8.51 D

It was everywhere and nowhere. That kind of riddle. Something you carried with you, the land that could be as vast as infinity or smaller than any island. Your safest home. A prison.

What am I?

No…where am I?

The longer she asked herself, the harder she tried to focus, the more difficult it became. This place was more than just abstraction or a riddle.

…The floor. The sky. What was that color? Only when she asked did she realize there were such things. That was how it worked.

So there she was. Imagine a world of antiseptic paleness. A void like that—with no limits. Not just ‘monochrome’, but with scale. Though there was little you could see until it appeared, you had the feeling of looking into infinity.

If she focused on it. And at the very verge of infinity, consciousness—somehow—she could tell there was a world apart. No, hundreds, thousands of worlds, each one different. She couldn’t make out their contents.

She stood there, in nothing. And she was not a person—at least, not one with a body. When she realized that, she had a body. Which was hers, only she could walk without assistance and she didn’t feel hunger or pain.

Geneva Scala looked around. She saw nothing—then, like a mirror, she saw a reflection of this strange reality. A reflection of her. Geneva faced Geneva in the void and gave herself the answer, just like every time, as her being scrambled to make sense of it all. Where was she? She told herself:

“I am the center of the Mind.”

Ah. And then it crystalized and all those worlds connected to her were one and the same. Geneva looked around.

“I am the mind in the Center.”

The other Geneva walked left. She seemed to step through a doorway, but she said one last thing as more figures emerged. They said the exact same thing, in unison.

“I am myself. And we are me.”

Then the [Doctor] thought, and remembered, and it began again.

 

——

 

This was how it worked. Sometimes she spoke, or thought, and got a reply. Speaking was not essential.

She forgot she needed to breathe. She didn’t need to breathe. But she did have other…

And then there was a figure. Skin pale as could be; not that the body had been fair-skinned, but that the body had been dead, and the person inside of it could only stave off decay so long.

“What do you need?”

“I need to understand…Dullahans, today. No, a multitude of problems.”

“Lay them out.”

Geneva did. It was like a giant thought-board, like she might use to study, because that was how she understood things. More figures appeared and regarded the things she tacked to the air, which hovered and explained themselves if you focused on them. Then it was multiple Genevas, explaining the problem.

“Microscopes. The foundation of any investigation has to be seeing the problem. I can’t. Can you make an equivalent? Enchanted?”

“I am looking into the differences in biology between species. Humans—comparing Humans from Earth to ones from this world. Dullahans. Selphid biology is foreign to me, but I can understand humanoid biologies a bit better.”

“The foundation of a cure for the Yellow Rivers disease is in progress, but the cure is not as effective as it could have been. Segue—”

Another problem, tacked on below it. Another explanation.

“—Magical crystals actually exist, which is partly ridiculous. But the existence of potions and crystals? No, crystals especially could create virtually costless healing, aside from purchasing the crystals. Can you micro-heal or concentrate the effects, like closing sutures made during surgery?”

The other figures were listening, dividing up, and ‘summoning’ more to deal with one problem or another. Geneva waited, because ‘she’ could only be in one place at one time. But that wasn’t as much of a problem as you might have thought.

Despite not knowing Earth, never having been born there, living there, and having had no frame of reference for a microscope…each Selphid knew exactly what she meant. Oh, a high-powered microscope with resolution that went far, far beyond sixteen magnification or even a hundred and twenty eight. To see things on a cellular level, of course.

They took something from her. Knowledge. Her understanding. That was the genius of it. There was no uncertainty of words or intention. It was all clear, because they saw exactly what she thought.

Thought could still be limited, of course. There were dangers, flaws in thinking. But…this was powerful. Geneva kept listing each item, going down and down the list.

“I need to verify beyond reasonable doubt what the Wasting entails, first. There are too many variables. Allergy? Poison? Magic—I can’t detect magic, but perhaps see its effects? Some kind of basic biological degradation? Radiation? Lack of nutrition. Inbreeding. Part of that is also seeing if some Selphids are immune or don’t suffer the effects.”

“Ah. Hence the investigation into bodies.”

Geneva turned to the first figure.

“Yes. Is something different about a Selphid that, say, only lived in a Dullahan body all their lives? Do Selphids need to change bodies? Or is the change linked to some kind of issue in itself? Transmitting collected toxins, diseases? Selphids are in great danger of passing on or exacerbating interspecies illness.”

That last part alarmed some of the listeners, and nearly three dozen appeared. One of them, who was wearing a half-Elf’s form, turned his head to address the others.

“We must consider that. Selphids fall ill to other species’ diseases more rarely, but we are not immune.”

“Agreed. What can be done now, though?”

“Merely bringing it to awareness as a possible issue is enough. This Mind shall open a channel to the other Minds?”

It was phrased as a question. The speakers each stood around, many wearing forms from Baleros—that was, Human, Dullahan, or Lizardfolk—facing one another. Geneva heard their voices as if they were speaking perfectly clearly next to her. Some ‘spoke’, as in they moved their mouths to the words, yet others didn’t bother or had forgotten to. She still heard them plain as day.

“Agreed.”

It was a vote. No one bothered to raise their heads, but Geneva sensed the affirmations from the group of nearly forty. Five dissents. Instantly, a group of eighteen moved off.

This time, she saw them vanish. A collection of eighteen individual minds, entire worlds of thought, knowledge, and understanding, moved away from her. Focusing. Communicating with the outside world. Like watching a hole open up in the skies and seeing them pour through—and beyond that, in some version of interstellar cosmos—a distant galaxy apart.

Another Mind.

Geneva was in the center of this Mind. So the people who appeared to help her were all one…being? Collective. She saw another Geneva appear.

“I still don’t understand Selphid culture and…natural abilities. The Mind is a collective, a psychic creation. This goes beyond any science I know, but on a biological level…how? Are the effects of the Mind applicable in any other ways? What other abilities does a ‘Mind’ have and how does that intersect with classes and Skills?”

One of the remaining figures addressed Geneva, smiling slightly with wry, dry humor.

“Is this beneficial to your research, Geneva Scala?”

Geneva answered truthfully. She couldn’t lie. Not in her head. It was obvious to them, even more to her.

“I would like to know. If it can help, it would be in my understanding of what I can do here, and perhaps why the Selphids are Wasting.”

At that word, something finally appeared in front of Geneva. The white space was broken up and she saw something floating in front of her, at roughly chest height.

It was…a Selphid. A Selphid, bereft of a body. Moving slightly. Writhing. To look at the Selphid reminded Geneva of unfavorable comparisons to octopus tentacles—at least in rough form—or gastropods, like a slug or other mollusc. However, the Selphid body was rather colorful, not being normally exposed to dangerous elements.

Orange blood, for instance, was quite visible running through green, yellow—even traces of purple. The Selphid had no ‘skin’, and could rapidly reconfigure itself into a network as complex as, well, a nervous system. Thinner than any wire; a being as amorphous and flexible as a slime, if not more so.

Right now, the Selphid was more like a slug. It just…lay there. Twitching. In clear distress, if not pain. Shedding parts of its body which no longer moved. It was disintegrating, bit by bit, unable to halt the disease, effect, or whatever it was.

Wasting. This was the dreaded death of Selphids, which struck their species as a whole. It did not spread like a conventional illness might; not by notable airborne factors, or even contact. At least—not from the data Geneva had been given, and the Minds had been looking into it for a long time.

That was why she was here. They had searched for a solution to this ailment for…she didn’t know how long. Millenia? Centuries at the very least; this collective, and Selphids as a whole, had done their own studies. They were not a single unified people with one base of knowledge, for all they could become…Minds.

But they hadn’t figured out what the Wasting was, or how to cure it. Slow it? Yes. But Geneva Scala’s appearance had been a surge of hope for the Selphid people, and thus the Minds had directed their agents to collect Geneva, keep her safe, and—when they thought the danger of losing her was too great—bring her here.

Geneva understood they were desperate. Selphids were not in danger of dying off now, but…

“Our lifespans are shortening. Great heroes are struck down by the disease.”

“Condition.”

She was sitting with the half-Elf Selphid, who was speaking earnestly with her. He was some kind of central personality to the Mind.

At that thought, the half-Elf smiled. Geneva had asked no question, but he understood the curiosity.

“My name was Yeque. I was a [General]. Level 43.”

“Oh.”

Was he dead? The answer was ‘no’, but why…?

“I was nearing eighty-one years. My career was strong—but hardly extraordinary. When they asked me to join the Mind, I accepted. It is an honor. Not all are asked. If I was Level 50, Level 60—I would have remained apart, unless I were injured beyond function.”

“I see.”

Geneva thought back to what the Minds looked like, but again, that was one part of her. The list of her desires and thoughts was still unspooling.

“—make contact with the United Nations company and tell them I am safe—”

“—cure for Erin Solstice still needs work. I cannot figure it out. It’s all too nebulous, too many variables I can’t work with like magic. I need to understand magic, I need—”

I want to be free.

And there it was. Geneva turned her head, and saw herself. She stood there, and the Selphids that made up the Mind looked at that last desire. Yeque raised a hand, and that last Geneva…vanished. He spoke calmly, not unkindly, but without any way for her to gainsay him. And that, of course, was the problem.

“Let us begin with bodies.”

Geneva just nodded. She stood up, and followed him into a room.

It was a room that had never existed. A patchwork made of various things she had seen—and the Selphids had seen. It looked like the perfect surgery room. Every tool she had ever used or could conceivably need was present, there was no dirt, no impediments—and the surgical table had a body opened, clearly displaying internal organs and a perfect diagram of the interior.

No one had been harmed in the making. Geneva stared at the Dullahan. She turned to Yeque.

“How can I see this? Did a Selphid…dissect a body just like this?”

He shook his head and pointed up. Nearly sixty other Selphids stood in the viewing area, looking down at her.

“This is an image made of our understanding. The perspective makes sense to you, but we share knowledge for a complete understanding. Like everything else.”

Geneva nodded. It made sense. What a unique biological development. She struggled to think of an equivalent from Earth. Oh, there were species that had a connection like this—ants being a famous example—but pooling knowledge? A mental gestalt like this meant that a Mind had expertise from specialists on multiple levels.

Like…consider a Selphid who devoted their life to being a [Blacksmith]. They were naturally an expert in metalwork, and if they had made weapons for a living, they were the equivalent of any high-level [Smith] of any species.

But in the Mind, you also had [Warriors] who had held weapons and understood the importance of balance, the nuance a [Smith] might lack. Those two points of view combined and, in theory, made for a being that could create something neither individual could.

In theory. In practice, the Minds were hardly omniscient and acknowledged that. But it meant…

Geneva studied the Dullahan body. She traced a finger across nerves, tendons, inspected bones and found they were much like Humans. And yet, as she had suspected all along, they had a strange reliance on armor to replace their skin. Like a hermit crab.

However, she had known that from her work saving Dullahans to begin with. What Geneva found that was new was this. She bent low and stared at something.

“…This isn’t normal. I’ve seen this in some Humans too. But it’s clearly…what is this?”

Another Selphid appeared in a flash and Geneva saw a female Dullahan—no, a Selphid inhabiting one—step forwards.

“This? This is how they can detach limbs and move them separately. This is important. If it is severed, a Dullahan loses that ability. A limb detached and cut might simply die.”

Geneva stared down at her first entry into this world’s biological database. She had no encyclopedic term, so the common term she’d used to explain it to Ken, Daly, Paige, and the others was…

“Magical sinew.”

The Selphids nodded, pleased. Yeque turned to Geneva.

“We call it galas-muscle. We define valuable bodies in that way. The formation of galas in high-level people happens with every species.”

“Show me.”

Geneva was entranced. She saw another body appear, and walked over to another surgical table and saw a Human warrior, face mid-grimace, lying there. She looked as normal as could be from the outside, but once Geneva opened her arm…

There was something clearly different about the muscle fibers. Even without a microscope or other tests, Geneva could see it. Or perhaps that was the Minds giving her some insight. Either way—

“This explains it. It’s not just Skills. Skills…bend the laws of physics. But this explains why someone can be stronger without visible muscular changes.”

Geneva felt dizzy—or would have if she had a physical body here. Was she looking at a logical step in every species’ evolution? If you replaced the body with this kind of muscle, was it simply an upgrade? Why did bodies change like this? Was it now reliant on magic as a kind of nutrition?

She turned back to Yeque.

“And you can see—sense these muscles in valuable bodies.”

“Yes. They degrade slower, have greater ability—hence why we value them so highly. Only a few people have them.”

“How?”

Four Selphids appeared. Each one wearing a different body. One flexed her arm and winked at Geneva; she was a copy of the Human lying on the surgical table.

“High-level warriors.”

A fussy young man pursed his lips, although it didn’t change the fact that someone had slashed open his throat with a dagger. The Selphid had made up for that with a fancy scarf.

“Nobility pass along galas in bloodlines, sometimes. It is not a guarantee, but even children have innate formations if their parents were strong.”

The next Selphid waved a hand. She was a Naga, a Lamia with bright red scales. She smiled.

“[Mages] have it slightly differently. They can use magic to form it, and they develop magical pools.”

The last Selphid was most unique, at least to Geneva. Because he looked distinctly…

The Drathian bowed formally, and spoke quietly. No—was it the Selphid copying the man?

“You can also develop galas by consuming a specific diet. Training—in their way. But Drath allows us to take their bodies very seldomly.”

Fascinating. All this took place so quickly—yet Geneva knew she couldn’t dwell on it forever. Even so, this brief lesson confirmed a number of things for her. She muttered, almost to herself.

“I wonder if you could transplant that kind of muscle. We can do it on Earth—but the ethics…”

Instantly, she could see it. Someone taking muscle, tendons, even tissue, and creating a super-soldier. She regretted thinking it, because it meant the Mind saw it too. The Selphids looked at her image.

“Intriguing. But beyond our capabilities. Geneva Scala, focus on your studies.”

Geneva turned back to the body, but she did not miss the ‘for now’ that lingered in the air. And she would have argued ethics, morality, or tried to remove the idea if it were possible.

But that wasn’t how this worked. Geneva turned back to the Dullahan.

So each Dullahan had a type of galas, but it was not like the kind that developed in high-level fighters. This clearly enabled their ability to remove their heads and limbs and control them from afar.

“Is it possible for me to see how the muscles work when active?”

She expected the answer to be ‘no’, but, to her surprise, the Dullahan’s body suddenly came alive. Geneva backed up as blood began to move through veins, tissues stretched and contracted, muscle and bone shifted—

It was unearthly. Horrifying, fascinating—the kind of lesson any scientist or doctor on Earth would pay dearly to see, because this was how a body moved. Not a computer simulation, but the real thing. Imagine how much orthopedics could be moved forwards if she could only…!

She saw the Dullahan’s left arm vanish. And then appear a few feet left. Geneva saw the magical muscle moving, flexing, in perfect synchronicity. And—she gasped.

“So it is a portal. No—a magical connection!”

She could see blood pumping smoothly through the veins, despite the physical separation. Enabled by the Dullahan’s unique biology. This…this was a lesson she could spend weeks on.

And yet it begged the question. Geneva’s mind snapped to the obvious instantly.

“…How would you know what a Dullahan’s body looks like? This is a living body. Not a corpse.”

She looked up at the sixty-some Selphids present. She saw the Mind take a lightning-fast vote, but she already knew the answer. And because she knew—from her experience with Okasha, Idis—one of the Selphids, the one that looked like the Dullahan that Geneva was inspecting, stepped forwards.

“We were lovers. He let me in. Though it was wrong. I was condemned. I…joined the Mind rather than face exile or death.”

The Selphid met Geneva’s eyes. The [Doctor] looked down at the Dullahan. So that was how she could learn like this.

But more flowed through the simple words. A deeper meaning. Geneva was in the Mind. The Mind was also in her. And they gave away more than they expected. After all—a foreign presence to the Mind was all but unheard of, and only in ancient memory.

A realization struck Geneva.

The Minds allowed criminals, Selphids condemned to death or who had committed transgressions like this, to join them in order to understand their perspective, gain their understanding. They were careful not to create scenarios where dangerous personalities reigned supreme because that would alter the Mind itself.

Not all Minds were alike. This one had been created with the express intent of researching the Wasting disease, unlike a Mind devoted to strategy for Selphids as a whole, or magic. Hence Geneva’s interaction with this Mind in this way. It was willing to do whatever was necessary to save its people, and had led the decision to take her.

A flash of insight. The other Selphids saw Geneva learning this, but couldn’t stop her. They tried to pull back, but Geneva was staring at the Dullahan lying there. The Selphid who had been his partner was named Bethi. They had been lovers; or else the deception was in her very mind. She had loved him, and their forbidden relationship had been discovered by a [Detect Life] spell cast on a hunt.

He had been executed. She had mourned him.

Geneva was falling. Not physically, or even in this artificial reality. She was becoming too connected with Bethi’s memories. This Dullahan had been named Revorthe. Geneva suddenly knew that he would scratch at his neck when he was lying.

No—she suddenly saw him doing it. She remembered how he did it. What his voice sounded like.

“She is too close. Pull her back.”

Yeque was speaking, but the Mind was struggling with itself. Geneva…Bethi?…was just thinking. She could see the body.

This is what it felt like to move it.

She saw the Dullahan man looking at her. She heard the tenor of his voice, surprisingly light. She could hear him.

This was what it felt like to love him. Touch, how it felt in your heart when they fought. This was—

For a moment, Geneva was Bethi, a Selphid. Her mind spun and fell and was two people. One person. Geneva felt the artificial zone beginning to shatter. She saw herself, hovering in the void.

“I am Geneva. I am the Mind. I am—”

 

——

 

Her name was Idis. Her classes were [Blademaster] and a bit of [Barbarian]. Her job occupation was generally killing people.

Nothing fancy. No pretense; she knew she was a [Warrior]. She had participated in long campaigns, one nearly eight years long where she fought Centaurs in a huge battle for territory—that was where she had gained her [Barbarian] class.

Right now, she was wearing the body of a Human. Not a good one; certainly not a Centaur’s body, which generally required two Selphids to operate. Just your basic degraded corpse, fit to move, not fun to eat with, or do anything else. At least the vocal cords still worked.

“…Do you have any [Archmages]?”

“Fish.”

The Selphid opposite her muttered. Idis hesitated.

“I think it’s ‘go fish’.”

“I’d rather go fishing. Are you sure the Humans played this game?”

“I think it’s meant for children. They played it a few times. Although…I think they were drinking.”

The second Selphid rolled his eyes. He was wearing a much fancier Minotaur’s body, very fresh and preserved, and he sat back and cast his hand of cards down.

“In that case, Idis, I will wait until we are off-duty to drink and play this game.”

Idis was disappointed.

“Come on, Wettle.”

Weteleq, who was nicknamed Wettle, folded his arms and refused to pick up the cards. Idis was about to suggest they play a more traditional card game when someone spoke.

“To attention. Something is happening with the [Doctor]. To the Third Mind.”

Idis and Wettle shot to their feet, knocking over the card table so fast they sent the cards flying. Six more Selphids all leapt to their feet. Idis whirled and saw the speaker.

“Calectus? What’s—”

But the [Honor Guard], who wore the body of a huge Dullahan wearing steel armor, was already pounding down the hallway. Idis was after him in a flash, and ran through the inner compound of the Minds’ fortress, one of the few places where Selphids were in full power, albeit hidden.

A Gathering Citadel.

But not a traditional palace. That would be notable, and Selphids did not want other species learning of their bases. So unlike Lizardfolk temples or traditional palaces or forts, this one looked like a basic hill. In fact, people had camped on top of it before; it was just one hill in the middle of Baleros’ least inhabitable jungle areas. A secret base for their species.

Not unguarded, though. Idis’ guard unit was one of several that flooded the corridor, heading towards a specific room. Idis saw Selphids taking up positions in the checkpoint designed to hold off attackers—but Calectus motioned her specifically to follow him into the Minds’ chamber.

“Inside.”

Me?

“It’s the [Doctor].”

Idis had been with Geneva second-longest of all the Selphids, so she didn’t argue but stepped into the room that held a Mind. Even now—she looked into the room and gasped.

“What’s happening?

To Selphids, it was strange. To outsiders? Idis had heard some thought of it as horrific. And part of her couldn’t blame whoever saw it for being a bit overwhelmed.

A Mind was this: an orb, or vaguely rotund mass, of Selphids. Selphids without bodies, joined together. Moving, because they were individually alive, and if the body died, so did their part of the Mind—all suspended in the air over a small basin. Water and food could all be placed below and would drift upwards and be consumed.

