Trigger Warning: See the link here for details.
Geneva Scala dreamed of the past, some days. She knew, then, she was in a memory. They called it ‘lucid dreaming’ on Earth, and the [Doctor] had, privately, always thought it was a hoax. Despite people claiming to be able to control their dreams, it bordered too much on pseudo-science, and she had the same feeling from it as friends who tried to get her to admit that exotic foreign herbal tinctures and acupuncture were replacements for medicine.
She had always been meaning to look up some studies and see if there were any actual data behind the myth. Perhaps, then—that was why her subconscious always brought her back to her journey into becoming a medical practitioner.
It was a long, long path. Geneva had entered into med school and actually been getting hands-on at 25. Which was fast; she’d managed to gain acceptance in the grueling sea of applications without having to take time off or build up a resume.
A resume, to be accepted into the right school. The costs? Not to be spoken of when you were adding to your student debt. Geneva remembered vaguely resenting a lot of college, which was a four-year pre-med journey normally—before you actually got into medical school.
She’d done it in three years in a BS/MD program. To get into medical school, you had to be very, very focused on science. But not just that—you had to prove you were the right candidate. So in a sense, Geneva had been, in college, preparing for a second round of applications and admission tests.
That was a level of academia unknown to most of the world, let alone the one she was now in. Even the Minds had been slightly alarmed by the mental conditioning, as they saw it, that some people went through.
Which was funny for giant amalgamations of Selphids formed into a collective. But as the Second Mind had pointed out—how long was school, even for someone who dropped out at high school? Eight years? College made it twelve—sixteen, more depending on if you were in graduate school?
Possibly no other experience would shape you as much, especially in your formative years. Parents might have less of an impact.
It was this memory that stood out to Geneva. Among the many things she’d done to apply for med school, she’d known that students needed to get patient-contact hours. Experience in varied fields that proved they were more than a bunch of essays.
There were a number of ways to do this. She chose to be a first responder since she had enough experience to be accepted. Well, the requirements weren’t that high, but she had seen medical emergencies before, and she was confident she wouldn’t freeze up.
More strenuous activities like climbing, rafting, or any sport led to someone getting hurt, and she’d had to help call in a helicopter for a friend who’d taken a group of college students climbing. Their leader had been the one who broke their leg.
Compared to search and rescue, being a first responder had seemed far more fitting to Geneva, who was not fit or confident enough to find someone lost in the wilderness. She had been so focused on the requirements and building up her application for med school she’d forgotten what first responders did.
All this to say that Geneva was nineteen years old when she first touched a corpse. Not an animal’s; she’d lost a beloved pet long, long ago, and that had started her on this path, almost by chance.
—The gravel driveway was crunching under her shoes as she walked up the slope. She’d volunteered with a bunch of other pre-med students, and by chance—or because they were close by in their dorms—she actually knew the guy who had also shown up.
He was freaking out, though. Already. He must have been here eight minutes before her, but there was no rush. Volunteer first responders were called on to head to accidents, medical emergencies, and more. Sometimes, though—they arrived for cases like this, where the victim was already deceased.
Suicide. Geneva hadn’t known that was the case when she was called, but the dispatcher had been fairly certain. Her role, and the adrenaline spiking through her body, changed to apprehension. She wasn’t needed to save a life, but for something else. That was why her coworker was so upset.
Nor were they even the first to arrive. The coroner was already done. They were being nicer to the first responders. Nicer—in that the coroner put the body in a bag for them to carry to the van. First responders weren’t like EMT’s.
It didn’t smell as bad as she feared. That was what Geneva remembered, in this dream-memory. She feared a stench so foul she wouldn’t forget it or that she was going to panic.
Her classmate wasn’t helping. He was panicking about carrying the body. Geneva was afraid of what she might see. But that fear turned out to be groundless.
The coroner had arrived first. Whomever this was was already dead. All Geneva saw was a black tarp and a shape under it. No flies, no…
Her partner bent down and almost touched the feet. Then he straightened. She could hear him breathing a mile a minute, and she didn’t think that was what he wanted. Not in this room.
In her dream, she remembered that the wallpaper was peeling. Peeling in those rounded strips or torn off. She hadn’t ever recalled that when she thought of this day.
That was her gift. An older Geneva now watched the younger one trying to calm down the other student—but he was already backing away.
And she remembered how the coroner’s face had looked, a twisting of the lips as he turned to her and realized he’d have to help. Then she bent down and felt something too stiff and awkward in her arms and waited for that burst of panic, ready to fight it off and do what she’d surely have to do in time.
…It never came. She just watched her step as they moved out through the house’s corridors, and the idiot who couldn’t lift at least held the door open. Then? Then she realized she was touching a dead body, and it was a moment she might not forget. But it hadn’t sent her into a spiral or taken her off this path.
In her memory, she wondered, even now. Whose face had been under that sheet of plastic? Sympathy, determination, and that crunch of gravel and straining in her arms.
Then she woke up.
Geneva Scala remembered the dream as she woke up and someone greeted her.
“Good morning, Geneva. Have you been sleeping okay?”
Idis, the Selphid, was as cheery as ever. Geneva didn’t know when she had fallen asleep but she answered slowly.
“I’ve been having the same dream.”
“Are you remembering your dreams? I remember all of mine now!”
The Selphid was instantly excited, and Geneva nodded stiffly. Her body swung out of bed, and Idis began hurrying it around, putting a pot of tea on the stove in the subterranean quarters they had been assigned in the Gathering Citadel, the home of the Minds.
By now, it was something Geneva was used to. She’d asked Idis to let her feel her body, but it was like riding along, not having to do the, well, the sheer mundanity of some activities like brushing your teeth. Idis did it and still seemed to relish the sensations she and Geneva shared.
Geneva muttered as Idis brushed their teeth with the toothbrush she’d had made, rather than using the alchemical mouthwashes she didn’t quite trust. But that was the problem with a Selphid; sometimes they couldn’t quite hear you. So Geneva Scala concentrated—and spoke with a second voice.
(Idis. Don’t swallow the toothpaste.)
“Oops, sorry, Geneva. It tastes so good!”
The Selphid stopped, and Geneva felt her body spit. The [Doctor] rinsed her mouth, and then she thought again.
(We’re going to be late if we savor breakfast. Let’s just eat some cereal and go. The Second Mind is waiting.)
She could sense a tin of cereal grains on the table. Slowly, despite her body washing its face and combing its hair, Geneva Scala reached out, and she, her mind, slowly pressed on the tin. It was different to how hands worked. Foreign. She had to exert pressure here and here, because the damn thing stuck—and she kept forgetting she should press from the outside.
It made sense to try to push straight up, from the inside, but that meant projecting her will through the thin metal, and that was ten times harder than—
Pop. The little lid opened, and Geneva mentally exhaled as it did. Idis strolled over, humming. Then she recoiled as she saw the open tin.
“Did you do that, Geneva? I can’t do manipulation yet!”
The doctor just murmured her agreement. And the [Telepath]—Geneva Scala—carefully watched and hid everything she truly thought and felt deep within her mind, locked away behind her consciousness.
She was learning.
The days after Geneva Scala had gained her new class and resisted the Third Mind’s attempts to force her to cooperate were better.
Better, for being a hostage of the Minds. Better, because she had gained some autonomy. Her body might need Idis to be moved and she might be prisoner to it, but her mind was free.
And her mind could move mountains. Or at least, pop the lid off a tin.
(Small steps make a thousand miles. A very good saying. Of course, Fraerlings point out that not all steps are the same size. That, too, is wisdom.)
The Second Mind ‘spoke’ in the same way Geneva did. When she wasn’t inside the…landscape of one of the Selphid Minds, she could sense the meaning and words themselves much like hearing them, but without the possibility of being misunderstood.
Only the Second Mind bothered; the other Minds found it infinitely faster and more nuanced for Geneva to enter their gestalt and communicate there. The Second Mind was, of all of them, an ally.
The radical, the free-er thinker; identical to the others. A slowly moving orb of thousands of slowly-writhing Selphids. To others, they appeared to be elastic slugs, these ones dark in color from oxidation by the outside, living, pressed together, and held hovering in the air by pure mental force alone.
The stuff of some people’s nightmares. Yet the Second Mind was a calming presence. It had decorated its floors with bright colors, experimenting with palettes to see how they affected the emotions of people who walked the corridors.
The Second Mind played music and read books. For Geneva, it had put a chair and even pillows, a stuffed animal in one corner. It kept switching out which one was there. A monkey, a crocodile, a rabbit…
In that sense, Geneva Scala was still an experiment, someone to learn from. But she appreciated at least the sense that she was more than a resource.
All the Minds did. The Third Mind had been censured, and it had pulled back from its more invasive uses of her own consciousness. Accordingly, she and Idis had begun to be taught by the Minds one of the purposes of this place.
The Minds were leaders of the Selphids. They were super-intelligent, powerful, and had old memories and knowledge to draw on from all the Selphids who made them up. They had capabilities that had allowed Selphids to survive even the wrath of other species, and their one greatest threat was the Wasting.
Well, their existence was a secret only Geneva and few others knew. Their true goals—ending the Wasting being one desire—were unknown to the world, as were their true capabilities. But one of the things they gave [Honor Guards] and elite Selphids like Calectus, and now Idis and Geneva, was a class unheard of by most of the world:
[Telepath]. It was the Selphids’ great weapon, and it was useful in combat, diplomacy, and everywhere else.
It was hardly infallible, though. Most Selphids could not best a [Mage] throwing a [Fireball] at them even with mental abilities. Yet for someone like Geneva, it could be very useful indeed.
Could she ‘see’ into a patient’s body? Stop hemorrhaging with more than a Skill—locate a shard of metal hidden away? At the very least, she could now move things with her mind and sense other people’s thoughts.
Her training was with the Second Mind. It often consisted of meditation and learning how to move mentally. For instance, like the tin—Geneva’s mental power was limited by her proximity to an object.
Not by space alone, though. What was interesting was that unlike magic, telepathy didn’t scale up in the same way by sheer distance. Rather, it was Geneva’s understanding of things.
She could not open an object she hadn’t seen before. If it had a screw-on lid or a latch, she wouldn’t be able to do more than pull weakly on it. If she were handed a ball or a scalpel, she could make it move. But an object she had no idea of, not what it was made of or the entire thing, was far, far harder to manipulate.
(Sense each object completely. Meditation is part of this. [Monks] have learned many lessons we remember. Your dreams you now remember because you are learning to be aware of what your mind is doing. Sometimes, you will be aware it is playing a trick on you. Mental control, even magical, will be far more difficult. But flying may be beyond you without Skills.)
“I don’t know how I’d even begin.”
Geneva had a headache just pushing around a soccer ball the Second Mind had placed between them. A child could kick it infinitely harder than the slight pushes she was doing. The Second Mind lifted the ball up and tossed it to one of its [Guardians], who caught it and retreated.
(We are the Minds. Thousands of Selphids’ wills joined. Ours is not exactly a fair competition.)
“How can you fly all the time, though? I know you do have to rest.”
Geneva stared at the floating orb, and the Second Mind executed a kind of mental shrug in her head. It looked like a Selphid wearing a Gnoll’s body shrugging.
(We know ourselves perfectly. Each Selphid that makes me up is a part of me, memory and experience. Each Selphid is lost in me, never to be individual. At least, not without me deliberately separating off those experiences. It is a great sacrifice. Our creation is constantly changing as Selphid bodies die, and in that sense, we are a wasteful being for our species. Yet powerful. Perhaps we have lost our way as a species and considered a Mind the end result, rather than a choice.)
That was why the Minds hated the Second Mind, incidentally. It questioned their very existence. It was…well, dissident thought made manifest.
Six Minds occupied this Gathering Citadel. Of them, Geneva knew they were ranked in terms of importance by number. There was a First Mind, tasked with looking into the Earthers, who led the group. But they voted collectively; the Second Mind was a radical. A free thinker who took in Selphids who had journeyed far from home.
