7.22 D

Warning: If you are upset by narratives involving consent, please skip this chapter.

 

For the brave, the dreamers who yearned to see that which no one had ever seen before, another world was a dream. Earth had so few places left that were unexplored. And of them—they were the depths of the sea, crevasses in the earth.

Space. But technology had mapped too much. The world was too familiar, in a sense. Too…tame. Even though parts of it could and would eat you and spit chunks out, Earth had so few mysteries left. There was no mysterious land left to imagine. People knew what the world looked like.

And what a tragedy that was. Imagination died as the world shrank into something you could look at on a screen. There was perhaps only one adventure left—and Humans had not yet figured out how to fly through space at speed.

But in another world, one full of magic, there were still places where no one had explored. Where the knowledge of even Dragons failed. Challenges that remained, to dare the greatest of adventurers to unearth them.

The High Passes were one. The Last Tide and the end of the world, another. The ocean depths were uncharted, even by the Drowned Folk.

But there were more areas still. Despite the tens of thousands of years of advancement and regression, new, strange lands still remained. Or rather—they appeared.

Zeikhal, Chandrar’s great desert, had not always been there. Nor had the growing Bloodfields. But if the Bloodfields was a growing mystery, however dark—there were other places.

Magic prompted growth. Evolution that nature unaided could have never aspired to. And change sometimes engulfed an area after magical cataclysm, creating another biome at speeds that would have astounded any [Biologist]. And in Baleros—they knew of one such place as The Dyed Lands of Seequal.

Once, Seequal had been a prosperous nation. But during the Selphid Empire, the Lizardfolk nation had come under attack. Rather than surrender, their greatest [Mages] had attempted to cast an experimental spell as armies marched on their capital.

The result? Magical devastation for hundreds of miles. Both army and nation had been wiped out. But the rampant magic had provoked the natural wildlife to adapt or die. And so—The Dyed Lands had come into existence.

Thousands of years later, it was, like the Bloodfields, an encroaching land on the ‘normal’ jungles and animals. A wild place, full of highly-charged magical plants and animals. A place of wonder.

And of course, terrible danger. The kind that had eaten entire armies who had tried to burn The Dyed Lands and establish control. Now, only a few people made their homes there. [Hunters] and [Alchemists] and [Gatherers], looking for new and rare ingredients—Saliss of Lights himself bought the immortal Ske-eel’s liquid at a premium for his potions. There was a fortune to be made if you had the wits or courage.

But most kept far from The Dyed Lands. It was a kind of death. If you weren’t eaten by the swarms of flying midges who would devour you piece by piece, or ran afoul of one of the giant apex predators, like the teleporting cavernous maws or stumbled into a field of plants whose poison no [Healer] had ever seen before—why would you live there?

Perhaps if you loved adventure. Or perhaps—if you had no choice. A young man had come to The Dyed Lands. And he had lived there.

He was an explorer. No—not just an explorer. An [Explorer]. From Earth. He had set up a camp fifty miles into The Dyed Lands and ventured forth after wandering into the maze of a biome. He had tried to catalogue the natural landscape. Experimented; found what was good to eat and what was poison. Set traps, hunted for food and other resources.

And he had loved it. He had been a great [Explorer], in a land no one had ever known before. But that was the thing. An [Explorer] could seek out the world’s greatest challenges. But eventually, inevitably—they came home. And he had been lost.

“I’m sorry. We found his campsite just last month. I have no idea how he made it in this far. The notes look like he was—trying to get out. He was nearly at the western edge. But they got him.”

“Are there—any remains?”

The woman shifted. She ducked her head as the young man read from the [Explorer]’s journal.

“None I’d care to share, sir. We buried what was left. It was—one of the beasts of the shining zone.”

“The ‘shining zone’?”

A pause. The woman didn’t know how to quite respond so she was quite formal.

“Yessir. The shining zone. The Dyed Lands come in colors. The shining zone is—bright. Monsters hunt by blinding each other. The damn plants make it hard enough to navigate. Some of them are big. Claws—fast—it must have been looking for food. Went through all his traps. That was how we found him.”

Daly Sullivan looked at the journal and the pictures the [Explorer] had drawn. He might have even catalogued the monster that killed him, so detailed were his notes. He had come into this world a student of some kind. He had a notebook that had been just begun to be filled with notes for a class—and then repurposed for the task of journaling his findings.

There were words, neat illustrations—even maps. None of which Daly could read. For, the [Explorer] from Earth hadn’t been writing in English.

The greatest [Explorer] from Earth had been Indian. Daly recognized the language—somewhat. It looked like Hindi, or rather, Punjabi. Daly recognized it.

But it was not a language the young man from Australia read. Still, the description of the body—and the location matched up. Kirana and her group from Earth had been split up when they first appeared. Some went their own ways and the rest stuck together, to later be killed for thievery or at the hands of [Bandits]. This brave [Explorer] had wandered into The Dyed Lands and never come out.

Daly looked up and met the eyes of the woman who had found the [Explorer]. She was…upright. Her body erect as her long, sinuous tail curled around itself. A few Lizardpeople were part of her exploration team. But their leader was another being entirely.

The Medusae nodded to Daly as he and the Bushrangers, the Silver-rank team who was part of the United Nations company gathered around him and inspected the journal.

“It’s miraculous he lived that long, Adventurer Daly. Your pardons, but we were shocked a Human managed to live in The Dyed Lands at all. Even my team only has a border camp. But this [Explorer] survived over five months there. He must have been a true hero of our class. That’s all I can say of him.”

She bowed slightly. And Daly saw her head, humanoid, but filled with little moving snakes instead of hair—turn towards him. He repressed a shiver.

“Thank you, [Adventurer] Mexisa.”

The Medusa woman bowed. And she was an [Adventurer]. Not like Daly and his team were, ‘Adventurers’. But a true, blue, [Adventurer]. Someone who roamed the last frontiers of the world. Like an [Explorer].

“So you found his camp. And the—remains. Anything else?”

Daly looked up. Siri shifted as she glanced about. They were at the edge of The Dyed Lands, and the ‘Red Zone’, or the Crimson Blend as it was known was ahead of them. Camouflaged plants that would attack you, predators large and small—and you wouldn’t even see your blood among all the colors.

Mexisa shook her head.

“Just the journals, Adventurer Daly. Well-writ they are too. But—coded. As you can see. Awful paranoid, that [Explorer]. But beautiful illustrations. Pardon me, but I copied the illustrations and maps. He charted a vast amount of the Chalklands for us.”

Daly nodded absently. The ‘code’ was just another language. But the Medusa woman wouldn’t know that. She had, in fact, sent out a request for someone to decipher the journal she’d found. That was how Daly had picked up the information.

“We’ll try to decipher it. I think we might know the—code, Miss Mexisa.”

“Oh. Of course. Well then—my team and I would buy whatever notes this fellow had on the wildlife. Anything, actually. We’ll share it around—us [Explorers] and [Adventurers] do. It’d be more a service to us that enter The Dyed Lands, sir.”

She bowed her head again. Mexisa was—interesting. She was armed with a machete—two of them—but also a shortbow and arrow, enchanted. Her Lizardfolk team were similarly kitted up, with a lot more gear than most [Warriors] wore.

“You intend to keep exploring, Miss Mexisa?”

“Call me Mexy. And—of course! I live to explore places like this. The Dyed Lands consumed an ancient empire. Not that I’m a [Treasure Seeker]. But once I hit Level 40—I might push for the interior, Blue Oblivion. Or—go somewhere else. The High Passes, the Bloodfields—this is my life.”

The Medusa smiled. Her teeth were sharp. And all of the little snakes on her head were staring at Daly. He sensed one of his teammates shiver—Siri—and Mexy looked at her.

“Excuse me, Captain Daly. But am I bothering your teammates?”

“Not at all.”

Daly and Siri both chorused. The Swedish girl and the second-in-command gave Mexy an apologetic duck of her head.

“Sorry, Adventurer Mexy. But we have an—an image? Of Medusae.”

The rest of the Bushrangers nodded as they peeked around Daly’s back. Medusae. The race that could turn people to stone. Most of them knew the Greek myths. Mexy blinked, and then grinned as Daly explained.

“Stone? Oh—that. That’s just a legend. Well—an exaggeration. My hair-snakes? They can’t turn anyone to stone. Mine can’t, at any rate. If I got the Skill, possible. But these ones are just my extra eyes. Right?”

Mexy raised a normal hand and stroked the head of one of her snakes. It rubbed her fingers, twining and staring at Daly and Siri. The young woman hesitated.

“They do not—turn you to stone?”

“Oh, not without a Skill. They’re just extra eyes. See? They bite in a fight, but they’re a bit like animals connected to me. Like mini-minds. You can touch them, but gently, please.”

Siri reached out. She flinched as one of the snakes coiled around a finger, opening a tiny mouth. They had little eyes, and Daly saw some of them glancing about, keeping a vigilant watch.

“Bloody amazing.”

Dawson breathed. The other young man from Australia looked Mexy up and down. The [Adventuress] was like an action hero out of the movies with her hat and clothes—to cover her humanoid half—mixed with Greek legend.

“I apologize for any disrespect, Miss Mexy. My team’s never met a Medusa before.”

She just laughed with good humor as Daly bowed to her.

“Don’t worry! We’re rare among Lizardfolk. I’m used to it. And don’t mind my snakes, Miss Siri. They just lick you because they’re curious; they really are stupid. If they get cut off, I’ll regrow them. That’s a Medusae’s gifts; we’re not as smart as Lamias, but close, not as strong and tough as Gorgons or even Nagas, but we heal and see. We’re also solitary.”

She tapped her chest and the Lizardfolk looked up at their leader with awe and respect. A Medusa, one of the Lizardfolk’s possible forms they could achieve.

Daly admired Mexy too. But they’d taken up a lot of her time. And unlike Kami, or Dawson, he was spoken for. So he just nodded to Mexy and hoped none of his teammates tried to chat her up before they left.

“Once again, Adventurer Mexy, you have our thanks. I think this was one of our former companions who got lost.”

“Poor bastard. I heard about the teleportation spell that got your lot. I’m sorry it came to it too—if we’d pushed in a bit further, we might have found him before the end. But that’s how it goes. No one expected to find a damn camp in the Chalklands. He had a lot of traps; nearly got two of my crew.”

Mexy gestured to her exploration team. Daly nodded. No grudge here. And indeed—Mexy had done them a favor, asking about. His team had gotten word in Talenqual about the mysterious journal and they’d put two and two together. On a hunch they’d come out this far and recovered the journal. No more would they do.

The Dyed Lands waited ahead. The red jungle was like the Bloodfields—at least, that was what Mexy compared it to. But it was dense and within a few feet you would lose all sense of direction. A hell of confusion. Daly would never enter it willingly.

Something made a thunderous growling sound in the distance. Daly tensed and his team raised their crossbows. Mexy held up one hand as she reached for her bow.

“Hold. If it’s the Eatswarms—we run. If it’s a Charging Leomouth—we fight. Can’t outrun those fast things.”

Her team whirled. Daly looked around. Siri reached for something at her side. A bag of holding. And in it—a weapon that could probably wipe out even one of The Dyed Lands’ larger monsters.

A black-powder bomb. But it didn’t come out. The growling sound came again, more distant. Mexy lowered her hand and everyone relaxed.

“Must be hunting further away from us. We’re clear.”

Daly nodded to his team. They relaxed. They had melee weapons and powerful crossbows that even Mexy’s team were admiring. Dawson himself had a crossbow that was closer to a ballista—it had two hand-cranks and needed a special contraption to even reload that Paige had worked up. But it could shoot through almost anything, and it had an accurate range of 97 meters—which was, in American—320 feet.

Even so, Daly wasn’t willing to take his team into The Dyed Lands. He nodded to Mexy.

“Thank you for selling us his possessions.”

It wasn’t much more than the journal, but the Medusa had handed it over for a reasonable finder’s fee. Steep—but not exorbitant. Daly nodded as he tucked the journal away in his bag of holding. Mexy smiled.

“Frankly, Adventurer Daly, Wistram offered more than you and were very interested in the journal. They actually sent envoys even when I told them I’d be selling to another buyer. You beat them by two days.”

The Silver-rank Captain blinked. He tensed slightly and felt the rest of his team stiffen. He tried to address Mexy casually.

“Really?”

She nodded, looking only vaguely interested.

“They love stuff like this. But I figured it was best to sell to your company. Wistram can complain—if my team isn’t on expedition.”

She smiled, as her hair-snakes hissed, expressing their contempt. Daly looked at her.

“Why did you sell the journal to us then, Miss Mexy?”

The [Adventuress] paused. And she looked keenly at Daly. And then she smiled.

“The Last Light of Baleros is in your company. And—it’s a ‘she’, right?”

Daly hesitated. And he felt a pang in his stomach. But he nodded, as it all clicked suddenly.

“That’s right.”

“Then there’s your answer.”

The Medusa explorer bowed slightly. And she and her team looked at Daly’s Bushrangers. Mexisa spoke, thoughtfully, looking at the distant Dyed Lands.

“An [Adventurer] comes down with all sorts of maladies. I figure it’s worth any goodwill if it comes to that. Not that I plan on getting sick or poisoned or hurt that badly, but—I hope you’ll remember my name if it does.”

“Of course. We owe you a favor. And we won’t forget it.”

That was what she wanted to hear. Mexy smiled. She turned, gesturing at her team.

“Then we won’t take up your time. Sorry again for your loss, sir.”

She bowed, and her team headed back to their base camp. Daly stood, holding the journal and the few items the young man from India had kept. A makeshift bow—a faded pocket knife which had helped him skin animals. A few jars of his experimental findings.

Nothing more. Another person from Earth had died. And Daly and his team had found them too late.

“Damn.”

That was all Daly said as they returned to the Centaur-wagons waiting to take them away. It was a bit of a walk; the Centaurs had refused to get close to The Dyed Lands no matter how well they were paid. Daly lost his smile as he walked.

And the Bushrangers, his team, walked around him.

“Poor bastard.”

That was all Dawson said. He was carrying the huge crossbow on his shoulders. Daly nodded.

“Brave bastard, though, Dawson. A right hero. If only he’d made it out.”

“It say anything you can read, boss?”

Tobi put that in, glancing at the journal. Daly leafed through it.

“Some of the stuff makes sense. But it’s all in—Hindi. Pretty sure Kirana might be able to translate it. Or one of the girls.”

The Indian girls from the United Nations company. Daly put the journal away. His team walked in silence, keeping their footsteps quiet even out of The Dyed Lands. On the alert.

They were Silver-rank adventurers. And used to moving silent in terrain. The Bushrangers weren’t Gold-rank, but only for their arms and style; they tended to ambush their opponents and shoot them to pieces with crossbows. They were doing very well for a Silver-rank team and ever since partnering with The Rustless Vanguard, they were one of the best non-Gold teams in their area.

Mainly because their tactics were designed for maximum safety on the part of the adventurers. The Bushrangers could ambush an opponent from the trees, lay down traps, nets—and if the opponent was tough—they had the bombs.

But that was the issue. Daly was silent until Siri spoke up.

“Funny that Miss Mexy gave us the journal over Wistram because of Geneva. The Last Light of Baleros. Everyone knows her name, right, Daly?”

“Yeah.”

The Captain replied shortly. Daly saw the Centaurs and the wagons waiting ahead. They brightened as they saw the Bushrangers and began to hitch themselves to the wagons. Siri went on, glancing at Daly as the rest of the team glanced at him.

“You didn’t mention that Geneva would rather kick you into The Dyed Lands and leave you there, Daly.”

“No, Siri. I thought that might not help our case.”

“Shame.”