The Mind floated in the air—the Third Mind, the one devoted to the Wasting. One of six in this Gathering Citadel. Each one had a room like this.

Right now, the Third Mind was clearly agitated. Each Selphid was moving at speed, and Idis saw Calectus hesitate.

“[Guardian] Ressk. Orders?”

A Drake Selphid turned; he did not wear armor like Idis and Calectus, but robes. Nevertheless, he was in charge, and Calectus was the [Honor Guard] pledged to defend the Minds and their interests. The Selphid flicked out his long tongue.

“Hold, Calectus. You—Idis.”

“Yes? Guardian?”

Idis snapped to attention. One of the highest-ranking Selphids who was not a Mind looked at her, and she felt a wave of apprehension. But all he did was point.

“Go to Geneva Scala. She is breaking her connection with the Third Mind. Something is wrong. She will be unable to move.”

Idis saw there were four stone platforms that let someone approach the Third Mind floating in the center. In front of the platform closest to her was Geneva.

She was…hovering in the air. Eyes closed. Grimacing. Idis hesitated.

“Do I go over and…will I do something wrong if I enter her?”

Ressk paused as Calectus gave her a quiet glare, though he acted much like the Dullahan body he inhabited. Some Selphids took on the characteristics of their host bodies.

“Third Mind. Will Idis harm the [Doctor] by approaching and inhabiting her?”

He spoke to the floating Mind. Idis heard the reply—but not with her atrophied ears, one of which had fully rotted off. She heard the reply in her mind.

“She is too deep. Bring Selphid Idis forwards. We are breaking the connection. Do so now.”

Ressk nodded and pointed a finger. Idis was already hurrying forwards. Geneva floated to her, and Idis caught her in her arms. She began to leave this body as the Third Mind’s agitation began to calm.

Geneva Scala began to stir. Her eyes opened, and her breathing caught. She tried to move her legs and couldn’t, but Idis bridged the gap in her nervous system. She felt Geneva’s slow, almost sleep-like rhythm change as her body ‘woke up’. The Third Mind released her, and Geneva sat up, with Idis simply playing helper.

Here was the final fact that most species had no knowledge of. The secret of the Minds. Not only did they have the amalgamation of Selphids who joined them—a huge honor and sacrifice. Not only did they lead the Selphid people, but the Mind was a rarity in its abilities that only a few species could copy.

Unfortunately, one of them being Crelers. The Mind could think at you and you would hear it. Also—as the Third Mind floated in the air? Idis was aware, and amazed, as always. Because…

It was not floating due to magic. Nor had Geneva been floating with it due to magic. Or even a Skill—at least, not a Skill alone. Geneva Scala had a word for it.

“Telekinesis.”

Idis whispered, in awe. She had been privileged enough to see the Third Mind four times in her life, a huge honor for someone not an [Honor Guard] or [Guardian], or the caretaking staff. She had never seen the Mind use its powers, even for something as mundane as lifting Geneva.

Now she saw water floating upwards, gently falling so the component parts of the Mind could consume it and some fruit. A literal banana peeled itself in midair.

There was a pause. Idis saw the banana mush itself, but something exited the banana.

…A bug. A crawling beetle. It went flying across the room and the banana was divided up. Idis heard the thought.

Infested banana. Please perform quality checks.

Ressk, hugely embarrassed, bowed his head and apologized. Idis heard the thought too. She whispered in Geneva’s ear as the [Doctor] slowly rose to her feet.

Telepathy. Or is it that psi…pshi…?

“Psionics, Idis. That’s the umbrella term. Telekinesis and telepathy are component parts.”

Geneva Scala spoke, her mouth dry. Idis pumped a bit of saliva out of her glands and checked her condition. Fine. Muscles a bit stiff…Idis began to activate them. Geneva Scala stood, as Calectus and Ressk approached.

“…will perform more inspections, with greatest apologies, Third Mind. What shall we do with Doctor Scala?”

Let her perform research/rest as she desires. Mental backlash from joining has been mitigated. We will begin again tomorrow. We will communicate with other Minds and continue to pursue her projects.

“As the Minds will it.”

Ressk offered a hand to Geneva. She stared at it, and Calectus. Slowly, Geneva walked past the two, though Idis needed to help her. She’d forgotten to breathe as well. She forgot these things for a while, lost in the Mind.

“I…will go to my rooms. Then conduct my own studies.”

Ressk nodded. Calectus followed Geneva as the alarm was called off. The Selphids on guard-duty watched Geneva as she walked towards her quarters. Idis held her ‘tongue’ until they were a ways away from the Third Mind. Then she began to chatter.

“Are you okay, Geneva? What happened? Did you make a lot of progress? Are you bored? You’re a bit hungry. Want to eat…”

She trailed off as Geneva Scala stopped, one hand on the wall of smooth stone. The [Doctor] spoke.

“I’m physically fine, Idis. I…experienced someone else’s life. I don’t know if I can say it was unpleasant. It wasn’t at the time. Now? I was someone else and that is horrifying. I learned so much. But I am still your people’s prisoner. I want to leave, Idis.”

The Selphid went quiet as Geneva straightened. Her hand tensed on the wall.

“I want to leave. They can make me forget that, but only when I’m in the Mind. Do you think this is right?”

“I…I’m just a single Selphid, Geneva. I have orders.”

Idis didn’t know what to say. Nor was this the first time Geneva had said it. The [Doctor] almost laughed; Idis felt the muscles move, but it never came out.

“I wanted to trust you, Idis. You know, this is just like what Okasha did.”

“No. It’s not. It’s for our people. They’re not taking your body. It’s…”

Idis bristled. Okasha had committed the gravest crime of a Selphid. Geneva began to walk.

“Really? Explain to me how it’s different.

Idis struggled to explain it. Aware all the while that she was enabling Geneva to move. That Geneva was de facto a prisoner and Calectus had told Idis the [Doctor] was by no means allowed to leave, though she had free rein of the facility. And why not, with Idis in her? Geneva Scala replied and Idis realized she now dreaded the moments Geneva left the Third Mind—after their daily meetings, which lasted from an hour to four at most.

She had thought they were becoming friends. Now, the [Doctor] was angry. And Idis…was starting to run out of reasons she shouldn’t be.

 

——

 

There was a saying that people who spoke English had. ‘When it rained, it poured’. That was the kind of phrase that confused the heck out of non-native speakers sometimes. Like ‘blue’. Just…blue. As a word. Why did it have to be a color and emotion?

Ah, but the phrase was not a unique sentiment to English. There was an equivalent expression in Kenjiro Murata’s language.

“雨が降れば土砂降り.”

“Hm?”

The young man instantly bowed his head deeply.

“I am sorry, Second of Armor, I was merely remarking upon the weather.”

He regretted the slip. Especially because the Second of Armor was an important Dullahan, and they did not appreciate slips in manners.

Yet it seemed like luck was on Ken’s side, because the Dullahan did not take offense. Or perhaps it was Ken’s class and Skills.

[Diplomat]. [Excuse My Failings (Twiceover)].

A very curious Skill, but his latest one. It didn’t mean Ken could flip over the table between the two and walk away without consequence. However, it did smooth over minor slips.

And this was a moment that required such a Skill, because the Second of Armor, who represented the Torum Legion, had made time to meet with Ken.

He glanced out the window now, as both knelt in a style very familiar to Ken. The Second of Armor glanced out the window at the light drizzle.

“Ah. You will forgive my lack of understanding. I understood you were of the…United Nations company. That there were Drath’s people among them is a lapse in logic. I must greet you again, Kenjiro Murata. I am glad also; you must be familiar with such formalities.”

So saying, he indicated the square table and light foods placed there. Ken eyed the dishes. Oh yes, they were familiar. But the next moment caught him off-guard.

“…您好. It is my honor to greet you far from home. I hope I have said that correctly?”

Ken hesitated, but kept his face smooth before smiling.

“Very well, Second of Armor.”

He was rewarded with a small smile from the Dullahan.

“Ah, this is good. We even have dishes of shared interest.”

Rice, in what Ken thought had distinct traces from Japan, especially in the way it was laid out with appetizers and chopsticks placed…he was so off-guard he nearly dropped his, although he waited for the Second of Armor to begin.

And yet…the two words would have confused a speaker who wasn’t familiar with either language. But for anyone with a passing understanding of at least one…they would have been struck.

Because Ken had spoken a phrase from his native homeland, the Japanese equivalent of ‘when it rains, it pours’. Whereas, the Second of Armor had mistaken his words and offered a very, very simple greeting in another language.

Nin hao, from Chinese. Yet Ken would swear this was more suited for a Japanese meal; they were even sitting in seiza, which was a very Japanese way of sitting, legs under your knees.

Something called to him. Some greater revelation about Drath, this world, and its interaction with Earth. But Ken had to focus.

“You have very graciously accepted my request, Second of Armor.”

“I hope you will now call me Zentel.”

Another good sign. The Second of Armor smiled faintly, and the invitation to use his real name was exceptionally good. Of course, if Ken had been a Dullahan it would have been amazingly forward, but the rules were not the same between Dullahans and non-Dullahans.

Actually, from a strategic perspective, Ken would never ask a Dullahan to negotiate with other Dullahans unless they were exceptionally high-ranking and had armor of some high-grade metal. They were more forgiving with him.

“Thank you, Lord Zentel.”

“I am not a [Lord], though I suppose my rank is equivalent.”

Ken hid a smile.

“Forgive me, Lord Zentel. I did mean your equivalent.”

Another smile. Zentel knew he was being flattered and appreciated it. Ken smiled back as well. This was what he was good at. Getting along with people, and he had refined that ability since he had first come to this world.

“You are very gifted in the ways of negotiation, Diplomat Kenjiro. Or Ken, if I may call you that? Ah, good. I am also very sympathetic to your company’s plight. You see, the Torum Legion has also suffered the Yellow Rivers plague. A few cases, spread by air. Not by…any actions among our soldiers.”

“It is a very virulent disease, Second of Armor.”

The Dullahan, whose skin was a beautiful brown where it seemed to meld with a rare, expensive wooden armor, relaxed slightly. Suggestions of impropriety among the Dullahan soldiers would have been a touchy spot.

“Yes. So we are doubly grateful that the Last Light clarified this disease spread via air. Indeed, her name was why I heard of your request; I fear it would have been lost in the many people seeking to speak to our company.”

Ken ducked his head, listening, but with a bad feeling in his stomach. It was true. Even now, her name opened doors.

Geneva Scala. The Last Light of Baleros. The United Nations company’s claim to fame…

“Missing. Which implicates a company you will not name. That the Torum Legion may…clash with?”

“Violence is not the first answer I would hope to reach, Second of Armor.”

The Dullahan put down the cup he’d been sipping from and sighed. He adjusted his head, on the little stand with a cushion where it sat. Sometimes Ken wanted to do that. Just pull off a body part and relax.

“Wisdom, Diplomat Ken. Yet it may be an inevitability. I fear you know what I will say. If Doctor Scala would agree to train our soldiers, if we were given certain assurances…but I have heard she is adamant. Nor can I blame her, given her involvement in that—disgraceful battlefield. But you see, I would not lightly clash with The Bodies of Fellden.”

Ken winced. The Second of Armor knew. It wasn’t hard to figure out, granted. But…

“If a Selphid company were to have…taken the Last Light of Baleros, Second of Armor…”

“It would be a disgrace. If true.”

The Dullahan returned quickly. He sipped from his cup again, looking uncomfortable.

“Yet The Bodies of Fellden are the supreme Selphid-company. The only Selphid-company. I do not mean to imply the Torum Legion would fail to face them in the field. Yet we must be practical. If you had concrete proof, and other companies…”

Ken spread his hands out helplessly.

“Proof is difficult to obtain, Second of Armor. As for companies, there must be a first one. Would you not consider it for the name of Geneva Scala?”

The Second of Armor hesitated, and Ken knew the answer before he spoke. So there it was. He ate and drank and made polite conversation about his ‘homeland’—revealing he was not from there specifically, which would not equate a lie, and the Second of Armor asked about the United Nations company, expressed sympathies for the loss of their City Runner whom he had no information of, and promised Ken he would help if they had…something.

Something to offer. Some proof. A location of where Geneva was. Lacking it?

Her name opened doors. It had opened a lot of doors because Geneva was extraordinary. Ken walked outside, shoulders drooping. But now Geneva was gone, and so was Luan.

It was a rainy day. It had been for a while.

 

——

 

The United Nations company was doing well.

No, really, it was.

…Geneva Scala was gone. Luan was gone. Some people thought he was dead. Paige was sure he was not. So was Daly, and the Bushrangers kept taking assignments close to the places where he might have been, but it was a lot of jungle and, frankly, if he hadn’t made it back to civilization after…

No. He wasn’t dead.

Paige was the [Engineer] of the United Nations company. One of the leaders, for whatever that meant. No—it meant people expected her to have a handle on things. Now that Luan and Geneva were gone, the soul really was her, Daly, Siri, Kirana, Ken, Aiko…

The original group. The ones who’d seen battle. If you thought you were hot shit, and you hadn’t seen a monster, you could, at your peril, ask someone to tell you what it was like seeing companies fight. Or volunteer to join the Bushrangers for a mission. Or even just a training run.

That tended to kick most people out of it.

“Hey. Does anyone know if Scorpo’s got a job?”

Paige winced at the name. She was running down the ledger and saw Filip grimace. He was a [Scribe] and had been helping her do bookkeeping.

“…You mean Hudson?”

“Yes! But he writes Scorpo here. And he says he’s putting in coppers…but I think we’ve got our missing funds.”

The Polish [Scribe] glowered.

“Bastard.”

He was normally fairly mild-mannered, but he and Paige had just spent nearly an hour going over the entries to figure out why they were short on money. They’d found a few missing entries, and it wasn’t a lot of missing money, but every coin counted now that their two biggest earners were missing.

“I’ll have a word with him.”

“You could…ask Dawson to kick his ass?”

Filip suggested mildly. He didn’t like Scorpo. Paige didn’t like Scorpo. And to be fair…maybe even Hudson didn’t like Hudson because he’d tried to rename himself Scorpo. Start a new life, be the person he always wanted to be.

“He’s fourteen, Filip. Besides, if I had to kick his ass, I could do it. Or Kirana could. I’ll be nice. It’s tough. He’s not used to having to have a job.”

“Everyone helps. Maybe he can cook?”

“If he says cooking’s for girls or not fun…yeah. We’ll work on it. Let’s see about Sc—Hudson, and if he’s the culprit, we can close the books on this one.”

Filip nodded and stretched. Paige rubbed at her back, but really, she wasn’t that stiff. They had actual padded chairs, not the basic wood ones—some of which Daly had made and were about as comfortable as a rock.

The United Nations company now occupied four houses, two side-by-side, and two more across the street, also joined. Paige was in the ‘oldest’ one, which was headquarters. They had one area devoted just for leisure, and the other two were to sleep in—though there were beds in every house. Woe to anyone who wanted to sleep in the rec-house, though.

Rent was low, and they had put money into a number of projects, including comfy chairs. You might be surprised, but it had been voted on fast. At first, Paige had thought everyone would vote for ‘magical items’, but when you got people used to living in this world, acting as adults, even if they were as young as fourteen or thirteen, you began to develop certain…tastes.

Like—a couch. Take your magic wand and shove it somewhere else. Give me a couch so I can nap after working all day. Of course, magic went hand-in-hand with that, but sensible magic.

“Paige. Paige. Help! The cooling charms aren’t working! Some idiot had to try and put them together and I think it broke the enchantments.”

One of the younger members of the company ran up as Paige was heading downstairs. She closed her eyes.

“Who? Kendra, get me my crossbow.”

The girl grinned uncertainly because Paige did have one of her custom-made crossbows in her room.

“I think it was Lorenzo.”

Lorenzo! If you broke the charms, I’m taking it out of your pay!

Paige shouted, and some of the voices from below went ‘oooh’ and started calling similar insults, since it was getting warmer in this house. She heard an angry reply from the Italian man.

It wasn’t me!

Paige came down the steps as Kendra slid down the banister—the thirteen year-old girl from the United Kingdom stopped as Lorenzo stormed over. He began arguing with Paige in accented English—he was still learning—that he could not be the culprit.

Lorenzo, one of the Italians that Daly had found. Paige, an Australian from the original group who’d joined Gravetender’s Fist. And here came Kirana, who had been found after they’d escaped that deathtrap, the [House Manager] from India.

Not that they were their countries, but it was something to remember. They had different backgrounds, and it puzzled the Lizardfolk who just saw Humans. There was some kind of irony about that…but Paige was too busy interrogating Lorenzo.

Kirana, who was smelling of papadums, emerged with an exasperated look. She heard out the first beats of the argument as the two sweated, turned, and frowned.

“Kendra did it.”

I did not!

The girl squeaked and hid behind Paige. Which turned out to be a mistake because Paige whirled around.

Kendra!

The girl protested, without knowing one of Kirana’s Skills she’d obtained recently was [Spot the Culprit]. The perfect identity-Skill for squabbles over lost electronics, people neglecting chores, and so on.

The offender was soon punished, by Lorenzo the falsely accused, Kirana, and Paige, with cleaning the toilets and scrubbing dishes—not on the same day—for three weeks. Kendra burst into tears and Kirana stopped Paige before she could shout.

“I will let her cry. You go.”

“Thanks, Kirana. Uh—could you ask Sc—Hudson if he was lying about his new job?”

Kirana nodded. Paige felt guilty passing off the work, but there it was. Kirana wasn’t necessarily nicer than Paige, but she was better at not blowing up.

…She was nicer. And Paige had less patience with tears, but she forgot—Kendra was thirteen. She’d appeared, lost, by herself, and had been stealing with a gang of friendly Lizardfolk kids when Ken found her.

Not everyone hit the ground running. In fact, almost everyone went splat at one point. It was why the United Nations company was working. Why it was going well. They could prop each other up.

It was going well. They had a bank of coins. The Bushrangers were able to afford gear, Paige was developing better crossbows, they had allies in Gravetender’s Fist, a small but growing company led by Quallet Marshhand. They were levelling in their respective classes, they found more people from Earth now and then, and Geneva’s clinic and her trainees could still help people, even if she was gone.

…But she was gone. And so was Luan. And some days it felt like now they’d lost their way and everyone was searching for Geneva. The attention had dried up, which was good; Geneva wasn’t being besieged by requests from powerful groups to meet with her.

“We don’t matter. And that’s a problem and a good thing right there. It ain’t perfect, but I’ll tell you what—doing something that puts us at risk isn’t the solution either.”

For a second, Paige thought someone was reading her mind. Then she looked over and saw Blake arguing with Myron and Nicola and Andel. Paige slowed.

“What’s not a good solution?”

“Here comes the hammer. Hi, Paige.”

Nicola muttered a bit too loudly and guiltily looked away. Blake waved Paige over.

“Nothing.”

“It sounds like something.”

“It’s not happening, but people are talking about it.”

Blake clarified after a second. He scratched at his hair and looked at the other three. None of them wanted to explain, but Paige had a feeling she knew what was under discussion.

“Who’s agitating for us to pull up now? And where are we going this time? Wistram? Or to find the Singer of Terandria? High-five Joseph? Or is it Rémi?”

Nicola shuffled her feet. Andel coughed.

“It’s just talk, Paige.”

“Right, and it just takes one person going to the Mage’s Guild…listen, guys. I know it’s not perfect, but I do not want to have to ask Daly to post someone to watch the guild.”

“So you’re going to keep us from going there? That’s tyranny!”

Myron flushed, getting angry. Paige snapped.

“I’m not keeping you from doing anything, Myron. That’s not tyranny, that’s us not making stupid moves that can’t be taken back without everyone voting on it.”

“You mean, us voting and the leaders getting to say what’s happening.”

“Oi, Myron. Watch it.”

Blake reached out to slap Myron’s shoulder. Paige bit her tongue.

“This doesn’t come from nothing, does it? What was it this time?”

“Cockroaches. Someone left a bunch of food out and the window was open and then…”

Paige shuddered. Talenqual was a port-city, but it was still firmly set in the tropics, or maybe sub-tropics, of Baleros. And the problem with a world of magic was that you got magical bugs. Invisible mosquitoes, teleporting cockroaches…

Okay, she hadn’t seen either one, but you heard stories! And the regular ones were big, disgusting, and a lot of people had never seen a proper giant bug before.

It was clearly time for a rousing speech. And since Kirana was busy, Paige did her best. She looked at the four of them and pitched her voice so some of the other people dozing or sitting waiting for a turn at one of the gaming laptops could hear. Gaming, incidentally, had infected almost all of the United Nations company. When there was a limited amount of electronics but nigh-infinite power if you could afford or cast the [Repair] spell, you quickly did everything you could do with said devices.

