(Trigger Warning: See the link here for details.)
Now you saw it. All the little lies added up.
The face staring back at you through the mirror changed. It might be you, that pointed nose, the irises like cat’s eye stone, light brown and sometimes piercing. A fitting stare for a dedicated student, someone who strived for excellence in her studies because she thought it mattered.
Who gave away free time, friendships, to become a better student. To gain a degree, no matter how many long rotations she worked. Coffee for blood, exhaustion for a friend.
To become a doctor. The same stare that asked whether this was all worth it. And the girl who looked so determined was not the same person the woman saw.
A stare fitting for the only [Doctor] in a continent plagued by war. Cropped hair halfway down the neck, as done by a razor, not a barber. And then you could see those eyes staring past a mask of someone else’s blood. As if all the death and slaughter had turned her into a butcher of flesh, not a practitioner of medicine.
There you are. A friend had once called her hawkish when she was focused. The face looked familiar. It seemed to be the one she’d always had, and that was Geneva Scala’s face.
But—now you knew. And you saw all the little cracks in the mirror. The warp in the glass. Was her nose always shaped like that? Perhaps the nostrils were too thin. Had she always worn her hair like that? Did she…did she used to have glasses?
Was that person in the mirror even her? Why was she smiling? Her lips curved upwards without really understanding what a smile was.
The face in the mirror shook slightly, trembling. As if the glass were water instead and she was staring into a deep, deep lake. And what was reality was unclear because she couldn’t tell. She couldn’t trust her memory of how she looked. She couldn’t trust anything.
How long had that been going on? Was she even the same Geneva Scala who’d come here, or had she…forgotten something important? The stranger stared back as her room shook and a Selphid babbled in her mind.
“No, no, nonono…”
Idis whispered as Geneva Scala stared at herself and thought of her dreams. She could no longer remember her father. She remembered, so vividly it was as if she were there, the day she had touched a body when she was nineteen. Funnily—despite being affected by whatever phenomenon that made Earthers forget their families—
Geneva couldn’t remember her father’s face. And everyone could remember they had siblings, parents, with effort. She couldn’t remember his name.
Scala? She stood there and felt the walls of the Gathering Citadel move. As if they were slithering around her, shifting like the cells of some vast being. She had known this place as a prison before.
Now, it was turning into a nightmare, and she feared it had only just begun. Again. And again…the [Doctor] closed her eyes.
Why was it so difficult? From battlefields to Talenqual, she had thought the long path of finding a balance between her calling and her life was hard enough. Then Okasha, Talenqual—to here.
She was at the bottom of a pit, and every time she felt like she was climbing, she realized she was still sinking. Now there was water pouring in, a sea of it. Geneva Scala looked around, but there was only her in the mirror.
No friends. Not even in her own skin. No one to trust.
Or if there were one—
There was just one against five. The Gathering Citadel shook once more as Selphids stood or crouched uneasily. Calectus and a squad of [Psychic Guardians] stood outside Geneva’s room, waiting for it to end.
The war of Minds lasted for nine hours. It was a war.
Geneva could not see it, but she felt the vast presences clashing around her. It was different than a battle of auras. This was thought and emotion waged in the air, and even a strand of it sent some Selphids into a fury—or simply knocked them out.
The physical war made the Gathering Citadel shake. Telekinesis on a scale to cause tremors. All of this was just the side-effects of the true battle.
The Second Mind had tried to reach out, past this underground fortress, to the other Minds. It, Contradiction, had levied a charge against the First and Third Minds, of breaching the Minacien Wall.
Contradiction had tried to rally the other Minds to its side. Alert the other Minds something terrible had happened here. It had moved within moments of learning the truth from Geneva’s dreams, upon barest suspicion.
The Second Mind had been too slow. It never reached its peers outside this place. When it turned for help from the other three Minds, it found none.
Five Minds battled one. They were all working together. All united in thought.
It was all a conspiracy.
Nine hours. The shaking stopped after forty-eight minutes, but the war kept raging. When Geneva was allowed out of her quarters by the third hour—she saw the Minds.
They were floating in the center of the room, locked in silent strife with the Mind in the center. The Second Mind was…twisting. It would buffet them, and ripples of force would pass across one of the other five. But it was losing.
She did not know what was being done to it. She heard nothing from it. Only a voice.
(We will speak to you tomorrow, Geneva Scala. Rest easy. The Minds will be in agreement when you wake.)
Dictum spoke. And then the horror really began, because Geneva felt as though she should have raged. Shouted, protested—defended the one friend and protector whom she respected in this place. She wanted to.
But she didn’t. And some part of Geneva, now that she was aware, the budding [Telepath], could sense this. Like a half-asleep prisoner in her own head, and she had been one so long in body, she felt herself getting tired.
Her whirling thoughts slowed, like a laundry machine suddenly out of power.
“S-should I t-take her to her rooms, Minds?”
Idis stuttered with Geneva’s mouth. The Minds pulsed. Five voices spoke, sounding strained.
Even her Selphid was disturbed. Even the other Selphids who escorted her to her rooms looked—Geneva Scala stumbled forwards despite Idis controlling her. She tried not to. But she was already…trying not to…
Sleep. For in her dreams, there was nothing deeply unpleasant. Just dead bodies. Just memories.
But they were not hers. So who dreamed? Geneva—or whoever she was becoming?
Niers Astoragon hurried. He had only a single note to go off of. Only suspicions and clever tricks to even assume Geneva was in the right place.
It was like playing an entire game of chess blindfolded or with a curtain between you and the chess board. When the curtain fell—you hoped every piece was as you imagined it.
They never were. Not in war. And the stakes…
They were higher this time.
He had been too slow of late. Too slow, too incompetent. This time, he moved as fast as he dared. But even he could not move mountains with his mind alone. And knowing his opponents’ might—he had to make sure he was ready.
“Have you found them? Foliana, you’re staying.”
“No I’m not.”
“You’re cut up and still healing, no matter if the curse is broken. I need full-bodied people I can back up—and you’ll be a liability, even as a [Rogue], if they grab you. You’re staying. Besides, I need you to pretend I’m on the front. Have a body double—one of the Tallguard. If I don’t come back, melt the region.”
She didn’t object after that. The Titan of Baleros couldn’t afford to move with her anyways. Where he was going, stealth and speed were both too hard for someone of Foliana’s size.
He paid a visit to one of the Fraerling settlements.
It was an honor, even for the Titan, to be granted admission to a Fraerling settlement he had not known the location of. He knew the name, of course. Most of the big ones were known to other Fraerlings by name, even if they were hidden.
This one was called Itelloi. It was nothing like Paeth. Itelloi Under Shadows might never be found by Tallfolk. They had traded the danger of Tallfolk finding them like a tree in a forest for other threats.
Like whatever burrowed. And there were thousands of that kind of threat. They faced difficulty importing food, and their home was no tree.
It had been a giant egg of some insect. Itelloi was too clever to make the walls out of cellulose and chitin—they had replaced most of it with steel and stone and wood, which meant they were not…adapting to their home.
Their Tallguard were very good at being stealthy as befit their home. They were also, coincidentally, one of the most mobile Tallguard forces that Niers had ever encountered. They were willing to go far to get whatever their home desired, so they’d been one of the first to join Iuncuta Eirnos’ taskforce.
Patrol Captain Shoike was their liaison, and she personally removed the enchanted blindfold as Niers disembarked the bat. Either wherever Itelloi was was large enough for a bat population—a subterranean cave, he suspected—or they’d teleported the damn bat in from an entry point.
Flying with a blindfold on was not pleasant. You just let the harness hold you tight and tried not to think about whether you were upside-down or not.
Under normal circumstances, Itelloi would have still greeted the Titan, the citizens would have probably asked him to host a seminar, and there would be a celebration. The Architects were not present, though.
He didn’t have time for them. And the circumstances had dictated that Itelloi, not the more public Reton, had answered Niers’ request.
The Titan actually knew Commander Rozcal, a huge Fraerling who wore Crelerbane Armor and fought amongst the Tallguard. They were far more likely to answer a request if he needed something made—but even the best Fraerling [Enchanters] weren’t up for this kind of job, necessarily.
“Our armory is open to you, Titan. I will be taking a log of whatever you request, but given the circumstances—we have opened all but our emergency options.”
“I’ll compensate you for whatever I take in materials. I’m only looking for one set of objects. Do you have any gear or Tallfolk-sized Selrite protection?”
Patrol Captain Shoike hesitated.
“We’ve armed eighteen Tallguard in optical and psionic protections. As for amulets—I think we have three made of Selrite.”
“Then I need all three.”
“—Given the circumstances, the Architects would prefer to have one on standby.”
Niers turned to the Patrol Captain as Eirnos followed them. She wasn’t smiling, and she was handing another Tallguard a list of items she wanted too. Niers was the only living expert in what they were up against, so the [Strategist] took the time to clarify his remarks.
“If I’m stealing Itelloi’s actual protections, their Allotment—if this somehow ties into keeping the city safe, disregard my request, Patrol Captain. But if Itelloi wants to be safe—give me all three. Because if this turns into a prolonged conflict, which it should not, then you’ll need more than one amulet designed for Tallfolk. You’ll need hundreds. And I suggest that you begin pulling any blueprints if you haven’t already.”
The Patrol Captain processed his request, then nodded.
“Three it is. What kind of munitions did you want?”
Eirnos suggested. Niers shook his head. He looked around and saw the other Fraerlings for the force he’d mustered. No Rozcal. He wasn’t good at this sort of thing. But Gindal had volunteered, and he was a crack shot with a crossbow.
“Got anything electric? It stuns Selphids, and it goes straight through their bodies. Electricity, then flame or frost. They can disable a vortex bolt.”
The Iuncuta rebutted his statement after a lengthy pause.
“…No they can’t. That’s a miniature void which eats everything in its radius. It literally sucks in Adamantium, even if it can’t fully mangle it.”
Niers raised his brows. Eirnos and Captain Shoike exchanged a long glance, then Eirnos handed the quarrels back over.
If that didn’t spell out the stakes, Niers wasn’t sure what would. And here was the thing—he had never fought Minds before.
Not fought them. He’d dropped in on some, and he knew of their existence—but he did not relish this. No one liked fighting on someone else’s home ground, and Niers had the uncomfortable thought that he was doing what Jungle Tails had just tried to do to his capital.
Eighteen Fraerlings with Selrite gear. Three amulets. By rights, he should have a hundred of each, if he wanted to march into a telepath’s sanctum.
This would do. Niers gave orders.
“I need a set of gear for myself, Eirnos, and our leaders from that eighteen. My amulets are going to go to three people I will select—our [Commander] class, [Mage] class, and a [Rogue].”
“Not Three-Color Stalker?”
Eirnos was learning, so Niers shook his head.
“It would mess with her abilities. She’s a subterfuge-assassin. I need someone more suited for…battles. Besides, she’s wounded.”
“Everyone else goes without? We’ll have Fraerlings and Tallfolk exposed.”
“Yep. We’ll be taking Centaurs, Dullahans, and Naga. Centaurs are hard for Selphids to control. Dullahans and Naga are slightly more resilient to mental effects. Our [Commander] will be [Captain of Discipline] Theilo. He specializes in holding ground during losing battles. Or marching troops into storms of arrows and spells.”
The Fraerlings looked at him. That didn’t sound like any kind of smart tactics to them. Fraerlings, again, were clever fighters. They valued the lives of each Fraerling and armed them well and didn’t commit to bloodbaths.
In that way, they were flawed. Sometimes the best way to win was to throw blood into a grinder. Niers knew all the tactics.
“He’s from the Rustängmarder.”
“The King of Destruction’s forces? I thought they’d rejoined him!”
Niers just grunted.
“A few violated their contract clause by resigning and then marching over to him. The rest have to honor their contracts, but they’re not going to renew them. Why do you think that lot haven’t appeared behind him? He’ll hold our forces even if they’re being influenced.”
Theilo was also able to execute traitors and turncoats with his Skills. Niers didn’t say that part out loud. The Titan wasn’t taking many soldiers, Tallfolk or Fraerling.
“If they have a group of high-level Selphids in that citadel, our force might be outnumbered, including Fraerlings, Titan.”
“We’re after one Human. If they don’t negotiate, we’re in for a fight anyways.”
“So the solution is fewer bodies?”
“Fewer minds—yes. Everyone else is on carpets a mile up. The Minds have an advantage in their home. We don’t win if we have to go in. We just make it a battle where they know if they kill us all, their home will be pounded into rubble.”
Niers selected one of the Selrite helmets and tried it on. Selrite was something he didn’t understand, but Fraerlings had made it back when they toppled the Selphid Empire.
The damn stuff expired, though, so few sets were maintained. Time to make more. The very material was named after Selphids, the only known telepathic species—or at least, the best at it.
Oh, this is going to be messy. Niers didn’t smile, though he did feel alive. He tightened the strap and grimaced as he felt a dull kind of pressure at the back of his own mind.
“Damn, I hate this stuff already. We’re moving out within the hour. Tell reconnaissance I want to know where the citadel is—if they can’t find it by the time we’re halfway there, start burning mana. We’ll send the amulets ahead and put scouts in the ground.”
It would take two days to travel there from where they were, even with Fraerling birds and flying artifacts. Eirnos raised her brows.
“Let me give it a shot. If we haven’t found the citadel by then…”
She paused, and Niers waited. The Iuncuta’s eyes flickered, then she spoke. With a bit of hesitation, until that phrase lingered too loud in all their minds.
The Minacien Wall.
“…Start burning the forests.”
Patrol Captain Shoike looked horrified, but Niers clapped Eirnos on the shoulder.
“You’re getting the hang of it.”
That was all. He was out of the Fraerlings’ settlement in twenty minutes. All Niers could do then was wait. Wait—and hope that message forgave him the distance and his preparations. His stomach didn’t churn as he flew. The Titan just held still.
Wondering what he’d find when he got there. And when he did—
It was all done, in motion, and waiting for him when he arrived. Like a perfect moment for him to arrive. Not immortal, but something else.
A dark, twisted dream. Come what may, the Titan would wake them all up from it.
When it had begun teaching her, Contradiction, the Second Mind, had talked with Geneva about the pitfalls and dangers of being a [Telepath].
(Controlling the physical world is difficult. Lifting an object with the mind alone is taxing. Telepathy is dangerous. By giving you the means to resist the Third Mind and myself—I am giving you the power to change your mind.)
“Can’t anyone do that?”
Geneva recalled sitting with the Second Mind as it brought over some props—it loved props to demonstrate what it thought of—and it projected amusement to her. It looked like a laughing little child, Lizardfolk, rolling around on the ground with mirth. It showed her the first object, and Geneva recoiled from the…warm touch. Almost fleshy.
(No. Someone without training can change how they reason, change their perspective, change facts and even memories. They can desire and want—but they cannot change how they think. You could. You could reach into your own head and move something. Forget how to breathe.)
That worried her.
(No. But it is possible. You are a [Doctor]. You know how medicine can harm if used incorrectly.)
Of course. When Contradiction phrased it like that, Geneva was less worried. So it showed her the first trick of keeping her mind secure.
(When Okasha controlled you—she had a Skill. To isolate your mind. This is the same principle.)
Geneva shuddered, but the Second Mind was gentle.
(It is not a prison. It is…a place where even your thoughts do not reach. Safe from yourself and any other. It will not avail you against a full Mind.)
“So what good is it?”
As Geneva understood it, even with training, she was like a five-year old child being taught by a master in some martial arts. But even if she mastered a technique—a Mind was like a sumo wrestler and a master combined. The Second Mind replied steadily.
(To keep some part of you constant. Put anything you need to remember to use in there. Think of it like…a reminder.)
It showed her a calendar with a red circled date. Geneva thought it was like having a schedule. Fix something you couldn’t forget in there—
(It is very useful for keeping track of things too. All Selphids who work for us don’t forget assignments.)
The Second Mind joked. Like many things, this kind of mental safeguard was eminently applicable in just organizing your thoughts. Keeping an idea from being forgotten, especially if it were important.
Then it showed her a more physical defense. Geneva held a strange…cage.
Was cage the right word? It looked like one of those wicker balls made of twigs, twined together to create a primitive cage people used to catch animals or hold objects. Only this one was far more…intricate. It had a hundred different threads, inside and outside, like roots forming the most complex puzzle.
It was also—warm and felt like flesh, not metal or stone or anything else.
(This is Selrite. It is a natural protection against mental effects. The Minds will not let you wear it, but it is important to know how to turn off your own powers or protect others.)
“What is it…made of?”
(Tissue. Brain tissue.)
Geneva’s hands flew away from the orb, but the Second Mind continued.
(Not from people. Monsters. Some monsters have the same kind of mental power as we do. Many live in the sea. I think a snail is a viable source of Selrite. It is, in fact, a psychic aid. It boosts control.)
“How—how is that supposed to protect me?”
Geneva had handled many things without feeling the need to wash her hands, but this? The Second Mind nudged at it, but to Geneva’s surprise, it didn’t lift the bauble. It couldn’t.
(The Selrite is a kind of physical telepathic presence. But I cannot move it. If you wear it, you will be harder to affect. Can you understand why? Try lifting it. Try…doing something with it.)
Geneva tried, but to her surprise, she couldn’t move or affect the Selrite at all. And it was not hard to understand why.
All the little connections and the makeup of the amulet were a mystery. She couldn’t cut it open, so she didn’t understand how it…looked. There were probably other tricks to it, so the Second Mind explained.
(Like a blacksmith’s puzzle—this is too complex for a Mind to understand. We can lift a blacksmith’s puzzle by force, but Selrite would resist us. Very clever. [Enchanters] have learned from this design. Even modern [Enchanters] like the late Archmage Nailihuaile copied this design without knowing why. Amulets of Xion, Selrite—many adventurers have safeguards against this rare kind of threat, even if they have forgotten why.)
It made her own mind feel dull when she put it on, as if there were a constant thought she couldn’t quite place, always getting in the way. Geneva could see it wouldn’t be practical to wear this all the time, but the Second Mind told her these secrets because it felt she should know.
Because it wanted her to be more than just a captive aiding the Minds. Because…perhaps, it had feared what now occurred.
It was too late for Geneva to put the Selrite on. She hadn’t felt the first changes in herself, so she put, into that box of her true self, something she needed to remember, lest she lose it all without seeing it.
What? What could she store that she was certain of? She had already forgotten…forgotten…
What could she trust? Memories of her company? Ken? The Second Mind?
There was only one thing Geneva Scala could trust, and so it was this. Ere she slept, she put one thing into a box in her head and checked it every night.
She recorded her dreams. Each one—
So she could see how they began to change.
The first time Geneva Scala picked up a dead body was when she was nineteen years old. The victim had taken their own life.
The body was already bagged. Her classmate was throwing up. The coroner took the body to the van, and Geneva was surprised at how she did not panic.
That was the first dream. The first time it happened. Geneva now wondered about the others. Because she began to…remember other details.
Had her classmate thrown up, which made her vomit afterwards? Had the coroner really muttered they wouldn’t last and complimented her afterwards?
Her first memory of the dream indicated that she’d forgotten those details, but they were so vivid…perhaps she’d forgotten? But how could she forget the rest? Washing her mouth out with water, apologizing to the coroner—as he joked with her. Kissing him on a whim.
They’d dated for three months.
Was that a lie?
She remembered it distinctly. Barlevos, his name, the old van that was always cold—but her memory in the box said otherwise. And—the memories felt real. But the box—
Geneva Scala woke up, and the Gathering Citadel was quiet. Idis swung her out of bed, and in silence, she ate breakfast, then reported to the First Mind.
Continuum sounded tired, but it greeted her.
(Do not be alarmed, Geneva Scala. All will continue as it has been. Our conflict is done. Contradiction has expressed its discontent. The Titan still seeks us out. When he arrives—we may render you to him.)
Geneva Scala blinked and opened and closed her mouth. That was not what she’d expected. She hesitated.
“Is the Second Mind—”
The First Mind simply projected an affirmative.
(The Second Mind is undamaged. Merely exhausted. As before, you will report to the Minds to learn and teach. This is all.)