The Bushrangers looked from Daly to Siri. Dawson opened his mouth, but Kami elbowed him. In silence, they boarded the wagons. And Daly sat.

“Any orders, Mister Daly?”

“No, we got what we came here for. Thanks, Bault. Pihava.”

The two Centaurs grinned at him. They were the two Runners whom Daly and his team had made friends with; they were often the go-tos for his team.

“No sweat, Daly. You found that Human you were all excited about? Where is he?”

“…Not coming. We didn’t get there in time.”

“Oh. Uh—sorry.”

The two Centaurs looked at each other. Silently, they began pulling the wagon forwards. Daly felt it jolt into motion as the Bushrangers settled themselves. He kept looking at the journal.

Another Earther, lost. And he had been brave, resourceful; just the sort of person who could survive in another world. But there was only so much you could do alone, against monsters Earth had never witnessed.

Daly leaned back. He looked at some illustrations in the notebook and blanched. The [Explorer] had illustrated his height next to one diagram.

“Dead gods, that thing’s the size of a hill. Dawson, look at that.”

The other Australians glanced at the page. Dawson swore.

“Good thing we didn’t run into that. How do we take that thing down? How does anyone?”

“Most people? Spells. Or a Level 50+ [Warrior] with a magic sword and half a day. Us now…we just need a lot of powder.

Daly spoke absently. He saw Siri look sharply at him. But the other Bushrangers just nodded. Daly sat back. That was what weapons from Earth were for. You could send a tank company against monsters from this world and it’d be a fair fight. That was what bombs were for.

But…Geneva didn’t see it that way. Daly put his head back. If he’d told Mexy the truth—it would be that Geneva would treat the Medusa because she treated everyone, free of charge if she need be. She was a saint—but a prickly one. And she hated Daly’s guts. Had hated them for the last few weeks.

The young man from Australia sat back in the wagon. He had made his choice. His finger twitched, though he held no crossbow as he closed his eyes. Anyways—he kept out of Geneva’s way these days. And for all her objections, this was his team.

She—had bigger problems anyways.

 

—-

 

The Dyed Lands rested to the south of Baleros, the mighty continent of jungles, snow, beaches, and everything in between.

But mostly jungles and plants. Long trade-roads connected cities which had eradicated the wilderness, but Baleros could easily be said to be the most ‘untamed’ of the five continents. Rhir of course had the blight, and Chandrar the deserts, but vegetation ruled Baleros as much as the companies.

It took four days for the Bushrangers to return to their home city, and that was with the Centaurs using stamina potions and their own speed-Skills. The others lived and slept in the wagons, heckling each other, crowding around to watch a rerun of a movie on a tiny smartphone screen—passing the time.

They were headed home. To Talenqual, a port-city, small to medium-sized, ruled by The Featherfolk Brigade, a mercenary company which had seized the city and area and kept control of it to this day.

The United Nations company was, by contrast, far smaller. But it had expanded significantly since coming to Talenqual and could now be said to be part of the city. It did not have much firepower as companies went; it was small in number and devoted only to finding more people from Earth and sheltering them.

But it had individuals of note. The Last Light of Baleros being one of them. Geneva Scala, the [Doctor] who had made her legend on the bloodiest of battlefields, saving lives. Kenjiro Murata, their [Diplomat] who had made peace between many species.

Luan Khumalo, the [Expert Rower] and former Olympian hopeful, already known as ‘The Rower of Talenqual’, a respected City Runner not least for his part in the Games at Daquin.

And last and perhaps least, especially in Geneva’s eyes, Daly Sullivan and his Bushrangers, a Silver-rank team that specialized in intercepting monsters and other threats.

They were a good group. Of various disciplines and personalities. But none of them were high-level. Except for perhaps Geneva Scala. And it was she who drew the eye. Her name—and the name of their company.

The United Nations Company. What a boast. What a farce, depending on how you looked at it. It was a bold name. An odd one. It spoke to anyone who heard it and was from Earth, though. Of another world. It was a rallying point and it had already attracted other people from Earth.

And more than that—attention from afar. The Titan of Baleros consulted his notes on the small company. And there weren’t many. Oh, the United Nations Company got notes because of the Last Light, but little else. They were a tiny company no one paid attention to but for the [Doctor].

And that was how he liked it. The Fraerling sighed as he sipped from a teacup. He found it was running low and dunked it in, what was for him, a bucket of tea.

A thimble for his students. But Niers had a relationship with caffeine. And Marian and Umina, standing in front of his desk, were used to the Professor’s idiosyncrasies.

“You want us to go to Talenqual, Professor?”

Marian spoke cautiously. She shuffled her hooves, careful not to bump the table Niers was sitting on. The Titan glanced up from his notes.

“Yes, Marian. You and Umina were my first pick, honestly. You can refuse of course, but summer classes are sporadic and Wil and the others are already on their vacation.”

“And Yerra.”

Umina sniffed. Marian’s head bowed. Niers paused.

“Yes. They are—occupied. But I do not teach many classes. I have a job for you two, as I laid out. If you would take it—”

He said nothing more of Yerranola, or Wil, or the events at sea. They had discussed it already at length in class. Marian hesitated.

“Yes, Professor. I just don’t understand why it should be us. We—I mean, Umina and I are [Strategists]. But we’re not Miss Perorn. Or…any of your people.”

By that, the Centaur meant the Forgotten Wing Company’s vast lists of assets. Niers nodded.

“You’re dancing, Marian.”

“Sir?”

“You’re asking why I don’t sent a company, or one of my best [Commanders] to investigate The Last Light of Baleros. Well—perhaps because I like to be subtle.”

“Then—why not a [Spy], sir?”

The Titan’s lips rose. He smirked around his report as he read from a copy of The Pallassian Times, downscaled to his size. Rather like Olesm’s newsletter, actually, only it was about all news in general. He grunted as he read.

“Perhaps because some of my opponents watch [Spies], Marian. Moreso than my students, even. There comes a time in a [Strategist]’s life—and I dearly hope you will one day understand what I mean—when one becomes so feared that people watch your every move. I can’t go to the bathroom without alarming Tulm.”

Umina cut short a snigger. Marian hid a smile. Niers went on.

“Why my students? Well—consider it an exercise. I’d like you two to investigate Miss Geneva Scala. A [Doctor] of her level is an asset. And she is tackling this Yellow Rivers disease.”

Both students made faces. Niers looked up.

“I know. But I consider it more than just an…inconvenience. It is affecting lands under my domain, or adjacent, and as well as Maelstrom’s Howling. It has the potential to be worse.”

The Centauress sobered up at once.

“I see, Professor. But—well—”

“Yes?”

The Titan looked kindly at her. The Centauress opened and shut her mouth.

But don’t you think that sending two of your best students would attract attention as well, sir?

That was what she didn’t ask. Because Niers had obviously thought about it. And if he hadn’t—well—how embarrassing, right? The Centauress shuffled her hooves and the Fraerling seemed to take it for uncertainty.

“Just investigate. As I said—you can lure her over to my company, and I certainly have a purse for you. But I do understand you two are new to the job of subterfuge. Do your best. I have faith in you two.”

The two female students blushed at the compliment. Umina swished her tail, looking at Niers. She didn’t ask an obvious question. She wanted to be the one to ask the special one.

“And her company, Professor? Do we acquire them too?”

Niers’ head rose. He gave Umina a blank look and she hesitated.

“…If that’s what it takes to recruit Miss Scala, yes, Umina. But they’re not exactly…elite.”

The Lizardgirl ducked her head and nodded. And she kicked herself for assuming. Niers regarded her, glanced down at his papers.

And he was lying to them. His beloved students looked at each other and Marian bowed.

“We’ll head to Talenqual right away, sir! And we’ll be as subtle as possible.”

“I’m sure. And I have the utmost faith in you, Marian, Umina.”

The Titan put his newspaper down. He saw Marian smile eagerly, Umina glance at his face, searching. But he let nothing slip. The two bowed. And Niers watched Marian slowly back up, so as to be able to turn about.

Centaur [Spies]. Oh, the world had many jokes, but Niers would laugh hard at that one. Not that Centaurs couldn’t be [Spies]. But Marian trying to be stealthy hurt his lungs.

Still, they were gone. Niers sighed. And though Umina had tried, she hadn’t figured out his real intentions.

“The United Nations company.”

The Titan murmured. They were comprised entirely of Humans. All of a certain age range. All…from another world.

That was his supposition. He wanted them. But—as he’d told Marian, lying by telling the truth, his opponents watched him like hawks. If he sent a company to Talenqual, the Featherfolk Brigade might take it as an act of war. And Tulm might damn well attack his escort depending on how important he thought Niers’ assets were.

“Anyways, Marian. The point of sending you two is to be subtle. And I know you’ll stick out like a sore thumb. Umina might do well. But let me apologize in advance. Well—you’ll adapt. And I’ll show you later how I planned it out in advance. If it works, of course.”

The Titan murmured to the ceiling. Then he took another gulp of tea.

“Lord Astoragon? The two [Strategists] have left. Should I bring our guests out of the anteroom now?”

Niers smiled as he waved a hand.

“Send them in, Peclir.”

He sat up. And after a moment—after Marian and Umina had left, on their solo, very important mission for the Professor, Niers saw a pair of his students enter the room. They were both visibly excited, but doing their best to appear professional.

“Professor. You had an…assignment for us?”

The Titan nodded gravely.

“Please, sit, Kissilt, Cameral. Take the two reports I have on the desk.”

Marian and Umina had helpfully left them there. The Drake and Dullahan sat down, looking at each other. Niers began for the fourth time.

“You two are the first two of my students I had in mind for this assignment. It’s a rather simple task, really. Investigate a unique individual. One Geneva Scala, known as the Last Light of Baleros…”

Kissilt’s eyes gleamed. Cameral was hesitant. The two sat in front of Niers. Almost trembling with excitement as Niers gave them his unique and very secret assignment.

He felt bad, he really did. But he’d sent three pairs after Geneva Scala already. And this last, the fourth, would ensure that his opponents saw just another assignment.

And his students would certainly not leak the information to each other. They’d all been given stipends, similar-yet-different assignments. One of them would procure the [Doctor]. Or—failing that—find out what Niers so desperately wanted.

“You can trust in us, Professor. Cameral and I are the height of discretion. I learned espionage at Manus. I mean—I had some studies there.”

Kissilt, the Drake, smiled. Niers wanted to roll his eyes. Drake subterfuge—well, okay, they did sabotage well, but they were as bad at it as Centaurs, despite being smaller. Cameral now…the Dullahan only bowed as he fastened his head to his shoulders.

“I will do my utmost, Professor.”

“I know, Cameral, lad. Just be discreet as you can. I’m not expecting miracles.”

Niers smiled as the Dullahan student bowed his head slightly. And he sighed as they left the room.

“Poor kids. If they run into each other and assume it’s my trick, that works. If they all work against each other, that works. But bring me that [Doctor]. And her company.”

From what he understood, Geneva Scala wouldn’t abandon her company, especially if they were…like her. The Titan sat back.

He could have gone himself. Taken a damn army to Talenqual and sacked the city. And he’d almost been tempted to do that, if it wouldn’t alarm all his enemies. He could have asked his spies—other agents.

But this worked. And if it worked well? He might have months of time on the other Great Companies and his enemies to learn and plan ahead. Tipping his hand in any major way meant an arms race at once. Information and time won wars.

And honestly, Niers had chosen it because it was somewhat—hands-off. He would let his intelligent, young students loose and support them as need be. But he could relax and attend to important matters.

And what was more important, pray tell, than another world? A [Doctor] with revolutionary Skills or skills? Nothing.

Or, for the Titan, one thing. He slowly unraveled a tiny, worn bit of parchment. It had arrived only yesterday, and it was already crinkled.

It read simply this:

 

The Gentlemen Callers are in Liscor. Awaiting further instructions.

 

The Titan’s hands shook as he put the roll of paper down on the table. He inspected it. Then—sighing, he reached for the artifact and wrote back. And every thought he had left, all of his genius, was focused on one thing.

Obsession. Hope. Speculation.

Her.

 

Investigate the [Innkeeper]. Code as follows for chess board. Knight to E6, Pawn to A1…

 

The Titan sat in his office after the message was sent. Sooner or later, he would know. Compared to that—even another world’s allure was faint.

Love was a terrible thing. The same side of the coin as obsession. If it was her—could she see the same maddening shape of the world he could? The flaws in armies? Could she take a nation to pieces with her mind? Niers Astoragon wished. To meet someone who could keep up with him. No—leave him behind.

So the Titan of Baleros waited, in his lonely citadel. A towering colossus, held prisoner by his enemy’s paranoid fear of his might. Drinking tea.

 

—-

 

Four days later, Daly stretched as he left the wagon at last. His legs hurt, despite having stretched them out. It wasn’t as bad as an airplane. But he still rejoiced in being able to stand.

“Pihava, Bault. Thanks again.”

“Yeah! You blokes do good work! Next time we’ll pull you!”

Dawson jumped out of the wagon. The Centaurs laughed good-naturedly. They caught the tip Daly tossed; they’d already been paid through the guild. The Bushrangers looked at each other.

“Home?”

Siri queried Daly. He looked around. Someone was waiting for him, shyly pretending to look the other way. He shook his head.

“Go on without me, Siri. Take the Bushrangers back. I’ll…catch up.”

The Swedish girl sighed. But she saw Daly walking forwards. And the Dullahan, Captain Edima of the Rustless Guard, happened to notice him. She smiled as she fastened her head to her shoulders.

“Bastard. Runs off for his girl the first thing.”

Dawson grunted, but good-naturedly. One of the Bushrangers punched his shoulder.

“Don’t be jealous.”

Me? He’s the one bumping uglies with a suit of arm—”

Half the team kicked him before one of the Dullahans walking down the street could take offense. Siri glanced over her shoulder at Daly and Edima.

It was—a likely pairing, actually. The Dullahan Captain and Daly had joined their teams together to take on more dangerous assignments. And Edima had fancied Daly since his rescue of her team from the giant serpents.

It made sense. Siri sighed as she adjusted the crossbow strapped to her back. The leather was cutting into one shoulder. She needed a more comfortable harness. Maybe Kirana could stitch it up?

Nor did she really begrudge Daly from returning to the base. He was…not welcome there. Not recently. The Bushrangers themselves were under scrutiny, Siri included, but Daly was the target of wrath.

The United Nations company was in Talenqual, the bustling, predominantly Lizardfolk city. You could see the Featherfolk Brigade’s forces supplementing the local watch—those not on campaign, that was. Imposing Nagas or even the towering Gorgons slithered down the street.

A few were Quexals, like the leader of the Featherfolk Brigade. But most were more common forms of Lizardfolk evolutions. The Bushrangers walked wide of them; they didn’t want to start a fight with the much more powerful Featherfolk Brigade.

“Ah. Home sweet home!”

Aldenon called out as he pointed. Siri’s heart leapt as they turned down the street and came to the residential district just off the main street where the Centaurs had stopped the wagon.

The United Nations company was bigger than before. They now had—and this was a huge step—four houses. All of them large, and set next to each other. Given that it was Talenqual, the houses were practically side-by-side—Lizardfolk didn’t mind being squeezed together.

But they were nice houses. And leased for the next four months. Someone had even put a sign over the left-most house.

The United Nations Company. Siri smiled and led her team to the left-most door. She rattled the doorknob, frowned.

“Locked?”

“That’s new. Maybe everyone’s out?”

Tofte frowned. He hammered on the door. The company’s headquarters was almost always full of people, coming off their jobs, working different hours—

No one opened the door. Siri frowned.

“No help for it. Try the other doors?”

They were all locked. The Bushrangers looked at each other. Siri frowned.

“…Odd. Try the windows. Get ready.”

