9.40 GG – The Wandering Inn

9.40 GG

(A huge thank you to the medical readers who contributed to this chapter! Louis.EXE, Alan, Sishio, Hanna, Brian, and Arcane all added terminology and their expertise! Any details you note are wrong are probably my fault and should go in typos.)

 

 

She was no longer a [Doctor], the Last Light of Baleros. A 3rd year surgery resident aspiring to become a surgeon. She had seen more patients die under her hands than perhaps any doctor in her world who still lived.

She was no longer Geneva Scala, a young woman from Earth. An Italian-American living in Madison, Wisconsin. Once, a Level 36 [Psychic Surgeon], unwilling prisoner of the Minds of Selphids. Paralyzed without external help.

She was no longer Human. Her name was Geneva no more. She was alone.

She didn’t know what she was. But what defined her was…curiosity. About everything. She, this new woman with seven levels total, penniless and friendless, still believed she would be the one to do what no one had done and save a species. Save Selphids.

After all…

She was one of them.

 

——

 

—She nearly died that first day as ash was still falling from the skies. Died.

Not from the horrors that the Minds had unleashed and become, the ravening Selphids tearing apart intruder and friend alike. No—that was one kind of mindless rush, helping the others up, watching them—die—

A wave of slugs engulfing a screaming Human-Geneva—the original?—no—she had different skin, the wrong face—eating and eating and screaming mentally all the while.

Hunger. Hunger in the darkness—and Fraerlings.

Tiny folk, flying on bats, dragonflies, some of them shouting.

Get out! Get out! This citadel is going to vanish! The bomb—

One disappeared. Just disappeared as something streaked down. It cut through stone. It cut through the Gathering Citadel’s enchanted walls and the Selphids and the Fraerling, leaving only a spinning wing of the bat. A bolt of color so intense not-Geneva didn’t know what it was.

Only that it had come from above and blasted through everything. It kept going through the stairway they were climbing, through the basement down into the earth.

The lightscar was still in her eyes. The afterimage refused to go away. It seared her retinas, and the running not-Geneva realized it wasn’t vanishing even when she blinked.

It stayed there, a streak across her vision, as she ran. Ran up the stairs, arms and legs pumping, stumbling every now and then. The other Genevas fell behind, but she kept running and didn’t realize why.

“Wait—I can’t—”

Even a Gnoll-Geneva fell behind, and it took this one a second to realize—she had probably cleared six floors by racing up the stairs without slowing. Because, of course—she couldn’t feel her screaming muscles.

Her body was dead.

She was first out of the Gathering Citadel, running through one of the tunnels she recalled coming in through. She leapt out of the building but did not linger or go back, though the thought crossed her mind.

Selphid! Freeze!

A panicked Lizardfolk standing sentry saw her rush out and took her for a foe. He was armed with a flaming wand, and the first shot turned some of the ancient stone above her head liquid. So Selphid-Geneva turned and ran.

Wait—!

Then the [Mercenary] realized that would kill both of them and fled—because the sky was turning red with the firestorm coming down. More streaks of light flared down, and Selphid-Geneva looked up.

 

‘Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground.’

—Genesis 19:24-25

 

The words flickered in her mind. And she had been raised Catholic. Why now? Of all times? The woman put her hands to her head and felt nothing.

—Just a vague tingle. Not down her fingers. She stared at her hands and knew they touched her skull. But she couldn’t feel them.

She had no limbs. She had no—she felt wide. She felt like she was stretched. She began to panic—but the sight of all the hellfire coming down made her run and not process it. She looked back once, just once, thinking to go back in, only to see more of those arrows searing down where the entrance had been.

 

‘But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.’

—Genesis 19:26

 

She did not become a pillar of salt. But the lines—the lines criss-crossed her vision, like the slash-marks of some beast. They burned and burned; even when she stopped running, collapsing because her legs refused to keep working after three hours and slept—

They remained.

 

——

 

Sleep was tormented. That first night and day thereafter, Selphid-Geneva—as she thought of herself—felt like her entire life was being played back to her.

Like a VCR tape—only her entire life was the tape, and she was watching it in a blur that took a lifetime and mere moments.

VCR. Dead gods, she was getting old. They had passed DVD’s, and everything had begun going digital by the time she was in her residency. Although some professors hated the modernization and fiddling around so much that some still used slide-projectors.

Whatever worked.

Dead gods? Yes, that was…odd. Everything Selphid-Geneva remembered took on an odd tinge. Like a sepia film back in the old days, colored by…

The Minds.

They had done this to her. Done it to all the waiting bodies, which they intended to turn into Geneva-Clones but without the morality, agents that were only loyal to Selphids. The original Geneva—the real Geneva?—had split herself among them all and foiled the process.

So this woman knew and felt everything the original had felt. But she was also, simultaneously, part of her new body.

Selphid.

 

[Healer class obtained!]

[Healer Level 4!]

 

[Skill – Potions: 148% Efficiency obtained!]

[Skill – Basic Synthesis obtained!]

[Skill – Healer’s Intuition (Basic) obtained!]

 

[Selphid Telekinetic class obtained!]

[Selphid Telekinetic Level 3!]

[Skill – Basic Telekinesis obtained!]

[Skill – Lesser Mindward obtained!]

[Skill – Doubled Mental Presence obtained!]

 

A rush of voices—as if that omnipresent system were appraising her as a separate being and giving her…nothing at all, really.

She was glad enough to be alive not to quibble. Especially because she knew—she had seen—how many of them didn’t make it.

Did the real Geneva make it?

When she awoke, Selphid-Geneva felt sick. She was engulfed in…blackness? Nothing? And she felt stretched.

“Hello? What’s going on?”

She spoke. She knew she spoke. Selphid-Geneva raised her head, or tried to, and couldn’t move. A wave of fear overtook her.

Was she paralyzed? But no, she was a Selphid. So why? What…what happened?

“Hello? Did someone capture me? Please—I can’t see.”

Selphid-Geneva called out again, but felt no one around her. The last she remembered—and she could remember well thanks to the Second Mind’s training—was that she had collapsed in a forest.

“Is it night?”

She tried to stare around, but again…her head wouldn’t move. But something was moving. She felt her body move. Then Selphid-Geneva realized what was going on with a dawning horror.

I am a Selphid.

I can’t see. I’m in a Selphid’s body, and I can’t see.

Then she felt her body ‘spread’ so far and wide in every direction, in ways no Human body could imagine contorting.

Only the fact that the Minds had apparently accounted for other host bodies kept Selphid-Geneva from going into shock. She had what was a subconscious for Humans; she could spread, move, and control her body naturally. Without that, she would truly have been lost.

The problem was—without context, Geneva the Human was now a Selphid with no understanding of how Selphids interacted with their host-bodies or how to survive. Her sleep must have knocked out her instinctive connection with the corpse she was inside, and without it—

She was in grave danger. Selphid-Geneva’s first day became a true struggle for survival.

 

——

 

How did a parasitic—or symbiotic if you wanted to be charitable—species actually interact with the world? Science did analyze many other species to figure out the differences between them and Human physiology—everyone knew dogs had highly developed noses and poorer color vision, for instance.

But Selphids lived in modalities so devoid of Human logic that Selphid-Geneva was helpless for at least an hour before she realized she was interacting with the world like a Human.

In other words, she was trying to ‘see’ and feel her way around by touch. But Selphids did not see. To be more precise, what Selphid-Geneva thought of as ‘sight’ was more like a general sense of her body’s surroundings. It took her a moment before she latched onto the term for what was happening.

Proprioception. It was an ability Humans had—the five senses were a myth. Proprioception was the awareness of the body’s position in relation to itself. Even without visible sight, Geneva had a mental map of how she was configuring herself.

And even without sight, there was definitely some awareness of the space she was inhabiting. Her mind was making the analogy towards sight.

Chemical reading? It only made sense for a Selphid to forgo sight in places without light. It was very limited—like a local snapshot of what might be literal micrometers of space around her.

The problem was, this ‘sight’ extended across her entire body. So Selphid-Geneva’s mind was presented with not so much one unified vision as a kind of 3D map of herself twisted into what she began to realize was a depiction of a Human’s body.

Or rather, a humanoid’s internal nervous system. Only someone who actually looked at the Human body would instantly recognize Selphid-Geneva’s form taking on an almost perfect simulacrum of the real thing. Selphid-Geneva had a kind of sense of how her body was placed, and it fit everything. The problem was that sensing that many different inputs and the foreign form was overloading her mind, which was used to a Human form and inputs.

Arms, fingers, travelling up across the shoulders, most of her mass down the spine, spreading out to any conceivable muscle she might need. It was…interesting as much as overwhelming. Geneva’s ‘presence’ was dictated by how much mass she had in one area.

Unlike the regular body, which had muscles, nerves everywhere and could only add or subtract, Selphid-Geneva was a semi-fluid within the body, and she realized she had a great deal of herself along the spine and legs.

Because she’d been running? She was also twined around a lot of obstacles. All of this was so disorienting that Selphid-Geneva froze and tried to process it. When she finally worked out that she couldn’t see anything—because she was in a dead body—her next step was to try to control her body.

This was uncannily easy. Human-Geneva had always been good at one-tasking things. She was at best a limited multitasker. She could perform in an operating room in tandem with a team, but she could not carry on a conversation in a party while dancing.

…In her new body, Selphid-Geneva could perform the equivalent of moving each finger on her hand independently along with all her toes and wiggle her ears all without even trying. She had an incredible ability to subdivide her body’s capabilities mentally without losing track of herself.

This was mostly because Selphid-Geneva’s ‘body’ could configure itself to anything she wanted it to. Square? She could turn her body into a square. Hook? She could reshape her body like self-aware clay.

So this was how it felt to be a Selphid! Selphid-Geneva had a sense of her body’s stretchiness, and while she had no measuring tape, she reformed into one blob along the longest circuit she could find. She had to…push things out of the way or squirm through impossibly tight tunnels that she knew she could get through. She experimented, stretching, and wondered if a Selphid, like the long intestine, could become incredibly long if stretched out.

However—the moment she elongated too much, Selphid-Geneva felt a warning in her very core. She stretched and stretched and realized that if something were to pull her, her entire being might—split.

It was hard to articulate consciously. It was akin to how a Human looked down from a great height and felt the certainty that if they fell, they died. Or a desire when stretching an arm not to have the arm pull so far their entire body snapped. Pressure when resting weight on the eyes.

That kind of thing.

Wait a second, I know what that is. What is it called? The…the…it was one of the proprioceptors in the muscles.

It felt like decades since she’d been studying this, even if it had been, what, a year in this world? Technically, that was longer than an Earth year—but Geneva had observed that children and adults still conformed to Earth’s senses of time. An eight year old, despite being older than their Earth counterparts, looked like they were eight, not eleven.

Puberty should have hit far earlier unless lifespans are delayed due to the increase in years. It still doesn’t quite track logically why it’s identical. Is that due to magic or some other factors extending lifespans? Healing potions?

What was it called? She didn’t know. But the feeling was immediate, and that warning made Selphid-Geneva instantly stop this dangerous line of moving. When she finally gained a kind of understanding of her body, about two hours had passed.

Then—she realized she might have killed herself. For Selphid-Geneva now wanted to get up, and she knew a Selphid was helpless without her body. There was just one thing…

She no longer knew how to control her body. And she had no idea where anything was.

 

——

 

The time limit on a Human living or dying was about three days. Three days without water was your max. Without food? You could go weeks depending on how you cut back on moving, and in ideal areas without weather, temperature, or threats taking their toll.

Selphid-Geneva’s time limit was a lot lower than that. She was a parasite in a decomposing body. After an hour of feeling around in desperation, she realized two things.

The sun was rising. And—her body was being nibbled on.

She felt it. The minute vibrations of something eating or poking at the body were like mini-quakes to her, especially in whatever part of the body she was in. And the sun of hot Baleros, even in the fall or winter, could be just as deadly.

Some parts of Baleros never snowed over, and she had been in a humid jungle climate. Decomposition would be rapid and for her—fatal. The heat was already making her feel vaguely ill.

I have to regain control. Selphid-Geneva didn’t know how, but her instincts did. As she searched around, she felt like she came to—latch-points. Thin things in the body that she could pull just so to provoke a response.

The Selphid understanding told her there were countless latch-points for her body to use, and it was seamless; she would ‘twine around’ one and pull what she suspected to be muscle, or make it pull itself.

Good? Um…the problem was she had no context for what she was doing. So she kept exploring until the panicking Selphid-Geneva finally regained her scattered wits.

What am I doing? I’m a damn [Doctor]! Or was! She was a Selphid, yes.

She was no longer the original Geneva. Yes. But she was not the other Selphid-Geneva. The Mind-Geneva who had betrayed all her morality and been twisted by the failure of the Minds and breaching of the Minacien Wall.

Everything that made up Geneva Scala was in her, and that included her knowledge of anatomy and her desire to…

Help. 

In this case, it was herself. So Selphid-Geneva stopped, and took the most scientific approach she could.

 

——

 

The highest probability was that she was along the spine. To practice ‘stretching’, she had gone through the longest part of the body, so she probably was either in a leg, or most likely, lying along the spine and legs and perhaps even close to the head.

Without orientation, she needed to view the body as a foreign land, but one that had landmarks. The first thing Selphid-Geneva then did was to divide up anything she encountered into categories.

‘Hard’ and ‘soft’. She could push aside…whatever was around her to explore an area on the Z-axis before continuing down the Y- or X-axes. Because she was operating in three-dimensional space, Selphid-Geneva had to orient herself first to understand which way she was going.

Happily, because the Human body was a largely vertical one, it did not take Selphid-Geneva long to understand which direction always seemed to have an infinite ‘up’ and ‘down’. Geneva’s training once again helped orient herself.

Not ‘up’, but superior, towards the head, or inferior movement towards the legs. Anterior, posterior, distal—she subdivided into each section of the body and combed it, trying to piece together the immediate surroundings with her own mental image of her body via proprioception and her own understanding of the Human anatomy.

An area with ‘hardness’ meant it contained a bone or something she could not shift easily with her Selphid body alone. All softness indicated to Selphid-Geneva she was in some organs.

By this understanding, she built a mental picture of her surroundings and realized she was likely in the lower back, specifically the retroperitoneal space where organs, spine, and nerves resided. Subdividing outwards found two routes—legs. Thus, the inferior direction. Therefore, the opposite was superior, and she had finally reoriented herself.

Selphid-Geneva didn’t know all of how Selphids worked, but living with Okasha and Idis had given her a lot of understanding. They needed the head. Some warriors like Calectus could fight ‘senseless’, as Selphids called it, even with the head of a body chopped off, but Selphids considered that to devalue most bodies greatly.

Ergo, they needed the eyesight and total connection a head gave them. Because all the nerves did run up through the spine into the brain, it made sense. Selphid-Geneva had heard some Selphids just ate the grey matter in a host body, so she suspected it was purely the nerves the Selphids needed. They overrode the central nervous system and took command of the peripherals.

The ultimate parasite. She shuddered and wondered if there was any way to stop a Selphid infiltrating a body short of pure physical trauma. Surgical removal? Nigh-impossible because they were able to stretch so far. Magic or telepathic ability—she pushed those thoughts aside for a moment. She was a Selphid now, and she needed to survive.

Based on the knowledge she’d gathered, locating the hard spine and finding all the ‘latch-points’ inside was easy.

In theory, shouldn’t I be able to control the entire body from the spine? She tried…but it became far more difficult to move the body from where she was. Like…trying to pick out a single strand of thread in a piece of rope as long as your arm. She suspected she might need to spread out across the entire body to make it work in her inexperienced state.

Plus, it was abundantly clear that she needed to move fast. First was the distinct sense she was no longer alone in her body. Something foreign had entered it. Second—

The body was undergoing rigor mortis rapidly. It was like a fire alarm ringing in Geneva’s head, and entirely from whatever Selphid instincts she had. Every muscle was hardening up, seizing as the body’s control was lost.

To Geneva, it felt like she was siphoning the…fuel out of each muscle? Regaining control over it and undoing the damage. But she had to work fast; the longer she took, the more the entire body began to spiral out of control. What a fool she’d been to detach herself!

Selphid-Geneva realized her body could keep expanding down the legs while following more connections to the arms and shoulders due to her multi-tasking ability. Doing one thing at a time would only slow her down, so she began to seek the head while the rest of her moved in every direction.

Now she was certain the body was being eaten. Selphid-Geneva ran into the intruders at the same time as she found the skull and began trying to take control.

Her body ran into a cluster of tiny things in one leg. They had pierced the skin and were devouring…well, they recoiled when she felt the change in air.

Air, a harsh thing. Wind? It felt…dangerous to Selphid-Geneva on multiple levels. There was an unpleasant quality out there, as if contaminated gas were everywhere. To her Human sensibilities, it felt like entering a miasma of dangerous fog she had to destroy. And it was also drying her out.

She needed water. A semi-fluid Selphid could not dry out. In fact, Selphids arguably needed more water than Drowned Folk. Selphid-Geneva realized this fact as the things eating her body recoiled from her—then decided she was food too.

They began to try to eat her.

“Aah! Stop! Stop!”

Selphid-Geneva recoiled, retreating, but they came in, tearing pieces off her. It hurt. It didn’t hurt in the way pain did, but it felt like a tiny part of her vanished with each loss. That—was a terror she had never felt. So—instinctively—she struck back.

She grabbed the first intruder, covering it with herself and realized it was fragile, had an exoskeleton and legs—and identified it in the moment before she crushed and absorbed it.

Ant.

They were just…ants. And Selphid-Geneva had just killed and eaten one. She processed their remains fast after engulfing them and spat them out. Then she froze.

I just killed something.

Not a sentient species.

She hesitated—and the rest of the invading ants nibbling on the corpse decided to attack. Selphid-Geneva’s frozen nature as they bit at her turned to a terror of losing parts of her memory, her self. That felt like the Minds. And she had another thought.

I am no longer a [Doctor]. I am a Selphid. For better or ill—

She began eating the ants.

 

——

 

Selphids did not enjoy eating ants. Selphid-Geneva found that out about eight minutes after routing the infestation trying to gnaw on her leg. Mostly by finding Selphids could puke.

It was less like a bodily reaction with a stomach, more like feeling unwanted components swirling around in her and ejecting them. It still felt awful, but it was a selective ejection.

Also, Selphid-Geneva was learning more things about herself. She did not regard destroying the ants as breaking the Hippocratic Oath at this point. They were not Antinium, and…well, to be fair, if she met a doctor who thought eating meat was the same as violating their sworn duty to their patients, she might have laughed at them.

Survive. Selphid-Geneva’s first action as she fiddled around the head was to actually repair the damaged body. She did this, again, on a kind of instinct mixed with her knowledge of bodies. She tried to close the gap the ants had chewed into the leg at first and found countless serrations.

But without thread or needle, how did you close…? Selphid-Geneva recalled something Okasha had once said and ‘spat’ into the lacerations. They were probably only tiny cuts, but to her, they seemed gaping. Yet, with a bit of effort, she could produce a liquid that closed the wounds. Like there was an unlimited supply of liquid duct tape in her body.

Well, imagine how much spit it would take to seal a window. Each sealant production took a bit of Selphid-Geneva’s precious fluid supply, and while the ants had given some of that back to her—yuck—she doubted she wanted any large wounds in the body.

They would be back in force if she knew ants. Or something bigger to eat this nice dead corpse. So Selphid-Geneva was rapidly feeling around the head. And then, at last, she found a ‘latch-point’, twisted into it—

And sight was on. Or rather—Selphid-Geneva saw the red light of her eyelids.

“Oh, come on.”

 

——

 

“I’m in the head. Let’s see. Twelve cranial nerves. CN2 controls eyes. But I’m going to need CN3, 4, and 6 to move them. This is ridiculous. Memorizing the twelve cranial nerves pays off now?

She had a good laugh about that, but it was true! Once Geneva was in the head, things began to move a lot more smoothly.

Finding the oculomotor nerve, CN3, to open the eyelids was easy. Remembering that the facial nerve closed the eye was funny, and it took Selphid-Geneva a long time before she could turn her head and stare around the tilted forest floor.

The hypoglossal nerve controlled the tongue, while the facial nerve controlled the closing of the eyelids, but the cervical rootlets controlled many of the head motions—those came from the spinal cord. The harder Geneva thought about it, the less easy it was to do.

It was like a wire game where you had to recall which nerve controlled which function—and to a Human, piloting this body would have been incredibly, insanely difficult to do consciously.

As it was for Selphid-Geneva…until she realized that her subconscious was doing a far better job than she was. She also realized that even if she could have resided in the head and taken control of the body, spreading out across this form was essential for multiple reasons.

The first was to manually repair the effects of the body’s lack of a functioning brain. Undo the muscular stiffening, perform spot repairs, and keep the body free of pests. The second was that, like she had observed, even for a Selphid, nerves could be packed together, and it was easier for her to go to each spot and take control from there, rather than rely on the central hub. Like being on the spot, rather than going through a middle manager.