“Look, guys. I get it. It’s not perfect. It’s not great. I know we have to work, but listen—there’s no guarantee it’ll be better at any of those places. There’s danger out there. Remember the phone message?”

She got a few nods, a decisive one from Blake and one from Nicola, but Andel frowned.

“How would we know it’s not good if we don’t look?”

“I didn’t say we won’t look! We’re investigating. We will find a good base. Maybe it’s Talenqual but we cast anti-bug spells everywhere. Maybe it’s Izril, Terandria, Chandrar—”

Blake interrupted.

“Not Chandrar. Too fecking hot. Did you see the documentary by that Rémi Canada guy? Positively baking.

Paige rolled her eyes.

“Maybe Wistram. Maybe Terandria. Just—give it time. We’re making life better. We’re levelling up!”

Andel muttered.

“Some of us have cool classes. Some of us are [Fishers].”

Paige exploded.

“Then get another job! Practice sword fighting or magic! We’ve got a spell tome!”

Blake patted her on the shoulder as everyone went quiet. She struggled to reel her tongue in.

“Sorry. Listen. It’s hard. We’re looking for Geneva, and if we don’t find her…”

Her voice trailed off.

“…We’ll make a change. But we’ve come a long way, believe me. So let’s not do anything rash, huh? Give it time, bring it up, and I promise you, we’ll send scouts the next time Ken returns from his trips if we don’t get any progress there.”

That was altogether likely, and the reminder of their past sobered the others. They gave her that wary look, even Blake.

I was there. It sounded…stupid. Like a badge of pride or something, but she had been on a battlefield with the others. Sometimes Paige wanted to throw them there—not to kill them or traumatize them, but just so they got it.

It can get far, far worse. The dangers in this world exceeded belief.

“Yeah. Sorry, Paige.”

Andel muttered after a while. She awkwardly nodded. Set off to…find Scorpo? Work on another mechanical invention?

The United Nations company hadn’t invented football. They hadn’t become the Singers of Baleros. They were not [Reporters], and while they had one member who’d shaken things up, The Last Light of Baleros, only Luan had come close in fame.

Oh, everyone had ideas. But it was amazing how little expertise there was. So a lot of it went to Paige.

‘Hey Paige, why don’t you invent something from home? What about…a bicycle? Or how about a pump? Or…or electricity? That’d make a lot of money, right?’

Oh, sure. Why hadn’t she thought of that? Hold on, Paige would just get her expert [Smith] friend who could machine gears and pay for all that steelwork. Electricity? No problem! You could make a basic battery, and a lightbulb wasn’t that hard. It was only blown glass and a custom filament she had no idea how to make. To be fair, it wasn’t a bad idea, and the pump for wells and such wasn’t bad either!

She had actually invented a basic pump. Only to have Lizardfolk laugh at it and show her an enchanted well pump that auto-pumped water.

Ken had thought he could sell the pump to poorer villages, but he’d warned her they would copy the design. That was the issue. Anything you could make, someone could probably steal. And—Paige had nearly flipped when she saw a bicycle being advertised in the Mage’s Guild.

Solar Cycles, Esthelm, Izril.

She was in an inventions-race with other people from Earth who stole the ideas that would make money, damn them!

…But they were in the same spot. And to be fair…Paige hesitated, then went to the basement of the United Nations’ headquarters. She opened a reinforced iron door, and carefully used a [Light] spell to illuminate everything. No fire was allowed anywhere near this place. Everything was sealed up, and she had emergency extinguishers—buckets of water—and never put enough of the stuff together unless she was finishing it. Then they went straight into bags of holding.

The [Blackpowder Engineer] sighed as she looked at the morning’s work.

“[Daily Resource: Blackpowder].”

She carefully pointed a finger, and a small shower of the stuff fell into a glass container. She stared at the creation—the alchemical creation, technically. That was the term Daly used to explain it in the rare cases his team employed it.

Gunpowder. Or at least, the precursor to it all. Yes. Paige’s hands moved as she went for the outer shell of another, well…bomb. Explosive. They had long since stopped trembling. Especially since she’d gained [Lesser Explosive Resistance]. She didn’t know if it would save her up-close, but here it was.

The United Nations company might be smaller than some groups of Earthers who’d come to this world, especially given their numbers. But they had not fallen behind. They had brought something big here. But using it?

Paige did not want to use it. She still remembered Geneva and Daly’s rift. But she’d continued and now she had a thought.

Ken couldn’t get allies to find Geneva. He kept trying, and they kept trying to figure out where she was. They had no knowledge of her, or allies beyond Quallet. But if they found out, if Geneva signalled them…

Paige slowly poured pieces of stone into the outer casing. If they found where Geneva was…

Everything wasn’t going well. They needed Geneva back. They were lost without her.

 

——

 

Summer took a long time. Technically, the summer break was over, but since the Professor was gone, classes were on a kind of hiatus.

No one said the Titan was missing, but if you had to be told outright…and the regular teachers had cut their curriculums too. Perorn, for instance, had cancelled all her classes, so the students on break were advised to extend their stays. Refunds were issued—and that was the least of the Forgotten Wing company’s problems, frankly.

But something that no one said outright was this: when you took your summer break, or the winter one, to visit family and go home, you were expected to come back better.

A student who lazed around and didn’t try anything for months? They had missed the point. When you had free time, it was your chance.

Thus, you could look at Wil’s group as an example of what students should do. Go out, gain valuable levels and experience in the field. Dying was optional.

In the same way—Perorn glanced at her notes. What had they called it?

“Kismet Securities? Dead gods and trench hoof. That’s not egotistical at all. I should have expected nothing less, I suppose.”

“Plaudits that they have any success at all. Do you have any records of their work?”

One of the top [Strategists] in the company that Perorn actually respected, a Selphid [Battle Master]—a unique specialization that combined other focuses—leaned over. They were named Hetoque, and in charge of planning individual offensives.

“Here. Look—this is a sampler they’re offering. A redesign on a city they consulted with.”

The four students, Kissilt, Cameral, Umina, and Marian, had re-worked the city—Izrilian, Human, apparently—to change the standard design of, well, ‘put a wall down around your ever-increasing radius’. Some cities did have proper planning, but many were simple geometric shapes.

A giant square. A circle, or semi-circle that made use of a natural backdrop like cliffs. All fine…but when they designed things like walls or gates, they just left it as a sheer, vertical drop to deter most monsters and bandits.

Which was fine—if you didn’t think you’d ever run into a high-level monster or person.

“This city was struck by the Bloodfeast Raiders. No relation to the Bloodtear Pirates.”

“I’ve heard of them. Ah—so they redesigned for…”

Perorn smiled faintly.

“High-level attacks. See? They’ve at least paid attention in class. Economical too; nothing foolish like demanding twice the cost in stone to justify bastion-level defences.”

The city was called ‘Celum’. Kissilt and his team had done well. Rather than trying to turn the city into a fort and demanding a huge cost in construction and high-level [Builders], they’d simply made an attack as nasty as possible for a group of high-level individuals like the Bloodfeast Raiders.

In other words, you looked at it like this: you could not stop the enemy from coming over the walls. They could jump, fly, or sneak past. Then they’d blast the city with [Fireballs]. Same with monsters.

So—you made it untenable for them to do so without reckoning with the defenders first. The recommendations were simple but telling: build a covered wall, with no exposed battlements. Interior crenellations would face in both directions. If someone gained entry into the city, they’d be watching for arrows in their backs the entire time. In theory, someone could just blast the walls down, but if they could do that, you had more problems.

Let’s say the raiders knew this, though. They’d naturally enter the walls through a breach they’d cause and slaughter the low-level [Guards]. That’s what they’d try, and probably be laughing, charging through the cramped corridors, blocking arrows and low-level spells.

…Right up until the loaded spike trap hit them with enough force to kill even a Gold-rank [Warrior]. Or maim at least, if you didn’t see it coming. It was just a bent piece of wood.

Lizardfolk tactics. Perorn’s right foreleg twitched at the memory. It was a nightmare, entering their territory when they set those things up in swampy water, or in a forest. You could take hundreds in casualties just trying to march forwards if you didn’t prepare.

So, an interior death-trap that even adventurers would sweat at. Carefully-designed fallback points. Perorn reached the end of the free sampler.

“Not bad work.”

“I think so. I see Cameral’s work most in this. He does like his defensive lines.”

Hetoque smiled faintly. She was wearing a Human female’s body today. Perorn smiled too, but then lost it.

That was one of the few things you could smile about right now. They turned back to listening to the briefing from one of their peers—but it wasn’t something they needed to hear, really.

The trick was getting her to understand. A giant Squirrel-woman was perched on her chair, eating a block of brie coated with jam. In theory, it was probably tasty. In practice? Perorn wondered which depraved animal ate it like that.

“…escalating pushes from our northern territories. You see, Commander Foliana? Commander Foliana?”

The leader of the Forgotten Wing company, one of the world’s most famous [Rogues] and assassins, Three-Colored Stalker, opened her eyes and stopped chewing. She transferred the food to one bulging cheek.

“I wasn’t asleep.”

Perorn sighed. She waved a hand, and the exasperated Naga, one of the six [Strategists] present besides herself, meant to replace Niers’ ability to lead the company, if temporarily, let her trot forwards.

“Foliana. We’re trying to explain the situation.”

She got the uncanny gaze of the [Rogue] full-force—three colors, pink, yellow, and green, each one occupying a part of her eye. She sat in the war council, which was set with a long, simple table of wood.

That was the only simple thing about Niers’ war council. He had maps, both physical and magical, ready to project almost every region of Baleros.

At any given time, the complete layout of their forces could be observed, a huge section of territory or allied interests across the lower-middle of Baleros. There was a list of treaties and ongoing contracts with cabinets ready for inspection on the exact wording.

Dossiers on the commanders in charge of each grouping, the breakdown of soldiers and supplies. Multiple encrypted scrying devices. Pride of place of it all, of course, was their smaller command deck on the table where the Fraerling himself could orchestrate the room.

It was empty, and the room was uncannily vacant compared to normal. Ordinarily, if they were planning a huge offensive, it would be filled with officers and experts in their fields. [Generals] and [Strategists].

But now it was only Foliana and the seven [Strategists]. The rest were all out of the citadel.

Putting out fires.

“I am not a [Strategist]. Mm. I’m bored.”

Foliana took another bite of her strange snack. Perorn folded her arms and glared. She could do that; few people would take her to task, but Perorn knew Foliana.

“You need to pay attention. Niers is gone.”

“Not dead. He’ll be back.”

Two huge eyes blinked at her. Perorn looked around and the other [Strategists] gave her a look saying clearly that she had to hammer this into Foliana’s stubborn head. She had never quite understood why Niers wanted to be second-in-command. Then again, he liked being the real power behind the throne, so to speak. But it did make it hard to reason with her.

“Yes, but in his absence, we are under attack. By whomever hired Peclir Im…and from outside forces.”

“It’s probably not even organized. Simple logic on behalf of whomever is after us.”

That came from one of the two Dullahans present. Perorn nodded at him.

“Exactly. The other Great Companies know he’s missing. Everyone knows he’s missing, so everyone’s piling on. What’s that saying about that?”

Foliana pursed her lips.

“…When you see someone being mugged, join in and kick them while they’re on the ground?”

Perorn hesitated.

“Not the expression I’d use, but it’s damned applicable here. The Iron Vanguard is threatening our fortresses on their border. Maelstrom’s Howling is watching them since they know they need us, but they’re edging up on our most valuable areas. Damned greedy Centaur vultures.”

The other [Strategists] and Foliana all looked pointedly at Perorn, the lone Centaur in the room. She glared, pawing the ground.

“What? It’s true. Not a shred of foresight in most of their heads. Listen. Foliana, we have small companies trying to bite at us, thinking we’re distracted. We’ve pulled every group we can to hotspots, keeping things under control.”

Hence the vacancies here. They even had students acting as officers. Foliana pointed to the magical map, glowing with danger zones. She turned to Foliana.

“You see what they’re doing, don’t you?”

Please see. It wasn’t hard. If you couldn’t figure it out after all that, you’d fail out of her entry-class on the spot.

“Bleeding us. Taking forces away from the capital. Here.”

Foliana answered grudgingly after a minute of waiting. Perorn exhaled. She saw the giant Squirrel reach for a glass of wine.

“You could just say it. Mm. I’ve been here forty minutes. Numbers. Places. Just say that part. Niers does.”

Niers isn’t here. I am asking you for judgement, Foliana. It’s clear as day they want to divide up our strengths. You are the only other head of the company. If someone strikes us here…I have a list. Which investments do we drop? We can evacuate forts, keep an army in reserve. If you’re not comfortable, I have it ranked by my priority.”

Foliana saw the other [Strategists] tense as she was presented with the list. And, again, she barely looked at it.

“Mm. That’s all our territory. We took that fort. I was there. I stabbed someone in the foot for it. That village mines gold.”

“I know, Foliana. But we can’t keep them all. We’re leaving ourselves exposed.”

Two huge eyes blinked.

“Just like they want.”

“Yes, so…”

“Keep them all.”

That was the last thing the Centaur wanted to hear. She trotted forwards. The problem was…

This campaign had to be Peclir’s initiative. He understood Niers and Foliana, that damned traitor. And Foliana was possessive.

“I know it’s our territory. We can win it back. But if we don’t want to be vulnerable here…”

“They’ll take our forces anyways. Mm. It’s a plan. Plans usually work if they’re good. Don’t bother.”

Perorn blinked. That clear line came from Foliana—she still refused to look at the map, but she gave Perorn a piercing glance.

“We will lose forces. Something…mm. Something will happen. We will be exposed. Then they strike.”

“…That seems to be their plan, yes. Which means we have to safeguard you. Perhaps even consider abandoning this city if it comes to it. Though they might—”

“—Strike us on the road. Mm. Yes. They have good plans if they’re smart. If they’re not, they’re not. If they are? Doesn’t matter.”

The Centauress tilted her head slightly. She trotted back as the other [Strategists] looked worried. Foliana sounded defeatist, but that wasn’t what Perorn was getting.

“You seem like you have a plan, Foliana. Which would be…?”

“Keep everything. Lose nothing. Unless you have to. Don’t bother me.”

Three-Color Stalker sat there, nibbling at her food. Just like she’d been doing since Niers left. She’d participated in the news, disappeared to check her news sources, but carried on as Perorn tried to hold everything together.

The Centauress had resented that. Fleethoof, the famous [Strategist], was aware of her limits and she needed Niers, just as much as he needed her and his other officers.

But Foliana…she just sat there. When the last of the brie disappeared and she was licking her paws, she looked up.

“I am not a [Strategist].”

“You lead this company…”

Foliana shrugged.

“But I’m not a [Strategist]. Don’t tell me strategy things. Just do it. Keep everything you can. Let them take forces. Something else will come up. Plans are smart. Opponents are smart.”

“And when they corner us?”

Perorn snapped. And, at last, she saw Foliana’s eyes gleam. The Squirrel Beastkin raised her head slowly.

“When they reveal themselves? They always do. Then I know their faces. Then I know who they are. They die, or we die. All I have to do is wait. Don’t bother me. I’m going to eat more brie.”

She hopped off her chair and vanished halfway towards the door. Perorn saw Hetoque edge back, but the door never opened. Maybe Foliana was here? Maybe she’d left.

The room was silent for a moment. Perorn looked around.

“…You heard her.”

It was then she was reminded of the difference. No—even reassured, despite Foliana’s completely unhelpful demands. She wasn’t Niers. A [Strategist], like Perorn, like Niers, thought of gain and loss. Of where to apply strength, to retreat, how to conserve their forces.

Foliana was not a [Strategist]. She was a [Rogue]. She was the Stalker of Baleros. She…waited.

For a target. But she was waiting for the trap’s jaws to close. Perorn felt it too. Not all the coins had yet to drop.

Dead gods. If only the students could find Niers. That was the one element Peclir had failed to account for. He was alive. Or he had been, during the Village of the Dead raid. If he could return? Perorn went back to keeping things from falling apart. Buying time.

 

——

 

Geneva was a prisoner. Not an ill-treated one—at least, in terms of hospitality. She had access to the entire Gathering Citadel. She could ask for any food she wanted—not that she did—and it would doubtless be provided.

Her rooms weren’t magically bugged, at least to Idis’ knowledge. And she thought she was trusted.

The young Selphid’s career was on the rise. It should have made Idis happy. But more and more, she felt…terrible for Geneva. Yet here was the thing.

Geneva Scala was prisoner of the Minds.

Prisoner in her mind. And the problem with any escape attempt or sympathizers? With any plans, plots, or schemes?

The Minds knew. They knew…everything. The summons came for Geneva shortly after she rested in the comfortable room they had made for her.

Idis was back in her temporary body. Geneva had asked to be left to sleep for a few hours. She’d use the speaking stone if she wanted to move, but Idis had left her body while she slept. It seemed…better. Geneva hadn’t demanded it, but Idis had noticed the change in her body. Not exactly endorphins, as Geneva called them, but she’d been glad Idis had offered to do it.

She was too connected. She could tell when Geneva was upset. Feelings were chemical. A Selphid living in someone’s living body experienced feelings, albeit in a different way.

“You are becoming too close. There is a term for it. Unification. You are aware of how prisoners can be manipulated by captors?”

“By Skills and mentally? Of course. I took lessons, Guardian—I mean, venerable—um—”

Idis ducked and the staff nearly clipped her head. Ressk, the [Guardian], lowered his staff. They were training. Another honor; she was allowed to learn from him.

He was no [Honor Guard], like Calectus, but Ressk had abilities on par with the best of the Selphids here. He smiled thinly.

“Don’t stand on honorifics. I am telling you, Idis—your doubts and reservations come from your connection with Geneva Scala.”

“I—I’m sorry. It’s just—”

He held up a hand.

“The Minds hear. If it is a concern, they will inform you. I am simply giving context to why you feel this way. Trust the Minds.”

Idis tried. She tried to do her job, which was kill people, just like she’d told Geneva before she understood what the [Doctor] believed. She had a practice sword and slashed, coming in low and fast.

[Arc Slash]! A basic technique, but fast, which would bisect Ressk if she had a steel blade. He blocked the stroke—Idis wasn’t sure if that would work in a real battle. If he had an enchanted quarterstaff? She moved backwards as it twirled. He wasn’t faster than her, which was a bit embarrassing for someone of his level. But then, his class wasn’t all pure physical combat. She would hold back a bit, even though he’d said to go all o—

Idis tripped on a stone and nearly went sprawling as she leapt backwards. She cursed, and Ressk tagged her twice.

“Damn!”

The Selphid’s sword blurred in a flurry, pressing the [Guardian] backwards. Ressk kept his distance as Idis glared at the floor.

“Who left a rock in the training room?”

She looked around, but the other sparring courts were occupied and no one answered. Idis sighed. Then she blurred at Ressk. It wasn’t her Rampaging—just a Skill-enhanced leap.

She felt…slow for some reason. And he was quick enough to dodge, although he gave her a nod as she whirled.

“You are quite gifted, Idis. You may become an [Honor Guard]—or another great class. Fulfill your duties. Help Geneva Scala as best you can. You are a credit thus far.”

Idis blushed orange. She made up for it with a flick of her wrist.

“Thanks—”

A line of sharp air swept at Ressk. His eyes went wide and he blocked it. Perfect! Idis lunged left, diving at his side for the perfect killing blow—Selphids still got hurt if you stabbed up through their side and swept your bl—

She tripped, went sprawling, and Ressk pinned her with the butt of his quarterstaff. Idis blinked up at him. She heard polite clapping from some of the other Selphids, laughter, and groaned before getting up.

“Well done. You have more to learn, but we will see if you will benefit from lessons. Later. If Geneva Scala needs for more minders. For now, focus on that, Idis. I believe one of the Minds wishes to speak to her.”

Idis sat up, accepting the hand, and felt a tremor of unease in her stomach.

“I’ll go wake Geneva. Thank you for the lesson, Guardian Ressk.”

He nodded in his Drake body and Idis hurried to Geneva’s room. But before she left, she turned to give that rock a damn good kick. She looked at the training space and frowned.

It was smooth stone, no rock to be seen. She glanced at Ressk and saw him wink at her. The Selphid hurried away, wondering.

…What kind of a Skill was [Invisible Appearing Rock]?

 

——

 

Geneva Scala waited for Idis to arrive. A Mind had summoned her. So she was going.

She wasn’t sanguine. Sanguine implied happy. Geneva wasn’t as distraught as she could be, either.