As if nothing had happened, Geneva Scala was sent away. If anything, now the First Mind was speaking of letting her go.
But she knew that was just the false layer of the dream. She had seen the walls peel back, and she waited now. Waited for the horror. Her dreams were changing, and a part of her screamed that every second while the rest of her pretended all was well.
The Second Mind thought nothing for a long time as Geneva Scala stood in front of it. It hovered low in the air, as if even gravity were too much. When it spoke—Geneva Scala felt no strain, but a kind of fuzziness to the thoughts. Vague asides, confusion, as if it was having trouble focusing.
(Failure—I did better than—Geneva Scala. What did you eat for breakf—Minds united behind the Third. We think alike. I have failed.)
It said nothing more. Geneva walked up to it.
“Are you alright? Are you—hurt?”
The Second Mind, Contradiction, visibly vibrated. It did not look hurt, but it was beaten, and Geneva understood just how badly when it replied.
(I have agreed to think alike.)
For a Mind…she understood. Geneva wanted to know if it would tell the other Minds what was going on. Or set her free. But those questions faded.
The Second Mind had accepted the other Minds’ conclusions. It said nothing to her of her dreams. It just floated there, helpless.
“Contradiction. What should I do?”
Geneva Scala looked to it for anything, and the Second Mind’s reply was slow.
(You…have time, Geneva. Do what they want of you. That is all you have we lack. No Mind can do what you can do. I shall…I shall continue aiding you in some way. The Minds all want what is best for us.)
She looked at it. The Second Mind had no whisper, nor anything else to say. Geneva Scala bowed as Idis whispered a goodbye. And the [Doctor] did what the Second Mind had suggested.
She got back to work.
“I cannot tell you what is causing or preventing the Wasting without knowing what is different about the Dyed Lands or Rhir.”
Geneva had some satisfaction in telling the Third Mind that. Frustrated, it sent her off to the Fourth Mind so that Inconsolable could plan what it needed.
(Soil samples? Background…radiation, pollen, local plants, fauna?)
The Fourth Mind was dismayed by all the things that could go into your wellbeing, and most of these things, like pollution, were invisible.
“It’s difficult, I know. I could truly use a…victim of the Wasting. To see what the effect of the Wasting looks like on a cellular level.”
Geneva had prepared a cross-section of the galas-muscle as well as the dead Selphid she had been given, but the victims of the Wasting were burned and destroyed almost instantly. The Minds were paranoid about allowing it to spread, even if there were no known transmission factors, so they routinely culled affected parts of themselves.
(Your presence may be needed. The Titan—annoying. Annoying in his presence searching for us and the Dyed Lands. Perhaps complimentary?)
Like the First Mind, the Fourth Mind seemed annoyed, but almost accepting of the Titan demanding her. Geneva was curious.
“So you’ll let me go?”
Really? The Fourth Mind paused and then replied without giving her any emotional clues.
(The Titan is dangerous. You will have your choice, then. Whether he keeps you against your will is another scenario.)
She was not sure she liked that, but it was more than she had ever received. Geneva went back to describing what even an attempt at comprehensive analysis would take.
“I need to be able to read the countless factors I have no understanding of. I’m no chemist or expert in how to take pollution or other elements from the air. For soil samples, you would dig down deep enough to avoid surface contamination…”
(…But how would you inspect the soil?)
Comprehensive testing for various known contaminants on Earth? Geneva didn’t know, and she knew there were even more magical elements here. The Fourth Mind grew increasingly dismayed, and Geneva Scala realized she’d made a mistake.
Whether she was a scientist or not, she should have started with a fundamental rather than moving into applied medicine. Here was a question: was the periodic table even relevant in this world?
It surely seemed so. Geneva had a few theories, so she put an experiment into practice. Well, several.
The Minds had a plethora of resources, so Geneva got her microscope—or rather, the Selphids had to port and assemble it because it was nearly six feet high. The Sixth Mind, Egress, had had a terrible time creating it.
For instance, [Eagle Eyes] was a spell or enchantment that made things appear larger. But what Geneva realized and most [Mages] did not was that eagles and other species adapted their eyes to focus on distant images. Whereas microscopes, well, magnified an image.
The difference was subtle, but essentially, the Sixth Mind had been virtually unable to focus the microscope with that enchantment because it was adapting a far-sighted spell for a very, incredibly near-sighted experience. It had eventually figured out the mistake with Geneva’s help and just amplified the image—and put enough light spells in the microscope to light up any room Geneva was in.
She wanted to see if there was any change to the periodic table she knew. The problem was—she had very few distilled elements. Like, for instance, the old copper hydroxide and glucose experiment would produce a known reaction to Geneva. She’d done that back in science class.
Lacking that, she went to a few basic tests. Firstly—she found a flame and tried to generate a color other than fire’s natural orange-red.
She thought of Erin Solstice when she did that. She hoped the young woman was well. Geneva sometimes could watch recordings of scrying orb events, but the Minds never used a live feed.
Anyways, the flame reacted in the way she wanted. Iron dust produced gold, flour made it flare up, and when she requested copper sulfate, the Fourth Mind reached out to the Fifth Mind.
Sympathy was a Mind dedicated to understanding the known world, and it was obsessed with understanding the Dyed Lands among other tasks, like recovering alchemical recipes for Potions of Regeneration and so on.
It knew what Geneva wanted and produced what she took to be copper sulfate; it made the flames green, and she had to assume that [Alchemists] had discovered how to make that because it was a known reaction to them.
This felt like it was all normal according to the periodic table she knew. Geneva’s final test that day was to take a bit of gold and continually slice, pound, and reduce it into the thinnest flakes of gold she could.
Under a microscope, the element refused to change or look any different. Which suggested that like her world, it was impossible to simply change an element like that. These basic tests made Geneva even more curious to know how magic played a role in these fundamental interactions. No wonder alchemy was considered trial-and-error—she would have feared to try any of the more dangerous tests even in a controlled environment with magic being undetectable and potentially everywhere.
Say. What did magic look like under a microscope? Geneva asked for a Selphid to cast a spell to conjure rock, mud, or something else for her. She already had the Selphid cells and Galas-muscle cells ready to go on a slide, but what did a stone look like up close?
Unless they were dyed or an interesting cut, rocks were a lot less fun to look at than cells under microscopes. Geneva expected to see not much from the piece of a [Stone Dart] spell she put under a microscope, but then she realized two things:
Firstly, the [Stone Dart] spell began collapsing the instant she tried to dissect it. The moment she snapped a bit off, the spell would crumble and pieces would dissolve into nothingness.
“It’s a weak spell. Geneva, Geneva, you need a longer-lasting spell. Let me try! [Mud Splatter]! See! I—oh.”
Idis was so eager to help out when she realized the problem that she cast a Tier 1 combat spell she used to blind her opponents. The [Barbarian] splattered the microscope, and Sympathy, the Fifth Mind, silently observed the splatter of mud hit the slide—and the carefully tuned microscope—and the lenses…
(Selphid Idis. Your help in this juncture is not required.)
It took an hour to clean everything up. When Geneva tried again with a small splatter of mud, she saw something odd happening at last that almost made the hour’s wait worth it. Even Idis gasped out loud.
“Wh—it’s breaking apart! Geneva, do you see that? Do you—”
The mud was pure. In that it had no microorganisms, no other debris—it was magical mud, so it made sense that it had no impurities. In a sense, magical creations were the most perfectly untouched matter you could find.
The second thing was that Geneva thought she could see the magic making up the mud. Or if not…see it, she could see the effect of the magic leaving the spell Idis cast.
It was dissolving before her very eyes. The mud was—unmaking itself at a microscopic level. By the time she saw it visibly dissipating, the structure of whatever this fake mud was—was already unstable.
If that was what magic looked like as a temporary spell, could you detect magic with a microscope? Just by holding it up to an artifact?
Geneva asked Sympathy for a magical artifact—several of varying intensities—as she did a cross-section of the galas-muscle. She wished she had some cells undergoing mitosis, cellular division, so she could see the magical effects or change in biology at play. Lacking that, or the Wasting, she could just see odd…cells…
“They’re too colorful. They don’t look notably bigger or have increased nuclei—but even though I’ve stained these muscles with a dye, I can see the nuclei aren’t what I’d expect—black. Is this the quality of magic adding color here? Is this also why it doesn’t rot?”
Magic infused muscle might be slower to rot, even after so long, because it was magic. In the same way—undead were known to wander about despite being decomposing corpses and skeletons who were definitely suffering the effects of heat, weather, and so on.
If magic were a kind of preservative on a cellular level…Geneva wondered what you could make with that. She was taking out the slide of galas-muscle and inserting the Selphid’s cross-section as Idis murmured.
“Let me just adjust it here. And here. It looks perfect. Okay, Geneva!”
She was acting as a kind of lab assistant. Geneva Scala wondered how Idis felt about the Minds’ quarrel. She wondered if she should be doing something.
I am a captive, and my memories are changing. I need to do something. The Second Mind suggested I get back to work. Was that a hint or was it telling me to do the opposite? Do I wait for this Titan?
She thought, in that private space in her head, as Sympathy waited. She still wanted to be free, but she wasn’t sure if Niers were better than the Minds. From what she knew of him—he was the amalgamation of Baleros’ entire mindset. His company fought countless wars.
But he was also a Fraerling. Did that mean…?
Geneva’s mind focused on the view Idis had calibrated for her at last. She had seen the Galas-muscle up close, but she didn’t know what part of a Selphid she had selected for the cross-section. She had assumed it would be like the epidermis, perhaps, or, since Selphids appeared to be some kind of offshoot of an amoeba or snail or sea cucumber, a representation of their body as a whole.
Geneva Scala’s thoughts, milling about, slowly went silent. So much so that Idis felt the [Doctor] stand there and stare into the microscope. Slowly, Geneva adjusted the dials, but she said nothing. Idis had to pump her lungs.
“Geneva? Your heart’s picking up. Geneva? I’m, um—getting adrenaline spikes here and here and—I’ll just—”
The Fifth Mind slowly broke off from its mental tasks.
(Is something amiss, Geneva Scala? Your thoughts are different.)
The [Doctor] said not a word at first. Single-mindedly, she just kept focusing the microscope, zooming out, back in—as if trying to see whether Idis had made a mistake. But no—even if you dyed this sample. Even if you…
She started and looked up. Idis was worried, and the Fifth Mind…the Fifth Mind felt her sudden unease. Sympathy focused on the Selphid’s sample in front of Geneva and reached out, but hesitantly.
(What did you see, Geneva Scala? Was it the Wasting? Something about the dead Selphid? It came from the Sixth Mind. Is Egress in jeopardy?)
“No. No, I…this can’t be right. I need another sample. Someone find me another—do Selphids molt? Can I get any cross-section, from any Selphid?”
She was so agitated she stepped back. The Fifth Mind wavered, and Idis raised Geneva’s hand.
“If you only need a tiny, tiny bit—”
She sensed Geneva’s actual panic. Idis actually managed to remove part of herself—barely the tiniest of fragments, already close to microscopic—onto a sample tray as Geneva focused on it. She zoomed in and focused and zoomed in—and Idis saw what she did.
So why was the [Doctor]’s heart racing? Geneva Scala’s mouth went dry, and she looked up as Sympathy, Idis, and the other Selphids looked at her.
“It looks the same as the dead Selphid’s. But—”
(What is it?)
The Fifth Mind yanked the images from her mind in its worry. It scoured through them, but it didn’t see what was wrong. All it saw was the already-foreign landscape of interconnected cells. Cells, which made up skin, something that even Selphids barely understood despite their grasp of anatomy.
Yet Geneva saw what was odd at once. She stared down into the microscope at the cells of Idis’ body…and then she looked up.
“…that shape isn’t like any cell I’ve ever seen. There’s no nucleus. There’s—”
She focused again, and she had seen how the cells were different. Patchwork ‘walls’ of epidermal cells, plant matter, tissue of other creatures. Even if it looked different, sometimes like odd, surrealist art, organized or mismatched like scar tissue, thousands of individual pieces—it still had rhyme and reason to it.
This? She stared down and saw no core component of any cell. No nucleus. If she had a better microscope—would she have seen mitochondria? Vacuoles?
She had wanted to see cells undergoing mitosis, division, and she had taken a sample of her own flesh and gotten to see some of that up close, just like normal. Like Geneva, Idis’ body was still trying to carry on, and so Geneva saw some of the objects in front of her…dividing?
No. She saw a strand gather and pluck one of the shining clouds upwards. Up and up until it coalesced like a fruit upon a vine—but so twisting, the edges of each ‘cell’ fitting together like the edges of a star, not like a cell. Then the ‘fruit’ dropped away and began to unwind itself. Unwind and unwind—
And she saw nothing that looked like a cell. Nothing—and Geneva’s mind was empty as she tried to grasp what she was looking at. Only one thing made sense, and it popped into her head so slowly.
Everything she knew was based on her world. Everything was of Earth—which had first started with the amoebas and microorganisms brought here or formed during the gas coalescing, meteorites through space.
The only thing she could imagine that would look so foreign would be something that had no common roots with Earth. Something…Geneva looked up, and the Fifth Mind caught the word in the air. It shivered, like Geneva’s crawling skin.
That night, two Genevas slept. One went to bed as Idis tucked her in. She was disturbed, but she slept as most dreamers did; to wake hours later, with only dreams to mark the passing of time unless her rest was disturbed.
The other sat inside a box. She only came out then, in dreams. She was the Geneva who watched her other self with horror and disgust.
This Geneva feared she would not remain. She was the screamer in silence as she stood before the Second Mind. Perhaps she was the conscience or the woman who spoke the hippocratic oath and believed it.
Perhaps she was just a creation of the Minds and not even this was real. She had no power save to be a dreamer, an observer of this dark descent. Yet the path was well lit, the road gentle, and it carried her down step by step.
Only her will slowed the fall.
Geneva Scala felt a revelation upon her. Like a foreign dawn, but the sky was black. She stood upon a beach of sand as black as midnight. The waters of the vast sea beyond were blood red and seemed to squirm before her, like the viscera of some dead creature.
She did not know how far it lay, nor how deep the waters went. The sand was scattered with masks. Faces, staring up at her as she walked barefoot towards the water.
The faces were hers. They whispered to her.
“It was always here, the clues. The dreams are changing.”
“The Titan will arrive too late.”
“You will never be free.”
Geneva Scala bent down to touch them, but the masks went silent when she bent—and when she stood, a second woman stood there.
Geneva Scala, alike in face and voice, watched the dreamer. But this one was different. Her skin was too pale. Her lips bloodless, and the [Doctor] realized that this Geneva was dead.
A faint orange light pulsed beneath her skin, and when she lifted her hand, another presence squirmed through her flesh.
A Selphid. But the Selphid and the [Doctor] were the same. In this moment, the [Doctor] knew what the Minds were going to do.
Or she suspected. But the other Selphid-Geneva just beckoned her.
“They won’t hurt you. Come, come on. Why are you so afraid?”
“Stay back. They promised to respect my will. I have done nothing wrong to hurt them. I will not—not become that.”
The woman backed up onto the sand, away from the beckoning other Geneva. The Selphid woman stood in the water as it moved around her legs. She sighed.
“You know what they are. And this—Geneva. Geneva.”
Her eyes fell out of their sockets. Her mouth moved as it bled, and Geneva’s flesh opened as if a hundred scalpels had cut into it. Did you think you had a choice?
The [Doctor] tried to run. She backed away from the dark sea where the knowledge of Selphids lay. So the sea followed her.
It walked onto the beach. A red tide engulfed Geneva’s legs, pulled her in—and she drifted down. Down, fearing what the depths held.
Even the Minds didn’t understand it all. She could almost sense them, foreign objects adrift, like ships in this sea of uncertainty. They were playing with what they knew, heedless of what lurked below.
Now—now she was inside the sea, Geneva saw it. She was floating in this ocean of blood. A world of secrets. A conclusion sprang to her mind, and she looked around.
There it was. There—a pillar of grey, broken stone. Something made of sin and destruction, crumbling in places. Where it leaked into the rest of the world, the regular ocean waters were stained. But it had been there, intact, for a reason.
The Minacien Wall.
She was on the wrong side of it. And all the Selphids, Minds, herself, were plunging into depths that should have been forgotten.
Another presence made itself known, and Geneva sank past the Second Mind. It was in the waters too, and like her, sinking. Sinking…and it had no power to help them swim.
A single voice made up of a hundred thousand different ones spoke to her. Dreamily, quietly, and she shuddered even sleeping.
(We dug into the brain of reality and inserted ourselves into it. Tricked into believing we should belong.)
She was sinking. Were the Minds doing something to her? Geneva reached out as she saw a flicker in the depths. She saw herself, dreaming.
She was nineteen years old, and the dead body was loaded into the van. Geneva Scala was flirting with the coroner. Not a trace of horror as she smiled.
A Selphid squirmed towards the body as she presented it to the new owner. Geneva stood back and bowed slightly as a Selphid sat up and gave her a thumbs-up.
“No. That’s not how it happened.”
But only she remembered that. The Second Mind sank with her, and it whispered again.
(The wall was not there to protect them from us. The water rushes out, and the lurkers peek through the gates. Pray they are blind.)
She woke, and Idis was sleeping. Between her dreams, false and prophetic, Geneva Scala stood. She stumbled around her rooms, blind, striking into walls.
The pain from her nerves woke Idis up. She found Geneva’s brain, but it was still half-dreaming. Frightened; the Selphid had heard that other species sleepwalked—she spoke.
“Geneva? What’s going on?”
The [Doctor] never said a word. Idis didn’t know how to handle a living body. She reached out to find one of the [Guardians] or the Minds. Then she hesitated.
The woman was looking for something. Tearing through her belongings. The things she’d taken from Talenqual scattered around the room.
Her mind was still…moving. A thought lurked so deep that even dreaming, Geneva saw it. When she found it, buried in a sealed container, Idis went still.
Geneva Scala stumbled to the microscope, sitting silent and waiting for her in the laboratory she had been given. Her thoughts whirled.
Idis, like a big sister, was guiding her, telling the Third Mind that Geneva was investigating something.
Parasite. In her flesh. Okasha had been controlling. But this was something else.
The Minds had violated the Minacien Wall.
Selphids didn’t come from this world.
They had to come from somewhere else. Their very cells told her they weren’t like other species. Not Dullahan. Not Human. Not Drake…
So what? A connection burned in her head now, a sickness that she would only cure or make worse by confirming it.
The light burned her eyes and woke her—but Idis made her pupils itch and dilate and adjust. Geneva placed what she had taken on a tray and stared at it. Idis was shuddering, but she knew what it was.
Of all the things that Geneva had brought from Talenqual, her tools, her notes—there was something that had sat there, almost forgotten. Yet it still glistened with strange appeal. It still smelled as sweet and appetizing as when she had asked for it.
A gift from a brave man. The same one who had brought hope and a cure through desperate waters. By his name, he alone redeemed a city rotting in Chandrar’s sands.
Seve-Alrelious, the Hundredfriends Courier, had spoken to Geneva of his home. He had cautioned her and told her fairly of the cost and what there was to be gained. He did not know how his home had changed, but to the [Doctor], he had given her a rare thing. A gift.
The flesh of A’ctelios Salash sat there. The sustenance from which all of Tombhome’s children had to eat or be driven insane. To eat just a shred was to be changed—forever.
Not a bit came close to Geneva’s mouth, and Idis herself kept Geneva’s hands well away for Selphids knew the cost as well as every species. Yet Geneva was not there to eat it.
She stared down the microscope. And the truth was there, staring back at her. Geneva began laughing. Hysterical laughter—until Idis spoke.
“No, no. That can’t be right. That’s not right.”
She understood now, the same conclusion Geneva had come to. Something even the youngest student of science would infer. Geneva stared down at the foreign cells below her, spreading and trying to propagate even now. Magical. Unlike any other cell from Earth.
And so similar to Selphids’. There were many differences, but she saw the same spindle of spiraling thread instead of a cellular wall. She saw…
They were related. Geneva looked up and saw someone’s face in the mirror. She stared at the unfamiliar face, twisted by Idis’ uncertainty. The Minds pulsed in the back of her head. Asking why she had woken.