When Geneva finally managed to open her mouth, she tried to speak via the laryngeal nerves.

“H—a—rrr—”

She couldn’t make a sound! Why? Oh. Selphid-Geneva felt the vibrating of the vocal cords but…

No air. Right. This body wasn’t breathing.

Twenty more minutes before Selphid-Geneva got the lungs pumping. She had to find the exact nerve…phrenic, in the neck. But then she promptly stopped them because there wasn’t any blood in this body. It was actually fairly liquid free, and she realized with growing alarm as she gained ground, taking control again, this was a problem.

Selphids drank all the blood of a body. They filled it up, and like a good parasite or symbiote, replaced a lot of bodily functions, like keeping the body moisturized. Okasha had often said, along with Idis, that Geneva was an ‘easy host body’ because all her functions were intact. Whereas a long-dead corpse…would continue to decompose.

She was supplying the muscles with nutrients and oxygen, and in her absence, the body was continuing to turn to mush. In this case, only the preservative techniques of the Selphids had helped the body survive the several hours Selphid-Geneva had abandoned running it. But even so—like a building left to rot, she had done a lot of damage on accident.

“Up. Up…there we go. I…am…breathing. I am thirsty. I need water—can I repair this body with food? How do I eat?”

Three hours and thirty-eight minutes after she woke up, on the first day of the rest of her life, Selphid-Geneva sat up. In that sense, of all the others, her escape from the Gathering Citadel was hardest by far.

But who had made it? She found herself in a forest near a local ant-hive, some of which were biting on her clothing; a few daring scouts had made it up the leg of her pants and begun eating in around the ankle. She brushed off the bugs only when she saw them and then felt at herself again.

Nothing. Selphid-Geneva had only the vaguest hint of touch even linked into the nerves. She…felt nothing. She only realized a centipede had been eating into the nape of her neck when her moving hands dislodged it.

She smelled nothing. The nose wasn’t returning much. The nasal passage had rotted.

She tasted nothing; the tongue was just movable, but the taste-buds had long since died. She could hear best of all; cochlea, eardrum, and ossicles were all intact and hadn’t been damaged much. The eyes, when opened, were fairly good. They were blurry when she had first opened them, but again, as soon as her body reached them, they began to adapt and translate the vision into her mind.

She felt like a ghost in someone’s body. Though she could control it—though she was a Selphid within it—she was also more ‘Human’ when she possessed the body fully. A close approximation of the woman she had been all her life.

But she had no—senses.

There was a certain famous movie about pirates that Geneva Scala had once watched where the crew was cursed to a life as undead beings, unable to enjoy life’s pleasures. Immortality at a cost.

This—was the reality of it. It felt so appalling to Selphid-Geneva as she stumbled into a world of sunshine and smoke—ash still drifting down—and saw the bright colors but felt nothing of it; not the wind nor the leaves crunching beneath her bare feet nor wounds nor—

So this was what they felt. Selphids. No wonder they hungered for fresh bodies so much. No wonder Okasha and Idis…Selphid-Geneva Scala touched her chest.

“What a high price to pay for freedom. But I didn’t pay it. I’m not even Geneva Scala. Who am I? For what purpose was I brought into this world?”

She almost screamed. She almost panicked before she remembered another famous movie that had once cited those lines. Then she laughed. She laughed and realized she still had humor. And when she saw the Forgotten Wing company wearily inspecting the ruined Gathering Citadel—when she saw that familiar face—her face on a limping Human’s body talking to a tiny Fraerling—and hid—

She knew all was not pointless after all.

 

[Healer Level 5!]

[Skill – Perfect Recall (Medicine) obtained!]

 

That night, as Geneva Scala slept in the forest, she heard a voice. Then she woke up and began laughing.

“Medicine? Medicine? That’s so—generic.”

Inaccurate, too! She opened her eyes wide, then shouted.

“Golgi tendon organ! That’s the feeling and sensation of overstretching a tendon. Of course!”

She covered her face—then went back to sleep. The most powerful Skill any student could wish for…and here she was. But she felt she was already changing from the Geneva she knew.

For the better? Or worse.

 

——

 

Two days later.

 

“Hey. Hey, spawnling. Is this your first body? What are you doing walking into town looking like that?”

Winter was upon Baleros. Not that you’d ever tell amidst the endless jungles. It was still humid, and visitors during the winter called Baleros ‘hot and muggy’ on warm days. They should see the summer.

Not that it had begun to snow yet. Nor had Erin Solstice as of yet changed the world by showing them Zeladona’s Trial of Blades. But she had just announced it, and all the scrying orbs were showing her announcement.

—Few were even bringing up Selphids. The Gathering Citadel’s destruction? Virtually unknown to the rest of the world.

Selphids knew, though, so they were very jumpy; the ones in the local town of Soxet, a stone’s throw away from the place where one of the Gathering Citadels had been torched, was abuzz with rumors.

The few Selphids that were in town were not keen on adding to the wariness. One of them therefore grabbed the woman walking into town. She jerked.

“Hello? I’m sorry, what?”

Spawnling, what are you doing? You’re not in any shape to—are you a vagabond? A survivor of—just get over here! There!”

The angry, dead Lizardman had on a rather thick vest and heavier clothing than was warranted for these temperatures, but it protected his body, and the clothing was nice and red with a rare white mink fur trim and black slacks. It didn’t wear out, so he could use it for at least a few months, and it was proof against bugs and other vines and such that would scar his flesh.

He’d gotten it for a song, too. Someone had apparently died in said vest…which didn’t bother him one bit.

But the ragged young woman who walked into town, barefoot, with clear holes in her flesh and smelling of—he slapped something on her shoulder, and his grip was painfully strong.

It might have been too aggressive for another species, but he knew she could barely feel it. What he slapped on her was a green sprig of eight little leaves tied together pinned by a needle.

The needle, incidentally, was halfway deep into her arm.

“Hey. What did you do that for?”

The woman looked worried, as if she thought he were hurting her. But the other Selphid snorted.

“Don’t pretend you’ve got any nerves left there, idiot. You smell like a corpse. You’re making us all look bad. Present for the manyfolk or they’ll get upset.

She touched her nose and looked so incredibly stupid he grabbed her, practically ran her over to the only Selphid-bar in town, and threw her in before the gagging Lizardfolk and few Centaurs could call for the local militia.

“Domene-domeix. Who have you brought in today?”

Domene-domeix, or ‘Dom’ as he was referred to outside of Selphid groups, glanced up as a Naga bartender with a fresh body wrinkled up his nose.

“Spawnling or an idiot who can’t present, Teyis. You think they smell bad now? I had to stick a Charm of Scent in them just to get them here. Spawnling, sit. What in the name of gallbladders happened to you?”

“I—I’m sorry. I just survived an accident. I didn’t realize I smelled.”

The young Selphid said, looking slightly shocked as a few Selphids glanced over. Lizardfolk occupied the bar too—but were here mostly for the cheap drinks, which they would take elsewhere. It wasn’t just the dislike of Selphids; seeing so many bodies in states of decomposition really just didn’t put you in any mood to eat. Not to mention the smell from the poorly-maintained ones.

A Selphid bar was not uncommon. Selphids could eat at any restaurant the manykind had—but it was always nice to have someone who charged you for a meal you’d eat at prices you could pay.

In other words, a quarter of the serving one of the manykinds would eat, even a small Lizardfolk, and all mashed up with no sense of taste as the manykind understood it. Some presentation maybe, but when it was being digested, who cared?

Unless you were trying to fuel a fresh body—and that was a chore—a Selphid didn’t burn as much energy as other species by far. They could drink and eat less, like Fraerlings.

This new Selphid looked like she needed both food and a new body. Her feet were the worst; two days of walking barefoot without skin being regenerated had torn them up, and they were beginning to stink like the rest of her. A corpse in the sun walking through mud and in a jungle’s heat?

“Gaah. She stinks, Domene. I wish I didn’t have my new body right now! I might have a scent-potion. Sit her down.

Teyis retreated, trying to plug the Naga’s scent glands with one clawed hand. He was the most important Selphid in the town.

You could tell for a few reasons. First, he ran this bar, which meant most Selphids would come and reasonably report to him. Any community of Selphids needed someone like that.

Second, his body was in great condition. New, exotic as a Naga—and in great condition. These two factors made up the worth of any body, and only the richer and higher-level Selphids got those in a limited community.

Just like Dullahans valued armor, Selphids ranked themselves by body. But they had a lot of rules that most of the manykind never heard about. And right now, this new Selphid was breaking a bunch of them.

“I’m sorry. I was lost. I was involved in some—trouble. Bad trouble. My name is…”

Domene clapped a hand over the woman’s mouth and hissed at her. He wore a twelve-month Lizardman’s body, but in decent condition since he’d had it almost since the day the owner had passed. His senses were about half-normal, but that was excellent given the time span.

“You little idiot. Stop saying that loudly. And if you’re half as stupid as I think you are, Minds educate yourself and don’t use your real name! Do you want to get us all in trouble?”

The new Selphid stopped, blinked, and then focused on the people Dom was looking at. Namely, some Lizardfolk pinching their noses and waiting for some cheap mugs.

Teyis reappeared loudly with pewter mugs and filled them extra-high with foam on top.

Here you are! Sorry about the newcomer; we’re sorting them out. Remember, it’s copper back if I get the mug. No cracks!

“Thanks, deadman!”

“Thanks, Ixten!”

The Lizardfolk chorused—and one spoke the name of the dead Naga’s body. Then her face screwed up.

“I’m sorry. I know he’s d—”

“All fine. All fine. Enjoy your drinks.

Teyis’ smile didn’t slip, but he let the Lizardfolk pull back and turned too quickly away from their stares. It was hard wearing the body of someone that people had liked, and Nagas were beloved by their Lizardfolk counterparts.

“Now then. Let me see to this smelly youngster.”

He spoke too-loudly, and then he and Domene pulled the newcomer into one of the back rooms. Only then did they both look at each other and grab the rotting young woman’s arms.

“Alright. Now, let’s—”

Domene began with his Lizardfolk mouth but continued it as his body breached skin, and his actual, Selphid body slithered into one of the wounds on the young woman’s arm.

“—talk about this now! Who are you, and if you have anything to do with the Gathering Citadel, say it now! But be warned—the Minds hold little sway with us right now. This is a disaster, and you’re either coincidental or involved, spawnling!

“What are you doing?”

The young woman yelped and nearly yanked back from the two Selphids’ grips as they entered her body. But she was being held, and they shouted at her.

“Are you trying to start a fight?”

Teyis roared and entangled her. He gave the Selphid a buffet along nine entire sections, and Domene gave a far weaker ‘push’, akin to a hard shove.

“Stop fussing, spawnling. We can’t talk in the open, and [Silence] spells are the last thing we need. Who are you?”

“I—I am Elizabeth Scastein. Or did you want a fake name?”

“Minds, that’s not a Selphid name. Who are you?

 

——

 

Selphid-Geneva’s first encounter with Selphids in her new body was…shocking, but not as unpleasant as it would have been for a Human.

Being ‘invaded’ by other Selphids was not an intrusion since she was wearing a shell for a host anyways. It was probably akin to someone stepping into your house. It could be personal, but they were clearly agitated.

As for being struck by the other Selphid—she had forgotten they had levels and classes on their own! Even if it translated to their bodies, whomever Teyis was, when he’d rammed his form into hers, she had gotten the distinct impression he was stronger than she was.

Her name, incidentally, was an homage to the two things she’d thought of. Lacking a name like Geneva, and not wanting to endanger the original, she had come up with a few fake ones and tried them on.

Scastein was a combination of ‘Scala’ and ‘Frankenstein’, a fitting blend. As for Elizabeth? Well…Selphid-Geneva had thought of calling herself ‘Marie’ or ‘Marie Curie’ after one of the most famous female medical practitioners to ever live, but she’d had the feeling everyone might do that.

Elizabeth Blackwell was another famous woman, so Selphid-Geneva had stolen that first name. She wasn’t sold on the new moniker, first or last. She wasn’t good at coming up with names.

“Well, ‘Elizabeth’, you’d better have a good reason for not presenting properly. The Lizardfolk here got wind of the Gathering Citadel’s destruction, and every settlement in the region is whispering about the Minds and the Forgotten Wing company and casting eyes at us. You are from there, aren’t you?”

The two Selphids pressed in, both physically and in a way that Elizabeth would have described as someone leaning over and staring at you if she were still Human. It was beyond handsy—the feeling of two other species in such close proximity.

However, it did not feel like inappropriate sexual conduct, more like general closeness. Which she was glad of—then Elizabeth realized she might not even technically be ‘female’ in a biological sense since Selphids had no variance in sex. Also, and this was funny—the way one of the two was prodding her rather reminded her of her heritage.

Selphids, like Italians, might be rather physically affectionate in private. And wasn’t that a weird thought?

The Selphid-Italians were waiting for her response. So the first real struggle Elizabeth had to deal with was…what did she say?

The truth? She was no fool. The truth could set you free—and it could also get you killed. The truth of what the Minds had done was horrific, and it also put her in danger. The truth that she was a copy of Geneva Scala was reason enough to kill her—or treat her without rights.

What would happen on Earth? She could only imagine, cynically, that if any government got a hold of her, she would vanish, never to be seen again. The ethics and debate over the morality of clones would come, and it would probably result in their status as people being recognized—after countless clones had been killed and dissected while the debate raged on.

She was…deeply cynical, she realized. Geneva Scala was that after so long of seeing the Minds and the deaths she had been unable to prevent. But Elizabeth?

There was a part of her that was fascinated with all of this. In fact, she was copying the other two Selphids. Mimicking the poking they were doing to her and getting slapped back—probably because she was doing the equivalent of trying to intimidate them.

I am free. I saw Geneva Scala survive. Poor woman. She can’t walk without Okasha. She has all the levels. Forgotten Wing has her.

Let her be the Last Light of Baleros. What a relief not to be alone. Therefore…

Elizabeth replied slowly.

“I—was at the Gathering Citadel. The Minds, all the Selphids—the [Psychic Guardians] are all dead. I think so, at least. The Minds went crazy, and I think the Forgotten Wing company fought them. But they were all wiped out by a—a bombardment from the skies.”

Domene and Teyis froze, then began jabbering questions.

“So you were there! [Psychic Guardians]? Teyis, what is this one talking about—you’re young as can be, too!”

“Quiet, Domene. This is something only an older Selphid should know about. Dead gods. Minds, I can’t think—no. No Minds. We need a conclave. Grab everyone you can without presenting a bad side. Now. The manykind don’t need to hear about this. But before that—”

The other Selphid was stretching, and Elizabeth realized Teyis was following her around the body. Twining around her like someone in a sleeper hold.

To lock her down, she realized. She tried to dodge, but he just ‘grabbed’ her, and while both were infinitely malleable, there were weaknesses she realized. Teyis seized Elizabeth’s body where she was elongated, like someone performing a joint-hold; if she stretched, she might snap at these critical junctures.

“Before that. You, Elizabeth. Did you have anything to do with what the Minds wrought? What happened there?”

She held still. The Selphid hesitated, then spoke.

“I…did not do what the Minds did. They had the Last Light of Baleros prisoner, and they breached the Minacien Wall. One of the Minds sacrificed themselves to let Geneva Scala escape. I—I’m a new Selphid. I don’t know how anything works. The Minds created me in an attempt to make new Selphids from nothing.”

The two other Selphids were still as they heard all this. At length, Teyis shifted and spoke.

“Domene. The others. And…dead gods.”

Domene agreed as he returned to his body.

“I know, right? I don’t even think we need a truth stone. That is the worst lie I have ever heard in my life.”

“What? But I was telling most of the truth—”

Elizabeth began, but there was a lot about Selphids she really didn’t know about. For instance, lesson one about Selphids?

Reproducing and making new Selphids was not an issue the Minds cared about. The Wasting, yes. New Selphids?

Not really.

 

——

 

The Selphids of Soxet were helpful, valuable members of the community in cases like Teyis. Yes, you had individuals who could cause trouble, but Selphid doctrine insisted on having a good relationship with any of the manykind they were near for long periods of time.

Manykind—it meant any species other than them. In front of them, you ‘presented’ well. That meant you kept your body from smelling, didn’t do anything to alarm them, and didn’t discuss anything untowards.

There was an entire world behind the scenes of Selphid culture, and a lot of that culture revolved around fear. They had once been nearly wiped out after the Selphid Empire collapsed. That prejudice from the manykinds was alive and well, and a reason why Selphids had little presence outside Baleros.

“Baleros. Home to the Beastkin. Lizardfolk and their Nagas. Centaurs. Dullahans. Gazers. And Selphids. We have more unique species than any other continent. By contrast, Izril’s got three. They used to have Harpies, which made four. Terandria’s got Humans, Half-Elves, Dwarves. No more Giants or half-Giants. No more Dryads. No more Halflings. No more…Chandrar, the same. The Djinni and Jinn are gone. Each continent loses species. That is the lesson, spawnling. It could be us next. Dead gods…six Minds are dead. Maybe this is our last era. The Gnolls, us—who’ll be first to disappear?”

This dour statement explained much of the Selphids’ way of life. It came from Teyis and was accompanied, to Elizabeth’s rather surprised amusement, by a chatter of voices.

Teyis, don’t say it like that! I’ll cry!

No, I will! Give me the tear ducts!

Stop fighting! You’re going to break the body, and we’ll all be in trouble—

“Get the spawnlings out of here, someone.”

Three voices came from one body. And the fighting little Selphids—spawnlings was what they called children—stopped as a primary Selphid took over.

“Sorry. They’re almost ready to start their own bodies, but they’re a handful. And their parent is too busy running a bar to instill some much-needed discipline into them.”

A Centaur crossed his arms as he trotted back and forth, and Teyis avoided the look. The other Selphid, Agoeith, gave Teyis a weary glare as the body, which housed multiple Selphid children—no less than fourteen, apparently—and their caretaker sometimes twitched with one of the Selphid children pulling a nerve and being scolded.

A nursery. Elizabeth was horrified as a Human and entranced as someone studying this unique culture. Selphid biology was still largely foreign to her—and she was a Selphid!—but she had picked up enough to understand their life cycle in reproduction.

As asexually reproducing beings, Selphids could reproduce by themselves, but almost always did it in pairs. Larger groupings were also rare; she wondered if they took after other species culturally?

Both ‘parents’ contributed genetic material, which was their own body, to create a third mass that would subdivide into little Selphids. A spawning could create over a dozen Selphids, easily, which explained why the Minds were not concerned with making new Selphids.

Keeping the Selphids alive and free of the Wasting and finding enough bodies for them was the far greater challenge. Even in bloody Baleros, bodies were not in such great supply as to let Selphids waste them.

Thus, even Elizabeth’s body was being ‘fixed up’ as someone spread an unguent over the exterior and a Selphid [Embalmer] did the same job from the inside, scolding Elizabeth all the while.

“It’s practically rotten. We’re going to have to suck the moisture out and then hope nothing rips once we preserve it. It’s that or you start growing fungi and attracting flies—you’d better take care, you little spawnling. You find an egg, you get rid of the infestation right away. That’s how you get maggots.”

“Wh-what do I do with the eggs?”

“Eat them? Not my taste. Just eject them, otherwise.”

Selphids had, uh, an interesting palette too. They would happily devour component parts of the bodies they entered. But the thought of eating more insects made Elizabeth queasy.

She was patently uneasy around the Selphids, whom she associated with the Minds. And they were simultaneously too welcoming and too alien at the same time. They treated her like a ‘spawnling’.

Nevertheless, Elizabeth was already making use of their help. One of the Selphids grunted or made a wet expression of air bubbles as they turned over a set of sewing needles.

“Here. Is this a [Healer] thing now, using needles?”

“Where’s the thread? I would like soap and hot water, please.”

Beth inspected the needles and then turned to Teyis. The affronted Selphid frowned.

“You’re giving a lot of orders, newcomer. Is it essential for you to have this right now?”

Elizabeth’s head came up.

“It is if you want me to help when someone’s wounded. If I need to find this later, it’s too late.

“And you think you can sew someone up like a [Saw Doctor]?”

The Selphid was incredulous, but in this, Elizabeth was no uncertain amateur. She snapped a piece of thread with her hands.

“I don’t think, I know. I need better thread than this. And I’ll need a sharp blade. Daggers work, but there are better tools. Healing potions are no longer being made, right?”

Teyis glanced up as some of the other Selphids gathered around. They seemed surprised by her tone of authority, but after Agoeith nodded, they diffidently went to get her what she needed. Teyis replied to Elizabeth directly.

“That’s what we’ve heard. The Eir Kelp Island is gone. Some tragedy at sea around the time Khelt made that fuss.”

Elizabeth looked up briefly. The Selphids needed potions least, and even they murmured nervously.

“Can the…island be salvaged? Is there any other way to make healing potions? I guess I’ll have to find out. But if that’s the case—can someone bring me any spare, old shirts or linens? I need to make bandages. And this needle…are there any curved ones?”

