Mini-break for the holiday! Storytreader will be back on Tuesday with the next chapter in Two Hearts One Beat!
Balegritz could breath fire, or, to be properly rigorous about it, [Hellfire].
“With a name like that I would have expected it to smell like brimstone,” Illuthiz said.
“It’s got more of a charcoal aroma,” Hermeziz said and asked, “What does it taste like?”
“Charcoal is pretty much spot on,” Baelgritz said. “I’m more concerned with the fact that we haven’t managed to find anything it’s not melting right through. How hot is this stuff?”
“It’s not the heat,” Illuthiz said. “You cut a steel plate in half. If you’d done that with just heat we’re see different deformations on the sides of cut.”
“And we’re probably have second degree burns from touch two halves,” Hermeziz said.
“Not to interrupt your research,” Lost Alice said. “But I think you’re missing the biggest data point about all this; leaving aside how the skill works, no one has ever done this before. That skill, none of the [Adventurer] classes grant this. You’ve learned something that’s not supposed to be learnable.”
“Yes, but that was because being able to breath [Hellfire] was something our analogs on this world were capable of,” Illuthiz said.
To which Lost Alice replied with four simple but also magical words.
“Have you tested that?
Balegritz had a ready comeback because of course they…his words caught behind his teeth before he could voice them, barred by the dawning awareness that, no, they had not tested for that.
Hadn’t even thought of it.
“How would we go about testing that?” Hermeziz asked, abashed by not having thought of it either.
“We attempt to replicate an ability the local variation of the [Gothmorn] didn’t possess,” Illuthiz said shaking her head in disbelief.
“But that could be anything,” Hermeziz said, his eyes darting back and forth as he scrambled over the idea that had almost escaped him.
“That’s the wonderful part,” Lost Alice said.
“That we’re clueless about what we can do?” Illuthiz asked.
“In a sense, yes. I know exactly what I can do, which mean my abilities are highly dependable. We can make battle plans that take into account my strengths and weaknesses. The downside is, there will be situations where I know I can’t fix the things that are broken. There are problems I can deal with and problems I definitely can’t. With you though, those limits aren’t there. We don’t know the limits of your abilities, but we already know that they occupy a different space than the ones I or the rest of the [Adventurers] have.”
“I get it,” Balegritz said, nodding in agreement. “Whatever we can do, it might be the answer to the situations where your abilities come up short.”
“Right,” Lost Alice said. “You don’t need to be able to heal like I do. I’m a [Grave Mender], I’ve already got my kind of healing covered. Maybe you’ll be able to reinforce people so they don’t take damage in the first place, or cover them in ice so attacks will slide right off them.”
“There must be some limitations on our abilities though?” Illuthiz asked.
“I’m sure there are,” Lost Alice said. “But I’m willing to be they’re far broader than you might guess. Which I blame [Adventurers] for.”
“Why?” Illuthiz asked.
“I think our abilities are a lot broader than we know. It’s easiest to use them within the published specs for them though, and breaking out of those molds would destabilize our whole grasp on what we can do. If we were setting a better example though, you’d see just how wild powers here can be.”
“What makes you think that could be the case?” Hermeziz asked. “If everyone sticks to the proscribed limitations of their abilities, what makes you think there anything beyond the levels you can see?”
“Because we’re not the only ones who have powers and abilities,” Lost Alice said.
“Oh!” Illuthiz said. “The monsters.”
“Yeah. The rules for monster abilities are that there are no rules,” Lost Alice said. “If you’re not an [Adventurer] you can have whatever abilities you need to make an encounter interesting.”
“An interesting, but not necessarily winnable encounter, unless I’m mistaken?” Illuthiz said.
“That’s true. Nothing is ever a guaranteed victory. [Adventurers] do tend to lose against unexpected abilities though. At least the first time we see them. Go into the same fight over and over again though kind of helps you work out what the strengths and weaknesses of a new ability are.”
“So what should we try next?” Balegritz asked.
“If we want to be systematic,” Hermeziz said, “we would choose a species similar to our own, where there might be overlap, and then progress outwards to more and more divergent life forms until we reach a point where we can’t manifest the abilities we’re experimenting with.”
“Or we could try something like this,” Illuthiz said.
Balegritz turned to find a cloud of vapor standing next time to him. A cloud with nonetheless defined features.
“What..how…smoke?” Hermeziz struggled to find the right question to start with.
“Not smoke,” Lost Alice said, her voice quiet with surprise. “You’re [Ethereal]?”
“I think so. I hope so,” Illuthiz said. “It came up half a dozen times in the books of lore we’ve been going through, and it seemed like such a useful ability.”
“And not one the local [Gothmorns] ever showed evidence of,” Hermeziz said.
“What does it let you do? Aside from camouflage yourself?” Balegritz asked.
“She can walk through any mundane surface, walls, floors, ceilings. In fact she’s not really bound in three dimensional space at all anymore. She’s basically flying now,” Lost Alice said.
“It’s a defensive ability,” Illuthiz said. “Only [Multi-Dimensional] attacks can affect me while I’m in this state.”
“It can also let you pull things from the [Ethereal Plane] back to the physical one,” Lost Alice said. “That’s…it’s mind bogglingly powerful. We don’t normally see it on monsters either. That’s usually a special condition that we have to figure out how to collect to solve specific puzzles in the higher level dungeons. And it never lasts outside those environments.”
“I can’t believe you can do that,” Balegritz said, wanting to hug his mate and swing her around in joy, though also aware of how impractical that would be at the moment.
“If she can do that though,” Hermeziz asked. “What does that mean the rest of us can do?”
Claire had almost been so swept away by the prospect of meeting even more of her other selves that she’d missed the concern brewing in Wrath Raven’s twisted frown.
“If there are worlds beyond worlds, why are you on this one?” Wrath asked, staring into the flagon of ale in front of her rather than at Lady Midnight, who was sitting across from her at the makeshift tavern the cooks converted a section of the [Great Hall] into.
“I don’t know,” Claire said, which was true, but not the answer Wrath was looking for.
“When will you leave?” Wrath asked.
“I don’t know that either,” Claire said. “We don’t even know if it’s possible.”
“Would you?” Wrath asked.
“Go back to Earth? If someone found a path back?” Claire asked. “I don’t know. I guess I might have to. I have a life there that’s probably falling apart without me.”
“So you are not here because you want to be?” Wrath asked. Her voice was flat but Claire was paying attention. She heard the deliberate lack of emotional undercurrent in the question.
“I spent so many days and nights wishing for this exact thing,” Claire said, putting her hand over Wrath’s. “I’m a nurse. A kind of [Healer] but without anything like [Healers] in this world have. I help people there, but it’s a tough job. It hurts sometimes. A lot. This world, being with you, its been the only thing that kept me sane more times than I could count. I love it here. I love the time I’ve spent with you. If I have to choose between the two worlds, it feels like I’d have to choose to go back to the Earth because there’s no one there to fill the me-shaped hole that I left behind, where this world’s got you and Lady Midnight and about a dozen others.”
“I see. That is true,” Wrath said, meeting Claire’s gaze.
“The thing is though? I don’t want to have to choose,” Claire said. “I could accept the life I had on Earth before because I didn’t know this place was real. I didn’t know you were real. I thought our time together was all about my having fun. I imagined your life but I thought it was only my imagination, not an actual window into what was happening with you.”
“It was always real to me,” Wrath said.
“Even all the times I made you stand in fire?” Claire asked.
“That wasn’t you,” Wrath said. “Sometimes the rage makes it hard to notice cuts, and stabs, and, you know, being on fire.”
“I do,” Claire said. “Just like I know that choosing between the worlds would probably break me. So I’m not going to. If I’m needed back on Earth, then so are you, and Lady Midnight, and everyone else too. Maybe before we could pretend the worlds were separate but that’s not an option anymore, and I for one plan to embrace that fact as much as I can.
Lost Alice’s twin was not particularly forthcoming about her plans to ‘take Lost Alice home’, so Vixali was obligated to play host for their meeting in order to learn the details of the sisters’ odd relationship.
That this played into the twin’s desire to have Vixali standing between her and her sister wasn’t lost of the [Vampire Queen], but it didn’t matter. If Lost Alice had the desire to destroy her twin, Vixali would be just as happy to watch that as any other course of events.
“Queen Vixali,” Lost Alice said as one of Vixali’s minions showed her into what passed for Vixali’s throne room. “You had an urgent matter to discuss?”
Lost Alice did not appear to be moved by any special urgency but neither was she insultingly delayed. She moved at her own pace, which Vixali could respect, even if she would have broken part off one of her minions had they shown the same lack of abject respect.
“Not I, so much as a guest of my court,” Vixali said and gestured for the twin to step forward.
A moment of confusion passed over Lost Alice’s face and was swept aside as her staff appeared in her hand and a shielding spell flared to life.