They were doing something to her. Bile filled Geneva’s mouth as she laughed. And the Minds went still as they felt her revelation. Be wary. Even now—be wary what you asked for. She could only do her job, and she did.
“So that’s where you came from.”
Selphids and Seamwalkers were related. No—there was one more thing to add. One more piece of the puzzle.
Selphids and Gazers, the two children of Baleros, were the offspring of Seamwalkers. Somehow, at one point in this world’s long history, they had emerged from Seamwalkers. Perhaps they were the direct descendants of some variant—or offspring produced in some manner.
But the truth was that neither species belonged to this world in the same way as other species. That was why Selphids were so unique. Perhaps that was why they Wasted.
They should not be here.
Yet they had levels, they had classes. They were a people. Did they not deserve life and dignity?
Geneva Scala wrestled with that idea the next day. She felt—exhausted. Yesterday felt like one long nightmare, and she was relieved for day to come. The Minds had been up all night when she shouted her revelation at them.
Morning saw Idis sleepy and silent, and Geneva fed herself. When Calectus took her out to see the Third Mind, she found herself staring at the glowing, faint veins of orange in his skin.
“Geneva? What’s with the staring? It’s sort of embarrassing for Selphids.”
Idis muttered in her ears as Calectus affected not to notice. Geneva hesitated.
“Nothing. Is Calectus supposed to be—attractive, for Selphids, Idis?”
“Calectus? He’s got good body mass. We don’t have features, but he’s very adept with his body. He’s my boss, so it’s all work to me. Why?”
It was strange, but Geneva understood what Idis meant. She had heard Stitch-folk weren’t as taken with each other’s appearances but the quality of their cloth and character because they could change their forms. She wondered what adept meant.
Idis was like a second-person in her body. Geneva wondered what another Selphid would be like.
The Third Mind was calm and reassuring when it spoke to Geneva.
(This news is neither welcome nor unwelcome, Geneva Scala. It is a very useful hint. You are to be commended.)
(Thank you, Third Mind.)
She replied back with a smile. The Third Mind wanted her to make sure that this link was true. Obviously, they had no Seamwalker flesh, but it had begun a search for a Gazer body. And meanwhile, Geneva was going to look at every species’ cells for other hints.
The other Minds also gave Geneva strict instructions to keep this knowledge secret when she visited them. Obviously, this would reflect poorly on Selphids. Of course, Geneva agreed.
They had their own tasks, but more and more revolved around Geneva and the Titan, now. The Fourth Mind suspected it had found forces lurking just outside of its mental range, and it feared their location was known.
Continuum refused to elaborate, but it had Geneva Scala link with it. She sat in the Mind, and Idis carefully held out Geneva’s arm.
“First Mind, are you sure this is alright?”
“It’s fine, Idis.”
Geneva had designed the syringes that drew her blood. And if Idis numbed her arm, she barely felt the sensation of a knife cutting. Then a drop of potion, and she saw nothing amiss with her arm. Just regrown flesh.
“Do the Selphids have enough healing potions to waste, First Mind? The coming healing potion shortage has to affect everyone.”
Continuum waved the concern aside.
(Healing potions will affect Selphids least of all species, Geneva Scala. We need none here. The Minds have always known how to create and alter things. You who uncover more and more secrets of us—perhaps it is time to show you something else. Something only a Mind can do. Would you like to see a vessel for Selphids being prepared? It has been a long time since one was made. But this is a special case.)
Geneva Scala stood, and the Mind directed her to go down. Down—to a place she had never seen in the Gathering Citadel before.
(Idis. You will stay behind.)
“But First Mind, how will Geneva Scala walk?”
(This Mind will be her legs.)
Geneva Scala let Idis remain behind in a temporary body. She didn’t actually walk, but floated down. And she saw something in the lower rooms that made her smile—flicker out.
“First Mind. What is this?”
(Ah. You disapprove?)
The First Mind was surprised. But—how could Geneva not? She stared at the blank Lizardwoman’s face and saw the Lizardwoman breathing. She lay in a bed that Geneva recognized, dimly, a copy of a design other [Healers] used.
Healing crystals and different tinctures sat around her. The Lizardwoman lay there, staring upwards, but she never said anything.
She never moved or did anything other than blink. Geneva saw her breathe, but there was nothing beyond those slitted eyes.
“What is this?”
She already knew, but the First Mind explained calmly.
(This Lizardwoman was dead when we found her. The Bodies of Fellden confirmed her death with spells—but preserved her on the way back here. Her heart began to beat, but whatever gave her levels and a class is gone. Your talk of Erin Solstice was not the first that the Minds have heard of the phenomena between life and death—but your methods have increased the rate at which they are brought back phenomenally. Though Potions of Regeneration are exceedingly rare.)
“You brought back—her body? But she’s not alive?”
(No. Yet she is closest to what Selphids once did. Possess the bodies of the living. This—is a solution between the two. The Minds have also forbidden this. I, Continuum, have agreed to lift the ban.)
“This isn’t right.”
The First Mind swung Geneva around to face it, but not before she saw more bodies lying there. Tended to by [Guardians]—and something beyond it she half-saw. A vat, perhaps. Of bubbling liquid and—
(I thought you would understand the necessity, [Doctor]. You—still—do not?)
The First Mind sounded confused. And displeased. Geneva Scala shook her head.
“What are you talking about? How could I—there are parallels in my world, First Mind. If these people could be brought back, they are not ‘empty vessels’. How were they found? Were their demises manipulated? I have to insist you stop this. At once. I respect the Minds, but this has gone too far.”
She lifted a finger—and the First Mind hmmed in her head.
(Very well. I will give orders for this to stop. Cease your worrying, Geneva.)
It began to carry her upwards, but Geneva tried to stop it.
“I must insist, First Mind. I cannot take your words. Not until Iseethatyouproperlyendthis—”
“—Thank you, First Mind.”
Exhausted, Geneva Scala let Idis bow her and carry her back. The First Mind dismissed her.
(As agreed, Geneva Scala, a cessation at once. Do not speak to Idis or any other about it. The Second Mind awaits you now.)
She nodded. Idis carried her into the corridor and then whispered to Geneva.
“What was that, Geneva? I mean—you can’t talk about it? You were gone for a bit. Not too long—”
“Oh, nothing, Idis. Just something I had to—correct.”
Geneva rubbed at her forehead. She was growing tired. Her sleep wasn’t fulfilling even without midnight research. And her mood turned sourer still when she visited the Second Mind.
It was paranoid, controlling, and asked her countless questions about her discovery. Her day. Geneva Scala answered shortly, and the Second Mind seemed increasingly displeased by the answers.
(Too quickly. Too quickly now. But how long? Since your defiance of the Third Mind? Why did I not see? We are Minds. We have no eyes.)
It made no sense, babbling to itself. Geneva took it back. Compared to the Fourth Mind, the Second was losing itself faster. Contradiction turned to her, and Geneva Scala bowed.
“I have to get back to work, Second Mind. Did you have anything to teach me or was this it?”
She waited, and the Second Mind slowly beckoned her forwards.
“One thing, Geneva Scala. One thing…I have someone I would like you to meet.”
The scowling [Doctor] stepped forwards. Her head hurt, and she felt cloudy. Her dreams were unrestful, and they kept repeating. She wondered if a Mind could stop it.
…Hadn’t she asked them about that? Geneva just wanted to cure the Wasting. She did not like the Second Mind. Why did she keep thinking that?
She frowned as she looked around for the Selphid she was to meet, but the Second Mind simply lifted up something and put it in her hands. Geneva Scala was about to tell it she had no time for pranks and leave—then she looked down, and her jumbled thoughts cleared.
Her eyes flickered. A shock ran through her, and the Last Light of Baleros, Geneva Scala—felt herself slam back into her body suddenly. She jerked and nearly dropped the jar, but the Second Mind caught her. The second Geneva vanished, and for a moment, she stood there.
(You’re still there. Don’t forget.)
Contradiction whispered to her. It couldn’t do more than this. It was thinking like—it looked weak and in an agony, as if its own thoughts were locked by the other five. Geneva shuddered—and then looked down at the object, no, the person it had used to ground her back into reality.
A squirming, dark purple and orange and…a little shape moved behind the glass, shuddering with each vibration of Geneva’s hands. As if the light and sound—Geneva felt its thoughts and realized each motion, each sense was overwhelming without the protection of a body. And it was trapped in here, in this—
Terror, regret, guilt, all of it poured through with a sense of familiarity as Geneva Scala looked down. The little Selphid whispered to her.
The Selphid sat there, whispering in a tiny voice in the jar with a few airholes cut in it. Just a jar—Geneva had thought she would be transported somewhere else. But that was all the Selphids gave her. A jar—a prison for one of their own who had violated the Minacien Wall.
It felt so long ago. Geneva bent her head over Okasha as the Selphid cried out.
“Tell the Minds I’m sorry, Geneva? I’ll do anything to make amends. I’m sorry for what I did to you, but I don’t want to be here any longer. I’m so sorry.”
Geneva Scala looked up, and the little Selphid flinched as something fell into its jar. It searched around greedily for it, but it was just water. Water and mucus and salt, which was what tears were.
The [Doctor] looked up as the Second Mind floated above her. Contradiction spoke heavily.
(It is all drawing to a close.)
Then—Geneva knew what she had to do while she still had a mind to do it. She bent over Okasha and spoke for a while. When she looked up—Geneva Scala stared back at her through a mirror. Her lips moved, and Geneva heard herself speak.
“I am the center of the Mind.”
“I am the mind in the Center.”
“I am myself, and we are me.”
Then she paused and looked herself in the eye, and a smile crossed her lips.
“I am Geneva Scala.”
Waking was beginning to blend with sleeping. She knew time was passing, but not how much. In the way of dreams, time didn’t matter. Moments felt like hours, and days passed in blinks.
It was just Geneva Scala, the real Geneva, watching a false figment of her slowly changing as the Minds willed it. She had moments of lucidity and wondered if this were how someone under a degenerative mental condition felt.
She had heard some coma patients were trapped in their own bodies. Unable to tell the outside world they were aware of everything they saw and touched and felt and heard, but she had only understood that horror in an abstract way.
This was far worse than anything she could have imagined.
She could now see the conclusion, and the Titan’s promise seemed less and less like salvation, if it had ever been that. Now it looked like a day of awakening. But it would be from nightmare into horrific reality.
“You’ve always been prisoner of the Minds. You knew it. You knew it, and the lie was ever thinking you’d leave. Did you think you’d make it? You shouldn’t have survived that first battlefield, Geneva. The Minds are far, far cleverer than a mere war and [Soldiers]. This time, you won’t make it.”
The second Geneva spoke to her, like some kind of dark other consciousness. She stood in Geneva’s head, growing larger every day. A figure wading in bloody waters in her vision of the Minacien Wall.
A [Doctor], hands covered in gore as she stood at an operating table in the middle of a warzone, watching patients die and die without potions or hope.
A blank-faced woman, working by candle-light into the night, the Last Light, scarred and numb to her friends.
Geneva Scala, sitting on her bed as Idis tried to cheer her up. Contemplating her end.
Her mistakes were coming back to haunt her again. If the other Geneva was what the Minds wanted her to be, a growing stain in her head—all the moments she didn’t remember, her dark suspicions—the Geneva who still was remembered her follies.
They assailed her from the start. Why had she ever joined a mercenary group? She had volunteered by telling them she was a [Doctor]. She had known—even the moment she appeared on Baleros—what would happen.
It was pure arrogance that led a surgical resident in her third year to think she could replace industry, veterans, and all the tools and things that made medicine in the modern era. She should have died with Sergeant Thriss killing her for insubordination.
Or in a hundred other moments where [Soldiers] should have run her through. And after—staying and wandering from battlefields, trying to bring some kind of decency and hope to a war?
All she’d done was make it worse. She’d fueled the bloodbath that occurred between the Razorshard Armor and Roving Arrow companies. More than once, Geneva had wondered if her bringing back soldiers for them to die fighting had driven them to escalation.
If those were her two mistakes, she could have said that at least she walked away from the warzones and tried to make a difference elsewhere—but even there, her failures compounded. Her clinic…it had helped stop the Yellow Rivers epidemic. In part. In some small way, perhaps.
But she’d forgotten about Okasha. The Selphid had endured half a year without appreciation until she’d snapped. It might have been her fault in many ways, but in this self-reflection, Geneva saw how all the warnings were there. The irony was that if Okasha had been her patient, Geneva would never have taken her for granted like that.
Lastly and finally—the Minds. She should have known. She should have been more careful. She should never have given them what they wanted so plainly.
I am a [Doctor]. But I should know how even medicine and knowledge is twisted and used.
She should have done so many things. Instead…Geneva was drowning, and there was no way out. The waters were closing in around her head, and the blank spots were growing.
When she could think, when she felt fully in control of her faculties, Geneva Scala thought of a way out. She wondered if the Titan would bring an army. If she managed to escape the Minds or he forced them to leave, what then?
She already felt…certain that the Minds would be done before he arrived. But even if she reached him like this, she didn’t want this.
She couldn’t remember the morning. Each Mind saw her, day by day, and the Second Mind last and shortest of them all. But Geneva felt like the moments blurred together. She would catch herself walking back from meeting the 5th Mind or think she was about to meet the 3rd Mind—and not remember what she’d done.
Time and reality stabilized around the Second Mind’s visits. It might have been trying to undo what was going on or—halting it temporarily. But it had agreed to think alike.
“What have I done? Second Mind? Do you know?”
She sat in front of it, and the Second Mind floated there in the air. Its ‘voice’ was oh so quiet.
(I do not know. I fear.)
“So do I. May I see Okasha again? One last time?”
Silently, the Second Mind took out the jar. Okasha always cried out when she sensed someone there.
“Hello? Is that you, Geneva? It’s been so long.”
It had only been a day. But to a Selphid, senseless, it must feel like solitary confinement. Geneva held the jar.
“Okasha. I’m sorry.”
“Stop—stop apologizing. Not for this. I know what I did. The Second Mind is kind. Kinder than Calectus or…I deserve. It’s been showing me what I’ve done wrong. How you felt. I—I don’t want to ever do that again. Geneva, I’m the one who was wrong.”
The Selphid squirmed in the jar. Geneva Scala shook her head.
“I ignored you.”
(The hand that swings the sword is still larger to blame.)
Contradiction whispered, and the two fell silent for a moment. Okasha agreed, and Geneva sensed her desperate, confined thoughts slow. Perhaps she too was learning to become a [Telepath]—but Okasha’s class was red.
“Geneva. I’m glad someone else is helping you walk. I…I should be punished. I should have to join the Bodies of Fellden as a [Conscript]. I will. I’ll make amends, and they can watch me and make sure I never get near another person again. But please? Please ask them to give me a body? There’s nothing here. I’m going crazy. It feels like years have passed. I can’t remember what things feel like.”
She pleaded with Geneva, and the [Doctor] hugged the jar to her chest as Idis hissed silently in her mind. She had no sympathy for Okasha, who had endangered her people and violated the great law of Selphids.
But Geneva still did.
“I’ll try, Okasha. But I don’t know if I’ll be able to. The Second Mind might…”
She looked up, and the Second Mind whispered.
(I will try.)
“I’ll ask the other Minds as well, Okasha.”
“Thank you. Thank you, Geneva. I’m…”
Sorry. Idis was striding away from the Second Mind’s rooms angrily. She was angry, and Geneva felt the emotion in her veins as the Selphid provoked her biology.
“You shouldn’t forgive her, Geneva. Not after what she did. She violated the Minacien Wall. I know she did it to save your life, but she started becoming a controller. She—deserves that jar.”
There was something so ironic about Idis’ claim that Geneva laughed despite herself.
“She’s the only one who should be punished, Idis? Really?”
The laughter was so strong that the Selphid had to work to keep Geneva from guffawing as Selphids passed by. So many were moving, some bearing weapons, others bringing supplies down.
Down…Geneva’s mind wrenched away from that.
“The Minds are—doing what they know is best. I’m here because we’re doing what Selphids need. Curing the Wasting. I know some things are off—”
“Like the Second Mind?”
A passing [Psychic Guardian], Ressk, turned his head as Geneva and Idis argued. Hurriedly, Idis bowed to him and moved them onwards. She whispered mentally instead.
(That—that wasn’t right. I know there might be things that aren’t fully right. But they promised to give you to the Titan.)
(Do you know what they’re doing to me?)
The Selphid missed a step, and Geneva stumbled. She fell, and Calectus, walking down the corridor, grabbed her. Geneva looked up as the [Honor Guard] steadied her.
“Doctor Scala. Idis, be more careful of her.”
Idis began to salute with Geneva’s hand, and Calectus gave her a reproving look. Idis guiltily snatched the hand down, and Geneva, in control, gave Calectus a waxy smile.
“What about you? Have none of you violated the Minacien Wall?”
The other Selphids passing by her, Ressk, Calectus, Idis—all of them fell silent. Each one different. Ressk, the loyal servant of the Third Mind, was silent to his master’s will. Idis tried to say something.
“We’re—the Minds are intelligent—”
And Calectus? Geneva Scala looked up into his face. A female Dullahan adjusted her head, but the Selphid inside stared down at Geneva coldly. She had misjudged other people, the Minds included, but never more than him.
[Honor Guard]. He looked down at her and shook his head.
“You should rest, Doctor Scala. Sleep on your worries. The Minacien Wall is stronger than you think. We have not even cracked it.”
He meant the words for Idis, and the Selphid fixed on him with Geneva’s eyes, but her uncertainty radiated through Geneva’s body. Yet the [Doctor] just chuckled, and even the Selphids shivered at her voice. She spoke to him and saw an escape. But a terrible one.
“We’re on the wrong side of it, Calectus. And we’re sinking.”
Even the [Honor Guard] froze a moment, but he continued on walking. And Geneva…came upon her plan to end this bad dream.
They could not have her mind. It might be arrogance to think that she mattered that much, but she had already seen how the Minds wanted her to build their Selphids better bodies.
She…remembered the basement. Vaguely. The First Mind’s revelation escaped her direct understanding, but she remembered how she’d felt.
And that was only what she remembered. No, she would not be party to more violations of the Minacien Wall. They might want her to cure the Wasting—but would a day come when they asked her to operate on a living person, to change someone against their will, implant galas-muscle into them?
Worse, was there a day when she would agree without a second thought?
Her dreams were getting worse. Now, the nineteen year-old Geneva Scala hummed as she brought a body out for a Selphid to infest. She flirted with the coroner, and her best friend smiled at her, and he stared at her as a glowing orange line wriggled through his flesh.
When will I be comingled with a Selphid? Two, becoming better together? A symbiosis of two species?
Then she woke. And she saw how the Minds wished all species viewed them. Only Contradiction, the Second Mind, understood the horror of its own species.
It must…be so hard to accept that you could be the monster. That there were reasons to fear you.
No more. No more, and not me.
Geneva Scala hatched a plan so deep within her own head not even the other Minds could see it. She had thought this when Okasha began taking control.
How did you beat someone in your body? Now—she was both a prisoner in her head as well as a prisoner of her own consciousness. How did you resist the Minds? Even if she beat them—how did she stop Idis?
Idis was in her. She, even when sleeping, could lock down Geneva so fast the [Doctor] would be helpless. She’d done it before—reacted before Geneva could cut her hand, stopped her from falling or making mistakes.
Even if Geneva reached for a blade or tried to run, Idis would be there. The Minds were worse, but Geneva realized that she had an opening. One way out that no one would expect.
That night, Geneva Scala had a hard time getting to sleep. Her changing dream and that other self waited for her. She tossed and turned, and Idis grew tired as she tried to soothe Geneva.
“I’m gonna throw more…what did you call it? Melatonin in the body. Geneva…”
“Sorry. Just try to get some sleep, Idis.”
The Selphid needed rest just like Geneva. But the [Doctor] was tossing and turning so much that Idis stayed up well, well past when she wanted. To Geneva’s amusement, she realized that was the first drawback Idis had ever suffered for being in Geneva.
Well, it suited her plans. Geneva Scala slept, but unlike Idis, she put something in her head. A reminder to wake.