She circled around the headquarters, warily now. Dawson cursed.

“And the boss isn’t here. Weapons out, Siri?”

The street was…calm. Siri reached for her crossbow. Like her companions—she’d fought before. The Bushrangers were a division of the United Nations company that went into combat. Who could handle shooting someone in cold blood. Very few of them had volunteered.

“…Not yet. But hands on your weapons.”

She eased the long dagger in its sheathe, ready to draw it. Siri was going around to the side window, which she knew was open almost all the time…

Yes, it was open still. The Swedish girl sighed in relief. She motioned the others after her. She reached for the window as Dawson cupped his hands to boost her up—

Don’t move. Back away or we’ll shoot.

A voice from above. Siri froze. Two of the Bushrangers swung up their crossbows instantly, slapping bolts into place. They moved with a [Warrior]’s reflexes. There was an oath from above.

Damn! Don’t shoot! It’s the Bushrangers! Lower your crossbows, mates! It’s us!

“…Blake?

A New Zealander poked his head out the windows. Instantly, the Bushrangers lowered their weapons, removing the bolts. Blake sighed.

“Damn! We nearly shot you, Siri! Didn’t you learn to knock?

“No one answered the door! What are you doing?”

Siri stared up at a pair of crossbows poking out the windows. They were a sleeker design than the ones she and the Bushrangers were using. Blake—one of the newer Earthers that the United Nations company had taken in—shouted down.

“Being careful! We had a group try and break in and beat up Luan again! Hold on—let us get the door.”

By the time the Bushrangers came around the front, the door was open. Kirana spotted them.

There you are! Did you find someone from home? Where is Daly?”

Her face was alarmed. Siri waved one hand.

“Edima found him. We found—we’ll explain later. Come on. What’s this about an attack?

“Oh. That. More people after Luan’s bounty. He is resting. Come in, come in!”

Kirana, the [House Manager], a young woman from India, waved the Bushrangers through the door. She eyed their boots and clothing and blocked Siri.

“Carpet.”

“Oh, right. Hey, disrobe!”

Siri shouted at the others. They groaned, but stripped their boots off, placing the dirty apparel on the racks next to the entryway. They’d never have bothered in the old headquarters. It had been a nice place, but frankly—buggy. Dirty, and a bit porous. It had leaked when it rained.

But the new headquarters was nice. Cool, even! Siri breathed a sigh of relief as Kirana swept forwards. There was a shout from above. Blake came down the stairs.

“Look at you all! Where’s Daly? Did you find anyone? Hey! The Bushrangers are back!”

He turned and bellowed. Kirana winced. But there was a shout from the adjoining house. People flooded through one of the connecting doors that Miss Hastel had allowed them to install. And then the Bushrangers and Siri found themselves in a sea of questions.

“You’re back! Do you have souvenirs?”

“What were The Dyed Lands like? Do you have any dyes? We’re making clothing and we could actually use some that don’t cost—”

“Pictures? Dawson, where’s my camera? If you’ve broken it—”

“The Earther! Was it just a hoax or…?”

“Anyone seen my socks? They’re the good socks! Come on, I know someone took them!”

People from Australia, Greece, India—Blake from New Zealand, a small group from Italy, Americans, a pair of Chinese students desperately trying to translate everything—people flooded around the Bushrangers. Laughing, they tried to explain. Siri, more sober, looked at Kirana.

A time ago, the young woman from India would have been ‘new’. But new were now the Grecian group, and the Chinese students who had been found apprenticing as [Alchemists]. Now, the [House Manager] clapped her hands. She had leveled up. And hers was a voice of authority.

“Everyone! Please let the Bushrangers eat! We will have time to answer questions later! You are hungry, aren’t you?”

The mostly Australian team shouted their affirmative.

Bloody starving! Where’s the food?”

Dawson looked around. Kirana smiled and pointed.

“Right there.

And it was being taken out of the kitchen by some of the [Housekeepers], [Cleaners], and members of the group assigned to keeping up the headquarters. Siri smelled spices in the air and fresh bread and her stomach rumbled.

The food was predominantly from India, as Kirana managed the kitchens and when she cooked, it was food she knew. The Bushrangers found themselves sitting down and talking.

“We were too late. There was someone, but he—died. A monster got him. He lasted for five months. And we think he was from your group, Kirana. Take a look.”

The young woman’s face fell. She took the worn, dirty journal and flipped it open. She gasped.

Oh.

“Do you know him? We couldn’t read it.”

The Bushrangers exchanged looks. Kirana nodded, her face pale.

“This is—Dev. He decided to leave rather than stay. See?”

She pointed. The name was written, but again, not in English. Siri put down the naan bread she’d been about to dip in a sauce, appetite suppressed for a moment.

“I’m sorry. He lasted five months. A real [Explorer]. Can you read that?”

“Of course. It says—he is writing about how he left our group. This is a journal.”

“Yeah. If you could read through it, translate it—it might be worth something. Maybe he found something in the jungle; we have some of his stuff.”

Kirana was nodding. Siri looked around.

“Is…Geneva here? Ken? Paige?”

She named the other three heads of the company. Some of the founders. Kirana looked wary.

“Geneva is—on holiday. Ken is out, two cities over. Trying to convince an [Alchemist] to make penicillin.

“Fuck. We don’t have any yet?”

Dawson looked up, disgruntled. Kirana shook her head.

“Paige is upstairs. I will tell her you’re here. But there’s also—”

“The Bushrangers! Hello!”

A voice shouted from the stairs leading up to the second floor. Siri looked up and broke into a grin. A South African man was leaning over the balcony. Luan, one of the oldest members of the company strode down the stairs. And the Bushrangers shot to their feet.

“Luan! You made it back?”

“More like I haven’t left for a bit! I’ve taken a six-day break. I had to stay here—the bounty’s attracting more idiots than I can count and business was slow…”

The [Expert Rower] slapped the Bushrangers on the back, ignoring their travel stains and smell. The Bushrangers were laughing as the rest of the Earthers crowded around. Many were missing—mostly, the ones who’d been with the company longest. They had jobs and would come back by dinner, or later.

But Luan was asking about the missing Earther the Bushrangers had been going to find and Kirana was paging through the journal and exclaiming at the outlandish monsters illustrated there. The [Explorer], Dev, had possessed an illustration Skill so they were unnaturally well-done. Siri was asking about the bounty—

When someone else opened the door. Paige walked into the room. The [Blackpowder Engineer] saw the Bushrangers. And everyone turned to her.

“I heard a commotion.”

The young woman spoke into the sudden silence. Siri smiled, but she was one of the only ones. Half of the room—looked away from Paige. As they would have if Daly had come back. The other half, the Bushrangers included, nodded at Paige. But the tension was there and real.

“Paige. Come on over.”

Luan waved Paige over, smiling and ignoring the underlying current. Some of the others actually got up and left as Paige walked over. She saw, and hesitated.

“I’ll—catch up later. Over dinner? Siri, anyone hurt? Daly?”

“No.”

Siri replied steadily, ignoring the glares his name provoked. Paige nodded. She met a few simmering gazes coolly.

“I have new crossbow designs done. Pick them up before you go anywhere. Also—we might need security on Luan. He’ll explain.”

She turned and left. The door closed and Siri felt the room relax. She looked around and saw Luan sigh. Dawson looked about as he reached for a pot of food.

“Welcome home. How was it, Dawson? Bloody fucking awful mate, thanks for asking. We had to fight some monsters on the outskirts of The Dyed Lands and that was no jaunt. Hells! Thanks for doing that, Dawson! You’re welcome. Someone pass the rice.”

 

—-

 

The United Nations company was split. And even Ken couldn’t fix it. As Siri washed herself, carefully enjoying the hot water someone had to haul from a well to their building and then heat, she felt it in the headquarters.

The company was larger than ever. More people from Baleros were being found with each week. Or—their remains. But they’d expanded, and they had gold. Lots of it, actually.

Well, for a given amount. As adventurers, the Bushrangers were still poor. And the United Nations Company was similarly insolvent by that standard. But if you measured by the layperson’s income?

They were doing well. Well enough to afford good meat, food, four nice houses (even if Miss Hastel, the Centauress [Landlady] was giving them a discount), and a lot of amenities.

Even a [Repair] spell from one of their new [Mages]. Myron, from Greece. The United Nations company had lighting—someone had actually installed a flashlight in one area, just hanging from the ceiling since it was free light so long as you cast [Repair] on it. They had laptops for movies, which were on rotation that everyone shared, bug-free housing, beds for all—

And they were divided. The Bushrangers enjoyed a good welcome, because they were hard-workers who pulled in a lion’s share of coin for the company. Paige and Daly—did not.

They bore most of the blame, even though Siri was always burningly aware of the charge of black powder that Paige had given her. It could and had blown up larger monsters; it was weaker than modern explosives from Earth, but it was still capable of tearing stone or hides apart.

And that bothered some people. Anyone from Earth who was leery about bringing well, firearms to this world. Who saw that was going from self-defense or the need to make money like the Bushrangers did to importing dangerous technologies.

And none more so than Geneva Scala. She hated the weapons. And half of the United Nations company was on her side. The other half saw it as necessary, or, if not okay, understandable. You needed bombs to kill an Adult Creler.

But both sides were split. And that night, Siri found herself eating with Paige and a smaller group, not including Luan; some of the Bushrangers were eating with what would be Geneva’s side.

Daly hadn’t come back yet. He, as the instigator of the entire split, was aware of the rift he caused, and stayed with Edima, who was aware of the schism, but blissfully unaware of the details.

“Some of the others want me to stop producing the bombs. But I generate black powder every day. That’s my Skill. Besides—I agree with Daly. Even if I think we should have told Geneva. At least no one’s tried to sabotage me. Mainly because they might upset the black powder. That’s what I hint, anyways, although I have it safely stored.”

Paige was speaking to Siri. The Swedish girl rolled her shoulders. She was still uncomfortable herself. It had been months since the reveal. And still—

“How are you dealing with Daly?”

“We’re not happy. But we settled it.”

Siri folded her arms. Paige nodded. Daly keeping the secret about the bombs so long was what Siri had been most annoyed by. Paige hesitated.

“Anyways. That’s not something that should overshadow your return. I’m sorry we missed that [Explorer]. What was his name?”

“Dev.”

The Australian woman hesitated.

“We’ll add it to the list.”

The others looked up. The List. Ken had proposed it. It was a list—the definitive list as best they could make it—of everyone from Earth.

Living and dead. Ages, names—homes—and next of kin. Even phone numbers, email addresses. In case someone got home. Or in case someone found it.

It was reassuring, in some way. Horrible in another. Not that Siri thought about her family much. Not unless—

The Swedish girl found herself lifting something. Her arm. The inside of it was tattooed with silver. The names of her family. Her brother.

Sometimes she forgot she had a brother. Siri stared at it as Paige averted her eyes, digging into the food. Luan had a tattoo just like it, in gold. It was a growing trend among some of the company. Tattooing the names so that they wouldn’t forget.

“…So. Luan’s back. He’s resting up. Sorry about the locked doors. But Blake and some of the others are keeping a guard out.”

Siri glanced up.

“We need a guard? For what? Crime?”

“No, Luan. You know that bounty? Word’s gotten out. He can’t walk down the street without a few [Toughs] threatening to beat him up. They won’t tangle with our crossbows, but some of them even try to attack his boat at the harbor. It’s locked away, but—damn that Xol or whoever it was.”

Siri grimaced. So did Paige. For whatever reason, Xol of the Iron Vanguard had possessed an unusual grudge against Luan after the events of Daquin. Enough to put a fifty-gold bounty on Luan’s head. Not to kill him—but to beat him up and trash his boat.

“It’s getting to the point where Luan’s been suggesting we let them rough him up. But we don’t know how serious they’ll get. The last group had knives out; Kirana chased them off with a crossbow.”

The Swedish girl laughed and choked on her food. Paige grinned, but she was worried.

“Anyways, the Runner’s Guild won’t remove the bounty. No one wants to offend The Iron Vanguard. But we’re keeping Luan with bodyguards. No one wants to make an open enemy of Geneva either, so it’s only idiots and desperate people. For now.”

The [Ranger] nodded. Siri shifted in her chair as Paige brought out something. A hand-crossbow, small, but made of steel. And wood, but the bow was spring steel. One of the Bushrangers whistled.

Nasty.

“I’ve upped the range and punching power. This hand-crossbow isn’t one of the torsion ones that the Greek-lot helped me make; I’m still improving it. But we might actually be able to mount a mini-ballista on a wagon. I’ll let you know. Quallet’s bought three dozen already.”

“How’re Gravetender’s Fist doing these days?”

Paige smiled as Siri investigated the crossbow.

“Well. They’re healthy, which is better than some other companies. They won a battle. Crossbows at range; the enemy never even closed. Quallet pays for my new designs.”

The United Nation’s company had many sources of income. The people working jobs, but also—Paige’s crossbows. Luan’s deliveries. The Bushranger’s missions. But also, and disconcertingly, the primary income was—

“And we’ve actually got the manufacturing up to…speed. We’re pulling in gold for Geneva’s condoms. If you can believe it, it was more than you hauled in last month. And her clinic is earning tons of money—”

The others groaned or laughed. Siri shook her head. That was her. Geneva. The Last Light of Baleros. Say what you would about the others—she was their icon. People didn’t make enemies of their company because of her. They did favors, like Mexy, because of her reputation.

The Last Light of Baleros. The only [Doctor] from Earth. Geneva Scala.

Siri paused. It occurred to her she hadn’t seen Geneva.

“Is she still working at the clinic?”

Paige shook her head. But then—Geneva stayed away from her. She bit her lip, and then shook her head.

“She’s spending all of her time in the clinic. Doing C-sections, teaching the [Midwives], healing anyone who comes in—but also tending to the Yellow Rivers patients. They’re growing in number. Geneva is getting really worried this is an epidemic. The bacteria—mutated across all her patients. It’s not just sex, now.”

Siri put down her fork. She looked at Paige, worried.

“And if it is?”

“Geneva is trying to find penicillin. She’s also going to talk with the leader of the Featherfolk Brigade—Fezimet. Tomorrow. You can ask her if she gets back. If she…sleeps. She doesn’t, sometimes. She’s driving herself into a wall.”

“She needs to rest.”

The second-in-command of the Bushrangers murmured. She’d seen Geneva at work. Or ‘relaxing’. Siri had seen stones being smashed by waves on the beach who relaxed better than Geneva. She worked herself to the bone and beyond.

“Maybe we should talk to her. If she knows Daly came back she might shout at him. Or—she would want to see the [Explorer]’s diary. There may be something he found that was useful.”

To Siri’s surprise, Paige did smile at that. She shook her head slightly.

“Don’t worry. Geneva is on a holiday. Today, at least.”

“You gave her a holiday? With people getting sick?”

What Geneva was that? The Geneva that Siri knew would work without sleep if someone had sprained a foot. But Paige just sighed.

“The other Geneva.”

Oh.

Of course. Siri nodded slowly; even the others didn’t know. But she did.

The other Geneva. That Geneva had changed…too.

 

—-

 

It was a very funny thing. They knew that Geneva hated violence. She hated the idea of bombs for the same reason she hated anything that would kill people. Injure people in the ways that haunted her sleep. Because she had sworn an oath.

But it was wrong to say that Geneva Scala hated weapons. She would use any possible one that was offered to her, that she could grab. And she fought her war, a terrible war against the kind of foe that never gave up or relented.

It was a bitter war. And she fought it alone.

Alone. She had…allies. But there were things they could help her with. And things only she could do. Most of them didn’t even see the problem. They called it a ‘troublesome disease’, but they didn’t worry. As if you could contain a plague with words.