“Is this your work?” Lost Alice asked, the calm in her voice the herald of mayhem and death.
Before Vixali could answer, the twin spoke. She did so on a private telepathic channel, but Vixali was a [Vampire Queen]. The powers of the mind came as naturally to her as breathing did to mortals.
“Wait! Lisa! It’s me. Rachel!” The twin slammed the words out as fast as thought allowed.
“What? How?” Lost Alice, or Lisa, asked. For all the storm of confusion in her telepathic speech though, Lost Alice’s focus never wavered.
“You let me play in the beta remember? Deadly Alice was my character there,” Rachel, or Deadly Alice, said.
“But, that doesn’t make any…you weren’t playing when the servers got locked,” Lisa said, her voice turning to a growl as she asked. “Who are you really?”
“Rachel! Really! You’re right I wasn’t logged in when they closed access to the main servers,” Rachel said. “When we heard about what had happened to people though and when you weren’t picking up your phone, I tried logging into the beta server again. I figured I could send you an in-game message if you were still on. The second it connected though I wound up here. Or, not here. On the beta server’s version of here.”
“Oh no. No, no, no! You’re trapped here too?” Lisa asked.
“No. I’m not,” Rachel said. “They never locked the beta server down. We can travel in either direction there. If you’ll come with me, I can take you home!”
The blade would impact her neck in two hundredths of a second. In less than the blink of an eye it would complete its cut and exit the other side.
Rose wasn’t worried about this.
Granted, none of the [Adventurers] she knew actually needed to be “worried” about a lethal attack catching them by surprise. A quick trip to a [Heart Fire] would remedy and mangling her body endured, up to and including rebuilding her a new one if she needed it.
Rose didn’t need to be afraid of physical violence anymore, and that feeling was beyond liberating.
She still dodged though.
No naming of the power.
A hundredth of a second before the blade touched her skin, she simply wasn’t there.
The world resumed its motion again as she slid to a halt ten paces away.
Time wasn’t passing at full speed though.
From Rose’s point of view, the seconds ticked by at maybe one tenth their normal speed. That was largely thanks to the lightning danced over her skin and along her nerves. The adrenaline in her veins helped a little too
Her attacker was turning to face her far faster than any normal human could have.
Given that his eyes were burning orbs of blue light and his chest was a rib cage filled with a similar blue flame where his heart should have been, it seemed safe to assume he wasn’t a ‘normal human being’.
A [Twinned Fire Shot] to his center torso further confirmed that when the detonating arrows blew him apart into a cloud of smoke that instantly reformed.
She let out a breath, letting the lightning within her charge up again and time, or her perception of it, resumed its normal pace.
Which meant the undead monster was on her in an instant.
Being able to see him coming made a world of difference though.
“[Shadowbind],” she called out, amplifying the effect of the skill by naming it.
The arrow that flew from her bow missed the [Crypt Killer], as it was intended to, and struck a patch of ground behind it. The monster froze in place, unable to move towards her, or in fact, move at all.
“What’s that!” Aegis screamed aloud.
“Don’t know,” Rose said. “Dangerous. Stay away.”
“[Somnolent Transformation],” Matt called out, but Rose saw the spell slide off the [Crypt Killer].
This was one foe they couldn’t turn into a sheep to be dealt with later.
She was ten feet away from where she’d been standing and only then saw the blue fireball the [Crypt Killer] had hurled at her. [Shadowbind] was a handy ability, but it didn’t last long at all.
“Nice moves,” Jamal said on their private channel as Matt readied another spell. “That what you wanted to show off before?”
“Yeah, but not like this,” Rose said.
She was dodging again, the lightning pulling her to safety when Matt’s spell hit the [Crypt Killer].
It ate the spell.
No damage. No debuff. If anything its eyes seemed to glow brighter afterwards.
“It’s absorbing magic,” she said to the team so that Aegis and Makes wouldn’t make the same mistake.
“That’s not good,” Matt said, gauging the heft of his staff, clearly questioning its usefulness as a blunt weapon.
Rip sent another pair of arrows at the monster, though this time she didn’t give them any enchanted effect beyond the massive extra force she normally applied and preternatural accuracy.
Both arrows found their mark, but didn’t manage to do more than chip the bones on his skull and breastbone.
Rip dashed away again, strafing to the left to keep her distance, while trying to lure the [Crypt Killer] away from the others.
It was a weak strategy, so she wasn’t surprised when it failed.
The [Crypt Killer] snapped its head around locking on to the two weakness members of the party, uttering a single word as it turned away from Rip, “Souls!”
Rip’s arrows continued to have as much effect as Matt’s spells, so Rose reached for the lightning again.
She couldn’t stop the [Crypt Killer] with arrows.
But she could with herself.
A bow is a great ranged weapon.
It’s a terrible barrier.
But it was what Rip had available.
The [Crypt Killer] surged against her for a long moment before dispersing into stinging gas and simply passing right over her.
“We’re going to need some help with this one,” she said to Jamal only, so as not to alarm the others.
“Already called for the others,” he said.
Rose flashed backwards again, catching the [Crypt Killer’s] sword blow on her bow again, with a good half sec to spare before it tore through Aegis Eyes.
“Bothersome,” the [Crypt Lord] said and withdrew, brandishing two swords where it had only held one before.
Rose felt her blood run cold.
She looked at her opponent’s level.
She was 35.
The other undead had been in the low 20s and their bosses hadn’t broken 30.
What the hell was a level 50 mob doing here?
What in the [Sunless Deeps] was a level 51 mob doing here.
Rose sunk into the lightning again, accelerating her perception even beyond what her [Lightning Form] could match, as Rip loosed a [Blistering Barrage].
The [Crypt Lord] shrugged off the hits, though no without an agreeable look of discomfort.
She could still hurt it.
It’s level ticked up to 52.
It began to advance and Rip knew she wasn’t going to be able to hold it for long enough.
The others were back in town.
The [Crypt Lord] was getting faster.
It couldn’t match her yet, but she didn’t like how the race between her party and the [Crypt Lord] leveling up was going to turn out.
A comet hit the [Crypt Lord].
The fist of an angry god might have done more damage. Rose wasn’t sure. It seemed like a toss up.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to cut in, but I think this guy’s going to be trouble,” Obby said, rising from the knee deep hole she’d cratered into the landscape. “Can you get your party back to town?”
Rose was stunned for a long time. Almost a full tenth of a second.
“Yeah, definitely,” she said as her wits caught up with her. So many questions. None of them worth asking at the moment though. “We can help you though.”
“Nope,” Obby said. “I’ve got this. Go. Get your team to safety. That’s the leader’s job.”
As she spoke the level 54 Crypt Lord reformed, looking somewhat worse for the wear.
“Are you sure?” Rose asked, hating the idea of leaving Obby behind despite the irrational sense that Obby would be fine.
“You don’t need to worry about me,” Obby said. “That’s my job to worry about you.”
The tears that poured from Rip’s eyes weren’t ideal for a leader to show, but she let them flow. Being too happy to see straight was weird under the circumstances, but she wasn’t going to deny that feeling at all.
Two hours had passed. Two hours and precisely zero useful questions had been answered. Yawlorna had tallied the count. Repeatedly. Zero. No rounding errors. No partial credits being omitted. Zero answers. Zero progress. Zero newunderstanding.
So it was time for a new gambit.
“Is part of his prison that he’s trapped looping through his past?” she asked during a momentary lull when Zardrak was assembling tea cups into a miniature model of his first dungeon complex.
“The details of his prison aren’t things we normally speak of in front of him,” Glimmerglass said, the ghost of a smile on her lips suggesting she understood Yawlorna’s ploy.
“Oh, as though it’s any big secret,” Zardrak said. “I worked out the mechanism a minute after I was trapped inside my new home. I will grant that the construction is magnificent. It’s not definitionally unbreakable, but the effort required and the cost paid for leaving it? Well calibrated I say. Probably about a million times more than I’d care to endure for something as worthless as ‘freedom’. But, it’s curious that you ask that specific question. What brought it to your mind?”
“Simple deduction,” Yawlorna said, delighted to be able to get a word in edgewise for a change. “You’ve been trapped here for quite some time. We’re new and unexpected and yet you seem content to regale us with tales of your past deeds and displays of your cleverness.”
“Ah, but you see, that is the delight of these accommodations,” Zardrak said. “I can’t leave, ever, seemingly, so all I have is what I brought in with me.”
“That’s not strictly true,” Yawlorna said.
“We’re not here to inspect the prison, or to visit casually,” Yawlorna said. “We’re here with a puzzle.”
“You tried to conquer the world before,” Yawlorna said.
“Yes. A dreadful idea I am well rid of. Ruling this world is akin to planting a million [Screamer Demons] in each ear, except at least with the demons they wouldn’t be breeding more demons with more problems every second of every day.”