She was a captive with no perceivable way out. She was being violated—and that was the language she would use, no matter how much Idis protested. This was an invasion, but she understood the reasoning. Her abilities were being employed as a [Doctor] and there was at least that.

“Sorry, Geneva. I was tripping on rocks and sparring with Ressk—give me one second. Okay! Off to the Minds. You’re rested, right? Want me to get you there?”

“I will walk, Idis.”

So she did. Idis guided her down the hallway, but Geneva knew the route. She walked down; the Third Mind was closer to the bottom of this underground fortress, but Idis stopped her as they came to one of the stairwells.

“No, it’s up, Geneva.”

“Up? But we’re going…”

“I, uh—it’s not the Third Mind who wants you. Excuse me? Which way to the Second Mind?”

Idis spoke in Geneva’s voice, and a Selphid passing them with a basket of contaminated bananas pointed.

“Up two floors.”

“Thank you!”

Up they went. Geneva was surprised. The Second Mind? She had met them all, briefly, but never spoken to one besides the Mind, the one she had associated with this all. The Third Mind.

What did another of them want with her? To do the same thing? Would they now take turns?

Everything became different as Geneva Scala realized something was off from her routine.

What was regular was this: she existed in a comfortable guest room with amenities, from a bathroom to clothing to food, but spent a good deal of her day walking the smooth, perfect stone corridors which were almost analogous to hospital walls, to the Third Mind.

To do so, she passed through two Selphid guard-checkpoints, one of which was next to Idis’ sleeping quarters. A great deal of protection in this hidden fortress. Calectus or Ressk would meet her, or another [Guardian], and escort her to the Third Mind. Then Geneva would float upwards and commune. Enter the Mind.

It was a stark place. Like…no, exactly like a research lab, really. Geneva had seen other areas where her demands, her needs, were being constructed, including the microscope and an area with surgical equipment. There was an alchemical lab, a library—all devoted to the efforts to fight the Wasting.

Two floors up, something changed. Geneva Scala and Idis walked past an arch warded with what looked like some kind of magic and heard…

Music. Some kind of incredibly heavy bass, echoing down the corridor. Geneva looked for the first Selphid checkpoint—and saw no guards. Idis reflexively covered Geneva’s ears and somehow deadened the sound Geneva was hearing.

Selphid’s tits which we don’t have! What is that!?”

Geneva walked forwards and saw a room where objects, crystals, were practically bouncing in their places. The thundering bass—which sounded like something from her world—cut off as a Selphid touched a glowing crystal, seeing her.

Hey, are you the Human?

What?

Idis and Geneva shouted back. The Selphid unplugged their ears with a bit of wax. They still shouted, a bit unnecessarily.

“Apologies! The Second Mind told me to stop playing once you got here! Did you like the music! It’s like your world’s, right?”

He looked at Geneva. She stared at the Selphid, a bit aghast to realize he knew about Earth.

“It—it’s not like anything I’ve heard. Is it a song? From the Singer of Terandria?”

That was her first instinct; some song turned up too loud. The Selphid grinned.

“I’m glad you thought so! We’re working on lyrics. But we can make our own crystals and take those…sounds. No idea how to replicate them.”

“Why is it so loud?

Idis asked with Geneva’s voice, though she made an effort to change Geneva’s vocal chords so the voice sounded different. The Selphid blinked at her.

“Oh, so as many people can listen as they want to. Sorry, we’re enchanting this room to deaden the sound and it echoes in confined spaces. The regular song crystals don’t have enough volume; Lizardfolk complain it’s only good for small groups.”

“You’re…making song crystals?”

Geneva Scala couldn’t help but be surprised. The Selphid…what was he? [Composer]? [Researcher]? [Gem Mage]? Grinned.

“Of course we are. Baleros music. Selphid music! We’ll sell the Lizardfolk crystals they can make songs with.”

Geneva and Idis couldn’t exchange glances, but they were fairly in unison.

“That’s what a, uh, Mind is working on? The Second Mind, I mean?”

The Selphid raised his brows.

“The Second Mind thinks it’s worth a project. I don’t argue. If it’ll make us tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of gold pieces each month? I’ll play music until these eardrums pop. I can always get more. Do you have any feedback on…?”

He caught himself.

“No, the Second Mind is waiting. Down the corridor.”

He pointed. Geneva blinked at him, but Idis, reminded they were supposed to be there, hastily swivelled Geneva around.

“Idis. What’s going on?”

Geneva subvocalized to the Selphid. Idis’ internal voice in her ears sounded just as confused.

“I…I don’t know. I’m part of the Third Mind’s authority. I know the other Minds have their own projects. I guess one of them’s making money.”

“So you don’t know this…Second Mind?”

Idis shook Geneva’s head slightly.

“No. I mean—I knew the Minds, and The Bodies of Fellden do whatever they say. But I always thought the Minds were all together. Most Selphids only know the Minds exist. I’ve never…huh.”

Geneva walked down a corridor and saw the pale stone change. From cut stone, it turned to…color. A bright yellow, painted onto the walls. She stopped at an intersection and saw it change abruptly at the end of the corridor where it met another. Into a deep blue, very dark.

“That’s so…colorful.”

Idis breathed. Geneva saw another corridor of green stretching out, and Selphids walking down it. They pointed her down a final section, which was pitch black.

Only then did they come to a checkpoint, where a single Selphid was waiting in front of some [Guards]. Idis waved a hand.

“Excuse me, the Second Mind asked for Geneva? Uh. Why the different colors?”

“The Second Mind’s project. Go inside.”

The [Guardian] looked…different from Ressk, and it took Geneva a moment to understand why. She had it when she saw that this Selphid wore regular clothing, no robes or staff or symbols of authority. The [Guards] looked casual too; they were watching a scrying orb and taking notes. Idis blinked.

“Project? What, coloring the hallways? I, uh—I’ll take a spare body if you have one.”

The [Guardian] raised her eyebrows.

“No need. The Second Mind wishes to speak with you both. Enter.”

“Me? Why me?”

Something stirred in Geneva’s mind as Idis squeaked and they were led into the room. She looked back.

“Those colors. It’s…color theory. There was a study for that.”

“Colors, Geneva? What do you mean?”

The [Guardian] Selphid tilted her head. Geneva tried to explain, absently.

“It’s about colors and emotion. How seeing brighter colors or the same ones affects your wellbeing. At least, I think—”

Then she entered the room of the Second Mind and stopped. Because in front of her hovered another Mind, floating, a suspended mass of Selphids. A presence in the air, one of the greatest leaders of this species.

And in front of the Mind, about, oh, ten feet tall, was something strange. A fragile, temporary construction. It looked like—no. It was. Geneva Scala stopped and stared along with Idis at the tallest house of cards she had ever seen in her life. Even as she watched, another level was being added as cards floated forwards.

Floating next to the giant house of cards were multiple games of chess, in progress. At least eighteen scrying orbs, each set to a different television network or point of view, and a pair of books were slowly flipping themselves open. The Second Mind didn’t move visually beyond its constant hovering, but Geneva felt it recognize them.

Wait. Wait. Orell, guide them forwards. I almost have it…

A card delicately placed itself on the tower. But a bit too hard, or something gave, because the entire construction began to collapse. Geneva saw hundreds of cards go fluttering down. She saw the Second Mind’s individual component parts all visibly stop for a moment, then heard a thundering exclamation in her mind.

DAMN.

The Second Mind let the cards fall, and swept them into the air and individual decks. They landed to the side, and Geneva and Idis halted as the [Guardian] bowed.

“Will you need anything else, Second Mind?”

Retrieve a chair for the [Doctor]. And food, drinks. Also, I am informed our banana stock is contaminated with beetles?

“Yes, Second Mind.”

Fetch me the beetles. And the eggs. I’ll eat them.

The [Guardian] bowed and left. Leaving Geneva alone with a far stranger example of the Minds than she had hitherto observed. No—the Third Mind was clinical. This Mind was…

Strange?

The thought entered her head, like a delicate phrase. She felt like she heard it, but it was a thought. The Second Mind seemed to regard her, slowly rotating around as if all of its ‘body’ were looking at her. It was identical in form to the Third Mind, but the paraphernalia it surrounded itself with, the clear differentiation in the corridors?

“Personality. You—are a different personality than the Third Mind.”

Yes. I am.

That alone revealed something to Geneva. The Third Mind spoke in the collective. The royal ‘we’. The Second Mind seemed animated. Individual.

Rather, I make an effort to act as an individual. To play games. To tax myself and rest. The other Minds tend towards collectivism. To survive, we must create different opinions and points of view. Each one of us is made up of Selphids we choose to accept into ourselves. Yet that is our great weakness.

The Second Mind was reading her thoughts. Speaking into her head. Geneva bit her tongue, and the Second Mind spoke again.

Then I shall apologize, Geneva Scala. I shall wait for your words rather than hear them as you think them. This is polite. The Minds have enjoyed…three…visitors over the last ten years. So I shall apologize, though that is the least of the issues binding you here. Speak. You are a guest. Speak also, Idis. This is a conversation.

Geneva saw Orell returning with a chair. Idis stammered.

“I—I greet you, Second Mind! I apologize if I do anything rude or—I’m honored to be in your presence!”

Yes…you are. Doctor Scala, by comparison, is not. Speak freely, Geneva Scala.

She realized she was sitting, facing the Second Mind. Geneva hesitated.

“I…am at a loss for words. You are not like the Third Mind. I met with you once.”

In enclave, with the other five. Yes.

“You did not sound like this, then.”

When we are together, we think as one. So you meet a gestalt of all. Here, you meet separate nuances of us. Just as a single Selphid is a personality. I am the Second Mind. Inventor. Far thinker. The Selphids who embody my personality and will are not like the Third Mind. We are in opposition, they and I.

Another revealing statement. Geneva blinked. The Second Mind waited, then seemed to conclude she wasn’t going to speak. It went on.

You have been a prisoner/‘guest’/in the custody of the Minds for nearly a month now. Your focus has been with the Third Mind, who seeks to cure the Wasting of Selphids. It has led the initiative. This Mind, I, attempted to communicate with you. I was denied, due to conflicting interests. The Third Mind’s failure today presented a breaching point in the discussion.

“Failure. You mean…when I felt the memories of the Selphid who loved that Dullahan?”

Yes. Very dangerous. You could have lost something. Or gained something. The Third Mind pushes too hard, too fast. Now, the other Minds sense it. A consensus was reached. 4-2; an upset after a deadlock of 3-3. You understand, we sometimes think together. But given personalities, we argue. We vote. Hence your presence here.

She was beginning to understand. Idis gasped, but quietly. She whispered in Geneva’s ears.

“The Minds argue?

The Second Mind didn’t respond to that. Maybe it was being honest and not reading her thoughts.

You can hear my thoughts, can’t you? 

Geneva ‘thought’ that, but the Second Mind didn’t respond. But if it was a telepath who could read into her head, it would know that she was suspicious of it anyways and wouldn’t believe it was being polite. But if it could reach into her head…

Confusing. Beyond confusing. This had been an altering experience to begin with, to meet with creatures as foreign to Geneva’s understanding of this world as magic was to Earth. Now, she realized this was indeed a turning point.

But what kind?

“You are suspicious of me. Understandable. But I would hope you will speak. Honestly. Ask me any question. Tell me anything. I will answer. I hope to reach an understanding.”

Geneva started. She frowned, slowly, and her hands clenched reflexively.

“An understanding. Couldn’t you simply—force whatever understanding you desired on me? Change my attitude? This is not an equal relationship…Second Mind. I am, as you said, a captive held against my will. I would like to be freed. Now. That is my desire.”

Something like a sigh ran through her mind. Several of the scrying orbs abruptly went dark. The Second Mind left the perfect bowl in the center of the room and actually floated closer. Idis made a squeaking sound in Geneva’s head.

From inception of this idea to present, I informed the other Minds this was a foolish plan. I was supported only by the Sixth Mind, and the Sixth Mind only speaks of the abhorrence of a Selphid in a living being’s body. That is anathema and they believe in that law above all others. I? I say that this is a poor way to make allies of another world. Yet the Third Mind—and the other Minds—seem insular to me. Selfish. You are here to cure the Wasting. I say: we should have asked, and supported you until you chose to come of your own volition.

Geneva stared at the countless Selphids, almost entranced, then glared upwards.

“That—is a convenient answer. Given all that has happened to me.”

Yes. Quite. But it is the truth, and the other Minds voted. 4-2. A collective always votes via majority. It seems to me to be foolish. The will of the largest party is not always correct; indeed, it favors actions that will preserve the majority. Ergo, the Minds act selfishly. The Wasting affects all Selphids, but we have long lifespans. Yet it strikes at seemingly random, and, given its nature, it affects the Minds predominantly because we are comprised of so many Selphids. Selfishly, frightened because we are dying piece by piece, we voted to take you against your will.

That made sense. Geneva blinked. She actually leaned forwards.

“That—does sound selfish. I am told that Selphids can live for many, many years. You have a lifespan longer than the average Human, but the Wasting cuts it short very quickly once it develops. It is a plague, but analogous to a disease on my world. A terrible one, but…”

Cancer?

The term shocked Geneva, but the Second Mind floated back.

“The Third Mind communicates its findings. Another world. Implications of worlds, plural. How were you transported? The First Mind is investigating a gateway. The anomalous events of the Summer Solstice. Wistram. It is all concerning, but I am concerned with you, Geneva Scala. This is wrong. The Sixth Mind understands. Selphids are hated because we are the ‘bodysnatchers of Baleros’. Because we made empire and slaves of people in ways even Roshal could not. Now, look what happens. A full circle.”

And in that moment, Geneva saw the Second Mind change. The Selphids in its body shifted as a hole opened in the center and, for a second, it was a giant ring, a perfect circle with a hole in the center, moving clockwise. To illustrate its point.

“You—you are completely different from the Third Mind. How is this possible? You are completely animated, and—can you explain this?”

Geneva saw the Second Mind return to its orb-form.

Naturally. The Third Mind told you what we are.

“An amalgamation of Selphids. A…hive mind of sorts. Leaders of the Selphid people.”

Ah. Aaaah. What a revealing lie. We cannot lie, because we think. But we reveal ourselves.

The Second Mind sounded displeased. It floated backwards, and with what looked like growing agitation, began moving chess pieces. It kept thinking at her.

We are not leaders of the Selphids. To clarify: this Gathering Citadel is one of the ruling bodies. The Minds certainly occupy a leadership role. But we have not been stewards of Selphids in every era. Or even universally today. Selphids, individuals, have historically commanded us and we act as advisors/guides/aides. I consider that possibly superior to this. The Third Mind believes Minds are superior to ordinary Selphids. Revealing.

Geneva nodded. She felt engaged—and perhaps that was because she wasn’t in the Second Mind. Even so—she was aware this was just a conversation that sounded friendly.

“Nevertheless, here I am. It sounds as though the Minds have an inefficient system? Or that they are…different to your personality. Again, why are you different?”

The Second Mind floated back.

Because I choose to accept Selphids into myself that have a certain perspective. I am represented by Selphids of every kind. From [Warrior] to [Mage] to [Potter]; only a few Minds are specialized, such as the Fourth Mind. Yet I did not screen by class. I deliberately incepted into my being two thirds Selphids with a particular quality. Will you guess?

Geneva frowned.

“I hate guessing games.”

Ah.

“I love guessing games. Can I try, Geneva?”

Idis whispered. Geneva pursed her lips, but let her give it a shot.

“Second Mind, I’m speaking. Idis. Uh—is it that you took in really creative minds? Authority figures? Something like that? Like—a Gold-rank team leader rather than just a regular adventurer?”

What is creativity? How would I judge that, Selphid to Selphid? As to authority—no. The answer is simple. I chose travellers. Selphids that left the shores of Baleros. They are in me. The ones who lived all their lives abroad, from Chandrar, Rhir, Izril, Terandria. Who understand how we are seen abroad. Who think differently.

“I see. How—”

Intelligent? Geneva almost said it, but she wasn’t sure.

“Surely the other Minds do the same.”

The Second Mind sounded unhappy.

“They do. Yet consider the flaw, Geneva Scala, who is a [Doctor], and understand more than we. The other Minds only see you as a resource because they will not acknowledge the individual can surpass the collective. We are many minds. If one voice shouts—”

“…It’s drowned out.”

The flaw of the Minds appeared in Geneva’s mind suddenly and with perfect clarity. The Second Mind sounded sardonically pleased.

Flaw. We are not superior beings to Selphids. We are superior in our own ways, just as they are in their own. An amalgamation of thoughts has vulnerability. Chief of all—to complacency. Uniformity. Decay.

Food for thought. Literally. In another situation, Geneva would be in the thick of comparing this alien biology and culture to her own. But—she shifted in the comfortable chair.

“You have answered my questions, Second Mind. Thank you for your clarity. But again. I am a prisoner and I will state this plainly: I am an unwilling one. I regard this as a violation of my natural rights. I do not wish to be here, but I am being compelled to help you—Selphids as a whole. I wish to be freed. Will you free me?”

“Geneva…”

Idis whispered. Guiltily. The Second Mind took its time responding. When it did, it was plain.

I cannot do more than argue with the other Minds. It took a 4-2 majority to summon you here. It will take the same to impel your leaving in a…safe manner. To tell you anything is for the Third Mind to hear it. If I were to hint.

Idis gasped. Geneva blinked. The Second Mind went on, blasé.

Which I did not, and the Third Mind cannot use this conversation against me. Yet I maintain: this situation is unpleasant. For me on multiple grounds. Ethical. For our relationship with your world. And purely in how it motivates you and for actual assistance. And how it will seem to other species if they discover this. In short—I am against this course. But you are under the broad authority of the Third Mind.

“Second Mind. I—I understand what you’re saying. I know I might get in trouble—but I do. I agree!”

Idis burst out. The Second Mind regarded her, and the Selphid shivered in Geneva.

Your guilt is moral, Idis. You have it now. Where was it when you received orders from Calectus to take Geneva Scala?

“Second Mind? But he was an [Honor Guard] and—”

The Selphid quailed. The Second Mind went on.

Why do you see Calectus’ words as absolute? Because he is an [Honor Guard]? That is a class. Because his orders came from the Minds? That is absolutist thinking. You observe we are divided. Ergo, we are not perfect. Therefore, we will not always give you orders without flaws. So yes. Be guilty.

“Enough.”

Geneva interrupted the Second Mind. It floated away from her a pace. The Selphid was shaking so hard Geneva’s own hand was shaking. Something more than mere words came through the telepathic communication between the Second Mind and her. The pure disapproval was almost painful, and Geneva was not the recipient.

“You wish to defend Idis?”

“You are moralizing. I don’t approve of hurting anyone. I am your prisoner. Idis is complicit. You…are hypocritical.”

The Second Mind floated there. It did not laugh. But it sounded amused.

Your ethical nature revealed itself in the Third Mind’s thoughts about you. You know, it was willing to offer you Selphids who would volunteer for cures for this Wasting disease. I believe the Third Mind hoped you could engineer a cure similar to the Yellow Rivers treatment.

“That’s not how it works.”

No. But it convinced itself that was possible. Now, you are in the Third Mind. You know your situation is untenable. Once you have completed your research, your fate becomes dangerous to Selphids and the Minds in particular.

Geneva looked up at the Second Mind and felt a wave of…gratitude. Idis was dead silent. The [Doctor] nodded.

“I know.”

The Third Mind does need your cooperation. It will try to be kind. It will try to persuade you, because if you resist, it will become more difficult. But once it is over? I believe we will vote.

A vast presence, for all it spoke more conversationally, floated so close Geneva could touch an individual Selphid. It was not uncaring. But it was foreign and Geneva…

“So what can I do? There’s no way for me to escape. I am…”

She hesitated, and the words came back.

I am in the center of the Mind. In the presence of the Minds. There’s no way out. You could help me, perhaps. But you are unable to, by your admission. So I am trapped.”

The Second Mind hovered there. For a heartbeat, then another—then something moved.

Selphids. They reached out to her, the physical bodies, like a kind of grasping hand. But it stopped as Geneva recoiled.

Geneva Scala. You make one assumption wrongly. Like Idis. You think we are invincible in our role, in thought. Thought? I have studied our own nature. Thought is as weak as flesh, only with different faults. I can aid you. All I need is to teach you. Do you wish to learn? The consequences will infuriate the Third Mind. But it will stymie the Third Mind. There are ways to fight, even among Minds.

Geneva stared at the appendage. Idis was breathless.

“Second Mind. Are you…? Why are you going this far?”

Idis. Sometimes you must stand up for what you believe in. You and Geneva have a choice.