Grimacing, she looked around for something to test the thread on—then realized she could use her arm. The needle was as bad as she feared, and sewing flesh together with this…

“Ooh! She’s so fast!”

“Look at that! Let me try! Let me—”

The Selphids in the mixed body crowded over—until one of the others raised their voice.

“Keep the spawnlings quiet, Agoeith. I can barely run my bar as it is. I’ll trade with you, but only if you can run an entire business.”

Teyis and Agoeith were a pair that had decided to raise Selphids here. To that end, they had purchased a body large enough to accommodate the growing Selphids—much like someone buying a house. The Centaur, famously difficult for one Selphid to control, was a perfect vessel for multiple Selphids to grow in.

What Elizabeth was curious about was what role parenthood had. It seemed Teyis and Agoeith had both been high level—and just as apparent they were reduced in some way by the spawning.

“Excuse me. What happens if two Selphids mate? Teyis keeps talking like he’s injured.”

The Selphid in her body patching things up made a burbling sound like a grunt. It was weird, Elizabeth could both talk inside her body as well as listen with the auditory nerves. Multitasking, again. The [Embalmer]’s reply was terse as he spread more of that paste around, and Elizabeth sensed he was drying out the body, mummifying it.

This old profession from Earth had a much more significant role here. In fact, he would even have her wrap her skin with linen to both suppress the smell and bad appearance and help preserve it.

“You must be new, like you claim, child. Creating new Selphids means you give up part of your body. They grow up faster, but Teyis and Agoeith didn’t want to raise them for eight years. So they gave a third of their entire bodies up. Even eating like Centaurs—it’s made them weaker. I hear that if you do it wrong, you can even lose muscle memory or other parts. Not that I’d know. I’m not raising that lot.”

The noisy Selphid spawnlings had taken after Lizardfolk, and sometimes they grabbed Agoeith’s vocal cords to talk. Elizabeth listened as they were shushed again, and Teyis went on.

“We cannot do anything that gets us destroyed. The Minds know that. They know that…I’ve never spoken to one. I’ve met their representatives a few times, and they seemed like they knew what they were doing! Rhir’s hells, if we can’t trust the Minds to do what’s right—the Minacien Wall?”

Every Selphid in the room shuddered. And Elizabeth understood something else.

The Selphids didn’t know what the Minds were doing. Each community of Selphids had the same understanding: help each other, don’t rile the manykind. You helped another Selphid if you could—you didn’t fight them in wars.

They had to do this to survive. It was as tight-knit a community as any Elizabeth had seen, a minority who had to be very careful. She understood it on that level.

However—the Minds were a kind of unseen force that rarely interacted with the common Selphid. The understanding was that if a Mind sent a representative, you did what was asked because the Minds knew all.

It was even a saying.

“Minds think for me. So there are a bunch of escaped…experimental people running around like this Elizabeth. The Forgotten Wing company’s on the hunt. The Titan—”

Teyis was summarizing what they knew. They didn’t believe she was an ‘experimental Selphid’, but it was abundantly clear that Elizabeth had no idea what being a Selphid was, and this gathering couldn’t fathom the concept that she was Geneva’s clone. They had confirmed the rest of her story via truth stone, anyways, and they were panicking.

“I thought he was on our side. He’s supposed to be friendly to us.”

Domene murmured in his Lizardfolk body. The other Selphid elders broke in, speaking heatedly.

“Friendly doesn’t matter if you get in his way. He stomps. You heard what he did to the Jungle Tails when they sieged his capital? I heard it was a slaughter. He even used Goblins.”

Again?

“He’s a friend. I have a relative in his forces who says it’s the best experience you can get outside of working for one of our companies—”

“He’s still one of the manykind. A smart one of them. If he thought the Minacien Wall was being breached—who wouldn’t do that?”

The Selphids all fell silent at that. Elizabeth was surprised.

“You aren’t—angry?”

She would have assumed the death of six Minds and the loss of a Gathering Citadel would trigger defensiveness. But a deep gloom seemed to infuse the Selphids here. Teyis answered for them.

“If the Minacien Wall was breached…the Minds had a reason. But we know our history. The wall is there to protect us. The Minds put us all in danger. If word spreads that we are breaching it again, the manykinds will sweep us away. And this time, they will leave not a single Selphid alive.”

The Selphid children began crying as tears leaked from Agoeith’s eyes. She let them, wiping them away as the Centaur Selphid spoke.

“This is secret to all of us, Elizabeth or whomever you are. Word may spread. We have likely lost the Forgotten Wing company as allies. Even if the Titan did this just to prevent worse—he killed six Minds. Can we trust him? Can he trust us? We have lost a Great Company’s friendship. We have lost Minds.”

“What can be done?”

Domene demanded, hammering a table. Gloomily, Teyis put down tiny cups of liquor, which all the Selphids drank from.

“The new lands, perhaps. Every species is going for them. Otherwise? We withdraw from cities that evict us. We don’t cause trouble for a decade.”

A quiet silence. Then the [Embalmer] left Elizabeth’s body, returned to his old Dullahan form in great condition despite years of use, and spoke quietly.

“We are dying out.”

No one said a word. The oldest Selphid amongst them turned his gaze to Elizabeth, and she saw now the pulses of orange under flesh, the hints that a Selphid was staring out from behind dead eyes.

“If we could find a place to live in our own communities, we would. It’s not hard, but finding bodies is. We depend on other species. But even if we had both, Elizabeth or whomever you are—the Wasting will kill us all.”

Even at the rate Selphids reproduced, the Wasting cut them down. As Elizabeth had observed, it was a phenomenon across the entire species. The cause? Unknown. But age sometimes seemed to play a role; few Selphids lived longer than a century before the Wasting materialized.

And it could cut down even the highest-level Selphid. It was the bane that terrified the Minds, who were extremely susceptible to it. One might reasonably assume it was some kind of pathogen or plot like the one against Gnolls to weaken their species. However, the Minds had never found evidence of that.

The Wasting meant that Selphid young were often numerous and fearless of the condition for decades, but high-level leaders were dying a slow death—and forced to ostracize themselves from their community for fear of spreading whatever this was. Elizabeth was almost certain it was not a transmissible disease, but it was hard to prove without knowing the root cause.

She was watching a species in decline for a multitude of reasons. So—the Selphid who sat there, flexing her body’s arms and testing the inner, preserved walls of her body, raised her head.

“And me? What becomes of me?”

“You say nothing. You don’t cause trouble. What else? We’ll make a story up for you. You survived a [Bandit] attack or something. You need a mentor. I’ll do it.”

Teyis decided after a moment. Elizabeth was surprised.

“You’ll help me?”

Then every Selphid in the room smiled. Wearing faces of the dead, young and old, of every form. Domene chuckled as he picked at his teeth, carefully brushing them with some toothpaste to keep his body in good condition.

“We’re Selphids, spawnling. What one of us does reflects on us all. Remember that. Now, let’s figure out just what you can do. And in the name of Baleros’ many tails—can we please get her a better name? Elizabeth is so…Terandrian.

 

——

 

The name stuck, or rather, half of it, stuck.

“Beth! [Healer] Beth, help! Help! Someone got bit by a piranha! It’s bad—we need potions!”

“Don’t use a potion! Staunch the bleeding!”

“H-how do we…?”

The panicked Lizardboy who ran in two days later prompted a young woman to rise and run after them. She raced down to a river, faster than Teyis or the other Selphids in his bar could move.

Some things never changed. And while she had lost all her classes—the first thing ‘Beth’ did was seize the leg, stemming the bloodloss. Then she wound a tourniquet around the leg as she assessed the mess of torn flesh.

“Healing potion!”

Someone had one; this town still had healing potions, but one of the Nagas who’d slithered down—one of three the entire town had—seized the bottle.

“You idiots! Don’t pour it randomly! There’s no more potions left!

“B-but Calexn—”

A Lizardgirl pointed at the little Lizardboy who’d had his leg laid open by one of Baleros’ deadly aquatic fish. Elizabeth saw the Naga—one of the normal ones, huge and serpentine, with powerful scales and delicate humanoid hands and, depending on the Naga, either serpentine or humanoid faces.

However, unlike the panicking Lizardfolk, Nagas were leaders, and this one saw Beth checking the wound.

“It’s a Fishertooth Piranha. It’s left its fangs in the leg, no doubt. Are you the new [Healer]? Do you need the potion?”

The Naga proffered her the bottle, but Beth just shook her head.

“I can close the wound. But I need…somewhere to operate! Someone find a stretcher and get me a clean place!”

The riverbank was muddy and dangerous to work in. The Naga’s brows shot together.

“You’re one of the Last Light’s disciples. A new kind of [Healer]?”

“Yes!”

“Good. You four, pick up Calexn. Carry him—carefully! Use my home. Everyone else, clear out!

The Naga was good at giving orders. In short order, Beth was pulling out the tools she’d re-fashioned with the help of Teyis.

They were all low-quality and reminded her of having to work on the battlefield. Daggers instead of scalpels. Sewing needles instead of surgical ones—and common thread.

In this case, Elizabeth was using a straight shaving razor. Better, thinner, and sharper than most daggers. The first surgeons had been barbers for a reason. A Lizardfolk town didn’t have much call for a barber, but thankfully one of the Selphids had given her one they used for grooming.

Elizabeth was cursing as she realized she might need the potion after all.

The bites were deep. And she had no Skills. She hadn’t realized how she had come to rely on them. Worse, it took her one second to realize this was dire.

Artery cut. It was spurting out with each heartbeat, and she seized it before they even lifted the boy up. He would have been dead before they got him to the house otherwise.

Nevertheless, there was so much blood that the convulsing Lizardboy, holding onto the Naga’s arm and crying out, might be close to death from that alone. And the fact that he was conscious was a problem. Each time he cried out, she felt her grip slipping.

Stop! Stop—

“Hold him still! I need to close the—”

She couldn’t stem the bleeding and operate at the same time. The Naga was shouting and the Lizardfolk were trying, but the boy was in a lot of pain.

“Painkillers! Do you have any? Or a sleep spell?”

“No! Someone get an [Alchemist]—”

The Naga was holding down the Lizardboy with their strength, but it was the jumping muscles in the legs and the slight movements that could throw off Beth. She debated asking them to knock out the Lizardboy. It was better than letting him die, but she didn’t know how strong the Naga was. And all the while, the blood was pouring out.

“Tourniquet! Get me that piece of fabric and loop it around his leg! The stick!”

A tourniquet was just a piece of cloth and a stick. Geneva had a single one, which she used with the stick—she slid the stick in place between the fabric and the leg. Then she spun the stick as it caught the fabric, tightening it up. She could finally let go and tie the stick into place.

Her tourniquet let her breathe in relief. For one second. Then the boy’s thrashing leg and the wet, slick scales revealed an issue with the technique in this world.

The tourniquet slipped—and then the cheap fabric tore. It wasn’t tough material but an old shirt she’d washed and been given by the Selphids. Geneva seized the wound as blood filled the cloth. She looked around, and she didn’t trust another tourniquet.

She was about to call for a potion when the Selphid stopped. She stared at the blood flow and then looked at her arm.

“I have to stop his bleeding. He is dead within minutes if I don’t. If I seal the artery with a potion, he’ll lose it. I know one way to stop the bleeding. But I—”

She hesitated, then looked down. The boy was fading away, and he was staring up at her. Beth stared around.

“—Will you let me try?”

The image of Geneva Scala, the original, helplessly feeling Okasha, Idis take over flashed in her mind. But then she looked down and saw the open wound.

Not the same. The Nagas looked at each other, and the first one to find Calexn wavered. Then he nodded.

“Save his life, Selphid!”

Beth exhaled, and she was already bending over Calexn.

“Alright. Then don’t stop me—and keep back.”

The Naga was watching the boy die in his arms. The thrashing was growing weaker with every pulse of blood; two serpentine eyes swung up as Beth cut across her arm.

“What is the Selphid—”

Silence.

Then—Beth slithered out of her body and into the wound. The reaction of the Lizardfolk was instantaneous.

It’s taking Calexn’s body! Stop—

Silence, I said!

The sounds weren’t that audible to Beth anymore. She was out of her body so she didn’t ‘hear’ in the same way. Her senses, already reduced, became weak, but she was covering the wound. And now—she was doing the only thing she could think of in lieu of using [Hemostatic Pause].

She found the blood pumping out of the Lizardboy’s leg and had the terrible desire to drink it. Instead, Beth found the severed artery, covered it—and the blood flow stopped.

However, the entire leg was laid open. She spread, secreting the same emergency repair gel and covered as many vector points as she could. It worked! The blood leaking from the leg diminished noticeably even in her Selphid state.

She had also performed a gruesome double duty—she was cleaning the excess blood from the wound so she could see. Lacking clamps, staunching, and helpers, she had been just staring at a mass of bloody flesh; there wasn’t even strong lighting. Once she got to her body, she’d be able to see the wound properly.

The problem was—even as Beth held there, she knew, instantly, she had made a mistake. She had spot-sealed a number of wounds, a vein, torn flesh—like a spot welder stemming a leaking tank of blood.

However, the blood wanted to keep flowing out. She was applying pressure as a Selphid, but the instant she returned to her body, she was terrified it would burst the sealant she’d used, and the boy had little blood left. Perhaps the gel would hold, but she couldn’t risk it.

If she had transfusions, she could gamble on it. But right now, the Naga was watching her, and she doubted even the Lizardfolk’s leader was trusting. She had to…

Leave the body, grab the artery, and start operating? She should have clamped it! But she hadn’t been able to get a grip.

“Hey! Can you grab the artery?”

Beth shouted, but she wasn’t even sure she was audible over the sounds in the background. Panicking now, she tried to stretch back into her body while holding the artery shut—but there was no way she could reach the nervous system and do this. So…so…

It occurred to her, for the first time, that she was not entirely without Skills. Yes, she had lost most of her high-level abilities. But Geneva’s time in the Gathering Citadel had left all of them with—tricks.

And one of them she had never used in an operating room before. But in her desperation, Beth shouted.

“[Lesser Mindward]!”

She thought of a clamp sealing the artery shut, a mechanical device, like one on Earth, grabbing the severed tube and gripping it tightly. And then, as Beth let go, she saw/sensed a bubble of force grab the Lizardboy’s artery and seal it. Blood pooled against the entrance, trying to leave with every panicked flutter of his heart.

But something—willpower made manifest—held it in.

“It’s working! I need—”

The instant she came back to her body, the Naga grabbed her. Beth froze as a steely claw grabbed her head and rotated it left and right. But the male Naga just stared at Beth, then let go.

“This one is not taking Calexn’s body. Let them work. What next?”

Beth was panting already from her exertions. Using her Selphid body was—tough. But she looked at the leg and now came to a difficult crossroads.

“Two things. Either we use a lot of that potion—what quality is it?”

“Lowgrade. Barely more than Eir gel water.”

Thankfully, the Naga knew how to read the labels or knew the quality of the potion he held. Beth’s grimace said it all.

Healing potions had grades. Most people weren’t discerning, but good potions could cleanse a wound, prevent poison, and heal perfectly.

Bad ones just accelerated the body’s natural healing. And in this case…

“Even if you dump that on the leg, it won’t necessarily work. The veins and arteries are severed.”

Beth spoke quickly, pointing down at Calexn. The chunk of missing flesh…the Naga’s face was grim.

“I know. Can you heal his leg?”

“I have a Skill that adds to a potion’s efficiency. Let me—”

Beth took the potion, measured a spoonful out, and made the half-conscious Lizardboy drink it. Then her head shot down to see what was happening.

It was only a tiny bit of potion. So the healing barely touched the leg, but because the potion was operating at 148% efficiency—

“He’s gaining color!”

“The leg-wound is not closing.”

“No…he had bad lacerations on his side and tail.”

Another Skill activated as Beth scanned the damage. This potion was working on the lesser wounds first.

[Healer’s Intuition (Basic)]. She had wondered what it did. Now, Beth understood. It was essentially giving her the power to ‘sense’ what was wrong with Calexn.

Lacerations on the tail in four spots. I can sense at least one tooth buried in his leg—need to extract it once I figure out if I can even save his leg—

She equated the Skill to a basic visual scan. It saved her time, but it was hardly impressive. In fact, even feeling at the bad leg told her at least one more tooth from the damned piranha was lodged inside it. So her Skill was only one step in a long process.

Damn it. If only it was more advanced she could rely on it. But Beth was more worried about what she might have to do.

“I’m not seeing the veins trying to reconnect. Do you have any better potions?”

“Not in this town. I could send for some but…”

The Naga had to know what Beth was thinking. Which was that…after all her effort stemming the bleeding, she might now have to take the Lizardboy’s leg off.

Even with all the advances in Earth’s medical fields, some wounds were just terrible. Losing a chunk of your leg was not the same as a cut. You could stitch together severed arteries, essentially closing gaps to let the body seal the wound. But a chunk of a leg missing required something far more difficult.

If Beth were in an operating room on Earth, she’d demand skin and vein grafts. Reconnect the leg manually or even transplant skin from other parts of the body to seal this wound. And even then, she would have had to have a scaffold or matrix to let the muscles reattach and cells regrow. Full muscle replacement was still impossible because of the issues of rejection to the host, and that was on Earth in the best operating rooms.

She…did not have the tools or confidence to do a successful graft here.

But she had to try. The only alternative, which had been in medical practice for centuries before the modern day, was to amputate the leg; it would be necessary even if she left it be and healed it shut. After all, without blood flow or any of the tissue or—the leg would quickly enter necrosis and need it anyways. At best, the boy had a lame leg for his entire life.

“Do what you have to do, [Healer]. The only other [Healer] in the city can’t help. He’s a [Potion Healer]. Useless.”

The Naga spat. Beth rested the back of her hands on her cheeks, keeping her fingers from touching her dead flesh. She thought for a long moment. Then she looked up.

“I am going to have to use the entire potion bottle. And—I need you to find a way to kill this boy’s pain. What I am going to do is gruesome, but it is the only way to try and save his leg. I have no other chance. Understand?”

The Naga stared at Beth. Then he glanced around.

“Get me Yeox and Thoenesith. What are you going to do, [Healer]?”

The Lizardfolk ran to get the other two Naga-leaders as Beth took an unsteady breath.

“Harvest enough tissue and veins to perform a flap graft.”

And there was only one place where she could get all that from…Beth stared at the other leg as the Naga glanced at the potion, at her, and then paled.

 

——

 

There was science—and mad science, like you saw on television. Dramatized malpractice of medicine.

It had also existed. Scientists who gave up all ethical standards. Beth refused to call them doctors.

This…was not that, but it had the same roots. Taking a skin graft from one part of the body and using it on another was basic. Take a piece of iliac crest from the hip, use it to replace a missing roof of the mouth, and so on. Take skin from the thigh and add it to the face.

That was one thing.

Cutting out veins, lengths of the artery, and then transplanting them over to the wounded leg? All while healing the wound closed so she could re-harvest and also giving the Lizardboy enough potion so he could replenish the blood loss?

That—was a technique neither Earth nor this world had ever conceived of. But she did it like a science.

The first thing Beth did was ascertain how much of Calexn’s body could be regrown with enough potion. A tablespoon’s worth of potion healed half an inch of severed artery and veins; she began to harvest that and transplant it over, connecting the new portion of flesh.

To Calexn and the Nagas, it was both unsettling and eerie how fast Elizabeth worked. The Selphid only looked up once when she began the harvesting of tissue.

“I need something. Get me a wooden straw.”

“A straw?

Was she going to suck up the blood too? A café produced a straw, which was dunked in boiling water before Elizabeth told Calexn what to do.

She had him pour the tablespoon of healing potion out of the flask and into the straw, but rather than just toss it into the place where she was cutting tissue from—she made the Naga put one thumb-claw over the straw.

Then—she would direct him to release droplets of the potion right where she wanted it. It was far more precise than a spoon and allowed her to measure healing potion with exacting care.

An improvised syringe, or as close as she could come to it. The Naga had no idea what Elizabeth was emulating, but it shook him. What a demand for precision in this bloody operation! No [Healer] he had ever met was this…technical.

While this was going on, Beth had to work fast to slow the blood loss. She had to cut as economically as possible to reduce the patient’s pain. Thankfully, the boy had passed out, so his screaming and moving was not an issue. The straw technique she was glad to have; there was a rapidly diminishing quantity of healing potion.

If she were a younger doctor, it would have failed mid-surgery. Because she was older and had done this so many times, Beth never hesitated.

One of the three Nagas had to leave mid-operation. The other two just looked away as Beth performed the surgery to save the leg. She didn’t fill the entire leg with transplanted flesh. Once she thought she had enough—she connected everything she could with more healing potion and released her [Mindward].

Blood pooled again, but as Beth spot-sealed a tear in the new artery, she watched blood rushing down the leg. She did one last thing with a final tablespoon of potion; the bottle was almost empty. She applied drops down the entire length of the graft, hoping that it would prevent any weakness in the grafted tissue.