“It’s a shame you didn’t see that before we needed to stuff you in here,” Glimmerglass said.
“Some perspectives can only be gained after they would be of any help,” Zardrak said.
“What if we told you that your perspective could still matter,” Yawlorna said. “What if instead of conquering the world, you could change it completely?”
She saw a new flame kindle in his widening eyes.
“Oh. Do go on.” he said, giving Yawlorna every last bit of his attention.
Hailey was used to Tessa having kind of “out there” ideas but she couldn’t remember her old friend every having one as terrible as the one she was proposing.
“Uh, you want to invite the great corrupting monster that’s overwhelmed a literal alien invasion fleet to come on down and dine on us too?” Hailey asked. “Are you sure you’re feeling like yourself.
The idea that Tessa had been replaced by the [Hungry Shadow] seemed ludicrous all things considered, but infected? Could that be possible? How would they even begin to tell?
“Myself? No. I’m feeling like myselves,” Tessa said. Or maybe it was Pillowcase? “I’m not suggesting we open up a gate to the [High Beyond] and invite the [Hungry Shadow] down here for a smorgasbord of tasty regular people.”
“You’re suggesting we assault the [Hungry Shadow] directly, once it’s somehow been made in a foe as real as any of the ones we’ve struggled against over the last few centuries,” Penny said, and Hailey could see wheels within wheels turning behind her eyes.
“Right. It’s a problem because its abilities are literally unlimited. It wasn’t a part of this world and so saying ‘you can do this’ or ‘you can’t do this’ didn’t have any meaning,” Tessa said.
“But that doesn’t make sense. If it ‘wasn’t part of this world’, then it shouldn’t have been able to do anything,” Hailey said.
“Sure. That makes sense,” Tessa said. “And having worked with code, or at least people who program, how often do systems work just like their supposed to? Or, better yet, I’m sure all the bugs you’ve seen are all repeatable and have a clear root cause right?”
“Okay, first, you’re evil, and second, you’re saying this thing is basically a bug in reality?”
“For lack of a better description? Yeah. Call it a null reference that never should have happened. Call it a bug. Call it a nothing that’s partway to becoming a something. Its whole deal is that its undefined.”
“So we beat it by defining it,” Penny said.
“Or we save it,” Tessa said. “The [Hungry Shadow] is a monster, and maybe that’s what it wants to stay. Maybe it becomes something fully real and the [Adventurers] take turns making it a loot pinata out of it, like we do. Or maybe it can become something else. That’s the whole point of changing after all.”
“It’s a fine vision,” Penny said. “But one we have practical method of implementing.”
“We might,” Tessa said. “Or I might. I’ll need a few days, and to get my team together. Plus transport to [Hells Breach] probably the day after tomorrow. And if it goes well, we’ll need a ship that’s capable of reaching the [High Beyond].”
“That’s all easily done, but what transformation magic do you hope to acquire that can affect the [Hungry Shadow]?”
“Not acquire. Create,” Tessa said. “I don’t think there’s any transform spell in this world that could affect the [Hungry Shadow], but this world still hasn’t seen what a high level [Void Speaker] can do, and I think it’s time to fix that.”
Exploding zombies wasn’t supposed to be fun. Taking zombies lightly was always a precursor to getting bit, turning into one, and ruining everyone’s day.
But Rose knew some amazing healers.
Not only could Lost Alice, or Lady Midnight, or Glimmerglass purge the zombie plague debuff the monsters could inflict, turning the problem with getting bitten into a far more manageable one, Lost Alice had cast a [Vaccine] enchantment on them, to prevent the problem in the first place.
“I didn’t have long term buffs like this earlier or I would have been loading you up from the moment we met,” Lost Alice had explained before seeing Rose’s mini-party off. “If you’re out long enough for it and the shielding buffs I’ve got on you to start wearing off, just give a yell. I can come out and refresh them on you without joining your party, so your xps will be fine.”
Rose hadn’t expected that. Not the long term buffs, which seemed to be set to last a day and some change, nor the confidence and support Lost Alice offered.
The thought of sneaking away from town and telling noone where they were going had seemed terribly tempting at first, especially when Rose imagined the adults they normally partied with forbidding them to go.
What stopped her from hiding what they were doing wasn’t any worry that they’d get caught, it was something harder to explain than that. It came in a moment when she pictured explaining why they were sneaking away to Aegis and Makes. She was struck by the image her actions would paint of who Tessa and Lisa were.
Believing that anyone else would believe in her was simply a non-starter, but suggesting that Tessa and Lisa were as small minded and untrustworthy as the people she knew on Earth was unacceptable.
And so she’d called back, marshalling arguments though hers were never listened to, and resigning herself to modifications of her plan or a flat refusal.
But the pushback she’d expected never came.
It wasn’t that Tessa and Lisa weren’t interested either. Both had practically exploded with excitement at the idea. There had been some modifications to Rose’s original idea, but those had all come from her in response to questions about things she hadn’t considered, or been aware of.
And in the end, they’d more than ‘let her go’, they’d cheered her on, and let her set the terms of how involved they’d be.
“We are here if you need us,” Pillowcase said. “I know you will do fine, but there are always surprises in battle. Remember that we can be a positive one, should the need arise.”
Rose’s heart sang as another zombie blossomed into a shower of angry sparks in front of her. It had gotten within ten feet of her because she’d wanted it to be that close.
Pillowcase had been right.
That felt good.
Pillowcase, and Tessa, and Lisa, they’d all believed in her.
That felt better.
“It’s getting easier to see what’s going on,” Aegis said. “I think I’m figuring this out.”
“Yeah, you let that last one walk in and hit it right when it started its lunge, right?” Makes said.
“Yep. Could you tell why?” Rose asked.
“It leaves itself wide open then? When it’s arms go up there’s nothing covering its body?” Makes said.
“That’s true,” Rose said. “I was also watching what Matt’s doing though.”
“Oh, he had one transformed into a sheep, and it was right next to the one you blew up!” Aegis said.
“Where is it?” Makes asked as Rose blew up two other zombies and Jamal reduced one to sparkling sludge that evaporate into burning gem fragments.
“It got blown up with the one she shot,” Aegis said.
“I get it, you set them up for a two-for-one,” Makes said.
“With a horde like this one, it’s a good trick to look for,” Rose said. “We’re keeping them at a distance, and they’re not sapient enough to figure out they should stop attacking, but they’re still dangerous since they just won’t stop.”
“Getting overrun sucks too,” Jamal said. “We were fighting a lot more than this the other night when we were out with our usual team and we pulled in a few too many a couple of times. I tell you I am literally not built for close quarters fighting.”
“How did you survive? Or did you die?” Aegis asked.
“We survived,” Rose said. “We had Glimmerglass with us, so the first time it happened she basically nuked the whole battlefield. Like obliterated about a hundred of them.”
“We had to wait for ten minutes before they started to respawn from the ground like these are doing,” Jamal said.
“Wow. I thought you two were pretty powerful,” Makes said. “That sounds like a whole other level.”
“More than sixty other levels in fact,” Rose said. “The thing is though, unlike on Earth we can all get there. It just takes putting in the time and effort.”
“I think I want to do it,” Aegis said. Rose glanced back to see Aegis drawing her sword.
“You’ve gained a lot of levels since started, but these things are still a lot higher than you,” Rose said. “For now, don’t try to tank them. You’ll take too much damage, too fast from what Pillowcase said.”
“What should I do then?” Aegis asked.
“Support Matt,” Rose said. “His abilities are more focused on controlling the bad guys than detonating them like mine are. Once he’s landed a spell on them and has them locked up, he can send you in and you can help finish them off.”
“Can I help too or is it bad to have too much of an advantage over a foe like that?” Makes asked.
“You can absolutely help,” Matt said.
“Yeah. Never fight fair,” Rose said. “Only your friends are worth a fair fight, and you shouldn’t fight them in the first place.”
“I’m going to remind you of that next time you disagree with me,” Jamal said.
“Disagreements aren’t fight,” Rose said.
“And neither is this.”
Rip began to dodge the instant the voice began speaking from behind her.
She didn’t know how an enemy had appeared right beside her but as she spun to face him, she saw two things were true.
First, the frozen corpse was far too close for her to get her bow up and aimed properly.
Second, he’d begun swinging as he spoke which meant his blade was at most an inch from her neck.
Xardrak was not quite what Yawlorna had pictured. For one thing the fact that he was walking around freely seemed somewhat disturbing from the stories she’d been told of his rampages. Any sense of dread however was undercut by the exceedingly fuzzy pink bunny slippers on his feet.
“Visitors? Huh. Didn’t think I was do for one of those for another ten years,” Xardrak said. “Wait. has it been ten years? No? I haven’t lost track of that much time. Have I?”
“It hasn’t been ten years yet Xardrak,” Glimmerglass said.