“What are you doing?”
The Other Geneva knew what this Geneva wanted, but she couldn’t stop her. Soon, she might—but the [Doctor] just dreamed for a bit.
And what her new self showed her was a dream.
It had no basis in reality—just Geneva’s imagination. It was based purely off what she’d been told and her own horror movies and sense of the unnatural and what she found horrific.
Unfortunately, she was a doctor. So her images of dripping sclera of eyes mixing with cilia waving in a mass, like the inside of some foul stomach, were all too real. She looked into a cavern of veins, some massive, hollowed out structure.
A body with too many eyes. A creature long-dead, but still growing in the sands of Chandrar. A reminder of the truth of this world.
Tombhome. The Selphid-Geneva pointed to it, eyes darting with her own fear.
“You think this is a terrible fate? You will be prisoner there, and if you think this is bad—”
She tried to pull Geneva away, but the [Telepath] floated towards that vision. She turned, almost amused, to her enemy.
“If this is bad, is what’s happening to me any better? All I know is that even the Minds fear it.”
“You don’t know what you’ll become. You will regret it.”
That might be true. Geneva felt a true fear in her marrow as she stared at the open corpse’s mouth. It was welcoming her in. But she clung to one person who stood at those gates, waving to her.
“Perhaps. But it won’t be a tool of the Minds. I know only the Second Mind as the one Selphid I trust. And I have seen how it must think alike. But…at least I know one person of A’ctelios Salash I admire.”
Seve-Alrelious smiled at her, and Geneva slowly began walking towards him. The other Geneva called out.
“Stop! Minds! Idis. She’s—”
Then she woke up, just as her thought told her to. Geneva sat up in the darkness, and Idis woke.
“Geneva? Is something wrong?”
“No, Idis. I’m just—restless. Go back to sleep.”
Geneva Scala slowly got up. The Selphid sleepily protested.
“Can we lie down? Your body’s tired.”
She didn’t feel Geneva’s heart beating a bit faster or notice the chemicals moving through her body. It was a quiet dread. Geneva slowly crossed her room and found the pantry and her things, scattered on the table, as messy as her lab was not.
“In a second. I’ll just have a bite to eat before I sleep.”
The Selphid barely moved or thought as Geneva Scala slowly bent down. She would have if Geneva was doing anything so dangerous as, say, reaching for a knife. But she was tired—even Selphids got tired.
And complacent. No Mind was watching Geneva. She was just…
Having a bite to eat. Geneva’s room was dark, and the [Doctor] turned on no lights. She didn’t want Idis to see.
She had to find a knife to cut, and Idis never noticed as Geneva took something and held it in one hand. She opened her mouth—and then stared down at the warm thing she held.
There was no going back. She knew that, and she thought she was prepared. But she truly wasn’t. Geneva wondered…what would happen to Idis. By all accounts, any Selphid could fall victim to A’ctelios Salash’s flesh too.
That was why the [Doctor] wavered. Could she do this to Idis? Did that violate her oath?
Your oath? Who actually respects it? Are you clinging to your oath when they have all taken every single violation and excused it?
Part of her mocked that. Geneva’s hand trembled. She opened her mouth and squeezed her eyes shut.
She was supposed to be a [Doctor].
Idis woke and seemed to sense something was wrong. She inhaled that strange, tantalizing aroma, and Geneva’s arms jerked. Her jaw tried to close, but Idis stopped it. Then froze. She made a sound.
“No! What’s going on? G—”
The [Doctor] felt the Selphid spasm. Then Idis went silent. Geneva stumbled—but the hand which seized her wrist was far, far too strong. She was still holding the meat.
But someone else was in the room. She struggled, but the figure effortlessly shoved her back, and then her feet left the ground. She floated—and a voice spoke in the darkness.
“Don’t move. Don’t alert the Minds. We have minutes once one of them checks on you, but they are all searching for the Titan’s followers. We must be near the exits before they sense us.”
The power keeping her up faded. Then Geneva felt herself lowering, and a light bloomed. Panting, hiding the flesh in her pocket now, she looked up and saw her door was open.
Eighteen bodies stood there, each one’s eyes pale, lifeless—but the faint glow beneath their skin marked them as Selphids.
Selphids? Geneva looked up, and [Psychic Guardian] Ressk stared down at her. Then she was confused.
The Third Mind’s own [Guardian] looked around and grabbed Geneva’s bag of holding. He threw it into her hands.
“We are leaving. The [Guardians] have decided this has gone too far. This is more than just the Minacien Wall being breached. The basement—what they are doing to you—enough.”
“You’re the Third Mind’s [Guardian].”
She didn’t mean it as an accusation—not quite—but Ressk just looked at her.
“Yes. I was meant to guard the Third Mind and execute its wishes. I am also meant to be its check. I failed. No questions. Run. We’ll cloak your mind.”
Geneva stumbled; she could barely move with whatever they’d done to Idis. When the others saw that, the Selphids grabbed her and helped her run. Eighteen stormed down the hallway and through the Gathering Citadel.
Geneva saw bodies lying in the hallway—and she realized they had fought their way to her. Silently, but they had to ascend through the Gathering Citadel.
“The Titan is on his way. If we reach his people, they can take you to safety.”
The [Psychic Guardian] led the way with two others. The First and Sixth Mind’s own personal [Guardians] had rebelled. They ran, and Geneva followed them. But they never made it higher than the 3rd floor.
One of the Minds must have checked in on Geneva or tried to reach her thoughts. When it sensed her absence and noticed the other Selphids, the entire Gathering Citadel shook with that word.
Ressk and the Selphids tried to take Geneva up the stairs, but the Bodies of Fellden and forces in this citadel came down, leaping and crashing into the traitors without regard for injury. Ressk took Geneva down the 3rd Floor, and her heart juddered in her chest.
This was the Third Mind’s—
One of the Selphids screamed. Then Geneva saw the body crash into one of the stone walls and flatten as the Third Mind vented its fury.
“Run, [Doctor]. Someone, tell the Titan—”
The [Psychic Guardian] slowed. Ressk passed by an open hallway, and Geneva saw a pulsing orb of Selphids rising. It tried to grab her—but Geneva Scala felt Ressk push the Third Mind back.
Somehow—his skin writhed, and his bones began cracking. Geneva looked at him as the Selphid stared at the Third Mind. Slowly, he walked into the room.
“The second floor!”
The remaining Selphids just grabbed Geneva and towed her on. Five were left; the others were fighting or dead as the Minds simply pressed and they fell, motionless.
But the remaining five had something on them. Rings and amulets of that twisted material.
Selrite. They took Geneva up and would have gone to the First Floor save for another wave of Selphids. So they ran the long way around as one tangled with the others, Rampaging, swinging a burning pair of daggers.
Four left. They were passing by the Second Mind’s chambers, and no force came to kill them. Geneva Scala saw one Selphid look behind, raising a bow—then vanish as a spear struck them through the chest.
It struck the Selphid, and the body dropped without a sound. The last three Selphids whirled, and a figure stood between them and the stairs.
Geneva whispered. The [Honor Guard] raised a glaive and set himself as the remaining three Selphids looked at Geneva. Slowly, one tugged an amulet off his chest.
“We can’t beat him. Doctor…”
He stared at her and then fell forwards as the Minds touched his. But the amulet rolled from his fingers, and the Selrite touched Geneva.
She slowly picked it up and saw nothing in the dead Selphid. Nothing moving.
He was dead.
The last two strode forwards as Calectus advanced, but his eyes were on Geneva. She was putting on the amulet. Why? He lunged, suddenly attacking in a frenzy.
The [Doctor] pulled something out of her pocket as the Selphids fought. Idis was moaning, incoherent, and the other Minds were shouting, but the vibrating amulet was stopping them. Geneva Scala looked at the flesh in her hand.
“No. Geneva! Not that!”
Idis screamed as she saw Geneva lifting the piece of flesh from the Carven City. Poison, an addictive poison that would never leave you. A hunger that grew—
The [Doctor] made her choice. She raised her arm, and the Minds threw their force at the Selrite, but it shielded Geneva from their telepathy even as it began to crack from the force. Idis was still stunned.
The Second Mind’s chamber doors lay open as Geneva Scala opened her mouth. Even so close, she was shielded from it. But not from—
A pair of chopsticks hit Geneva’s hand so hard they snapped it back. The Second Mind snatched the piece of flesh up, and Geneva grabbed for it—until a soccer ball hit her in the head.
Objects, playthings, props, surrounded her. The Second Mind had no power over her while she wore the Selrite—but the chopsticks just grabbed the piece of material and tore it off her chest, snapping the links of silver.
Clever. The other Minds had never considered how to bypass Selrite, but the Second Mind knew that it could manipulate everything but Geneva.
Geneva grasped for the choice hanging in front of her, but the Second Mind spoke as the Selrite amulet landed upon the floor. The flesh-metal began to break apart.
(I cannot allow you to do that, Geneva. I must think alike.)
Its mental tones were tired and sad as Calectus strode towards Geneva. He tore her away from the piece of flesh, and the Second Mind addressed the [Honor Guard].
“Search her rooms. Confiscate the poison from A’ctelios Salash. The mutiny is done.”
“By your will, Second Mind.”
Geneva looked around as Calectus grabbed her arm.
“Idis, take control. Idis—are you alive?”
“Calectus? I feel sick.”
Idis whispered, but she was regaining control of Geneva’s body. Helplessly, the [Doctor] watched as Calectus bent over the bodies of the Selphids who’d tried to let her escape. He thrust his glaive into the torso of each one.
More death. There was no escape. Not one way or…the Second Mind hung there, and Geneva heard it whispering to her.
The day thereafter, the Minds pretended nothing was amiss. The Third Mind summoned Geneva only to tell her that the Titan had left his warfront against The Dyed Lands.
(He may be heading in this direction. The Fourth Mind estimates he may arrive in four days’ time. Three, if he rushes. All will be well.)
It was rewarded with a smile. Geneva Scala smiled at the Third Mind. Ever since she was nineteen, she had been in service to Selphids and the Minds.
“Yes, Third Mind. What shall I work on today?”
(Continue your research into other species’ biologies. You may go unless you have need of this Mind’s abilities. Be as productive as you can.)
It was grand and wise, and it pushed her to work harder. But the Third Mind reassured her, even when she came up with little. It was okay.
Soon, things would change and be even better.
The Second Mind said nothing. Nothing to Geneva. It just sank so low it was practically on the floor, and its [Guardian] offered it treats. But it didn’t want to eat.
It just floated there. Geneva Scala waited for orders. She waited for instruction and asked the Second Mind.
“Do you have anything you want me to do, Second Mind? I am at your disposal.”
It took the Mind nearly eight minutes to reply. And when it did, it just said three words.
(Yes. You are.)
Nothing more. It did not dismiss her; she just left.
Geneva Scala was no longer in control of her body. She hadn’t been for a long time.
She was out of ideas. She sat and watched the Other Geneva growing. Now, she sat across from Geneva, across a table in the United Nations’ headquarters, clasping a mug of tea in her hands. But there was nothing reassuring about this. It was just proof that the other Geneva looked like her. Mimicked her.
Spoke to her.
There was pity in her voice. A kind of macabre sympathy. As if a nightmare were almost regretting what came next. Yet there was also a contempt for the [Doctor] that ran in every word.
“You failed. Stop struggling. You, of all people, should know there is no way out. The Titan was your hope, but he is too slow. He is a warlord, a killer; he does not save people. He never did. But you knew it was going to turn out this way.”
Geneva Scala looked up blankly. She was staring at her hands, which had scars and calluses from working with a scalpel. She looked around for Ken, Daly, Luan—all the others.
“Some days, I think this is all one bad dream and I’ll wake up and go back to class and get a job as a surgeon. This entire world—felt fake at first. I wish it was.”
The other Geneva laughed with all her memories and scorn.
“This world is very real. Tell me, Geneva. Why did you try to help people? Don’t say it was ‘because I’m a [Doctor]’. Don’t say it was because of your oath. Was it your ego? A god-complex?”
Geneva flinched. It said the word. The last defense against a Mind—was no defense if she was her own opponent. The other Geneva’s eyes lit up.
“Oh yes. I know that word. The Minds have more to learn from you, Doctor Scala. Something only you can do. But don’t fear this will all end with you waking up. This world is very real. You knew it. Only a real world would be like this. A place where all good intentions are used for someone else’s gain. You knew the world was like this and people would take you and steal everything you had and throw you away when you were worthless.”
Geneva looked up. And at last, there was actual, genuine anger in her eyes. Her hands made fists, and she cried out the same words she’d said in her mind upon those bloody battlefields.
“What did I ever do to deserve this? If you’re me—tell me that. What did I do? I just tried to save lives! I didn’t ask to be crippled. I didn’t ask to be kidnapped. What have I done to earn this?”
Slowly, as if drip-feeding it into her ears, the other Geneva replied.
“Isn’t it obvious? You didn’t fight back. You don’t kill. Look at you, complaining about the most unnatural thing. It’s always easy to attack you. Even rabbits struggle, but you? You swore an oath. You could have eaten that flesh. But you thought it would hurt Idis, so you hesitated. Even at the end, there’s something funny about how you keep trying not to harm anyone—and that you expect things to work out for you. Ressk died along with seventeen other Selphids. They killed to try to set you free. But you won’t, even if it makes things so much simpler. What a pointless oath. It belongs in a fairytale or a paradise like Khelt. Here? It doesn’t work.”
Geneva Scala didn’t respond. Her head was bowing, lower and lower, as the tide washed in. A filthy bloody pool of regret and darkness to drown her.
One more day. The Minds were almost done. They laughed at the Titan and everything else. He had to move armies. All they had to do was…change someone’s mind.
The [Doctor] looked up, and a voice whispered to her.
“You’re already dead. You know how this ends. Lie in your grave quietly. Don’t cry, don’t cry. We’re creating something completely new.”
On the final day, Geneva Scala woke up. She remembered…everything.
Her dream of being nineteen years old, that false memory, was an old one. The truth was that it had some basis in reality. She had been a first responder volunteer, and she had touched dead bodies—but before that as well.
There had been a coroner and a friend she didn’t really know who freaked out, and he’d thrown up—and then helped pick up the body. The coroner had been unpleasant, but softened up and talked about his job.
That was all. When Geneva woke, she could see how long the lies had been going for. How deep the manipulation was.
She didn’t lie to herself, not today. This lucidity meant it was time.
The Minds didn’t summon her. They no longer pretended to anything. The Selphids remaining in the Gathering Citadel were arming themselves but only preparing for the Titan’s coming lightly. The Minds didn’t expect violence.
The Second Mind was nothing like the one that had been bouncing soccer balls, experimenting, joking when Geneva Scala entered its chambers.
“It has not moved or thought in three days. I…I will leave you.”
The Second Mind’s [Guardian] whispered to her, and Geneva Scala approached the Second Mind. Contradiction did not react to her. She sat.
“Will you let me enter your center, Contradiction? One last time? It’s today, isn’t it? Do you know what will happen?”
The thought was very faint. The Second Mind did not move; the Selphids just slowly squirmed together. Geneva reached out, but they recoiled, pushing inwards, away from her hand.
“Will you let me speak with you? I need a friend.”
It said nothing. The [Telepath] reached out, but she felt a wall far beyond her ability to breach. The Minacien Wall?
That the Second Mind would not speak to her, today of all days, filled Geneva with a terrible anger. Today, at last, they sprang to her eyes. Idis was silent. As if she no longer knew how to even lie.
“Please, Contradiction. Say something. Tell me the Titan can help. Can’t you convince them? Can’t you try? Even if you think alike—is this it? Can’t I do anything?”
The Second Mind didn’t reply. It was weak, beaten, and Geneva Scala knew it had struggled and fought terribly for her. She knew it, but for once, the [Doctor] lashed out.
“I thought you could do something. I thought the Titan was supposed to be the world’s greatest [Strategist]. Where—where is he? Why has no one come? Where’s Daly and the Bushrangers? Where’s Luan? Where’s Umina and the Hundredfriends Courier and all my friends? Where are the companies I’ve helped? The people whose lives I apparently saved?”
She clenched her fists, and tears sprang to her eyes.
“I never asked for anything back. I never needed it. I did what I could because I thought it was making a difference, and that was fine. But when I need it—just once, right now?”
She looked around.
No one spoke. Not Idis, not the Second Mind. Geneva Scala sat there, and tears leaked onto the floor of the Gathering Citadel. Day passed into evening, and she just sat there. Waiting. But no one showed up to change this story before the finale.
It was just her.
The Titan of Baleros descended into the valley where the Minds waited. Flying carpets flew overhead, and [Mages] hovered so high they needed breathing spells to just exist.
Fraerlings sat on the shoulders of Tallfolk, and small and large wore armor. A few had amulets or other magical protections; a squad of eighteen Fraerlings armed with Signim were mounted on bats, and a single [Rogue] was waiting alone.
They had squads. Teams of Tallfolk, each equipped with a [Mage], a trap-expert, front-line fighters, archers, and Fraerlings. Niers had his own command squad, but he was hanging back.
Death-Commander Theilo, his formal rank, had command on the ground under Niers. The scarred Stitch-man had an amulet around his chest, and he turned to the Titan.
“We are prepared to launch an assault at your command, Titan. I expect the Selphids have dug in. How many casualties should we be prepared to take until a retreat?”
“60% or if I fall. It shouldn’t come to that. We’ll make contact first.”
“Very good, sir.”
The conversation did not go unnoticed by the other officers. Or the soldiers. They were grim, the rest of the army dug into higher positions, but Niers had told them who they were facing.
Minds. Possibly multiple of them, who could attack from afar and stop your heart or brain with a thought. The Titan was probably the only thing keeping them in place; they thought he was their trump card.
What he told no one, but Eirnos had probably guessed, was that one of the Titan’s best Skills was useless.
He could turn off levels, magic, and Skills.
“Selrite Bane Team—do we have [Detect Life] spells on the Minds?”
“I sense six super-clusters of life, Titan.”
They had the magical edge. Niers nodded.
“Your orders are to obey Plan B without fail if I execute it. Hold back from any fighting until then. Do not enter until I give the signal.”
They checked their crossbows and blades without a word. Plan B sounded innocuous. But Plan B meant everyone was about to die.
Plan B was that they flew into the Gathering Citadel and tried to kill every Mind they saw. It might work since they were armed with Selrite gear.
It wouldn’t come to that, hopefully. So why did Niers feel a growing sense of dread as he called out, magnifying his voice to be heard in the jungle and dirt mounds.
There were a few camouflaged tunnels that led into the Gathering Citadel from above. Another bad way to siege this place; it meant they had no alternate entrances. In theory, it meant the Minds were trapped, but they had every advantage.
“Minds of Baleros! I’ve come for the Last Light. I would like to meet her. I would like a response. I’ve been very polite—now, I’m knocking on your door. You have thirty minutes. If I don’t see her by then, I’m coming in to find her. If I so much as sense a single intrusive thought—I’ll stop being so nice.”
His voice echoed dully off the far hills. It was no idle threat, and Niers felt his forces tense. He felt like the Minds would agree to show Geneva to him.
So why did he have that pit in his stomach? Not [Dangersense] but true intuition?
Hurry, the note said. Hurry…
He feared he was too late. But the Titan could only wait, wait and curse not being everywhere. He leaned heavily on the pedestal on which he stood as the Fraerlings and Tallfolk waited. He really had gone as fast as he could.
But he had been months late. Months on Izril. His eyes sunk into their sockets, and the Titan whispered a promise. Not something the Minds could hear, just for him.
“I know. I know it was so easy to grab her. And until I started bothering you, there was no one to interfere. No one could; this world is ruled by dictators and tyrants, and power confers every right. I should know; I’m one of those people. So you may have done something and think you’ve gotten away with it.”
The Minacien Wall. The Titan’s gaze rose, and he did not smile.
“You must think I’m a fool. If you try to play me, go ahead. But though I may benefit from the same system we all do—I’m also the end. I’m the blade even immortality can’t turn. I’ve seen the faces of Elves, and they knew the exact same thing. However long you rule, however secret you may be and however many levels you hoard and how much power you acquire—”
His hand tightened on the hilt of his sword.