She felt it, pressing her fingers into the boy’s foot, behind the knee—then realized she had little touch. Instead, Beth made one of the Nagas confirm they could feel the pulse where she indicated.

Once she was done with the grafting, Beth pulled out four teeth—the piranha left part of its teeth in the victim’s flesh to make the bleeding worse and kill them. She sutured each gap, then stood back and tried to think if she’d missed anything.

“I think—I think I did it. When he wakes up, I want to know if he can feel anything in his foot. But until then…”

Beth sat back at last, covered in blood from the arms down. The gloves she had put on—not a surgeon’s rubber gloves—were red, and she was terrified of infection.

“I need a poultice. Something to disinfect—to keep the wounds clean. The likelihood he’s going to develop an infection is high. We need to clean the wounds. Does the other [Healer] have anything? If not, I can mix something up. I know a basic antiseptic.”

“A what?”

The Naga who owned this house and given the orders was named Vexx. Beth clarified.

“A cleaning fluid. For the legs.”

The Minds had helped her in that. She rattled off local varieties of herbs and a root, and Vexx nodded.

“I can have it made up. In case you’re not here—what do you do?”

Beth described cleaning the wounds, changing the bandages, and eventually removing the stitching, since she had used a lot of that to supplement the potion. Vexx wrote this down and nodded.

“Clean the wounds. Change bandages regularly; do not let the boy get it dirty or flies get in. I know this. Thank you…what is your name, [Healer]?”

“G—Beth. Beth.”

The Naga nodded. Then he focused on her, and the Naga calmly grabbed her.

“You did not try to steal Calexn’s body. But you used something on his leg—and I have never seen a Selphid [Healer] act like that. Something tells me you were at that Gathering Citadel. I will remember you saved my people’s life. So please, do not try to escape.”

Beth’s relief turned to fear as Vexx stared at her. And she remembered, too late.

She was a Selphid now. And Selphids…

Were in danger.

 

——

 

“We dug into the brain of reality and inserted ourselves into it. Tricked into believing we should belong.”

―The Second Mind

 

“Life, although it may only be an accumulation of anguish, is dear to me, and I will defend it.”

―Mary Shelley, Frankenstein 

 

What purpose had Beth? She asked that as the Nagas held her captive in the town of Soxet. It seemed to her that her origin was twisted. She had been cloned against her will, and terrible deeds had been done by the Minds.

Not all, though. She had been wronged by the representatives of a species—wronged in ways she was sure she was not consciously processing and no amount of therapy might ever fully resolve.

But she also felt it still. It burned in her, a desire to know. A desire to understand.

A desire to give aid where none existed.

The boy, Calexn, lived. His leg did suffer an infection, but a minor one that the poultice Beth made up fought off. She mixed it using [Basic Synthesis] in the cell that the Nagas put her in. The local prison cell was nicer—especially because the Lizardfolk gave her pillows and tried to make her comfortable.

The Nagas allowed it and to let Beth check her patient, though she shouted at him for trying to hobble around. She had saved his leg.

But the problem was they were intelligent enough to spot things. And Beth’s use of her Selphid body was something no Selphid ever did—for fear of calling down the suspicion upon them of stealing bodies.

However, her Selphid form could be used to save lives! In her captivity over the next day and a half, Beth began formulating how, in an Earth-setting, a Selphid might act as an exploratory probe in a body. Doctors used microscopic lenses. What about a living being capable of manually performing surgery within the body? Let alone a Selphid’s ability to attach muscle…

Well—the issue of contamination via microbes, the dangers of invading a living body, and the danger of Selphids taking a host were all salient. But Beth did envision a kind of synthesis with medical theory. The idea of using nanotechnology to heal wounds without the invasion of surgery had long been floated, but there were huge ramifications in that move too. Selphids were the natural bridge in this world.

“…If only we could trust you. Mark my words well, Beth. I think you are a good person. A [Healer]…what level are you now?”

“Level 9.”

She had leveled four times in one surgery.

 

[Healer Level 9!]

[Skill – Bloodless Incision obtained!]

[Skill – Enhanced Edge obtained!]

[Skill – Stretchline Thread obtained!]

 

[Selphid Telekinetic Level 6!]

[Skill – Telekinesis: Bubble obtained!]

 

She had leveled in her other class, too. Her [Healer] Skills made sense and were welcome; the ability of her [Telekinetic] was…odd.

With it, Beth could make a bubble or sphere with force. It had limited applications as far as she could tell, in most settings. She had one very useful idea—but that wasn’t something she could test right now.

Beth had been amusing herself by taking some of the tea the Lizardfolk served her and floating orbs into her mouth until Vexx arrived.

The Naga was knowing.

“Level 9 yet you worked with a talent I have only heard rumors of. Do they call you The Last Light?”

“I am not her.”

The Naga consulted the truth stone and frowned at the mixed results.

“Another odd statement. But I know for a fact she is Human. Perhaps the Minds did something? You did meet them.”

Beth said nothing. No Selphid had been allowed to visit her. Her eyes slid to the door where Lizardfolk stood guard.

“Have you harmed anyone else?”

“Your people? No. But they are not cooperating. Here is my dilemma, Beth. I think you know a lot. And yet—you came into town wounded and alone. I do not see an agent of the Minds in you. But I am Naga. You are Selphid.”

Vexx stared at her, and his eyes were faintly violet-green, slitted, and he was tall, eight feet when he slithered upright. Dangerous. Lizardfolk were physically slim, weaker, and playful; Drakes outweighed them, and Lizardfolk’s only main advantage in battle were numbers. But Nagas were the balancing force; each one was powerful in the extreme, and many had powers.

Beth said nothing to Vexx, but the Naga just sighed and slithered closer. He rested his claws on the jail cell.

“Here is the thing, Beth. I know Teyis. And because I know him and have had Selphid companions in my travels before I settled here—I know your people. And what I know is that Selphids report to each other. They take care of each other like every species does. But your Minds are unto Selphids what we Naga are to Lizardfolk. And do you know what my quandary is?”

She waited, knowing it was rhetorical. Vexx whispered to her.

“Neither Teyis nor I…are agents of our people. Yet here you are, and now I am very nervous, you see?”

He slithered back, and Beth frowned. That was not what she had expected. Vexx looked…vexed. Worried.

“You mean you’re not an agent of…”

“Jungle Tails. The great Naga leaders. Whomever you want to assign me, I am just a Naga living in a town. We are not all part of a grander conspiracy, but I know my roles too. Here I am with a possible agent of the Minds who were responsible for—something terrible happening. Do I report to Jungle Tails? Do I report to my people? Or do I report to the Forgotten Wing? And I know at the same time Teyis is doing this too. Neither he nor I want to tear this town down.”

Vexx gave her a look, and Beth hung her head.

“I’m sorry.”

He shrugged.

“Don’t be. I am telling you this because I feel guilty. And so you know, because I am a simple Naga, who wants no danger to come to my town, I told several—contacts—I had found you. Nagas. But far more senior than me.”

He stared at her. Beth grew nervous at once, but Vexx lifted a claw.

“I told them…I had found you. I gave them details and then told them that, regrettably, the Forgotten Wing company had gotten to you first. Maybe it will bite my tail, but I think they will understand. You see?”

“The Forgotten Wing Company?”

Geneva Scala? The original? Beth’s head came up, and Vexx nodded at the look on her face.

“Yes…the Titan’s forces still occupy this area. And I think he has the best—and most gentle claim on you. He is kinder to Selphids than Maelstrom’s Howling or Iron Vanguard would be. So. His people are enroute. This is my compromise. Think less of me for doing this, but Baleros is about profit and opportunity. But sometimes…”

He looked at her seriously.

“…Sometimes, I do not want that opportunity where I am.”

She understood his fear only too well. So Beth nodded and sat back down as Vexx left and wondered what would happen when the Forgotten Wing soldiers got to her. She hoped they would ask questions rather than torture her. She had heard terrible things of the Titan…but then she had a thought.

If Vexx had told the Forgotten Wing and his people…

Who had Teyis told?

 

——

 

If Vexx was the de-facto head of this town, Teyis was the unofficial one where Selphids were concerned. When they got wind that Vexx had imprisoned Beth, there was trouble.

Beth heard the loud arguments from hundreds of voices outside her cell. Selphids and Lizardfolk in a standoff. Despite being outnumbered, two dozen Selphids were approaching the cell, and the Lizardfolk were nervous.

Rampaging Selphids were a danger on par with Nagas—Vexx, hissing as he and Teyis argued, let Beth come out of the jail to show she was unharmed.

“—This is larger than either of our peoples here, Teyis. Let it be!”

“Not if you turn her over to Maelstrom’s Howling or someone else. She is a Selphid, Vexx. You do not interfere with my people.”

That was before a Gathering Citadel was turned to ash only miles from where we are!

The Naga pointed to the horizon where the smoke still rose from the crater. The Lizardfolk around him had slings and simple spears. Teyis had a steel sword, which made him one of the most well-armed people in the village.

Neither looked like they wanted to fight. They were caught between the giants of their people and obligations—Teyis looked guiltily towards Beth.

“At least she’s well.”

Vexx was offended and twisted his tail into a ball.

“You think I would have harmed her after she saved Calexn? She’s being treated very well. But until a Great Company arrives, she’ll be here. You can visit, Teyis, but—hey. Miss Beth, you are under arrest! Don’t move!”

He twisted around, and everyone tensed up, but Beth ignored Vexx. She had left the two Lizardfolk guards and was currently…tickling a Lizardboy on his foot. He was laughing.

Stop, stop! I can feel it!”

“Good. Remember, you keep your bandages clean and change them. Did anyone else get bitten by the attacks? Is anyone else hurt? Sick?”

She raised her voice, and the Lizardfolk, completely distracted from their standoff with the Selphids, murmured. One of them raised her voice.

“I have a bump on my tail from where a fish bit me. I swear there’s something hard in there, but it’s all healed. It hurts.

“I think I have Yellow Rivers.”

Gaaah! Get away!

They were not the most impressive fighting force in history. Vexx covered his face with one claw in a familiar way. Then he raised his voice.

“Stop interacting with the prisoner! We’re in a standoff with the Selphids—get back in line! You don’t have Yellow Rivers, Extin. Beth, inside!”

She ignored him. Beth was feeling at the yelping Lizardfolk’s tail and grimacing.

“It may well be a tooth. This is a cyst—give me fifteen minutes and I can see what’s in there. But I’ll have to cut into your tail to remove it. I’ll sew it back up, but it will hurt, understand?”

C-cut into—? Can’t you use a potion instead of sewing me up?”

“Do you have one?”

“No…but…it hurts real bad. Maybe I’ll let it stay?”

The Lizardgirl danced on her feet nervously. Beth gave her a stern look.

“It could get worse, and it won’t heal without treatment. I need to borrow your home, Vexx. But let me see the sick person next.”

“What? Absolutely not. My house is not a [Healer]’s clinic.”

The outraged Naga tried to get the Lizardfolk to arrest Beth. But she was diagnosing the Lizardfolk who thought they had Yellow Rivers—they did not. When he tried to push her back into the cell himself, she poked him in the chest with a finger.

“Some of your people need my treatment. I won’t run. I don’t think I’d get far. Do you have any more healing potion?”

“We have [Healers]. Not as fine as you, Miss, but an aching tail and a few rotten teeth are not your job to fix.”

Vexx was annoyed. Beth locked eyes with him and folded her arms.

“It is my job if you’re keeping me here. If anyone else gets hurt, call on me. Because I am the best medical practitioner in this entire region. Now. Where do you keep your soap and how can I boil some hot water? I need linens for another tourniquet too.”

The Naga’s full serpentine glare met Beth’s stony gaze. Beth…was the same woman who had faced down the Minds. The Naga slithered back a step—and then exhaled hard as Teyis grinned at Beth. She winked at the Selphids.

 

——

 

Despite being a ‘prisoner’, Beth left her cell no less than eight times across the next day and a half to minister to people with complaints. And her insistence on being resupplied with medical tools paid off instantly.

When trouble came—it came from the direction of the river again. But this time it wasn’t fish.

It was [Mercenaries].

Lizardfolk were so social that even prisoners in the simple jail could shout and see what was going on. They didn’t believe in locking their people away out of sight and mind. So Beth, if she pulled herself up with her Selphid body’s strength, could see through the simple rusted bars to the muddy street where Lizardfolk tracked in fish from the rivers, harvested sweetberries from bushes, and mingled.

We have wounded. [Healer]! We need a damn [Healer]!

They came in screaming, like a storm, and ran into both Selphids and Lizardfolk. Beth stared out the bars of her cell and saw desperate warriors, many bloody. One had an arrow sticking out of his shoulder, and they were all…

Beastkin? She saw what looked like a Gnoll—only he was shorter, had distinctly lupine features, and grey fur. A pair of Cat Beastkin, spotted, were holding up their paws as Lizardfolk surrounded them with spears.

Which company are you? Lower your blades! Lower your blades—

“Unlock my cell!”

Beth shouted at Vexx. The Naga glanced at her, but she was already trying to bend the metal of her bars. She saw blood—and the [Mercenary Captain] was panting, wild-eyed.

“They tore us up. Greyfur Irregulars. We were just supposed to ambush—they took three different companies apart. Th-th—”

He was in shock. Beth raced out of her cell and triaged.

Half the company looked like they were hurt, but two were so badly wounded they were being carried. One was obvious; a deep sword wound in the gut. The other?

She wasn’t sure what was wrong from a superficial inspection. Beth snapped.

“Put pressure on those bleeding cuts. You—I’ll tourniquet that wound. Get those two inside Vexx’s home and get me any healing potions left in the town!”

“We’re out! I have none to spare, and—my home smells of blood already!”

Vexx threw up his hands, but Beth ignored him. She applied a tourniquet to a cut leg that was losing too much blood, then she was racing into the Naga’s home.

This time, she was in a race against time on multiple fronts. But she had levelled up.

Two patients. The first had a cut along their abdomen from ribcage down to pelvis. Deep, filled with blood, and the Wolf Beastkin wasn’t responsive. The other was a scaled person—but neither Lizardfolk nor Drake. Salamander? They had a curiously flat head and the most lizard-like face of all three species, and they were crying out in agony.

“It’s burning! It’s burning my side—here! It’s in here!”

“What was he hit with?”

“We don’t know! But it’s there—”

A desperate [Mercenary] who’d helped drag the two in pointed, and Beth stared at the smoking flesh. It was…charred in a circle, and she had no idea what was causing it. But she recognized the cause.

Some kind of magic or effect. Her triage told her that the belly-cut Wolf Beastkin would die faster. But whatever was burning the Salamander Beastkin alive would be almost as fast.

So Beth pointed at the Wolf Beastkin as she checked his airways and found they were clear.

“Someone hold him still. I need to—”

Dab away the blood. Then she whispered as she stared at the pulsing blood running out of him.

“[Telekinesis: Bubble]!”

The blood flow stopped. At least, from the largest cuts. Beth concentrated, and one of the [Mercenaries] stared. Even for someone not trained in medicine, the bleeding visibly slowed.

Three, four…

Four bubbles, and Beth’s mind was screaming in pain. But four tiny bubbles of telekinesis appeared, stopping the flow of blood. That was all the Selphid could do.

I need a potion. Someone find me one. Tell Vexx at least one of the patients is going to die right now if I don’t get it. You—hold still. I’m going to have to cut into you, understand?”

The Salamander was on his side as one of his friends cut away his armor. His voice was a rising scream.

“Just cut it out. Get it out, getitout—

She had to figure out what it was. The Wolf Beastkin had more time with the blood flow slowed. Beth reached for a razor blade as she heard a commotion outside.

I saw the fighting. Where are they?

“Stay out! Who are you? Who are—? And who are you, Miss?”

Beth paid no attention to the shouting. She was slicing into flesh, cursing as she realized whatever it was had gone straight past or through a rib.

It wasn’t magic. Now she looked closely, the flesh was literally cauterizing before her eyes. But what could it be? She’d seen the residue of [Fireballs] and flame rain spells, but this? The Salamander was begging her to take it out, and she realized—

The barber’s razor was heating up fast as she cut. It had to be some physical object. Then, as the [Healer] worked desperately, someone spoke.

“[Analysis: Origin of Injury]. That’s no spell. It’s a crossbow bolt. It’s lodged into the flesh. No other pieces of shrapnel, thank goodness. Don’t try cutting it—it’s too hot. Pull it out. Slice the entire area of skin out if you have to!”

Beth jerked up. She stared into two slitted eyes—and then a Lamia was bending over her. A Lamia…wearing a pair of spectacles, who talked like Geneva and had a dagger in her hand. But she pointed, and Beth felt her pulling with her mind.

“You’re—”

Help me.

Beth concentrated—and then the two were pulling. The Lamia had found what was burning the Salamander to death.

A tiny piece of shrapnel, the enchanted head still burning with enough flame to cook the Salamander from the inside. They yanked—and a tiny, flaring bit of metal came out of the cooked wound.

Beth jerked aside as it landed, flaring, and stomped with her shoes, crushing the metal and extinguishing the enchantment. Then she looked up.

A Lamia, scales twisting from green to orange across her body, was panting as she ran her hands over the Salamander’s side. An entire section of their flesh was charred. Deep, and they would die from the heat that had killed far too much around their ribs.

Beth needed that potion! The Lamia whispered as Beth dug around.

“Bone shrapnel might be lodged in the soft tissue.”

“I—think I’ve got it out. If we had a potion it would push the shrapnel out of the wound in most cases. But we don’t and the burn—”

“Allow me. It might not be enough. But I can—[A Drop A Day: Potion of Mending]!

A glistening drop fell from her claw tips. Beth’s eyes went round as the Lamia—Lamia-Geneva placed her claws over the wounded Salamander and a drop fell.

“No!”

Beth caught the drop mid-fall with her mind. Lamia-Geneva turned to her.

“What are you—”

My turn. [Potions: 148% Efficiency]!

It was the Lamia’s turn to goggle. Beth dropped the tiny bit of potion into the wound, and both held their breaths.

Potion of Mending? Most healing potions were called ‘healing potions’ without bothering to identify which it was, aside from cost. But Beth prayed that this…

A drop. But a drop at 148% efficiency was enough.

The charred flesh visibly lightened, and the smell of cooked meat lessened. Beth, exploring the wound, saw healthy flesh reappearing until the burn damage was ‘only’ an inch deep.

Far better, though. The Salamander groaned in relief, and the Lamia was speaking.

“Any other wounds? I didn’t spot any—that shard of shrapnel would have killed him by overheating his body before anything else, but it would have been death regardless in another ten minutes. A deadly—too deadly a weapon.”

A microscopic splinter of killing magic. Beth agreed. It was even worse than an Evercut Arrow—and she thought only one species in the world could manufacture something so deadly, so small. So that told her what this Beastkin mercenary group had run into.

Fraerlings.

However—that was only the first of two patients. She had to go to the cut Beastkin next. At least that was simpler, if no less dire. At least they could try to do an impromptu blood transfusion if one of the other Beastkin was compatible. They just had to mix the two blood samples. But closing that wound mattered even with her temporary telepathic seals.

Beth’s head rose to the other patient. Then she stopped and stared.

A panting woman with half her face dripping and oozing with wet, semi-transparent, indigo tendrils—like long strands of noodles—or the tendrils of a jellyfish—was standing over the Wolf Beastkin.

Her entire right side of her body was wet, though much of it was covered by clothing. One bright yellow eye without pupils or irises stared out of the Drowned Woman’s face.

The other half was Human. Dark-skinned, fingers dancing as she held the needle sewing the abdomen closed.

The stitching was amazingly precise. Criss-crossing lines of thread, holding the skin together with thread that looked far, far better than the stuff Beth had. The Drowned Woman was also doing something to the Wolf Beastkin’s abdomen.

“What are you doing? The internal bleeding—”

Stopped. Nice bubbles of telekinesis. How did you do that? I was more direct. The venom is hemostatic. I’ve sutured everything closed. [Fast Stitching] and [Upgrade Material: Angler’s Line].

Lamia-Geneva and Beth turned as the Drowned Woman straightened. Then the half-Jellyfish Geneva Scala looked at the two of them as Vexx and the Beastkin [Captain] and Teyis all stopped at the doorway. All three Genevas—former Genevas—looked at each other in a moment of silence. Then, as one, they turned and shouted.

Get out of the operating room!

 

——

 

Three women sat in the jail cell, talking. The Drowned Woman, who called herself Ithaca, and the Lamia-Geneva who still went by ‘Geneva’, were not technically under arrest like Beth.

But this was ironically a good spot for them to talk. They had tended to the other wounded [Mercenaries], and the Salamander and Wolf Beastkin had good chances of surviving. A [Healer] with [Recovering Bedrest] was looking after both, which let the three relax.

They were talking quietly, yet each one was eying the other. And each one was—familiar and different.

Was it their bodies? The cloning process? Or just the different perspectives each shared? The Lamia was the most nervous.