“That’s a relief,” the curiously young human said as he continued to stir a cup of coa with roughly a thousand marshmallows crammed into its top. “I think they’ll be disappointed if I don’t have a [Soul Jar] or [Mind Swapper] setup by then.”
“Those are both terrible plans you know,” Glimmerglass said.
“I’m reasonably aware of that,” Xardrak said. “I can only pray that whoever shows up here then is too. It’d be dreadful is whatever I came up with actually worked.”
Yawlorna had a hundred questions related to her research, but rather than broaching one of those, her brain was flooded with two hundred questions about what, exactly, was going on with the odd man in front of them.
“Huh, you’re new,” Xardrak said. “We’ve never fought have we?”
“No,” Yawlorna said, casting a glance to Glimmerglass as a plea for some guidance.
“That’s a shame. I had some truly wonderful treasures, but I gather the newer [Adventurers] have set their sights on shinier trinkets.”
“I still wear the [Polaris Earrings] from your hoard,” Glimmerglass said, holding a hand to her ear where a star briefly shone.
Xardrak’s face lit up with a giant smile of genuine delight.
“I was so proud of those!” he said.
“And stingy with them,” Glimmerglass said.
“Well they were quite nice,” Xardrak said. “Can’t give away the best stuff each time you’re murdered.”
“That’s fair,” Glimmerglass said.
“You were…?” Yawlorna wasn’t sure how to form the question, but fortunately her expression spoke for her.
“Yes. Murdered. Thousands of times? Tens of thousands? Maybe a million? Something like that,” Xardrak said.”Allow me to assure you that however terrifying you might imagine it to be, that sensation only last for the few hundred or so times. After that its often just tedious. Though it’s not the most tedious thing.”
“Uh, there’s something more tedious than dying a million times over?” Yawlorna asked.
“Yes. Winning. I cannot tell you how much I dreaded the times when an entire raid would just fall over dead in front of me,” Xardrak said. “The worst were the ones where I wasn’t even really a part of it. Can you imagine how dull it is to be ready and focused and properly riled up for an epic battle only to have your foes run right into the lava in front of you?”
“No. No I cannot,” Yawlorna said, baffled but beginning to understand the shape of the absurdity which she’d stumbled into.
She looked to Glimmerglass again who merely shrugged.
This was apparently what working with one of the worst threats the world had ever faced was going to be like.
Hailey didn’t like the gleam that had entered Tessa’s eyes. She wasn’t used to seeing her old friend in person, but she was keenly aware of when Glimmerglass would step in as the party’s tactician and layout a wild scheme to deal with whatever seemingly impossible challenge faced them.
“Please explain,” Penny said, which was infinitely more worrisome.
Tessa having one of her signature “ideas” was always fun but often just as much of a disaster as the failures that preceded it. The thought of the world’s premiere tactician entertaining it spoke knee shaking volumes about how bad of a situation they were in.
“When we first encountered the [Hungry Shadow] it wasn’t anything,” Tessa said. “I don’t mean that in the abstract. I mean it wasn’t a thing with quality, it was an absence of qualities. I know this may be a bad metaphor, but if I was looking at this as a programmer, which I should have been long before now, I’d saw the original version of a [Hungry Shadow] was a reference to a null object. Not a reference to zero, or the empty set, a reference to something that cannot be resolved. An error in reality essentially.”
“And then it became something,” Penny said, proving that metaphors from another world were no problem for her to follow given the proper context.
“Yes. I took something away from it, tore a tiny piece off and that blew me apart,” Tessa said. “For a while the only part of me that was here was Pillowcase. Well, and Glimmerglass, but we weren’t aware of each other then.”
“I’m not sure I understand what you did,” Penny said.
“I don’t think I do either,” Tessa said. “Not the exact details, but if I step back and look at it there’s one really obvious thing that stands out.”
“How do you rip off a piece of nothing?” Hailey asked, following along as best she could.
“”You can subtract from zero, but this is closer to subtracting from something that can have no representation if I’m correct,” Penny said.
“You are, and that’s what’s at the heart of the idea I have,” Tessa said. “To hurt the thing the [Hungry Shadow] was I had to have been able to make it a thing in the first place. To tear off a piece of it, it had to first be made into a thing that could have pieces.”
“You changed its fundamental nature,” Penny said.
“I gave it a fundamental nature,” Tessa said. “Or the start of one. We saw before we left that it continued to change all on its own. The version of it we fought as we fled the [High Beyond]? That was nothing like the earlier versions.”
“That’s why you want to give it a health bar,” Penny said.
“We’re not going to beat it by destroying it,” Tessa said. “Destroying things is its game and we’re not going to win playing by its rules. We need to make it play by ours. We need to make it a part of this world.”
Sometimes, if you’re patient, life drops the perfect circumstances into your lap. Rip hated being patient, but she had to admit that getting to show off her new abilities in an appropriate setting was well worth the wait.
“Is it okay that its just the four of us?” Aegis Eyes asked, justifiably nervous from Rose’s point of view.
With the sun setting, the outskirts of town was not a terribly safe place to be. In a few minutes, the dead would rise from their unmarked graves to wander ceaselessly looking for foolish living souls to consume.
That Rose had led them to a spot well beyond the outskirts and where there would definitely a few of the mid-tier undead present could be seen as something other than the wisest of moves.
Rose, however, was not a fool, nor did she have particularly poor impulse control. In her own estimation at least.
Proof that was the fact that she’d checked in with people she trusted before bringing her small party out in a potentially perilous situation.
“Four’s somewhat optimal it turns out,” Rose said. “As weird as it sounds, the world still works a lot like it did when it was just a game.”
“A smaller party means fewer bad guys spawn,” Jamal said. He’d been part of the conversation with Tessa and Lisa.
“Normally, we’d all be the same level, so all we’d need to do is look for any area where the monsters were just a little stronger than us,” Rose said. “In this case, since we’re mismatched, we’ve got a little more flexibility.”
“You’ll get experience from fighting things a lot stronger than you, and we should be able to keep you pretty safe in the process,” Jamal said.
“Are we going to be able to do anything though?” Makes Emm Dead asked.
“Not at first,” Rose said. “You’ll want to hang back and observe for the first few fights, until you’ve leveled up a bit and the mobs won’t one shot you.”
“I’m not loving the idea of being ‘one shot’,” Aegis said. “I’m a tank though, so shouldn’t I be immune to that or something?”
“Technically we all are,” Jamal said. “In the game there was code to prevent a single attack from killing you in one blow, no matter who it was from.”
“But the developers still wanted to make some bad guys that level of scary,” Rose said, repeating what Tessa had told her a lifetime ago, “So some ‘single’ attacks come with a big burst of damage and then an overtime effect. So you don’t technically die in one shot, but the half second or so you get to live with a single point of health left isn’t really much different.”
“So much for being a tank then I guess,” Aegis said.
“Oh, you could tank the hell out of the low level stuff that’s out there,” Rose said. “Believe me, Pillowcase, our party’s main tank, was tons burlier than we were right out of the box.”
“If you want, we could do this with monsters that are more appropriate for your level,” Jamal said. “We fight the giant bug things up in the [High Beyond], but I know there’s got to be something like that down here too.”
“Uh, I’ll pass on the bugs,” Aegis said. “Dead guys is bad enough, but at least I don’t have to feel bad about killing them again.”
“You wouldn’t feel bad about those bugs either. Especially not after the first time they killed you,” Jamal said.
“You do know you’re not making this sound at all appealing right?” Makes asked.
“It won’t be that bad,” Rose said. “One of the reasons I wanted to use these guys was that they’ll level you up pretty quick, but the other was because you’ll get to sit the first few fights out. Matt and I should be able to handle the monsters with no problem. When you’re ready, you can join in and help us. Just having you there will increase how quickly we can take things down. If you feel yourself freezing up, go ahead and freeze. You can take whatever time you need to work through it.”
“We won’t really be doing you any good if we do that though,” Aegis said. “And I may not get any better.”
“Maybe not,” Rose said. “If all this just keeps sucking for you, that’s perfectly fine. We can go back to the crafting circuit and see what [Enchanting] is like. All we’re trying to do here is let you ease into the whole “fighting [Adventurer]” thing at a pace that’s comfortable for you.”
“You know, you’re the first people who’ve said anything like that,” Makes said.
“You need to meet the rest of our party then,” Jamal said. “We got all that from them.”
“Before that though, let’s see if any of this works,” Rose said. “I think the first of the [Undead] should be rising up in about a minute or so.”
“Oh, before that then real quick,” Aegis said. “What should we be watching for. Specifically.”
“Our jobs are pretty different, so you don’t need to watch exactly what Matt or I do,” Rose said. “You’re not going to be able to do the same things, and you don’t have to. What you want to look for are the things that matter for everyone. Things like positioning – where Matt and I move in response to how the monsters move. Try to imagine yourself in the battle with us and ask yourself questions like ‘where would I want to stand to make sure I stayed in melee with monsters’ or ‘where could I move that would pull the bad guys into a good spot for everyone else.’”