The Third Mind was her true warden. It was the one who tried to stop the Wasting, the death of all Selphids before their time, and in that, Geneva was united with it. But she had opportunities to meet more in the days after her new class.
The Second Mind’s lessons did more than give Geneva some power even without Idis sharing her body. It earned her the respect of the other Minds, enough to learn their ‘names’.
Minds were odd things. They had personality, as Geneva well knew. However, even a broad collective wanted a name. Rather than take one that was made up, though, each Mind was a word.
For instance, this Second Mind was referred to by a word that summarized its purpose or perhaps its vision and how it viewed itself and its role. It was known as ‘Contradiction’.
By contrast, then, the Third Mind grudgingly told Geneva it was called ‘Dictum’, and she had to admit, it was a fitting name.
She met with ‘Egress’ five days after gaining her new class.
Egress was grumpy. That was the first thing Geneva noticed. It was like a well-worn track, and it resented doing the same thing, even as it understood the value of not extrapolating. Egress was tired.
Egress was old.
(This Egress is the oldest of six. Once, it led Minds. Now, it serves another point until the very foundation of Egress shifts to a new name and purpose.)
She understood that this Selphid was comprised of so many ancient Selphids that it had grown stuck in its thinking and been given a different task compared to the other Minds. It was, perhaps, less adaptive, and the sad part for Egress was that it knew it. So it had voluntarily shifted its role.
“How old does a Selphid grow? What is the average age of Selphids within your body?”
Egress was silent a moment, but the room it was in was not. Rather, very sturdy barriers of glass and magic were surrounding this Mind, so it could still ‘see’ around the room—but the forges where hammers swung and metal cooled did not end.
It was making weapons. Weapons and armor and even items for the Bodies of Fellden and other Selphids. Geneva saw a chestplate of armor that could be adapted to multiple forms shining with some kind of bright magic as Egress enchanted it and manipulated hot steel in the air without needing tools. Only the sheer hammering force required such implements.
It could only forge a fraction of items compared to an army of smiths, but what it did make was of a quality only Fraerlings could exceed, and they were tiny. Still, Geneva understood why Egress disliked the work; it made valuable things to defend its people, but it was boring.
Accordingly, the Sixth Mind’s touch was weaker than the others, as if the monotony weakened the collective itself.
(…The average age of Selphids in Egress not replaced due to Wasting or the needs of continuum is ninety-one years.)
It had taken a few minutes to calculate that. Geneva’s eyes widened.
“How old is the oldest Selphid within you?”
(Six hundred and two.)
“How is that possible? I thought half-Elves were the only ones who lived nearly that long!”
For answer, the Sixth Mind lifted a burning piece of metal into the air and began to shape it as it spoke to her.
(No Selphid bound within a body, alone, has lived past two hundred years in the last two Ages. Selphids are introduced to parasites, disease, pain, and distress. The Minds are controlled environments. Nevertheless, time affects us. Is this information germane to your understanding, Doctor?)
“I think it is. But I need to look into your biology.”
The Mind dourly agreed, which felt in Geneva’s mind like a thousand grumpy Lizardfolk nodding.
(Hence Egress. I have nearly completed prototyping. A more fascinating challenge. Egress appreciates the stimulation. Your second request is difficult. Each Mind must tabulate. It is foreign to us. Need your—statistical analysis truly be done?)
It sounded annoyed, and even Contradiction had hesitated when she asked. But Dictum had insisted, and Geneva nodded.
“It is. You called me here for a perspective and understanding unlike—”
(Yes. The point is already made.)
The annoying thing about Minds was that they never let you finish a metaphor or analogy. They got your point whenever you thought of it.
The ironic thing about the Minds was that when Geneva met them, she had thought she was encountering some kind of biological artificial intelligence. Some grand force—and they were.
But like everything, reality didn’t meet expectation. The Minds were collectives, a gestalt of countless lives, not a supercomputer. Thus, as the Second Mind had shown her, their weaknesses were all biological:
They could get trapped in a way of thinking. If they lacked perspective in their constituent parts, the greater whole might still lack it.
Thus, when Geneva Scala had begun her research into the Wasting, she realized that the Third Mind had no spreadsheets, no concrete data it could show her about the Wasting.
It had taken tens of thousands of Selphids who had encountered the Wasting in their personal lives or seen its effects or tried to stop it into its body. But when Geneva asked it the basics, Dictum had floundered.
“If this is a plague, can you show me a breakdown of Selphids infected by the Wasting by geography, time, age, and so on?”
It had been unable to. Nor had the Mind appreciated Geneva wanting it to copy down all the data it had in quantitative form. Even for the Minds—
(It will take cycles upon cycles of thought! The other Gathering Citadels must all be queried and the knowledge cross-referenced. The Third Mind will be at work for a week straight!)
So Dictum had complained, but the other Minds had allowed Geneva’s request to go through. Mostly because they saw her point.
Scientific analysis was something Humans came up with because they died and they couldn’t share their information at the speed of thought. It was a weakness of the Minds, and hence—Geneva Scala’s value to them.
So Dictum was unhappily now processing data for hundreds, possibly thousands of years of Wasting events from the memories of all the other Minds and trying to pinpoint them across a map and having to write it down.
It meant it had no time to speak with her, and in the meantime, Geneva was free to pursue other avenues to improve this world’s medicinal knowledge and help with the Wasting as a whole.
Geneva Scala was a doctor.
She was also a surgery resident in her third year on Earth. If she went back home, with all her knowledge and experiences, a surgeon might well admit her as a very, very promising doctor who’d operated on battlefields and who had an intimate knowledge of the Human body.
Experience like that was invaluable, and Geneva might be the best authority among Earth’s medical practitioners on adapting medical practices to non-Human bodies.
…None of that meant she was near the level of a practicing expert in medical fields. She was also not an anesthesiologist. She was not a biologist. She didn’t know (much) about the effects of radiation or how to deal with cancer. Mind you, you had questions on nuclear physics on some exams—
—But she was aware of her lack of knowledge. So Geneva Scala had decided that all her understanding of the bodies she had worked on, the lives she’d saved as The Last Light on the battlefield, were anecdotal.
Did she really understand how Dullahan bodies worked? Did she know, conclusively, how a Centaur was a mix of Human and horse?
No. Were Lizardfolk even lizards or were they mammals in disguise? The microbiology of each species alone was a mystery to her, and Selphids were arguably the biggest mystery of all.
So Geneva had asked for a Mind to help make her something no other person on Baleros had been able to do thus far. Egress slowly shaped metal and glass and magic to exacting perfection.
(Not even a Fraerling could do as well. For they cannot see the final product. Egress understands. Refraction of light. A [Glassblower] once observed the same when working for an [Archmage]. Zelkyr, they called him. He wished glass eyes for his Golems but gave up.)
Slowly, it placed a gleaming lens of glass in a large contraption of metal still gleaming blue from forging. It adjusted, grumbled, and cast a spell to enhance the image again.
The resultant object was nowhere near as precise as what Geneva knew from home. Yet it was still a microscope. It had to be far larger because even Egress could not adjust the minute parts perfectly, but with magic, it could magnify beyond belief.
Even so—getting down to the cellular level was tough, and Egress soon realized that the slightest imperfections or misadjustments meant Geneva ‘missed’ what she was trying to focus on by miles. Metaphorically speaking.
(Can this not work?)
It grumpily cast [Eagle’s Eye] on a circle of wood for her, and Geneva could see the very pores on her skin. She looked up as it tried to adjust the lenses it needed to have perfectly aligned and tried to figure out a system so it could be manually adjusted. It had no eyes, so it needed a volunteer to help it.
“Unfortunately, this is far, far below what I need to see.”
(Then Egress shall ponder. Go, go, go. You shall be summoned when Egress is finished.)
It shooed her out, but it seemed rather pleased by the difficulty. As for Geneva—she walked off and spent the rest of her time in lessons with the Second Mind and then investigating bodies of dead people that the Selphids were only too happy to show her—so long as she sewed them back up afterwards.
She needed to learn.
Those were the days before Fetohep of Khelt called an alarm across the world. When the Minds feared an advent of Seamwalkers, they dropped everything they were doing and spent every moment obsessively combing Baleros for the threat or monitoring the battles elsewhere.
Geneva Scala did not see The Dyed Lands changing, but she felt the Minds desperately assessing the damage and trying to evacuate their people from the first waves of monsters.
She worked and dreamed and made a few discoveries.
In her dream, she remembered something. The dead body in the body bag. The smell wasn’t bad.
Even so—that idiot threw up. So she had to walk through a mess, and there she was as the coroner and she carried the body out to the van. And he said, as they were maneuvering the body into the back—
“That one won’t last long.”
Memory was a strange thing. Geneva knew that memory cells actually changed in your mind; they were rewritten, and so your memories changed too. Perhaps her class was uncovering the truth, or at least, putting some memories into clarity.
The Third Mind was grumpy when it finished its work. Dictum presented her with a chart highlighting the Selphid Wasting occurrences by region on a map of Baleros and the world, and she looked at it blankly.
“…This is just population data? I can see Wasting occurs where there are more Selphids.”
Geneva bit her lip. This would have been so much easier with a computer instead of the papers that the Third Mind had laboriously copied down the data onto. It had had to teach itself statistical analysis from her memories, and it seemed really fed up. She still caught a current of…fear from the ripples after Fetohep’s warning and the battle at the Meeting of Tribes.
“Can you perform another comparison? I need you to show me the number of Wasting occurrences by density of population.”
(How would—aggravating, aggravating.)
The Third Mind actually sank in the air as it realized what Geneva wanted it to do. Rather to her amusement she realized—it wasn’t made up of a lot of Selphids who liked numbers.
Another flaw of the Minds was that while they had [Guardians] and helpers, they were individualistic. The Second Mind had the most capable staff; the Third Mind had been so used to being superior that it had no one to delegate this work to. It was the only person who could do the job. Glumly, it told her to come back later.
Meanwhile, Geneva Scala was working on an actual discovery courtesy of the First Mind.
Of all the Minds, the First Mind was the one who got to worry about Earth. And unlike anyone else, the First Mind could look into Geneva’s head and see an image of a nuclear weapon falling. It could understand a billion—and it worried.
But it said little of this to her. Continuum knew how the world worked—and it tried to see how the world could change.
So the First Mind had given orders, and the unhappy Bodies of Fellden, the Selphids who fought and executed the Mind’s wills, had given Geneva Scala some of their most precious resources.
(The Bodies of Fellden are a vast group. A name for all Selphids acting as the Minds’ will. Each Gathering Citadel may employ them under this title. Some have more combat capability than others. Calectus is among the best of our number.)
It shunted the information to Geneva as she worked on a table in front of it. She was concentrating hard, but the First Mind was listening to her background thoughts.
(This body in front of you may cost hundreds of gold pieces, or less if the owners are unaware of its worth. Many times, a Selphid may pay tens of thousands of gold coins, even for a body that may soon be useless. This is unto…artifacts as most non-Selphids understand it.)
It gestured down at the dead Gorgon, and Geneva glanced up and nodded.
“Especially if they have loved ones.”
(A regrettable difference between species. What do you observe?)
Slowly, Geneva Scala lifted something out of the body, and one of the [Guardians] sighed.
“I’m afraid I need to investigate this. Which means you may need to cede the body to me.”
(Acceptable. Can Egress manufacture a microscope to your expectations?)
“Not as precise as I want, but…this is invaluable.”
Geneva Scala was holding something she’d removed from the body. She felt like she was performing actual mad science, because this was dead tissue. Not a transplant. And yet—she looked down at the strangest thing.
She thought it was…well, she had a thin strand of muscle fiber and what might be a tendon. Geneva knew all about connecting tendons and the many, many complications from tearing or snapping one completely.