“Will it change me? Will I give something up?”

Geneva Scala stared at the Second Mind.

You will be allowed to choose this. I promise you. It is knowledge. How you use it is up to you.

The [Doctor] sat there. Idis was silent. But she made a sound as Geneva Scala slowly rose.

“Geneva…”

“I have few options left. But I do have a choice. And since I have a choice—and if you are being honest, Second Mind. I will hear you out. No more.”

So saying, she reached out. Her hand jerked—Idis? Her? But then she touched the Selphids. She was drawn into the Second Mind and heard its voice.

Very well.

 

——

 

Some days it seemed like everything was life-or-death moments. Decisions of great and overly complicated consequences where the wrong move—or any move—would hurt someone. Situations where there were no good answers, only bad outcomes.

This was…not that kind of day in the river-city of Ysai. It was certainly frantic, excited, but it had the kind of vibe of fun, rather than ‘we are all going to die if we get near the inciting incident’.

So Lizardfolk were all over the event, cheering on the swearing people actually hard at work. A grumpy Naga kept smacking Lizardfolk into the water where they cheerfully swam about.

Stay back! If you get in the way of the work I’ll pull off your tails, got it?

I’ve got a big one! I’ll sell it for five silv—ulp!”

A Lizardgirl had pulled a giant, dripping wet…thing out of the river where she’d been diving, just upstream of the hard-working people cracking them open and searching them frantically. She fled as the Naga chased after her.

Give that back you damned thief! This is city property! If you don’t I’ll—

But before he could swat her, two groups made a beeline for the Lizardgirl, because they’d seen how huge the giant…shell was.

“Five silver. Toss it over!”

A Centaur galloped forwards, splashing into the muck and holding out some silver. Instantly, on the other side of the river, nearly a dozen Dullahans, led by one in gleaming armor, shouted.

Fifteen silver! Toss it here and you will be paid!

A gold coin!

Two gold coins!

I’ll give you a gold coin and the Bannermare’s signature!

The Dullahan glared, and came back with a shout as the exasperated Naga [Overseer] stopped.

Two gold coins and the signature of no less than Tulm the Mithril!

The Lizardgirl with the giant, dripping object wavered between the two. She made up her mind and ran at the Centaurs.

“I want her signature!”

That was a commentary more on the popularity of the two famous seconds to each Great Company among your young Lizardfolk than the fiscal economics of each signature in the developing market of celebrity-signage.

However, the little incident resulted in a gold coin and a promise for the signature changing claws, and the Centaur trotted back to the group on his side, as more Centaurs trotted about, calling encouragement or even trying to help.

But the crews on the banks of the Ysai were experts. And it seemed the Centaur had made a good purchase, because the object the Lizardgirl turned over turned out to be…

An oyster. It was brackish enough on the banks of the Ysai river for them to survive, and because the city kept the rivers clean and even cultivated the famous oyster beds, this was where you came to get some fine oysters.

Or, if you were more mercantile, their other product.

Pearls.

In this case, not just ‘pearls’, but magic pearls. Because if you were going to have a pearl, it might as well do something.

In this case, the [Pearl Hunters], [Shell Openers], and so on, including even hired [Treasure Seekers], [Divers], and more, were in a frantic race to find a pearl from the many oysters here. Oh, they’d found a number of quite fine ones already, but they were after a Ysai speciality—a Purewater Pearl.

It was a kind of pearl that developed among the oysters here, that purified water. A very valuable object that allowed for saltwater purification, and was thus highly sought after—although it wasn’t that powerful. You got a gallon of freshwater a day if you let it sit in the right amount of saltwater.

Very useful for someone by themselves. But given the cost and the fact that you’d need countless numbers of them for a city…

It had more applications for [Mages] and [Alchemists] than just as it was. But [Jewelers] and such, along with your collectors of fine and rare items like this, sought the Purewater Pearl for that reason, so it was lucrative enough.

“But why are two Great Companies both trying to get the pearl?”

The audience was confused, but one of the chatty Lizardfolk was happy to clue them in.

“It’s a race! Have you heard of the [Jeweler], Sitq the Setter?”

“That’s a silly name.”

“Well, he’s a Lizardfolk! Can you believe that? People say he never wanted to be one of the Naga.”

“No. Really?

The Lizardfolk in the crowd were, by turns, fascinated and aghast. The know-it-all smugly nodded and went on.

“But he’s really good. Like Level 40 at least! Maybe Level 50? He’s oooold. But he said he was working on a new masterpiece! He calls it the Band of Eight. Or the 8-Band. Or the Octoring!”

Several people groaned, but most of the Lizardfolk were laughing at the name. Yet, humorous as it was…

“It might be relic-class. At least a top-tier artifact. I’m serious! You know how he did it? He took eight pearls, each with a different magical property, and did something magic to them. Apparently they all came within days of each other because they had to be fresh. But guess what happened to the last one? He broke it! Now he needs a Purewater Pearl, so he said that whoever gets one to him first gets to make the first bid on the relic.”

Hence both Maelstrom’s Howling and the Iron Vanguard arriving at Ysai. They were engaging in a competition to both get the Purewater Pearl…and deliver it to the [Jeweler] first. It was about a new artifact. Also, it was about pride, and so the audience was seeing who would get the pearl first.

Because whoever got it first? They would be giving it to the figure casually lounging by the Runner’s Guild, signing autographs and laughing, ready to go.

“That’s the Wave Runner! A Courier’s shown up to do the delivery!”

People pointed at one of the Couriers who could run both water and land.

Funny thing, Runner names. It was always ‘running’ based, so you got the Wind Runner, the Wave Runner, the [Mage]-Runner…

Well, it was easy to remember. And to be fair, the half-Elven Runner had magic boots. Water Walking boots. He had shown up, and since no other Courier was in the region, he’d be delivering the pearl for whomever got to him first.

It was a fun day, and the normally quiet village of Ysai, along the coast and inset to the sea, was having a blast. The food vendors were having a field day, and there was a discount on, you guessed it, oysters.

“Oysters n’ Crab! Who wanted the oysters and the crab thing? Not you, I know you didn’t pay for—hands off!”

An exasperated Lizardman [Server] was navigating one of the packed restaurants, fighting off hungry Lizardfolk who all insisted they’d ordered it. Fortunately, he remembered the client and spotted a waving hand.

“Here you are, sir! Don’t let them—who took one of the crab legs? Sorry.”

He went back for more food as a huge cheer went up from the river.

Someone’s got it! A Purewater Pearl!

The Wave Runner, Oredien, looked up and grinned as a commotion broke out on shore. Everyone ran to look. Who was it? Who had gotten the pearl first?

The Maelstrom’s Howling company, that’s who. They were fighting their way up the streets, Centaurs stamping their hooves, forcing the crowd back. They had the pearl and they wanted it delivered now.

But…and here the first note of alarm entered Ysai’s small moment.

Would the Iron Vanguard stand for that? Because here a detachment came, Dullahans marching in their ranks. The Centaurs slowed and they aimed their bows warily at the ground. Lizardfolk saw the second group coming and now they were pushing to get out of the way.

Hold your fire! This is neutral ground! You have no legs to stand on, Iron Vanguard. Don’t make this escalate.”

The Centaur leading their group warned the Iron Vanguard’s representative. The Dullahan who replied had some kind of pale steel armor, a different alloy than normal.

“This will not come to blows. But we will inhibit your progress.”

“Good luck with that. Courier Oredien—to the [Jeweler] in Hemglass, please. Courtesy of the Maelstrom’s Howling company.”

With some fanfare, the Centaur offered the Wave Runner the bag, in case this appeared on the news. Hemglass was further south, one of the big cities just north of Talenqual.

The half-Elven Courier…didn’t move. He looked at the Centaur, who shook the bag impatiently, and sighed.

“I’m sorry, sir. I’m afraid I’ve been booked for another delivery.”

The Centaur’s face went slack for a moment. Then he turned pale. The Dullahan’s representative smiled slightly.

“You—how much are they paying you?

“I can’t name numbers, sir. I’m afraid it was pre-agreed.”

Upset! Lizardfolk ran around in the streets, shouting. It was all a trick! The Iron Vanguard had pre-hired the Wave Runner before he came to the city, and the idiots in the Maelstrom’s Howling Company hadn’t gotten a backup!

Now that was the kind of underhanded play people were here to see. Tulm the Mithril, back at it again. The Centaur galloped towards the [Mages].

“Get me any Courier in the region! A—a City Runner?”

But a City Runner, beating a Courier? Couriers did runs in mere hours that took City Runners days. The Maelstrom’s Howling’s leader was panicking, but there was a chance. If the Iron Vanguard didn’t find another Purewater Pearl soon, if…

A cheer from the river. The Centaur turned and the Dullahans began to smile with, what was for them, exuberant victory. The Dullahans had just found their own magic pearl.

“We’ll offer you half again what the Iron Vanguard is paying.”

The Centaur swung around to the Wave Runner. The Courier hesitated, but he had to shake his head.

“I’m afraid it’s pre-arranged, sir. I’m sorry—”

“You won’t hear the last of this! The Maelstrom’s Howling will remember this!”

“And so will the Iron Vanguard. You can’t threaten a Courier.”

The Dullahan and Centaur were arguing as the Centaurs galloped around, calling for an emergency teleportation spell—but it was a magic pearl—debating having one of their own try to run down one of the trade routes.

But even Centaurs weren’t close to Courier-levels, and the Wave Runner had the straightest shot down the coast. The second pearl was being transported up the hill and now the Centaurs were blocking the Dullahans, jostling with them and shouting.

Low-level drama. In the grand scheme of things. Not even scrying orb-worthy, because it seemed like a predestined loss. But it was more interesting, especially to the person who’d ordered oysters. He’d finished his plate, left a tip—but he had to wave the [Server] down so one of the Lizardfolk didn’t steal it.

“Here you are.”

“Thank you! You ate that fast. Was it not that good or too good?”

The restaurant’s guest grinned, and flashed the Lizardman a smile which was returned toothily.

“I’m in a hurry. It was great, yeah? Loved the crabs.”

“Thank you! Ooh, thanks for the tip! Come again!”

The Lizardman waved, and the person pushed through the crowds. He muttered under his breath as he went.

“…I wish I’d had any of the crab.”

A little figure half-poked her head out of the hiding place on his clothing before a hand yanked her out of sight. She retorted via the speaking stone they’d placed in his ear.

It was great crab! I told you we were hungry! We never get great crab at Paeth. You thought we’d eat one leg? I told you we ate lots, but no, you had to get one order.

“Noa, I swear, you’d drive the Gnomes insane. Stop poking your head out!

A muffled argument in the Human man’s ear. He grinned, but he was pushing his way through the crowd. The crestfallen Centaur was watching Oredien accept the pearl with literal fanfare from some Dullahan [Trumpeters], and waving. Casually. And why not? He had the drop on everyone and there was no one to match…

“Excuse me!”

The crowd broke up. The Centaur turned and Oredien slowed. What was it? Perhaps it was the species of the Human man who trotted forwards. Perhaps his height, or the fact that he was clearly in excellent, just amazing shape. Perhaps it was a sense of drama, an instinct about what was coming next.

Perhaps it was the speaking spell on his voice, cast by a miniature [Mage].

“Who’s this?”

The Iron Vanguard’s representative was impatient, but the Centaur turned to the newcomer with pure desperation.

“I’m a City Runner. I specialize in sea-deliveries. I heard the Maelstrom’s Howling company needed a runner?”

A disbelieving laugh from the crowd and the Centaur. He almost reared back and looked down at the Human, skeptically.

“We do need a fast Runner. A Courier. There’s the Wave Runner. We need someone to beat him to Hemglass.”

The Human smiled. Confidently, which caught the eye of the Centaur, who’d been trained to tell confidence and false bravado apart.

“I’m headed towards Talenqual, actually. That’s a perfect delivery for me.”

The Centaur snorted and the Wave Runner chuckled, but he eyed the other Runner up and down, a bit speculatively.

“I’m sorry if I didn’t clarify—I want you to arrive before that Courier and deliver it. Since I don’t think a…what, a City Runner can do that? No offense…”

He trailed off, because the man hadn’t stopped smiling. He glanced at Oredien.

“Well, why don’t we see who gets there first? I’m not a Courier. But I’ll tell you what. I’ll take the delivery, and if I fail, I’ll pay you for the Purewater Pearl and take no payment for the attempt. Deal?”

“Oooh. Did you hear that? That City Runner thinks he can beat the Wave Runner!”

Shouts from the crowd, and a reignited sense of interest. It wasn’t every day you got to see a race.

The Centaur from the Maelstrom’s Howling’s company raised his brows. He checked the Human. They had the same skin tone, but something about his accent and the way he was glancing at Oredien made the Centaur doubt he was a native Balerosian. He did look fit, though…and the Wave Runner was eying him.

“You’re a City Runner?”

“That’s right, sir.”

“Well, that’s not a bad deal for us given that the pearl’s useless if we lose. I’m warning you, though—it’s not cheap.”

The man shrugged.

“It works for me. I could use one. Sell it—I’m willing to take the risk. Besides, what have you got to lose?”

He grinned, and the Centaurs stomped their hooves approvingly. They did like a show of bravado. The Dullahans, on the other hand, didn’t like this new variable. Although…he was only a City Runner. They were subtly looking at the Wave Runner to run off, but the half-Elf stepped forwards.

“Excuse me. May I ask your name? I am Oredien, Courier. They call me the Wave Runner. I think I know you. I thought you were dead.”

The Human turned and took the half-Elf’s hand. He grinned.

“I’m Luan. Luan Khumalo. City Runner, affiliated with the United Nations company.”

Oredien’s eyes lit up. At the same time, one of the Dullahans recoiled and eyed Luan with sudden recognition.

“Ah. I knew I had heard of you! Luan the [Rower], that’s your nickname, isn’t it? I heard someone claimed a bounty on you. But they were arrested for murder.”

“Were they? They nearly got me. Those Lizard-bastards.”

“Hey! That’s fairly accurate, but hey! It’s not all of us!”

Luan grinned and waved at someone in the crowd. The light caught a hint of gold. Writing—a tattoo on his arm. Oredien eyed it, but looked at Luan.

“Listen. I appreciate you’re fast, but I do have a reputation to maintain. I’ll be running as fast as I can.”

“That’s fine.”

The half-Elf’s brows rose. Luan wasn’t being insulting—not quite. You could read it that way, but it sounded less like bravado. More like someone who was just…confident.

The Centaur was exchanging a [Message] with his superior. He trotted over, eying Luan. The crowd was already on board with this idea. They were already chanting.

Race, race!” 

“It’s a race!” 

“Someone get Wistram! I want to be on the news!

“If you’re confident, I won’t stop you. I’m interested to see what makes you think you can beat me. Share a drink afterwards, no hard feelings?”

Luan’s teeth flashed as he grinned.

“Absolutely, my friend.”

The Dullahan’s leader glared about, adjusting his head haughtily.

“This is ridiculous.”

“Don’t be upset. I intend to fulfill my contract; but it’s poor sport for a Courier to turn down a race. Think of it as publicity. See?”

The Runner’s Guild was open and a [Receptionist]—no, the Guildmaster himself—had come out to record the race. But the Centaur was still doubtful.

“Are you sure about this? We don’t want to embarrass ourselves any more than you do, I imagine. I’m reluctant to just give this to a random City Runner.”

Luan tilted his head. He thought for a second, on how to reassure the Centaur, and, at last, grinned.

“I’m new, but trust me. I’ll put on a show. Besides—I’ve got a score to settle with the Iron Vanguard myself.”

Really. This bounty?

The Centaur tilted his head. Luan glanced over at the Dullahans.

“That. But that started at the Games of Daquin. I was there.”

The crowd was agog. Then—they looked at Luan, and someone pointed.

“That was the Human who was with Umina, Venaz, and Marian! I thought he looked familiar!”

“No way! It’s the same Human? But they all look alike!”

I want an autograph!

Luan backed up as the crowd surged forwards, but the Centaurs and Dullahan soldiers blocked them. Now, Oredien was looking at Luan. That convinced the Centaur.

“Here you are, then. To the [Jeweler]. Sitq the Setter. Anyone should be able to direct you there. I’d find a map, but…”

Oredien glanced at Luan. He walked over and held out his pouch. Luan was debating putting his into a bag of holding or tying it to his belt.

“Well, it looks like it is a race. I’ll take it seriously. Do you want to start anywhere?”

Luan glanced up.

“You could start running. I need to get to the water.”

The Wave Runner glanced knowingly at Luan.

“Ah, right. You use a boat.”

“Scull.”

The half-Elf blinked at the unfamiliar term.

“I’ll start there.”

“You’re very sporting. Thank you.”

The two began walking towards the riverbank, which was muddied from all the work, littered with oyster shells. They walked a bit downriver with an army of people following them.

Dullahans, Centaurs. Lizardfolk. And now the Mage’s Guild was sending a [Mage] to record this moment. Luan reached for something and—to Oredien’s surprise—produced a vehicle which he placed on the shore, just before the water.

“That’s a beautiful little craft. What did you call it? A scull?”

Luan nodded. He began to get in, on a very, very thin seat in a practically arrow-like vehicle. Oredien didn’t look away, even as the Dullahan representative hurried over to remind him how important it was that he won.

What a strange collection of objects the Human man had. His dress hadn’t been regular cloth, but a kind of skin-tight suit. And he had two oars. Even a kind of bar that kept them in place.

“Not a kayak.”

Oredien was familiar with smaller crafts, but this was completely different. It was aerodynamic, practically vertical, and you sat higher up on it, despite it being virtually just on top of the water.

A strange craft, and yet the City Runner seemed at home in it, like a [Rider] with a horse. It was also clear the vehicle was very well-made. It was wood, but someone had painted it a very bright red, and the half-Elf couldn’t help but notice—it was definitely enchanted.

“This might be a serious challenge after all. Give me a second?”

He began to stretch out his legs. Luan adjusted himself, breathing in and out, smiling.

It was that damned smile. That was when the Iron Vanguard’s representative sent an urgent [Message], when the Wave Runner decided not to take it even the slightest bit easy, and the Maelstrom’s Howling’s Centaur began to hope.

Luan smiled like what he was. An athlete. And this?

It had been a long time. He pulled the oars back, his bare arms shining under the bright sun. He saw a scrying orb heading his way, and wondered if this had gone too far, but he couldn’t help it. He wore something close to his uniform from home; no sleeves, close to the skin, and he wished he had some glasses to block the glare.

But aside from that? The scull was light on the ground as it dipped into the water. So light that he felt like it might lose its connection with the ground. He didn’t even feel the weight of the oars.

“…That’s an enchanted craft he has there.”

A Centaur [Mage] whispered to her superior. Luan winked at the Lizardgirl with the gold coin. She waved a claw.

“Can I get an autograph?”

“If I win, I’ll come back and you can get one.”

The half-Elf laughed at that, but he and Luan traded another look. Luan was breathing calmly, but his heartbeat was picking up. The Fraerlings were arguing in his ear, but distantly.

So we get a Purewater Pearl either way. That’s great for the allotment and, frankly, we can use the purification powers for all the refugees.

Think he can win? Noa, don’t gamble away everything.

You’re going to bet against our craftspeople?

Hm. Good point. But we nearly died getting here a few times. How fast are Couriers these days? At least this one’s not a teleporter…

Luan’s grin grew wider. It was all distant, falling away. It had been so long. He had entered a warzone. Fought undead. He missed his wife and son and he had thought he was dead. He had met the little folk of Baleros and seen real magic. He had met something on the Summer Solstice.

And through all of it. After all this time, at last—no, he’d ‘competed’ with Lizardfolk at that village, once. But not really competed. Not with anything on the line.

Oredien had no idea why he was getting nervous. The half-Elf bounced on his feet as the Dullahan stomped over.

“Very well, I shall give you a count. On zero. From ten. Beginning…ten, nine, eight…”

The crowd was hushed. Bets were placed, and Wistram got the feed but weren’t sure if they really wanted to run it. A bored [Mage] was eying the two and concluding that it would be a good show on the City Runner’s corner, but nothing close to the half-Elf Courier. Although…he was Human…but there was no way. Although that was an odd vehicle.

“…seven, six, five, four…”

Why? Why was Luan smiling, though his records indicated he was far below the Wave Runner’s speed? Why was the half-Elf concentrated, even nervous? He felt pressured. And the answer was too complicated to explain. But it was simply this.

Three! Two! One—

Luan tensed. Oredien crouched, but he was a Courier. No sprinter. He had doubtless survived life-or-death scenarios, but there was a difference between the two. If it was survival, he might beat Luan, or fight his way to a destination or…many things.

