said. “Yes, I did suspect this, or something like it, would happen. No, I did not warn you. With the information I could have supplied about the range of possible threats we would first encounter, no useful course of action could have been decided upon. Especially not since it wasn’t until the appearance of the otherworldly mechanical unit that the precise shape of the shape of the dangers before us became clear.”
“You broke off from us. Ran in your own direction,” Lisa said, her hands balled into fists.
“Not precisely my own direction,” Azma said. “I sidestepped our path of flight and resumed in the direction you chose once our enemy passed us by.”
“Why?” Lisa said. Tessa’s hearing had returned to the point where the anger in Lisa’s voice was all too plain.
“I lack your durability,” Azma said. “Also, should another method of removing the machine not have presented itself, it would have been much simpler to draw it off and away from the rest of you via attacks from its rear.”
“Or you could have just run away and left us to our fate,” Lisa said.
“Yes,” Azma nodded without the slightest trace of guilt or shame on her face.
“So why didn’t you?” Tessa asked, her head throbbing but her thoughts beginning to clear.
“Because Pete took care of the bot,” Lisa said.
“Because the path to victory remains in working in concert with you,” Azma said.
“So you’re going to ditch us as soon as it looks like we’re losing?” Rose asked. She was breathing in short, painful bursts. Tessa did not know anatomy well, but it didn’t take a med school graduate to know something was very wrong there.
“Yes, likely even before the true appearance of loss emerges,” Azma said. “Victory in this context means the survival of close to twenty billion sapients. It must be ensured.”
“Sapients that you are concerned with why exactly?” Lisa asked.
“Because they are my sapients, or will be,” Azma said. “I have less interest ruling over two dead planets than I do in ruling over one.”
“We have more important problems than her,” Hailey said. She was kneeling beside Claire, who was still splayed across the rubble in the hole in the interior wall. Tessa did not like at all how Claire was not moving.
Just beyond her, on the other side of the interior was in the front room of the deli, Starchild was kneeling as well. Tessa began to move towards them both which brought Rachel into view.
Rachel who was surrounded by far too much blood and was even more still than Claire was.
“Rachel? Rachel!” Lisa pushed past Tessa, her feud with Azma temporarily forgotten.
“She’s alive still,” Starchild said, her hands radiating a soft green light.
“What are you doing for her?” Lisa asked.
“Casting Arcadia’s Surcease,” Starchild said.
Tessa recognized the name. It was a high level druidic healing spell from Broken Horizons, one that caused the target to regenerate lost health so fast they were effectively invulnerable for the duration of the effect.
“Why isn’t it working?” she asked.
“I haven’t finished it yet,” Starchild said. “It’s much harder here. Much harder without Pete.” Her words buckled under the strain she was feeling and so everyone else stopped talking for a moment.
We’re all going to need that spell too, Pillowcase said.
We’ll go last, Tessa said. Whatever’s broken in us, I don’t think it’s life threatening. Even though it should be.
“If I may?” Azma said and stepped forward without waiting for a reply. “You are correct that the process of spellcasting will be more difficult without Peter’s assistance. At this moment, we need you to lead the way however.”
“How is she supposed to do that?” Rose asked. “And why are you distracting her?” Jamal was the one helping her stand at this point, which was making Tessa’s nerves jump in all sorts of unpleasant directions.
“To remind her of something critical. Something you all must understand and internalize,” Azma said. “You are not alone. Starchild, you and Peter are dissimilar from the others here. You are not facets on the same gem of personality like they are. If you were, you wouldn’t have arrived in two separate bodies.”
“We were connected though!” Starchild said, a suppressed growl in her voice.
“Yes. Exactly,” Azma said. “You two are not the same person, but you are [Synchronized Souls]. You share a bond of admiration as strong as the bonds of identity shared by the others.”
“We’re not just broken then?” Starchild said, the building light vanishing from her hands as she blinked in surprise.
“No. You were never broken.” Azma didn’t offer the phrase as a condolence or an encouragement. She spoke it as a cold, plain fact, unremarkable and unquestionable. “Nor are you broken, or even separated now.”
“He’s gone though,” Starchild said. “I saw him vanish.”
“Yes. Off to still another world. Which suggests there are even more than twenty billion sapients I may lay claim too.” Azma shook her head. “That’s not important now though. What is important is that you can still reach him, and he you. Think back to how the connection between you felt before he was pulled into your world.”