“I—I know it was the Forgotten Wing Company that did this. I cannot understand it. Original Geneva is with the Titan, but his methods are beyond even the Roving Arrow company’s tactics. His people are searching for us. They were searching for me. I saw his people fighting three companies that ambushed him. They cut down their attackers so fast—”

She shuddered. Beth shook her head, troubled, but confused.

“Maybe it’s better if we go with him. If only to spare the fighting. How did you get here, Ithaca?”

The Drowned Woman made a wet, bubbling sound.

“I saw the fighting and split up w—I came running because I didn’t know you two were here. I ran into Leneva here. But I’m not sticking around to join the Forgotten Wing company.”

“Leneva?”

Lamia-Geneva pulled a face at the name. Beth grinned.

“It suits you. You two ran in when I needed your help. And your Skills! Sewing?”

She looked at Ithaca, and the woman grimaced.

“Weak. [A Drop A Day] is far better.”

Beth nodded.

“Absolutely.”

Then she and Ithaca turned to ‘Leneva’, who raised a claw.

“It may be, but it’s a drop. Your telekinesis…that’s impressive, Beth. And you can add to the effects of potions?”

“For what it’s worth. I started at Level 1. You two as well?”

Both nodded. Leneva slithered to the window, and Ithaca leaned back. She was still dripping; her weak Skills might not be powerful—but her jellyfish nature was.

“I can poison with the tendrils, and they move—although better in water. The real advantage is paralyzing patients or numbing them—or stopping blood loss. I was probably meant for a role in anesthesiology. I’ll take every advantage, but I get dry fast. I wouldn’t even last a day in this cell without needing a lot of water.”

“We can get you some. Vexx isn’t a monster…”

Beth went to call for a guard, but Ithaca got up. She paced over to the cell door, which was unlocked for this meeting.

“No. I’ve got to go. Forgotten Wing is right on top of Leneva and you. If you want to come—I’m heading out.”

“Go with you? Where?”

Both Beth and Leneva were surprised. The Drowned Woman nodded to the window.

Where we’re needed. Tell Geneva if you meet her and the others—we’re dividing up. I met another Geneva, and she’s headed straight for Izril. She…‘fits in’. You two can choose what you’re doing. Great Company, United Nations—but I’m taking off to sea. It’s fitting.”

“To go where?”

Ithaca paused, then looked back.

I’m going to the Eir Kelp Island. One of us has to figure out why the healing potions are gone and synthesize a replacement or do something. Leave it to me. If you don’t hear a replacement for healing potions is out or news in six months, assume I’m dead.”

She looked grimly determined, or maybe it was her body giving that look, but the glowing-eyed woman was already headed to the door. She turned to Leneva.

“Want a ride?”

“I…no. I don’t have an adventure in me. I would rather work with help. That—impromptu operating is insane. These poor Lizardfolk without more than a [Healer] who can give them better bedrest. Someone needs to help them.”

Leneva answered first. Beth was wavering, and something called to her. Ithaca had a plan. The healing potions? Of course! Beth rose.

“I’ll go. If you need backup, Ithaca—I’m your girl.”

The Drowned Woman paused, as if she hadn’t expected either to join her, but then she smiled.

We’ll see if I need it. It might be better to split—got any gold? Let’s—

They were walking towards the door when Beth recalled the guards. The Lizardfolk guards who could listen. A pair of crossed spears tipped with crude iron barred their way.

Hey! No running! Vexx! They’re running for it!”

“Uh oh. Just let me—”

Beth tried to push a spear down. She was strong, as a Selphid, but one of the Lizardfolk surprised her.

“[Leg Sweep]!”

“[Tag Team: Leg Sweep]!”

Both Lizardfolk took Beth and Ithaca down in an embarrassingly easy way. Neither doctor was a fighter—and Beth was afraid to hurt the Lizardfolk who threw themselves on top of her, screaming for backup.

“Stop, don’t hurt them!”

Leneva backed up—though both Lizardfolk weren’t even attacking her. Arguably, she was the strongest of the three without Beth going into a Rampage—and the Lizardfolk looked at her anxiously as a Naga.

But Leneva wasn’t talking to them.

One of the Lizardfolk [Guards] fell over, crying out, and Ithaca got up. Her jellyfish stingers had struck the Lizardfolk in the face!

Do no harm.

Beth’s mouth was open wide with disbelief, and Leneva was horrified. But Ithaca just pushed herself up.

“Sorry. Beth, are you—”

She dodged back as the other Lizardfolk swiped a spear at her. Then the Drowned Woman was running. Beth tried to heave the Lizardfolk off her. She got out the door of the prison—just in time for eight Lizardfolk to dogpile her.

Ithaca was running, though. Lizardfolk poured out of the village as the Drowned Woman ran for the river. Vexx stormed out of his home, shouting.

Stop them! The Forgotten Wing company wants all of them! But don’t harm them either!

The Lizardfolk had a hard time fulfilling that request. Ithaca’s jellyfish side meant the second Lizardfolk who tried to body check her fell over as well, paralyzed. And if they couldn’t stab or shoot her—

Stop, Geneva Scala.

Vexx surged for Ithaca as Beth watched. The Drowned Woman jerked back, and the Naga was faster, stronger than his kin charging in his wake.

—But he never saw the howling Gnoll woman charging out of the forest until she drop-kicked him. The fourth Geneva slammed into Vexx, and even the huge Naga felt two hundred and something pounds of fur and muscle hitting him.

Then both Genevas were running, running. The Gnoll Geneva pointed a finger back as Vexx writhed upright and spoke.

“[Vine Snare].”

Vines engulfed Vexx, and the two were running for the river. The other two Nagas were too slow to catch them; Teyis and the other Selphids were getting in their way, and Beth and Leneva—stared as two of their own dove into the river and swam for it.

Leneva looked at Beth, and Beth stared back at her. Then—Beth groaned.

“Great. I hope you like reading books.”

They were both under arrest.

 

——

 

After that, Beth and Leneva were only allowed out of the cell to check on the wounded [Mercenaries] under guard. And the Lamia was arrested.

To Beth’s great annoyance, Vexx apologized profusely to Leneva, as if she were the only afflicted party, and the Lizardfolk showered her with food and pillows to make her comfortable.

At least neither had to wait long. As it happened—the group that had done so much damage to the Greyfur Irregulars arrived within forty minutes of Ithaca’s escape.

They came into the town fast, and Beth was once again at the cell window to watch. This time—she heard no shouts for a healer. But she did see the Greyfur Irregulars instantly surrender, throwing down their weapons in terror as a far larger, far better-armed group marched into the town.

Forgotten Wing. A stylized flowing wing made up of three colors, pink, yellow, green, after Three-Color Stalker. What was fascinating to Beth was that this group had a mix of species.

Most companies, including the one she’d been part of, were comprised of one majority species with a few others mixed in. Forgotten Wing really was a mishmash.

You had Centaurs, Dullahans, and yes, even Lizardfolk who looked more serious than their cousins, sweeping the butts of their spears out to keep them at bay. The only species not present was Selphid—for obvious reasons given their errand.

“Naga Vexx? We’ve come to take charge of your prisoner. I recognize the Greyfur Irregulars’ surrender. They will be held under the statutes of war and ransomed or released without harm. Do you have any injured?”

The crisp-sounding Centaur met with Vexx in the street. He nodded as the frightened Beastkin relaxed slightly, and looked around.

“Forgotten Wing will secure this ground, conduct several interviews, and leave, all on the Titan’s personal orders. We hope this will make up for any inconvenience.”

A bag of gold changed hands as a Centaur slowed, saluted, and spoke crisply. Vexx took the gold with a bow and began to count it, unabashed. He glanced to the prison, and Beth glared out the window.

“I hope—you will treat her carefully. She is a [Healer] and saved one of my people, Captain. Also, it is prisoners. There are two…of the woman you seek, I think.”

The Centaur pawed his hoof at the suggestion they might do otherwise. Then he did a double-take.

Two? We will treat them with our utmost respect, on the Titan’s name.”

Then Beth heard a voice.

In the name of Paeth, which endures, we will! A Fraerling’s oath on it too!”

All the Lizardfolk recoiled—then surged closer until the Centaur trotted around, shouting for them to get back. Vexx himself stared, as did Beth, as a tiny Fraerling stared back at all the Tallfolk.

I am Tallguard Cein! Keep back; I am not a toy! On the Titan’s orders!”

He had an amazingly loud voice for such a small man. It seemed the Fraerlings really were working with the Forgotten Wing company—and that Beth warranted one to come with this hundred-man company.

As it turned out, the Titan was no idiot either. The first thing the Centaur and Cein did upon entering the cell was set up a number of devices. Leneva shrank back, but Beth was fascinated.

“You’re the group who attacked the Greyfur Irregulars.”

“Hello, Miss Scala! Misses Scala! That’s correct. Nasty business. I’m glad we ran into you—there are a bunch of mercenary companies that our opponents have hired and more dangerous fighters still lurking about. I hear Jungle Tails has a force moving around us. How’d they get here so fast?”

Cein saluted Beth as the Centaur grimaced. But he bowed to both—Leneva’s voice was hostile.

“You massacred them.”

“They ambushed us, in point of fact, Miss Scala. We defended ourselves and rendered aid to the survivors. But that is Baleros. Should I call you Miss Scala? Or do you have another name…?”

“That’s Leneva, I’m Beth.”

The Selphid introduced both of them. Leneva had folded her arms and was glowering at Cein. Both she and Beth had instantly guessed who had injured the Salamander. But Beth was more understanding, at least in terms of the Fraerling defending himself.

The little man was busy setting something up, at any rate. He called out.

“Listening spells—down! Let me set up our own advanced truth stones…can someone secure that window?”

Tallguard Cein gave the Centaur Captain orders, and the Centaur rolled his eyes as six Lizardfolk ran to do the bidding of the Fraerling.

“Yes, yes, Tallguard. As you will. Just remember we are equivalent in rank. The window is secured already; I have a [Bubble of Silence] spell up.”

“Not in technology! And I will thank you to remember that damn birds and cats can go through that window. I don’t fancy having to stab one to death.”

The Tallguard had a fascinating device so small Beth had to squint to see it. It looked like a truth stone—if you wired it up to something akin to a diorama of the solar system. A single truth stone hung in the center with numerous other ones hanging at points around it. The entire contraption began to float and revolve as the Fraerling grunted.

“There. It’s only a five-layer; we don’t have the old magic. But it should pass even Selphid mental games.”

“So you can fool ordinary truth stones?”

The Centaur seemed as fascinated as Beth. The Fraerling shrugged.

“It’s just a Tier 3 [Detect Truth] spell. Of course you can beat it. This could probably be overwhelmed by Tier…6 magic? Tier 7 if you’re not a specialist? But it has multiple stones that detect different types of lies. This one’s intention. This one’s factual. This one is emotion—see how she’s fascinated? And worried.”

He tapped some of the hanging stones, pointing to a color cheat-sheet he had. Then the Tallguard caught Beth’s eye and saluted.

“Don’t you worry, Miss Selphid! Answer our questions fairly and we will not harm you, despite what occurred at the citadel! I am Tallguard Cein of Reton—”

“—And I am Captain Yameth of the Forgotten Wing company, in charge of this company. Our orders are to conduct a brief questioning then take you—safely—to our headquarters.”

The Centaur broke in. He had dusky blonde hair, and he and the fiery-haired Cein glowered at each other before both turned to the Selphid and Lamia.

“Names?”

“Beth. Elizabeth Scastein.”

“…You may call me ‘Leneva’. I suppose that’s as good a name as any.”

Both Geneva-clones watched as the stones lit up, changing to a multitude of colors…mostly red. Her emotions were violet with worry, and Cein stared at the truth stone.

“Wow. That’s a wild reading.”

“A lie.”

Yes…they’re factually lying, but they sort of believe it here, see? And they’re uncertain here—let’s try that again, Miss Selphid. Name?”

“I…that’s the only name I’m comfortable giving you.”

Cein inspected the truth diorama again.

“Factual—she’s worried, and that’s true for some reason. Partly, but—hold on, let me check if this thing is broken. I kiss cats for fun!”

The stones lit up, and he muttered as he checked each one against a chart.

“Nope. Same result. Okay, let’s proceed.”

The Fraerling glanced up at the Tallfolk and their stares and snapped.

“It’s a good statement because it’s nuanced! I kissed a cat one time on a dare. You think it’s funny? You kiss a maniacal killing machine eight times your size and see how it ends up!”

The Centaur covered a smile. Then he turned serious.

“Let’s go with Beth first. Asking too many questions is above what I’m here for. The Titan only wants to know a few things until we take you to him for actual questioning. And I will assure you that you are not going to be tortured.”

The truth stones lit up in reassuring ways for Beth as the Centaur spoke. Yameth pawed at the ground for a second, took a breath, then stared at her seriously. His hands twitched towards the shield and sword hanging at his side.

“Answer each question with ‘yes’ or ‘no’, please. Then we’ll clarify. Question one. Were you in any way complicit with the breaching of the Minacien Wall?”

“No.”

Cein noted the crystals and wrote something briefly. He nodded at Yameth. The Centaur went on.

“Are you beholden to the Minds or part of their organization in any way?”

“No. I’m not.”

Slightly different lights. Yameth nodded once more.

“Then—do you have information on what happened at the Citadel that any interested parties would find useful?”

“…Yes. But I would like to talk with the Titan or someone in charge, please.”

The Centaur glanced at Cein. The Tallguard made a show of inspecting the colors, then looked up.

“Well, you’ll get your wish, Miss Beth. A tiny bit of involvement on the Minacien Wall question, Yameth, but it’s all guilt. I say we take her in nicely. This time, Miss Leneva.”

They turned to the Lamia, and the other doctor frowned.

“I am not party to any unethical medicine. Nor do I wish to be a captive of the Forgotten Wing company. I would like to go on my way, please. Peacefully.”

Cein studied the truth stone as Yameth frowned at her.

“That’s not my call to make, Miss Leneva. Speaking of which…what’s this about a third one of you? Four?”

He had just been told by one of his subordinates about Ithaca. Beth hadn’t said anything, and Leneva scoffed.

“I don’t know if she’s one of us.”

The truth stone flashed, and Cein sprang up.

That’s a lie. Damn, a third? No one spotted her—let’s move!”

The Centaur nodded.

“Agreed. Sparrow Company, secure the town. I want guards on all exits—seal that damn window—and Tallguard Cein will take command. I’m going after those two, but we have foreign opposition. Tell the Titan we need a flying carpet or a full Centaur escort. And reinforcements on our position.”

Two Lizardfolk rushed out the door, and Beth looked between the two.

“You’re taking me to the Forgotten Wing company?”

Ceil saluted.

“That’s right, Miss. Safely, securely—and believe me, you want us to do it, not Maelstrom’s Howling or the Iron Vanguard. We’re going to wait until someone faster or more forces arrive. Precautions. It shouldn’t take until tomorrow, even; we’ve got flying carpets in the area, though the Titan might want a full escort.”

Cein hopped up onto Yameth’s shoulder as a Lizardfolk outside called for a ladder and some wood to board up the window. It seemed like this company was prepared to hold Beth here safely.

As it happened—and as Beth, Leneva, and Geneva in general was entirely used to—things never worked out quite so smoothly.

 

——

 

It was just past sunrise, and Yameth was wide awake. He would leave, patrol the town, and trot back in, and each time, Cein, the Tallguard, would swing up his crossbow slightly, though he never aimed at the Centaur.

Beth couldn’t sleep, though Leneva had managed to—mostly by putting a pillow over her head and curling up like a snake in a corner of the cell.

Yameth hadn’t managed to find either Ithaca or the Gnoll-Geneva’s trail from the river, and he hadn’t pursued them far. He looked annoyed by his failure, but he was clearly wary of something out there. He glared as Cein shifted with his crossbow in hand as he came through the doorway.

“You make my [Dangersense] tingle every time you do that.”

The Centaur snapped at the Tallguard the eighth time it happened. It was probably around seven o’ clock if Beth were reading Cein’s watch right.

Both had been up all night. The Tallguard checked his timepiece and shrugged.

“I’m not going to embarrass my city. Technically, you shouldn’t be patrolling like that. You leave yourself open to being sniped, and it means you might get ambushed.”

The Centaur rolled his eyes.

“That’s fair if I wasn’t a Centaur; trap me in a room and I’m in danger. I need to stretch my legs, and checking on our forces matters. Second, moving in a typical patrol often lulls idiots into attacking. I trot the exact same path every hour like some kind of braindead Golem. You wouldn’t believe how many people try to sneak up on the Forgotten Wing’s officers and take us out. They never see our [Rogues] waiting for them.”

“Oh. Is that why the [Sentries] look so vulnerable?”

The Captain snorted.

“You haven’t seen the [Rogues], then. Advance companies like ours have as many as eight. Ambush and counter-intelligence specialists. Three-Color Stalker trains some of them. I swear, I’m always nervous I’m going to bump into one of them when I use the latrines.”

Both he and Cein looked around, and the Tallguard triggered something on his side. What looked like tiny lines of light flashed around the cells, and he swore.

“I don’t sense anything! My wards are great at spotting enemies sneaking up on me. You sure?”

Hey, who’s the rogue on my ass?

Yameth barked into the cell. Beth stared about—then she heard a loud sigh.

Captain…the Titan has a bet going on how many of the Tallguards on assignment spot us. You just invalidated your Tallguard.”

Both Yameth and Cein jumped as a grumpy-looking Lizardwoman sat up. She was one of the eager Lizardfolk [Guards], who had appeared to be snoozing against the wall. Yameth pointed.

“See?”

Cein swore a bit as he eyed the [Rogue], who shot Beth a quick glance.

“All’s quiet? Where’s our damn escort, and why’s it taking so long?”

“Centaurs.”

Yameth responded. He jerked a thumb at his chest.

“Not me—but Maelstrom’s Howling is in the forests. They’re…casually patrolling around. We think they want to jump any Selphid or people they find. And believe me, a Centaur blitz on our lines will not be fun. There’s also Jungle Tails. Somehow, they hired those mercenaries to jump us. We think they have a force skulking around the area—hence my inability to pursue those other two Genevas at will.”

“Great. Odds they know these two are in town?”

“Vexx assured me that he only told us, which means he probably only told some other Nagas. There’s Selphids in town—and this is a Lizardfolk town.”

“So they might be coming in any minute.”

The Fraerling finished. Yameth tossed his head.

“Not if they know what’s good for them. We have tripropes spread out across this town. We’re not some rookie company—we’re an elite group. They’re invisible, and Maelstrom’s Howling knows that the Titan is not playing foal-games here. They charge in? Poor bastards are going to break all four legs. We’re waiting on a flying escort.”

“I hope it won’t come to violence. I’ve had enough of that.”

Beth spoke up, and Cein and Yameth turned to her. Both looked slightly amused by her statement as the [Rogue] settled back to ‘sleep’.

“Fighting like this is a way of life in Baleros, Miss Selphid. Fraerlings and Tallfolk—if it’s not each other, it’s monsters.”

“I am sick of it. I will not participate. Nor do I want to be an object to be fought over. Leneva’s the same.”

Beth held their gazes. Yameth opened his mouth slowly.

“If you are a [Healer]—and the Titan himself has been in touch with me, Miss Beth—I think you will have your chance to do good. He may be a tricky monster, but the Titan is not an idiot. He—”

“Contact!”

The Fraerling snapped and aimed his crossbow up so fast that Beth didn’t see what he had spotted for a good second. Yameth’s sword cleared his scabbard, and the [Rogue] snapped.

Magical spell on us! Sparrow Company, all stations!

Lizardfolk leapt up, and Yameth stepped back as the tiny crossbow aimed at—

A young woman. She had hazel eyes and brunette hair. And she was sitting in a wheelchair. She rolled through the wall of one of the iron cells as Yameth shouted.

Stop—

“It’s a projection. We’re made. Who is—wait a second.”

Cein shouted as the young woman stared blankly at Beth’s face. Then…Beth recognized her, and her lips moved. Leneva sat up—and the groggy Lamia focused on Erin. Then her eyes opened wide, and she breathed the name before Beth.

“Erin Solstice?”

Leneva whispered, and the apparition of the [Innkeeper] blinked. She looked around, as if studying the cell or…something Beth couldn’t see. Then she frowned a second at Beth—then someone to Beth’s right—then said in a hesitant voice.

“Are you…Geneva Scala? Hey, Niers. I levelled.”

The [Healer] felt a sudden chill roll down her spine. Yameth’s head rose, and he stared at Erin, then Beth and Leneva. Then…

A strange call began.

 

——

 

The Earther call with Geneva Scala included Geneva Scala.

All of her. They were silent throughout. Beth, in her cell, just listened, eyes wide, trying to piece together everything. But unlike a lot of Earthers focused just on Erin and the conversation—on her end, she was staring at the other Genevas. And they…and much of the focus was on her.

All of hers. Cein was whispering to Yameth, keeping his voice low so as not to intrude on the main conversation. The Centaur was reporting to someone via speaking stone.