“Watch the monsters too,” Jamal said. “Thing will be different when you’re in there and they’re reacting to you, but if you watch where they go and what kind of patterns their attacks have, you’ll be a lot more ready to take them on once you feel comfortable with trying.”
“Oh, and the most important thing,” Rose said. “When we do something that looks, let’s call it ‘suboptimal’? Call it out. We’re still learning this stuff too, so it probably is something boneheaded and we can use the help on correcting it too.”
With that, Rip drew her bow and knocked the first arrow of the night, as the dead began to rise.
Even in the face of global armageddon, there were some jobs that didn’t get a day off.
“You’re not cleared to enter here.” The guard towered before them, taller in his armor than even Yawlorna, which was something she’d grown unaccustomed to during her stay in the new world they’d discovered.
“Not yet,” Glimmerglass said, the scene apparently failing to inspire any sense of awe in her. “I knew we’d be a bit early, but I thought it’d be a chance to check in and see how things have been going.”
“The situation here is nominal. No incidents to report.”
“Oh come on Blakely,” Glimmerglass said. “I teleported us a thousand leagues to get here. I know the prison’s doing fine. I wanted to see how things were going with you?”
“My apologies. There is an unverified personage present. Protocol dictates socialization is not allowed when a potential enemy might be present.”
“She came with me Blakely.”
“A sign you may have been compromised.”
Glimmerglass sighed and rubbed the bridge of her nose.
“That’s fair. I mean, she’s not, and I haven’t been, but this is Xardrak we’re talking about, so you can’t really know that.”
“Should I leave?” Yawlorna asked, puzzled over the direction the conversation was taking.
“No, definitely not,” Glimmerglass said. “You’re the researcher here. I wouldn’t know which questions you would need answers to. I just need to get you some official credentials, so you can be recognized here.”
“I believe I can help with that,” Niminay said, appearing in a shimmer of light which marked one of the higher end portals being used.
“You can?” Glimmerglass asked.
“Penny caught wind of this line of research and has some huge idea forming in her head, so she wanted me to make sure you got the answers you need.”
“She thinks our inquiry will tie into something larger?” Yawlorna asked. “Did she say what that might be?”
“She did not,” Niminay said. “She didn’t even say she was putting together a big idea, but once you know her long enough you can see it in her eyes pretty easily.”
“That’s a shame,” Yawlorna said. “If I knew what she was looking for I could tailor our questions better. This is largely an exploratory operation as it is. I don’t even know if this Xardrak will have the first inkling of what I need to know.”
“I think that’s probably part of her plan,” Niminay said. “Penny always tries to be careful about biasing the sources she’s dealing with. My guess is she trusts you to ask whatever questions she needs answers to on your own.”
“But we’ve never met,” Yawlorna said. “How can she trust me with something like that?”
“That’s a Penny thing,” Niminay said. “You may not have met her yet, but there’s a decent chance she knows you better than you know yourself.”
Hailey was crestfallen and it had only taken seven words to do it.
“We can’t risk their safety like that.” It was all Penny had needed to say for the wonderful dream of meeting up with the versions of her from other worlds to come crashing down.
“What do you mean?” Tessa asked, though Hailey suspected she was already figuring out what Penny had meant.
“Your idea is amazing,” Penny said. “But we are faced with an enemy capable of suborning an entire fleet of starships. We know that [Adventurers] seem to develop a resistance to its corrupting effects. Some of you at least. But there’s no guarantee people from another world – especially people who aren’t merged entities as you both are – would have that ame resistance.”
“But…” Tessa began and fell silent. There were too many contingencies to work through with the idea of their otherworld selves being vulnerable to the [Hungry Shadow].
“Believe me, it is a tempting avenue to pursue,” Penny said. “You’re right that being able to call in forces from other worlds with previously unseen abilities would be shift the entire field in our favor. If they proved to be vulnerable to corruption though we’d be dooming ourselves and them.”
“Maybe it’s something we could save as a last resort then?” Hailey suggested, unwilling to let the idea fade away so easily.
“Definitely not then,” Penny said. “If we lose the struggle we’re in, we need to at least make sure that the thing that defeated us ends here too. Opening a door to another world will make us Patient Zero for a multiversal plague otherwise.”
“She’s right,” Tessa said. “I was so caught up in the idea of seeing all of our other selves, I didn’t really stop to think it through.”
“That’s why we turn more than one mind to working things like this out,” Penny said. “I make the same sort of mistakes, I’m just spared from enacting them because I have so many of you helping me. And don’t get me wrong. You’ve still brought me a game changing revelation. That there are more [Adventurers] out there, idle and waiting for the [Inspirations] who we can reconnect with each other? I can do so much with that.”
“Will it be enough though?” Tessa asked.
“It’s more than I had before, and I was determined to make what I had work. This gives me a better chance of that coming true,” Penny said. “More than that I can’t promise though. Our position has greatly improved but we are facing a threat beyond any sense of scale we’ve yet dealt with.”
“If only we could put a health bar on that damn Shadow,” Hailey said. “Give it a health bar and a level and we [Adventurers] could definitely kill it. Hell, give it some loot drops and we’ll beat each other up, racing to do it first.”
“Huh,” Tess said. “Maybe that’s exactly what we need to do.”
It took two of the library’s chairs to support his weight, the reading table was too small by about foot, the light could have been better, and for a library it was far louder than he was used to.
And none of that mattered.
“Should we bother him?” Illuthiz asked, whispering loudly enough that Balegritz could hear her clearly.
“I don’t think so,” Hermeziz said. “He looks so happy. Really sets off his features nicely.”
“I agree, we need a sculptor to capture the moment properly,” Illuthiz sad.
“But then someone else would see him like this and we’d have to fight them off with burning sticks,” Hermeziz said.
“There are several other people here,” Illuthiz said.
“Eh, none of them are [Gothmorn], so they don’t count,” Hermeziz said with his usual sneer, but then, uncharacteristically, added, “for this anyways.”
Balegritz knew they knew he could hear them.
Or he thought he knew that.
He hadn’t heard them creep up, and he didn’t think they were trying to ambush him.
And he had gotten lost enough in his reading on prior occasions to miss a house fire.
More than once.
So, perhaps they didn’t think he could hear them?
It wasn’t hard to stay focused on the book, it was a deliciously enjoyable puzzle to unravel, but he couldn’t help but spare some attention for eavesdropping too.
“You raise a valid point,” Illuthiz said. “Though, I’m not entirely certain it applies to all of the [Adventurers]. He was drawing quite a few interested looks from them at dinner last night.”
“Which is why we’re not letting him dine alone,” Hermeziz said. “I’m not sharing him.”
“You share him with me though?” Illuthiz said.
“No, we share him with each other,” Hermeziz said. “I don’t need more than you two.”
“And we don’t need more than you,” Illuthiz said. “You know that right?”
“I do,” Hermeziz said. “Most of the time. But it’s nice to hear you both say it still.”
“You know he’d great you with proof of his affections every morning if you wished it,” Illuthiz said.
“I’d rather see him happy like this,” Hermeziz said. “I know I can’t make him that happy, but if something else can, that’s good enough.”
“I don’t think any of us can make each other happy,” Illuthiz said. “I think our happiness comes from within us. It’s not something another can force on us. The most we can do is create spaces where that happiness can flourish, and share the happiness we feel to help call out the happiness in those we love.”
“I suppose I could get more books for him?” Hermeziz said.
“I doubt that’s necessary,” Illuthiz said. “That one looks rather gripping. From how long he’s spent on it I would bet that he’s not doing a surface translation of it skimming for clues.”
“You think the pile of books on his left are the ones he already went through?” Hermeziz asked.
“Probably. Unless his luck was phenomenal, I don’t think he would have chanced on a book of lore related to local variations of the [Gothmorn] in his first pick.”
“This all seems incredible to you too right?” Hermeziz asked. “We’ve gone from graduate students, to dimensional explorers, to crash survivors, to dungeon dwellers, to refugees, to whatever it is we are now? [Adventurers]? [Monsters]? Something else entirely?”
“We don’t have the immortality of the [Adventurers] yet, but if we wanted to define ourselves as one of them, we could probably make a good showing of it,” Illuthiz said.
“But you don’t think that fits us?” Hermeziz said.
“I think even if we unlock the secret of how they can get the [Heart Fires] to respond to them, we’ll still be something different,” Illuthiz said. “But that’s not a bad thing. If we what we are is something new, then can you imagine the research we can do on ourselves?”
“It seems like we’ve already started with that,” Hermeziz said. “Bal was so good with the [Overcharging] test. I think it took a lot out of him though. He seemed worn afterwards.”
“Did he?” Illuthiz asked. “I should have been paying better attention.”