It was a difficult process with a lot of rehabilitation, and she had never done anything like having to reconnect them—even repairing the War Walker’s body, Bastiom, had been more about pouring healing potion into the right spots and connecting whatever she saw.
This though—Geneva Scala had never, ever run into something in a body her scalpel couldn’t cut through. But she’d had to actually yank the entire tendon out of the body as well as the individual strands of muscle.
They even looked subtly different as they curled up, and Geneva was carrying them over to the next version of the microscope as she spoke.
Because she had a feeling she was about to see Galas-muscle up close.
In a sense, it was well that Egress couldn’t yet manufacture a microscope that took her down to the maximum level of Earth’s microscopes. It was getting close—she was down to views of muscle fiber.
That had to be—200x magnification? She had to guess. And she wondered if it was even possible to get to the molecular level with the Mind’s help. This—this was already revolutionary for this world, but only Geneva could understand what it meant. She focused, twisting a knob that the Sixth Mind had labored on for ages. And what she saw made her blink.
She wished she had access to a medical database. Even Wikipedia would mean she wasn’t reliant on memory! But the First Mind was able to help her cycle back through memory to the point where she could actually ‘pull’ pages of textbooks into the mental landscape of the First Mind.
Geneva did so now, jotting notes down as a horde of Selphids, all wearing lab coats, followed her about. As if she were a professor in a laboratory teaching a bunch of students about dissection.
Geneva pointed up to a blown-up image taken from her eyes as she adjusted the microscope with her physical body.
“This is what I’m seeing right now. Galas-muscle. I’m almost sure that’s what it is, and here—is an image of regular muscle from memory.”
A bunch of pink strands with odd striations—little lines—appeared. It looked just like long branches of pink with black dots. The black dots flanked the muscle fiber most of the time, and they looked—some of the Selphids frowned.
“What is that?”
“The black dots? Nuclei. A kind of—well, I suppose you’d call them the center of a cell. The databases with all the information a cell needs to multiply. The instructions for doing so.”
“These are in muscles? They look uncanny. Like parasites.”
One of the Selphids looked disturbed, but the rest were nodding. Their eyes were swinging from the image Geneva had seen back home to the galas-muscle. Because there were differences.
For one thing? Geneva Scala’s own eyes hurt a bit as she tried to count how many striations were in the galas-muscle compared to the regular muscle.
A factor of two-to-one? Three? The galas-muscle obviously wasn’t pink in her microscope; you often got dyed samples for better clarity, and lighting mattered. But it was more—vibrant.
Vibrant, in a way she wondered if it would show up on a camera. It had a subtle iridescence to it. And she thought that change in color might be a sign of magic.
Well, the other big clue was this: each nucleus in the galas-muscle looked slightly larger, and they had a different color to them. Pale grey or silver, and Geneva Scala wondered what the hell was going on at a cellular level.
“The Galas-muscle is tougher. Stronger. Even in bodies where rot has set in, galas-muscle does not degrade. A rotting corpse of a Level 30 [Warrior] can be stronger than a fresh one without such muscle.”
One of the Selphids observed knowingly, and Geneva caught the image of two Selphids swinging an axe. One could swing it and push their body so hard they tore muscle and crashed it into a tree; the other swung, and the entire tree shook and began to tilt and fall over.
“There’s something changed on a cellular level about galas-muscle. You said it develops as a result of high-level classes?”
All the Selphids nodded.
“Not quickly, though. If a [Warrior] dies at Level 34 having [Greater Strength], they might not have any. But if a Level 22 [Veteran Lineholder] dies after decades of fighting…they may have some.”
Geneva Scala stared at the two images and frowned.
“In that case, it seems clear to me that Skills aren’t biological. They’re intangible—this is a change due to…what, levels? Your class? Magic? I wonder. Hold on, I’m going to check something.”
She went back to the Gorgon and extracted more samples from what she could identify as non-galas-muscle. Yet when she put it under the microscope, the Selphids began murmuring.
It took Geneva a dozen samples, but she found in the muscle along the Gorgon’s abdomen, arms, and tail—where muscle would be very important rather than, say, non-vital areas for a warrior—a telltale sign.
Some of the nuclei had changed color. Geneva Scala saw the faint tinge of magic, and she began working on a theory.
“This must be galas-muscle in development. I could be wrong, but a fundamental shift is occurring in the Gorgon. I’m also…confused.”
This entire time, she had been inhaling the smell of a dead body, and the Selphids were good at keeping rot and other signs of decomposition from corpses, but the Gorgon was an old body from the mercenary company.
Cut open, it was smelly, to be blunt, and some of the muscles had begun to, uh, liquefy. The stench was increasing to the point where a preservation spell had to be cast so this long dissection wouldn’t result in worse rot.
—However, the galas-muscle was not rotting at the speed of the rest of the body. Indeed, Geneva Scala could barely cut it; it was closer to steel wire than muscle!
“Even diamond-edge scalpels might have trouble. Imagine performing surgery on someone lined with this stuff.”
She shook her head. One of the Selphid [Mercenaries] nodded.
“Even Selphids have to learn how to move past Galas-muscle; it’s too tough to shift. If the damn stuff snaps, we can’t easily reconnect it.”
Geneva’s head snapped up.
“You can reconnect tendons and ligaments? Muscle fiber?”
The Selphids looked amused, and one actually tried to show her what the Selphid meant.
She was a writhing—her body was myriad, and she had no eyes. She felt contained. She was squeezing part of herself through a—
Geneva threw her mental shields up and pushed the sensation of being a Selphid out of her head. She nearly vomited, and the First Mind instantly censured itself.
(Your perspective—is not that of a Selphid. Apologies.)
It tried to show Geneva instead as she collected herself. She had the vaguest sense of a Selphid slowly secreting something over a bit of torn muscle and manually closing it together. In fact, they could do it with bones too.
“It is tiring. But that is why bodies do not rot with us. We can also…put elements of ourselves into a body to stop it from rotting.”
They could slow decomposition. They were living, biological factories that could consciously produce—Geneva’s mind spun.
What? Platelets? Fibrin? Any medical company in the world would sacrifice everything on an altar to get one Selphid for them to learn their means of production. Imagine being an athlete and being able to manually knit together a torn ACL!
The First Mind was growing excited as Geneva began thinking in a dozen different ways. One of the Selphids in its mental image tapped Geneva on the shoulder.
“Medical practices, yes. Getting a Selphid to secrete a vial of the substances you require…done. We require a living subject. You will not injure yourself; perhaps a squirrel? What are you thinking about, ethics?”
“Ew. That sounds like a lot of work. A vial?”
Idis complained, but the other Selphids were shushing her. Yet the First Mind’s inquiry was focused on something else Geneva had thought about.
“…What do you mean, transplant?”
Geneva Scala focused, and a few thoughts flew together. Well, surely it made sense. She looked down at the galas-muscle in front of her.
It was curled up, and even Selphids probably had a lack of knowledge or inclination to try this. Yet the First Mind was thinking of [Saw Doctors], [Necromancers of Flesh], and there was a precedent.
Such images made Geneva feel vaguely queasy—and that was madness. Sawing off an arm and putting it on someone else?
She wouldn’t think of that. Not yet. Certainly not with someone living. But what if—all in the context of dead bodies, right?
Dead bodies didn’t have rejection issues. Dead bodies, that a Selphid could use, weren’t repairable by healing potions. But if a Selphid could conduct spot-repairs, even if it was tiring for them to do so and impractical…
What if you harvested galas-muscle from bodies well past usability? Arm muscle here, leg muscle there—it would be madness to try to copy them over, and what kind of surgeon on Earth would try?
But if a Selphid could join tendon to bone…could you replace an entire body’s muscle with galas-muscle? Or at least, the part the Selphids cared about?
It was insanity. It was something no decent medical student should think about. But—the First Mind was already asking how many bodies they had, especially ones that had no further use. Just an arm? What about an arm?
Geneva Scala’s fingers twitched, and she hesitated. Galas-muscle was used for combat, for war. She kept hearing a name in her mind, the apocryphal tale.
Slowly, she saw more bodies being walked over to her, and she stared down at the cords of flesh in front of her. And she wondered if she could walk if you could heal a spine, or give someone who was paralyzed a new lease on life.
[Surgeon Level 36!]
[Skill — Advanced Organ Transplant obtained!]
Yet all Geneva Scala heard as Calectus flexed the arm of a Lizardman and the First Mind began alerting the other minds in excited telepathy was a voice. It said one word to her.
Geneva Scala’s learning from the Minds was a long process, in secret, in their most hidden abode. So hidden that most of the world didn’t even know the Minds and Gathering Citadels existed.
Even knowing about the Minds could get you in trouble. Knowing where they were? Well…the Minds could pluck that information out of your head. They suffered few enemies.
So no wonder no one had found her. Even if they knew the Bodies of Fellden had taken her, every Gathering Citadel was home to the ‘Bodies of Fellden’. So chasing rumors of that company would lead you across Baleros to no end.
Plus, who had the resources to go up against Minds? Resources, inclination, and most importantly, knowledge of why The Last Light was more than just valuable, but essential?
Well, Niers Astoragon, weeks before Erin Solstice played her famous chess tournament, was on the job. Jungle Tails was retreating, and after making sure the biggest fires were out, he had a walk through Elvallian.
Through the Fraerways, obviously. Although they were crowded of late! There were actual Fraerlings walking about, investigating his citadel, and Niers couldn’t believe his eyes.
“Tallguards. Need any help?”
A few Tallguard were marching down the Fraerway, armed for battle. They stopped as Niers descended through part of his palace, and one saluted.
“Just investigating reports of roaches and possibly a cat. Do we have permission to set up a cat-trap?”
“…By that, you mean a fake mouse with [Grand Fireball] worked into it? There are cats in the city. Blowing them up is discouraged. We had a [Druid] lay down several spells, and we have a [Detect Life] spell calibrated to several species like that.”
“So that’s a ‘no’?”
“That’s a no.”
The Tallguard nodded. One hefted a crossbow and glanced around.
“Then can we set up an outpost?”
Again, Niers was surprised, and he eyed the portable crossbow the Fraerling held. She gestured to it.
“Little ballista emplacement. Along the walls, maybe. We’ll just build out somewhere unlikely to catch fire if there’s a siege. We can fire a few ballistae, teleport back to safety—in case of Tallfolk attacks.”
Niers had never had so many Fraerlings around, and he was reminded why the Fraerling settlements survived; they had the same attitude towards defensive preparations he did. He lifted a hand.
“Teleportation doesn’t work if we lock it down. You need to talk to—damn, my [Chamberlain]’s a traitor. Talk to Perorn—no, wait. Talk to Magus Major Collex, and tell him I sent you for access to our safe network.”
“Ah, good. Thanks, sir. Should we get you a list of fortified areas? Not that we’re staying here long, we understand.”
The Titan watched them march off and shook his head. Tallguard. They were actually competent, or so they felt.
If he had had an entire Fraerling settlement at his back when he first started the Forgotten Wing company…
Niers sighed. Fraerlings did not take sides. The few that worked for him in combat were not an entire city’s manufacturing capabilities. That made you a target, and as Paeth had proved—no city could withstand an army alone.
However, he had an army of Fraerlings dedicated to fighting the Dyed Lands and enacting retribution on Jungle Tails for their actions. That meant that he had more options than he had ever thought of before.
Amazing options, given their magic. The one flaw was…
Niers grimaced. His last conversation with Iuncuta Eirnos had been frank and straightforward.
She had already taken over Peclir’s old rooms. They were constructing a mobile war room in the [Chamberlain]’s quarters, and it looked like a miniature doll’s set to the Tallfolk, but this was real.
Tallguard setting up weapon racks, training areas—and places for [Healers] to tend to wounded. It might become an entire settlement in miniature or an outpost in time, but Eirnos had gestured to all of it and given Niers a hard ultimatum.