But here was Luan. [Athlete]. Olympian from another world. The finest competitor you’d be able to meet in either one.

Zero!

Oredien took off. He leapt into the water before the voices could cheer, with the speed only a Courier could obtain. His feet touched the running water’s surface—and the water rippled, and he pushed off.

The Wave Runner ran on the water’s surface, his boots leaving a trail of splashing impacts. The water running down towards the sea was like a second ground to him, one only he could run on.

But everything else was the same. The river was going downhill, and so Oredien leapt downwards, like someone running down the hill, boosted by Skills and his long-legged sprint.

[Pure Acceleration]! [Half-Giant’s Stride]! [Elk’s Run]!

Three Skills used all at once. Overkill for a race? As poorly as it might reflect on him—Oredien was doing it on purpose. Luan would give up after the first mile’s gap. The half-Elf hit the surf as the inlet met the sea in minutes. He charged into the first huge wave, cursed, and vaulted it.

“Damn tide—”

But it benefitted him in the long run, because the scull would struggle in those kinds of waves, Oredien was sure. He turned, racing southwards along the coast. But first—Oredien surged further away from the beach. It was bad footing right where the surf happened. He was panting, more from the adrenaline than being tired.

He could make the journey in three hours normally. He’d probably hit two if he burned every Skill in him. Oredien was ready for the Maelstrom’s Howling to maybe ambush him; though, he was promised an escort once he got close to the city. The Iron Vanguard even had a fleet nearby. So he’d run far enough away from the coast to avoid any ‘accidental’ arrows, and then…

The half-Elf was glancing over his shoulder, just in case, to see if Luan was even visible. He knew the Human wasn’t. He was no Courier. Oredien had heard he was fast, a very capable Human on the rise, but there was no way he’d—

Duck!

The half-Elf saw the biggest arrow he’d ever seen in his life streaking at his face. For a second he thought the Centaurs had pulled out a ballista—then he recognized the bright red paint. He threw himself sideways and nearly went into the water.

What the—

Luan hit the water. He swerved right. Oredien saw him dip his oars in the water. The Human had shouted at him to warn the Wave Runner. Now he grinned.

“See you.”

“What?”

The half-Elf saw Luan heave—and then accelerate. It was like watching an arrow leave a bowstring. The scull blurred and actually left the water for nearly four seconds.

Damn!

Luan exclaimed. The scull wobbled as it landed, but no sooner had it begun to slow than he dipped his oars into the water and heaved again. All of this took place in moments. Oredien saw it all. It looked like Luan was skipping across the water, barely even touching it. He saw the City Runner accelerating, the man’s raised brows, his arms blurring back to reset his oars with perfect form.

It was only then, as the half-Elf began to sink—he’d thrown out a hand to catch himself and it was sinking into the ocean’s surface—that he realized he’d stopped running. He began to charge.

After Luan. He could swear the man was laughing. Not at him, but with just the sheer joy of how fast he was moving. He had that look—of someone who had reached…this level for the first time. Oredien remembered it. Then the laughter stopped, and Luan began to row faster. But Oredien could swear he heard some other voices. Figments of his imagination. It sounded like—

 

——

 

Waaaaaa—

Thump.

Gyaaaah—

Thump.

We’re going to f—

Thump.

Mai tongs! I bith—

Thump.

Every time they left the surface, every time Luan pulled, the scull shot slightly out of the water. The sheer speed of it and momentum might have actually started to damage a lesser craft. Luan certainly would have feared wind shear slowing them down, let alone the water.

But the only effect the wind had was on him. It dragged at his arms and body, but the scull cut through the water and air alike with barely any resistance. The Fraerlings were holding on, and it was Noa screaming in his earpiece.

One of the two Tallguard accompanying Noa shouted at Luan.

We’re going too fast!

He was patently terrified of the sight of an ocean of water zooming past them, and they’d capsized before in the trial runs. But the other Tallguard was screaming.

Faster! Faster! Beat that half-Elf!

To Luan’s great amusement, the [Alchemist]-[Magus], Resk, was poking his head out of his place, though he’d tied a piece of string to keep himself from flying away. The older Fraerling with a beard, [Mage]’s robes, was screaming back at his bodyguards.

Too fast? Shut your mouth! There’s no such thing!

Noa was holding her tongue, but the Fraerlings were cheering like mad as, behind them, the Wave Runner gave chase.

The mad Fraerlings of Paeth on the Coast had given Luan the greatest scull to ever exist. It had flaws—like its penchant to launch itself out of the water, which could result in a complete wipeout if Luan hit something wrong, but he’d learned to steady himself. [Anchor Balance] helped a lot; it was hard for him to tilt the already secure scull.

But more than that, they’d added a bunch of experimental features. Including a mirror on either side like a car’s side mirrors that let Luan see ahead. He was facing backwards so he had a perfect view of the half-Elf chasing after them.

“He’s picking up speed, Luan! He’s using another Skill!”

“Got it. My turn. I’m doing it again! Hold on!

No, no, no! Not again! That’s how we nearly died last time! Don’t—

The male Tallguard, Cotm, shouted. But he and the other three were already clinging to the bars. Luan put his oars into the water and shouted.

[Two Hundred Pound Stroke]—

Luan didn’t know exactly how much power he put into each pull of the oars regularly. But his Skill definitely had a quantifiable number. He never finished the Skill—he left his thoughts and voice behind him.

 

——

 

The Wistram broadcast was on a definite delay. It even had a marker in the corner, because they had to catch the audience up from the beginning. Drassi charged into the studio in her pajamas. She led with this simple question:

Do you believe a Human can fly?

Daly was having breakfast and scratching at a recent tick bite. He reached for a glass of juice and Paige spat out her entire mouthful of cereal all over him. The old Cerealbreath blaster.

Fuck, Paige! What’s—

 

——

 

Luan screamed. Noa screamed. Everyone screamed, and got to scream for a long time. They were in the air. And just like last time—the scull was angling, headed straight for the water and they were going to go into it, then flip out as the enchantments—

[Featherfall]! [Featherfall]!

Resk cast the spell and the scull levelled out just in time. Luan saw the front go under in the mirror, but heaved, and they shot forwards again in another hop.

I want to go home!

Cotm was shouting. But Luan was rowing again, and Oredien? The Wave Runner’s mad dash hadn’t gotten him any closer. In fact, he was staring at Luan. The man could see his clear confusion.

What is…?

Now this was, uh, scull-racing! Luan laughed as he pulled ahead, again. The scrying spell following him was trying to clock their speeds.

The Wave Runner was fast. He could beat any ship going without specific enchantments. He had a land speed on water that any [Rider] would envy. It was indeed hard for most vessels to match land-speed.

Sea, land, air, in terms of priority. Except—if you’d ever seen someone cross Igawiz’s Jet. If you’d ever seen The Pride of the Wellfar at top speed.

“He’s falling behind! This City Runner—I’m told his name is Luan—Luan the Rower—is breaking his speed record by multiple factors! What is that thing? A canoe for one?”

Drassi was commentating the race with Sir Relz. The Drake was trying to peer at the object.

“It’s no known object I’ve seen. Some hybrid canoe and er…”

“You don’t know? Then I get to commentate! Out, out! [Commentators] only get to talk if they know anything! I’m Drassi, [Reporter], and I say that Human is going fast!

Luan was zooming along, heading out to sea to avoid the chop. The first jump of when he used his Skill had been a mistake, dramatic or not. He’d slowed down to compensate, and was picking up speed.

It didn’t get boring though, even though the race was longer than ten minutes—or even one hour. For one thing—just look at him.

 

——

 

“That’s a Human. I mean—no. That’s an Earther! One of us! It has to be! Richard! Richard!

Emily was shouting for him in Rhir. She was hardly the only person to take one look at him and jump to the conclusion. It wasn’t just her, though.

 

——

 

There was just something about the way he moved. Magus Grimalkin ignored Troydel’s excited voice. He leaned forwards.

“Hm. Magnify. Magnify.”

The view enhanced until you could see Luan. Dark-skinned, set in his seat. And then you observed his form.

Legs, body, core, all moving as one. When he pulled, the technique saw him ‘crouch’ forwards. The seat actually moved with him on some kind of rollers. He timed when the blades of his oars hit the water, pulled with one huge effort that combined his legs and arms’ strength, and then lifted the blades out of the water, tilting them sideways to reduce air drag. Then they were ready to pull again.

“Look at that. Look at that! What economy of form! What a refined movement!

Grimalkin was striding up and down his ranks of students, which included more Gnolls than Drakes, pointing. Each time Luan moved, Grimalkin would indicate another group of muscles flexing. Shining, under the sun.

This is conditioning! Look at his fat-to-muscle ratio. And he is not failing in his form! It has been thirty minutes and his speed hasn’t dropped! Gonads! This Human has gonads! We will be adapting this exercise if I have to create a lake!

“What about a rowing machine?”

Troydel saw Grimalkin’s head snap around.

“You. Explain.”

But even as he listened, he looked at Luan. There was more than mere appreciation there. Respect. The Human was rowing at an incredible pace. But—he wasn’t slowing.

 

——

 

Luan could honestly row on a conventional scull. But he couldn’t here because this scull, enchanted as it was, actually meant that his maximum pace would send them out of control. Same with the oars—he had to balance his form to avoid them hitting waves. In a more controlled environment…

But he had gone so long! Luan had trained in multiple areas, before specializing in the single scull—and he was in excellent shape—but the men’s single sculls was a time attack. Seven minutes? That was seven minutes of your utmost energy.

Forty minutes and he felt like he was still in the top 90% of his energy. This was [Greater Endurance]. This was the effect of surviving for countless days at sea.

And yet—lest you forget—Luan glanced up.

The Wave Runner was still keeping pace. Every time he tried to speed up, Luan kept ahead of him. It was a psychological attack as much as a desire not to have Oredien pass him. If the half-Elf slowed, Luan would happily leave him behind, but they were close.

Running was, inherently, a bit easier than sculling to Luan’s mind. You could get ultramarathoners. He didn’t hear about people sculling for forty eight hours.

But with his Skills he had Oredien in a break-neck race. He just had to keep going, and to look at the half-Elf, he’d burned through a lot of his stamina to begin with too. Ironically, they’d both acted a bit like rookies for a longer race; pushed themselves too fast, too soon. But that was okay—Luan had a cheering team.

“Mouth!”

Noa saw Luan open his mouth. She tossed the snack up at him and saw him chew, furiously.

“Got any stamina potions? Water?”

He panted. Another Fraerling heaved at the stamina potion.

“Hold on, it’s h—whoops. Uh oh.”

They were moving so fast that the heave of Luan’s oars caught the potion and, freed from his belt, it zipped away from them, appearing to be stationary in the air. The Tallguard shaded her eyes.

“Uh…well, I think the half-Elf’s got the potion. As in, it just smacked him in the face. Hear him swearing?”

Luan didn’t, but he saw it. Noa helped them grab another one. And they continued. However—

 

——

 

“He is alive.”

Xol of Ingrilt sounded vaguely pleased. The Dullahan [Admiral] pursed her lips. Her head was monitoring the situation while her body paced back and forth.

“You sound pleased.”

“I am. I did not ask for him to die.”

“He is interfering with the Iron Vanguard’s victory. It is patently obvious that the Wave Runner is struggling. We cannot trust this merely to chance. Move the fleet to intercept.”

By chance or fate, theirs was the fleet in the area. Xol slowly rotated his head as the gigantic War Walker aboard the warship saw their heading change. He eyed the projection of the [Admiral]’s map.

“We may not intercept them in time.”

The [Admiral] was aware of this. The two Runners were moving incredibly fast, and she had seen the projections of Daquin and how Luan had dodged ships before.

“We may not. Send three cutter-class ships. Nets and capture spells. No deadly force. Unless you disagree, Xol?”

She turned deferentially to him. She hoped he wouldn’t, but he did have the authority to dissent. The War Walker hmmed, a huge rumble. At last, he shook his head.

“No. He and I have a history. Send the cutters.”

 

——

 

Potions. At the two hour mark, Luan was sure they were closing on the harbor. He thought he could see it, and but for potions…

Oredien was right behind him. It was now clear to Luan that the half-Elf and he were saving their Skills for the final stretch. Who would use them first? He was a distant speck now; Luan had steadily pulled ahead, mostly by virtue of the scull being so fast.

However, potions meant he couldn’t lose the Courier. Ironically, it was neutralizing the stamina element.

“We have to ban those in the magical Olympics.”

Luan grunted. The four-Fraerling team, riding on the front of the scull with a safety harness—all save for Cotm, who was cowering under cover—didn’t look as enthused by the idea as he was. They knew what it was; he’d explained it to them, but they just acted dubious.

“What, Tallfolk Olympics? I bet we’d have to do our own. Sure, you can run around a forest. But can you climb a tree in under ten minutes?”

Luan was about to reply that some Humans couldn’t even climb a tree, period, when he saw three shapes gliding towards him. One look at their sails and he cursed.

The Iron Vanguard! Not again!

They were angling to form a giant cordon—and tracking him, keeping pace. As he turned left, they moved with him, and it looked like their goal was just to block and then trap him.

Unlike last time at Daquin, they knew he was coming, and so they’d draped nets, creating a moving wall hundreds of feet long. Luan swore a blue streak as he shot towards them.

“We’re going to have to beat them in a race!”

Noa warned him. She was trying to figure out if Luan could; the closer he got, the faster he’d pull away, but Resk was tugging at her arm.

“Don’t get too close! Luan, I sense [Mages]. They’ll hit you with spells.”

Cheating—Dullahan—Xol!

Luan shouted, pulling even faster with the oars. He was eying the gap—and noticing Oredien had sped up. Even if they didn’t catch him, they could slow him down and the Wave Runner would win! Luan stared at the low-hanging cutters. Not warships, but speedy ships perfect for chases and events like this. Damn. Damn…

Cotm glanced up at the cutters as he saw Luan searching for a way to go. The cutters were drifting towards the coast and they surely couldn’t follow him onto the surf, but if they blocked him there—the other choice was deep sea.

“Resk, can you enchant us? Turn the scull invisible? Counter spells?”

The Alchimagus gave Luan an insulted look.

“Oh, sure. Why don’t you get a [Mage] to turn an entire house and a Giant invisible. Or counter a [Fireball] the size of a hill?”

Luan didn’t reply. He was straining, a Skill on the tip of his tongue. But would it be enough? That’s when Cotm burst out.

“Damned boats! They don’t even look that big to me. This is why the sea is idiotic. On land, we can just go over hazards.”

“Cotm, don’t be stupid. The designers just forgot to add an underwater feature to the scull.”

Noa began scolding him. Then she saw their course change. Luan headed straight for the nearest cutter, which paused as the [Captain] halted its momentum. Surprised.

“Luan? What’s gotten into you?”

“I have a stupid plan. Watch out for nets! Gah—

Luan shot left, avoiding a [Sticky Webs] spell. But he continued straight for the cutter. The other two ships were moving out, prepared for a feint. But that wasn’t—Cotm realized what Luan was about to do, what he’d suggested, and screamed. The [Captain] realized it too.

Nets in the air! In the—

The [Athlete] dug his oars into the water a few dozen paces away from the cutter’s low railings. He shouted a Skill.

“[Two Hundred Pound—]”

 

——

 

Noa stared down at the deck of the Iron Vanguard’s ship. Below her, she saw figures standing there. They looked small, just like she was to other species.

For a second, she experienced the inverse, and she saw Dullahans gaping up at her. Holding their heads, tracking them. In a time out of time. A moment—then they were falling.

They hit the water as Luan vaulted the cutter. The [Mages] and net-throwers were so stunned that they completely forgot to target him until he was dozens of feet away. And then…

Luan was redefining movement in the scull. Forget mere speed. He could jump! He was laughing. And then he remembered—he was competing.

Here came the Wave Runner. The half-Elf sped up. He flashed past the ships, which actually had impeded him, but Luan saw something.

Dead gods. What is that?

He saw Oredien running. And realized his nickname was a misnomer. They called him the Wave Runner, but that was only because he had boots. Luan saw the half-Elf nod at him as he ran across the water, towards the distant city of Hemglass.

Running…along a forest trail. A flattened dirt road, beautiful trees, not the thick undergrowth of Baleros, but somewhere else.

The half-Elf’s home. He was running, and was that an elk racing him? Luan blinked. The Wave Runner was running in some kind of—second world. Maybe a vision. A memory. A piece of home.

He was going faster. So Luan laughed. He was tired. The city’s harbor was in sight. But this would be nothing if it wasn’t a tough competition! So he whispered. Skill versus Skill. If that was your best—

“This is mine. [Time of the Olympian].

Noa looked up.

“I’ve never heard that Sk—”

She saw Luan’s arms blur. He began to move faster than she had ever seen him move before. Accordingly—she felt a kick to her back. She went flying. The scull surged across the waves and Noa was picked up, hurled into the ocean—

And caught by the safety-tether. She hung there, flying horizontally in the air, as Resk and Cotm and Kessice dragged her over to hang onto the bars. They held on, floating by the sheer speed of it.

 

——

 

“Elves.”

Oredien saw Luan pass him again. He knew running. He was one of the best. But he had to look at Luan and something told him—there was a difference. They had Skills. They had magic.

But there went an [Athlete]. If Oredien knew how to run, had practiced it, Luan had studied it. He wasted no movement. He was faster.

It would have been a better story if they were neck-and-neck, but Luan pulled ahead. His body blurred, moving in perfect rhythm, and even Oredien’s best Skill just…

Luan reached the harbor first. The half-Elf surged after him, but the Wave Runner didn’t slacken, even though he felt like he’d lost. Yet he murmured as Luan slowed, seeing the crowds, Centaurs galloping, jostling with the Iron Vanguard. Pointing.

“I’m sorry, Luan.”

Despite it—and he would have preferred it otherwise—he was going to win. He saw Luan realize it too as he slowed, coming into the harbor. The last problem.

Not the Iron Vanguard. The Maelstrom’s Howling’s company was there in force and they could probably neutralize each other. Rather…the [Jeweler].

He was in the city. And Luan had a watercraft. Oredien strained for speed. He was hundreds of feet behind Luan—but the man would lose everything when he got out of his scull. Depending on if he tossed the pearl to a Centaur and the Centaur was quick—it would be close.

 

——

 

God! F—

Luan shouted. He saw the people pointing to a street that apparently led to the [Jeweler]. But he realized the same thing the Wave Runner did. No! Not like this!

He could run, but he knew how slow it would be. It was practically a straight shot! If only—

Toss it to us! We’ll run it in!

A Centaur was galloping along the docks, pointing at a group waiting to ferry it there. But Luan had taken it here and—he looked up—

Oredien was closing in. 

“Sorry, Luan.”

Noa groaned. She saw the man panting. He had rowed for two hours plus—and there was a kind of battle-fever in his eyes. No—competition fever. He wasn’t a [Warrior]. She saw him glance at her, teeth grinding—then eye the streets.

Hemglass was a modern port city. No dirt like Talenqual. Someone had taken the time to pave it over with stone, rather than incur the costs of mud and the like. Decent stones. His eyes flickered.

“Resk.”

“Huh? No, I can’t teleport it. Imagine teleporting a giant coconut to a place you’ve never seen and—”

Resk!

The [Mage] fell silent. Luan heaved, calculating. He looked down—he had less than ten seconds at the speed they were coming if he wanted to slow.

Resk, exactly how tough did they make this scull’s enchantments?

The [Mage] peered at Luan. He stared at the street, at Noa, who had a delighted look on her face.

No! I will shoot you! Don’t you—

Noa turned her head. She had to. She looked ahead when they landed, but she turned her head. Just to see the half-Elf Courier’s face—the crowds’—as they saw Luan launch the scull off water and onto land. He hit the paved street, and the crowds, Centaurs colliding into each other, scattered as the scull stormed across the paved street.

It barely lost momentum! If anything, it might have gone faster, since it was enchanted to be frictionless and the smooth surface couldn’t grip the enchanted wood. It shot forwards like a skateboard from hell. The Death of Kneecaps—a huge pointed ram, shooting down Hemglass’ streets.

Thus, Luan the Rower became the first sculler to go over land.

 

——

 

Sitq the Setter was having a lot of fun. He was staring at the scrying orb and Luan had just gotten to the cutters when he heard something from outside.

Out of the way! Aaah! Aaaaa—

The sound was like the most tremendous thunder of wood-on-stone, but so fast it sounded like a miniature earthquake. Sitq saw the representatives of both companies in the front of his famous shop point at something, then scatter. The old Lizardman sat up, the Octoring behind him.