No, no. There was only her. And she worked from dawn to dusk, counting time only by when she worked by magical light or by daylight. Time had lost meaning for her.

Time had lost all meaning. Geneva Scala sat in a room. It was…

A room. Describing it was beyond hard. You couldn’t talk about the light.

Because there was no light. There were no shadows.

There was no floor. Geneva was sitting. But here was no chair.

There were no walls.

And yet it was a box. A room. There was only her. And her thoughts.

But what clear thoughts. What vivid imagery. Geneva Scala could see Talenqual, flickers of memory piecing together to give her an aerial view, like when she’d stood on the top of one of Talenqual’s buildings and looked around. She could see the city.

There. And there. And there. Brothels. Infection spots.

The [Doctor] whispered. Marking the spots in her memory perfectly. Knowing where they were, how to get there. She spoke, but there was no sound. No air in this room either.

She wasn’t breathing. This was just thought. Perfect, clear—Geneva was doing calculations in her head effortlessly. Sums of money, using up the budget she had, recalculating it, finding out how many [Alchemists] she could hire, how much it would cost to scale up production.

Have to check the petri dish.

Another thought. Geneva anchored it in her mind so she wouldn’t forget. It was so—convenient here. She could think about thinking. Memory was easily accessible to her; she could replay images, compare Yellow Rivers patients and the way they differed in minute detail.

It was the kind of Skill another person from her world would give so much for. Someone conducting research, for instance, mathematicians—Geneva’s mind was clear.

And yet—there was one thing she didn’t control. It was like—well—to her—a television screen.

An all-encompassing one, though. If Geneva looked at it, she was there. Seeing through—her eyes. If she tried, she could taste. Hear.

“Nom. Nom. Nali-sticks. Love them.”

The voice was hers. And not hers. Geneva Scala watched. Then she directed her attention towards finding solutions outside of a vaccine. She was doing calculations, remembering her notes from a single lesson on plague statistics in clear detail—

Huh.

The [Doctor] glanced up. She was…on holiday. Yes, on holiday. Or at least, that was what Paige thought. The truth was more complex. Geneva peered at something, tapped on the television screen.

“…Okasha. What are you doing?”

Geneva giggled. She felt herself speaking in a higher-pitched voice. Even her face felt—different. The muscles were being used differently.

“So—you were there? During the battle with the [Strategists]? And the Swords of Serept? Really?

The female [Storm Sailor] laughed and her two mates grinned.

“Sure were. We sail under Lord Seagrass’ command. Hell of a fight. We were battling those damn Bloodtear Pirates, but—”

Tap, tap. Geneva saw/felt herself raise a mug, swallow. Alcohol rushed through her system, that bitter, lovely intoxication.

“Okasha. I have work tonight.”

Her voice wasn’t a voice at all. And she—was leaning forwards.

“Can you tell me more about—”

Okasha!

I hear you! Shut up, shut up! This is my time! And I’m trying to get—us—lucky!

A voice snapped back. It came from the entire room. Geneva frowned.

“No. Sex. We agreed on that. Anyone could have the Yellow Rivers disease. Okasha—”

“Fine! Shutupshutup! Go away! I still have an hour left!”

And then the projection of Geneva in the actual world vanished. Geneva blinked. She tried to make it come back.

But this was not her Skill.

“Okasha. What are you doing? I can’t see.”

Fine! Let me be!

Geneva saw the viewpoint appear again. Her flirting with the [Storm Sailors] was much more subdued, and they had picked up on her vibe and were looking discouraged. Geneva Scala went back to thinking.

And Okasha took Geneva’s body. She was smiling, drinking, apologizing to the [Storm Sailors]. She was Geneva—and not.

Her face was different. Her vocal range higher. The Selphid could do that to Geneva’s vocal chords at will, even change her facial muscles. The skin tone and eyes stayed the same, but it was amazing how different you could look.

This was—Okasha. Her look, separate from Geneva’s. They had agreed it was how Okasha could go about. Do her own thing without it being connected to Geneva. And this was her time.

Ever since the incident with Xeppal, things had changed between Geneva and Okasha. Conscious of the Selphid’s growing need for independence, trapped as she was to allow Geneva to move despite her shattered spine, Geneva had worked out a deal.

Okasha got three days out of the week, and six hours on each of those days. Six hours to be her, to go and eat food, see what she wanted, gamble, watch movies—

Sex with other people was off limits. But most other things were not. Okasha could pilot Geneva’s body; that was what Selphids did.

But normally Geneva would be conscious, feeling and seeing all these things, and obviously distracted. And obviously, displeased if it was something she didn’t like doing. Like watching a movie with idiotic [Doctors] in it or something. For the first two days she and Okasha had squabbled despite it being ‘Okasha-time’.

Until Okasha had leveled up. And gained a new class. Her new class—which both she and Geneva had been perplexed by was—

[Inner Friend].

And she had a new Skill. This place Geneva was in—this was a Skill. It allowed Okasha to separate Geneva’s mind from her body, place her in a spot where she could think and devote her entire brain to simply…thinking. While Okasha took over.

The Skill was named [The Thinking Room]. No, that wasn’t quite right. It was [Host: The Thinking Room].

Because it was a power a Selphid only had when they inhabited a living body. Okasha was the first Selphid in current memory to gain a class like this.

Geneva went back to thinking. And time did indeed have no meaning; because in this room, the thinking box as she and Okasha referred to it—she was disconnected from the outside world. Geneva only checked back into reality after a while—and realized she was leaning against a [Storm Sailor], recalling her own encounter at sea.

“Okasha. What time is it?”

Geneva saw out of the corner of her eye that the sun was quite low. The Selphid didn’t reply at first. She was all-consumed with spinning the yarn.

“Okasha—”

And then I—hold on.”

Okasha broke off as the [Storm Sailors] snorted and nearly fell over laughing. She whispered into the box.

What? I’m having a great time!

“It’s time for me to get to work, Okasha. Give me control.”

“What? No, it’s not! It’s—aw, Creler eggs.”

Geneva-Okasha turned her head and her face fell at the sight of the fading sun. Geneva, in the box, insisted.

You promised.

“Five more minutes?”

“No.”

Oh—fine! But let me excuse myself!

Grumpily, the Selphid turned and began explaining that she had to go. Geneva, in the box, watched, annoyed, as Okasha had to stand a round. The [Storm Sailor] let her go, laughing, and Geneva staggered out.

“Fine, take your stupid body back.”

Geneva-Okasha muttered. Geneva was suddenly back in her body. She wobbled, and nearly ran into a pair of [Sailors] who were laughing on their way to the door.

Okasha! Get rid of my intoxication!”

The [Doctor] gritted her teeth and whispered. Inside her body and now just aiding Geneva, the Selphid grumped back.

“Fine! Fine! Your stupid liver’s working, but I’ll go kick it. There!”

Geneva felt her head clearing at speed. Accordingly, her bladder. She looked around. The [Sailors] blinked after her. One of them checked her mug.

“Dead gods. She looks different all of a sudden. What’re we drinking?”

The woman from Italy walked out of the bar. Her facial muscles ached from keeping up her ‘Okasha’ face. And she needed to pee. But Okasha dutifully suppressed both feelings, relaxed her muscles. Geneva felt fresh, despite having been up since dawn. More Okasha-help.

Now back to work. Bleh. Have fun treating disgusting patients all night. You know you need to sleep? It’s not good for your body. I worry about you, Geneva. Your smile muscles are all rusty, too!

Geneva ignored Okasha’s voice. She walked on, looking for a place to pee, and heading back to the United Nations headquarters. Her mind was echoing all the thoughts she’d come up with in the thinking box.

Check the petri dish. Hotspots of diseases. Spread of disease based on calculations—funding is—

It did help her refocus. Even so, as Geneva walked, she was glad to be in charge. Okasha had her needs. But Geneva needed to save lives. And they were in a pandemic, a growing one. She was sure. Okasha had her needs, which was why Geneva had allowed it until today.

“But it’s going to get worse. I can’t allow it for the foreseeable future.”

Hm? What was that?

“Nothing.”

Geneva walked on. She got back to work. And—in her mind, the place Okasha couldn’t read or reach, only her body—Geneva was a bit relieved.

She’d tried to take back command while she was in [The Thinking Room]. Several times, actually. But if Okasha knew it or not—Geneva hadn’t been able to.

 

—-

 

“Hello, Geneva! Have you eaten? Have you slept? The Bushrangers are back—”

Kirana welcomed Geneva as the [Doctor] unlocked the door. The woman shook her head.

“It’s me, Kirana. Not Okasha. She ate. I’m well awake. Is there any tea? Did we discover coffee? I’m going to be working in my clinic. I’m just here for—”

She backed up as she strode past the [House Manager]. Geneva paused. And Okasha, inside of her, winced.

Uh oh. Angry juice incoming! Stop squirting that. Stop that. Stomach acid here, ew, ew…ooh! I remember eating that…

She squirmed around in Geneva’s body, suppressing the natural fury coursing through Geneva. Kirana winced.

“Yes. They got back a few hours ago…”

“Did they find anyone? Is anyone hurt?”

“No—they were dead. And no one was hurt.”

“Oh.”

Geneva Scala paused. She looked at Kirana.

“It was someone from your group, wasn’t it? I’m sorry.”

Kirana only nodded soberly. It was—amazing. Painful, how someone could be used to death. Geneva wished she had the background in therapy to know what to say. Even her bedside manner was—that of a battlefield surgeon.

“I’m sorry. I’ll…see the Bushrangers later.”

She had no desire to see Daly, or Siri, or anyone else in the team. Geneva headed towards the stairs.

In one of the four houses the United Nations company now occupied, there was a sealed room with a reinforced, air-tight door. Geneva didn’t like having it with an actual population of people living nearby, but it was that or the clinic.

And the clinic could be broken into. Had been, three times, by [Healers] hiring low-level [Thieves] to snoop around and steal Geneva’s scalpels and other tools, looking for her ‘secret recipes’. Rather than let them walk off with something truly dangerous, Geneva had agreed to install this door.

So this house was reserved for business, entertainment—Paige’s workshop. Not with many beds in them. Just in case.

Just in case, Geneva would burn the entire house down if she thought there had been a breach. But she needed to do her research somewhere. She marched up the stairs. And on the way met another distraction.

“Geneva! Hello. Are you fed? Rested? I haven’t seen you all day. For two days, actually.”

Luan smiled on the stairs. Geneva sighed. Why did everyone greet her like that?

“It’s me, Luan. Not Okasha.”

He gave her a strange look.

“I know. That was obvious.”

She blinked a few times at him. He touched his face, turning it into a semi-permanent cross between a frown and a dour stare. Geneva hesitated.

“I don’t look like that.”

“Yes you do.”

Her mouth answered for her. Kirana and Luan jumped, but grinned as Okasha’s voice spoke. Luan nodded.

“Hi, Okasha.”

“Hi, Luan! You wouldn’t believe who’s in the harbor! I met some [Storm Sailors] who were at the battle at sea!”

“Really? What—”

“I’m working. Okasha can tell you later, during her time off. Luan, I’d love to chat. I hear the Bushrangers are back without incident. Good. I wish they’d found someone alive, I mean.”

Geneva brusquely overrode her mouth. She walked past Luan. The South African man eyed her.

“The person who died was Dev. An [Explorer]. He was in The Dyed Lands. He had a journal. Kirana thinks he might have found some interesting plants or animals.”

The [Doctor] stopped on the stairs. Luan glanced at Kirana out of the corner of his eyes. And then Geneva was striding back down to them.

“Anything useful? Plants? Animals? Even toxins? Let me see the journal.”

Kirana showed it to Geneva. The [Doctor] flipped through it.

“Can you read it?”

“Yes. There’s some notes about helpful things. For healing. Daly even brought back some of Dev’s supplies. We are looking through them—”

Geneva nearly dropped the journal. Her head snapped up.

“You have some of his equipment?”

“Yes, and—”

Don’t touch any of it! You have no idea what could be in his gear! Parasites or poisons! Where is it?

Luan and Kirana glanced at each other.

“Paige has—”

Geneva was up the stairs in a flash. She strode over to the [Engineer]’s door and began hammering on it.

“Paige! Open up! Do not open those samples without—”

The door opened at her touch. Geneva strode in and saw Paige.

She was wearing a huge suit of…well, armor. Protective gear. Treated leather with glossy resin, foul-smelling but all-encompassing. She even had a glass mask, carefully made to allow her to see without letting anything actually touch her face.

“Oh.”

“Geneva.”

Paige’s voice was cool. She was investigating the contents of a satchel. Geneva saw large pots of paste, some crumbling red powder—

“You have the protective gear on.”

“Yes. And you’re in the room unprotected. Didn’t you see the sign?”

Geneva backed up. The sign on Paige’s door read, ‘DO NOT ENTER’. The [Doctor] hesitated.

“I was concerned—”

“Parasites? We had the jars frozen once they arrived. And Daly and the others kept them securely contained in bags of holding. Nothing was opened; they still want to be tested. And I’m investigating. See?”

She held up a magnifying glass. More crude glass, like the mask she wore. Paige glanced at Geneva.

“Good to see you. Hi, Okasha.”

“Hi, Paige.”

Geneva waved at Paige. Then she slapped her other hand down. She backed up.

“I’m…getting to work. Sorry about…”

“Shut the door, please. Thanks.”

The [Doctor] closed the door silently. She turned to Kirana and Luan. They were eying her.

“I’ll check Paige later. Something could still be living in the room. We’ll still sterilize—”

I put down poison and the room was secured until you opened it.

Paige shouted from inside the room. Geneva’s mouth closed. She turned.

“I’m getting to work. I need to be at the clinic tonight. I’ll talk to you later, Luan, Kirana.”

“Sure.”

The two chorused. Geneva hesitated. She disappeared into her secure laboratory, next to Paige’s. Luan studied it.

“In retrospect, it was a mistake to put their rooms together, yeah?”

“But if something gets loose, we can explode Paige’s workshop. Or if it explodes, it kills the germs.”

The [House Keeper] countered. Luan smiled crookedly. He glanced up at Geneva, and then turned to Kirana. The young Indian woman was leafing through the journal.

Is there anything Geneva can use? She’s stressing about the Yellow Rivers plague. It’s getting bad. We could use a win, Kirana.”

“I don’t know. I don’t think so. He used this…paste for his cuts. In one of the jars. I will tell Paige. But it stopped bleeding. Not cured sickness. He was sick here. See?”

She showed Luan a dated entry. He nodded, although he couldn’t read.

“Anything interesting?”

“Venoms from a…purple place. Daly will want them.”

“Tell Geneva.”

“She won’t like it.”

“No, tell her because the venoms might be a cure. Or useful in her research. I think that’s how it works.”

Luan shrugged helplessly. Kirana nodded. She read a few more bookmarked spots.

“There is…one more interesting thing. Monsters aside. But I have to ask Daly. This Dev. He was alone, right?”

“Yup. He never made it out.”

The [Rower] leaned on the balcony, suddenly tired. He looked at Kirana. She was younger than him by…seven years. But she felt older. They were all growing up. Still, he and Geneva were the oldest. Adults. But for all Luan admired Geneva—she could be less mature than the nineteen year-old young woman from India.

Kirana nodded. Her eyes flicked across the page. Then she showed him something else.

“Here. Something strange. Right on this day. He met someone in The Dyed Lands. Someone—scary.”

“Scary?”

Luan frowned. There was a picture. A man, standing in the doorway. All shadow, but Dev had captured some features. Not enough. Just enough to make Luan…uneasy. The [Explorer] had captured his mood.

“Another [Explorer]?”

Kirana read on.