“The Fraerlings are here to stay for a campaign, Titan. However, we’re not your personal forces.”
“Meaning, Iuncuta Eirnos…?”
She was a difficult person because Niers knew he shouldn’t annoy her—and half his instincts were grating against her own authority. Only Foliana bossed him around, and rarely.
But the female Fraerling who was leading all the other settlements’ leaders didn’t seem to be one to be easily intimidated or cajoled. She had fury-red hair and a longspear, a rarity for Fraerlings, who mostly didn’t use that kind of weapon. She also had an empty eye-socket, which she often showed people by flipping her eyepatch up. It had to be for intimidation; he was fairly sure she could get a prosthetic.
“Meaning the Fraerlings don’t want to fight your battles. We’re not here to make the Forgotten Wing company stronger than the other Great Companies or make you artifacts. Anything, and I mean anything, you want us to do? Unless it’s an emergency, it goes through me for approval. If I think we’re being used to fight your wars or drawn into something personal to your company, I’ll pull us out.”
She meant it, too. Niers tried to reassure her.
“And if I were to cede a lot of resources for any actions taken…?”
“I assume you’d do that either way. If we’re killing Dyed Land monsters, the cities expect a huge share of whatever you get to further the Architects’ damned research. No bribes.”
Wonderful. However, Niers put his hands behind his back.
“There will still be scenarios where I would like to call you in for help, Eirnos. Call me Niers.”
She gave him a mirthless grin.
“I knew you’d say that. So did all the other leaders, so they chose me to head this group.”
“And why are you so qualified?”
She leaned over and looked Niers in the eye.
“I don’t admire you like most of the others, Titan. And I don’t get my people killed. If you have a ‘special mission’ for us that isn’t part of taking down Jungle Tails or fighting through the Dyed Lands and finding Gindal’s city, you had better have the best of reasons.”
The Fraerling gave Niers a huge grin and was disconcerted when he laughed. Niers apologized, but his eyes glittered.
“Oh, is that all, Eirnos? Trust me. I always have excellent reasons.”
As Niers strode through his palace, he thought that Eirnos was going to be tricky. But again—she was a Fraerling commander. She probably dealt with life and death, and she had led armies and made terribly fraught choices. Her missing eye proved she’d paid for some of her mistakes.
But she was not the Titan of Baleros.
He knew all kinds of secrets. And what he’d learned was that compromising your values wasn’t a question of integrity. It came with the job when you led hundreds of thousands of lives.
One of the things he’d learned, for instance, was about loyalty.
Oh, Peclir was betrayal, and that was different. Foliana was still kicking herself about missing him, and she was still recovering from her strange injuries. Erin Solstice and the new Fraerlings had definitely helped her. One of the Fraerlings had praised her recovering condition as the result of some real good curse-breaking.
“We don’t have many [Witches], so it’s good to see the Tallfolk have some craft left.”
Niers smiled about that. But he had a lot to do, so he was busy writing instructions down.
“…be…back soon, Umina and Marian. Tell Kissilt to do the same. Cameral is…employed…for the Dyed Lands, and you two are either employed or needed for class.”
He didn’t know if Venaz, Wil, Merrik, and Peki would get Yerranola and return or not. Feshi?
Feshi had graduated. Niers Astoragon slowed, and he looked up sadly.
She had already written him that she wouldn’t be coming back.
He lost students to accidents, changing events, and some dropped out due to lack of confidence or something else, of course, marriage…but Feshi’s was always the one that struck him the most.
His student was now a Chieftain, and she had to help lead her tribe. He shook his head as he finished writing Umina.
So much to do.
So the Titan only stopped by the barracks where some of his finest were quartered. The line holders, the vanguard of his armies, the Selphid Immortals had served, if not all of them, for decades.
“Titan! What can I help you with?”
“Captain Ollosq. Can I walk with you? I have a few things to talk about. Just around the citadel, maybe.”
The Selphid, who was wearing a looted Medusa corpse, was only too pleased to put Niers on her shoulder and slither out across the palace. She had a huge hole in her chest covered by a shirt, but the Selphids certainly appreciated all the free bodies.
Ollosq was clever enough to know that Niers never wanted a walk for no reason.
“Disruption in the ranks, sir? Squad to fight or is it something else?”
She flicked her tongue out as Niers checked on the walls under repair and the citizens of Elvallian. He gave them a wave, and they were still cheering him as if this mess wasn’t his fault. He murmured to the Medusa—obviously both were under privacy spells at all times.
“No, Ollosq. Just a quick word. You see, I’ve had this problem come up—among my many busy problems. I know you’re getting ready to head to the Dyed Lands—”
“Ready to go, sir. Give us the order, and we’ll reinforce the front.”
The Selphid smiled, and Niers nodded. He stared past Ollosq’s shoulder as if admiring the birds flocking to the aviary bearing Fraerlings, keeping her face in the periphery of his gaze.
“It’s just that I’m in need of a talk with, oh, the Minds. But you know how they are. Impossible to reach.”
Ollosq was a Selphid, and a good one, so the Medusa’s face never changed, but if you were wearing a Ring of Sight, you could see via [Detect Life] the Selphid squirming about in her body.
“The Minds, sir? Never heard of them. You’ll not find a single one in my company, on my word.”
Niers grinned, but he waved that off.
“Ollosq, I’m not accusing you of pulling a Peclir. Not at all. But everyone knows that a Selphid’s still got obligations, and a good soldier has to weigh them. Just like Lizardfolk and Nagas.”
“I understand your point, sir, but I don’t know who these…Minds are.”
Ollosq’s voice was very calm, and Niers wished he’d asked to ride in the palm of the Medusa’s hand. Well, it would work if she wasn’t a Selphid—it was hard to control hand muscles to stillness.
“Oh—well, maybe I’m wrong, Ollosq. But I had a message for them. A serious one. Non-hostile, I think it’s important to say, but it’s critical they learn.”
The Medusa kept slithering on after her pause. Her voice lowered slightly, although it kept as friendly as could be.
“Not that I know them. But what would you say if you were trying to get a message, sir? Maybe I could workshop it for you.”
Niers stroked at his chin.
“Well, obviously you have to start with some greetings. After you say something very cordial—a few jokes—much respect, you know?”
“Significant respect, I’d say. We’ve never had issues. Oh, I’ve been a rascal with one group, but I imagine they don’t think we’re at odds. If anything, I’d say they hate the Howling Maelstrom and Iron Vanguard more than me. Even Eyes of Baleros have a history.”
“…I wouldn’t know, sir. But let’s say that’s all true and Forgotten Wing was so well-liked Selphids work with it. What could possibly be important enough to tickle these Minds?”
Ollosq glanced down, and Niers Astoragon put his hands behind his back.
“Ever heard of The Last Light, Ollosq?”
“Never, sir. Oh—that story about a [Doctor]? Yes, that, and I think I heard her name in the academy? Some Naga with artifacts telling tall tales in the barracks, but not personally.”
Niers nodded. He adjusted the truth spell on his ring as he clasped his hands behind his back and went on.
“I bet even the other Minds don’t know much about her. Aside from rumors. Which is why it would really shock some of them to know that the Bodies of Fellden walked off with her. Or maybe they all know, in which case my inquiry is just a matter of course. How is she, is she eating well, when are you going to return her? That sort of thing.”
Ollosq’s smile was getting glassier by the second.
“That sounds—pretty aggressively like kidnapping, Lord Astoragon.”
Niers coughed sideways lightly.
“I wouldn’t say that. In fact, if I were talking to the Minds, diplomatically, you understand—”
“—I’d say that if she showed up, unharmed, we might let bygones be bygones. Completely unharmed, of course. Nothing to do with her memories. I know the Minds are very secretive, but I’d make sure to be discreet, and they know I am. If that happened, we’d drop it and I’d send them a cask of wine or something.”
“Do the Minds even dr—I mean, I get your point. Sir.”
Quietly, the Medusa came to a stop in a garden, and Niers glanced up at her. She wasn’t sweating, but the Selphid was very still as the Titan smiled.
“That’s all. I think that’s what I’ll tell them if I find them. Thank you for your time, Ollosq.”
The Medusa nodded as Niers prepared to jump to one of the Fraerway exits by the walls. She unlatched the hidden door built into the stone for him and paused.
“Out of curiosity, sir? What would you say if the Minds didn’t know where this Geneva was? Could be it was an accident and that it wasn’t the Bodies of Fellden who did this.”
“Oh, I know one of the Gathering Citadels has her, Ollosq.”
“Could be an accident—”
Niers sprang and caught the door. He looked back at the Medusa and smiled.
“I know. If they weren’t certain, I think that’d be that.”
The Selphid waited, and Niers sighed.
“Well, obviously then I’d be lost without a clue. The Minds told me their answer—and I’d have to begin my search. Alone. And whatever I find, I’d probably have to deal with alone. But I’m a busy man, and I’d say my patience would be about three days—once I talk to these Minds, you know? It’s a very serious thing. A friend wants me to find Geneva Scala, and you know how that is.”
“Absolutely, sir. Mind if I take a little break before I get back to work?”
The Selphid gave him a bright smile, and Niers gave her a salute.
“Take all the time you need, Ollosq. I’ll see you later for work.”
He shut the door, and Niers Astoragon calmly pulled out a [Message] scroll as Umina wrote him a reply back. He scribbled a reply, muttering under his breath.
“Three days. It’s not hard. Just get an…get Paeth to get a [Mage] capable of [Memory Transcription].”
Of course, that entire little conversation and event was far more than three days ago. By the time Erin Solstice had her big meeting with the owner of The Adventurer’s Haven, Niers Astoragon was eight days overdue.
But he knew where Geneva Scala was. The question was—how was she?
The Gathering Citadel was empty as the Second Mind floated through it. It left its chambers. To most, it seemed as if the gargantuan orb of flesh, squirming, began to rise.
Through no visible means, it floated higher. Higher, into one of the vast, circular tunnels that let it move through this place.
Few species had such architecture in mind. This resembled a kind of worm-like tunnel, an arterial network of veins within an underground fortress.
It did not appeal to the sensibilities of Humans or other species. There was a word for the very fear the aesthetics of Selphids evoked.
Trypophobia. The fear of holes. Well, among other visions. You see, Selphids privately, secretly, were drawn to the very same imagery that other species were naturally conditioned to fear.
It was truly a natural phenomenon. Humanity had been taught deep down, on a primal level, to distrust the sight of a hundred thousand holes gaping at you—it might be a swarm of insects burrowed into the bark of a tree.
Something infectious waiting in the flesh. A billion insect eggs waiting to hatch upon the leaf of a vine. Nature had informed biology, hence most people’s natural aversion to the imagery.
Selphids were the opposite. It reminded them of the inside of a body. A long, thin tunnel they called home in rotten flesh was their natural state. In the same way, Humans feared the uncanny valley—the features of someone who looked close to normal, but who had some oddity that made them clearly unnatural—Selphids found it appealing.
Humans of Earth had evolved, long ago, to recognize the uncanny valley in faces because sometimes, someone who looked off wasn’t Human. Geneva had told the Second Mind, Contradiction, that a theory was that Humans had killed off another species, Neanderthals, in their early ages.
It must have been a terrifying thing to see someone standing in the darkness outside a campfire or your abode and not know whether it was one of your people or someone…else. Of such encounters, an entire species developed an instinctual paranoia.
Contradiction understood these things. It studied psychology and even appearance, and it understood this:
The Minds were to other beings, even other Selphids, horrifying. The Gathering Citadels scared many species.
It was valuable to know what others thought of you. Wisdom, to the Second Mind, was exploring perspectives outside your own.