“I don’t think he wanted us to notice,” Hermeziz said. “I think he was trying to make that space you talked about. Where we could be happy.”
“As if we could be happy for long without him.”
“He knows that too. I think.”
“Perhaps we can show it to him,” Iluthiz said. “Once he’s translated the book, he will have a lot to tell us.”
“We should be ready then,” Hermeziz said. “What answers do you think he’ll be searching for?”
“Relevance of ancient tales to the modern day perhaps?” Illuthiz said. “Or perhaps somewhere we can go to see either the fossils or ruins of the local variation of our people?”
“Then we’re going to get him that,” Hermeziz said. “You’re better with people, do you want to handle collecting the impressions the scholars here have of the old tales? I can check the archaeological books for a sense of locations to ask Tessa about.”
“Tessa? You’re going to consult with a [Human]? You?”
“For Bal? Sure. Also she’s not…she’s easier to deal with than the others. And she has a great deal of knowledge about this world. She’s an excellent secondary reference.”
“I think that’s the first time I’ve heard you say that about any non-[Gothmorn],” Illuthiz said.
“She saved you two back up in the [High Beyond]. I’m grateful. That’s all.”
“I don’t know, should I be the one who’s jealous now?” Illuthiz teased.
“Eww, no. They look like emaciated, warped children. It’s like walking around in a horror story seeing what passes for people here,” Hermeziz said. “But, I know that’s just appearances. The ones we’ve dealt with have all proven themselves to be capable and considerate people.”
“Well, we should go speak with the horror-children,” Illuthiz said. “With how focused he is, I would guess Bal will be ready bring us in on his research quite soon.”
Balegritz heard them depart, and lingered on the sound for a long moment, his attention completely drawn from book. Where sadness had settled like a stone in his chest at the thought of them finding other joys in his life, a warm joy spread out instead.
He had a book, he had his mates, and he had a problem that was going to fall before them all.
And in solving it, they were going to change the world.
The whirlwind of excitement over Claire’s semi-discovery had flown outwards, carried on the wings of telepathic thoughts and quick conversations.
“Everyone is happy,” Wrath Raven said. “Happier than I thought they’d be.”
“I think you underestimated how close a connection your [Inspiration] feels with you,” Lady Midnight said. “How close they all feel to all of us.”
“It’s that and more,” Claire said. “Tessa saw it too. What Wrath did proves that there are so many more [Adventurers] out there than we thought, but that pales in the face of how she did it.”
“I believed in you,” Wrath said. “It’s not so hard.”
“As far as I know, you’re the only person on the planet who’s managed to connect with their [Inspiration] like that,” Claire said. “Now that we know it’s possible though I am sure you’ll be far from the last. The real key though is going to be if we, the Earthlings, your [Inspirations], can reach our other characters.”
“You mean if you can find people like I did?” Wrath asked.
“Yes, but not just people on this world,” Claire said.
“You left the [High Beyond] though,” Wrath said.
“We’re thinking about people even farther away than that,” Claire said. “The Consortium has established that this realm, this reality, isn’t a closed system. Our arrival here confirms that too. Somehow, things can move from other world to this one.”
“Worlds and worlds of people? All parts of you?” Wrath Raven asked.
“Yes. Worlds beyond imagining,” Claire said. “For us, this world reflects a period of time in our past, but with things we never had, like magic and monsters and the [Heart Fires]. The other worlds though, the other games we played? They reflect very different things. Visions of our modern day. Visions of the future. Visions of…oh wow, what if we could reach out to Gods of Olympus?”
“You played with the gods?” Wrath asked.
“We played as the gods,” Claire said. “And super heroes! And…a light saber! Oh yes, I have got to reach Halo Vex!”
“Who’s she?” Wrath asked.
“She’s my main character in another game, one where we played as knights with swords of light who kept the peace across an entire galaxy. You’d like her. She’s someone who’ll always have your back.”
“How will you track her if she is so far away?” Wrath asked.
“I don’t know,” Claire said. “Maybe it won’t be possible. Maybe the divide between the worlds is too far. Maybe light sabers wouldn’t work here. But I don’t care. You taught me better than to worry about that. All I need to do is believe. Halo’s out there. Of all my characters, I know if she can hear my call, she’ll come for me.”
The course of events was neither random nor preordained by Vixali’s measure. It was malicious. Random events couldn’t so consistently thwart her desires after all, and if a preordained destiny was controlling events, then, occasionally, she expected she was escape its clutches through sheer random chance if nothing else.
“She’s not available?” Lost Alice’s twin said. “Did you explain who wanted to meet her?”
“No. I did not,” Vixali said. “I did not speak to her directly but to one of the members of her group. I chose to omit your professed identity from the request so as to be able to gauge her reaction to the news more directly.”
But, of course, Vixali wasn’t allowed to have nice things. No fun second hand drama. No sudden bursts of exciting combat.
Unless perhaps the twin would react poorly to the news?
“That was probably for the best,” the twin said. “Did your contact say when she might be available next?”
“I gather she is engaged in some endeavor with the [Gothmorn] clan,” Vixali said. “So it will likely be whenever that business has wrapped up.”
“Perhaps I should seek her out directly then after all.” The twin bit her lip, her gaze going distant as she considered the possibilities before her.
Vixali had little interest in allowing her to do that though.
If there were going to be fireworks, she wanted to front row seats to observe them.
Either than or she’d just go back to bed.
Which was a tempting option.
But, there was a game to played here, and it would be a shame to miss out on the opportunity.
“Patience is rarely a virtue for creatures such as we,” Vixali said. “But even the youngest of our kinds understands that sometimes one must wait and plan one’s strike with care and precision, lest the quarry turn on you, or escape.”
“Lost Alice won’t turn on me,” the twin said. “Not once she know who I am.”
“And if she kills you as a reflex? Will that impact your relationship with her perhaps a bit?” Vixali tried to lead the question, but with [Adventurers] she wasn’t sure if murder was necessarily a significant trespass. It wasn’t like death stuck to them after all.
“I guess it would,” the twin said. “And you’re not wrong about the value of patience. But in this case, there may be something even more valuable at stake.”
“More valuable than reuniting with a lost relative?” Vixali asked. “I know many [Vampires] who would make a choice like that easily, cutting away family from their heart in the pursuit of power, or wisdom, or glory. I have never met any who did so and didn’t regret their actions later however.”
“Oh, I don’t want to cutting her away,” the twin said. “I want to take her with me.”
“Take her where?” Vixali asked.
With no one was poking or prodding him, Balegritz should have been happy. The life of a lab rat, while scientifically useful, was never one people waxes poetic about. With the strange tingle of the [Overcharged] condition and the glow that accompanied both faded away, Balegritz should have been delighted. Especially since there was the prospect of reading tomes from strange and foreign lands, written by the actual denizens of those lands. If he could have ordered up a choice for how to spend his day, that would have ranked a solid number five on his Best Possible Ways to Spend a Day.
“It looks like your back to normal now, how do you feel?” Lost Alice asked, lingering a few steps behind the others as the impromptu party marched towards the library on the other side of town.
“Fine,” Balegritz said and then caught himself. That was a terrible answer. Far too little data for anyone to work with. He was glad Yawlorna wasn’t around. She wasn’t one of his professors, but he had a similar relationship to her as with them, and he’d hate to disappoint her just as much as he’d hate to disappoint them. “Sorry. I seem to be in acceptable condition. The aftermath of the [Overcharged] effect is as you described. I have no new injuries and no sense of systemic damage. Muscle capacity seems unaffected, as does mental acumen. The tingling sensation faded in proportion to the luminescent glow’s reduction, and no loss or gain in skin sensitivity is evident in its wake.”
Lost Alice smiled.
“Your doctors must love you back at home I’m guessing?” she asked.
“Doctor’s on my world typically cultivate a detached persona. It’s meant to engender trust by requiring them to speak in a purely factual manner, but I think many of them simply have poor interpersonal skills and have convinced the rest to cover for them,” Balegritz said.
“Your world and Earth don’t sound terrible different, the physicality of their native species aside that is,” Lost Alice said.
“There are certain convergences common in sapient species,” Balegritz said. “Especially ones like ours who are adapted to similar environments.”
“I suppose that’s true. For all that we appear different to each other, we both breath the same air, enjoy roughly the same gravity, and can withstand similar, or at least overlapping, ranges of temperature and pressure.”
“There are many on my world who would be horrified at the notion that you and I are more similar than divergent,” Balegritz said.
“That sounds familiar as well,” Lost Alice said. “I suppose that part of the population serves some purpose as well?”
“None that I’ve ever been able to discern,” Balegritz said. “At best they serve to act as a filter I imagine. Like a disease. Organisms need to adapt to diseases and develop defenses against them or they perish. So too societies and the toxic elements that spawn within them.”
“So have your people managed to find an answer to that?” Lost Alice asked.