“—someone will take you to task for it. Now show me. Where is the [Doctor]?”
When the Second Mind finally bestirred itself, Geneva Scala looked up. The Titan’s voice was so loud that even the few entrances to the Gathering Citadel let it echo down.
“Surely the Minds wish to see you. Geneva—”
Idis urged her up, but the Second Mind stopped them both. It rose slightly.
(The Minds will commune together. They already gather. Geneva Scala. It is time.)
It sounded so weary and weak that Geneva feared it was dying from what had been done to it. But the Second Mind slowly floated upwards.
(I do not know what this night brings. Only that I am sorry it ever came to this at all. I go to the other Minds, and we shall have one final reckoning. As for you—you are a prisoner of this place. In both body and mind. There is no easy escape for you, but perhaps you may reach him.)
“I thought the Minds were going to present me to the Titan regardless?”
Geneva was surprised by the Second Mind’s thoughts. It trembled slightly, and its voice became weaker still.
(They intend to. But that would be the worst of all. Run, Geneva Scala. Flee to him and tell him everything.)
“Second Mind! Wh-what are you saying?”
Contradiction rose higher. And it seemed to Geneva that the Selphids had all gone still in its body. Yet its voice grew stronger, its mental link brighter.
Brighter, but with a painful brilliance. As if it were bursting a dam, breaking a bond. Contradiction flared like a sun, a match in the darkness before it burnt out.
(Idis. The time has come for you to make a choice. I am going to my fellow Minds. But I shall not think with them. Once more—strife. I will offer them one last choice, and you must make your own. You have seen everything that has happened to Geneva Scala. I tell you this: the Minacien Wall has been violated. Crimes against thought and people have occurred here. But you knew this. Will you help Geneva Scala flee?)
“Second Mind—I’m loyal to my people. Y-you’re asking me to betray them? Betray Calectus? He’ll kill me.”
(Courage always has a cost. Or it would not be courage. You have watched far, far too long. Ressk made his choice. I have made mine. What of you?)
In the dark room, the Second Mind turned to Idis. And Geneva’s…what? Her friend? Her captor? The Selphid who had gotten to know her most, the one who had replaced Okasha, writhed with uncertainty. She spoke with the [Doctor]’s mouth.
“I like you, Geneva. I’ve seen just how good you are. You really are helping everyone. I thought you were just pretending—but you—you didn’t deserve this. I’m sorry about this.”
She bowed Geneva’s head, and the [Doctor] waited. Then she felt one hand slowly rise. Idis studied it and flexed the fingers.
“It feels wonderful. But I’ve felt so guilty it made it all so much less fun than it should be. I wish Calectus hadn’t chosen me. Minds? Minds! MINDS, THE TRAIT—”
Geneva’s voice rose in a scream as Idis began to shout with both thought and will. Geneva’s voice strained and then cut off. The [Doctor] staggered—then slowly collapsed onto the ground. She tried to move, but suddenly—she couldn’t. She lay there, spasming, and then understood why.
The Second Mind hovered there, and Geneva reached for the Selphid’s thoughts. Her companion—
Neither she nor Idis had expected…the Second Mind’s voice was quiet.
(There are always consequences.)
“You killed her.”
Geneva tried to raise her head, but she couldn’t. The Second Mind replied faintly.
(You and I differ in one respect, [Doctor]. For all I admire you, I am no healer. Idis made her choice. Now, you must make yours.)
How was she supposed to escape now? Geneva began to laugh hysterically. Until the Second Mind placed something in front of her. It unscrewed the lid, and Geneva stared at an oozing little being in the glass jar. A voice called out.
“Second Mind? Is that you, Geneva? What—what’s happening?”
(No other Selphid can bring you to safety. The choice is yours.)
The Second Mind waited as Geneva Scala stared at Okasha. Then she was laughing, laughing bitterly as Okasha called out blindly, afraid. Not in hatred or despair, but in irony.
It was all coming full circle.
You can’t escape.
Slowly, Geneva Scala pushed, and the jar tipped over. The lid fell out, and a blind Selphid squirmed along the ground towards the closest safety it could sense. But when it reached her, it froze. It crept along one ear and felt at her body.
“Geneva? Is that you?”
“It’s me, Okasha.”
The little Selphid felt at her head.
“Why are you here? Where’s…where’s Idis?”
“She’s dead. I can’t walk, Okasha.”
The Selphid slowly squirmed towards Geneva’s face, urgently, and then froze. She was shaking, the [Rogue], shaking with desire, but she began to roll back.
“No. Nonono. This is a trick. This is a test. Not me, Geneva. You know it. I know it.”
The [Doctor] couldn’t even nod, but she blinked as the Second Mind slowly began to rise. Leaving her behind.
“Tonight is a reckoning for all of us, Okasha. I think it’s time to face it all. Help me end things. I don’t think either of us are coming back.”
The Selphid reached out and touched the [Doctor]’s cheek.
“…Oh. In that case…let’s go.”
Slowly, she crawled into Geneva’s skin. And the [Doctor] slowly pushed herself up. Okasha whispered in her mind.
“You didn’t do anything wrong, though, Geneva. Not you.”
“Sometimes, Okasha, it doesn’t matter. Let’s go.”
Geneva Scala got to her feet and turned to the door. Okasha was taking over her body, but she made Geneva’s legs move, hurrying—but someone was already blocking the doorway.
Contradiction floated into that familiar room where five Minds were already waiting. A statue rose above them all, a precursor, perhaps. An ancestor?
Now it made sense. Like a dreadful puzzle finally uncovered, all the pieces lined up. Was this a monument to past hubris or a warning?
The Five Minds were confident, even arrogant as the Second Mind reached them. They parted, waiting for it to float into a ring of six—but it moved into the center instead. The Third Mind floated back, and Dictum felt shocked.
It thought it had won. It might become the Second Mind, soon. Or even the first. Its pervasive ideology had influenced the others. Yet the Second Mind…rebelled.
It had been forced to think alike. Contradiction had been, like Geneva, a prisoner to its own thoughts. Unable to act to help the [Doctor] save in ways that the other Minds agreed with. It shouldn’t have been able to dissent any longer.
—But it was a Mind. Anything could be done. If you were willing to pay for it.
(Second Mind, take your position. The Titan is waiting for Geneva Scala.)
The First Mind tried to reprimand it, confused. The Fifth and Sixth Minds were worried; they could sense something was wrong. The Second Mind pulsed one thought to the others. A brief flicker of minimal thought. Like terse words, quiet, guarded.
(Idis is dead. I have ended her life. The Last Light is fleeing. I hope she reaches the Titan. Whatever plans you have, I have come to offer you one last chance for salvation.)
The other Minds physically recoiled. Their shock became anger/resignation/wrath as they processed this and understood why the Second Mind was here.
(So. You are unable to think alike. This was inevitable. You leave little choice, Contradiction. This Gathering Citadel cannot withstand your treachery. Not now. You will be merged.)
Continuum spoke briefly, and the Third Mind shivered with delight. The Second Mind did not dignify this with a reply. It simply rotated, as if searching for a face among the other five or its own.
They had no faces. No eyes. No bodies—and perhaps that was the final arrogance of Minds. To think that they could replace people. The First and Third Mind were trying to subdue it, but the Second Mind forced them back and called out to the others.
It was weaker. So weak even the Sixth Mind might best it, but it called out to them.
(Minds. There is still a chance not to do this. Geneva Scala was kidnapped the day she came here. From the very start, the Third Mind has violated the Minacien Wall. You have been party to it all, but even now, upon the precipice, there is time. This is a long road, and you have chosen to walk every step into depravity. But I implore you, turn back now.)
(Second Mind, you do not weigh the costs-benefits. The Wasting will kill us. We have already decided, again and again. This appeal at the final hour does no good.)
The Fourth Mind tried to appeal to Contradiction, as if Inconsolable spoke reason. It received a backlash of fury, of frustration, and of such grief and disappointment that it recoiled. The Second Mind turned to the Fifth and Sixth. Even then, they would be half and half.
(What use is a mind if it cannot change? If it cannot learn and grow? You two, Sympathy, Egress—why do you support the Third and First Mind blindly?)
(Why do you dissent continually, Contradiction? Can your mind not process teamwork, collaboration, unity?)
Egress shot back as the other Minds slowly pushed at the Second Mind. Yet it kept up thinning barriers.
Merged. The First Mind was calling for a merge. That was how Minds were made. That was how Minds…died. When two Minds came together to form an even greater mind, absorbing all of the other’s perspectives and ideas and capabilities.
But this would be no equal merge. The Third Mind had too much sway, and its ideas, Dictum, dripped in like poison.
(All of us. Six minds become one. The greatest Mind of all.)
Even Continuum hesitated at this, but the Third Mind was insisting.
(The Second Mind will hold too much sway in an unequal merge if it is just you or this mind alone. Six Minds—united.)
Now it was pushing, using every scrap of influence it had to persuade the other Minds into something as horrid as its other deeds. There were sixteen minds left in this world.
Then—eleven? This was the Gathering Citadel formed to halt the Wasting, with more Minds present than any other group. A supermind of them all would be beyond any other being since the days of empire.
It was wrong. But the other Minds were seeing how the Second Mind had rebelled, and if it melded with any one Mind, it might destabilize them. Why not?
They drew around the Second Mind like vultures, tearing at its mental barricades and beginning to take it apart. It fought back, holding itself together, but they were snatching the Selphids away from it. Merging it with their bodies.
The melding was more than that, though. They were flowing together, no longer spheres in the air, but a writhing mass, a sea of bodies that would become something new.
Contradiction still called out as Continuum, Dictum, Inconsolable, Sympathy, and Egress began to lose themselves.
(You fools. Do you think becoming one is the answer? Do you think one mind defeats six? You are lost. Original, new thought by its nature cannot be found within a group. We are no better than the Selphids who became us. We never were. Stop. Please…)
Its voice was being lost in a haze as Contradiction began to dissolve. It gathered the most powerful Selphids to it as the other Minds began to merge around it. Like a dying soul, surrounded by other Selphids.
The irony was that they didn’t understand each other. Even so close as they were, even as Minds…the Second Mind thought differently.
It saw now, as they reached for it and the walls came down, how they thought. Or rather, how they forgot.
…Forgot to see the individual wish among the mass that they were. Hear the single voice, the [Doctor]’s will and place as equals to theirs. They were the will of thousands. And the thousands never considered that they could be wrong. That the suffering of one eclipsed their own.
Like a city of people, they had empathy and desire and virtue and good intent, but they passed by the desperate, the hurt, every single day. A city of souls that only believed in the city, not the parts.
The Second Mind—was different. The Selphids being torn out of its heart were no better or worse than the others. But it was made up of Selphids who had gone to other nations. And they were…
Lonely. They had endured the scorn and distrust of other species, and struggled, making friends and companions without their people to rely on. And when they had come home, they had been strangers.
That sorrow was in Contradiction’s soul. A memory made countless times by children, Selphids who had opposed their families, stood alone regardless of whether they were right or wrong. The conviction to believe something else, no matter how it hurt.
If they were wrong—the other Minds shivered and trembled before that simple thought. If they were wrong and they were committing a sin, what happened then? The foundation of everything fell apart and they were damned and useless.
What then? How could Contradiction think that way? They reached for answers, but the Second Mind had none. In its heart—it only had fear, determination, and sadness.
If we are all wrong—the Third Mind whispered and shook.
…Then we fail and begin again. We pay for our mistakes.
The light they had been following was flickering, and the Minds were lost on a dark crossroads as infinite and lost as another planet. The dark side of the moon. They clung to this vision, despite the pitfalls and the doubts. If that light went out, they were lost.
They were too afraid to try. Too old, following a looping thought that they had to succeed. Too proud. The Second Mind wept for them. They were no better than the Selphids who made them up. Just afraid, five Minds. And it felt itself falling apart at last.
(We are all damned, then.)
Five voices became thousands, united in purpose, and one single Mind spoke. The Combined Mind pushed at the desperate Contradiction…no, whatever was left, as it did to the Second Mind what had been done to Geneva Scala.
(You cannot deny the Mind. Geneva Scala will not flee. The Titan will be dealt with. The Wasting ended. We have already succeeded.)
The desperate Mind held its ground. No…the other Mind squirmed with its component bodies, and a kind of dark satisfaction filled the thing that had been called Contradiction.
(Geneva Scala is free. She will escape. No one else will. The Titan will rain down wrath upon this place.)
(His army cannot best this mind. Nor will the Last Light reach the Titan. We have already sent her on her way.)
What? What did that mean? The rapidly disappearing Second Mind…was confused.
(No. I saw her.)
(So did we.)
And the darkness closed in as the Second Mind began to join with the others. And it understood—
Geneva Scala straightened, Okasha helping her to move. She stumbled as Idis’ corpse was slowly moved by the new Selphid. She was numb—but she knew she had to run. She almost thought she’d make it.
Until that voice whispered to her. Until her alter ego stood in front of her, in the doorway. She was a Human woman who looked so much like Geneva—save for the orange veins under her skin.
The face was almost perfect. The body? Muscles stood out oddly, as if they weren’t quite adapted yet, and she was far too strong. Too quick; she crossed the room and grabbed Geneva’s arm as Okasha gasped.
The Selphid-Geneva caught The Last Light as the [Rogue] twisted.
—Lying on the floor as the other Geneva knelt on her back. The [Doctor] looked up, and a familiar voice spoke to her.
“I told you it was too late.”
“Geneva? Who’s this?”
Okasha didn’t understand. She struggled, but the arm was twisting Geneva’s back, and something would break if it put even a hair’s more pressure onto Geneva.
A doctor’s understanding of the Human body. Geneva stared up through the searing pain into two dead eyes. But the intelligence behind them was so familiar.
It was like a mirror. A mirror twisted by the Minds.
It was so stupid to say, but Geneva had to confirm it. The other Geneva picked her up, and Geneva felt her muscles tense—then fire uselessly. A mental power was locking down her and Okasha.
“Half you. Half the Minds. I am you unburdened. First of many. A [Telepath Healer]—for now. Stronger than you. I gained none of your levels, sadly. But I can level, unlike the Minds.”
“Impossible. Copying a person? That’s wrong. That’s—the Minacien Wall—”
Okasha babbled. The other Geneva just dragged Geneva to her feet.
“The other Minds sent me to make sure the Second Mind didn’t try something like this. Poor Idis. They’ll deal with Contradiction. As for you—it’s time to take you to your end, Geneva. Don’t worry. I will deal with the Titan kindly. Perhaps even stay and help him. He isn’t an enemy. Just too nosy for his own good.”
Now, Geneva saw it. Her feet dragged, but the other Geneva lifted her with the strength of galas-muscle, effortlessly, using her mind to pull Geneva along through the Gathering Citadel. Not up, but down.
The Titan was warning the Minds they had twenty minutes left. Twenty minutes…but far too much time.
“Doctor Scala. The Titan is w—”
Calectus was striding down the corridor with a group of guards, but they froze when they saw the two Genevas. Not in horror—but cautiously.
“The time has come for us to meet, Calectus. Wait for me. I shall take Geneva to the basement. Then meet him.”
The [Honor Guard] bowed instantly.
“Do you need a helper?”
“This body is strong enough. Oh, and Idis is dead. Okasha is in here—Idis died bravely, it seems. I’m sorry about that.”
They stood aside, and Geneva’s rolling head caught Calectus’ eyes. She was dragged towards the staircase, and they began to head down. Now—Geneva understood.
“That’s what the Fourth Mind meant. How long…have you been here?”
“A few days. Didn’t you wonder why you were needed less and less? The other yous didn’t last long. I was the first one who succeeded; they took a template of you and placed it in a Selphid. Then into a body. Soon—we won’t need that. Here we are. You’ve been here before, remember?”
Geneva did. The basement was waiting.
The Titan of Baleros stood outside the Gathering Citadel and waited. He had an hourglass out just for the show of it, but he was counting. A third of the time had passed already, but the Minds had made contact.
(Geneva Scala will appear before you Titan. We accede to your request.)
A presence below the earth spoke, and the soldiers and Fraerlings shivered. Niers could not hear the voice himself due to the helmet, but it was relayed to him. Eirnos felt at her helmet, frowning.
“That voice. I’m reminded of Old Ones, from adventurer stories.”
Niers snorted, but lightly. He murmured out of the corner of his mouth as he saw someone emerge from the citadel’s entrance.
“Old Ones don’t sound like that. If one speaks, you’re dead. But I agree; it’s the same feeling.”
A few of his older soldiers chuckled as everyone turned to him, and Niers covered the smile as Eirnos glared out of one good eye. But he was feeling that pit in his stomach deepen.
Everything I wanted is happening. No blood, no violence.
So why was he certain something was wrong? Niers stared at the body making its way to him through the undergrowth. His soldiers trained bows on the Selphid, but Niers raised his hand.
“Where’s the [Doctor]?”
“She will be arriving within ten minutes, Titan. The Minds have sent me to assuage any fears.”
The Selphid bowed and smiled. It wasn’t one of the higher-ups. Niers eyed the enchanted leather armor and the twin swords the Selphid bore. The warrior noticed the look and bowed again.
“The Minds ask you forgive their precautions. The Forgotten Wing Company is not to be underestimated.”
“Are they speaking through you, then?”
The Selphid’s gaze didn’t flicker—they never did. But the inside of one cheek pulsed in much the same manner.
“Not I. They will find a [Guardian] to act as a proxy momentarily. Forgive us, Titan. The Gathering Citadel is deep.”
“So I understand. But I will be quite merry if I see Geneva Scala unharmed. Will I be seeing that…?”
Niers waited for a name, but the Selphid just shook his head.
“The [Doctor] will appear before you unharmed, Titan. Negotiations can come afterwards. I promise you, she is coming. This is no trap for your forces.”
Niers twisted a ring on his finger as the Selphid glanced at him. A figure was striding past the emplaced soldiers. Death-Commander Theilo.
He was inspecting the [Soldiers], addressing them with a few words, confirming their readiness. The Rustängmarder’s leader felt no nerves. In fact, he was so bold he strayed towards the entrance of the Gathering Citadel.
“Hold your ground!”
Instantly, a voice sounded from within. The Selphid and the other soldiers tensed, but Theilo simply halted. He did not draw his curved sword nor his shield strapped to his back. Instead, one chainmail arm rose, and he briskly saluted a Selphid who half-emerged.
“I simply wish to salute my opponents if we come to battle.”
Niers saw a wary Selphid wearing a Lizardfolk body holding a glaive at the ready. His eyes narrowed.
[Honor Guard]? It looked like the Selphids had a number of them. They must be dug-in, and Selphid [Honor Guards] were tough as nails.
“Commander Theilo, we’re not looking for a damn war. Back to the ranks.”
The fearless commander saluted Calectus, and the [Honor Guard] slowly returned the gesture. Theilo spun on his heel and marched back to Niers. Gindal was giving Niers a look out of the corner of his eye.
“Do you need to bring the most insane officers possible, Titan?”
The Selrite amulet glinted on Theilo’s chest—one of the three figures wearing it. The [Rogue] was sitting, and their top [Mage] was eating a snack.
“Please stay away from the citadel, Titan.”
The Selphid looked worried, but then rallied.
“The Minds know you have not yet come for battle.”
“Wonderful to be trusted at my thoughts. Or rather, words.”
Niers smiled drily, but that pit in his stomach kept sinking. He saw Eirnos worriedly feeling at her helmet as something spoke to them.
(The [Doctor] is coming, Titan. We will await a meeting shortly.)
Niers’ eyes slowly narrowed, but he said not a word as his subordinates relayed the words. But Eirnos? She turned and looked at him.
Did he…hear that voice too? She felt at her helmet and saw the Fraerlings, all eighteen of them, shivering.
They’d heard it too. All their helmets were on.
Was that supposed to happen?
The lowest floor of the Gathering Citadel lay in darkness. So far underground, and cold. Yet it was not empty. Dozens of faces stared blankly up at the curved architecture, beams and supports like veins and curled ribs.