Slowly, the Mind of the Selphids rotated as it floated upwards. The Gathering Citadels were vast underground structures. Even the tireless Selphid bodies would have quailed at hollowing out so much space—but the Minds built them by hollowing out dirt and stone with the ease of telepathic beings of their scale.
They had also decorated the Gathering Citadel. Now—the Second Mind floated up, through a tunnel in the stone. And it passed a statue.
A graven wall of stone slanted down on either side. The carvings were decorative. A Selphid understood that, but another species? Only Geneva Scala, of every visitor here, had immediately understood what she was seeing.
The twisting, odd branches upon the wall could be roots at first until you realized they were veins. Beating hearts and organs graven onto stone. In another place, above what might have been a massive keyhole—another entrance for a Mind to move through—a cluster of faces stared blankly down.
They were faces of Selphid host-bodies. Living beings, forever memorialized on stone. To Selphids, it had been a great honor.
Some of those faces had once belonged to unwilling hosts of Selphids. Contradiction studied the faces with its telepathic sight. This Gathering Citadel was old. It bore the mistakes of their kind.
But did the other Minds, its peers, take this place as a lesson or a symbol of past greatness? Did they question what they saw every day?
Last of all—the Second Mind came to a halt in this chamber, where strange stalagmites of fleshy stone rose. More decorations. It swiveled, and past the slanted walls of stone rose the statue.
This was the greatest mystery of the Gathering Citadel of all. As Geneva had observed, the Minds were actually poor at keeping physical records, trusting to the power of their shared consciousness. So there was no record that the Second Mind had found as to what the statue looming above all was.
Even the vast Mind was dwarfed by it. It appeared to be a giant of some kind, robed, two hands raised and placed together, fingers reaching out. As if to clasp in prayer or some other odd gesture.
Geneva had not ever seen this in person. It was too…dramatic. Even the Second Mind agreed some things should be kept secret from her. But it wanted to ask what she made of it for a few reasons.
Oddity one. The statue had only four fingers on each hand. Three fingers and a thumb. That was then—reminiscent of Gazers, the only species to have that difference in digits. It would make sense for Selphids to honor their cousins like that. Save for…
Oddity two. And yes, the one you noticed first.
The statue had no head. Instead, a bulbous growth sprouted from the top, and a huge, nearly circular hole replaced the ‘mouth’. The rest was fungoid, dotted with holes and strange growths that twined upwards like ‘hair’.
No Selphid looked like that. No Gazer, even the most wildly diverse. What being, then, was this?
The Second Mind had a few suggestions. Artistic license? Some kind of ancient Selphid who had encountered a vastly powerful class? A sculpture that was beautiful—for there was a twisted appeal to the Selphids—yet unreal?
Or perhaps was it something else? There were darker theories in that single statue that overlooked the meeting place of the Minds, and Contradiction contemplated them one by one as the others arrived.
Six Minds slowly emerged from their own tunnels and floated into a circle. Six—a large number for this Gathering Citadel.
They were roughly even in mass. A Mind could grow larger, or smaller, depending on the number of Selphids contained within its form, and size was a primitive, if useful indicator of possible mental strength or the complexity of their thoughts. In practice, quality still mattered.
However, the Second Mind was indeed second of all six in terms of rank. It had proven itself wise enough to support the Titan in ages past. It had made mistakes, like trusting Velan the Kind, but it had also foreseen his madness and saved countless Selphid lives.
It was the one who reached out across continents and dreamed of where Selphids might go and find welcomes. The Second Mind was, among other things, a reason why adventurers like Jelaqua Ivirith and Viecel Cohex could venture to places like Izril and not be hunted on sight.
Pay a [Bard] to tell stories of Selphids. Pay Barelle the Bard to influence thought. The other Minds, some of them, called it ridiculous until it bore fruit. That was why Contradiction was placed second. Most of the Minds realized that its role was essential.
The Third Mind was different. It, Dictum, was a known dissident in thought to the Second Mind and vice-versa. It was obsessed with the Wasting, which was fair to its chosen role, but it was also—drastic.
It had forced Geneva Scala’s kidnapping. It had been her unwelcome captor, prying into her thoughts until the Second Mind intervened. In its way, it was as radical as the Second Mind, and so the two traded thoughts warily.
Not that the Minds did small-talk. They entered a merging quickly, but not deep. It was akin to them all lifting up a tarp over their heads and facilitating instantaneous thoughts, but not drawing together so close their minds blended. They were individual collectives if that made sense; they had their own purposes.
And perhaps, secrets. Well, the Second Mind had one. It had brought something to this gathering, a tool, a rarity for Minds to carry anything because they were so self-sufficient.
Egress, the Sixth Mind, noticed it first. It nudged the object slightly, and something wriggled in a pool of water in the center of the room. Another aesthetic choice, but the Second Mind addressed it not.
Their conversation, mentally, went as follows: first, the First Mind uploaded all the information it had just received from the other Minds regarding the Titan’s threat. Purely factual data that all the Minds could use.
Opinion came next, once they had the same information. It was then that the Fifth Mind, Sympathy, opined.
(Not a threat. The Titan appeals before conflict. He would not unless he had an open perspective.)
(His position militarily is untenable. He is fighting Jungle Tails, the Dyed Lands, and has no reason to involve himself in a conflict with Selphids. Nevertheless, it is a threat.)
That came from the Fourth Mind, Inconsolable. A Mind who pondered war and battle and often protected Selphid interests.
(It is dangerous. Geneva Scala’s position here is now in jeopardy. Her place here has attracted the attention of the other Minds. They are united in disapproval if not intent.)
Continuum was unto a kind of leader, at least, the first among equals. It was also the one who had communicated with the other Minds. It shared some of the censure it had received emotionally.
The Second Mind was quiet.
Here were things most people did not know about the Minds, including their existence: not all Minds were united. Each Gathering Citadel, and there were precious few, were hidden to the world. And each other.
In the past, Minds had disagreed so much they had battled each other. These days, Selphids were a weaker species, so such strife was discouraged by all. However, Niers’ threat to dig up a Gathering Citadel was as much of a threat as his clear statement that he would have Geneva Scala back.
(The simplest solution is to remove Geneva Scala after gathering what intelligence she has.)
Egress offered cautiously. It often took the mental approach to solutions that was simplest in rhetorical debates like this. If only to frame arguments.
As usual, the Third Mind objected.
(Geneva Scala’s worth is an increasing variable due to her class and growth. The Titan is unable to locate this place by magic. We will sense any intruders.)
(That sounds like arrogance.)
The Second Mind interjected its thoughts for the first time, and the Third Mind broke off. The other Minds agreed with the Second Mind at once.
(The Titan has located other Minds before. He is the world’s greatest [Strategist]. Geneva Scala’s presence here should be weighed against his actions militarily, not a better-case scenario.)
Dictum agreed with the Second Mind, but all the Minds caught a current of refusal already in its tone. That was…not good for the Second Mind.
It would prefer to convince its peers to let Geneva go, now, and make such pacts as could be forged if the [Doctor] were still sympathetic to them. Yet it was clear the Third Mind was not going to let that go without a fight.
The First Mind was eminently sensible. It was pondering the Earth problem, but it understood that keeping another world’s child hostage was not a good look. If they could take some of Geneva Scala’s ideas—what had changed?
Some Minds might share all information equally, but these Minds were individual because a collective united in thought might weaken itself because it had no other viewpoints. Yet by the same token—secrets could be dangerous.
The Second Mind slowly levitated up its prop as the other Minds turned to it.
(Geneva Scala should be freed. The Titan’s wrath is not consummate with our goals. If he knows about Earth, and I believe he does, he is beyond vested in her. A Great Company’s sympathy towards our people has been a hard-won thing.)
The Third Mind began, but the other Minds censured it, a mental kind of ‘shut up’ nudge. It would have its turn. The Second Mind continued, placidly, as the being swimming in the water below it moved.
(Geneva Scala is my final point in and of itself. She benefits not from captivity. She is a being of desire, and she was captive of Okasha. Now, us. Cooperation, true cooperation, is not won by coercion.)
Then it tugged on the object it ‘held’, floating in the air. And all the Minds focused, briefly, on the dim consciousness swimming around the decorative pool of water.
It was…a fish. Just one of the common varieties of fish that the Second Mind had asked one of its helpers to find for it. And the Second Mind was holding a fishing rod. It had just snared the fish, and it deftly yanked up the wriggling creature into the air.
The other Minds took the entire speech and the object demonstration in and processed it all in seconds. The Sixth Mind, Egress, projected a reply underlined by sarcasm.
(The point is already made.)
No one ever let you get away with a good metaphor, here. The Second Mind tossed the fish back into the water and silently waited.
(Geneva Scala has already informed this Gathering Citadel of numerous advantages. She is mapping out the Wasting in data analysis. She has not even begun her research. She has created a tool from Earth, and—she has learned how to transplant galas-muscle into new bodies.)
The Third Mind’s rebuttal was strong. And that last part about the galas-muscle? Unwelcome. The Second Mind stirred.
(Is this too far? I must object. This treads upon the sacrosanct. It pushes at the Minacien Wall.)
The other Minds fell silent at the weight of that accusation.
The Minacien Wall was an agreement between the Minds. It referred to one thing: any action or deed that would incur the wrath of other species that had nearly wiped out all Selphids after the fall of the Selphid Empire.
Stealing bodies, controlling living beings, was the most well-known example of that. Okasha had violated the Minacien Wall, and the penalty was normally death. But there were other things you could do as foul.
(The bodies were dead.)
(I do not believe Geneva Scala would agree to this.)
(That she did indicates her understanding of this procedure medically as a net benefit. It benefits Selphids as well.)
(To create bodies as tools of war?)
Dictum and Contradiction sparred as the other Minds observed. However, Contradiction was unhappy when Continuum weighed in.
(Geneva Scala has produced one great discovery already. Transplanting galas-muscle is something only she can do with her advanced knowledge and techniques. The Titan’s ultimatum closes in, but we have not gained an appropriate understanding of her value. Delay is this Mind’s decision.)
The Second Mind hadn’t expected that. Yet the Third Mind reacted with instant approval—and that made the Second Mind curious. What would a few days of delay do? Yet the other Minds seemed ambivalent, and the Fourth Mind agreed as well.
Three out of Six Minds were already in favor of delay. The Second Mind cast against, but with almost a majority, they only needed one to agree, and Egress did.
(The Titan will be ignored until he is able to press the issue. Continue with Geneva Scala’s training and assist her by all means. All the Minds will interact with her.)
Astonishing. The First Mind clearly intended to get as much from Geneva as it could before returning a vote. The Second Mind realized it was now up against two Minds. Or more.
The Third Mind was oozing satisfaction as the Minds prepared to float away. But Egress halted as it turned to the Second Mind.
It wasn’t so much that word as a kind of realization-understanding that the other Minds felt. They all turned and focused on the pool of water where the fish had been caught. The Second Mind’s little demonstration was back in the water but…
It floated, belly-up, and there was no thought in its head. It had been caught, released—but the hook had dug in too deep or the shock, the air, something—
It was dead. The Second Mind hovered over the dead fish. Then, silently, it picked up its body and the fishing rod and floated back to its chambers. Pointedly, it sent one thought back to the others.
(When Selphids ruled this world, Fraerlings were one of the few species we never conquered. They were one of the species who returned us to sanity.)
Then it floated away and went back to thinking. Thinking…which turned to worry as the days continued.
The same dream haunted Geneva every few nights. It was—well, a bit annoying, but she noticed something else a few days after her discovery of galas-muscle.
Geneva Scala did not know what had happened on the day when ghosts came back. Only that all the Minds were silent—and disturbed. Nor did she know about the Titan’s hunt for her until the Second Mind told her.
(Your time here will be cut short. If all goes well. Perhaps try not to be so intelligent or discover anything for a week?)
That was a joke, or so Geneva thought. And it was easy for the Second Mind to say that—it was hard to stop your own brain from working, and another Mind could tell when you had an idea.