Starchild’s gaze went inwards and she went still for a long moment.
“I can’t feel him there,” she said. “He’s not watching over me.”
“Of course he isn’t. He’s likely dealing with the nanomachine he removed from our presence,” Azma said.
“Wait, he’s fighting that thing all alone?” Rose asked.
“Likely not,” Azma said. “He will have the support of allies from that world. For our fallen comrades sake however, that is unimportant. Starchild, he is distant, but he will always be with you, and you with him. Call out his name within yourself. Remember him. You don’t need to bridge the gap between worlds, only the gap within yourself.”
Starchild nodded and closed her eyes.
Tessa saw her lips move in two silent syllables.
And then light flared from her.
“[Arcadia’s Surcease],” she called out in voice that seemed to ring from the sky itself.
Rachel sat up with gasp, leaping to her feet as brilliant green light surrounded and infused her.
“Oh Hell Yeah!” Rachel said, green fire burning in her eyes. “Where’d that bot go?”
“Woah, woah, calm down sis,” Lisa said, laughing out the desperation she’d been stricken by and grabbing Rachel’s arms to prove the miracle she was watching was real.
“[Grove of Serenity],” Starchild said, casting a spell that caused the air to grow clear, and soft, a gently warm as every injury on everybody in the entire store was instantly healed.
Tessa stumbled back a single step, the impact of immediate perfect health, hitting her almost as hard as the bomb had.
“What did I miss?” Claire said. “And why do I feel like I’m eighteen again?”
“Starchild! She fixed us!” Rose said and flashed over to throw a hug around the Druid.
“Uh, did I just see lightning there?” Lisa asked.
“A little bit, yeah, I think so,” Tessa said, feeling dumbfounded.
We should try some of the Void Speaker or Soul Knight abilities, Pillowcase said.
Think we can shift bodies? Tessa asked.
I hope so. It would be nice to be a bit tougher, Pillowcase said.
Tessa stretched out, feeling for the fire within her that allowed her to change into Pillowcase’s Clothwork body, but as with her Void Speaker magics, she couldn’t reach it.
It’s odd though, isn’t it? Pillowcase said. This isn’t like when I had my magic threads removed for inspection or replacement. There is something still there.
You’re right. It feels like I’m reaching into a well for a handful of water, but the surface level has dropped far, far down.
Like we left it all back in the Fallen Kingdoms.
Except that’s clearly not true for Starchild, and maybe not for Rip.
“So how can the rest of us do that?” Lisa asked, turning back to Azma.
“It likely differs for each of you,” Azma said. “Starchild and Peter have the benefit that their bond already crosses the barrier between worlds. Since they are already reaching beyond this world, drawing power from beyond it as well was relatively simple.”
“Can’t we just think about the Fallen Kingdoms or something and do the same?” Jamal asked.
“Perhaps. I encourage you to try. It may be that is the key for you,” Azma said.
“Why wouldn’t it be the key for all of us?” Rose asked.
“Those of you who are familiar with this world also have the structure of its reality engraved within you. Magic is not a common and easily accessible thing here, but the laws of physics are dependable to startling regularity. Those two traits are often, though not always, found together. For you that means you are coded with an obedience to that structure of reality – magic is impossible, physics is iron clad. You’ve experienced another world, where the balance of those two traits is different though, so it is possible for you to live within the structure of one world in place of the other.”
“You said we’re coded to obedience? What does that mean?” Lisa asked.
“Very little in the end,” Azma said. “Understand, I do not speak of obedience in terms of your conscious choices, but rather in the fundamental essences of your beings here. Obedience to the physical and mystical laws which this world is built from. You do not, for example, choose to be effected by gravity. You are simply obedient to its existence, whether you wish to be or not.”
“Yeah, always, except when we’re not,” Tessa said, a drifting feeling flowing through her mind. She laughed, letting the idea pull her in, or perhaps outwards. “We’re all rebels. We’ve all been disobedient haven’t we?”
“We have?” Rose asked.
Lisa’s eyes widened as she saw what Tessa had.
“We’ve already worked magic here. Twice now. All of us,” Lisa said.
“When we left and when we came back,” Tessa said.
“Three times, at least,” Azma said. “Or did you think you survived the robots bomb blast through anything like natural means?”