“It’s a work in process,” Balegritz said.
“Again, that sounds very familiar,” Lost Alice said. “If we ever manage to find a path to the Earth, I’m becoming more convinced we should bring you all along.”
“I doubt you’ll be able to hold Illuthiz and Hermeziz back,” Balegritz, less happy with the idea than he would have expected.
“You’re more undecided about the prospect I gather?” Lost Alice asked.
“No. I’d want to go to,” Balegritz said. “I’m sure there’s a plethora of things we could learn from your world as well. Though, to be honest, we’re all going to have our names on so many papers from the work we’re doing here that I doubt we’ll ever need to publish anything again once we return home.”
“Will you miss it? The academic pressure to compete?”
“Not in the slightest. This trip was supposed to be a great opportunity to get a bit ahead on the publishing curve. I was supposed to come back with one paper all to myself almost guaranteed, but the real expectation was two. I’ve written the precis for thirteen so far, and none of them are overlapping what the others are studying.”
“I gather our latest discovery won’t cause as large of a impact then, comparatively speaking?” Lost Alice asked, keeping her pace unhurried to match Balegritz’s.
He wasn’t intentionally falling behind the others. He just didn’t want to bring them down with his strange negative mood.
It was safer to talk to Lost Alice somehow.
She was probably a third his total mass and able to lift maybe half what he could and yet she was stronger than anyone else in their little group.
Or at least that’s what it seemed like from watching her lead the combat team they’d been a part of.
“It’s pretty big, even given everything else we’ve discovered,” Balegritz said. “I’m glad you came to us with it. We’re very lucky.”
“I can’t be sure I’m reading the emotional cues properly,” Lost Alice said. “So I’ll ask instead of assuming; are you saddened by some element of it?”
“No, of course not,” Balegritz said. “It’s wonderful that we may possess more capabilities here than at home. It’s astounding to think we may have possessed them all along, and unfathomable to think what would happen if we discovered how to unlock them in our home realm as well. We would literally be the founders of a new age. That’s so large that none of it seems even slightly real, and yet here we are, staring the undeniable in the face.”
“So you are untroubled then?” Lost Alice asked.
“I am…I am not untroubled,” Balegritz admitted.
“Do you know what it is? And is it something you can share?” Lost Alice didn’t clutch his shoulder in support. It would have been impractical given their height difference, but she stopped herself well before that. Giving Balegritz the time and distance to find his own answer without the pressure of unasked for support.
“My mates are happy,” Balegritz said at last. “Happier than I’ve ever seen them. Despite everything we’ve been through. I should be joyful. I want their happiness to continue. I do.”
“But something’s missing?” Lost Alice guessed.
“Yes, but I don’t know what.”
“I’ve been unhappy when those around me were overjoyed,” Lost Alice said. “I’ve wanted that happiness for them, but part of me, a part it’s easy for me to dislike, wanted that happiness to come from me. I was sad, that I wasn’t the one bringing them that joy. That I wasn’t good enough for them to make them happy like that.”
“How did you stop feeling like that?” Balegritz asked.
“I didn’t,” Lost Alice said. “I don’t have the self confidence when it comes to believing I’m worth loving to cast aside feelings like those. When that happens, I know now to try to be open to it and accept that I’ll feel like that. That doesn’t mean I need to act on the feelings though. It just means that I acknowledge that they’re real and if I want to share in the joy my loved ones are feeling, I need to consciously make space for that joy too.”
“That sounds difficult,” Balegritz said. “It’s been successful for you though?”
“It’s a work in progress,” Lost Alice said with a shrug.
Lady Midnight wasn’t large enough to drag a [Berserker] Wrath Raven’s size around the city, but fortunately they didn’t need to go far, and Lady Midnight’s touch seemed to have a strangely calming effect on Wrath.
“Tessa! Glimmerglass! Do you have a moment?” Claire called out when she saw the two sitting in a small garden together.
“I need to leave in a few minutes to shepherd another group of low levels on their first live combat operation, but you can have me till then,” Glimmerglass said.
“I’m due to check in with the Nuns too, but they won’t mind if I’m a few minutes late,” Tessa said. “What’s up?”
“You two met under odd circumstances, right?” Claire asked.
“Everything in the last week? Four days? I don’t even know anymore, has been weird circumstances,” Tessa said. “But yeah, I think that describes it.”
“Somewhat less weird for me,” Tessa said. “Invasions from beyond space aren’t exactly a daily occurrence, and meeting one’s soul in another body is rather unheard of, but I gather my world has more ‘exciting times’ than most others.”
“When you met, do you remember if you believed the other was really out there? You especially Glimmerglass,” Claire asked.
“I…I don’t recall exactly? That was a somewhat blurring moment, for lack of a better term,” Glimmerglass said.
“And I wasn’t necessarily ‘real’ for a little bit there,” Tessa said.
“Did you call for her?” Wrath Raven asked, addressing Glimmerglass before turning to Tessa, “And did you answer?”
“Yeah. I did,” Tessa said.
“And, I think I might have too,” Glimmerglass said. “I don’t know that I understood what I was doing, but looking back? I think I was reaching out to something familiar when I called to you.”
“Why is that important?” Tessa asked.
“We think that’s what we’ve been missing with our alts,” Claire said. “Wrath was able to find me despite every sensible test saying that I wasn’t here, or wasn’t real.”
“Felt not thought,” Wrath said. “Believe in her, like she believed in me.”
“That’s…that’s fantastic,” Glimmerglass said.
“It’s more than that,” Tessa said. “It’s a game changer. There are so many more of us than we’ve been thinking were out there.”
“Think bigger,” Claire said, mad delight sparkling in her eyes.
“More than a game changer?” Tessa asked, confused for a moment before the light bulb went on. “Oh my god. It is. Maybe. No. It can’t be like that. Except it can’t be like this and it is like this.”
“I shouldn’t be confusing myself this much, but at least the other parts of me seem to be puzzled too,” Glimmerglass said. “Though I still feel a step behind.”
“I’m sorry,” Tessa said. “Claire might be right though. This isn’t just something that will change the scenario we’re dealing with. This could change the worlds. All of them.”
But for the conversation they’d just shared, Vixali would have sworn the woman she was speaking with was Lost Alice. The same eyes, the same blood, the same deadly, delicious stillness.
“Twins?” Vixali asked.
“Of a sort,” Lost Alice’s twin said.
“You needn’t share your past,” Vixali said. “But you will answer the question of why you need a meeting with your sister arranged when it would be so very simple to discover her whereabout on your own.”
“You would protect her from me?”
“I would protect myself from her,” Vixali said. “When we first met, she spoke with a regal will. Since our flight to this safehold, she has grown considerably more potent.”
“You fear her?”
“A [Queen] fears no one,” Vixali said. “She, however, is more worthy than every [Adventurer] who drown my hall in sad pleas and insipid jests.”
“I seek to do her no harm. She will not recognize me as I am though, and, as you say, she has grown phenomenally more powerful than I.”
“You’re concerned you’re appearance might lead to strife? Wouldn’t she know you as a sister though?”
“I am not sure. I don’t believe she’s aware that she has a sister. Not in this world at least.”
“You know her from another realm? The one the [Adventurers] speak of? Dirt? Soil? No! Earth?”
“The story is complicated in the telling, and I would have her be the first to hear of it.”
Vixali caught a hint of nervous flutter.
So, whoever they were, and however much they appeared to be Lost Alice, there were differences.
A [Vampires] life was many things, and at least half of them were boring.
Vixali had to see this mystery unravel.
“Then I will make the arrangements you request and we shall see whether acceptance or violence awaits. It will be delightful!”
Being [Overcharged] tickled. Balegritz wasn’t sure he liked that, and he wasn’t sure he liked the keenly interested smiles his mates were giving him.
It was one thing for one’s mates to be interested in one’s body. Balegritz knew he had a very nice body. He would never admit that he worked at it to keep in shape, beyond what the protocols for a Deep Research Voyage required, but he did put in a few extra reps and skip some of the optional rest days in order to maintain his gains.
Hermeziz and Illuthiz however were not looking at him with that sort of lust in their eyes. The lust that was burning in the souls was of a more academic bent. They didn’t want to strap him to a bed and have their way with him. They wanted to strap him to a table and study him.
He though, if he asked very nicely, they might even be willing to share their findings with him afterwards.
“Looks pretty conclusive I’d say.” Lost Alice didn’t have the same scholarly hunger blazing within her, but she did seem to appreciate the multi-color light show Balegritz’s skin was giving off.
“Will it last long?” Illuthiz asked, her eyes locked onto Balegritz’s torso as she stepped around him.
“Typically no. [Overcharge] usually burns off pretty quickly,” Lost Alice said. “Though, in part that’s because we usually only [Overcharge] right before a battle where we plan to use the excess magic immediately. It will probably last a little longer for Balegritz since he doesn’t have spells to power with it.”