“No. He got past all of the—traps. And he left no footprints. Dev was afraid. It says the man offered him something. Wanted Dev to take his hand. He thought—”

She hesitated. And then closed the book abruptly. She blinked a few times. Luan looked at her. Kirana had suddenly gone pale.

“What?”

“Nothing. He just wrote that he thought it was a bhoot. Or—something worse.”

“A—bhoot?

She looked at him.

“A…ghost. Or a—”

She searched for a while. Then she put the journal away and didn’t open it any longer.

“A devil.”

Luan felt his skin crawl. You could laugh at something like that on Earth. In the daylight. But in this world? Here? Nothing was off limits.

People said the gods were dead. So—sometimes, Luan stayed awake at night and wondered. If the gods were dead—

What killed them?

“Did he take the hand?”

That was all he could think to ask. Kirana shook her head.

“No. He wrote that he did not. The—man vanished. No footprints. Dev died months afterwards.”

So no correlation. Luan sighed. But Kirana still looked bothered. That story would bother Luan too, if he let it. He needed a drink. He sighed.

“Maybe it was a [Rogue], or high-level explorer. Or a nightmare?”

“Maybe.”

“When did it happen, anyways? Daly can ask that [Adventurer] he met if she knows anyone like that.”

Kirana cracked the journal open. She frowned at the date.

“In the middle of winter.”

Luan was walking down the stairs. He stumbled. Looked over his shoulder. Kirana blinked at him.

“What?”

“…Nothing.”

The man felt his skin turn icy. And something was crawling down his back. He hesitated, and then shivered. No way. But—absolutely. His hand itched. Luan kept walking, hurrying for the kitchens. He’d have a drink, ask later. In the daylight.

He was relieved, though. Luan had assumed it was a dream, a nightmare at sea, while rowing. But that made it seem—

He was so glad he hadn’t touched her hand.

 

—-

 

“Geneva, I’m really worried for you. You can’t keep working like this. I can remove fatigue from your muscle, but not that brain-thing! You can’t keep doing this!”

An hour later, Geneva sat in her laboratory. It wasn’t sterile, white tiles, stainless steel, or anything as good. The floorboards were wood. She’d installed a metal door, made the room airtight as possible. That meant she had to open a window, but she kept it closed when she was working with anything serious.

And she too had protective gear on. Geneva had designed it herself. There was no plastic in this world, so she had to rely on resin layers, cleaning…

Soap, rather than antiseptic. Fragile glass, and a rear vent for oxygen rather than an actual tank. It would keep out liquids, but not gas.

It helped for the Yellow Rivers treatments. Geneva checked the setting sun. Nearly time to get to the clinic. She heard the voice again.

Geneva? Are you listening?

“What?”

The [Doctor] snapped irritably. She heard Okasha’s voice in her head.

“I’ve been talking for the last thirty minutes! You’re not listening again! You’re tired. Get some rest.”

“I can keep going. Thanks to your breaks, I need to make up time.”

“You also need to sleep.”

“Not yet. Be quiet. I’m testing the cultures.”

Some things she’d reclaimed from her world. The glass petri dishes and cultures inside made Geneva’s skin tingle. She wasn’t qualified for this. But she was more qualified than anyone else in this world. She stared at the growing yellow amid the red. Cursed.

“Nothing’s killing them. Nothing—has Ken gotten those [Alchemists] to work on an anti-bacterial yet? Don’t they know how important this is?

“No. He’s trying, but not many of them like working with mold, Geneva. We’re all trying. Did none of the treatments work?”

For a moment, Geneva thought the voice was coming from Okasha. But it wasn’t. She looked up.

Paige! Stay—

The young woman was wearing her protective gear. Still, Geneva glowered.

“I told you never to open this door when I’m working! It was locked! How—”

“Kirana has the key. Anyways, you said it wasn’t airborne.”

“As far as we know. It’s mutated once. It can do it again. What’s that?”

Geneva pointed. Paige had two substances in crude, earthenware pots. She offered both to Geneva; one was a purple, viscous substance that made Geneva’s instincts instantly wary. The other was a reddish paste, mixed with green.

“Samples from our [Explorer]. One was an ointment he used on himself. Stopped the bleeding.”

“A coagulant?”

“Yup. And the other’s a venom. He coated a spear with it. Thought it might be useful.”

Geneva studied both. She reached for the samples.

“I could—add them to cultures. See if they work. I doubt they will.”

“Try it. The venom might be overkill, but if you could…I dunno, dilute it?”

It was worth a shot. Geneva nodded. She eyed the pots.

“I want those stored in a sealed container.”

“Yep. Just take a sample of each.”

Paige held them out as Geneva found a tiny spoon, took a sample of each, and smeared them into the other petri dishes. Paige sealed both pots and then eyed the dishes.

Geneva had eighteen, each with yellow spreading across the red cultures.

“What’s the verdict, Geneva?”

The [Doctor] paused, but she replied, stiffly avoiding Paige’s eyes.

“See this? This is the Yellow River strain. I’ve cultured it—which means it’s bacterial.”

She lifted the petri dish. It was open, and Paige saw the telltale, sickly yellow pus growing amid the red. She made a face.

“That’s disgusting. How is it growing? What’s the medium?”

“It’s a combination of blood, some tissue mixed with the sugar jello—the sample grows best on that.”

Geneva saw Paige eying the culture. She spoke on, hurriedly.

“It’s mine. Not from anyone else. I had Okasha extract it from me. But it’s all dead matter; a virus wouldn’t survive. Bacteria would.”

“So that’s why you need the penicillin so bad?”

The [Doctor] nodded.

“To be precise, we need an anti-bacterial agent which works on a broad spectrum. Penicillin is one example. The odds are that this world will have another variety that we just don’t know about. Now—I need to take this dish to my meeting.”

“Didn’t you say you never wanted this taken out of the lab?”

Paige saw Geneva place the petri dish in a larger glass container and seal the lid. The [Doctor] nodded brusquely.

“I did. But the Yellow Rivers disease is already in Talenqual. And unless we get the support of The Featherfolk Brigade, it will spread. We need action from every major city in the region. Lockdown of the ports! More [Healers]—”

She slipped and the glass container skidded across the desk. Both women lunged for it—Okasha grabbed the case. Geneva steadied herself.

“You’re tired.”

Paige breathed out shakily as Geneva’s hand slowly put the dish back on the counter. Geneva inspected the container for cracks.

“I’m fine. I slept last night.”

“You say that as if that’s unusual. Geneva—can we talk?”

“About what? How to most effectively use your powder bombs? Make an IED. Those kill very effectively. You can leave them in the ground for generations. Landmines that blow up children.”

Geneva snapped back. Paige turned pale. She straightened abruptly.

“I’m trying to talk this over. Unless you think the Bushrangers should take on giant serpents and Crelers with crossbows?”

The [Doctor] looked up.

“I’m not saying that. But when do they start using them on other people?”

“Probably around the same time those people try to kill us. Geneva, you can weigh in on this. We can figure out something—”

“I told you what I think.”

“We can’t stop it. Geneva, I’ve seen [Fireballs]. So have you. They’re worse than grenades. And that’s a Tier 3 spell. I’m not saying I like it. But when Daly asked, I agreed. Because it’s not a gun.”

“No, it’s a bomb. I don’t have time for this, Paige. I can’t stop you.”

Geneva stood up abruptly. She stalked past Paige with the secured sample and then turned. She poked at Paige through their protective gear.

“I can’t stop you. But I’ll never approve of it. You know it’s wrong.”

The Australian [Engineer] exhaled loudly. She saw Geneva open the door and walk out; the lab was secure. Paige shouted after Geneva.

“I know it’s not perfect! But I’m trying my best! I’m trying to talk, to be reasonable! So is Daly! You’re the one who says ‘do it my way or fuck off’! What would you have us do? You know, Geneva Scala, you’re not the only person who’s right in this world!”

The [Doctor] never replied. But Okasha whispered in her head.

Ooh. She’s got you there.

“Shut up, Okasha.”

 

—-

 

The clinic. Geneva marched in, ignoring the looks people gave her. In her protective gear she was like a [Knight]. Only, one whose protection was against malady, not spells or swords.

“Aiko. Sorry I’m late. How are the patients?”

“Geneva! They are—good?”

A [Nurse] hurried over. Aiko Nonomura, a young Japanese woman, was clearly tired. But she and another [Nurse]—one of the young Indian women—were both in the protective gear.

Luan’s gold had paid for more than just the new headquarters. So had condom sales. Geneva put down her burden as she looked around. She heard voices from further in her clinic.

“Any new cases?”

“Many. We had to turn away…all but three. The ones who were worst. They—are—good.”

The word ‘good’ was clearly up for debate. Priya, the [Nurse], was pale. She had volunteered for this job, despite her main class being [Cook]. But Geneva had needed the hands.

“I’ll check on them, then. Can they still eat? Take liquids? Dehydration is what will kill them. The bedpans—”

“Washed. What is that…container?”

Aiko gagged and Priya shuddered. Geneva nodded.

“I need to speak to Fezimet tomorrow. That’s a sample of the disease. Don’t touch it. Wait, you’re going off-duty, aren’t you? Remember, wash down the gear. Take isolated baths—if you have so much as a fever or poor digestion, I want you to quarantine—”

The two exhausted [Nurses] were nodding wearily. They knew the procedure, but Geneva had to be sure.

“In that case—go on. I’ll need Zane and you, Aiko, tomorrow morning. Priya, can you manage the evening? Good. Get some rest—and thank you so much for working so hard.”

Aiko smiled wearily.

“You are welcome, Geneva. You have to rest too, alright?”

She patted Geneva on the shoulder. The [Doctor] nodded silently. She hadn’t thanked the two. She’d forgotten to. It had been Okasha who’d done that. With her voice.

Silently, the two [Nurses] left the room, heading to the chamber Geneva had made for them to clean themselves before leaving. That left the [Doctor] to make her rounds.

“No new C-sections. No patients with major maladies besides the Yellow Rivers patients. And…”

Geneva walked into her clinic. She looked at the first patient, on the bed. The Lizardman was looking up at her. His bandages were clean. But he had flushed scales. His temperature was far too high.

“Miss Geneva.”

He sighed as he looked at her. The [Doctor] sat down.

“How are we today, Teqis? I’m sorry I couldn’t arrive earlier.”

“Better. I’ll be better. The two lovely [Nurses] were—wondrous to us. There are three more.”

He turned. Down the clinic, separate cots had been set up. There were twenty two patients in the clinic now. It was overcrowded. But each patient was running a high fever. Had diarrhea—

And the open, growing, pus-filled wounds. Usually on their genitals, but now—spreading to other areas. They were regularly cleaned, but Geneva saw a telltale yellow and red dripping from Teqis’ clean bandages.

Only, it had stopped when the [Doctor] walked in. For a moment, there was relief. The Yellow Rivers disease halted in its consumption of skin, spreading through the immune systems.

“[Malady’s Cessation]. The Skill will get you an hour of time. I want you to rest, drink more fluids—hopefully you’ll begin fighting this off. You can recover, Teqis. You’re in your second week; this is when your immune system will begin fighting off the disease. I want you to remember that.”

The Lizardman’s eyes were watery.

“I will. My family stopped by, and I was feeling better.”

Geneva’s mouth opened worriedly. The Lizardman went on, hurriedly.

“They weren’t allowed in. But I could shout to them. It is better than the first week, [Doctor]. Thank you. I might—you’re our savior.”

He gestured around the clinic. The other patients were sighing, as the Skill helped them. For an hour, they could recover, fight back as the infection halted. Geneva clasped Teqis’ hand.

“I’m not doing enough.”

“Nonsense. You’re the Last Light of Baleros.”

He laughed weakly. Geneva looked around.

“I have to talk to the others, Teqis. But I’ll be here most of the night. One of the [Nurses] will come in to help; if you need anything, just call.”

“I will. Thank you.”

The Lizardman lay back, closing his eyes. Geneva walked on. The next patient was a Centaur, Biha. A Dullahan—two more Lizardfolk—

“Am I late? Sorry, I had to change into the gear.”

A [Nurse] walked in an hour after Geneva had seen to all the patients. Blake, another volunteer, paled as he inhaled the odor in the room. Geneva’s Skill had ended. The [Doctor] looked up.

“It’s fine. See to the patients. I’ve changed the bedpans—”

One of the symptoms was diarrhea.

“—but we may need more water. Remember to add the lemon and sea salt and honey.”

Blake was nodding. To replenish electrolytes and other elements, Geneva had come up with the drink along with the food they fed the patients. It saved lives.

“I’m heading out. I need your help scrubbing me down—then I’m going to visit the other patients. Do you have a list?”

“Here. They added twenty entries today alone.”

Blake handed Geneva the list. Okasha made a sound.

So many…

The [Doctor] didn’t blink.

“I’ll visit all of them. Just change the bandages. Send a Street Runner if there’s a complication. Remember, the poultice—”

“Yes, [Doctor]. We’re running out of ingredients and honey.”

“Tell Kirana to buy more.”

The [Doctor] walked into the changing room. Blake followed her, and helped her rinse off with soap and water. It sluiced into a drain; the septic tank would need to be emptied in time. Geneva needed to take precautions about that too.

Then she walked out of the clinic. In the street, people turned and stared. Some whispered. Others backed away. But more waved and called out.

Miss Geneva! Miss Geneva! My son—”

A Lizardwoman was waiting for Geneva. One of many. They pushed forwards and Geneva held up a hand.

“Please! Don’t push. I’ve told you—keep your distance! Are you washing your hands, Miss Vioneq?”

The Lizardwoman wrung her clawed hands.

“Yes—but my son—”

“I’ll see to him. Stay back. Once I begin treating the patients, do not touch me. Stay back, and keep clean. Remember what I said: the disease is spreading through liquids, now. Boil your water. Wash your hands regularly. Do not touch your mouth or nose. Or—nose holes.”

The crowd backed up. More called out to Geneva. She walked past them, in her protective leather armor. It was brown, rather than pearly white, but it had one mark of her profession. A red cross, painted on the back, underneath the resin.

The Last Light of Baleros. That was how they greeted her these days. A sick Lizardboy, with the early stages of the disease. Someone with a high fever and diarrhea—no pus. That only occurred if they had open wounds, thankfully.

Geneva made her rounds. Her clinic was far, far too small for the amount of patients with lesser ailments. But she stopped there, using her Skill, advising the families on what to do. Wash hands, do not allow the disease to spread.

It was a disaster. Geneva was making her nightly rounds; she had done them this morning, before Okasha’s silly break. And the people were listening.

But Talenqual was a Lizardfolk city. Which meant tightly-packed, social, wood housing that was sprawling rather than vertical except for the richer parts of the city which were built with stone. The exact sort of place a plague loved to spread.

And Geneva was one [Doctor]. Alone. She kept walking, her feet growing tired despite Okasha’s best efforts, into the night. She ignored her fatigue. But she had a nursing staff of less than ten, with volunteers. She had four suits of the protective equipment made and the rest were delayed for ‘real’ orders by the [Armorers]. No one was paying attention to this epidemic.

Except for her. And that had to change.

 

—-

 

Siri, the Swedish [Ranger] and member of the Bushrangers found Geneva in the clinic the next day at dawn. Geneva Scala was sitting in a chair, next to the contained petri dish. Snacking.

“Stay past the line.”

The [Doctor] pointed. Siri stopped at the yellow line that had been painted on the floor. No one was allowed past except people in protective gear or patients. She saw Geneva bite into a white stick, chew, grimacing.

Nali-sticks? I didn’t know you liked them, Geneva.”

Siri indicated the white sticks Geneva was eating. They were concentrated sugar, the kind that gave you an insane rush of energy. So sweet they were addictive. The [Doctor] glanced up.