The dead body. The person she had never known, whom she carried away on her first day on the job—Geneva had forgotten something poignant. Ridiculous, really, but she did recall that after she’d taken the body to the van, nausea had hit her all at once. And she had, embarrassingly, hurked up a bit of her own lunch onto the ground outside as the coroner watched.
He had been kind about it, but Geneva remembered the pure embarrassment after how much she’d tried to be stolid. She must have forgotten it wasn’t a perfect lead-in to her career.
How the mind played tricks on you. Well, that gave Geneva a bit of sympathy to the Third Mind and, indeed, the other Minds in the next few days.
They were all introducing themselves to her, and they were all—well, not perfect. The Third Mind was passionate about stopping the Wasting, but it was tired. It had tried, Geneva learned, over 24,316 different alchemical creations on volunteers. It had tried magic, Skills—and nothing had stopped the Wasting. Even if it had never done statistical analysis—it knew every attempt it had ever made.
Time waned even the other Minds. Like the Fourth Mind, Inconsolable. Of all the minds, even Egress, this one was—senile?
(Hello again, Geneva Scala.)
That was how it greeted her, then seemed to hover in the air in embarrassed silence when she first met it.
“We have never met individually, Fourth Mind.”
(…A mistake. This Mind has met other individuals. It is distracted with the Dyed Lands.)
The Fourth Mind tried to hide embarrassment. It removed a Selphid from its body, and the Selphid hung limp in the air. Slowly and sadly, it placed the body on a waiting tray of stone a [Guardian] held out solemnly.
(Even Minds fail. The Wasting takes more of us, year by year—but time slays us.)
“What killed this Selphid, may I ask?”
It was small, thin, and darker, purplish and almost black with oxidation. Selphids in a body were often orange or yellow, even greenish at times—they could also change color and even fluoresce. This one was dead.
(Time. A factor unknown. Exhaustion. This mind sensed the vessel was coming to an end.)
It did grieve a bit for its lost part. That surprised Geneva.
“Do Minds care for the Selphids that make it up so?”
(Naturally. Joining the Mind is a welcome and a grief. Each Selphid ends its life. It is a death, even if it is a calling. The death of ego. The death of an individual. Separating an individual Selphid from a Mind is…rare. And they are never the same.)
“Can it be done?”
The Fourth Mind seemed surprised by this line of questioning. It was fidgeting—lifting various diagrams of bodies it had procured for her.
(This Mind had planned on discussing anatomy. Very well. We will discuss Selphids instead. Yes, a consciousness can be returned to a body. It is very, very difficult. Dangerous. But it can be done. For a Mind—even harder because the original Selphid must be preserved as it was, because a separation is all but impossible. The original must be restored into a new form. Even harder.)
Did it mean cloning thoughts? Cloning a person? The Fourth Mind seemed to understand Geneva’s unease. It moved the [Guardian] away, but Geneva looked at the dead Selphid and had to ask.
“This is an imposition but—may I study this Selphid?”
The Fourth Mind hesitated, and the other Selphid looked aghast. For some reason, this seemed like the first question that was uneasy to the Selphids, despite Geneva investigating countless dead bodies.
(This Mind allows it. For your understanding of the Wasting. How goes it?)
Geneva Scala shook her head, but not in denial. She approached the Fourth Mind as Inconsolable gave directions for the Selphid body to be preserved magically and sent to her laboratory. She indicated a stack of papers Idis was arranging with her body.
“The Third Mind has compiled a wealth of information. But it is so precise—may I ask for help?”
(This is the agreement of Minds. Step forwards, and this Fourth Mind shall aid you in—)
Geneva Scala reached out as she floated upwards, and the papers whirled around her, arranging, shifting—
Then she was floating over a visual depiction of the map of Baleros. Geneva looked down and thought that the Americas of her world matched this continent. Not perfectly, but this continent above all others was the most diverse in terms of climate.
A warm, warm southern jungle contrasted with the frozen north of Dullahans. Around the upper middle were the flatlands that Centaurs had created, and the port cities and trade routes snaked through the untamed wilds.
The Dyed Lands were a pulsing dot in the lower southwest of Baleros, a spreading colorful stain.
That must have been the Fourth Mind’s understanding of the map, because the ones Geneva had did not indicate this. It was linking with her, boosting her own intellect and understanding.
This was the realm of a Mind, and it gave Geneva added cognitive ability and sheer time in the form of mental processing power. Imagine a think tank on Earth with this ability?
Well, Geneva was using it right now to sort through the raw data the Third Mind had given her. It was eager to know what she made of it—and she realized now that it must have seen something. But it had learned enough of the scientific method not to color her own perceptions unduly.
Therefore—she looked and saw. And what she first saw was a breakdown by date and location and yes, relative population of every Selphid that had ever fallen victim to the Wasting.
What was the Wasting? It was, quite simply, disintegration by parts. A kind of full-body death where a Selphid slowly lost parts of itself until it expired. Bits fell away, as if a Selphid were rotting to death like the corpses they inhabited.
And that was a terrible death, because unlike other species, Selphids were a mutable organism. If they lost part of themselves, any part, they did not necessarily die, but they lost memories and bits of their selves. This Wasting was a death of their very identities, and it was as close to Alzheimer’s as anything Geneva had encountered.
A bunch of notes—her mental notes—fluttered up and pinned themselves to the hot, humid air where Geneva was hovering. Firstly, the Wasting was not transmissible as far as she understood it. The Minds and other Selphids behaved as if it were, but even when a Selphid had been sharing a body with another Selphid, it hadn’t necessarily ‘spread’.
It normally affected older Selphids, too. However, some Selphids had gone into centuries without being affected, and others were struck down decades in. No known cure. No known vector. Some Skills—especially high-level Selphids—could hold it off or even regenerate and grow faster than it killed them.
For a time. But even Named-ranks fell to it, slowly. It was a plague of the Selphids—but here was the thing. That was a misnomer because it was not something another species had done to Selphids.
At least, as far as the Minds could tell. In its efforts to erase this phenomenon, the Third Mind and many other Selphids had investigated whether this was some kind of retribution for the old Selphid empire or a way to keep them weak.
That wasn’t even paranoia; the Gnolls’ stolen magical potential proved that it was definitely a concern. However, the Minds were fairly convinced that this was not created. They were very, very good at finding out things, and they had investigated the matter.
Geneva Scala twisted as the Fourth Mind emphasized that. She did not…like how it thought that. But she let it go. What species wouldn’t look into its own demise? It was too long ago for her to do anything about it. An entire species was in jeopardy, so she lent what insights she could to the data so painstakingly acquired.
The map of Baleros was the most accurate sample of data as other continents had very, very few Selphids by comparison. Even so—
“Can I get the other continents displayed? For contrast? Even if the data is suspect, I’d like to see it.”
Again, the continents appeared, and Geneva slowly ‘toggled’ through her mental and the pictorial depictions of the data. If she turned on the sheer numbers of Selphids who fell to wasting—
Baleros turned red below her, a spreading stain of crimson and black the more Selphids who fell to the Wasting. As she had observed—the map highlighted population centers. Even more crucially, it was doubly confusing because the population centers moved and changed over the years, so the Fourth Mind showed her how each decade, different cities and provinces had more Wasting occurrences.
“The data is skewed.”
A Selphid Garuda observed, flying next to Geneva. The [Doctor] nodded and concentrated.
“Now, let’s see the distribution based on Wasting events to Selphid population density. Ah.”
Instantly, the map changed. It was a complex equation, trying to balance out this part. Not because you took the number of Selphids affected by wasting and divided by the population. More—because doing that was so difficult without formal censuses.
A Selphid who developed the Wasting might not know about it for a while, and might travel somewhere else to seek a cure or live out their remaining years. They might not tell anyone—so the Third Mind had had to check, double-check, and rely only on hard data.
Even so, Geneva instantly saw something odd. But she swooped from continent to continent to make sure she was right.
What she saw was, firstly, no real data or evidence of most parts of Izril, Terandria, Chandrar, and places like Drath and the House of Minos having any change in Selphid Wasting. The numbers were too inconclusive, and Selphids had developed the disease wherever they went on these continents.
“Too many mobile Selphids. Those who do develop the Wasting in cities follow the exact same path in Baleros.”
Geneva swooped down, and the world dissolved, and she landed in—
Pallass? Geneva stared around the City of Inventions and saw a bunch of elevators in construction. Drakes, working to and fro, a master-smith, a Drake, calling out orders to a bunch of working Drakes and Gnolls.
This was Pallass as one of the Selphids in the Fourth Mind had once seen it. The Fourth Mind overlaid this with scrying orb images of modern Pallass. But the smell, the feel of being there came from Selphids who had walked the City of Inventions before joining the Fourth Mind.
Up, Geneva shot, feeling like this was something she could do all day, touring countless memories of the world. She wanted to see it all.
The Fourth Mind whispered, and Geneva wished it was not right. She looked about.
“I have theorized that corpses—the consumption or inhabiting dead bodies is a vector for this disease. But the Third Mind told me the Wasting occurred even during the Selphid Empire.”
“Inconclusive, then. Diet…if no continents have a difference in Wasting that we can immediately see, maybe diet isn’t a factor. Back to Baleros.”
The world spun, and Geneva began inspecting the map again. What had the Third Mind seen that was so interesting? She frowned at the relatively even blotching of Wasting. It was indeed—fairly uniform when you accounted for population.
Except…she eyed the map and had an idea.
“Can you—overlay the population graph again? No, wait. Just take the numbers of Selphids by area. Then show me this map.”
The Fourth Mind had to take a few moments to do this. When it figured out how to display the data, it began highlighting what Geneva wanted.
In short—it showed her the places where Selphids were—but where they didn’t suffer from the Wasting. Then—the Fourth Mind began to buzz with excitement, and Geneva Scala exhaled.
“We’ve found a clue.”
She didn’t know what the clue was, but the Fourth Mind broadcast a triumphant note that made every Selphid, from Idis in Geneva’s body to the other Minds, look up and laugh and smile. Statistical analysis won, and—no wonder the Minds couldn’t see it!
Few Selphids would come to them from these spots. There were a few around the world that might be just statistical anomalies because only a few Selphids had ever lived there, like Khelt or another paradise. But if you wanted proven populations of Selphids in a region and almost no Wasting events?
There were exactly two spots in the entire world with sufficient data to create anomalous zones. And guess which ones they were?
“This cannot be a coincidence. Now, of all times? Rhir. Rhir and The Dyed Lands.”
Calectus, the [Honor Guard] of Selphids, was present with a number of high-level [Guardians]. The Third Mind had convened them to speak about what Geneva had found.
(The data is beyond refuting.)
“Is it…could it just be that Selphids have perished there too quickly for the Wasting to take them, Third Mind?”
One of the [Psychic Guardians], Ressk, didn’t quite understand the significance of the data. It was Geneva who replied.
“No, this is about Wasting events, Guardian Ressk. We did not look at the number of deaths, but the number of Selphids who developed the Wasting in these areas. I am sure many Selphids did perish in these areas.”
“Both are Death Zones.”
Idis muttered out of the corner of Geneva’s mouth. She fell silent as the older Selphids glared at her. Not Geneva.
(That is a fallacy in thought. Now the data is presented, it is clear. Rhir has developed only six cases of the Wasting since its resettlement six thousand years ago.)
One every thousand years? And—Geneva Scala pointed down at the map the Third Mind had worked up.
“That’s one oddity. The second is this. Look at the relative number of Wasting events around the Dyed Lands. They decrease the closer you get to the origin point. It’s less concrete than Rhir—”
In that more Wastings occurred, but the number faded out the closer you got to the Dyed Lands. Almost as if something there was stopping the Wastings.
By now, every single Selphid was getting excited. Even if they didn’t follow the data analysis, they understood what that meant.