“What is th—”

Luan Khumalo, the very same Human in the scrying orb, twenty minutes delayed, came through the glass window of Sitq’s storefront, hitting the displays, bouncing, in his scull, skidding towards Sitq, desperately trying to arrest his movement. The scull flipped and Sitq ducked—but far too slowly.

Luan slammed into the counter and lay there, the scull amazingly intact. The Human?

A trembling Sitq got up after a second and stared at the dazed man. He saw two eyes open, and a hand rose.

“Pearl.”

He pulled something out of a bag of holding, put it on the counter, and lay back. Sitq stared at the bag. He opened it and found the Purewater Pearl, ready to be set after the proper cutting. He stared at the Human, his destroyed shop, and the Maelstrom’s Howling and Iron Vanguard forces, watching Oredien jog up the street. They stared at the [Jeweler], apprehensively waiting for his reaction.

The Lizardman eyed the scull, his destroyed shop again, and Luan. He bent down.

“You. Are my new favorite Human. Autograph, please.”

 

——

 

Luan the [Rower].

Of course, he needed a better name. Couriers needed suitable names, and ‘the Wave Runner’ was the first rung on that kind of recognition. Later, you would earn more specific titles. Or—sometimes they just knew your name.

Like Mihaela Godfrey, the Courier of Izril.

Yet. Courier? The Human man had been registered as a City Runner that morning. Right until the Guildmistress of the Hemglass Runner’s Guild took a look out her window. She shouted one word.

Courier!

No one who beat a Courier in a race could be anything less. Not just that; a Courier was someone whose name you knew.

They knew his name. Sitq the Setter himself was laughing, having his vaguely traumatized shop assistants and guards sweep up his destroyed store front, and Luan shook Oredien’s hand.

The half-Elf had a rueful look on his face—and an accusatory tone in his voice, but mildly.

“If I’d known you were intending to make your Courier debut…you could have warned me.”

“I didn’t know if I’d beat you, to be fair.”

“Yes, but I’d have started running and kicked your damn boat—ah, damn. Well done. You’ll be buying the drinks, though. After this.”

He gestured at the crowd, people wanting autographs, and a [Mage] wanting to interview him. Luan looked around, thoughtfully. Noa and the other Fraerlings were very silent—hidden. Hopefully magically concealed from spells.

“I know where to get the drinks. It’s the next city over. Want to skip this?”

The Wave Runner raised his brows. Fascinating.

Someone was at least used to being in the spotlight as well. Luan didn’t just run—well, row—like a Courier. He walked like one too, not some rookie.

“You Human [Trickster]. You were already a Courier or something, weren’t you?”

The Courier, who for some reason would develop a nickname completely foreign, completely suitable, turned his head to grin and wink at Oredien. They saw him and recognized him. His scattered people.

So that was how Luan the Olympian came back to Talenqual. The harbor docks were heaving as he rowed in with Oredien jogging alongside him. A miniature flotilla followed the two into the harbor; ahead he could see a lot of Humans jumping up and down, screaming at him as loud as they could.

Tears in some eyes. Daly just shouted.

You bloody bastard! I knew you weren’t dead! You kept us hanging for months!

He was laughing, though, and Dawson was going around slapping backs and hugging people. He knocked Siri into the drink and she climbed out to kick him into it.

Chaos and confusion and drama. The only person arguably unhappy was Cotm, who had been heartily sick afterwards. He raised a distinctly green face from throwing up into a bag of holding. Noa shuddered.

“I hope you emptied that first. Look at all the Tallfolk. Is this going to make our job easier or harder? We have to get to Paeth with the supplies.”

“Nothing like a Courier for opening doors. Besides, it’s nice to zoom about. That’s a story to tell.”

Resk, the Alchimagus, smiled, but he was watching the Humans. Allies? That was a hard thing to say with the Fraer-folk, but Paeth needed allies. In fact…

There were more than just Talenqual’s people, the United Nations company, and the Featherfolk Brigade, who were a bit put out that all this celebration wasn’t for them.

Kissilt, Cameral, Umina, and Marian all stood further back on the docks. Kissilt was cursing and fishing around for something.

“Damn. Just when I’d thought this was all wasted. Do we have to cozy back up to that company, or what?”

“It is just a Courier. Not the Last Light.”

Cameral was making notes—for their next job. Umina and Marian exchanged a look.

“He was just a City Runner the last time we saw him. That’s some serious gear, Cameral. Did you see his scull-thing? It’s a new kind of variation on a traditional craft. There’s something here.”

The [Strategists] were fairly disguised; enough so that no one immediately pointed to them as the Titan’s students. They all had anti-[Appraisal] artifacts, even Umina. Of course, if you were wise, you’d spot them.

That was why Peclir Im was not on the streets. He had returned for a second meeting with Fezimet, the leader of the Featherfolk Brigade. The Quexal was glaring at the celebrations.

“Something of an important moment. Should you be down there, Commander Fezimet?”

The Naga-leader irritably waved his tail as his feathered wings opened and closed.

“It’s just a Courier. Rest assured, Peclir, it will not affect anything. In fact, I intend to expunge this company from my city. I’ll remove them within the month. Within the week! You can’t have two companies in a city, even if they’re more like a Human collective.”

“Hm. That’s very well.”

Peclir had halted his exodus with the forces because of all the attention coming their way. But also…he sat there, looking out the glass windows.

The students weren’t much of a variable. The Last Light was interesting, but she was gone and a lot of interests coincided with her. But that new Courier…

“Is something wrong, Peclir? Er…can I offer you anything?”

Fezimet was a bit distracted, unaccustomed to having someone who might be a superior in the room. Peclir just stared down.

“Not immediately, Commander Fezimet. I am just thinking. Would you entertain a request? Not from the Jungle Tails company; a personal one. Simply a hunch.”

“I…will certainly do my best.”

“Thank you.”

Peclir turned. It was just a hunch. But he happened to know his enemy—which was to say, the Forgotten Wing company—and their strengths and weaknesses. He didn’t know everything, which annoyed him; they were careful with even trusted help.

Even so. That was an amazingly sturdy vehicle that Human had. Peclir had seen it go down Hemglass’ street at incredible speed, wood on stone. Steel would have been scratched or bent from the impacts. Of course, craftsmanship was craftsmanship. But putting together that class of boat, which Peclir had never seen before in…what, two months?

And where had he disappeared? Peclir decided that, like the Titan, he had to give someone a bit of homework.

 

——

 

Luan was hugging his friends, and they were surrounding him, laughing, crying…

It was very good that the Fraerlings were hidden. Not in the scull; half the Lizardfolk in the city would try to take it for a joyride, and there were [Thieves] probably salivating at the chance. No, Luan had put it away in his bag of holding and given them an exit point.

…And by exit point, four Fraerlings were holding onto barnacles under the docks. Every now and then a big swell from one of the boats would cover them, but Resk had created a miniature bubble that anchored them.

Fraerling magic, which was very hard for even good [Mages] to just spot. Noa sighed.

“This is the part they don’t tell you about.”

“Are you kidding? This is the part the Tallguard tells everyone about so you don’t get little idiots wanting to run out and fight cats.”

The other Tallguard, Kessice, shot back. Cotm was peering upwards from their vantage point with Resk. The [Mage] was muttering.

“…And there’s probably the leader of that Lizardfolk company. See that? Quexal.”

“I’ve only spotted them in books. Amazing. What’s the level?”

“Only 37.”

“That’s so low. Isn’t it?”

“Tallfolk city like this? It’s not the best. Besides, he’s got a decent [Commander] class. [Gorgeleap Commander], to be precise—he can probably hit one of the moons with his jumping Skills.”

“Huh. Any other high-level people present?”

Cotm was making notes like a good Tallguard. Still looking miserable; he clearly hadn’t expected the sheer speed of Luan’s scull, but he had volunteered for the mission. Resk turned his head.

“…[Blackpowder Engineer]. What in—hm. That’s one of Luan’s allies. We need to slap an anti-appraisal spell on that. That must be the one he was talking about.”

“Amazing. You can see all of it?”

The [Mage] looked offended.

“Of course I can! I prepared for this mission, you know. Even before the refugees arrived, I knew I might be going with Luan so I memorized proper [Appraisal] spells. Oh, look. There are some [Strategists]. Four of ‘em. High-level, too.”

He pointed out another group. Cotm frowned.

“Isn’t it a bad idea for them to show their levels? Someone could [Appraise] us, surely…?”

“Well, if we wore a basic warding enchantment, sure. Do you think we’re wearing the shiny pebbles they’re wearing?”

Cotm’s enchanted quill had paused as he stared at the group that Resk had pointed out. He frowned. Then began to try to pull out objects from his cleaned bag of holding while holding on.

“Darn…Noa, can you anchor me?”

“Oh come on, Cotm. Don’t pull out everything. What, do you want a desk?”

“I could create a desk. A magical surface…”

“Shut up. Just hold me.”

Noa, sighing, steadied his grappling hook as Cotm pulled out a number of pages and even a bound book and began leafing through them. Kessice blew out her cheeks, but she gave Noa a look.

“He’s my partner. You get the Sentry Leader, so I guess you have it worse. Cotm’s our [Encyclopedia Scout]. Analysis.”

“Ah. I’m, uh, not specialized. What’s your focus?”

“Sniping.”

Kessice patted the crossbow at her side. Noa nodded. Classic partner duo. Someone tells you where to shoot the bird and you do it. Although…given some monsters, the answer was often ‘the eyes’, or ‘the belly’, and it wasn’t hard. But you had exceptions.

“Hmm…there’s no way…damn. There is a way. Ugh. Stop swinging me, Noa! I’m going to puke again!

Cotm glared up as the other Fraerling resisted the urge to kick him. He looked up, then around.

“We’re a four-Fraerling team. I’m beginning to think we should have called in a squad of sixteen.”

“Really? Well, I can’t say we would have added to the burden—but we’d take away from Paeth. Given the situation…I wish we had another dedicated [Alchemist] or our own [Engineers] or [Mages].”

Resk agreed. The civilian-Fraerling looked around.

“I haven’t been in that much danger yet. Although I’m counting on you all to shoot any cats in the city.”

Noa and Kessice nodded grimly. The city would be the biggest challenge, ironically. There were evil fish at sea, but Luan’s boat was Fraerling-magictech. In the city?

“We’ll set up traps, show you proper barrier spells, and if there are bugs, we’ll incinerate the bastards in their lair. We’ll need to secure any room he puts us in; there’s no guarantee the Tallfolk don’t have cracks as huge as we are they don’t know about.”

“Watch for doors. Noa, how’s your close-quarters fighting?”

“G-good? I’ve fought rats close-quarters, aside from the fighting at Paeth. Our armor’s rated for magical creatures.”

“Well, we’ll try to poison them or burn them. Resk, do you know [Acid Wave]?”

“You want waves? I can do waves. You want rain? Orbs? Geysers? Just don’t let them get near me with their feely-bits and pinchers. Unless it’s as dinner.”

Cotm ignored the other Fraerlings planning. He looked up, sighed, looked down at something, and reached up as he packed away his gear. He took the grappling hook’s line back from Noa and turned to face the others.

“We’re authorized to make a lot of choices. Alchimagus Resk, you’re the civilian-lead, and I’m technically the Tallguard in authority.”

“You are? I thought Kess—”

Cotm glared at Noa.

I’m empowered to make decisions for Paeth. We all are. This isn’t a game, so bear it in mind. Paeth is in danger. Oierdressql fell and we might be next.”

The others fell silent. Cotm glanced up at Luan, who had glanced their way a few times; he’d have to pick them up later under some pretense.

“When you get to this United Nations company, it’s up to you whether we make contact with more Humans, Alchimagus Resk. Get the supplies, and…well, I’m not sure what we need. We can contact Paeth and get in touch with the Sentry Leader and Architects. Be careful. Luan’s trustworthy, but Tallfolk can still lie.”

Noa frowned.

“…You’re saying it like you won’t be there.”

Cotm looked at Kessice. He checked his grappling hook, then pulled a second enchanted hook and rope from his belt. He looked at the others, who all stared at him.

“I’m Tallguard Cotm, making an independent decision for Paeth and Feiland. Don’t make contact with me and if you don’t see or hear from me—expect the worst.”

“Cotm—”

Kessice began to argue, but the [Scout] had made up his mind. Only…Noa’s brow wrinkled. For what?

 

——

 

It was a mystery. One that would be answered soon enough.

Idis shrank a bit because while Calectus and Ressk weren’t precisely glaring at her as she walked along in that decayed substitute body, they weren’t happy.

“It is the Mind’s business, Idis. You were right to obey.”

Guardian Ressk said, as they exited the Third Mind’s chamber. Idis heard the but in his words. She ducked her head.

“I’m sorry, Guardian Ressk.”

He looked at her, a bit uncertain. Which was new; the Selphid had been very calm before. Now, he was clearly agitated, and he glanced back.

“I will take you at your…words. The [Doctor] is well?”

“Physically, yes. Perfect condition.”

“Good.”

Geneva Scala was beginning to float upwards. The Third Mind waited for her. A day had passed since their meeting with the Second Mind. A lot could happen.

The Third Mind wanted to know exactly what.

 

——

 

“I am in the center of the Mind.”

Geneva Scala looked at herself, standing in the void. Then she was herself. Like before, she made contact and the Mind engulfed her.

Yeque, the representative personality, the Selphid [General], appeared, looking displeased.

“You have spoken with the Second Mind. It is not your fault. Nevertheless, the Second Mind is divergent in notable ways. Sympathetic where it must be practical.”

Geneva Scala turned. She felt…clearer. Rather than the Third Mind simply guiding her from topic to topic, it seemed to be waiting for a response. She thought/spoke her reply.

“The Second Mind is ethical. As a [Doctor], I find more common ground with it.”

Yeque frowned and more Selphids appeared, with more Genevas.

“The Second Mind is not superior to this gathering. It is not able to conduct research into the Wasting optimally. What did it tell you/inform you/offer?”

Geneva folded her arms.

“Why don’t you simply take what you want to know?”

Yeque hesitated. He grimaced and Geneva was sitting with him at a table. It was the United Nations’ table, where she used to talk with Daly, Paige, and the others. She had a cup of tea in her hand and he leaned forwards.

“We are not hostile, Geneva Scala. You understand our great urgency. You are a [Doctor], sworn to help others in need.”

Geneva felt a pang in her chest. She closed her eyes, and replied, slowly.

“I am. But a [Doctor]…no, a doctor is still a person. I can’t be everywhere and do everything. I also did not agree to give up my rights just because I want to help people. My Hippocratic Oath does not mean I place myself in danger or allow situations like this to occur.”

The Selphid frowned. He looked around the room and shook his head.

“We would like to cooperate.”

Geneva Scala stood. She did feel clearer. She focused—she had to focus, just like the Second Mind had taught her.

“You have not cooperated thus far. You have had me do whatever you needed. I am in the center of the Mind, but I have no agency.”

Yeque narrowed his eyes. Suddenly, he was gone and Geneva felt hundreds, thousands of other minds all pressing at her, one being of many parts.

The Second Mind has done something. What? We must know.

Geneva was in the void again, but, unlike last time, she thought there was a nuance to the displeased force of the Third Mind. She…heard. No, she sensed? She thought-heard whispers. A kind of undercurrent to the main words.

Implications of treachery? The Minds are united in purpose.

Conflict with the Second Mind is not desired. Redefine as disagreement—

The Second Mind may be attempting to co-opt the [Doctor].

The Third Mind wasn’t sure. And Geneva heard the many opinions within it, from separate Selphids. Yet as the Second Mind had told her—the Mind ruled by majority.

“Tell us what the Second Mind did/said/promised. We ask.”

Geneva Scala folded her arms.

“I refuse. What will you do then?”

The Third Mind paused for less than a fraction of a heartbeat in real-time. But Geneva sensed many, many individual voices…minds…doing something that was like a vote. Only, with all their perspectives and feelings in play.

Some of the Selphids regretted it. Some were adamant. Many…many were afraid, angry, curious. What emerged was a will forged of the majority of opinions, and it was this. She felt a vast, implacable will.

We will know.

Geneva Scala tried to fight it—but even with the Second Mind’s lessons, it was like…

It was like you stood on a beach and you were trying to hold your ground. But the storm had picked up and the waves were taller than you were. Twice as tall. Now…without moving, without anything else, stand your ground and don’t let it knock you off your feet.

The Third Mind could produce waves far stronger, and it was made up of thousands of minds, all with wills arguably as strong as any Human’s. Some stronger, some weaker.

Geneva didn’t even have a chance. Her resistance was swept away and then…

 

——

 

Geneva Scala stood in the center of the Mind. ‘Geneva’. Her eyes were blank. The Third Mind was everything, and she was…walking. Forwards, in the void of her own mind, to something.

A representation. To her, it was what most Humans from her world would probably compartmentalize in any visible or understandable way.

It was a door. To Geneva, it looked like a door from her home, a painted white piece of wood with a little bit of flecked paint near the edges, where it had scraped off a bit. It stuck sometimes when you tried to close it.

A door to the mind. A door of memory, for private things.

The Third Mind was displeased it existed. It thought at her—although ‘Geneva’ was just a shell. The real Geneva was inside the door, everywhere.

The Second Mind has taught you things it should not. The Second Mind is foolish. You cannot/should not/will not hide your thoughts. Not in the center of a Mind.

One Human, versus a collective of Selphids? What kind of foolish being would think you could ever win that, anyways? The puppet Geneva hesitated as it put its hand on the brass doorknob. The Third Mind was entreating, showing her genuine remorse and sympathy.

Tell us honestly. We wish to cooperate. The Second Mind poisons your thoughts.

Geneva refused. This was not equal. There was no give and take, only give. That was what the Second Mind recognized.

That understanding was like a red thread. The Third Mind focused, and suddenly a little red thread ran from behind the door, spooling at ‘Geneva’s’ feet. Ah, a through-line. The answer to its question.

Then we will know all of what transpired.

It made Geneva open the door, revealing everything she had seen and thought and done. Just as the Second Mind, even Geneva, had known would surely happen. You could not beat the Third Mind. So why had the Second Mind even tried to help? What had it done?

The answer lay behind the door, obviously. It opened, exposing Geneva’s inner thoughts, her memories, her desires and feelings even she did not let herself know. Geneva fought, she rebelled, but she was captive of the Mind.

And yet. The Third Mind’s probe of her halted, because it was stopped. Not by another door, but by a defender of Geneva’s mind. It took a specific form.

Like the angel at the Garden of Eden in the biblical teachings Geneva had learned as a child. Like the hero, the [Knight] for the princess she hadn’t really wanted to be later on. However, like a hero at the nth hour, the guardian at the gates, he stood there, in the way of the Third Mind.

A fragile thing, because it was just an image in Geneva’s memory and heart. A memory could not stand against the Third Mind. It could erase memories, or so the Second Mind had told Geneva. Change them. The power of a Mind when it truly knew no bounds was terrible indeed. Her most beloved parental figure, an image of someone she trusted—it was just a thought. How did you fight a Mind?

Who was this stranger? The answer was, he was Human. His skin was fair, he had on older clothing, and his hair was slicked back a bit. He also was standing in front of a microphone.

His name was, in fact, Rick Astley. And he began to sing and dance.

The Third Mind stopped dead. It processed the song. Which was the hit single, ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’. An Earth song with a surprising resurgence after the inception of the internet.

Ridiculous.

The image vanished. The door reappeared, and the Third Mind made the Geneva-representation open it. It revealed Geneva reaching out for the Second M—

Rick Astley replaced the memory. Same pose, same clothing. He began singing again.

Enough.

Again, the memory disappeared. Geneva Scala turned—and she stood in a hallway filled with doors. All her memories. The Third Mind created Yeque’s representation, and he stalked past her. He opened a door for Geneva. But instead of seeing what had happened after that—

Yeque, the Third Mind, looked through the doorway at a strange, pastel world of artificial colors. Just blue sky and green, supposed to represent grass. A bad image, really. An animation. And in that odd picture of the world was…

A squatting badger. A very loud and repetitive song was playing. It had about five words, one of which was ‘badger’.

The Third Mind slammed the door. Geneva felt a surge of genuine anger.

What trick is this? This…

It opened another door and Rick Astley was back. The door slammed shut.

More Selphids appeared. They strode over to other doors and began to open them. What they got was…more songs.

Songs. Like this talking, animated parrot that sang It’s a Small World, or childhood songs Geneva knew. Not necessarily good songs—although she had loved some of them. Rather—the annoying ones.