“You’re right. I don’t like it that much. It’s far too sweet, even by our standards of candy. But it’s quick energy. And…”

She grimaced. She needed them. And someone else loved them.

Nali, Nali-stick! Gotta have my nali-sticks!

Okasha shouted happily, sharing Geneva’s taste buds. It was fascinating how they could taste the same thing, but one mind enjoyed it while the other found it stimulating at best.

“What do you need, Siri? I’m going to meet…Fezimet today. In a few minutes, actually.”

“That’s why I’m here. Daly wants me to escort you.”

Siri spoke carefully. She saw Geneva’s brows snap together. Siri sighed. She shouldn’t have mentioned Daly.

“Why?”

“To make sure no one knocks over the container. To hold open doors.”

And because Ken isn’t here and you could say something that upsets him.

Okasha whispered into Geneva’s head. The [Doctor] scowled.

“I wouldn’t say anything that offends Fezimet.”

“I didn’t say that.”

Siri blinked a few times. Geneva hesitated.

“Sorry. Okasha, not you. Fine. Come on.”

She yawned, stretching. Then Geneva knocked over the quill she’d been using to write notes on all her patients. She bent down, grabbing for it.

And effortlessly reached down from an upright position. Touched the ground, scooped up the quill, and stood back up. All without her body protesting. Geneva and Siri stared.

“Wow. You’re flexible.

Geneva Scala hesitated. She bent down, touched her toes. Then stood upright. Experimentally, she reached out, pulled her fingers back.

They nearly touched her forearm. Geneva bent down, touched her toes, and walked her hands back. She was as flexible as a gymnast. It was—uncanny.

“Okasha?”

Hah! So that’s what it does! Hey Geneva, guess what?

“You leveled up.”

I leveled—aw.

The Selphid pouted internally. Then she brightened up.

“That’s right! I have a Skill, which means it affects you! [Physical Enhancement: Flexibility]. See? Look!”

She reached out with Geneva’s left arm. Siri blanched as the arm rotated nearly a hundred and eighty degrees, moving way further than it should normally. Geneva felt the strain, but her fingers were waggling, demonstrating insane dexterity. She wasn’t made of rubber, but she had the kind of flexibility that only occurred in a very few amount of people.

“What…is that? Geneva?”

“Flexibility. Okasha leveled up.”

“Oh.”

Siri responded faintly. Geneva frowned. This could be useful. It was also disturbing, but it would help with surgeries. That was her main concern. She frowned as Okasha made her scratch that itch on her back that normal Geneva had never reached.

“When did you level up, Okasha?”

“Five hours ago. I went to sleep. You didn’t even notice. You were controlling me for a bit. Creepy. Good thing I have that Skill that lets you move even when I’m not awake.”

“Yes. How many Skills does that make?”

Um…one, two…five? Nice skill, huh? We can probably do all kinds of weird maneuvers now! I can’t wait to try it out! Let me try, please, please?

“No. It’s a useful Skill, though. It’d have been better if it was a Skill to reduce my fatigue so I can work longer.”

Okasha sighed as Siri backed away from the one-sided conversation, for her.

“I’m only Level 11, Geneva. You want a refreshment Skill? Wait until I get to Level 20, at least! But I’m leveling up quick, huh?”

Yes. Very quickly. Geneva blinked a few times.

“You’re Level 11? I thought you were Level 4 when—never mind. We have to get to that meeting. Siri, I’m grabbing the container. Grab two of the masks. The oversized one is for Fezimet. I’d bring armor, but apparently that’s an ‘insult’. And the gloves.”

She walked out of the clinic. Okasha was audibly disappointed.

“Come on, let’s try something out! Isn’t it cool? First the box at Level 10, now this! I might be the first Selphid in living memory to have this class! It’s nothing like the old stories!”

Geneva marched out of her clinic. She stared at the rising sun. She must have been awake all night. Again. But she’d gotten to her patients. That was what mattered. Anyways, she had [Lesser Endurance] now. That cut down on the fatigue. She was leveling too.

“What old stories, Okasha? And keep silent when we get to Fezimet’s tower. I need to focus.”

Okasha sighed. And her voice was a bit…bitter.

“You never listen. I told you twice. And when I leveled up! You didn’t even let me eat cake for the Level 10 celebration. It’s always work, work, work with you…you need rest, Geneva!”

“Okasha.”

Fine. This is important. But promise me you’ll lie down? I’m looking at your body and it looks worse! Also, you need to poo. Nice, healthy poo. Nothing like that Yellow Rivers stuff. Disgusting—

Okasha!

Fine. I’m shutting up. Congratulations, Okasha! I’m only a Level 11 [Inner Friend]. Odd, though. The old stories never have this class. It was always…[Controller]. [Dominator]. [Overlord]. This is strange. But we’re friends so that’s why. Right Geneva? Geneva?

 

—-

 

“Commander Fezimet—”

Glorious Fezimet, please, Miss Scala. I’m joking. Call me whatever you like! Am I joking? I probably am.”

The Quexal rose to his full height, his feathered wings resplendent. Geneva sighed.

“Glorious Fezimet—you have to understand. This plague is spreading fast. When I say a lockdown of the city is necessary, I mean it.”

“For two weeks.”

The Quexal stared at Geneva, and stopped showing off his wings. She and Siri were in his office. He stared at the two Humans. Both were wearing Geneva’s masks and gloves. She had the petri dish with the Yellow Rivers sample on his desk. He had refused the mask. He didn’t have hands so much as talons halfway up his body.

The Quexal, one of the rare evolutions of Lizardfolk, was powerful. Huge, sinuous—an imposing form. And he could jump and glide. He was radiant, and knew it.

Geneva didn’t care. She had been talking to the leader of the Featherfolk Brigade, who ruled this city as the company in charge, and she was running out of patience.

“At least two weeks. No entry into the city, or exit. Via port or otherwise. I need [Healers] to help me tend to the patients, more protective armor—”

“All of which my company pays for. Because of a few cases of this Yellow Rivers stuff? I admit, it’s nasty. And I am honored by the Last Light of Baleros tending to people in my city free of charge.”

No one missed the emphasis on ‘my’. Geneva sighed. Fezimet went on, eying the yellow sample in the dish.

“But it’s spread by sex, isn’t it? That’s not an issue. Yes, there are cases. But your clinic is doing splendidly. That’s why I’m not even charging a tax. Just do more of that, yes? Hm?”

Siri broke in, her voice polite as she bowed to the Quexal.

“I’m afraid it’s not that simple. The disease has mutated, Glorious Fezimet.”

“Say what now? Done what?”

The leader of the Featherfolk Brigade paused. Siri tried to explain.

“Mutated. That means it—has changed. It now spreads via more than sex. Anyone who touches the pus—that sample, sir—can catch the virus.”

“Bacteria.”

Geneva whispered. Siri shrugged. Fezimet instantly recoiled and backed up towards his glass windows overseeing his city. The tower in which his company resided was the tallest by far.

Touch it?

“And have it enter their mucus glands. Mouth, nostrils—ears—”

The Quexal relaxed a bit.

“Oh. Then just don’t touch those places. Miss Scala, I appreciate the concern. But we have less than a hundred cases in the entire city! It is not an—what did you call it? An ‘epidemamy’?”

“Epidemy. It is a plague, Commander Fezimet. And it is already in Talenqual and other cities. The reason the numbers are low is because no one is looking for the disease! But for me!”

The Quexal made a polite sound as he flicked his tail.

“And yet—people recover.”

“In one to two weeks. I can speed recovery to one week if I attend to them personally. But in the meantime, they have fever, they discharge mucus and pus, have diarrhea—”

“Yes, yes. Please, I haven’t had breakfast yet. So what? It goes away in a week. Ideal! This isn’t as bad as the serious plagues. Believe me, I lived through the Petriplague when I was a hatchling. That killed. This goes away!”

The Quexal cut Geneva off, looking disgusted. Geneva inhaled a few times.

“That’s true. This isn’t nearly as virulent as most strains. It could be far, far worse. But the potential is that this disease mutates again, Glorious Fezimet. To kill its hosts. And the issue isn’t that people recover. It’s that it spreads fast. If it gets into a household, the odds are about 61% that they all become ill. Yes, the level of infection varies; a [Warrior]’s body fights off the plague far better than a normal civilian’s. However…”

Siri winced. Fezimet’s eyes were glazing over as Geneva began to use statistics. He got the danger. He just thought it didn’t matter. People were getting better. Geneva’s clinic had had only a handful of deaths. And people did get well in two weeks.

“Geneva. I think it’s time for the demonstration.”

The Swedish girl whispered to the [Doctor]. Geneva looked at her, realized she was right, and grimaced. She’d done so much work in the thinking box analyzing the numbers available to her. She had a graph and a map of the city’s infectious hotspots, but the Quexal didn’t care.

“Glorious Commander Fezimet, I have a demonstration for you. This is the real danger of the Yellow Rivers disease and why I fear that if we reach a critical point, the plague will spread to thousands, not just hundreds. It’s already going across the sea; I treated a crew with six infected members. You have a chance to stop it in Talenqual. Because this is the real danger of the sickness.”

She opened the glass box. And then removed the petri dish. Fezimet eyed the bacteria with disgust.

“Disgusting. But if I wash my…claws, it doesn’t infect me, right?”

“It might. Thorough washing is essential, Commander Fezimet. But please, observe. Would you consider putting on the helmet?”

“No, but go ahead.”

It was just a bit of the culture, in the center of the dish. The yellow blob glistened as Fezimet put a feathered wing over his face. Siri gagged at the smell too. Geneva produced something. A vial. Geneva also pulled out a crude dropper and filled it with some of the potion.

“This is a single drop of healing potion, Commander. Please observe what happens if it interacts with the bacteria—the Yellow Rivers disease.”

She poised the dropper over the dish. And a glistening drop of the potion fell onto the dish.

A single drop of a weak healing potion landed. It splashed and then—

The yellow rot instantly covered the entire petri dish. Siri recoiled.

Jävla skit!

Dead gods!

So did Fezimet. They backed up as the Yellow Rivers bacteria multiplied insanely quickly. The audience watched as Geneva closed the petri dish and put it into the container. Then she folded her hands behind her back and looked at Fezimet.

“The first reaction of every person and [Healer] is to use a healing potion. And when that happens, a small infection turns into an open sore. And it turns a preventable illness into full-blown fever, diarrhea, and pus from the sores which infects anyone who doesn’t wash their hands thoroughly before touching a mucus membrane. Healing potions will turn minor victims who don’t know they’ve been infected into people on their deathbeds. I must insist you put out an announcement and lock down the city.”

She looked Fezimet in the eye. And to his credit, the Quexal blanched.

“We can’t have that in our [Warriors]! Why didn’t you lead with that?”

He meant his company’s fighting power. Geneva exhaled and Siri shuffled her feet. The [Doctor] opened her mouth for a response and Okasha pulled it closed. She felt the Selphid take over.

“I’m terribly sorry, oh Glorious Fezimet. You have lovely plumage today, by the way. But I was concerned for civilian matters. I am not a commander.”

Geneva-Okasha bowed, smiling politely. Fezimet blinked a few times, and then relaxed.

“Well, I can’t expect a [Doctor] to understand military matters. I see the issue. Yes—you’ll have an announcement. We’ll do it later today!”

The [Doctor] in question exhaled slowly in relief. She closed her eyes.

“And the lockdown?”

Fezimet smiled.

“Obviously, that’s a bit too far. But I will order the [Healers] in the city to take orders from you. I think that’s the best compromise. Don’t you?”

Geneva’s head snapped up. And Okasha was too slow this time to stop her retort. Siri covered her face with one hand.

 

—-

 

“There is a small illness running through our city. And other cities! It’s known as the Yellow Rivers disease—and apparently, it spreads through the horrible pus. Not just sex. We have the situation under control, but there are precautions we need to take. Now, I have The Last Light of Baleros here to speak about it. Miss Scala?”

Daly saw Geneva standing on the podium in front of the crowd. He saw the [Doctor] arranging her notes. Talenqual’s citizens were staring up at her and Fezimet in the announcement square.

She did not look happy. She’d protested Fezimet wanting to gather people with an infectious disease running rampant. She didn’t like his wording, either, as her tone made clear.

“…The Yellow Rivers disease is a growing epidemic in Baleros. It may already be travelling to other major ports in the world. It spreads via sex—or any contact with the infected pus or other liquids to orifices. That means nostrils, mouths—anyone can get it. Using a healing potion will only make the disease worse.

The crowd murmured. Geneva went on.

“It can be prevented.”

“Absolutely it can! And anyone who is ill should visit Miss Scala’s clinic.”

Fezimet slithered forwards to shout reassuringly. Geneva glared at him.

“…But I am convinced this disease is already present in multiple cities. And spreading through red light districts. Brothels, and then from person to person. To remain safe, you must wash your hands or claws with soap before eating. Do not touch your face, eyes, mouth, if you can avoid it. If you think someone is ill—”

“Shit. She looks exhausted. When does she sleep?”

Daly cursed as he and Edima looked up at Geneva. She was indeed pale, and there were rings around her eyes. The Dullahan looked worriedly at Daly.

“How bad is this disease, Daly?”

“At the moment? Bad. According to Geneva, it’ll get worse. At least Fezimet’s giving her control of the [Healers]. They can’t use healing potions.”

Which was entirely the problem. No one in Talenqual was happy with the pronouncement. The people looked to Geneva, the Last Light of Baleros as a source of reassurance, but the [Healers] weren’t so sanguine.

“If we cannot tell if someone is infected, what do we do? If a Centaur is lying on the ground, with a broken leg—”

“Set the bone, clean the wound, and let them heal naturally. Use anything but magic!”

Geneva snapped back. Thirty minutes after her speech—which had taken thirty minutes of repeating instructions about how to contain the Yellow Rivers disease—she was arguing with the [Healers]. They looked discontent.

“But that will take months! Without a potion—”

“Even a drop makes the infection worse. Do a drop test first. If the potion has no visible effects, they are infected. And they have to be quarantined—”

“And what about the broken leg? So they’re sick with a broken leg and ill? And we can’t use a potion? Surely there’s some medicine. I hear someone had wonderful success with a poultice of Sage’s Grass and—”

“It doesn’t work.”

Geneva snapped at the Lizardwoman [Healer]. The woman looked affronted.

“How do you know?”

“I’ve tested it.”

“Well, my friend says it worked on—”

“It does not work. Nothing works on this disease so far except keeping your patients hydrated, clean, and rested! There is no magical cure. A poultice will only make things worse or do nothing!”

The [Healers] murmured, discontent, doubting. Geneva scowled at them. Idiots! They relied on magic. They didn’t know the first thing about germ theory. She saw one of them raise a hand.

“Okay, I understand not poultices and potions. But I have some lovely magical crystals that—”

The [Doctor] slammed her hands on the table. The [Healers] fell silent. Geneva Scala breathed in, slowly.

“There is only one way to treat this illness. Listen closely. If you suspect someone of being sick, perform a drop test with a healing potion. Only then—”

 

—-

 

Some people listened. All the [Midwives] Geneva talked to were much more receptive than the [Healers]. They promised to take care—especially if the mother was in childbirth. They’d call for her to operate without potions if need be.

The Yellow Rivers disease was spreading. Geneva saw the signs everywhere. Closed brothels, or ones operating and advertising the condoms and that they’d been checked by The Last Light. The plague hadn’t spread yet.

But it was going to. That was how it worked. That was what ‘exponential’ meant. Only, who knew that word in this world? And it was going from port to port since Fezimet wouldn’t close Talenqual, let alone the other cities.