“I’ve been timing the process,” Hermeziz said. “If you have more of those [Mana Chargers] we can repeat the trial to see how consistent it is. Does the amount of [Overcharging] change across multiple instances?”
“For us it’s pretty consistent,” Lost Alice said. “Assuming you’re okay once the condition fades and you’re willing to try again Balegritz, I have a hunch that the second time will be longer.”
“You’re reasoning being?” Illuthiz asked.
“We know that your people can develop magic via leveling in a class like we [Adventurers] do,” Lost Alice said.
“We do?” Balegritz asked. He wasn’t sure he’d seen that note, but there was so much going on he was hardly surprised to only be catching up on such things after the fact.
“Yawlorna’s training with Glimmerglass,” Illuthiz said. “She’s thought she was at a personal level cap, but it turned out she was able to divert the experience we earned into the same casting class Glimmerglass has.”
“Right. And part of building a class is developing the increased mana reserves needed for casting more and higher level spells,” Lost Alice said.
“So, we already know we can work magic here? What is this telling us then?” Balegritz asked. He wasn’t usually slow on the uptake, but the buzzing of the [Overcharged] condition left him feeling a little distracted.
There was magic in him and it wanted to do something.
“Developing magic as part of a class is predictable,” Lost Alice said, “but also limited. We know that Yawlorna has magic now and we know what she can do with it. If you have magic naturally though? Before developing any classes?”
“Oh! Then we get to experiment more to find out what it can do!” Illuthiz had never, in Balegritz’s memory, looked happier.
“Uh, yeah, that and it means if you do pick up a casting class, you’ll likely be phenomenally more adept at it than an [Adventurer] of the same level would be,” Lost Alice said and Balegritz watched the wheels start turning in her head too.
“Would we need to develop a class to start working with magic?” Hermeziz asked.
Balegritz sighed internally. Hermeziz was happier than Illuthiz was. New research that he couldn’t guess the results of was the only thing that drive away his continual pessimism like that.
“I don’t think so,” Lost Alice said. “There are plenty of creatures in the [Fallen Kingdoms] that have natural magical abilities. Take something like a [Pegasus]. Their ability to fly is channeled through their wings, but when you watch their wings beating you can see it’s not the lift from the air their displacing that’s keeping them aloft. And if you’ve ever seen one really trying to get somewhere? There’s no flapping at all. They’re like rockets then. All magic, not even a glance in the direction of physics obeying forces in evidence.”
“Can you fly then?” Illuthiz asked, tapping her fingers on Balegritz’s bare back.
“I have no idea,” he said. “How would I start?”
“It’s tough to say. As a [Vampire], I’ve got some inherent abilities that consume magic, but those came along with the [Change] and are peculiar to [Vampires]. I doubt you can work with your own blood like I can, so my techniques won’t really apply to you.”
“What makes you think we’re not blood workers too? Or that we can’t be?” Illuthiz asked.
“You don’t smell like competition,” Lost Alice said. “One of the things my senses are attuned to it is other blood drinkers. [Vampires] of different bloodlines don’t tend to get along super well. A fair number are basically kill on sight with each other, and some are kill on sight with everything. So you can see why it would be fairly important to pick out my competitors.”
“I don’t suppose one of us could become a [Vampire]?” Illuthiz asked.
“It’s simple enough, but it would have the issue that you’d be under my total domination as my [Blood Thrall], until I died for keeps,” Lost Alice said.
“Okay, so Plan B then,” Balegritz said.
“You’re going to try jumping off a building, aren’t you?” Illuthiz asked.
“No!” Balegritz scowled. “I’m gong to suggest we do some reading. This place has legends of people who look like us. I’m pretty sure those legends should mention at least one or two things those people could do that the magic might think we’d be good at too.”
Talking with yourself, particularly when you were alone was not supposed to leave you tongue tied. It was most especially not supposed to leave both of yourselves tongue tied as you sat in a private garden that the other’s you’d been with had cleared out of once it because apparent that you hadn’t shown up intending to do yourself harm.
“You look even better than I imagined,” Claire said, glancing over at Wrath Raven and breaking their silence with what felt like the most ridiculous possible line she could have thought of.
“Thank you,” Wrath Raven said, her scowl unchanging as her eyes darted about.
A woman of few words. Claire wanted to kick herself. It had been so convenient to play Wrath as a brooding, taciturn type since it meant she didn’t need to be on voice chat so much. She’d never imagined she’d have to be on the wrong end of it herself.
“How did you manage to find me, or us?” Claire asked, cognizant of Lady Midnight’s faintly amused and detached observation of the proceedings. “I looked for you the moment I arrived in the [High Beyond], and then when we got here.”
“You did?” Wrath asked, cocking her head and raising her eyebrows.
“Yeah! As soon as I realized I was actually in this world, I tried reaching out,” Claire said. “I spent so much time here with you, I had to know if you were okay. Or, even real.”
“You didn’t choose to forego me then?” Wrath asked.
“I didn’t have any choice in what happened at all,” Claire said. “And why would I forego my main? You know how exactly how much time we’ve worked together? Lady Midnight was supposed to be an experiment to see what the new zone was like. No offense Lady M.”
“None taken,” Lady Midnight said.
Claire and she hadn’t integrated to quite the same level that Tessa and Pillowcase had. They still knew they were part of the same whole, but there was the sense of being different facets of the same gem, rather than simply a shift in perspective.
“So if I kill her will you be free?” Wrath asked.
It was an alarming question, or it should have been, but Claire knew Wrath. There wasn’t malice in it, just the desire for the simplest and most direct solution to the problem in front of her.
“Only in the sense that if you chop off your left arm, you’re free of its weight,” Claire said. “Lady Midnight’s a part of me. And you. I think we’re all connected, or the same person maybe? Even though that doesn’t make any sense.”
“You are not me,” Wrath said. “And I am not her. But you are my [Inspiration]. You lifted me up. Made me special.”
“Wrath, what you are is special all on its own. You were the one who soloed the [Lendon Hydra]. You are the one who broke [Grabkar the Serpent King’s] crown. You’re the one who united the [Ishgaran Flame Folk] and brought down the [Fimbul Engine of Ryme]. I was there for that stuff, but you lived it!”
A broad smile of joyful memories broke over Wrath’s face.
“We were good together,” Wrath said.
“We were,” Claire said. “But you’re still amazing on your own. You want proof: you found me when something in this world seems to be conspiring against that. I mean I don’t know of anyone else who’s done that.”
“You said the healer, Glimmerglass, and the small tank, Pillowcase, were like us?” Wrath said, confused by Claire’s last assertion.
“They’re a weird case. Tessa, their [Inspiration] found them both after we ran into something that’s not supposed to exist. She used a god soul to bring them together, and I don’t think those are just laying around all over the place.”
“Finding you was easy though,” Wrath said. “I can still feel you. In here.” She tapped her chest. “But not here.” She tapped her temple. “I listened to here,” her chest again, “and believed in you. Like you believed in me. The rest was just asking you and tracking where you were. Anyone could do it.”
“Huh,” Claire said, an idea forming that seemed very right as she saw things from Wrath’s perspective. “Anyone who believed.”
Family was complicated. Vixali knew that. The fact that she’d had to eat most of hers had made them any less of a problem for her. If anything they were worse after they were dead.
“You claim a relation to another [Vampire]?” Vixali asked the shrouded [Adventurer].
“I state. A claim is something that can be disputed and taken away. Lost Alice and I can’t be sundered quite so easily as that,” the shrouded one said.
“I am curious what statements she might make in the matter?” Vixali asked.
“You wonder if the two of us stand to incite a war, or if it will be a congenial meeting of familial harmony,” the shrouded one said. “I’m curious about that myself.”
“Experience has led me to believe that familial harmony is a myth for our kind, so I suppose that leaves only war?” Vixali said.
“I will confess we’ve squabbled in the past, but there is still blood and deeper bonds shared between us.” the shrouded one said. “Which is why I wish to know if you have taken her as a vassal?”
“I suppose saying I have might lead to some disagreement between us?” Vixali asked. “Which makes the obvious answer ‘no’, which gives ‘no’ the air of a lie, even if it might be the truth.”
“Would a [Queen] need to lie? Or wouldn’t she always be taken at her word?”
“Only by those who think the title carries integrity and responsibility,” Vixali said. “And you don’t strike me as someone burden by either of those illusions.”
“Perhaps not, but nonetheless, I will take you at your word. So for the third time I ask, have you taken my sister, Lost Alice, as a vassal, bound in blood and subject to your decrees?”
“I would ask you to swear to me to find out, but I see no path where that ends well for me,” Vixali said. “So instead, a simple answer, no, I have not. As I’m sure you will understand when next you see her.”
“And when could that be arranged?” the shrouded one asked, stepping out of the shadows at last.