The ones that got stuck in your head and never left. There was a name for them on Earth. Earworms. But this—the Third Mind was exceptionally confused.

Stop this. Enough. Stop thinking of—

It tried to force Geneva to stop. But here was the thing. You couldn’t. The harder you tried, the more it got stuck in your head. That was the power of…well. Memes.

To be precise, it was memetic. Geneva couldn’t stop any more than the Third Mind. Another door opened and it was just filled with a single question—not an image, just a thought.

What happens when you divide something by zero?

What flowed out was about eight hours of Geneva’s life where she had wrestled with that question and even tried to conceptualize what that meant. And once you asked that question, it just…lodged. In your head.

The Second Mind! The damned Second Mind is—!

The Third Mind was under attack. It was a brilliant conception; if you couldn’t defend, go on the offensive. And the problem was spreading.

Geneva was back in control of her body. She looked around the void, in her limited perception, and saw something hit the Third Mind. The other personalities, the many component minds, were all reflecting the same thing in the sky.

A giant, dancing singer from the early 2000’s. It kept popping up. Along with the other annoying things that popped into her head and deserved only hellfire.

This was an attack. The Second Mind had started laughing when it realized just how badly Geneva could ‘hurt’ the Third Mind. It had studied mental battles, but even the Second Mind hadn’t the levels of sheer practice Earth had at getting something stuck in your brain.

Geneva Scala watched the Third Mind start to turn into one giant, annoying song. Yes—it was far weaker to this than she was because it was made of so many minds. It was—

 

——

 

“Something is wrong.”

Guardian Ressk saw the Third Mind’s component Selphids writhing in agitation. He ran forwards, a finger to his brow.

“Third Mind. What is wrong? What is…what is that song?”

He blinked, then whirled to face Idis.

What has the Second Mind done?

Calectus tensed and Idis flinched.

“I—I—”

But before anyone did anything, before Ressk could demand answers, something abruptly happened. The Third Mind’s agitation suddenly—ceased. It floated there, serene, and Ressk and the other Selphids turned back.

 

——

 

Inside the Mind, Geneva Scala saw the memetic attack…cease. The dancing man vanished and, suddenly, she stood back in front of the door.

Enough.

Yeque stood there, eyes flashing. He did not look calm, but the Third Mind was back in control. It had erased the distracting songs and images. Or perhaps, simply ignored them, compartmentalized them with a force of will that only a Mind could generate.

The Third Mind focused on Geneva. Yeque spoke for it, grimly.

So. The Second Mind aids you. It is not enough. This is noted. But it is not enough.

The [Doctor] stood there, in the center of the Mind. But no longer a component. Geneva Scala faced Yeque, faced the Mind, in front of the door.

“I can fight back. And I will. Don’t force me to do so. Please. I do not want to hurt you. But…”

Geneva Scala hesitated.

“…I will not be a puppet either. I have free will.”

She was a [Doctor], sworn to do no harm. But she was also a person. She could not save everyone. She could not allow the Third Mind to simply use her.

That was what it meant to be a medical practitioner. To struggle with ethics. It wasn’t always this. Sometimes it was just having to charge people money for the work you did. Sometimes it was a triage.

But it was hers to choose, not the Third Mind’s. She felt the ominous weight of its anger growing. It was realizing something. No—it was casting magic. The spell completed, and the eruption of fury reached out of the mental world.

 

——

 

Guardian Ressk gasped. His eyes bulged and he recoiled. He looked at Geneva, and then swung around to face Idis, who flinched because she knew what he’d realized.

The Third Mind had taken a while to figure it out, because it had a weakness and that was that it thought and learned everything via thought. But if it had cast a simple spell, it would have learned this from the start.

The thought wave ran through the Gathering Fortress, into the chambers of the other Minds who were horrified. A mental war broke out, and the Second Mind pushed back.

THE SECOND MIND HAS DONE THIS?

“UNACCEPTABLE.”

NO NON-SELPHID IS PERMITTED! A SECRET REVEALED!

Idis clapped a hand over her ears, but it was all in her head. Screaming thoughts so loud it felt like her brain would pop. Calectus hesitated, hand on his sword hilt.

“Guardian Ressk? What is it?”

“The Second Mind—it has—”

The Selphid choked. He pointed with a shaking finger at Geneva.

“—it has given the Human, the [Doctor], a class! Taught her what only we are allowed to learn!”

He looked at Idis, recoiled.

“And you. You were not initiated!”

Idis bowed low.

“Guardian Ressk—the Second Mind did so itself.”

He hesitated, looking appalled. But that was the key. He recognized her. After all…Ressk was a [Guardian], a class designed to guard the Minds. But that was what you’d call a generalization of his class.

Ressk was a [Psychic Guardian]. Capable of the same feats as the Minds, on a smaller scale. And Geneva Scala?

 

——

 

[Telepath].

She stood on the stepping stone to something else. First think—then transmit it into reality. The latter was very hard, but both physical and mental were boundless fields that were lost to all but a few.

“THIS SHOULD NOT BE. YOU HAVE BEEN TAUGHT WITHOUT THE CONSENSUS OF THE MINDS. WHAT ELSE? WHAT TREACHERY? WHAT MADNESS?”

The Third Mind was beyond rage. It forced her towards the door. Nothing would stop it learning all, now. Not Rick Astley. Not memes, or Geneva’s burgeoning talents, including her ability to at least block off parts of her personality from immediate mental searches.

Nothing.

“Don’t. I am warning you.”

Geneva Scala’s hand closed on the door. The unassailable force of the Third Mind made her twist the doorknob. Geneva Scala sighed, with regret. She opened the door and revealed what was inside.

It was just one thing. Rather than the memory promised. The Third Mind began to rage, to force the projection to change. But it halted. It stopped. Then it recoiled.

Geneva Scala felt the shockwave of something like agony—a kind of paralysis, shock. She cried out, hoping it hadn’t done too much. The Second Mind had survived it. Please, no! She didn’t want to hurt it. And yet…

She stared at what was within for a second before closing the door. It was just one thing, really.

A glowing line of text, just like when she had read it. Words. Just words.

 

The Gods are alive.

 

Like a line in the sand. Geneva Scala looked back, then opened the door and stepped through. A line no one from that world could cross so easily.

Geneva Scala stood in the center of Geneva Scala. For a moment, it was just her. She inhaled and exhaled, though it was just the thought of doing so.

Then she exited, to begin…

Negotiations.

 

——

 

Geneva Scala stood before the Minds. Not in the Minds, but in their physical presence.

They were there, all six of them, though the Third Mind looked distinctly worse for wear. By contrast, the Second Mind floated apart, with the Sixth Mind.

Two more were undecided, floating back and forth with the First Mind by the Third Mind’s side. They were arguing. But none of them wanted to try Geneva again.

It had been chance that she found the ultimate tool to block a Mind from taking too much. And yet—she was a physical prisoner and she was not a perfect telepath. In truth, Geneva surprised them.

“I want a microscope. I want to conduct my studies in the physical world as much as the mental one. The Yellow Rivers plague is still without a finalized, efficacious cure. And there is someone I need to heal.”

The Minds regarded her. It was the First Mind, the authority, who projected at her, cautiously.

You would allow the Minds to embody your consciousness?

Geneva Scala looked past it at the Second Mind.

“I…want to help people. For now, you are unwilling to release me, correct?”

Correct.

That came from all of them. Geneva nodded.

“Then I am a prisoner. I am unwilling. But I will help you. For a time. If you help me. Give me your insight and ability to—think. I wish to cure the Yellow Rivers plague, and I know that if I work with a Mind, I will be able to.”

They could do things she could only dream of, and with their aid she could think a thousand times faster and with more clarity. The Minds debated.

“An exchange. This is fair. No—fairness is the wrong concept. This is simply a tad more equitable. We are unfair, but the [Doctor] has agency.”

The Second Mind was smug. The Minds argued, fiercely, but they had encountered a breaking point with Geneva. They could not take everything.

Yet…the Third Mind was balefully opposed to the Second Mind. Geneva watched, conscious of Idis supporting her. This was not a situation that could last. Yet for now…for now.

You are genuinely willing to aid us for the sake of others. This desire we recognize. The Yellow Rivers plague is a danger, so we accept. We accept your aid in learning of the Wasting, furthering your understanding of medicine.

The Minds came back to her as one. Even the Second and Third Mind in unison. Yet they had one final thought and question for her.

What is the final request? You wish to help…who? Why?

Geneva Scala looked up.

“It is a promise, Minds. I cannot perfectly put the pieces together myself. But if it is possible—”

She reached out, slowly. The Minds drifted closer and the individual Selphids backed away. She reached out, and communed, and thought. Searching for the answer. To heal the Yellow Rivers disease, to do some good in the world, no matter where she was. That was her desire. Even if it was one person. Geneva thought at them.

“I have never met her. But help me find a cure for the closest thing to death. To bring one person back to life, if it can be done. Her name is…Erin Solstice.”

 

——

 

It was this scenario. You knew. You knew you were on the cusp of something. Something amazing. A conclusion beyond you, possibly earth-shattering. But you couldn’t march on over and shake it out of them.

If you played your hand, you were in danger. But enough was enough. Umina Caxical stared at the United Nations company.

“I have to know.”

Cameral and Kissilt were distracted, still talking about their consulting job. But Umina had an instinct as sure as the time she’d figured out how to cheaply win the games of Daquin. The Professor had always told her to follow such instincts. She looked at Marian.

“If only we had Venaz’s money. Or Wil’s contacts.”

“We’re not helpless. We’re just not super-elite.”

Umina, who had seen Venaz spend more money than she’d ever had in her entire life in a single shopping trip, nodded. She squared her shoulders.

“I’m going over. It’ll be…Paige. Or Luan. I’ll just march over and tell them what’s what. I’m Umina, from the Forgotten Wing company. You choose someone and we bluff. We’ll figure it out. Pretend we already know and they’ll hopefully confirm it for us.”

“Hm. Are you sure?”

“It’s that or we never get there. We’ll…”

Umina hesitated. She scratched at the back of her neck frills and looked around. But they were just loitering in one of the alleys; it was so packed around the docks. Marian nodded, swishing her tail distractedly.

“If you wanted to wait for the Professor…”

“They’re too close-mouthed, Marian. Kissilt’s project was a distraction.”

“Hey! I resent that, Umina. You’re invested in the group, and we are earning real money. If you don’t want to be a part, we’ll buy you out. But don’t look down at the kind of money we’ve already made and the reputation we’re gathering!”

Umina turned to argue with Kissilt. The Drake glared—and then Cameral raised a finger. Kissilt was last to catch on, and all four students fell silent. They looked around.

“—Could have sworn—”

“I don’t see anything.”

Kissilt was twisting a ring on his finger. Umina bit her tongue. She went for the dagger at her side as they backed up in case of…what? A [Fireball]? A…

“You’re not bad.”

The voice was normal-sized, but it came from—the [Strategists] recoiled. Marian aimed her bow up with Cameral and Kissilt’s wand side-arms. At…what?

Nothing. Just bare brick. Umina squinted. There was nothing there.

“Invisible? Camouflaged?”

“No—”

“I’m neither. But you are all students of the Forgotten Wing company, aren’t you? In the name of the Titan of Baleros, I invoke your aid. I hope you’re honorable. But we’ll see.”

The students looked around. Umina squinted up and Marian frowned. With her keener eyes due to her archery Skills, she saw something.

“It’s a little…pebble. Wait. A speaking st—”

Something moved. Umina jerked, but it tracked her, and she flinched, raising her dagger as—

A Fraerling landed on her head. Umina went cross-eyed. Kissilt and Cameral froze. The Drake nearly shouted.

Profess—

But it wasn’t the Titan. The Fraerling man was clearly younger, and he had different hair, a more stocky build…yet he was a Fraerling.

Cotm stood up on Umina’s snout, glanced at the cross-eyed Lizardgirl, and around at the students. His heart was pounding, but he kept his voice level.

“I am Cotm, Tallguard of Feiland. I am requesting aid from the Forgotten Wing company!”

And that was when the gears really began to turn. But…Cotm? He began to explain as the [Strategists] took him to a safe place. Why them? Why not the Forgotten Wing company?

Because they were in the right place, at hopefully the right time. But you didn’t put all your eggs in one basket—or aphid eggs as the case might be. Cotm wished Noa’s group the best of luck. He was taking a risk. Not alone, though.

 

——

 

Perorn Fleethoof ran. She ran through the academy, up a flight of stairs tailored for Centaurs, and burst into the room. She was panting; she was not a filly anymore.

Foliana was already there, somehow. She sat there, calmly eating a berry the size of her paws. A little bit had been broken off and placed on the table in front of her.

Someone kicked it. Instantly, he was scolded, but he folded his arms.

“What, no plates? I thought this ‘Great Company’ was used to Fraerlings. We’re not savages. Are you?”

“Mm. Someone’s getting some plates. You all came at once.”

The tiny little man put his hands on his hips.

“So rather than wait for it, you expect all of us to devour a single piece of berry.”

Foliana eyed the piece of berry. She picked it up, popped it into her mouth, and began to chew.

“…Mm. Tasty.”

“Dead gods.”

Perorn stopped. She stared at the visitors. Counted. One, two…

Sentry Leader Ekrn stared up at Foliana, trying not to look away, but Three-Color Stalker was hunched over, staring almost at eye-level with him. And her eyes were huge. Some of the other Fraerlings had backed up, surrounding the female Fraerling who was just behind Ekrn.

“Mm.”

That was all the Squirrel Beastkin woman said. She looked at the other Fraerlings.

“Who are you?”

“Sentry Leader Ekrn of the Tallguard of Feiland. Here to demand answers from the Forgotten Wing Company on behalf of Feiland!”

He barked back. Foliana blinked, slowly. Then focused on the second figure.

“And I am Guidance of Paeth on the Coast. Also here to represent my colony, and other cities which have come under attack by Tallfolk who know where we are.”

Guidance glanced at Ekrn. They had come together, and the Tallguard escort was meant for her as much as Ekrn, but they represented two powers, Tallguard and city.

That would have been enough for Perorn to gasp. But not enough to represent the others.

More Fraerlings stared and muttered. They pointed at Ekrn and the Guidance. Ekrn heard them—he wanted to look at them, but his eyes were still engaged in a staring match with Foliana, who was glancing at them.

The Guidance herself? Sentry Leader…no one higher-ranked?

“And who are you?”

At last, Ekrn looked around. The Guidance did too, and they saw other Fraerlings. Nearly four dozen Fraerlings stood there, despite Ekrn’s team only being six strong. Some had come alone. Others in groups, the largest fourteen strong.

“We also represent Fraerling…settlements. Under attack! We have seen Tallfolk scouts looking for something! We are not part of Forgotten Wing’s aegis, but we identify them as your enemies. Someone knows where we are.”

A Fraerling strode forwards, silver-haired, and barked up at Foliana. Other representatives shouted too.

A village is gone! It was a complete slaughter! It will be repaid!

No one knows where we are but the Titan of Baleros and this company! We must be defended! We have given the Titan his precious signim—and is this how he repays us?

Fraerlings from multiple regions. All in danger. Ekrn’s neck prickled. He looked at the Guidance, and then at Foliana. Slowly, the Squirrel Beastkin sat up and looked at Perorn. She murmured.

“Here comes the trap. Mm.”

Her eyes glittered.

“Almost done waiting. Waiting for it to snap.”

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: I am taking my break on, or before the 22nd of November. Mainly because while it’s a very short working time…I’m going to visit family for Thanksgiving.

It’s something that’s very important, and so it’s unavoidable. In the larger sense, I will be curious to know if a shorter working week and two vacations in the same month help improve my writing.

I think readers can tell when I’m at the height of my energy, off a break, and when I’m ending it. It may be that it’s more beneficial to take longer breaks…I just don’t want to.

Also, it’s hard for me to do that, but it might be better for the writing quality. That’s for the future-me to work with, but I hope you’ll understand if I do. More breaks doesn’t mean less words—it might mean higher-quality, or I can work on other projects. I do have other stories I want to tell, not all TWI-related, so things like a regular 2-week break every few months or something might allow me to try new things.

That’s just my notes for the writing life. I hope you enjoyed this chapter. I am back! And we are still going for it, strong as ever. This is the side story chapter; were you happy with the results even if you didn’t vote for it? Let me know and thanks for reading! Let’s get to it. It might be a shorter writing-month, but I’ll try to make each chapter count. Thanks!

 

Dado has commissioned two pieces! Everyone appreciate Dado!

(Click here for the NSFW art they commissioned. Nudity, sexual content. You have been warned.)

 

Goblin Queen by ferversaile, commissioned by Dado!

 

Regrika Blackpaw by gheeart, commissioned by Dado!

 


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46 thoughts on “8.51 D

  1. Why am I not surprised at that link, also thank you for the chapter, never underestimate the internets power to distract.

  2. i laughed clicking that link!
    i was so worried for are doctor, the others and rower it seems there trooping well despite everything!

  3. Ahhhhh sometimes i wish to hibernate for 3 months to have some more chapters to binge read. Can anyone recommend some webserials to read? I would appreciate it a lot :^)

  4. Ah so Drath is a cluster of Asian cultures rather than straight Japanese. I wonder if the Drath are going to end up with a Dragon blood-cultivated royal line given all the Cultivation stereotypes they have been given.

    I wonder if by Selphids disintegrating by the Wasting means rotting away or just straight up breaking apart into nothing. The former implies a disease/ailment while the latter sounds like a reality existence problem. It has been implied that Selphids are alien creatures from beyond the edge of the world, so maybe Selphids used to leech existence from living hosts and their species are starting to run out cause they are no longer using living hosts. We know Selphids feel extremely alive in living bodies, so it might not just be living nerves causing that sensation.

  5. Typo/inconsistency:
    “…您好. It is my honor to greet you far from home. I hope I have said that correctly?”

    Ni hao, from Chinese. Yet Ken would swear this was more suited for a Japanese meal; they were even sitting in seiza, which was a very Japanese way of sitting, legs under your knees.
    ———————-

    The characters are not “Nihao”, but for “Ninhao”, which uses the formal “you” of Chinese.
    And this fits with the Dullahans and Drathians being very formal people.
    你好 Nihao is the informal version of this.
    The difference would not be lost on Ken, I think.

  6. Got to admit sometimes being annoying seems to be the best defense in this world… Just got to wait and see how far the “Gods Live” line is going to aid or doom them.

    Other than that got to love the furlings having an idea of a plan, but having to throw the dice and see if the help they can try to get will aid them, be useful, or end up being a lot more dangerous than they hoped.

    Especially since Jungle Tails seem to have caught wind that United Nations has a few important secrets that they failed to realize/recognize until now… And unlike the current company in charge… They realize the threat or treasure right outside their doorstep.

    The question is simply which decision shall be picked.

  7. It was phrased here as mostly a self defense mechanism but a telekinetic doctor is going to be crazy, such fine control. Like instead of a modern endoscope surgery, geneva just visualizes what she wants. Or can manage more than what 2 hands can do. I think the class consolidation is going to be crazy

    (Anyone else read one of orson scott card’s books, I don’t remember which, where some telekinetic mice had such control they manipulated DNA to set the story’s plot in order)

  8. Well, its lovely to read a new chapter. However, I do hope that you rest as much as you need. This latest chapter was something I enjoyed.

  9. I loved that chapter! The minds are very interesting. Personally, I would love to work with any if them – willingly – but especially the Second Mind. They seem fun.

    The mind sequences were very well written. I’d love to read more scenes with them

    • I can’t recall any explicit mention. Perhaps Geneva discovered it accidentally while “talking” to the Second Mind. It says here that the Second Mind had survived seeing it; maybe it had accidentally stumbled on this memory while “scrolling” through her mind.

    • Well, she might have felt Idis almost die inside her when she actually received the message maybe? It does not necessarily have to be during her meeting with the Minds.

  10. So, a doctor loses her ability to walk because of an incident, and then she travels to a secret layer hidden in plain sight, and learns to yield the power of her mind. Then she gets trapped by another evil entity but she manages to overcome it and also forces it to make a bargain.
    Now she needs to get a red foating cloak and a necklace with green gem inside, and she will be able to unlock the [Sorcerer Supreme] class.

    • Divide and conquer: attack a dozen Fraerling villages as a distraction and the Titan’s forces will be spread thin to protect them all. Meanwhile, an all out attack will be launched on their capital.

      Foliana knows this and is simply waiting for the enemy leadership to reveal itself, so that she can try to decapitate it. Of course, the Jungle Tails company knows this will be her goal so they’re manipulating cannon-fodder to do the diversions and hide themselves.

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