“Then—something in these locations is protecting Selphids.”
“Or there’s another factor. Either way, I need to know what it is.”
“You cannot tell based on some—similarity between plants? Animals? Magic?”
Now they were reaching. Geneva Scala shook her head. If this were Earth and she had an unlimited budget and resources, she’d instantly call for a full analysis of both areas. Soil, climate, local fauna, magical spectrographs, everything.
Failing that? The Third Mind was deliberating with the other Minds.
(An expedition must be mounted to The Dyed Lands. This comes at the worst time. But the Minds must investigate this place.)
Geneva only knew about the hell of continents by reputation, but the Third Mind was adamant.
(It is further. And the Blighted Kingdom is—inquisitive. Demons aside. The Dyed Lands are far easier to secure.)
“Every new monster is pouring out of there.”
(Then Selphids shall join the taming of The Dyed Lands. Geneva Scala, you have done well. Very, very well. A tangible hint emerges. Continue your work. This is proof—proof you will help us find the cure in this generation.)
The Third Mind was beyond ebullient. Geneva feared it was making too many promises, but she had to admit, this seemed like a tangible lead. She was only too familiar how hints or evidence didn’t provide a cure, though. If this were analogous to cancer—she couldn’t help.
Then again, she had never heard of cancer or any disease just disappearing in a geographic location. Diet, lifestyle, exposure to harmful chemicals informed rates of cancer—but this was something else.
She decided there was still more she didn’t know. Geneva’s investigations had to continue, and she was growing excited, not least because she was learning more and more. She had agreed to try and transplant more galas-muscle into a single body with her new Skill. The Second Mind was teaching her more mental tricks.
After this day, the Third Mind was so pleased, it offered her a reward only a Mind could give: anything.
In your daydreams, have you ever wondered what it would be like to fly into a cloud? A boy or girl imagining being a superhero?
Such dreams had to be pleasant. Telling your boss exactly what you wanted. Winning an argument. Eating a favorite meal again, or reliving triumph, correcting a failure.
However—the mind was a weak thing, and imagination only colored these ideas faintly. In the heart of a Mind—Geneva Scala put on a red cape. She pointed a fist up—and flew.
The world disappeared below her, and she felt gravity beginning to drag on her, but fall away. It was terrifying, exhilarating, and real. She felt the cape flapping behind her, and when she stopped, hovering in the air, she could look down and see her home, her apartment window below.
Someone was staring up at her. Pointing. Geneva looked around and saw someone poking their head out a window back on Earth. As she hovered there, she could see a helicopter taking off on a skyscraper, hear shouting—
That was when this false reality grew too real. She concentrated, and the world blurred away.
“This is my reward?”
Geneva Scala was unsteady, but the Third Mind reassured her. A Selphid walked out of white space and smiled.
“Anything you wish to envision can be done.”
Geneva Scala looked around. Anything?
The Minds truly were like a thought experiment. A thousand things flickered before her, and she imagined what someone might do if they could experience anything. The knowledge that she was within a Mind stopped her from going on.
Geneva Scala reached out—and held a coffee cup. A latte. She took a sip and then drank a mouthful down, and it was so real she dropped it and almost backed away.
I am within a Mind.
I am Geneva Scala.
She centered herself, as the Second Mind had taught her, and the sense of boundless power and the fraying of reality stopped. The Third Mind seemed displeased.
“The Second Mind teaches you too much. What is the harm in indulging thought?”
“Thought leads to action.”
“Philosophy. Enjoy yourself, if only memory. This is a gift.”
So, Geneva Scala looked around and then decided to revisit a memory. She stood on a beach, with Luan, Ken, and the Earthers, and dabbled her toes in the water. But this time, instead of sitting there with Aiko, she asked if she could try canoeing and walked off into the water. For a little while—
She imagined she was free.
Niers Astoragon never received a reply from the Minds regarding his offer about Geneva Scala, from Ollosq or via any other means.
He had not expected any. The offer-threat had multiple purposes. Yes, it tipped his hand, but it escalated timetables on the other side. Which wasn’t necessarily good for Geneva if the Minds were hostile to her survival, but he had to hope they were not.
He suspected they wanted her for the same reasons he did, and the Wasting disease for Selphids? Well, he had motive. He knew it had to be Minds, and so Niers just needed to know where they were. The reason he’d said this all publicly was simply because he wanted this to be above-board.
Jumping a bunch of Minds was already risky without this looking like an attack on their species. If the other Minds disavowed whichever group this was, Niers had a better chance of not causing a diplomatic incident.
At the very least, he could claim he’d warned them.
Not that Niers wanted this to come to blood—it was just a distinct possibility. And yes, the Minds might think they were undiscoverable in their Gathering Citadels, but Niers had found one group before. Mind you, they had nearly killed him when he popped in, but it had been a valuable lesson.
Minds were still capable of being idiots. If anything, they were highly intelligent idiots sometimes, and unless one was geared to strategic thinking, Niers knew he could locate them. In fact—
He had Erin Solstice to thank, and she had asked him to find Geneva Scala herself.
It all went back to the day when she had come back from vacation. Niers had begun laying plans before that, but Erin had provided the perfect catalyst. When she’d challenged him, on television, to a match, Niers had refused.
It hurt him, physically, to step away from the board, but he knew she’d smoke him, and if he wanted to beat her, he had to see how good she’d be. Watching her thrash poor Pisces with a dozen top-level Skills was something he was going to put on repeat.
“Save the recording. But get me Eirnos. Now. I want Foliana and Umina’s reports and every single [Diviner] we’ve got. But get me Eirnos.”
When the Titan spoke like that, he got what he wanted. Iuncuta Eirnos was not pleased to be summoned, but she found him watching the scrying orb of Erin Solstice playing.
“A bit tall for you, isn’t she?”
The Fraerling quipped, but Niers barely reacted to her jab. He was checking an hourglass.
“I need to participate in the chess games. And probably broadcast my live reaction. I take it you’re watching the news?”
“Your mysterious chess partner? We’re on campaign, Titan.”
Eirnos snapped back, but even she had to admit that she was watching the news. They were all stationed in one of Niers’ forward bases, pushing towards the Dyed Lands. It wasn’t some campground affair of tents—they’d set up magical buildings and mobile fortifications—one of his Chess Towers was providing a level of defensive fortifications few groups could match on the march.
The Titan barely looked up.
“And I’m on two. Three, counting Jungle Tails, Iuncuta. I told you that I wanted your people’s help? Well, I’m going to convince you to call every Farspeaker and [Mage] under your authority to help me out.”
Iuncuta Eirnos laughed in his face. She leaned against her spear.
“If this is to get more angles of your Human interest or win a chess game for a level—”
She stopped as Niers glanced up at her. The Fraerlings exchanged a look, and Eirnos’ smile flicked out.
“You’d better have a damn good reason. The Fraerlings do not go to war against the Tallfolk without a damn good one.”
“I’m looking for The Last Light, a Human [Doctor]. This is the moment. I need you to hack into Wistram’s scrying spell and find her.”
Eirnos blinked her good eye. She understood what he meant at once.
Everyone who was magically gifted or paranoid knew about the scrying spells being reversible. Wistram’s scrying orbs could be used to create a bunch of informative cameras—and Wistram itself was not so advanced that another party couldn’t break into their spell.
Especially Fraerlings. However, Archmage Eldavin had solidified the spells’ intricacies so it would be tougher. Not impossible. Even if you couldn’t break into Wistram’s network, you could essentially pinpoint whoever was using a [Scrying] spell and linking into a network and backtrace it to their device.
“That’s an invasion of privacy above your authority, Titan. If we’re found out—I know about that [Doctor]. Some kind of famous healer, eh? The answer is still n—”
“The Minds have her. And unless I miss my guess, they’re close to violating the Minacien Wall.”
Niers was very gratified to see Eirnos go perfectly still. Her good eye flickered, and her fingers slowly tightened over the butt of her spear.
“How certain is that claim?”
“Certain enough that when we find Geneva Scala—you can interview her and find out why the Minds would be so fascinated with her. If you don’t think I had reason to fear this, I’ll stand trial with every Fraerling settlement and conclave of Minds you want.”
Niers Astoragon knew that claiming someone was violating the Minacien Wall could make you an enemy of every Selphid—and it was not a claim you threw around lightly. But he just bet the Minds were at the very least reading Geneva Scala’s thoughts.
That alone gave Eirnos pause. Foliana wheeled herself into the war room.
“Is this about your girlfriend?”
For once, Niers didn’t rise to the bait. He turned as one of his aides hurried in.
Cameral, the Dullahan, looked terrified, but he was doing well as Niers’ assistant. He had a sheaf of papers, and he put them down as the Titan looked at Eirnos. She spoke.
“What do you want, Titan? What are my [Seers] after?”
Niers pulled up a piece of paper and showed it to her. It was…a sketch. A sketch of a partly-rotted face and a Selphid within a corpse. It had a name, and he had nearly three dozen of them.
Courtesy of Umina, Marian, and Cameral.
“In Talenqual, the Bodies of Fellden were working with the United Nations company, a group of Humans, and the Last Light before they carried her off. I had my students use a memory spell and yanked an illustration of all of them. They may have rotted a bit over the months, but I need you to find every scrying spell in this area.”
He had a compass, and he circled a vast region around Talenqual; everywhere he thought the Bodies of Fellden could march in a month’s time.
“That’s fucking huge.”
Eirnos grunted. Niers shrugged.
“Find one of the faces here.”
“If they’re in a Gathering Citadel, there’s no way you’ll find them. The Minds ward everything.”
Foliana’s head snapped up, and she gave Niers an uncharacteristically serious stare. Cameral looked blankly at the Titan, and Niers gestured for him to remain silent. Cameral was going to learn one of the secrets of Baleros today. He had an eye on Erin Solstice announcing her challenge to the world as he replied.
“I know that. But the Bodies of Fellden are their mercenary group. Not their protectors. In short…”
In short, they might not all be in the Gathering Citadel. Eirnos blinked as she got it.
Everyone needed time off. Gathering Citadels were underground, boring damn places. The odds that the Bodies of Fellden were working somewhere else were high, or at least, on vacation.
During a huge event like this—the odds of one of them watching a scrying orb were through the roof. Niers just had to find them.
“Here are their names. Try scrying them first. I know our Fraerlings can break through or bypass low-grade anti-scrying spells. Find them, Eirnos. All I need is where they are.”
But that doesn’t find you a Gathering Citadel. This time, the Iuncuta didn’t say that. She was thinking. She nodded, slowly, and turned on her heel.
“How long is this chess tournament supposed to last?”
Niers glanced at Erin Solstice. He shrugged.
“You’ve got an hour or more. I think she’s going to beat me, but I’ll throw every game if I have to. Find them.”
It turned out the rush was unnecessary. By the time Niers watched Calidus Reinhart beat Erin Solstice—purely due to his luck and her exhaustion, he might add—Eirnos was waiting.
She handed him a map with a circled group of dots. All of them in the same city.
“Did you throw all eight games?”
“Don’t talk to me. She wasted Fraerlings as well as everyone else. So this is where they are?”
Niers glanced at the map, then he just took a compass, found every single forest and body of large untamed space within fifty miles, and circled it. Then he handed the map back.
“That’s where the Gathering Citadel is. Six spots, and I’ll bet you they’re in an area marked ‘Gold-rank danger’ but without any known valuable resources. This spot—in the hills, here, is my top guess.”
He pointed at the second-largest body of land in a valley that he’d pick. Eirnos didn’t take the map.
“You’ve got your intelligence. Am I supposed to fly out there? I’ve never fought Minds, but I know the record. They’ll tear up a column of your best—and you have Selphids in your ranks. How are you going to make sure they’re there? Three-Color Stalker?”
“No. Get me Golems.”