“We need a cure. I’m sorry, but I need you all to pull longer shifts. I’ve got some more volunteers—[Midwives], more of our company. But I need to come up with a cure. Fezimet has —graciously—ordered some of the lower-level [Alchemists] to find a penicillin substitute. But making sure it works without serious side-effects will take time. I need to split my attention between testing and the clinic. I will come here every day, but you will all be in charge.”

Geneva gave a speech to her [Nurses]. All nine of them stood in front of her as she stood. Somewhat unsteady. They nodded seriously. Geneva wobbled.

“Thank you, sincerely, for everything. Anyone not working can go rest.”

That came from Okasha. Geneva sat down as the others filed out. The clinic had six more cots in it. And Geneva had just paid for the building next to it—a shop—to expand her business. The owner had sold her the rights. The [Shopkeeper] had been terrified of the illness anyways and Fezimet had ‘insisted’.

Geneva was too tired to worry about the ethics. They needed the room. She sat down. Was the world…spinning? She only realized someone was talking into her head after a few seconds.

“Geneva, you’re been in charge and awake for nearly nineteen hours! Give me a turn. You’re exhausting yourself again! There’s all this ick in your system—you keep trying to make too much stomach acid as well! You need to rest. It’s been over a day since we slept!”

Okasha was worried. Geneva jerked upright.

“I’m—fine. It’s not your time off, Okasha. We don’t have time for that.”

I didn’t ask for that. I just said—

“My Skills are nearly recharged, Okasha. I’m doing the rounds. I can rest afterwards.”

Geneva got up. She looked around, muzzily. Maybe it was time to sleep? She’d use her Skill, then walk to the company, sleep for six hours. Four? That should do it.

She was just getting up when she heard a commotion outside the clinic. Geneva poked her head outside. And she saw a crowd of infected people arguing with Aiko.

“Let us in! We need The Last Light’s help!”

A Centaur was arguing with Aiko, pointing at an infected sore on his arm. He wasn’t badly off; nor were the others. Geneva recognized some of them. They all had minor symptoms. Aiko was trying to bar the door.

“We cannot take you all! Geneva will see you! Please—hello, please wait! We cannot—”

You can’t not treat us!

Someone called out. Geneva was hurrying towards them when it happened. Someone pushed Aiko out of the way. She went down with a cry. Geneva heard her glass mask break.

Aiko!

Blake saw and rushed forwards. But the crowd of patients rushed forwards, going for Geneva. She shouted. Aiko was being trampled! They were—

 

—-

 

Two hours later. Geneva Scala was still awake. She looked down at Aiko.

The young woman had cuts on her face from the broken glass mask. The clinic was being expanded next door; Geneva heard one of the [Builders] begin to knock the wall in. She sat, feeling Aiko’s head.

Despite the glass shards which Geneva had been forced to pull out manually—without painkillers—Aiko’s face wasn’t healed. No healing potion had been used.

She had a fever.

“Our suits didn’t work properly. Or she was infected when she was trampled.”

That was Blake’s conclusion. Geneva just shook her head.

“The incubation isn’t that fast. We didn’t use a potion; she was already sick. The suits aren’t perfect. We knew it was a risk.”

“You’re not sick. And you’ve treated the most people.”

“I have a resistance Skill. But I’m at risk, still. So is anyone else. Let the staff know. Aiko will be under my care. It’s early-stages; she wasn’t badly hurt. She will be fine.”

Geneva looked up. Blake looked at the cuts on Aiko’s face. The Yellows River bacteria ate away at open wounds. He hesitated, and then adjusted the glass mask on his face.

“I’ll let the others know. I’m staying.”

“Thank you.”

Geneva just sat there. Looking at her friend. Aiko had been the first [Nurse]. Now, she was breathing heavily as sweat beaded on her forehead. Geneva had administered a sleeping agent; she had that at least.

Everyone, stay back! If you are sick, you have to take care of yourself! Anyone with serious symptoms will be treated! Do not approach!

A voice bellowed from outside. Geneva looked up. It was Daly’s voice.

The Bushrangers were standing outside of the clinic. They had arrived to break up the mob and were now standing guard. They had their crossbows out and loaded. To get the others off them, Daly had shot one of the sick patients through the leg and his team had used force to pull the others off her.

He was standing outside when Geneva exited the clinic. She looked at him.

“Daly.”

“How’s Aiko?”

He turned to her, worry in his eyes. Geneva shook her head.

“Her wounds aren’t serious. I’ve applied my Skill; the cuts may scab over before…the bacteria begins to mortify the wounds. Why are the Bushrangers here?”

“As security. Fezimet will send some of his [Guards] tomorrow. We’re here tonight. We’ll trade off in shifts.”

Geneva stared at the crossbow the Australian man was holding. A bolt was loaded, although the safety was on. Daly saw her look.

“Desperate people, Geneva. We won’t fire if we don’t have to, but people need to see us.”

He hesitated as he met the [Doctor]’s gaze.

“I know you don’t like the idea. But sometimes [Doctors] need people to guard their backs. Or manage difficult patients, idiots, and so forth.”

She looked at him. And her temper boiled over. She was tired. And Daly had injured one of the ill people badly enough that they were now in one of the new cots. She leaned forwards and hissed at him.

“And what is the powder for?”

The adventurer’s eyes flickered. He looked at Geneva.

“If the idiots bring War Walkers. There are some people who’d slaughter saints, Geneva. You know that. Look—let’s not talk about it now. You need rest.”

“Not yet. Don’t touch me. You’ll get infected.”

Geneva jerked back. Her protective armor moved as she walked back inside the clinic. She was sweating too, from the heat. She sat back next to Aiko. And kept working, ignoring the voice in her head.

 

—-

 

“Stop. You’re not well, Geneva.”

Three more hours later, Geneva was checking patients at the door to her clinic as the Bushrangers admitted them one by one. Okasha was pleading with her. Geneva had stopped listening.

“Next!”

A young woman said something outside. There were complaints, but the Bushrangers didn’t let anyone in. A woman came from the side, through the clinic.

“I said, no one enters that way—”

Geneva shot to her feet, angry. She saw Paige, without the protective gear, standing in the center of the clinic. She didn’t approach Geneva, who had some of the infectious material on her armor. Geneva opened her mouth, but someone else spoke for her.

“Paige! Talk some sense into Geneva!”

It was Okasha. Geneva closed her mouth with a snap. Paige nodded.

“I’m going to do just that, Okasha. Geneva—you need to sleep. You’re dead on your feet and you’re compromising your own systems.”

“I’ll rest…later. I need to keep checking people. Keep them calm.”

Paige exhaled slowly.

“Let one of us take over. We can at least repeat what you told them.”

“No. I have the Skills. I can manage it. I’ll take a stamina potion.”

Geneva shook her head a few times. Paige opened and closed her mouth. And then the [Engineer] glared.

“Geneva, let one of us take over. Rest! You know, we can help too. We might not be [Doctors], but if you tell us what to do, we can try. You don’t have to stop the entire Yellow Rivers plague on your own. You don’t have to be the actual Last Light of Baleros.”

The [Doctor]’s head jerked back.

“I never said that.”

“No, but you act like it. We’re not idiots. We can take over. You need. To. Sleep.”

“Not yet. There are patients waiting outside. I’ll—set up a second inspection station. But put some gear on! Training someone to always be here is a good idea. But give me two more hours. I can use my Skill on Aiko again…”

Geneva began to turn back to call for someone else. She had to keep working. This was a crucial moment. Sleep? She could sleep once people were calm. Once Aiko was stable. She could not lose anyone. She—

Something was wrong. Geneva wasn’t moving. She tried—and realized her body had locked up.

“Okasha? Something’s wrong.”

Paige is right, Geneva. You need to sleep. I can’t let you do this to yourself. We’re going to bed, Paige.”

Geneva got up and began to walk to the changing room. The [Doctor] spoke.

“No, we’re not. Stop that. Okasha? Okasha.

A voice whispered in her head.

“I’m putting you in the box. This is for your own good.”

Geneva shouted, but it was internally.

“Don’t you dare, Okasha! No! Don’t you d—”

 

[Doctor Level 34!]

[Skill – Disease Detector obtained!]

 

—-

 

Geneva woke up with a start. She looked around, saw daylight shining into her room. Only—the sun had gone backwards in the sky.

How long had she slept? The [Doctor] began to scramble out of bed.

“Okasha! What did you do? What did you do?

She shouted. There was a yawn in her head.

“Morning, Geneva. We were asleep. Wow, is it tomorrow? We must have slept for over—”

The woman shot out of her bed. She looked around wildly.

“You put me to sleep? What did you do when I was out?”

The Selphid’s voice was defensive.

“Nothing! You just went to sleep. That’s all. I told you, you were being unhealthy. But you didn’t listen.”

“Never do that again! You have no right when I have patients that need tending to!”

The Italian woman snapped. She looked around. She was in her underwear. Okasha had changed her clothes, put her in her private room. Geneva began to reach for her clothes, tug them on.

Hey! I’m living here too! Your body was failing, Geneva. You need to sleep. I can’t keep doing this. Don’t ignore me! We need to work together, okay? You leveled up, didn’t you? I bet you did! Geneva!

The [Doctor] was cursing. She had to get to her clinic, check on Aiko! She reached for her socks.

And her hand wouldn’t move. Geneva Scala froze. Then she sat back and sighed. Her mouth moved.

“Okasha?”

“Yes?”

The Selphid replied with Geneva’s voice, altering it slightly. Geneva had to wait for her to finish to respond.

“Stop taking control of me. I have to go to work.”

“Oh yeah? Well, perhaps you could thank me for looking out for you? I have to help too.”

“I—thank you?”

“Yes. And agree that you need sleep. Every fourteen hours. Agreed?”

“If there’s a patient—”

Let the nurses handle it! Or a [Healer]! But that’s the rule. Understand?”

“I—can’t agree to that. I’ve sworn an oath.”

Geneva’s hand rose and jabbed herself in the chest.

“Well, that oath doesn’t involve killing yourself. Those are the rules. If you don’t agree, we can sit here.”

The woman’s mouth moved for a while. But she didn’t move. At last, she spoke in a strangled voice.

“Fine. I agree.”

She smiled for a moment.

“Good! Then we can go.”

Geneva didn’t move. After a second, the [Doctor] spoke again.

“Okasha?”

“Where’s my ‘thank you’?”

“…Thank you. Please let me go to work.”

“See? Was that so hard? You can be polite! And so can I!”

The body began to move as Geneva willed it. Slowly, she reached for her socks. Okasha went on, inside her head.

“You don’t appreciate me. I’d just like to be thanked for the hard work I do. Is that so much to ask? I should have veto rights as well.”

“But it’s my body.”

Geneva replied slowly. Okasha’s pause was long. Geneva’s mouth moved as the Selphid replied.

“You mean, our body.”

 

—-

 

The Yellow Rivers disease landed in First Landing, Lailight Scintillation, and two Terandrian ports in three more days. Geneva knew because she was listening.

Or rather, Okasha was. The Selphid listened to gossip during her four hours off. Which now occurred every day.

They had negotiated. Okasha had stopped the bargaining on that point. Four hours, each day was ‘her time’. Of course, she let Geneva make suggestions.

And all ten hours Geneva got before they had their mandated sleep was spent at work. The plague was moving faster, so she was at her clinic, consulting other [Healers]…

Talenqual was not part of any of the Four Companies’ lands. It was, like many areas, under a company’s control, but semi-autonomous. Oh, it had treaties with larger companies, but it was ruled by Fezimet.

And the illness had hit this region of Baleros. Now, it was spreading by sea. And land. More cases were appearing in other cities and after incubating in brothels, it had begun to do exactly what this kind of epidemic—no, a true pandemic now—did.

Spread faster and faster.

The list of Geneva’s patients had been under a hundred people a few days ago. Now it was over three hundred. The [Doctor] was meeting with Fezimet again, to reassure him the situation was still under control. He was still considering a lockdown, but had told Geneva he preferred another city to do it first. It was ‘bad for trade’.

Geneva Scala was writing a letter to a [Healer] in a neighboring city, Bolandus. The Dullahan [Mayor] there was a lot more alarmed than Fezimet had been and had reached out via the best [Healer], who was Level 37, to Geneva.

She had some good ideas. Healing crystals actually did help fight the bacteria. Mainly by accelerating the body’s natural systems and not the bacteria. That had surprised Geneva, but the [Crystal Healer] was also open to all of Geneva’s treatment ideas. They were corresponding, trying to create a chamber where the most ill patients could be housed. The problem was simply that there were too many cases and not enough hands.

“I need more [Nurses]. But—the suits aren’t working.”

Geneva put her head in her hands. Blake was sick now, too. Aiko was recovering, but Geneva had seen the Yellow Rivers disease in him with her new Skill. And two more of her [Nurses] had early-stage symptoms as well.

She hadn’t gotten sick. Because she had resistance Skills. Two of her staff, Priya being one of them, had the [Lesser Resistance: Disease] Skill. But two nurses?

They needed two hundred. But no one was willing to volunteer outside of the United Nations company. They were afraid of the illness.

“Hey, relax, Geneva. You’re doing the best you can. This [Healer] is working hard, and that [Mayor] is listening. And I’m not sick. So—Selphids don’t get sick. Hire some Selphid [Nurses].”

“I don’t think the bacteria can infect you, Okasha. That’s true. But there are only a handful of Selphids in Talenqual.”

Geneva shook her head. She munched down on a nali­-stick as her quill glided over the page. Delicious. She chomped it down as Okasha replied. She was a lot more vocal these days. And she demanded to be heard.

“I’m going to put in five more hours at the clinic after this message, Okasha. And then check on the cultures.”

“Mm. I dunno, Geneva. You seem stressed. I think you should take a break. Hey! Let’s visit Xeppal! You can check out the brothel, make sure everyone’s healthy…and then we can have some fun.”

Okasha replied with Geneva’s mouth. She took control of it so they could have a dialogue. Geneva paused and thought.

“I—really feel like I need to work, Okasha.”

“Well, I vote against. Your health is important, Geneva.”

The [Doctor]’s heart beat steadily. And her stomach wasn’t tied in a knot. Because Okasha was there, blocking those natural reactions. Geneva was calm. And she even grew excited at the thought of meeting Xeppal.

“Stop that.”

Geneva spoke to Okasha. The Selphid stopped. But Geneva was worried. Because she didn’t feel worried. Even that was a biological response.

“Okasha. I really would appreciate it if you let me get to work. This is really important.”

A sigh inside her head. Her hand reached for another nali-stick.

“If you insist, Geneva. I suppose I can let you. But I’m taking five hours tonight. Deal?”

“…Deal.”

“And?”

“Thank you, Okasha.”

Geneva bit into the nali-stick, and savored the taste. So sweet. So good.

Her mouth froze mid-chew. Geneva caught herself reaching for another nali-stick. Good? When had they started tasting good? They hadn’t always tasted like this. Had they…?

“Okasha. Are my taste buds—different?”

No. Even a Selphid couldn’t change them. Geneva thought.

“Okasha. Did you level up again?”

She heard a voice in her head. No—more like a giggle.

Maybe. Have another nali-stick.

And Geneva did.

 

—-

 

It reached a head on a good day. A glorious day.

“Miss Geneva Scala? I have a sum of coins from…the Maelstrom’s Howling company. They’ve sent you gold and they want to know if you’d be willing to travel north. To…visit them and consult about this plague.”

The wide-eyed Courier stopped in Geneva’s clinic with a letter of credit to the nearest Merchant’s Guild. Geneva, who was used to letters from other cities and [Healers] by now, hesitated.

“Maelstrom’s Howling? One of the Four Great Companies?”

“Yes, Miss. And you’re the Last Light of Baleros, right? My name is Timashi. It’s an honor to meet you.”

The Centaur Courier ducked his head. Geneva blinked at him.