Yes, we are in the cell—do you want her moved? The projection might track us—we are made! No contacts yet!

Meanwhile, the Tallguard was staring at the other Genevas.

“That one. That one…Tallguard Cein to Iuncuta Eirnos. Sweep the river. The one we’re at is, uh—I think they called it Toothwater Maw? Sweep up it. I’m staring at a beach of some kind. You’re looking for a pair of Genevas. One’s a Jellyfish Drowned Woman, the other’s a Gnoll.”

Beth focused on the one he was talking about and saw—

Geneva Scala. Ithaca and the Gnoll woman standing side-by-side. That Geneva focused on her, and the two traded looks. Ithaca nodded, and the Gnoll woman raised a paw.

I see you.

Then they were running. Beth wished them the best. Leneva hesitated as Yameth and Cein strode past their cells. She hesitated, biting her lip, glaring at them. Beth was more direct.

She stuck out a foot, and Yameth tripped. Beth, in turn, nearly had her foot kicked off by the hoof. Yameth almost slammed into the ground—then turned and glowered at Beth. She raised her hands as Cein caught himself.

Whoa—Tallfolk almost went down. Sorry, the prisoners aren’t happy. What’s our order, Iuncuta?”

Beth rubbed at her foot, feeling the skin was damaged as she sat in the cell. Leneva gave her a mildly horrified look.

“You could have broken his legs if he toppled over.”

“We’re doctors. He’ll live. Do you want Ithaca to get away or not?”

“Of course I do, but what about ‘do no harm’?”

“I’m allowed to trip people. I always thought I was being a bit of a holier-than-thou prat, honestly, talking about it like I couldn’t harm a fly.”

“Don’t say ‘holier’. Remember?”

“Oops. Sorry.”

Yameth and Cein ignored the back-and-forth as they waited for orders. The Tallguard heard a terse report eight minutes later and shot to his feet.

“I need a squad. Now.

“Take two. Go, go! [Haste Formation]!

Yameth was still giving orders, but the Tallguard was out the door like a shot, the [Rogue] with him. Beth could only sit there with Leneva.

Erin Solstice’s message did not go unnoticed by her. But as it was finishing and she slowly disconnected—everything else seemed to crystalize around Beth in one moment. Things went south fast.

Contacts! Back to the town! Back, back! They’re coming in now! Two sides!

“Maelstrom’s Howling and Jungle Tails! I count Nagas—thirty of them—where did they—”

A rush of voices. The door slammed open, and Yameth raised his sword and then shoved past someone who skidded into the cells. Cein appeared, crossbow empty, as he fired something outside. And then?

Leneva was clinging to the bars as Beth climbed to the window. The prison shook as horns began to blare. Leneva shouted at Cein.

“What’s going on?”

“Two Great Companies are attacking us! Keep your heads down. Someone get that cell open! Beth, get out of the window if you don’t want an arrow through your face!”

Cein snapped. He leapt to one of the prison windows, cut a hole in the wood boarding it, and began to fire through. Leneva spoke in a rush to Beth as the Selphid dropped.

“Beth, I’m so sorry. Ithaca and her friend, you—she’s right. We have to go where we’re needed. And if each one of us takes a place and people—but I did not want this. No matter what, we have to tell them to stop this madness of fighting and death.”

Something about the way she talked…Beth hesitated.

“What are you talking about? Leneva? The Forgotten Wing Company isn’t evil.”

The Lamia was staring out the door. Beth heard a shout.

Gorgon! Gorgon coming in—

How had Jungle Tails gotten here so quick? Maelstrom’s Howling was fast, and this Gathering Citadel bordered their territory. But Jungle Tails? Even if they had been told by Vexx…why were the mercenaries already in place? Baleros wasn’t a hop and a skip to get an entire fighting force right here, and Niers Astoragon had taken everyone by surprise. Even if a few days had passed…

Leneva looked at Beth, dead serious.

“Is any Great Company good or evil or just part of this bloodletting, Beth? They’ve committed so much horror. Too much. And this death. I am sick to death of it. I would rather someone capture me and let me just heal. But not the Titan. If we are to be split up—I thought—”

She had Beth’s hands in her own, and though the Selphid could not feel them, she saw Leneva’s determined, nervous expression. Her hands were…shaking as one of the [Mercenaries] unlocked the cell door. Beth was struck for a second.

You told them where we are.”

Cein’s head slowly rotated, and Leneva backed up as the Lizardfolk guards froze.

“I didn’t know you were here. I wanted them to pick me up. They’ll listen to me, I hope. Beth—this is my fault.”

Already, she could hear the screams of pain outside. Leneva just shuddered as she turned.

“No more. An end to it. I’m tired of this entire continent.”

She whispered, and Beth realized she was holding something, clutching it to her chest. She had taken it from a bag of holding. Yameth pointed at Leneva.

Stop her—

But it was no weapon. The Lamia offered it to Beth.

“Here, Beth. You can use this better in the Forgotten Wing company, I think.”

The Selphid gasped as she saw what it was.

“What is that? How did you steal—?”

The Lamia held it out as the Selphid took hold of it. The other [Doctor] whispered.

“The others died because they ran ahead. I hung back to find it. We must do one good thing in this world, you understand, Beth? This was worth my life. N—”

The wall blew in, and Beth fell over. The shockwave of sound and light overwhelmed her senses, and she clutched the object to her chest as she fell. She felt not the pain of the wall coming in—but she was shocked, afraid—and when her vision cleared and she found a huge slab of stone on her chest, she shoved it off her.

Then she realized those lightscars from the citadel still hadn’t quite vanished. The permanent damage to her retinas made seeing in the dust harder after the flash that had reactivated the wounds. She looked up—and the Lamia was shouting.

Stop! Stop! Don’t kill them! I’m here! Don’t—

Cein nailed a Naga through the enchanted breastplate. The Naga fell over; a Gorgon leapt through the door.

He had a buckler in hand and deflected the second crossbow bolt, tiny as it was. He reached out—

And Leneva took his hand. The Gorgon raised a stone as he dropped his buckler, and the two flashed.

They vanished in a blaze of light. Beth stood there, holding the item Leneva had given her, and the fighting—

Continued.

Lizardfolk wearing the insignia of a lizard’s tail were fighting the Forgotten Wing Company in the streets. But they were being hacked down as their suicidal rush into the cells left them open to—

A Centaur charge. Maelstrom’s Howling came forwards in fury, Centaurs shooting arrows into both sides’ backs and then lancing the Nagas from behind. One broke into the prison as Cein dropped his crossbow and drew a sword. He leapt, a grappling hook swinging him down towards a Centaur.

—However, the Centaur saw the miniscule Fraerling, twisted, and caught the struggling Tallguard in a flash of movement. He seemed to stutter-step forwards in a blur—and Yameth went down, a spear in his hindquarters, and two Lizardfolk fell, screaming from wounds in their legs.

He was a high-level commander. The Centaur focused on Beth and cursed as the Selphid retreated.

“Only one of the two. Maelstrom, we ride!

He grabbed at her, and she fought him as Cein cursed and went limp as the Centaur squeezed. He had her! She was shouting, protesting.

Not again! Stop! I will not let you—

She went to punch him, to force him to let go before he killed the Fraerling. In reply, the Centaur raised a hand as he yanked her off her feet, and the Selphid felt a blow across her neck that should have knocked her out. But she was a Selphid, and it only disoriented her. The Centaur noticed it, grabbed her head, and sighed.

“You have to break their necks—”

He cracked her neck, and all her nerve-connections snapped. Beth could only stare out her corpse’s eyes as her body went limp. The Centaur heaved her up, then frowned. He twisted around in a blur of quick steps—aimed his spear up.

“…What was that?”

The Centaur looked right, left—then narrowed his eyes. Beth, lying on the floor, heard voices.

Just fell over—

Gas attack? Magic? Watch th—

She heard the thud of bodies falling, and the Centaur slowly rotated on his hooves. He waited as the sounds of fighting slowed, and someone shouted.

I see them! Selphids! Sel—

Then they went down. To what, Beth could not say. But the Centaur waited. He sidled over, giving whomever was out there no view of his body, and waited. If they came, he would kill them. Beth saw his eyes rotate, scanning for intruders. Then she felt the faintest presence of…

She had been taught to use telepathy. If she concentrated, Beth could sense the Centaur, the unconscious minds around her; some wounded, but many just unconscious. Yet it seemed to her like there was one more presence responsible for this sudden silence. 

And it was creeping in via one of the tiny windows. So stealthily the Centaur never noticed it. Then he whirled and mid-curse as he raised the spear—hesitated.

“What the? A duck?

He threw, and the spear snapped in the air. Then the Centaur’s eyes rolled up, and he collapsed slowly. He fell over, and Beth rolled over and saw one of the agents of the Minds. Then she heard it.

“Quack.”

She stared up—and a duck slowly fluttered into the cell. It landed on the ground and pecked at the floor. Beth…just stared at it. Stared, and stared—until the duck looked at her—and she pieced it together.

It looked like a duck. It quacked like a duck. Until you realized that the ‘quacking’ sound was just in your head. Then…you might see it, past the artifice it projected into your mind.

The smallest Mind in the entire world, a little orb two-thirds the size of a soccer ball, floated over to her.

The Duck regarded Beth, then spoke to her.

“I am sorry, Geneva Scala, you were put in the body of one of us. We have done terrible things. This little Mind has come to make amends.”

She stared at it and wondered what fate had in store for her next. She waited for the Duck to summon its minions and spirit her away. But the mini-Mind just floated there.

“What are you going to do to me?”

Beth whispered. For reply, the image of the duck in her head pecked at the ground, and the Duck answered.

“I don’t know. I just hit things and unlock doors. I guess the Forgotten Wing company will get here soon? I hope so. I’m not a big thinker, you know. I’m the Duck. All my Selphids are [Rogues] and [Psychics].”

 

——

 

The Duck was part of a Named-rank team called Fowl Play. And yes…it had chosen the name. The Selphids in the team varied, but they were generally at least Level 30. A team of six in current standing—but the peculiarity of the team was they had a mascot.

Their famous duck. It looked like an ordinary mallard with a green head and speckled dark wings, and it would survive every monster encounter, raid, or whatever they did. People would pet the duck, feed it, and rumors abounded that Fowl Play replaced the poor duck, but it was a good luck charm.

The truth, of course, was that this Selphid team was being carried by the duck itself. And the ‘Duck’ was, in fact, the smallest Mind ever to be made.

Eighteen Selphids. Not hundreds. Eighteen individuals, or rather, nine [Rogues], nine [Psychics] had combined to become the most specialized Mind in the world.

The Duck, as it liked to call itself, did not ponder any mysteries of the world. It did not try to solve issues of the Selphids. The Duck claimed it was fairly unintelligent, in fact, and did one thing really well: open locks.

“~I can find any trap, I can unlock any door. I sacrificed my intelligence for so much more ♬. If you need wisdom, find someone else! But if you want to open a treasure chest, I’m the best!”

It also sang. Because so few Selphids went into the Duck, its personality was no gestalt of many perspectives—it was an adventurer, a thrill-seeker.

And right now, it was singing as it floated down the hallways of one of the most famous landmarks in Baleros. That was, namely, the capital of the Forgotten Wing Company.

Elvallian. Beth walked with the floating Duck—the rest of its company was being treated as guests as the two were led forwards by the highest-level [Mercenaries] she had ever met. Tallguard Cein and Captain Yameth were following, eying the ‘Duck’, whom they still saw as fowl fluttering around.

But the voice and identity of the Duck unnerved them. The Duck was amazingly careless with its identity—or it seemed to realize the time for secrecy was over.

They had just disembarked from the flying carpets that had arrived to secure Beth and the prison—but not Leneva, who had vanished with Jungle Tails. The Duck had knocked out everyone fighting and allowed Beth to be…saved?

She wasn’t sure. Was this what she wanted? Beth didn’t know, but the Selphid—both Selphids, actually—walked ahead as the doors opened, and the carpeted hallway high up in the academy led them to their fate. The person Beth first saw, pacing in a conference room beyond was—

Geneva Scala.

The Last Light of Baleros stopped when she saw Beth. Her eyes went wide. She recoiled, and Beth knew she had to be seeing the image of the Mind-Geneva upon her.

“I—I’m not her. I’m just me.”

That was the first thing the Selphid said. Then she held up what was in her hands. What the Lamia had given her.

“I’m not sure what’s happening. But I brought this.”

Geneva stared at her, face white—and then her eyes slowly focused on what Beth held. It was—

A microscope. The microscope, in fact, that the Sixth Mind had made for her. It was damaged, scorched, and waterlogged from Leneva’s escape, but she had carried it out, and the artificial creation still glimmered with magic.

“You rescued it?”

“One of us did. Someone has to keep researching the Wasting. And that someone might be me. After all—I’m a Selphid now.”

And I am the Duck! Salutations, Geneva Scala! The Minds—the other Minds—have sent me to repent for our mistakes!

The Duck chirped, and Geneva recoiled from it as she realized what it was. Her face went paler, and she stepped back.

“You stay back. You—who are—Geneva?”

“Beth. Elizabeth Scastein.”

It sounded worse every time she tried it out, but Beth said it to make Geneva feel better. She knew how she had to be feeling. She stepped forwards uncertainly and looked at Geneva. Did she see something orange…?

She thought with her mind and reached out and sensed the Selphid there.

“Okasha?”

“Okasha.”

Geneva confirmed Beth’s suspicions, and the two stopped. So she was prisoner in her body again? Or had she trusted Okasha after…?

“Who else made it?”

Beth asked. She offered the microscope to Geneva, and the [Doctor] nearly dropped it.

Careful!

“It’s heavy! Thank you, Okasha.”

“Oh.”

The other Selphid had used Geneva to catch it, but Beth hadn’t even realized the cumbersome artifact probably weighed sixty pounds, having a lot of metal in it. Geneva put the microscope on the table, looked at Beth, and seemed lost for words.

“Who else made it? You’re the only other—me I’ve found. The Lamia…I don’t know how many there were. Did you hear where the other two were going?”

Beth shook her head after a second’s pause. She felt instantly guilty, not telling Geneva the truth. But Niers Astoragon led a Great Company. She’d tell Geneva in private about Ithaca’s plan—once the Drowned Woman had a head start.

And like that, I’ve taken a side, even if it’s just me…against me? Beth felt weary now.

“What comes next? What happens now?”

She was so tired. And as if he had been waiting for this moment, because he had been watching, a figure stepped out from behind a cup on the conference table. The Titan glanced up at the Duck and then bowed to Beth as she recoiled.

“That, Miss Beth, is something we must decide. But it will not be against your will. That I promise. No Mind shall ever hold you again. And when I am done with Jungle Tails—no mercenary company either. I promise you that on my company and by the Fraerling cities.”

He tipped his hat to her, and the Duck chirped.

“Yes. No more. We are at your mercy, Titan. Let it be a truer mercy and wiser than the folly of the Minds you saw die. But perhaps it shall be Geneva Scala who decides, for once.”

They looked at each other, then at Geneva as a Squirrel Woman appeared in a seat, scaring Beth again. But then the [Healer] realized she might be safe after all. Which made her…

All the more lost. But then she saw that microscope and saw her path.

 

——

 

“I cede it to you. My name. You have my—our levels. You have our body, our face. You are the Last Light of Baleros—unless one of us wants the title. I’m happy to leave it behind. Call me Beth. I think it’s sticking. The Duck calls me that.”

“How can you stand to be in its presence? It unnerves me. Especially because no one can tell who it is. Even the Titan has trouble unless he concentrates.”

Geneva Scala and Beth Scastein stood in the first thing they had ever been given in the Forgotten Wing company.

A laboratory. It was sparse at the moment and doubled as an operating room and was furnished less-well than the Mind’s setup for them.

Both preferred it more. In fact, there was less call for Geneva’s talents, or Beth’s. The Forgotten Wing company did not lack for [Healers]. Beth was tuning the microscope, frowning at what she saw underneath it.

“I don’t know. Perhaps the Minds made me think I am a Selphid. Or perhaps I’m just acclimatizing to this body. But the Duck is a Selphid. I am one. So let me take on the Wasting. You should go to the United Nations company and the others.”

“You don’t want to come with me? Are you sure?”

Geneva looked troubled. She sat, devoid of Okasha, so the two could talk completely alone. With Beth’s help, she could walk, and her own psychic powers were enough to let her move clumsily around. She would nevermore be completely helpless.

She was more powerful than Beth, as a [Doctor] and as a telekinetic. Beth stared at Geneva for a long moment.

“No. I don’t want to be a pariah. I don’t want their sympathy or to be…I was almost glad of it, Geneva. You have a great burden, and the thought that I—we are no longer alone—”

“—It helps.”

Geneva finished the sentence. They did that, now and then. Thoughts converging the same way, but Beth could sense them differentiating already. Just like how Ithaca had been willing to paralyze the guards and Leneva refused to work with Niers…

This would be a fascinating case-study of a soul or personality splitting across bodies and perspectives. A shame I don’t study that kind of science. But why not?

“Leave the Wasting to me. Tell all the Genevas that. I am a Selphid; it will come after me. I will go amongst our…my people and do what I must.”

“What if the Minds try to force you into something again? Or turn you into a Mind?”

Beth bared her teeth.

“They can try. But I think the Duck is honestly here to avoid that. I would like to believe they understand it is better to leave us alone. Or give us support and not interfere.”

That was, ostensibly, why the Duck was here. It had presented itself to Foliana and Niers, who were rightfully distrustful, with a simple offer. If it was unwelcome, it would leave. But if Geneva Scala or the Forgotten Wing company had need of them, the Duck would be a valuable ally.

“So you’ll handle the Wasting like we promised. Leaving me to…”

Beth carefully tuned the sample slide into focus.

“Go back to the United Nations company. Have a life. Work with Niers Astoragon, but be careful. He’s a dangerous man. No saint.”

“I know. What are you looking at?”

The two Genevas were, ironically, most comfortable with each other. Despite Beth being a Selphid, Geneva treated her like the sister she had never had…which meant the two sort of got on each other’s nerves. Especially because Geneva’s first question to Beth when hearing of the Calexn surgery was whether it had been unethical to use her Selphid body like that—or to subject the Lizardboy to that much trauma and danger with the harvesting of the tissue grafts.

“If I thought it would save his leg, I deemed it ethical, which meant you deemed it ethical. You would have done the exact same thing as me, so I would appreciate not being lectured. You don’t enjoy it, I assure you.”

That was the kind of mind-bending statement they snapped at each other. Still…Beth was glad of the company.

“Selphid cell samples. Those Fraerlings truly did fix up the microscope.”

“It took them a week. I think they were surprised and offended to learn anyone could match their level of innovation.”

Both doctors smiled wryly at each other. Fraerlings, the ones who had descended on the Forgotten Wing company, were…interesting. They were helpful, intelligent, brave, and had a society equivalent to Earth’s on many levels.

But they were also fairly egotistical, the lot of them. Niers Astoragon, naturally, was the archetype of his people in that regard, but he was also fairly compassionate and determined, it seemed, to make Geneva trust him even if that meant giving her space to process.

The Fraerling [Mages] and [Engineers], though, were not at all shy about tooting Fraerling technology. Only to be told, to their chagrin, that Fraerling microscopes were largely inferior to Earth’s.

For a species so small, they seemed to have a blind spot in considering things smaller than them. Repairing the microscope to Beth’s standards had taken a while, but she was back to studying cell cultures.

“Selphid cells. They really are unique.

What Geneva and Beth saw were those distinctly…geometric cells, with the hard cellular walls as opposed to malleable tissue membrane. Long nuclei and such an alien cell structure that it unsettled the two doctors, like sci-fi horror images.

“Hm. It looks like the other samples we’ve seen. Not the Wasting. You can tell; the Wasting appears to break down the cellular walls like ‘cracks’. It’s obvious at a microscopic level, and even the metabolic one. This Selphid’s healthy.”

Geneva murmured out loud, running her observations by herself. Beth snorted lightly.

“I should hope so. It’s me.”

Geneva’s head snapped up, and she regarded the young woman—who had faintly green hair and darker skin. New body, same Beth. She had limited taste, and the body was in mint condition; her old one had been falling apart, and the joys of taste, touch, and yes, smell again, were so apparent to her in their absence.

Although this body had a slight problem with the nose. It was like having shoes that didn’t quite fit until you got used to them.

“I’m studying my own cells, and I’ve pestered other Selphids for samples. Here. Stained. The Fraerlings can even dye cells.”

She provided Geneva with eight more samples, which the doctors inspected. Geneva, frowning, went from slide to slide, then stepped back, put her head back, and, raising her glasses, pinched the bridge of her nose.

“Are you sure you want to continue this, Beth? Because I have a headache already; there’s variance in some of these slides; two look like they have Galas-muscle or whatever the equivalent in Selphids is.”

“That’s probably one of the Selphid [Commanders] and the Duck.”

Geneva had observed that without even reading the slide samples, confirming the fact that nuclei changed colors or seemed to even grow with additional genetic information or magic when they achieved Galas-functionality. The [Doctor] made a face.