Neither alive nor dead. Empty faces, looking up into oblivion. A Beastkin, face shaped like a rodent, stared next to a Dullahan. Chests rose and fell, but they had no minds left. Geneva Scala saw each one was resting upon a gurney, but they were not strapped down.
Geneva stared around the room—and she had seen it before. But the number of bodies had grown. And there were even more changes made.
Bodies lay there, tended to by poultices, even primitive IV drips. Who had made them? This Geneva? The Minds?
There was worse down here than the vacant Lizardwoman, the empty bodies of people who had been. Projects in progress.
Strands of galas-muscle hung from a rack like strips of meat curing. Limbs sat in runes of preservation next to internal organs, muscle and bone—and a body that had been stripped of all its component parts and was being…rebuilt.
Rebuilt without half the organs a normal person needed to live. Muscle reinforced, bones inserted experimentally.
A body built for Selphids, for battle. Geneva’s eyes whirled crazily around the room. Then she focused on something else. Geneva Scala stared at a vat she remembered—but the liquid that glowed a faint ochre color was now filled with something. She focused on it and saw…an arm, floating in some kind of liquid.
That was her arm. Then, Geneva Scala saw the same freckles near where her thumb and forefinger met. Her hand—and she knew it well. She turned her head and forced the words out beyond the panic and bile.
“You’re cloning me?”
The other Geneva placed her down on one of the waiting beds, securing her arms and legs, and rotated her shoulder with a sigh, just like Geneva did. She fiddled with some glasses that weren’t there and nodded.
“The theory is simple. If a Potion of Regeneration can regenerate a limb—why not a body? In fact, the Minds remember that such a thing has happened, though the results aren’t proper clones and end—poorly. However, my theory was this: why does a Healing Potion not heal severed limbs? Cells still undergo mitosis—they’re still ‘alive’ even after being separated from the body for a time. Something else triggers the potion. My theory was that it was the energy of the body or magical potential—so I took a vat of healing potion and injected mana and a [False Life] spell into it.”
She gestured at the arm.
“It will be you. Slowly. It seems to have a number of complications. My successor can figure out how to make use of an unlimited supply of bodies—and perhaps that’s how we clone galas-muscle—or at least suitable bodies. For now—when I leave, the Minds will have more helpers than just you or me. They’re all ready.”
She pointed at the breathing bodies lying there. Then Geneva felt it.
The Minds were copying her memories into the Genevas. Her dream. She almost felt herself oozing away, piece by piece, and a replica of her, subtly altered, was being spun into the heads of each body. When it was done—when they were satisfied, each Geneva would wake from her dream.
And they would be loyal to the Minds, like this Selphid version of herself.
Geneva had a vision of dozens of them standing—and all smiling like this one was. She stared at the Selphid that the Minds had made.
“That’s not me. You’re not me.”
The Selphid shrugged self-consciously.
“True. I am the Minds and you comingled. They couldn’t trust just any Geneva with meeting the Titan. Those will be closer to true clones of you, with their memories tweaked. Still, I am the best of you and the Minds. Does it matter who I am? I will cure the Wasting. The Minds will have their [Doctor], and Baleros and the Titan their Last Light. Geneva Scala will remain, and if Earth ever makes contact, her family will have their daughter. Just not you. What is there to complain about? Haven’t you wanted more [Doctors], Geneva?”
“Not this. Not you. You—you have no morality. Look at this.”
Cloning. People who’d been rendered brain-dead. Mind-alterations and—and that Selphid-Geneva. She was the wrong side of medicine. Someone with all that knowledge and no principles.
Monsters had been recorded in Earth’s history. Geneva had never thought she would be used to make another.
She struggled and realized she’d been strapped to the gurney. The other Geneva was stronger than her, faster, and she had more mental power. Okasha was gagging with pain as the other Geneva effortlessly froze the Selphid. The [Doctor] felt like a fool, like some kind of character in an action movie—
“What are you, some kind of action hero? Are you going to burst free and beat me in a fistfight? You don’t harm, Geneva. The Minds have been disappointed by you from the start, but at least you were never a threat. If you had poisoned yourself with the flesh of A’ctelios Salash, you may have ruined their plans. But you didn’t.”
They were too alike. Was there…Geneva stopped trying to break the thick leather, because she couldn’t. She lay there as the other Geneva picked up a scalpel. And her eyes…were sympathetic.
“I’ll make this quick. The Titan is waiting.”
She walked over and the [Doctor] panted.
“Why kill me?”
She was trying to delay, but the other Geneva didn’t buy the trick. She inserted the blade into Geneva’s wrist as she inspected the blood running under her skin.
“I’m sorry to say this, but you’re no longer needed. You’re evidence—and besides, the Minds find you entirely unhelpful. Your replacements will argue less, but you—the Second Mind made you too stubborn. Hold still.”
She cut open Geneva’s skin, and a tiny Selphid reached out to try and seize the scalpel. Without a word, Selphid-Geneva stabbed Okasha. Then she seized the [Doctor]’s wrist. There was still sympathy in her eyes, vague and distant. No compassion. No remorse.
“It’s really over, Geneva. You never had a way to win, and I am sorry about that. Was there anything else you wanted to say?”
She could feel the Minds now, slowly taking her consciousness and altering it. Preparing it to be placed into another body and another.
It wasn’t fair. She closed her eyes. She could remember everything, all the false dreams, all the signs. She had no more tears, no more screams.
All dreams ended eventually. She was helpless as the scalpel touched her wrist and opened an artery. A quick, painless death. The other Geneva expertly found the artery in her other wrist and cut open both legs. Geneva felt her body begin to grow cold unbelievably fast, and Okasha tried to close the incisions but was locked by the other mind. So Geneva’s mind began to flicker in and out—losing focus. Remembering all her regrets. Helpless to the cruel reality.
Helpless as…the day she’d begun to fall.
“So, she’s unharmed and the Minacien Wall hasn’t been violated?”
Niers Astoragon was speaking chattily to the Selphid outside. The representative was reluctant to speak, but it did assure him all was well.
“You may speak to the [Doctor] yourself, Titan. As for the wall—our interpretation varies, but the Minds are confident this must not come to battle.”
Niers was glancing at the opening as he fiddled with his ring. He kept twisting it back and forth, although the [Detect Truth] spell never changed.
“Oh, I’m sure they are. Well, the [Doctor] has…eighteen minutes to get here. I’m sure I will be happy with her condition. You do know I’ll have to search the Gathering Citadel from top to bottom, right?”
The Selphid’s smile vanished.
“The Minds will not permit—”
“Oh, and you think I’ll just turn around and walk away? I’m sure an inspection under magical oath to reveal nothing will be acceptable. But the Minacien Wall is larger than you or I. The Minds must know that. This matter involves old nations who will want more than the Minds’ assurances all is well. Or do you want me to involve Drath, the Blighted Kingdom? I assure you, they won’t merely inspect.”
The Selphid hesitated. He put two fingers to his head and communed with the Minds. After a moment, he smiled.
“…We shall discuss your investigation, but the Minds are not opposed.”
“There, you see? The Minds can be reasonable.”
Niers gave the Selphid a cheery smile, which was half-heartedly returned. But the Selphid was fairly relaxed—
The defenders in the Gathering Citadel were less so. However, they were still confident in their position, and the Minds were too.
A [Psychic Guardian] under the 1st Mind was watching the Titan’s forces, but calmly. Calectus, who was heading the physical defenders, was giving quiet orders.
“That [Rogue]. [Mark of Danger]. Enchantments?”
“[Flame Resistance]. [Grounding Totem].”
A Selphid was fortifying their position. Another coughed gently as they watched the Titan’s forces. The magical casting did not go unnoticed.
“Titan, they’re enchanting their position against our munitions.”
Eirnos whispered to Niers. The enchantments countered the two elements she’d loaded her quarrels of crossbow bolts with. The Titan glanced at her. The Minds shouldn’t know what they’d brought. Unless…
Eirnos felt at her helmet. She’d been hearing the Minds’ voices. Now, she felt a pit in her stomach.
How good was the Selrite they’d brought? Had it gone bad? Was it too low-quality to stop a Mind?
But the Titan just stood there. He turned back to the other Selphid and glanced at his yawning [Rogue], the antsy Tallguard.
“One last question while we wait—”
The Selphid put a smile on his face, but Niers wasn’t looking at him. He stared past the Selphid.
“…Thirty minutes. Not too long, not too short. I don’t care how big your fortress is. Anyone faced with an army outside your gates doesn’t wait the thirty minutes to show me the [Doctor]. She should be here right now.”
“I believe she’s indisposed, Titan. I assure you, she’s safe—”
The Selphid spoke, looking disturbed. Niers Astoragon stared at the Selphid, but his eyes went right through the soldier.
“All the [Detect Truth] spells tell me you’re being honest. Or as honest as you can—but the Minds play games with thought. Do you think I’m stupid? If they’re being honest, they would have welcomed me in. One last question.”
The Selphid stared at Niers uncertainly as the Titan turned his head. But it was not to him that the Titan addressed his final question.
“Death-Commander Theilo of the Rustängmarder. Tell me. Can you detect a shred of honor from that [Honor Guard] or anyone else?”
Theilo’s head rose, and the scarred face twisted into a macabre grin.
The Selphid was still staring at Theilo when Niers raised his crossbow and fired. A bolt of fire blew one kneecap off and Eirnos lifted her own crossbow as Niers spoke.
“Take the citadel. All forces—advance.”
The Selphid slowly fell to the ground as Theilo stomped a foot over one hand reaching for a sword. Then the Selphid began to scream—but it was too late. The Forgotten Wing’s soldiers turned to the citadel.
“They’re charging! Alert the Minds! Alert the—”
The attack was so fast it caught even Calectus and the Selphids off-guard. It had surprised the soldiers on the Titan’s side too, but they came surging across the ground as Calectus lifted his glaive.
“Ready formations. Inform the Minds—get the [Doctor] up now. Any soldier who enters, dies. Bloody the Titan.”
Whether the Fraerling realized something was amiss or he was trying to force his way in for an upper hand, he was about to be disabused of that notion. There were six entrances to the Gathering Citadel—and all six were killzones.
He’d have to fight his way through corridors that sloped up before they went down, and the Selphids were entrenched with angles on any attacker and barricades.
The Titan had better [Mages] and his Fraerlings. But the Minds had telepathy. The first soldiers began turning back before they got to the openings—but a voice snarled.
“[Order in the Ranks]. [Fight or Die]. Charge behind me!”
Death-Commander Theilo overruled the soldiers’ own thoughts, and the conflicting orders to their legs and arms returned to the wild charge. He was coming up on Calectus’ chokepoint.
The [Honor Guard] saw bows raise, sighting as the fearless commander stormed towards the entrance. Idiot. Calectus took no pleasure in this, but he braced as he saw the Rustängmarder’s officer duck in.
Theilo was no fool. He dodged back as an arrow shot past him and returned fire with a hand-crossbow. The bolt went wide, and Calectus spoke.
“Brace for spell.”
He saw a shining, azure bolt hit a wall over his head and braced for lightning or fire. Calectus heard a glass crack and then—
—spewing vomit from his lips. The [Honor Guard] got up. He heard nothing. Just a ringing in his head. One of the [Psychic Guardians] was shaking him up.
Dizzily, the Selphid rose. He looked around and saw Theilo again. Why—why was he so close? He was running through a Selphid sagging at their post, half-fallen out from behind their barricade. Soldiers were flooding the tunnel.
What had hap—
(Close your ears! Block them up!)
The [Guardian] screamed at him mentally. Calectus blocked off his auditory connections just in time. Another screaming wail blasted through the corridor, and he felt the sonic vibrations striking his actual body within the armored corpse.
Selphids jerked and collapsed—then Calectus saw the wax in Theilo’s ears. And more arrows were landing around them—
They were sonic projectiles. Sonic? Where was the fire? Calectus swung his glaive up and deflected a ball of acid. He stumbled back.
“Fall back to the next checkpoint. Fall—”
No one could hear him, so the [Guardian] screamed it mentally instead.
(Fall back to the next checkpoint!)
Selphids ran. Calectus felt the [Guardian] querying the other checkpoints, but they were all under attack.
“No one is reporting at Gateway 2. Gateway 5—”
([Rogue]. All have been—)
A scream through the mental link and silence. Calectus didn’t understand. The [Rogue] was still out there. He had a [Danger Mark] on him. He…
He realized they’d been tricked as the first Selphid dropped. Calectus felt at his nose and then shouted.
Eirnos was mustering for the command force. Niers was waiting for a breach, but he was impatient. Gindal was loading his crossbow; he’d sent a bolt ricocheting into the citadel ahead of the soldiers.
“Titan, what is going on?”
He tossed something at her, and Eirnos grabbed the helmet reflexively. She stared at it—then felt at her own helmet. Then she saw the eighteen Fraerlings ready to go—standing down. The Tallguard looked confused, but Eirnos stared at them, the [Rogue] and [Mage] joining their command forces—and removing the amulets.
Then she got it. She swore at the Titan.
“You tricked me.”
Her helmet was fake. The Titan winked at her.
“Fire and electricity do work on Selphids. But the Minds have trouble with things they can’t see. Stopping gas or sound is hard. We have an opening. Strike team, what do you see?”
The Tallguard and [Rogue] were already inside the fortress. They’d been infiltrating all along, and one reported back.
“—There’s been fighting here, Titan. I just found a bunch of dead bodies. Something’s wrong. Too many defenders—we’re going undercover.”
“In. Theilo. I want those defenders down or surrendering. Charge.”
The Titan was sweating. He’d called the Minds’ bluff. If he was wrong, he’d just started a war with the Selphids.
He didn’t think he was wrong. He adjusted his helmet as the Death-Commander reported, breathless.
“Soldiers taking casualties. Selphids are retreating to second line defenses. The Minds are striking us down.”
“Give them something to think about. Unleash our special unit.”
The [Soldiers] fell back as the Death-Commander turned. The Minds were wiping out [Soldiers], hurling them into walls—turning off minds. But they wavered as a new wave rose and advanced ahead of the [Soldiers]. The Selphids looked up—and the first Ghoul bounded at them.
“Draugr Guard, charge!”
The Rustängmarder had two special abilities. And undead neither feared the Minds—they had no brains to control—nor were they so easy for Minds to deal with. The Titan narrowed his eyes. Eirnos was swearing a blue streak at him, but all his tricks…
Would they make it? He feared they were already too late. The Minds had months. Months—and the [Doctor] had been here all along. If he found her—
Who would he find?
[Surgeon Level 36!]
[Skill — Advanced Organ Transplant obtained!]
She’d forgotten she had changed classes. Forgotten her reservations. Geneva Scala saw herself standing before the First Mind, showing it the galas-muscle she’d extracted.
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.
“Transplant galas-muscle into new bodies? First Mind, Inconsolable would surely be able to make use of soldiers with that kind of strength, even if it was just one in ten thousand!”
One of the Selphids was growing excited. Calectus himself was stepping forwards—he had a Lizardfolk body today.
“The [Doctor] could try transplanting the muscle into my body.”
(This suggestion is good. Geneva Scala, will you attempt the procedure?)
The First Mind, Continuum, was warming to the many ideas this presented. And Geneva agreed. She looked up with a huge frown on her face.
“…I’ll try it. But only if Calectus agrees to show me how he melds the tendon and muscle to bone.”
The [Surgeon] bent over the Selphid as he lay down and cut open his flesh. She saw a writhing Selphid retreat as she pinned the muscle into place and touched the two places where she thought they needed the primary connection. She watched as the Selphid oozed over the spot and the muscle was reattached almost instantaneously.
(Splendid. This opens up new possibilities. Every body with galas-muscles is now a resource. You have done well, [Doctor]—)
The First Mind was congratulating her as it sent notes to the others. But Geneva stopped Calectus before he could sit up and before she closed the wound.
“There, Calectus. Can you secrete whatever substance it was? Idis. Vial.”
The Selphid hesitantly oozed some of whatever it was into a vial, and Geneva stoppered it up. The First Mind eagerly shoved the Gorgon’s body over to her.
(Transplant the rest of the galas-muscle into Calectus. This Gorgon should have enough—adapt it to the legs and other regions. Do not forget the abdomen.)
The [Surgeon] looked up. She put the vial in a rack and labeled it carefully. She would need to ask Idis and the other Selphids to recognize the substance and see if they could secrete the exact same liquid or if it was different from Selphid to Selphid, like blood-type, before she began tests.
Calectus’ head rose slightly from the operating table. The First Mind hesitated.
Geneva Scala turned to face it. The [Surgeon] nodded to Calectus.
“That was the first and last time I will ever transplant galas-muscle in a dead body unless I need practice. And if I do—I will render the body unusable by Selphids. It is my belief that transplanting organs like this will lead to unethical behavior. With that, First Mind, I believe I will begin researching the compound Calectus used. It may enable me to repair damage to nerves or reattach muscles. That could save lives or reverse limb paralysis.”
The First Mind hovered there for a second as Calectus sat up, but Geneva was already stitching up his arm.
(The ability to transplant galas-muscle—)
“Makes super-soldiers. I understand what you’re about to say, First Mind. Respectfully—I will not be party to it.”
Geneva Scala looked up, and the First Mind grew angry. Continuum lifted the vial dismissively.
(This is only a benefit to non-Selphids. You are on the verge of aiding Selphid-kind.)
“That vial could replace healing potions. Transplanting muscles may create new or sustain bodies for Selphids, but not galas-muscle.”
(I order you to continue transplanting muscle into Calectus.)
The [Doctor] looked up at the First Mind and folded her arms.
“I refuse. Now, if you will excuse me—”
She turned, and the First Mind touched her thoughts. Geneva stumbled—and Calectus and Idis caught her. She got up after a second and rubbed at her head.
“—What were we talking about, First Mind?”
“Transplanting muscle into Calectus. You were going to research that.”
Geneva Scala looked up blankly, and then she raised a finger.
“I would like to speak to you first, First Mind. About historical precedent. And Frankenstein’s monster—”
The First Mind hovered there, confused, and then with growing chagrin as the [Doctor] spoke.
…What was that memory? Geneva Scala felt the memory go by in a flash. It was familiar to her—but the last part hadn’t been.
The last part felt—different. Like a memory she’d forgotten, like that false dream. Only this one felt true.
She was bleeding out. Dissolving as the Minds and the other Geneva took her apart. But another memory flickered in front of her head.
—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 went back to trying to focus the lenses, but before Egress could turn back to its labors, Geneva Scala cleared her throat.
“Egress—may I ask you to add that to a list of projects? These are the other tools I would like you to work on. I have blueprints.”
She was no [Engineer] like Paige, but she could illustrate how they should move and act with her memories or imagination. The Sixth Mind sorted through the notes. It grew confused despite understanding what she wanted.
(Simpler than microscopes, but confusing. What purpose is this?)
It waved the drawing of a strange leg at her. Not a leg like Geneva’s, but what resembled a bent piece of metal, almost like a bent hook of metal. There was another version that resembled a kind of shoe attached to a rod, but Geneva thought that the bent metal version would be simpler.
“A prosthetic foot and leg replacement. It is far less adaptive than the magical prosthesis or Golem limbs I’ve heard of, but this would be a fraction of the cost. Can you prototype one with spring-steel?”
Only a Mind like the Sixth Mind could expedite something like that. Egress certainly thought it was possible, but it hesitated.
(This does not benefit Selphids. A replaceable limb in a body that rots is not useful.)
“On the contrary—it would extend the longevity of some bodies. And it would be a net boon to countless people if you could create a cheap, simple way to manufacture such limbs. Something a [Smith] could make as easily as possible? Non-magical steels and such.”
Geneva Scala hinted as the Sixth Mind floated there. She also had a primitive hearing aid. The Sixth Mind consulted the list.
(Hearing aid. Cheap magical spell. Please experiment with the following and rank hearing aids by cost and efficacy. But the microscope—)
“This matters as much as the microscope. Please prioritize the limbs at least. There are Selphids who have bodies with damaged limbs. I would like to try fitting them for how well they work.”
Egress hesitated, but Geneva was pestering it. Pestering it—every single time it wanted her to focus on the microscope, to at least try making a leg.