“I wasn’t aware people knew about me. And that…title is an exaggeration, Courier Timashi.”

The Centaur tossed his head.

“Oh, I know. Names are always like that. But the herds—pardon me—my people talk about you. A Human of honor. You saved my people’s lives. More than once.”

She looked at him. And remembered two Centaurs she had saved, both in times of war. Geneva nodded slowly.

“It’s a delight to meet you, Timashi. And—I don’t know if I can travel, but I’ll think about it. I can certainly correspond. We’ll put the gold to good use. Excuse me? Can someone take the…letter? My suit is dirty.”

“I can! Excuse me, thank you.”

A Lizardgirl hurried over in her suit of gear. Geneva nodded gratefully to her. A few more [Nurses] had volunteered since the plague had spread further. Well—the United Nations company was growing. Daly had recruited some more adventurers, even a Drake and Dullahan.

“Thank you—Miss Ullia?”

The Lizardgirl bowed slightly as she took the letter carefully. She stared at the Courier and her eyes flicked to Geneva; awe, no doubt at one of the Great Companies making a move.

“I also have a letter from the Forgotten Wing company. More gold; and an invitation to meet as well.”

“Thank you. As I said, I’m quite busy…”

The two Great Companies named were closest geographically to Talenqual, so it made sense they were worried about the illness. The gold would go to good use; Geneva had expanded her clinic twice. She was planning on an actual hospital. But she needed staff; she could entice workers who wouldn’t volunteer with gold, but she wanted people who would volunteer.

“My pleasure, Miss Scala. And if you have any deliveries, I’d be happy to take them at a discount.”

The Courier smiled at her. Geneva smiled back.

“Thank you. Perhaps we could get a drink tonight? If you’re staying in the city?”

She gave him an admiring look. The Centaur preened slightly as they did under attention.

“Well—certainly! I could stay the night.”

“I’ll be off work in two hours. Perhaps we could meet at—”

Geneva smiled, agreed to meet the Centaur, and bade him farewell. Then she lost her smile.

“Okasha.”

What? He’s nice. I think he’s nice.

The Selphid slyly retorted. Geneva crossed her arms.

“We don’t have time for this. We—”

She saw Ullia, the Lizardgirl, coming back over.

“Excuse me, Ullia. Can you tend to the patients? I need to…think for a moment.”

“Of course, Doctor Scala.”

Umina bowed and watched Geneva retreat into her office. Then she whispered into the little short-range speaking stone.

“Marian! Marian! Maelstrom’s Howling is making moves! The Professor was right!”

The voice came back, frantic.

“I know! Dead gods! I thought this was just a lesson, but maybe the Professor sent Kissilt and Cameral because he thought we needed backup! I’m trying to investigate—I’m going to be pulling these Bushrangers around! I’ll tell Kissilt not to break our cover. That fathead nearly gave it all away when he saw me! Just keep observing!”

The Lizardgirl nodded. She saw Geneva close the door to her office, but she hadn’t figured out how to tap the office yet. Nor had she figured out how to convince Geneva that she wanted to meet the Titan of Baleros. But she would.

Inside the office, Geneva Scala sat down. She spoke, very slowly.

“Okasha. I do not want to get into a relationship with Timashi. Even for a night.”

“But I do. What if we flip for it? Huh?”

The [Doctor] produced a coin. Geneva shook her head. Her voice was quiet. But she had to say it. It was time to say—

“Okasha. I am not comfortable with being with Timashi. Even if it is ‘your time’. I am not—willing to do this.”

“But it’s our body, Geneva.”

Okasha’s voice was reasonable. Friendly. Geneva began to shiver. And stopped.

“Okasha. I think it’s time to talk about our relationship. This is my body. I’m grateful for everything you’ve done to help me. But—this is my body. Do you understand?”

There was only silence for a second. Geneva tried to move. But then—she began to chuckle. And then laugh.

The [Doctor] threw her head back. And she stood up and laughed, spreading her arms as she looked at herself in the little mirror on her desk. And Okasha laughed at Geneva.

“Geneva. You mean, our body, don’t you? Let’s talk. I was thinking it was about time too.”

And she kept laughing.

 

—-

 

Umina listened to the [Doctor] laughing in her office. And she had no idea why. At the gold? That could make anyone laugh. Umina’s eyes had popped when she saw the donations.

But this laughter was different. And the [Doctor] was—talking to herself? Umina saw her sit down behind the closed shades. She began to edge closer, to listen, looking around to see if the other [Nurses] or patients were watching.

Then the speaking stone chirped. Marian’s voice came through, frantic.

Umina! Umina! Another huge development! Can you get out of the clinic? You have to see this!”

“What? What?”

The Lizardgirl clapped a claw over the speaking stone, looking around. Marian shouted back; she was galloping towards something.

“You’re not going to believe this—”

 

—-

 

Geneva, Okasha, sat in her chair. And she looked at herself. She smiled.

“You know, Geneva. You never appreciated me. Not once. No ‘thank you, Okasha’. No appreciation for the hard work I do. And you know what? It’s hard work. When you drink like a [Sailor], who manages your liver? When you overwork, who takes care of your muscles? Maintains your body? Me. And you just don’t know how hard it is.”

Geneva looked at Okasha.

“I’m sorry. I’m—thoughtless.”

“Oh? Like the thirty-hour work sessions where I beg you to rest? And you don’t listen? Me, stuck in here for months before you let me have a few hours to be myself? I can’t leave because you’re paralyzed.”

Okasha snapped back, poking at the mirror. She took a few breaths, luxuriating in the feeling.

“Well—it’s okay. I like you, Geneva. I really do. You’re so—caring. But you can’t take care of yourself. That’s what I’ve learned. You need me. It was a good thing we came together.”

“That I was paralyzed?”

The Italian woman’s eyes were locked on herself, unblinking. She saw her lips curve upwards.

“Not that. But it all worked out. So—yes. Let’s talk about our relationship. You know, it’s always been you, you, you. Not enough me. So I think it would be good if we were finally equals.

“I have to work. Okasha, my patients need me.”

The Selphid’s gaze turned into a snarl.

Always your patients! I’m sick of it! You’re just a…one of those machines you tell me about. You work for everyone else. There’s no Geneva. Geneva would die for them. That’s not living. You’re sick, Geneva. You’re in love with your image. ‘The Last Light of Baleros’. I’ll let you help people. But I’m drawing a line.”

“You can’t do that. This is my body.”

Our body! I help you move! You can’t do anything without me! This is our body!

Okasha’s voice rose. Geneva saw, out of the corner of her eye, the Lizardgirl hurrying out of the clinic. She felt herself stand, pace back and forth.

“This is my body, Okasha. I was born with it. Doesn’t that give me the right to choose?”

“Not with me in here. You’re a terrible roommate, Geneva. And I’m putting my foot down.”

“And if I disagree how my body is being used? What will you do?”

The Selphid fell silent. She looked at herself. And then she shrugged.

“Geneva. We’re in this together. You can disagree. But you’ll see my point eventually. After all—I’m your [Inner Friend]. What are you going to do to—stop me?”

Silence. After a moment, Geneva spoke.

“Okasha. You sound like a tyrant. Are we friends? Or is this relationship one-sided?”

She saw her eyes narrow.

“Tyrant?”

“I just meant—”

“No, I see how it is. You want me to leave? You want to not be able to move?

“No—”

“I’m doing this for us, Geneva. We’re one person. And you will see it my way. I’m putting you in the box.”

“Okasha—please—”

Geneva’s consciousness winked out. She was in [The Thinking Room]. She saw through her eyes. And Okasha’s voice whispered through her mouth. Affectionately.

“I’m going to have a lovely time with Timashi, and I’m going to eat and depending on what happens afterwards—we’re going to relax for a few hours. I’ll let you come along if you’re good. And then we’ll discuss how we share our body.”

“No. Okasha. This isn’t friendship. This is control! Okasha!”

Geneva shouted. But her body began to move. Geneva Scala, walked out of her office. She smiled and told the [Nurse] she’d be off-duty for the rest of the day. She went into the changing room, cleaned her armor, left.

She was perfectly Geneva. Okasha could mimic Geneva’s movements, her voice. But it wasn’t Geneva behind those eyes. She tried to push. Get free.

But she was in the box. And as Okasha left the clinic, she produced a nali-stick. Bit into it.

Yum. Taste that, Geneva? You see it my way. You’ll see. I’ll show you how to live.”

It tasted good to Geneva as well. The [Doctor] saw Okasha, helplessly experienced the same. Okasha walked down the street, almost skipping.

And she nearly ran into the group walking towards her. Okasha’s head turned. Geneva saw her blink. And then focused on a marching column of…

Folk. Pale-skinned. Dullahans, Lizardfolk, Humans—only one Centaur. And they were—staring at her.

Okasha froze. And Geneva saw the pale skin, the telltale signs of dead bodies.

Selphids.

“Oh—”

There was a Selphid leading them. One both Geneva and Okasha knew. Calectus, the [Honor Guard] they had parted ways with. He looked at Okasha-Geneva.

“Geneva Scala. We have come to give you aid.”

“Oh—Calectus. I mean—it is good to see you again. Why are all of—these Selphids here?”

Okasha squeaked. She looked at the Selphids. There were over two hundred behind Calectus.

The Selphid dropped to one knee. And Okasha saw many of the Selphids were wearing fresh bodies.

“Some are members of our company. But many are young. They will be [Doctors], if you will teach them, Geneva Scala. They will help manage this plague. Selphids do not grow ill from most disease. And we hope you will help us in turn.”

He gestured at the waiting Selphids. And Geneva saw the members of the Featherfolk Brigade shifting uneasily as they guarded the clinic. They looked at Calectus.

“What company are you from, Calectus?”

Okasha pretended ignorance. The Selphid gave her a long look, and then a smile. He gestured to them.

“None other than the Selphid-only company, The Bodies of Fellden.”

The Bodies of Fellden. The largest Selphid company in Baleros. Umina saw Marian watching from the background. In his tower, Fezimet grew a bit worried. Even if it was only a hundred and most aspiring apprentice [Doctors] and aid workers—

Here they were. Okasha licked Geneva’s lips. Smiling.

“Well, I am delighted to see you, Calectus.”

“Indeed. May we talk? Perhaps in private? We have reserved an inn.”

“Of course.”

Helplessly, the Selphid looked around. But the other Selphids were escorting her. And she walked with Calectus as he smiled at her.

“It is really pleasant to see you again. Um—Okasha says hi.”

The [Doctor] smiled up at the [Honor Guard]. He wore a tall Dullahan’s face. Calectus nodded at Geneva, and Geneva felt her heart racing. No—Okasha’s heart.

“Yes, Okasha. I know. I warned you. You have gone too far.”

Okasha’s eyes widened. She turned and Calectus laid a gentle hand on her shoulder.

We see you.

One of the Selphids was twisting a ring on her hand. Okasha looked at the Selphid. And wilted.

“I—I—please don’t?”

They led her into the inn, smiling, chattering away. Geneva saw the window closing.

“Okasha? Let me out. Okasha?”

“Turn off her eyes and ears, Okasha. And explain yourself.”

Okasha began to shake with Geneva’s body as six Selphids entered a private room, closing the door. The Selphid [Innkeeper] at the bar bowed them in. They looked at her, eyes full of—

[The Thinking Room] went dark. Geneva sat there, in the silence. And then—

No! No! I’m sorry! Please! Don’t punish me!

A scream ran through Geneva. She felt—something—a tugging—and then Okasha was gone. Geneva Scala lay on the floor, breathing in and out. She was lying on her side. She tried to move.

Could not. And then she saw something. Calectus, holding a little…jar. And in it was an orange, moving thing. It cried out, in Okasha’s voice.

“You have committed the sin for which we were destroyed, Okasha. The Minds will sentence you. But we will account for the need. Your…failings will not be unpunished, however. The holding-jar will be your prison for now. It is no less than you deserve.”

Calectus spoke to the wailing Selphid. Then he turned to Geneva.

“Our apologies, Miss Scala. We wondered if Okasha had given into the power. I hope we did not arrive too late.”

“No. Just in time. Don’t hurt her.”

Geneva whispered. She couldn’t move. Calectus nodded.

“We are here to help you. And we have much to discuss. But before that—Idis.”

“Idis?”

Geneva saw one of the other Selphids moving out of the corner of her eye. She felt something running down along her spine. Familiar. Calectus looked at her.

“Okasha’s replacement.”

Then Geneva’s ears went deaf. She felt something familiar—alien. Running through her. And a voice in her head.

“Oh wow.

Geneva Scala suddenly sat up. She looked around, blinked a few times. Smacked her mouth. And then she grinned.

“Calectus! It’s me! And it’s so amazing! Just like the Minds said! It’s even fresher than the newest corpse, and I feel—

She ran her hands down her body, moving every part of her. Then she caught herself, coughed.

“Excuse me, Miss Scala.”

“What…?”

There was no box. But Geneva felt/heard the second Selphid speaking through her mouth, overriding her questions.

“Hello! I’m Idis! Since the other Selphid—Okasha—was trying to take you over, I’ll be helping you move! I’m from the Minds—our leaders! They really want to meet you, Miss Geneva. And I’ll help you get there and do—whatever needs doing! I’m actually pretty strong, so you can rely on me to kill whoever tries to hurt you!”

The Selphid went on as Geneva tried to speak. She chattered away, testing out other parts of Geneva’s body.

“I’m a Level 32 [Blademaster]—and a Level 14 [Barbarian]! That’s an entire thing, but we’re here to help in any way you need! I’ll help you move and manage you—like Okasha did. If I don’t suit, we have other Selphids who’re happy to help out! I won the honor, though. The Minds thought I’d be best. So hello!”

Geneva Scala blinked a few times. She raised and lowered her hands, looked at Calectus. The other Selphids looked at her. The [Doctor]. Calectus bowed his head.

“We have great need of you, Geneva Scala. We would like to learn from you. And help you. Idis will be our link with you. And protector.”

That’s right! We can chat later, though. Calectus is bossy. Wow, can you hear me?

“Yes.”

Idis laughed in Geneva’s head.

“Amazing! I’ve never done this. But it’s incredible! So much better than a corpse! I really like your body. Is that creepy to say? That’s creepy. Anyways—hi! We have so much important stuff to do. Together, I mean.”

She waved at herself. Geneva looked at the crying Selphid in the jar. She looked around.

Help was here. Geneva looked around at the other Selphids in their dead bodies, the wailing little Selphid in the jar. People willing to help, aid workers who could replace their bodies.

At last, there was aid. Reinforcements. Military strength and people willing to learn from Geneva. Money, recognition.

Everything the [Doctor] wanted. Faced with it all, Geneva Scala smiled.

But she wasn’t the one doing it.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: Thus the poll for Geneva’s chapter won. After this, I will probably write the Maviola winning option, and then—a break for a week. That’s to help me recharge.

I hope you enjoy…no…wait…I hope the story matters to you. That’s a better way of putting it. If the story impacts, the readers, that’s what matters. I think that’s extremely important. What you take away from a story, even as much as the joy of reading it.

That’s a confused thought that might have come from an empty stomach and hours of writing, but it’s all I got. The story continues.

The art for this chapter is fittingly of Geneva. I’m featuring two artists as usual—Lire who has done a nude Relc…Erin with her glory flame, Bearclaw, and Geneva! Also, LeChatDemon who is being moved up because he did a very topical image of Geneva and Okasha. Much love for all of it; more artists have yet to be featured, so check #gallery if you want to see them ahead of time! Thanks for reading!

https://ko-fi.com/lechatdemon

 

Geneva and Okashas by LeChat

Geneva and Okasha by LeChat

 

Bearclaw, Glory, Geneva, and Nude Relc by Lire

 


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