“Yes—but none of these samples indicate any way the Wasting is combatted. And we have looked at hundreds, probably over a thousand Selphid samples with no conclusive data.”

“True.”

Beth smiled slightly as she put her knees to her chest and sat on one of the tables. She felt nimble, and the one benefit of the Selphid’s body was the ability to run, jump, and do whatever she pleased. She could feel the tension in the muscles, but as long as she didn’t snap any—

Geneva watched Beth in a far more static pose—then she levitated up slightly so she could cross her own legs. Her mind was powerful, but she seemed weary.

“…You’re hiding something.”

Beth’s smile slipped.

“You sensed that. It wasn’t on my face.”

She accused the Human, and the [Doctor] raised her hands.

“Guilty as charged. I cannot stop it, Beth. I can sense—mischief. You—have you figured out something about the Wasting?”

“Leave it to me. I am intending to go to the Dyed Lands. Or rather, a few Selphids are being rotated out from the front there. I believe that if our conclusion to the Minds was accurate—we will find in their cells a hint that a cure to the Wasting is there. But I have a hypothesis…”

“Tell me.”

Geneva focused on Beth, squinting, trying to figure out what the Selphid had learned. She seemed irked by the possibility she had fallen behind herself. But it was a conclusion only Beth could come to. Mischievously, the Selphid smiled.

“It’s only a hypothesis…I wouldn’t want to taint your conclusion with my half-baked data.”

“Beth, I swear to you, I have sworn to harm no patients. But I will kick myself.”

Geneva Scala got up in such excitement she would have shaken Beth—but without Okasha, she had to sit back down hard. Beth relented and leaned over to Geneva.

“I am basing my analysis not on empirical data, but limited observation as a member of the species, Geneva. It may be that I am completely wrong. But if I am right, the question of why Selphids waste away no longer becomes an open one. Nor can it be attributed to malice on another species’ part. At least, I do not believe so.”

“Becoming a Selphid gave you insight into their biology? What? What is it?”

Geneva focused on Beth like lightning to a lightning rod, and the Selphid smiled.

“I imagine because it is a normal thing to Selphids—none of them notice it at all. It is a unique conclusion only born from a Human perspective in a Selphid body. The Mind-Geneva—Evil-Geneva might not have even realized it since the Minds created her.”

The [Doctor] shuddered, but then she leaned over.

“What is it?”

Beth looked herself in the eyes, then nodded. She reached up to adjust her spectacles—then remembered she didn’t wear any.

“Since I have been—created—it has been about two weeks. Two weeks, and I have been cared for quite well. The first few days of surviving were tough, but I’ve been fed, clothed, given a new body, and do you know what, Geneva?”

“Hm?”

The [Healer] whispered to herself, a stunning conclusion. A suspicion that put the Wasting in a new context.

“I ate ants on my first real day of wakefulness. Then food. Teyis thought I was ill. Then, when I got here, I gorged myself until I was sick. I can’t eat as much as you, not with a Selphid body—it just gets stuck. But I ate and ate, Geneva, until I was beyond sated. And do you know why? I feel so hungry.

She smiled wider, and Geneva Scala’s pale yellow-brown eyes snapped up, like a cat’s eye stone in themselves, and the conclusion hit her at the same time. It was not the satiety of food that Beth craved. Or if it was, it was no food she could eat, and she had eaten such a variety that even Foliana had wondered if she had too diverse a palette.

Nor might a Selphid who felt this all their lives realize how odd it was. But Beth, a Human—felt it.

A craving. Selphids were hungry.

But—for what?

 

——

 

She was not Geneva Scala. That was a kind of mental refrain going through Beth’s head. It was—uncomfortable seeing her face and seeing the mind behind it—and the unease with which Geneva looked at Beth.

It made the Selphid feel like a parasite. But by the same token, she realized she really didn’t envy Geneva at all.

“Doctor Scala. I have eight questions for you today from my city. Ten from the others. Here’s a handy list—but would you have time to talk over your answers? The experts keep coming back with questions and clarifications.”

“I can do that. Who am I speaking to?”

Iuncuta Eirnos pulled a huge face as she accosted Geneva over breakfast. Niers rolled his eyes.

“That would be me. Privacy reasons. We have volunteers who might fly out just to meet you. Which would be a pain to organize security and training for those cityfolk who’ve never seen a beetle in the wild and think they’ll eat out of your hand.”

Fraerlings were fascinating. They were the only people who ‘got’ what Beth and Elizabeth were doing and were thusly impressed by the [Doctors].

And unsettled.

The amusing thing was that in a world of healing magic and potions, the more magic you had, the more barbaric the idea of delving into the body and the brutality of cutting, even breaking bones to suture and stitch flesh together, were.

Fraerlings hadn’t forgotten [Restoration] existed. True, they didn’t have full-scale access to the spell, but Beth felt like they treated her and Geneva like [Saw Doctors] from the old parts of her world’s history.

She didn’t blame them, but there was nuance to her opinion. Niers Astoragon coughed as he looked at Eirnos.

“I can give you an hour of Geneva’s time, Eirnos. But after that, I really do need her.”

“For what, Titan?

The one-eyed woman was not impressed with his titles. Foliana, sitting between the two, leaned out of the way of the two Fraerlings locking horns as she nibbled on a moldy mushroom.

“Three-Color Stalker, that’s really not good for your health.”

“Miss Foliana, that’s likely to make you sick—”

Geneva and Beth both spoke at the same time. They glanced at each other, surprised both by their overlap—and the fact they’d said different things. Beth had spoken first and more authoritatively.

Niers and Eirnos focused on the mushroom, and both recoiled. Did you think mushrooms couldn’t get moldy? This one had growth on the growth…and it was wet. In a state of decay.

Foliana was gagging a bit, But she forced the mushroom down.

“Someone likes it. I think. Yuck. Yuck.”

It was difficult to even watch. Eirnos lifted one eyebrow, grimacing.

“Can’t you eat something else?”

“No.”

The Squirrel was the leader of a Great Company, and no one could gainsay her, not even Niers. The Titan shot back at Eirnos as if he were used to watching his companion endure food poisoning.

“She’s teaching my [Healers], Eirnos. You can send Fraerlings to watch and learn too if you wish. An hour and twenty-two minutes from now.”

“As opposed to teaching Fraerlings, Titan? Who’s better placed to understand what the good [Doctor] is saying?”

He rolled his eyes.

“Tallfolk need her expertise more, and we are in a position to mass-produce her tools and concepts. Fraerlings need little; even with the Eir Gel shortage, one bottle of the damn stuff will hold over a Fraerling settlement for ages. Actually, we have two [Doctors]. Miss Beth, would you consent to…?”

Reminded of Beth, the two Fraerlings turned to her just in time to see the [Healer] close her eyes and flick a finger.

The mushroom Foliana was nibbling on shot out of the Squirrel Beastkin’s paws. Foliana blinked at it, but she was so nauseated she only made a half-hearted attempt at a grab. The mushroom spun past a [Servant], who recoiled—and straight out the window.

Niers, Eirnos, Geneva—and the [Servant] with a second course of fly agaric mushrooms, the red, spotted shroom that looked like the archetype of all poisons—all stared at Beth with a kind of horror. Foliana’s eyes narrowed.

Beth pointed and, with a mental push, sent the other shroom flying out the window too. Three-Color Stalker caught it in a simple leap.

“Stop that. I’m eating.”

“That is literally poisonous to your digestion. As a doctor, I forbid you to eat it.”

Foliana opened her mouth with the mushroom’s red cap in it. She stared at Beth, perplexed.

“I’m Three-Color Stalker. Mm. I own…this. Everything.”

She gestured around the entire palace. Beth pulled with her mind, but the Squirrel-Woman was too strong. Foliana closed her mouth—then drooled on a bubble of force.

A telekinetic bubble. The Duck, the mini-Mind, had claimed that psychic shapes were useful, akin to how [Mages] had ice-walls. This one was fragile. Foliana poked it twice, then clapped her paws and imploded it.

The explosion of mental force made Niers wince, but he was patently fascinated. Eirnos just rubbed at her temple.

“Telepaths. Great. I thought only Fraerlings were experts. And Selphids.”

Niers snorted.

“Beth is a Selphid now. All the Genevas have picked up the ability—that’s something else to see if we can steal. It’s obviously possible. Not everything our kind does is superior, Iuncuta. With that said—Beth, Foliana is trying to backtrace a monster. We’re reasonably sure it eats mushrooms, but it’s also killing people. One of the Yellow monsters from the Dyed Lands.”

He grimaced.

“We need a better word for that. Not yellow. Sunrise Yellow? Something classy.”

Foliana watched the mushroom tug in her grip. It was a weaker tug than Geneva could produce. Even with her [Doubled Mental Presence], Beth had realized she was about a quarter as strong as Geneva at telekinesis.

Size mattered. Mental ‘force’ from her was coming from a tiny Selphid. Just like magic, telekinetic strength seemed to scale with the body. The Skills she had acquired probably helped to correct that, but there was no way she’d be able to grab the mushroom from a [Rogue] of Foliana’s level.

So Beth spoke instead.

“The likelihood even someone of Foliana’s constitution will get ill from this—or pick up something untoward—is far too high. You haven’t even roasted the mushroom. That other one was in a state of decay; it could have parasites.”

“Mm. I have to eat it like it’s enjoyed. You can’t boss me.”

“I forbid you to eat it, Foliana. For your own good.”

The Squirrel Woman’s lips moved.

“Forbid. Me. Hmm.”

She opened her mouth, inserted the entire mushroom, and began to chew. Beth stood up. Three-Color Stalker swallowed defiantly and folded her arms. She had defeated Beth with the powers of mastication. The mushroom was down—Niers was watching Beth with great interest.

What are you going to do now? Beth marched over and looked Foliana up and down. Then she turned to Geneva.

“Have you replicated a stethoscope? Do you have any records on other Beastkin? I will have time for the Iuncuta or whomever Geneva is teaching later, Niers. But at this moment, Commander Foliana and I will need an hour. I’ll write up a checklist, Geneva. Can you ratify it tonight?”

“Checklist? What? I’m busy.”

Foliana tried to hop past Beth, but this time, the Selphid grabbed her arm, and she was physically stronger than Geneva. Foliana blinked at her as Beth stared at her.

“You need a checkup, Commander Foliana. We’ll start with your medical history. Then move on to your diet and any symptoms. We need to create the process from scratch. Even if you insist on your diet, you need proper meals in between them.”

“What? No.”

Foliana shook Beth off with a weird wrist-twist that made her paw vanish out of the Selphid’s grip. She vanished as well…and Beth saw Niers’ lips quirk.

“If you want to try—maybe start with someone else, Miss Beth? Foliana is impossible to control. Ask Perorn. She’s fighting in Izril, and it’s a holiday compared to managing Foliana.”

“And you.”

Eirnos muttered under her breath. Niers frowned at her, then paused. Beth was staring at the open door where Foliana had probably escaped through. Then…slowly…she rotated. Her head turned, and she stared pointedly at the chair where Foliana had been sitting. It was still pulled out. After a second, Beth reached out.

A glowering Three-Color Stalker reappeared, and Eirnos swore. Geneva had been looking the same way.

“I hate telepaths. Thinking quiet is hard.”

Foliana bounded out of the chair. Beth ran after her.

“Foliana! It will not take long, but you need someone to make sure you’re in good health! You broke dozens of bones, you eat anything you think is necessary, and you’re in your advanced years!”

“I’m not old!”

The angry Squirrel Woman turned back—and she and Beth began to squabble. The sight of a Selphid woman trying to drag the famous [Rogue] to a room for examinations while Foliana swatted at her with her paws drew such a crowd of the Titan’s students that classes had to halt for half an hour.

After all, everyone was used to Niers doing unhinged things. But Foliana? Geneva Scala caught Beth’s eye as Foliana pushed the Selphid into a broom closet and locked the door with some lockpicks in a flash then bounded away. The [Doctor] seemed amazed.

She was really surprised when Beth kicked the door straight off the hinges and went after Foliana.

 

[Healer → Headstrong Healer class obtained!]

[Headstrong Healer Level 14!]

[Skill – Locate Patient obtained!]

[Skill – Medicine: Remove Flaw (Single) obtained!]

[Skill – Quicksilver Stitching obtained!]

 

[Telekinetic Level 8!]

[Skill – Indefinite Lift (Mental) obtained!]

 

——

 

The Duck floated in the air as Beth dangled from the ceiling of Foliana’s tree-rooms. It wasn’t the best place to conduct a training session—but Beth couldn’t get free.

“How did she do that?”

“[Rogue Trap]. Rope. I’m trying to undo the knot, but it keeps tightening. Quack. Even her simple Skill traps are hard to undo.”

Beth was just glad that she didn’t suffer from blood rushing to her head. She was glaring—but she had failed to break the ropes even with her Selphid strength.

At least she’d managed to get through half of Foliana’s interview before the Squirrel Woman had announced she was ‘bored’, caught Beth’s feet up, and dangled her from one of the tree branches.

The entire room that mimicked some great tree branch and a nest higher up was fascinating to Beth—and so was the Duck honestly.

It hovered there, and when the knot finally undid itself, the Selphid Mind caught her.

“There. Three-Color Stalker is a very good [Rogue]. Better than any one of my component minds. But all together, this Duck can match her quack for, um…whatever sound squirrels make. Quack for squeak-scream.”

Beth sat up slowly as the Mind lowered her to the ground.

“Geneva doesn’t trust you. Neither do I.”

“This is hurtful but fair. Rest assured, though—I am a deadly duck, but Three-Color Stalker and Niers Astoragon could kill me very quickly. I am the weakest of all Minds. A useful helper, but not a killer. Not like the legends of Baleros. You need to know who you are, and both you and Geneva can benefit from mental training. The Second Mind did only give you the basics.”

Beth sat cross-legged warily…then got up. She hadn’t been hurt by Foliana, and the rope trap had only left her more resolved to chase down the woman.

No one else would, not even Geneva. But Beth turned to the Duck first.

“Have you had a medical checkup?”

The Duck recoiled and quacked a bit.

“Me? I self-tend my Selphids constantly.”

“I don’t know enough about Selphid—our physiology to judge. But I should find out. So you are going to teach me more telepathic abilities?”

“If you want.”

The Selphid Mind seemed diffident. A welcome change to be sure, but Beth was still wary.

“What do you do in your Named-rank team?”

“That? Oh. Pick locks. I can blind a monster. Set a trap.”

“You? Set traps?”

The indignant little ball actually lifted something up and shook it at her. A cloth sack.

“I have a bag of holding! All I do is toss down a bear trap, arm it—I don’t get to use Skills, but I am the greatest [Rogue]-amalgamate living! I can pick a lock from the inside, just by moving the tumblers! And there’s nothing stealthier than me. I have no footprints, no lungs to give me away—”

“You quack a lot. I can hear you think. Get out of my room.”

Three-Color Stalker spoke, appearing on the branch of her bedroom. Beth and the Duck jumped. The Mind screamed.

“Aaah! Wait, you can hear that?

“Mm.”

The Squirrel woman looked amused. Beth pointed at her.

“Family history? Do you know anyone who’s had a disease or—”

“Out.”

Foliana landed and tossed Beth out of her rooms. Then locked the door. Beth rolled out into the corridor as the Duck floated after her.

“Did you just try to stop Foliana with your mind? You’re crazy. And I’m the Duck.”

“It didn’t work.”

Trying to stop Foliana from moving was like trying to stop a tank with a dandelion. Not only had it been hard to get a ‘fix’ on her—Beth stared up at the Duck.

“If you want to help me, answer me one question. Why is Geneva so much stronger, mentally, than I am? Even without levels, we are both essentially the same mind. I think it’s because I’m smaller than she is, but why does that make sense?”

The Duck floated past Geneva. To a passing servant staring wide-eyed at the woman who had annoyed Foliana, it looked like a duck was sitting on Beth’s head. Beth got up as the Duck continued.

“That’s simple. It’s because the shadow of our mind is the reflection of our body. The mind and body are connected. If it’s the power of your thoughts—you and Geneva are equals without Skills. But the weight of your mind in moving objects is bound to your Selphid body. Don’t worry. Your Skills like [Doubled Mental Presence] will accrue faster than Geneva’s, especially if you work at it. And technique will make everything easier. But this is good.”

“Why?”

Beth sat up as the Duck begged for a snack and the servant offered it a piece of bread.

“Why, because otherwise I could lift this entire citadel. Balance matters. I have often said to the other Minds that they should be cute Ducks or dogs or divide up like me. When they grow large, they grow pompous. Are we rulers of Selphids or companions and guides?”

That answered a lot. She still didn’t trust the Duck…but as Beth sat up, she thought she was at least willing to listen to it. Then she went to sit in front of Foliana’s door. After a moment, she called out.

“I am willing to take my answers in writing, Foliana.”

No one responded. But after a long, long moment, Three-Color Stalker’s voice came out, muffled, from behind the door.

“Go. Away.”

 

——

 

Beth’s bullying of Foliana, the most famous [Rogue] in Baleros, was not missed by the staff of the palace. From servants to the [Mercenaries] of the Forgotten Wing, her stock rose instantly upon seeing that.

Geneva Scala was a story to many who wanted to shake her hand or talk to her. Beth…was the crazy Selphid [Healer]. Their reputations influenced how people talked to them.

Among the Fraerlings, Geneva was the ‘Earther doctor’, and something of a rival in terms of her medical prowess. A friend to the United Nations company. It meant they came to her respectfully, with a hint of challenge and determined to show her they were the equals of her world, if not better.

Beth was just a funny Selphid—since the nature of her cloned identity wasn’t out.

“Psst. Miss Tallfolk. Uh—Beth, right?”

Most Fraerlings were also not as impressed by Beth taking on Foliana. The [Headstrong Healer] blinked as a Fraerling strode over.

“Hello? Can I help you?”

By ‘strode over’, that meant the Fraerling was speaking from one of the Fraerways overhead as they did not share foot space with Tallfolk. But the Fraerling was very energetic and had that wide-eyed look of a tourist.

“Are you…a Selphid? Oh, it’s fascinating to meet another one! I have a report for Geneva Scala from the ‘front’ all written up. Interviews with Tallguard battling monsters. I was told to file it…do you know where?”

That was the problem with getting set up. Beth hesitated.

“I think they moved the filing cabinets so the Fraerlings could access them. It’s a shared room—I could take it for you.”

The Fraerling sighed in relief.

Thank you. I’ve been walking for the last two hours asking for anyone who knows—you can’t bother the Titan, and only the senior staff seem to know about Miss Scala’s project. My feet are killing me. This is no city like home—but fascinating. Can I pass it to you from a window?”

There was a way for Tallfolk to place objects in ‘loading bays’ or via windows into the Fraerways. Beth picked up a teensy folder that a [Scribe] would have to re-transcribe and tried not to say it was cute.

“You’re from a Fraerling city, then? Not one of the Tallguard?”

She could have guessed based on the wide-eyed look the Fraerling had. She had bright yellow hair spiked up with gel or something and a pair of glasses that seemed to make her eyes huge. Magnification?

“That’s right! I’m a [Doctor] from the cities. Doctor Yeiyan at your service! I’d shake your hand but the Tallguard tell me that’s a good way to get hurt. Mind you, I saw a bird up close and nearly fainted the other day. What a terrifying place!”

She was chatty, energetic, and Beth immediately loved her.

“You don’t even see birds that often?”

Yeiyan shuddered.

Birds? We have pet ones in the aviary our Tallguards use to travel with, but even those are dangerous. They’ll take your arm off in a single peck! The largest animals in a Fraerling city are…dragonflies? Hump Beetles you ride on? Nothing like here. I heard there were rats in the Fraerways, and I’ve been jumping at every shadow. Although the Tallguard are constantly patrolling!”

She pointed to the serious fighters, who did indeed patrol the Fraerways and wiped out all threats to their kind. Yeiyan pulled something out and waved it around. A teensy wand.

“They even gave me a wand for self-defense. Self-defense. Imagine needing a weapon to just walk around! At least it’s only [Paralysis].”

Beth smiled sadly.

“I’ve heard how safe Fraerling cities are. Thank you for coming out to help with the medicine.”

“Oh, well, I had to. Tallguard are [Medics] and [Healers] at most. They rely on potions. Someone had to bring you Tallfolk up to snuff.”

Yeiyan beamed, and Beth paused.

“…Right. We’re not all incompetent. I’m a doctor myself, you know. I don’t have the class, but we might work together.”

The Fraerling paused.

“O-oh. A Tallfolk [Doctor]. That’s very good of you. Do you, um—are you a [Sawbones Doctor], a [Plague Doctor], or a [Bloodletting Doctor]? Those are the three I’ve heard appear in your societies.”

“…None of those.”

“Very good, very good! You know, we have something called blood transference. It’s a very handy thing where Fraerlings can exchange blood—but it’s complex. I was told the Last Light knows about it, which is impressive.”