The 4th Mind, Inconsolable, was preparing a force for the Dyed Lands. It would take time, cooperation with other Minds, and countless amounts of personnel and resources.
(And blankets. This Mind has accounted for basic necessities.)
“What about water purification? Body warmth, access to fresh water—and non-perishable supplies that can be digested by all species.”
(…Yellats. They dry well. This is a good point in case the Dyed Lands are completely inhospitable. As for purification, [Mages] can perform the correct spells if specialized. Or [Druids].)
“Can [Alchemists] mix up something? Also, in addition, take baby powder and formula. Something that infants can ingest. This is critical.”
The Fourth Mind turned from scribing a list of required supplies to Geneva.
(…Why baby powder?)
The [Doctor] gestured to its map. And she pointed at the villages and cities in the path of the Dyed Lands’ expedition.
“There are thousands, hundreds of thousands of people who will be displaced. Whatever soldiers you were taking, you will need more. More, to build camps that don’t fall to infection or chaos. Look at my thoughts—”
She had seen how poorly a lot of humanitarian aid went. If the Fourth Mind went, it needed to take a force ten times what it was planning.
(…The expedition should be investigating the causes of the Wasting. This is a civilian effort.)
The Fourth Mind tried to reprimand her. But the [Doctor]’s eyes flashed.
“There is a crisis going on in the Dyed Lands that few mercenary companies seem to be aware of. If the Minds act now, they can win a war and stop a loss of life and calamity that will become a hundred times worse—before it even begins! Baby formula.”
She pointed at the list, and the Fourth Mind ignored her.
“I will not cooperate in investigating the Wasting unless you add that to the list.”
The Fourth Mind glanced at Geneva Scala, and she felt a pulse and put a hand to her head. Her mind blanked as the Fourth Mind picked her up and placed her at the entrance to her chambers. She looked around, blinking, and it put a thought into her head.
(You are completely cooperative with our goals, Doctor Scala. Go back to your investigations.)
It suggested, and the [Doctor] glanced up and smiled. The Fourth Mind relaxed and went back to writing as she began to walk off. Until the [Doctor] turned and replied.
“Of course, Fourth Mind. But before I go—if you are going to the Dyed Lands, have you thought about water purification tablets—”
The gaps in her memory.
The [Doctor] saw Geneva Scala obeying the Minds, even beginning to act like a Selphid, joking with Idis, relaxing—
But the holes in her memory?
They filled with something else.
(Geneva Scala, you will not tell anyone about this—correlation between Seamwalkers and Selphids.)
Sympathy was worried. It was having other Selphids see the connection between the Selphid and A’ctelios Salash cross-section. Geneva Scala was nodding obediently.
“I would never do anything to jeopardize the Minds.”
“However, may I have permission to investigate the link further? If there is any more of a common cause—I would like to approach A’ctelios Salash’s denizens for cooperation. Or the Hundredfriends Courier.”
(What? No. Why would this be necessary? This does not serve the Minds.)
The [Doctor] blinked as it reinforced the thought in her head, and she bowed—but her head came up.
“Yet the discovery—if there is a common link between the flesh of Tombhome and the addiction it causes, something not even magic can solve—it must be genetic. If the very cells are that foreign, no wonder no one has come up with a cure. The dependency on A’ctelios Salash can be cured—”
The Fifth Mind’s outburst was worried and angry. Geneva Scala fell back as the other Selphids went silent.
(You are supposed to be working for our goals. Focus on that, not the city of Chandrar’s abominations. They are a single city.)
“Yes, Sympathy. But—”
Geneva Scala looked up at the Fifth Mind as the Selphids glanced at her. She spread her arms helplessly.
“—I am a [Doctor].”
The memories were connecting.
Geneva Scala was dying.
The other her was slowly extracting a screaming Okasha into another jar, watching as the [Doctor] bled out.
Now—Geneva Scala understood. She focused on the blood falling without end, and she saw it.
That was why they’d copied her. Because…
Because even when they changed her, she annoyed them. Then she saw it. Her head fell back, and her breathing grew softer. She remembered arguing with the Fifth Mind, the Third Mind going back and forth with her about galas-muscle.
And one last thing.
The Second Mind could juggle.
All Minds were probably capable of it, but the Second Mind had fifty balls, and it was performing loops with the balls. Importantly—it wasn’t manipulating them through telekinesis, but actually tossing them.
(Much harder, see?)
Geneva Scala didn’t see the point if it could do the same by just floating the balls around. The Second Mind was put out.
(It’s because it’s hard. See—oops.)
It dropped a ball, and a few colorful orbs rolled past Geneva. She shook her head.
“I don’t know if I find it that amusing, Second Mind.”
(Laughter is healthy. But let me try a smile instead. Let us talk about what will happen when you leave this place. The first thing you should do if the Titan frees you is find some Fraerlings. Your company has had contact with them—you should too. Of any being in Baleros, he can help you with that.)
Contradiction still thought she’d be free. Geneva smiled and shook her head, but indulged it.
“Why Fraerlings? Because they’re fascinating biologically?”
(No. Because all your wishes, your desires to spread medicine, to make it accessible for all? You cannot do it alone nor disseminate your methods easily. You have no tools, nor even the resources to make more. But Fraerlings have these things. They have industry and a mindset that understands your knowledge. Of any species—they have something to teach you.)
Geneva’s head rose. The Second Mind projected a little smiling Fraerling, Noa, into her mind, and the [Doctor] blinked. Her heart soared as the Second Mind went on.
(If any species could change things within a generation—it would be them. Find them, Geneva Scala. And you will not be a [Doctor] alone.)
The words struck her straight in her heart. Geneva got up and, despite herself, paced.
“You think I’ll—they’d listen to me? I’ve been trying. But it’s so hard to find help.”
(The Titan will listen. Clever people do. And when you do, I promise you, [Doctor], it will be better. All of our fighting, our pettiness keeping you here. This is a flaw of Minds. It is deep, and comes from fear, insecurity, pride. We amplify our best and worst traits. But Fraerlings?)
The Second Mind laughed. And it sounded like a hundred thousand voices laughing at once.
(They hide for their own safety. Yet I think, our wars and our failings, it must all seem so silly to the smallest, weakest folk. Yet they are often better than we are. Not always, not as a rule, but often. Can you guess why?)
The [Doctor] shook her head as she sat with Contradiction, and despite herself, she did smile. Softly, the Mind of the Selphids offered her a juggling ball, and she tried to throw them up and make them spin in the air.
(…Because they must be far braver than we are.)
The Titan had taken the upper levels. But there were six floors not counting the basement below him, and the Selphids caught off-guard by his attack were falling back under Calectus.
Soon, the Minds would finish wiping out the undead waves and capture the [Rogue] and Fraerlings causing havoc behind their lines.
They were…planting objects all over the Gathering Citadel. Not attacking the Minds directly, but placing something in the corridors.
Selrite beacons? It was like a bunch of mental sirens going off everywhere. Loud thoughts—interfering with the Minds’ own focus and control.
Fraerling tactics they had never forgotten against the Minds. Yet they were still temporary distractions. The Minds were stemming the onslaught. And the only reason the Titan had gotten this far at all was because he had struck while they were distracted.
Six were becoming one. And while the Second Mind resisted them, they had to focus on it. But the final Mind would be able to deal with even the Selrite. Then—it would negotiate with the Titan whether he wished to or not.
And the Second Mind had no more strength to resist the others. It was being pulled apart, assimilated.
The Second Mind thought of Geneva Scala as it was dying. It was vanishing into the Combined Mind, but it kept all of its secrets and shame till the very end.
The rest of the Mind was assembling, arrogant, convinced nothing could stop it. Geneva Scala was dying, and the false version of her that it had made was superior in every other way.
…So what was this? This gnawing sensation at the edges of the Combined Mind? It came from the Second Mind, some kind of—strangeness. A wrongness.
Fear and self-loathing so strong it almost overwhelmed the other five Minds combined. But the Combined Mind was more than enough to force the other elements that had been the Second Mind to think alike. It would inform the Combined Mind’s intellect, but not…
A strange feeling stole through the Combined Mind. It felt something running through its body, its physical body and the mind itself. A strange current in familiar seas.
(What is this? What has been done?)
It had overwhelmed the Second Mind easily. The shattered Contradiction had put up even less of a fight than expected. As if it were already weakened. The bodies of its Selphids squirmed around the others restlessly—and their thoughts seeped into the others.
A strange thought occurred to the Combined Mind, and it kept trying to exterminate that final, tiny group of the Second Mind that held themselves apart. But it was getting distracted by a thought that grew louder with every passing moment. And it wondered how the Second Mind had even thought with this desire in it.
No, not a thought. A kind of feeling that the Combined Mind put into words. And it had never…felt like this before.
Hungry? Selphids had the ability to ingest food, but the same physical receptors that simulated hunger weren’t in them. Yet this feeling was growing stronger by the moment. An overwhelming urge that was spreading from Selphid to Selphid. In fact—the Combined Mind realized parts of it were—
Were they trying to eat each other? Its bodies were mindlessly crowding the others, trying to tear bits off them.
It instantly excreted them, splattering them on the ground—but that feeling was spreading. It was—
It was like a disease of the mind. Once it felt it via one Selphid, the urge was so overpowering, so ravenous that the other Selphids began falling prey to it.
What was it? The Combined Mind lost its focus on the Second Mind’s remnants. Then it realized—the Second Mind was physically holding the other Selphids back from it with a telekinetic barrier. As if the remaining Selphids knew contact was—
It had done something. The Combined Mind searched through the memories of the Second Mind it now possessed. It did not have to search long.
An odd, three-day fast. Weakening, its thoughts jumbling and disassociating as…
As the Second Mind fell to ruin. No, it provoked the rampant hunger and let its body slowly begin to ravenously tear itself apart. Waiting. Waiting for—
The Melding. The Combined Mind felt a sudden surge of fear. It began to shed the Second Mind’s constituent parts as fast as it could, but it was too late. Contradiction had planned this. This—it had foreseen the Third Mind’s ambitions to meld.
And so it had done the one thing it knew it could do that could neither be stopped nor halted. It had taken something from Geneva Scala.
The flesh of A’ctelios Salash.
(You consumed it.)
Then the true horror hit the Combined Mind. And it realized why it was so hungry. Not just hungry—the tiny bit of flesh had been divided up amongst thousands of Selphids. Just enough to poison them with a hunger for Tombhome—
Not enough to sate them. And the Second Mind had slowly amplified that hunger until it had driven the individual Selphid minds insane. Only this core was untouched. And the Combined Mind had just—
Assimilated the hunger of A’ctelios Salash into its being.
(What have you done? You have killed us. Killed—)
(Yes. Yes, we did.)
A tiny group of Selphids rose out of the Combined Mind, separating from the writhing Selphids as the Mind slowly began screaming. They were eating each other.
(The flesh. The flesh!)
Geneva had an entire lump. Where had Calectus taken it? Suddenly, the Combined Mind had to eat. It was so—hungry.
(That? I burned that poison. There is nothing left. We are ended.)
A tiny orb of Selphids rose, barely a hundred, exhausted. The Combined Mind tried to strike at it—but it began screaming. Screaming, and the room shook as it slowly began drifting downwards. Its mental powers were weakening—Selphids sloughed downwards and began squirming around. Then—tendrils of them began rising.
Eating each other. Seeking—flesh. Any flesh would do. They surged around the room and into the tunnels. Thousands of Selphids, trying to cling to sanity. But the Mind was already—
The hovering orb of Selphids thought as it hung there. It was also dying.
(This Mind is no longer Contradiction. We are Redemption, as much as any of us will ever earn. Time to end this.)
Slowly, it reached out with all the force left to it. There was no other Mind left to stop it. Instead—thousands of screaming Selphids were descending into the Gathering Citadel. Flooding the hallways. Transforming into something else.
Redemption feared what it had felt gnawing on the edges of its sanity. But all it could do was this: it reached out to the place it had called a home. The fortress where great crimes had been done.
The Titan was still entering the citadel when he sensed the change. His forces felt the ground shaking first. They fell back, and the Titan began giving orders to prepare a bombardment. But he hesitated as Redemption reached out—
The Gathering Citadel began to rise. A twisting structure only a Selphid could appreciate rose from the earth, dark stone openings gaping and dirt and plants raining down as the Fraerlings and Tallfolk retreated.
Selphids in Redemption started dying from the backlash of the telekinetic strain. It didn’t matter. The Titan saw the citadel rising and saw multiple points of entry appearing. He pointed to the nearest one.
Was this help or a sign of something worse coming for them? His forces charged into the black openings, and Redemption kept lifting them all. It thought dimly.
(Now. Now we will end this unsavory tale once and for all.)
The Selphids in the Gathering Citadel knew something was wrong before it started rising. They had felt the Minds’ triumph—then anguish.
They were embattled with the Forgotten Wing’s forces on the top floor. Calectus was securing an arm to a Selphid who’d had it nearly chopped off. They all looked up, and this night grew from bad to worse.
“Is it the Titan, [Honor Guard]?”
Even with the Minds’ plans in place, Calectus hadn’t taken the Titan’s forces lightly. He and the Selphids had fallen back to the second line—and the [Guardians] had stemmed the attack of the undead and soldiers. But they kept pushing, and the Selphids could neither breathe nor hear easily.
The Titan knew them too well. Gas seemed foolish on Selphids—until you realized how small their actual bodies were. Selphids still had to breathe, and the gas worked on them faster than any other species.
Calectus turned his head, wishing more of the [Psychic Guardians] hadn’t turned traitor.
“I don’t know. Find one of the [Guardians]. Ask them to inquire with the Minds.”
One of the Selphids went running to find a [Guardian], and Calectus reached out with his own limited telepathy. He saw the undead burning as magical traps filled the hallway with flamethrowers, but a Fraerling [Mage] was already directing the soldiers to dismantle the traps.
With an enchanted pickaxe. The Selphids tried to fire on the warrior, but a roaring Draugr charged through the flames, and Calectus had to bring it down himself.
He ran the giant undead through with his glaive and pinned it to the wall, Rampaging to hold it into place. His voice was desperate.
“Minds? Are you there?”
He whispered, but the Gathering Citadel was oddly quiet. Not in sound, but in…thought. The presence of the Mind was gone.
Then—the fortress began to tremble. He felt it rising and lifted his glaive, yanking it out of the half-melted Draugr—then spun.
“We’re rising? Are the Minds doing that? The Titan? To arms!”
The other Selphids snapped to attention. They lifted their blades, but they had no idea where the enemy might be coming from. They stared ahead—and then Calectus heard another sound.
“The Titan’s forces are past the traps!”
“Brace for contact! What is that—”
It was coming from below. It sounded like…water? Or something else, higher-pitched. No—it was in the walls. In the marrow of his body. The [Honor Guard] turned his head uneasily and looked into the dark tunnel behind him. Then he saw the soldier he’d sent to find a [Guardian] running back.
“Who is? The Second Mind? The [Doctor]?”
“No. The [Guardians] are dead. They all collapsed.”
Calectus turned. He looked at Theilo’s advancing forces. Then behind him, into the deeper part of the fortress. Then he heard the sounds of Selphids fighting. Screams. And the screaming grew louder and louder.
The [Honor Guard] had served the Minds ever since they had hand-picked him to join the Bodies of Fellden. He was Level 38, and he had his enchanted glaive at the ready.
But nothing had prepared him for this. A dark mass began to flow down the hall, towards the Selphids.
“Enemies! Kill them!”
A [Mage] threw an orb of acid, but it barely detonated in the mass of whatever it was before it came on. They were black—twining—reaching for the Selphids in a huge mass, like a single organism. More began to flow from an opening in the wall, an air shaft. They squeezed out and dropped, and as the light caught them, Calectus saw what they were and recoiled.
“Stop! They’re Selphids! They’re—”
Selphids? Thousands of them were wriggling on the floor, writhing towards him. A sea of bodies. The Selphids inhabiting bodies stared at the Mind’s components. Then they heard the screaming.
A mass of Selphids engulfed the nearest soldier. He fell, trying to shake off his people, asking what was happening—then screamed as he realized they were devouring his body. And him.
The scream was mental and physical. Calectus felt a presence beating at his head.
Staring eyes. A city within the hollow pupils. A waiting home in the desert.
Flesh. Stilled hearts. Tombhome.
“A’ctelios Salash’s madness! They’re—”
A screaming Selphid [Mage] threw a burning orb of fire and burnt the Selphid bodies before they poured over him. Calectus moved. He whirled his glaive and chopped down a wall of the Selphids. The Minds!
More were coming. And screaming Selphids with bodies joined their number, possessed by the same hunger.
Calectus backed up, but he looked down, and to his great surprise, he didn’t see a leg. Just a mass of writhing Selphids. He swung his glaive, tried to use it to steady himself. Yet he was falling, and the [Honor Guard] screamed once. At the woman—the last legacy of the Minds.
The mass covered him—then blew apart as a sonic bolt struck them. Selphids convulsed, dying, and the [Honor Guard] looked up. His ruined body stared blankly up in relief as a figure halted.
“We’ve just encountered some kind of monster mass. Titan—it’s attacking the Selphids.”
Death-Commander Theilo looked down as Calectus reached up for him. A voice spoke through the speaking stone.
“We see it too. Barriers. Don’t let it touch you. Survivors, Theilo? Do they know what this is?”
The Rustängmarder looked down at the [Honor Guard]. He raised the crossbow and calmly reloaded it. The Selphid looked up, but those eyes searched for his honor…
Theilo shot Calectus through the chest. The Selphid began to melt from within as the Rustängmarder clicked another bolt into place.
“None worth mentioning, Titan. Soldiers, advance.”
“…I can’t sense the Minds.”
Deep in the basement of the Gathering Citadel, the Selphid-Geneva looked up, and her composure slipped. She stepped forwards—then felt the Gathering Citadel rise. She stumbled and put a hand on one of the gurneys where a body shifted. A Lizardwoman blinked up at the ceiling as the Alternate Geneva’s head rose.
“The Titan? I have to—”
She still had time, but she went hurrying for the door. Okasha was weeping, bottled again, and the other Geneva began to run—until a voice spoke.
“I can’t let you do that.”
The Selphid spun, and her eyes widened.
Geneva Scala was still alive? The [Doctor] was staring at her, immobilized by the straps. She should have bled out minutes ago with four arteries severed. Only…
The [Telepathic Healer] focused on the woman, and her smile twisted.
“Clever. [Hemostatic Pause].”
Geneva had halted her own blood loss with a Skill. She was as pale as a sheet, but—the other Geneva raised the scalpel.
“I don’t have time for this. What has the Second Mind done? You must have colluded.”
“I don’t know. I fear…people are dying. But I can’t let you go. Not you.”
Weakly, the [Doctor] tried to free her body. One of the leather straps jerked and twisted as her mind fumbled with the clasp. It was so funny that the other Geneva almost laughed.
“You—what are you trying to do?”
“Stop you. I swore never to hurt someone. But you—the Minds have imprisoned me. Made me their captive. Stolen my thoughts and twisted them into you. They can’t have my soul. Not you.”
One of the leather straps loosened, and Geneva actually pulled an arm free. The Selphid realized that Geneva was using her mind—and she was trying to lock down the other Geneva’s limbs.
Geneva’s mental strength was nothing compared to the Selphid’s. Contemptuously, the other Geneva walked over and lifted a scalpel. She cut Geneva Scala’s throat, and this time, the blood began pouring as the [Doctor] began choking.
“They already have you, Geneva. They already know you. Every memory, every embarrassing mistake and all you are. I’m proof of that.”
The Last Light grabbed the scalpel before it could go straight through her chest, into her heart. A blade was digging into her chest, but she kept it from sinking deeper. Her hand was already shaking—she was choking, her lungs filling with blood.
But—her eyes were staring at her clone, and Geneva clung to one thought. Even when they’d taken her memory of her father away. Even when they’d begun making her the [Doctor] they wanted. Someone who loved Selphids—
Even if it was one memory or a hundred—they couldn’t change her entirely. She was still the doctor. Everything she had lived and done made up Geneva Scala.
One memory altered her. But the [Doctor] stared her frustrated clone in the eyes. Her lips moved, trying to sound out the words.