Niers’ eyes gleamed. Even Foliana wouldn’t be appropriate against the Minds. Eirnos’ brows rose.
“If you have a [Necromancer] or a [Puppet Master]—I want them to send in Golems, puppets, and undead. On flying carpets, no trained animals, or similar spells. Have them scour the area.”
“Remote detection? To find a Gathering Citadel? You must be mad.”
Eirnos scoffed, but Niers shook his head.
“Even an underground base needs air vents. If they think I’m coming, they might be stupid enough to call the Bodies of Fellden back. At the very least—someone takes them food and other resources. Put sentries up there and all the other spots. When you locate them, I’ll have a strike force ready. You want to watch?”
He stood up. The Iuncuta was giving him a disturbed look.
“We’re on campaign against—”
“We’ll take a flying carpet. I’ll move a force with the right preparations into the area. I have a number of Fraerling specialists I want you to lend me. I’ll be there—and if you want to watch, be my guest. But we might be fighting Minds in the tunnels.”
He was striding to find Cameral and giving the orders. Now, the other Fraerling was watching him. That was the difference between them.
She might be a proven war-leader, an expert hunter of monsters, and she certainly didn’t find him intimidating—but Eirnos was still a Fraerling used to Fraerling strife. She didn’t hunt people.
“Better take notes, Iuncuta Eirnos. When we find Peclir, I’m not going to bother with a raid. Let alone a warning. We’ll knock on the Minds’ door, but if they don’t open up, I’ll drag them out of their lair.”
The Titan was striding fast. Because despite his ability to find the Minds, they had been holding Geneva Scala for ages. If he had been back here, instead of lost on Izril, he might have found her sooner. Right now?
Hurry, hurry. His mind was buzzing. The Minacien Wall was something the Selphids had created to prevent more reprisals. But it was also there for everyone else’s safety.
When the wall came down—
Bad things happened. But how sure was Niers that bad things were happening? Maybe Geneva Scala was just a guest of a powerful force of semi-neutral Selphid leaders genuinely trying to save or safeguard their species, treated well but simply hostage?
If one of his students said that, he’d fail them out of their class. Besides—Niers scratched at his beard. No Minds had officially replied to him in any capacity, but he’d received something odd from one of the Selphids under his command. While they’d been marching back from a campaign against the Dyed Lands monsters, one had handed him a slip of parchment. It had one word scrawled on it, and he took it to heart.
The Second Mind knew something was wrong. It knew it, but it didn’t believe. It didn’t send Niers Astoragon the message until it had a reason.
(I asked you to not discover anything.)
Geneva Scala looked calmer, happier after walking through her memories. The Third Mind was very, very pleased, and even Contradiction couldn’t deny that Dictum had achieved some success.
Continuum and the others were very pleased, and that meant Contradiction had to rely on Niers Astoragon being able to pressure the others.
What disturbed the Second Mind was this:
The other Minds, First and Third, which it thought might be colluding in purpose, should have forced a decision ahead of the Titan finding them. If they wanted to keep Geneva Scala, that was the most logical course of action before the stakes were against them.
Instead, they’d opted to wait. Which implied a plan. Something other than Geneva Scala finding clues about the Wasting. The second cause for unease was Geneva Scala herself.
“I know, Contradiction. But I am committed to helping the Selphids as much as I can. My oath as a [Doctor] doesn’t diminish that.”
This was true, but Contradiction was still disturbed. It floated around her, and her own telepathic abilities were stronger. Idis was humming inside Geneva’s body as the two communed, and the Second Mind didn’t sense Geneva’s faint unrest at the Selphid’s presence.
Perhaps she no longer felt as much a prisoner in body and mind. Yet the Second Mind was still—
(Why did you transplant the galas-muscle into the bodies? Why have you agreed to keep doing this? This action does not seem to me to be something you would do, Geneva.)
She hesitated, then. Geneva almost shrugged.
“It’s dead bodies, not living ones. I draw the line on Human—that is to say, experimentation on people, but these bodies are already dead. If I can level and find ways to correct injuries or understand how magic or galas develop…”
She felt at her own back as she spoke. It all sounded very reasonable, all understandable. The Second Mind had no nerves, and the component Selphids in it needed very little that larger bodies did.
Nevertheless, a thousand Selphids squirmed. The orb of them shivered.
(You say this reasonably, Geneva Scala. I can tell you believe your words. I point out that this does not sound like you. You told me once that the ethics of your profession were a slippery slope. Are there no parallels in your own history to your actions now?)
It watched her face and sensed her thoughts suddenly go into a kind of arrest, a frantic…Geneva Scala’s eyes flickered, and her confidence changed.
“I—that’s just a children’s story. Frankenstein.”
Frankenstein? The Second Mind was confused. It listened to the parable of Frankenstein’s monster. Which, yes, was a mix of popular belief at the time, culture, and a number of other elements.
All very reasonable for someone from Earth to relate to her actions here as a cautionary tale.
…Which was why the Second Mind felt something was wrong. It floated around Geneva, leaving the center of the room. Its own personal [Guardians] watched it. They could sense the Second Mind’s nervousness. Its unease.
(Geneva Scala. Why does the myth of Frankenstein come to your mind?)
“Because it applies? It’s a warning, Contradiction, but I understand Selphids are a being, and these bodies are something they need to live. If I can create a more stable vessel or—recycle them, isn’t that a net benefit for all?”
The Second Mind was aware it was, by nature, too powerful. The Minacien Wall meant it should not look into her mind. Even that, even reaching into her head, was a technical violation under the strictest version of the idea.
Perhaps the Minacien Wall had been designed to discourage Minds from being created.
Even so—the Second Mind broke the Minacien Wall in that moment. It had to. It reached out and touched Geneva Scala’s memories.
(Geneva Scala. Your story of Frankenstein befits a girl from your world. Not a doctor. Surely there are historical examples you can think of.)
Then—her face twisted into uncertainty. Then, the Second Mind saw her mind connect to something she knew full well. A story not rooted in fiction, but reality. She looked up at the Second Mind, and her lips grew bloodless.
“I—there is. There have been people—who experimented with no regard for safety or ethics. But this isn’t the same. This is dead bodies. This is…”
She fell silent, because her eyes were flickering left and right. And the Second Mind thought that surely they had done that too. The living and the dead. If monsters of her world had—why would the most principled [Doctor] of this world not deliberate more?
She had performed the galas-muscle transplanting experiments before even asking for time to think it over or talking to the Second Mind. As if it were natural and only a children’s story had any bearing on that.
(That is not like you, Geneva Scala. Tell me, has anything—changed of late? Have the other Minds done or thought anything unusual? Do you notice anything fundamentally different about yourself?)
It could not tell, not without moving her into the center of the mind and searching her very core as the Third Mind had done—and that was a violation of her privacy and self.
Yet Geneva Scala just shook her head. She ran a hand over her head as Idis spoke up.
“S-Second Mind, I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I’ve been here the entire time. I would have reported anything weird. I promise.”
She sounded and felt genuine. The Second Mind acknowledged Idis, who did seem to care about Geneva. And she was loyal to the Minds, not knowing allegiance to any particular one.
But Idis was a junior Selphid and a burgeoning [Telepath]. She could not sense…
The Second Mind was about to put this down to paranoia when Geneva Scala spoke.
“Nothing—major, Second Mind. Just one thing.”
(Tell me. Anything.)
Geneva looked up with a huge frown. She spoke as if this were all silly and in an embarrassed tone, but she did say it.
“I’ve been having a dream. The same old dream. It’s just—me, on the first day of me being a First Responder. I—it’s stupid.”
(Go on. Tell me. Dreams are a part of thought.)
The [Doctor] shook her head. She spoke, feeling stupider by the moment, as the Second Mind hovered in silence.
“It’s just a lucid dream where I can sort of tell I’m sleeping. But it happens the same way—I’m at my job as a first responder, going to investigate a…a suicide. Some poor person shot himself. I’m the last one there. The coroner’s already been there, and my friend—no, he’s more like a college classmate—he’s freaking out. Because the body’s in the body bag. We don’t even have to handle it, just carry it to the van. But my classmate can’t, and he actually throws up. So the coroner and I have to take it out of his bedroom. Out…to the car. I didn’t remember all of it, but I’ve been remembering how I threw up and what the coroner said. It was the first time I touched a dead body. That’s all. I guess it’s a kind of parable or maybe my subconscious is warning me as well? What do you think?”
She laughed and looked up, slightly embarrassed because in her entire rambling retelling, not once had the Second Mind interrupted her.
Contradiction floated in the air, and Geneva Scala thought she saw the mass of Selphids…twitching. Writhing, as if every single one of them were moving. It was contained, though—and the Gathering Citadel was dark, the shadowed veins of the fortress still.
That statue loomed in the Second Mind’s thoughts as it sent one thought back to Geneva. One thought—and the fortress changed. One thought, and the Second Mind feared.
(Geneva Scala. Your dream is strange.)
“Because I have it every night?”
The Second Mind projected a shaking head into her mind. A thousand Selphids, slowly shaking their heads and staring at her with worried, dead eyes. The world began lurching as it projected something into her head. Unease. Fear. It showed her…a [Doctor], sitting warily in a padded armchair and speaking with it, just like Geneva was doing now.
One of the first times they’d met, when it had made contact to upset the Third Mind. The Second Mind showed her this memory it had.
(Geneva. You told me the first body you ever touched was when you were fourteen. It was your father. A heart attack. You tried to resuscitate him. Don’t you…remember?)
Geneva Scala looked up. Her eyes opened wide, wide—and she had the memory of her first day as a first responder.
Touching a dead body. Vomiting—but being calmer than she thought. The coroner, her classmate—the crunch of gravel under her feet.
She couldn’t remember a thing.
Author’s Note: This chapter is shorter. I have adopted a new strategy. Write less than 10,000 words per day. Also—edit a chapter from Volume 1 if I can.
I need to get it edited. I know this must sound like an obsession, and a poorly-managed one at that. But I have learned to edit the current chapters better. The problem is—it’s stressful, trying to do Volume 1 at the same time. It’s been taking a toll on my energy, and it’s also just exhausting having it hang over me.
The benefits of finishing Volume 1 are great. So I think I need to work hard on editing it, because it’s too much on the plate. So I’ll try to economize each regular chapter down to under 20,000 words and edit fast.
Always something new. Always another challenge. The point is not to let it get overwhelming. There are good days, and bad days to writing.
This…well Halloween is coming up around this chapter and the next. But these aren’t Halloween chapters. That’s a coincidence. Halloween chapters are spooky but generally, I regard the holiday as cheerful. These are probably darker chapters. I don’t know how many I’ll do, but here’s the first one. Wish me luck for the rest.
Medical Note: Yeah, that’s right. I’m writing two notes. This one isn’t medical per se; more about the science mentioned here. If anyone finds scientific inaccuracies (bearing in mind this is a magical world), please describe them.
Geneva is actually looking at a strange magical cross between biology and magic here, and her microscope can see all kinds of weird things, but I lack the terminology to explain it because biology class was a long time ago, and I have not the background. So terms will also help. She can see muscle fiber, but not the pure cells that make up the muscles yet. Of course, it’s also not a cross-section, but that’s for reference. Your expertise may be needed later.
Are there practicing microbiologists reading this story? I should consult the survey if we had that kind of question. Sort of personal, but you get all kinds of readers. Anyways, the point is that science is hard.
Science is hard—but dresses are harder. Food is stupid. These are all highly technical fields to write, let alone describe someone dancing properly. It’s why writing often captures the mood, rather than technical elements of how you hold your body. That’s called writers sucking at describing things and faking it. Just a note to say that I will try to correct any bad science but sometimes stuff is also stupid to our understanding. Like almost all of Dullahan anatomy.
Toren Pumpkin by Ashok!
Sad Niers by butts!
Hill Erin, [Grandmaster of Scales] by Miguel!