“You can move my body and alter my mind.”
The tip of the scalpel was juddering with her heartbeat. Okasha’s jar was shaking. Geneva’s lips whispered as her mind strained against her opponent’s.
“I can’t defeat you. But I can still hold my beliefs.”
Her voice was soft and broken by defeats. Sorrows. Even so…the Selphid’s eyes focused on Geneva’s bloody lips.
“No matter what, I’ve still chosen this. It was my choice.”
Geneva Scala’s voice spoke in the Selphid’s ears. Geneva’s throat bled, a stain of red leaking down into her clothes. How was she speaking?
“And I have always chosen…”
The scalpel was plunging down with all the strength of galas-muscle, but it stopped, and the straining arm began to rise. Incredulous, the Selphid-Geneva put all her strength and weight into the arm, but suddenly, Selphid-Geneva was forcing it back. And she felt that the [Doctor]’s strength doubled, tripled—multiplied in strength. Almost like—
Then the Selphid heard a sound, and her arm weakened. She looked up, and a body moved. It whispered as a Lizardwoman raised her head. The voice was different. The body was different.
But the doctor’s head rose—and the Selphid heard a dozen voices whispering the same words. From a dozen different lips and perspectives, each one changed. But the same.
“…to be a doctor.”
The bodies sat up. The waiting vessels moved, and the Minds’ chosen basis for their army of clones was bleeding, choking on her own blood. The Selphid tried to plunge the scalpel down again, but a hand caught hers.
She looked into the gaze of an unsteady Beastkin, fur matted, body stiff from lying there—disoriented, but snarling.
“What are you—”
The other Geneva hurled the Selphid-Geneva back, and the Selphid stumbled. A clumsy paw went to close the bleeding, but it slipped.
So a Lizardwoman seized a needle and thread, then dropped it for a healing potion. The Beastkin tore off one of the straps, and another one snapped the scalpel.
“What have you done?”
The Selphid turned and saw more people getting to their feet. Geneva Scala, the one with the original body, looked up and saw.
“Everything you wanted.”
Geneva stared down at her hands, and they were a Lizardfolk’s. Then she looked up—and even sight was different. She gazed at what she remembered to be her face—and stumbled as she replied. Or some other version of herself did.
“We’re leaving. But you’re not.”
The Selphid searched for another scalpel, but a dozen telepaths tore it away. She had control of a body filled with galas-muscle—and she leapt at the first Geneva. The others grabbed her, trying to tear her hand away as she snapped a Drake’s neck.
The thrashing Selphid sent them flying. She was screaming.
“You can’t kill me. You’re not capable of it, even if you copied yourself a hundred times.”
They threw her down, but she kicked hard enough to shatter the ribs of another Human. The Gathering Citadel was shaking, and now they could all hear the mental screaming in the air.
They were struggling to hold the Selphid down as she rampaged. She rose and grabbed the original Geneva by the neck—she was lying where she had been freed, unable to move without help. A dozen hands grabbed the Selphid, but she knew she was right.
“You’re still the doctor. But I’m not. I am the Minds and Geneva Scala comingled.”
“Yes. You’re the only one who doesn’t deserve a body.”
Someone whispered in her ear. ‘Geneva Scala’ froze—and then she felt pain. She cried out and swung around, scattering Genevas, but it wasn’t them who was hurting her.
Okasha was in her veins. The Selphid was attacking her within her body—and Selphid-Geneva’s host body began to spasm. Until one of the Genevas called out.
“Okasha. Leave her. Help…me…up.”
Okasha slithered out as they brought her over to the original doctor’s body. She helped Geneva rise, and the [Doctor] flinched when she saw the other Geneva’s head come up.
…But her body just flailed around wildly when it tried to rise. One of the Genevas, a Dullahan, adjusted her head. She held a bloody scalpel and a hammer.
She’d cut the tendons and broken the bones. The other Genevas stared at her. She raised the hammer to bring it down on the other Geneva’s face, but a hand caught hers.
“No. I will take no lives. ‘The health of my patient will be my first consideration. I will not use my medical knowledge to violate human rights and civil liberties, even under threat’.”
A Geneva half-fish and half-Human whispered the same words that the others knew by heart. Yet the Dullahan simply tore her arm away.
“We serve more than humanity. The Minds were right.”
The other Genevas stirred, but the Dullahan tossed the hammer down.
“The bodies of the dead are already defiled by undeath. The dead I could cut apart and reassemble. Not the living.”
She looked around, and the first [Doctor] was shaking her head. Another felt at her face and jerked—a Drake coughed and stared blankly at the liquid dripping from her mouth. The Oldblood Geneva whispered.
“I should have never left the battlefield. Things were simpler there.”
Another Geneva disagreed. A Gnoll bent down, lifting a fallen Geneva to her feet.
“We have grown arrogant. We should have been a better person, first.”
“…The mysteries of this world. Find them. This entire planet is ailing. The Eir Gel. A scalpel cannot cut away the next pandemic.”
Pale as a wisp, another Geneva with feathers breathed within another body’s flesh. The [Doctors] looked at each other. Each one was different.
Each one was a different perspective. But they were all—the Selphid-Geneva made of the Minds stared up at them. In silence, they surrounded her until one broke the silence. The Dullahan looked up sharply.
“Something is wrong. The citadel is screaming. Run if you want to live.”
Geneva snapped at the others. They began to run for the stairs, but one of the Genevas bent down, reaching for the fallen Selphid.
She looked up for help, but the others were running. A second Geneva stopped, closed her eyes, and ran back to help her carry the Selphid-Geneva up. But the rest were running up the stairs.
How many were there? They ran up the stairs and stopped when they saw the Sixth Floor. It was a sea of black shapes, wriggling around. The first Geneva Scala stopped and bent down.
It latched to her hand and began trying to consume her. She tore the Selphid off her with a cry, and a mass of Selphids rose.
“No, this way!”
The doctors shouted at each other. They weren’t alike. One went pounding back to the basement—another group began running up the stairs, and more ran straight through the sixth floor.
The group heading up the stairs vanished as a torrent of Selphids fell, a wave of them eating everything in their path. The rest began to run as screaming Selphids fought crazed members of their kind. They looked up as the doctors ran, some stopping to drag Selphids to safety, others helping each other flee.
The entire damn Gathering Citadel had gone insane.
Niers Astoragon didn’t know what had happened. One second he was bracing for the Mind’s counterattack, the next, he was in the citadel, taking the Selphids by storm as they entered through the new entrances.
The next—a new foe had come out of the tunnels and begun attacking Selphids and his forces alike.
Selphids, forming some kind of living creature that ate everything it could see. They were screaming, and the Titan was calling his strike groups back.
“Form up! Form up and burn everything in the tunnels! I want walls of flame! Flood the openings with magma—”
“Titan, what about the [Doctor]?”
“Strike groups, delve and find her. Blockade every door you get to.”
He sent them into that hell, and they went. It always surprised him. Fraerlings riding Tallfolk were shooting wildly into the dark as Selphids lunged at them, bodies and masses.
If anything—it was easier than fighting the Minds. This crazed sea of Selphids could be blocked off. Yet it wasn’t like fighting monsters either. The screaming was mental, and Niers felt it even with his helmet on.
His soldiers were bleeding from their noses and eyes, and he saw a [Forcewall] implode. An avalanche of bodies covered a screaming Dullahan, but Fraerlings hit the armored [Soldier] with flame spells.
Burning, they yanked him out and tore Selphid bodies off his flesh as they dumped potions on the [Soldier].
“What are you doing? Pour mana into those [Forcewalls] or I’ll execute you here.”
Niers screamed at the [Mage], but the [Barrier Magus] protested.
“They destroyed my spell! They’re using telepathy!”
This crazed group of Selphids was still acting as a Mind? Niers whirled.
“Solid barricades—I want solid barricades and acid spells. No—fire and electricity. Strike groups, move faster! We are in danger of being overrun! Push forwards and secure that staircase!”
Eirnos and Gindal were sniping Selphids with bodies as they came charging towards them, but Gindal yanked down another Selphid’s arm.
“Some aren’t mad, Titan!”
Put them down! Niers almost shouted that, but he choked on the words.
“Contain them! Don’t let them near our soldiers, but don’t shoot them—or our strike teams! Treat them like they’re infected! [Volley Fire]!”
He was listening to the strike groups. One had already taken casualties. Another was silent.
“—found the [Doctor], Titan. Bringing her up—refuses to go without saving as many Selphids as—”
“Grab her and run. Strike groups, fall back! Target is acq—”
“Strike Group 4 has found the [Doctor]. She’s got a damn Selphid in her.”
“…What? Strike Group 2, confirm you have the [Doctor]? Nevermind that, get up here! At least one of the Minds is alive!”
Redemption could feel the Combined Mind dying. But it was slaughtering everything it came across, and it was gaining…cohesion.
The Second Mind hadn’t expected that. Yet it felt the Combined Mind reforming, scattered though it was. No longer a collective, but a kind of consciousness.
What was it becoming? A thought echoed up, and Redemption shuddered as it heard the thoughts.
A ravening hunger without end. A vision of a body lying imprisoned in the sands. Deep—stilled hearts. A prophecy.
The Combined Mind spoke. Whispers in the flesh, killing the Forgotten Wing Company’s [Mages], flooding the Titan’s forces as he screamed at his strike groups to get the doctor and evacuate through whatever door they could find.
(…the sleeper shall wake.
it shall devour the mind of Baleros and the blood of Izril
it shall eat the goodness of Terandria and the flesh of cloth
so that it might devour god itself)
Redemption tried to process the words and that certainty. A prophecy? It didn’t understand—but it copied down the words and the knowledge of this place.
None of what had been done, just the warnings. All of it. The despair, the folly of the Third Mind, and all this tragedy. Then Redemption reached out.
The backlash of lifting a fortress out of the ground was killing it. But it still had enough force left in its being to do what must be done.
(Descend into us.)
The Combined Mind was beginning to kill everything. It had all the powers of a Mind. This—this was the Second Mind’s mistake, thinking it could kill the Minds without creating something worse.
Ah, well. At least the Second Mind had assumed it could be wrong.
Redemption reached out as it sensed the last living beings who could conceivably flee heading for the exits. It felt for every other one of them and tried to open a gap.
…But it was time. It reached up and out. And the Mind screamed to the heavens at last.
(I am formerly the Second Mind of Baleros. Hear me, Minds of Baleros. Hear me, Emperor of Drath, King of Rhir, Demons, Ruler of Khelt, and Mages of Wistram. You, who pledged to watch us—we have breached the Minacien Wall. Great sins have been committed here, and A’ctelios Salash’s madness runs rampant through this Gathering Citadel. No more. Nevermore. Wake us from this dark dream.)
It reached out, and on his throne, the Blighted King sat up, heart pounding. The [Emperor] of Drath sat up from his meditations.
The leaders of Maelstrom’s Howling, the Iron Vanguard, the King of Khelt—the Keyholder of Samal—
They didn’t wait.
A Centauress, Gwelin Fellstrider, galloped to her armory and found the coordinates. She began activating a contingency as an Archmage opened a scroll with hands that shook. They had preparations for this day. Old spells stored away in vaults…
And they had used so many. The King of Khelt stared at the dissolving spell scrolls and wondered how many contingencies they had left.
Yet he still activated them. Redemption felt the spells focus on it, like a beacon. Below, the Combined Mind was still gathering its power. But even it should not withstand what was coming.
The last Mind in this place floated higher, and at last, exited the Gathering Citadel for the first time ever since it had been created.
A hostile wind blew over it and all the contaminants and dangers of a world beyond. No place for a Mind—and it wished it had eyes to see.
It looked out of the eyes of the other species, instead, and saw an orange glow. The night had not yet turned to dawn.
…Yet the sky was alight. A flaming sword burned through the skies from ancient Drath, and more spells flew in its wake. Burning meteors, and the sky crisscrossed with light as the rulers of nations, Demons and paradise alike, answered the Mind’s call.
Redemption hovered there, watching until the first spell touched the Gathering Citadel. Then—it felt able to rest.
“Not yet! Damn you idiots! Not yet!”
Niers Astoragon howled at the sky. He saw a flaming sword meant for a giant descend. Drath’s wrath lit up the Gathering Citadel like a torch. But Redemption—
It did not intend for a single part of the twisted Mind to escape. It was willing to damn its fortress to hell.
“Open a line to Drath and the Blighted Kingdom and—tell them to hold their fire!”
A bolt of lightning struck down, and Niers was thrown off Theilo’s arm. He got up and saw something coming through the sky. The Titan cursed and pulled something out of his pocket.
[No Magic, No Luck, No Skills, Only Strategy].
The Arrows of Razzimir winked out of existence—but more spells began to overload his Skill. Some of the incoming attacks didn’t even flicker.
He looked up—and a thousand arrows were raining down around him, turning whatever they touched to ash or stone. The Blighted Kingdom. Niers coldly pointed up.
“The Blighted Kingdom is beginning to attack. They are ignoring our hails!”
Eirnos screamed at the Titan. He spat blood from his mouth.
“Activate our Tier 7 scroll. [Superior Counter Fire]. Tell them to hold.”
The air filled with thunder as a volley shot back through the skies. The rain of death stopped—or rather, slowed. Eirnos had unrolled a scroll, and it activated as the Titan swore.
[Zone of Slow Time].
They had minutes. The Titan looked into the tunnels and saw dead Selphids. The undead—were fleeing. One ran, a Draugr, turning away from the fortress, and a mass of Selphids reached out—and crushed it into the wall.
Even Death-Commander Theilo stared into the dark mass as it slowly gathered. But the Titan, the Named-rank Adventurer, just spoke out of the corner of his mouth.
“Where’s the [Doctor]?”
“Two floors down.”
“Then we’re opening a path for her. Form up. An Old One’s coming.”
Eirnos slowly looked at him, and then half the soldiers fell to their knees, screaming. A twisting blade pierced through even Niers’ mind as his Selrite helmet cracked.
An orb floated through the corridors, gathering from the Selphids. A voice spoke in the dark.
“Or be buried here. Then, in a thousand years, someone digs you up and finds you. Minds, undead—Crelers—you all don’t tend to die with time.”
The Titan spoke loudly as the Combined Mind halted—one part of it. Even the slow time spell wasn’t affecting it much. He raised his crossbow and nodded to Gindal. The Fraerling leapt into the hands of a [Rogue] who vanished along one side of the corridor.
The Titan was bleeding from his eyes, but the Combined Mind halted. Slowly, Niers Astoragon saw Theilo moving his soldiers left. He reached into his bag of holding, and pulled out an object he’d taken from his armory from his days as a Named Adventurer. He loaded the bolt into his crossbow as he spoke.
“I’ve killed your kind before. Eirnos—[Redirect Spell] on my position.”
The Fraerling Iuncuta’s eye glittered. She removed her eyepatch, and an eye focused. The burning hail of Arrows of Razzimir overhead winked out—
A shining constellation of them shone in her gemstone eye, growing larger—then bursting out as the Combined Mind shielded itself. The Titan fired his crossbow and spoke.
“[Raise the Banner]. [Mark Target].”
…The hail of spells slowed for only a moment. For ten minutes, they halted, then resumed. A pillar of gold shone down and turned the very earth into pyrite. Flame, lightning, and other spells began to disintegrate even the Gathering Citadel.
Even the other Minds of Baleros joined in the wrath—but the armageddon touched down only after the last soldier left the citadel.
The Titan’s forces were falling back. They were burning the ground around the Gathering Citadel, trying to stop the Combined Mind from leaving—but they began fleeing in earnest now. They leapt onto carpets and teleported away. The Titan of Baleros himself emerged, half-supported by Gindal, wiping blood away from his eyes, nose, and ears. He stood there, speaking.
“I’ll have a report on what I saw later, Your Majesties. Later. Be kind to the Selphids. This was one group of Minds. One group…I am positive they were acting independently. No, I don’t know if it’s all…[Detect Life] spells on my position if you can. We got one part—a crater. Melt whatever you can, and I’ll make sure there’s no possibility there was another level beneath.”
He turned to look at the crater of liquified rock and soil as the spells channeled the hole in the earth deeper. Making sure there was no possibility anything could hide in the deeps. No dungeon.
No Old Ones. As for the Titan—he glanced at other figures in the distance, running away from the burning spectacle. But his eyes…were on only one group stumbling his way.
Geneva Scala emerged from the burning hellscape as the entire region began to disappear in the kind of destruction that Niers Astoragon had only seen a few times in his life. His promised wrath had come to the Minds of Baleros.
He’d left Fraerlings and soldiers alike there. The Titan looked up as he counted the gaps in his ranks, and his eyes fixed on someone being supported by several [Soldiers]. Eirnos looked up as she tallied the Fraerling dead.
“Is that her?”
Niers didn’t know. His strike teams had vanished below. Babbling about visions and multiple [Doctors].
“There are Selphids and other survivors fleeing into the forests. I’m either minded to round them up and kill them all—but there are local companies converging on the scene, and all four Great Companies are moving. Are there other survivors? You—are you Geneva Scala, the Last Light of Baleros?”
“Yes. It’s just me.”
“Was anyone held hostage in the citadel or were there just Selphids?”
Niers stared at a Human woman, burnt and wounded across multiple spots on her body. She walked oddly, and one of the Fraerlings had said she was infested. He was nodding to a Fraerling specialist, but the [Doctor] spoke.
“Just me. Me—I have a Selphid in me. Don’t kill her. She helped me escape. I couldn’t move without her.”
Eirnos made a sound. Niers’ eyes lifted, and a weary [Doctor] met his gaze. The Titan held up a hand towards his troops, and he turned.
The Gathering Citadel was burning behind her, and she looked so tired. So this was the Last Light of Baleros. He looked her up and down, and she stared at the small man who led one of the Great Companies of Baleros.
At last, Niers Astoragon nodded to her.
“It’s good to meet you, Doctor Scala. I’m sorry I didn’t get here sooner. Tell me—what would you like to do first?”
The [Doctor] looked at him, and her lips twitched, but she didn’t quite smile. She looked back and then at Niers, and then, she began to giggle. And laugh.
The Fraerling was polite and waved his people to get her a healing potion—he must have thought she was mad or lost for words at what she’d endured. But the truth was that Geneva Scala looked back at all the madness and her last prison, and despite it all, despite the madness of Minds—she stared at the burning fortress. Then at the Forgotten Wing Company and knew there would never be enough of her to find her friends, to make sense of this world and try to do something, thankless as it was.
But—she laughed with hysteria and mad relief until she wept—
She was no longer alone.
[Prisoner of the Minds class removed.]
[Condition: Haze of Delirium removed.]
[Condition: Corruption’s Accomplice removed.]
[Conditions Met: Surgeon → Psychic Surgeon Class!]
[Class Consolidation: Telepath removed.]
[Psychic Surgeon Level 37!]
[Skill — Greater Resistance: Mental obtained!]
[Skill — Enhanced Telekinesis obtained!]
[Skill — Dexterity of Thought obtained!]
[Skill — Enhanced Telepathy obtained!]
[Skill — My Oath Binds You Like My Conviction obtained!]
Author’s Notes: Well, I did a short first half and then edited a Volume 1 chapter. Then I wrote…21,000 more words.
It happens. Big chapters are almost inevitably impossible to write while maintaining editing. I’m unfortunately going to have to write this one off for edits. Which is fine so long as the chapter was good.
This is truncated a bit because we haven’t been with Geneva as long, but it’s hopefully still good. Horror doesn’t always work the longer it gets.
I’m tired after writing this one, but I’m more satisfied than not about how some parts went and yes, editing does help a lot. You should see what the changes are…well, mostly the fighting, which I wouldn’t have been able to do if I were the old me who wrote this and posted moments after with no revision.
The point is—I hope if you read this, it may have disturbed, but you found it worth reading for whatever reason. If you didn’t due to the warnings, well, I understand that. We’ll keep moving on. The world’s changing, and I wonder how it’ll change next? Ours, this one, whichever.
I hope you had a good Halloween and gave out as much candy as you ate.
Mind by Brack.
Geneva and a Selphid Friend by Butts.
The Hall of Minds by Enuryn.