Beth was straight-faced.

“I know about that too.”

Do you? Wonderful! Do you wash your hands before you work? That’s very important, you know.”

At this point, Beth decided she should stop playing dumb. She smiled.

“I do practice proper hygiene, Miss Yeiyan. In fact, we’re working on a proper disinfectant we can cheaply clean our operating theaters with. Cross-contamination between blood transfusions would be terrible if we get the practice going among us Tallfolk. Of course, we’ll have to index all the blood types. They have eight main types among Humans—and far more given mixed species and all the other peoples of this world.”

The little Fraerling [Doctor] paused in fiddling with her glasses. She peered at Beth.

“…Um. You seem rather up-to-date on most medical knowledge. For a Tallfolk. But if you have any problem with a patient, allow me to help! We can remove organs in Fraerling cities, you know. Infected ones that you think are sickness—even your tonsils. See? Mine are out!”

She opened her mouth, and Beth smiled.

“Do you remove the appendix regularly in your profession?”

She nearly knocked over Yeiyan with shock. Then the [Doctor] sprang to her feet.

“Who are you?”

Beth’s smile widened.

“A doctor.

 

——

 

Half an hour later, no less than eight medical practitioners, two Tallguard, six from the cities, were having a spirited argument with Beth in one of the rooms where Fraerlings and Tallfolk could organize.

“—it’s all aftercare in the cities. Which is why I went and joined the Tallguard. They don’t come whining to me about painkillers two weeks after an operation.”

“Why couldn’t you just use a healing potion?”

Beth sat with one of the grousing Tallguard [Healers]. The [Doctors] were groaning in sympathy. Some were [Healers]; one was a [Physician]. There were no [Surgeons], because magical medicine mostly just meant that level of specialization was rare.

“Sometimes they’re allergic. Or it’s just best not to overload the body with healing potion. Ironically—you Tallfolk with your weaker potions strain the body less. We can develop resistances to our stuff because it’s so high-grade. You know about allergies where you come from, Miss Beth?”

The question came with an innocent stare from the Tallguard. They kept doing it to her, and Beth smiled politely.

“Absolutely. Do you have any antihistamines for Doctor Geneva and I to look at?”

“Anti…what’s your term mean?”

The group instantly wrote this down. Beth’s eyes twinkled.

“Allergy-suppressing medication.”

“Oh, well, of course! By the way, did you know that it is possible to reduce allergies via exposure? That was one of my specializations!”

Yeiyan raised a hand excitedly. Beth’s face was deadpan.

“Absolutely. Although with beekeepers, the longer they’re exposed to bee venom, the weaker their tolerance becomes. It’s a huge problem in the beekeeping industry where professional keepers are forced to retire.”

The Fraerlings fell silent and glanced at each other. After a second, Yeiyan whispered.

“Ooh. She’s good. But that implies you keep honeybees, Miss Beth! We keep the cute little ones. Sweat bees, masked bees, cellophane—honey bees are too big and dangerous for Fraerlings. Ours help our [Druids] pollinate.”

“Ah, cross pollination, of course. But do you work with bees because it’s simpler than doing it by hand or have your people found there’s some benefit?”

Argh! She got us!”

One of the Fraerlings plucked a hat from their head and danced on it a second as the others clapped. And like that—Beth had won their respect. Then they began gossiping and trading information freely.

“It’s so much fun being here—although the injuries are terrible. Tallguards are fighting hard against the monsters and Jungle Tails. But the worst ones are the lightly-wounded Tallguard.”

Yeiyan confessed to Beth. The [Healer] blinked.

“Oh? Why? Because you’re operating on them when they’re awake? I’d have thought you had anesthesia or magic for that.”

“Oh, no. We can put them to sleep. But I have to chase them around and stop them from hurting themselves worse while they’re in recovery. Tallguard bounce off the walls. Have you seen what they’re doing on that balcony on the second floor?”

Nothing would do but for the Fraerlings to make Beth take them there. And unlike the Tallguard, who would ride on your shoulders or head—they could either follow her in the Fraerways or she could carry them in a cage that resisted falls or impacts.

There they are! Miss Beth, arrest all of them! Halt, you lot! You’ll smash your heads open!

Commander Rozcal and a bunch of Tallguards, some with broken arms or light wounds, froze as a group of Niers’ students and Fraerlings gathered around.

“Aw, it’s the healers! Jump, jump—”

A Fraerling was on the second-floor banister leading down to the first one. As Beth walked over, she saw a Tallguard dive off the balcony—and the bungie cord attached to their legs caught them a literal centimeter before they hit the ground.

Look at them. One miscalibration and they smash their heads open. The rest of them are gliding off the roof! What happens if birds attack, Commander Rozcal?”

He laughed, a tiny man with a booming laugh.

“That’s what bows are for! It adds to the excitement! Hey, Healer Beth, you wouldn’t stop us from having fun, would you?”

Beth glanced down at the bungie-jumping Fraerlings. The healers looked at her, and she addressed Rozcal.

“I wouldn’t, Commander Rozcal. But it seems to me the students might accidentally run into your jumping Fraerlings. It’s not that safe, is it?”

Rozcal looked around at the Titan’s students pushing to get a look.

“Eh, it’s safe enough…”

“Would a helmet take away from the thrill of having your head striking the ground?”

Yes it would!

Half the Tallguard shouted indignantly. Beth leaned over and smiled at Rozcal.

“Would a dead Fraerling take away from the thrill of this game? Because no one here can save someone whose brains are splattered on the floor, Commander Rozcal.”

Oooh. The healers looked at her, and Rozcal’s face went slack. Then he grumbled.

“…Fine. We can put on a Crelerbane helmet. That thing will save you from anything. You’re tougher than most Tallfolk, Miss Beth.”

She smiled at him, then winked at her new friends, who were cheering.

“I’m just doing my job, Commander.”

 

——

 

A day later, a woman was ticking off boxes on a list. She hadn’t organized it yet, but it was a sample sheet with a lot of items. She read them off to another woman, who was busily fabricating up a kit you could pack into a small case. Surgical needles, gauze, thread—bags of holding existed, but not everyone could afford them. This had to be compact and have enough to deal with most contingencies.

“Blood types. Past history of diseases. Checking for parasites…addictions to new types of drugs, magical damage. Physical scars. Presence of Galas muscle. Skill-based curses or other effects?”

“We need Fraerlings. They have the technology to detect these things. A comprehensive medical checkup gives us records. Records become a database.”

“The Titan will use that database. He’s all for itemizing his people’s levels. If we can build it, he will use it.”

“That is a necessary tradeoff, Geneva.”

Geneva Scala glanced over at Beth, and this time when both looked up, neither could quite read the other’s thoughts. They could guess—but something was happening.

“You want to let him make his company stronger?”

Geneva’s voice was offended. Beth’s was exasperated.

“I thought we went over this. It is far better to work with a Great Company to effect a greater change in the world—even if it makes him, personally, stronger. That is how it works in our world.”

“Yes, but he doesn’t need to go to a bloody war. Beth, I am all for working with Niers Astoragon and Paeth. But I will never be an unconditional witness to a slaughter again.”

Beth gave Geneva a brisk nod.

“Then have it out with him again. But I’ll take a blood bank and figuring out how many blood types exist, Geneva. Okay…field kit’s done.”

Geneva glanced over at the wax-wrapped satchel and the items Beth had layered inside it.

“There’s only four needles. You don’t have anything other than two poultices, Beth. No potion?”

“Healing potions will not be available for all. Four needles are enough. Most poorer [Healers] will not be able to afford a set of sixteen. One of these satchels should cost less than a gold coin and contain everything a [Healer] can use to save a life.”

“Fraerling medicine—”

“—Is not scalable. Not until we copy their industries. And before you say people are working on healing potion remedies, Geneva, I am planning for the immediate. How’s the PPE looking?”

“What’s that?”

Geneva and Beth were talking so familiarly that it was hard for most non-Earthers—no, non-doctors to follow. In this case, it was Geneva’s friend, Okasha, who hesitated as Geneva turned.

“Personal Protective Equipment. The gloves, Okasha.”

“Right. You want a set, Beth?”

“For the field kit. Yes.”

Here, at least, they were more thorough. Along with the field kit, Geneva had established a baseline of gear in her clinic. The Yellow Rivers had required full-body suits, but even if they lacked those—

Goggles with glass eye lenses sewn into leather, a thick leather butcher’s apron, a hairnet, and thin gloves were the basic necessities for any Geneva and anyone she took into the operating room. Thankfully, each piece of gear had come from a different class.

Flying goggles for Fraerlings and other beings that rode aerial mounts or moved around fast were available, if not exactly cheap or easy to obtain. The apron was the kind they sold to a [Butcher]—ironically fitting. The hairnet and gloves were from [Chefs] who wanted to keep contamination out of their food.

“This is the easy part. The clean room for our samples is done. [Purification] wards on all air vents and a [Cleansing Bubble Barrier].”

“What’s that?”

Beth was interested as Geneva mentioned a room devoted to keeping their medical lab equipment and samples clean. Geneva pointed to the door leading to the clean rooms, and Beth thought she saw it; it shimmered like an actual soap bubble.

“You can walk right through it, but it should be a very effective filter, and we must trust the spells. I might ask for a filter on the air ducts anyways, and they are not exposed to the Fraerways.”

“Smart. Is it HEPA?”

Geneva almost smiled at that.

“Close as we can manage—or perhaps better than Earth. As for biocontainment, we will be using lab suits. Foliana was helpful there. [Rogues] apparently have full-body diving suits and self-contained helmets if they think they’ll be exposed to toxins in the air or swim through sewers.”

Beth had to smile ruefully at that. Everything they needed was here in some form or other. It was just making the system that was tiring.

In fact, Geneva was still going. She had a boundless amount of energy—Beth had a headache, but the [Doctor] was fiddling with her glasses.

“I’m writing up a post-triage system now that I have the help of experts like the Fraerling [Alchimagi] and [Physicians]. We can follow patients and prescribe the right treatments. But we’ll need a code system and speaking stones geared to every expert.”

“A switchboard? You’re going to need someone to run that. And [Scribes], [Secretaries]…”

Geneva nodded.

“I’ve asked the Titan to provide it all, and to his credit, he has. I could use your help with the filing. Or you can chart the anatomical encyclopedia I’m working on. We might have to print books so we standardize disease and anatomy, especially if we train people.”

“I thought one of the other Genevas was doing that.”

Both Beth and Geneva had heard of the Dullahan giving lectures to other [Healers] on the scrying orb. Geneva frowned.

“She is—and I am trying to get in touch with her. But we can work on multiple fronts together. Communication and organization are what I’m working on with a Great Company’s help. After that comes imaging, better diagnostics.”

“Right. Good luck with that.”

The [Doctor] paused for a moment, blinking.

“What do you mean, ‘good luck’?”

Beth smiled faintly.

“I’ll let you handle that. But I’m going to head out now. And I don’t think I’ll be staying at the Forgotten Wing Company.”

Geneva was so startled she didn’t reply. But Okasha spoke up, mystified.

“Head…where, Beth? Aren’t you staying?”

Beth just shook her head.

“For now, yes, but not indefinitely. My calling isn’t here. Geneva’s allowed to focus on the lofty medical goals. As for now, I’m flying out.”

She grabbed the gear and stuffed it into her bag of holding. That prompted Geneva to follow after Beth.

“You? Flying? I’m not lofty—where are you going?”

The angry Human stalked out of her laboratory after Beth. The Selphid called over her shoulder as she ran down the hallway. Fraerlings walking through the Fraerways above idly watched the two angry doctors arguing.

To the soldiers from the front! Niers is rotating them back—some have magical ailments or toxins from fighting the monsters in the Dyed Lands! You prepare the lab for treating them—I’ll triage!”

The [Doctor] skidded to a halt. She looked after Beth with a kind of exasperation all over her face.

Beth! We’re [Doctors]! You can’t just run ahead—they’ll be arriving here, and we can do this in an organized manner!”

She caught the running Selphid’s smile as Beth shouted back.

That’s your job. But someone needs to be there as they’re bleeding, and that’s me!”

The nimbler Selphid was running ahead with no concern to how she’d treat the patients’ long-term ailments—she was trusting Geneva. And there it was.

Beth could articulate the disconnect between her and Geneva now. And it was that Geneva was doing the most boring job in the medical practice: taking care of people. She knew what Geneva was doing was essential. If she could create a hospital or a system based on her ideas, she would save countless lives.

However, Geneva had been studying long enough to know the job. Outside of an emergency room, and even in it, there was a process.

Have the patient establish their own chief complaint. Gather history from them, narrow down the differential diagnosis, order lab tests—

The efficient world of Earth’s medicine could bore you to tears at times. If Geneva made it, Beth would rejoice. But what called to her was the immediacy of rendering aid. Not the battlefield, necessarily, but the difference between being in the front and organizing it all. Yet Geneva was happier and believed she needed to set up the system.

The difference flashed between Beth and Geneva, and then they were drawing apart. And Geneva Scala glared. Perhaps in envy or just in annoyance that Beth wasn’t seeing the big picture. Then the [Doctor] whirled and caught the eye of a waving Fraerling above her in the window of the Fraerways.

“[Physician] Toppledes, meet me in our operating room! I need [Battlefield Healer] Rothefieln, and—[Alchimagus] Sopren.”

She called out to one of the Fraerling’s advanced [Healers] and named one of the Forgotten Wing company’s best Tallfolk [Healers]. Sopren, another Fraerling, completed the four senior experts in treating wounds, diseases, and ailments.

By the time the [Soldiers] returned with Beth’s preliminary checkup, Geneva would be ready. But the [Doctor]’s exasperation was because Beth was racing ahead. It was like two sisters, one older and more responsible and the other younger, impetuous.

 

——

 

“Who are you? Who’re you, Miss? They said the Last Light was waiting. Am I going to make it?”

The coughing Human had something in his lungs. Spores, poison? She didn’t know, but Niers had ordered him encased in a bubble-spell. How were they going to test for it?

Gauze and microscope probably. See if they could find particulates?

“I’m Beth. The Last Light is waiting—tell me what happened. Does anyone else have a record?”

“It was one of the Yellow things. Sprayed him—”

“Lizard, mushroom, something else?”

“Uh—uh—it looked like a giant damn skunk. Smelled like one, but it didn’t just make us gag. Half the battalion were sick, and some fell over.”

A panicked [Soldier] escorting the wounded one babbled a recap of the events. Beth was writing on a [Message] scroll. But she took the man’s hand a second.

“The Last Light will be waiting for you. Just wait a little bit longer, alright? I’m telling her what she needs to know.”

“Thanks. I can make it, I think. Lasted two days—just—”

He had a rattle in his lungs, but when he stared ahead to Elvallian in the distance, the [Soldier]’s gaze had that hope in it that made Beth so afraid. She kept patting his hands.

“If you can talk, tell me what you’re feeling and where it is. I might need to listen to your chest and look in your mouth, alright?”

She had to know where the damage was—a visual inspection instantly showed her damaged mucosa reaching down into his lower airways. But the man seemed grateful for her inspection and notes, which she was sending rapid-fire to Geneva. And still he looked for her, trusting she could do the impossible.

Yes, Beth would far rather be the [Healer] on the ground. She patted his hands and let him stay on the stretcher that was coming towards the city on foot. They had propped him upright because if he lay down, he might die from choking on whatever was agitating his lungs.

Chemical irritant in his upper and lower respiratory tract. Tell Geneva to get a breathing tube and Jar of Air or something. Full physical, monitoring, and we have to make sure he’s not still breathing dangerous poisons around.

The Titan had taken Geneva at her word to isolate victims of the fighting, but the exigencies of travel meant he had to compromise when he felt the wounded weren’t a danger to those around them. And sometimes speed would be the difference between them getting here or not at all.

We just need—to identify and catalog a world of ailments and then be able to rule out one after the other. Is this poison? Is this magic? Is this allergens?

That was the point of the database. Beth hoped that the other Genevas, including the Dullahan who had also claimed the ‘Last Light’ title, would be able to make use of what she and Geneva were doing here.

But again—she was glad Geneva existed. Because it meant Beth could be right here. And once she had written up a report on the wounded and organized them, she turned to the Selphids.

There were [Healers] enough in Elvallian. Half were flooding out to meet the [Soldiers] rotating out from the front pushing towards the Dyed Lands. The Titan had organized his supply lines such that he could pull back wounded or tired forces. Beth hadn’t seen such a thing in her limited time on the front lines; she supposed that was his talent and the power of a Great Company.

Because she was a Selphid and because she had Geneva—Beth was not glued to the injured. She took half an hour, in which case she trusted Geneva was doing her utmost to save lives. Half an hour, in which some of these poor people might pass away.

Could she have saved them if she ran after them? Perhaps—but she had to trust there was a system being built, and the system was more important than she.

And she was after a bigger enemy. That was—

The Wasting.

The Selphid [Mercenaries] were wary of even the Titan’s own chain of command. They were candid about a lot of things, but Beth, even as a new Selphid, understood that the destruction of a Gathering Citadel and six Minds had shaken the Selphids who made up a backbone of Niers’ company.

However, they were happy to see another Selphid acting as a [Healer], and that instantly gave them a rapport with her. Especially when they saw the quacking duck.

“Is that the Duck? Hello! Who’s got a bit of bread?”

“Quack, quack.”

The Duck was following Beth around. It actually quacked. The little Mind would take pieces of bread, then eat them.

Beth tried to keep a straight face as the Selphids cooed over the mascot. It seemed barely any of them had any inkling the Duck was more than a…duck. Even within their own people.

“What do you need, Miss Beth? I’m not wounded—just tired. Body’s a mess, but whatever hit me missed. We’ve got a bunch of spines this Green thing spits out for you lot to look at.”

Beth frowned at the green-tinged holes in a grinning Selphid’s body that she pointed out. Beth tapped the Selphid.

“Go in for a checkup. I’ll make you an appointment—and switch out that body. The toxins might be hurting you.”

“Aw. Come on—”

“No buts. And if you want to volunteer, I could use where you were relative to the Dyed Lands. If anyone was in the Dyed Lands or closest, I need to speak to them.”

The confused [Mercenary] scratched at her chin.

“There are a few. The Titan pulled a few [Scouts] out. Selphids only?”

“Yes. Would you volunteer to give me a small bit of your body? All I need is…”

Beth indicated, and the Selphid stared as she pulled out a vial to store the sample and began to write notes.

“You want part of me? Why? It’s not a problem.”

“I’m investigating the Wasting. Don’t worry, none of you are in danger. Rather, I’m looking to see if the Dyed Lands can help fix it.”

That news made every Selphid in earshot whirl around. They looked at her, then began to crowd over.

“Are you sure? It’s not causing the Wasting, right?”

Is there a cure? Take a tiny bit of mine—”

“Did the Last Light put you up to this? The Titan? After the citadel, I thought—”

“Shh. We’re not presenting well. Let’s talk in private or inside. Who’re you, Beth? Are you Terandrian?”

By the end of it, Beth had nearly a hundred samples. She thanked each Selphid and was assured she could find them via their names later. She was heading back to the capital when someone tapped her on the shoulder.

Healer Beth. The Titan wished us to speak to you. He states you have need of our services. I am Necrosa Division’s Mage-Lieutenant. [Corpsemaster] Rirex.”

Beth turned—and stared into the eyes of a [Necromancer]. He was a Selphid, and his own body seemed exceptionally well-preserved. She blinked a moment.

“The Titan employs [Necromancers]?”

“We fulfill double roles in battlefield management and combat. Our presence is not usually advertised. I normally collect the dead—many [Mercenaries] have clauses for their bodies to be used by Selphids or returned to their families, so I do not animate them long. Enemy [Soldiers] are likewise better used for Selphids.”

The [Necromancers] of Baleros had a different perspective on death than most continents. Thus, a [Corpsemaster] was almost akin to a [Necromancer], an [Embalmer], and a [Merchant] or [Quartermaster] combined.

Rirex was a high-level Selphid and shot the Duck a glance. Then he leaned in as he pointed to a covered wagon.

“I have collected what the Titan wants in a bag of holding. I would have refused…but I understand what is being done. You have the support of the Forgotten Wing.”

“Yes, of course.”

Beth assured him, but it hadn’t been a question. Rirex’s brows rose.

“You have the support of the Forgotten Wing. And the Bodies of Fellden.”

She froze and recoiled suddenly in a panic, but the Duck chirped before Beth could shout her alarm.

“Rirex, among others, serves Selphid goals. The Bodies of Fellden are not anywhere here, are they?”

“They have no desire to clash with the Titan. Healer.”

He handed her a bag of holding and stepped back. Shaken—Beth stared at him until she looked into the bag of holding and saw what he had collected. Then she was reminded.

Medical advancement was always built upon…

…the bodies of at least a hundred Selphids that Rirex had collected. Useless to [Necromancy]. But to Beth?

She somberly took the bag and hoped for a clue.

 

——

 

Beth was a Selphid. It made her part of a people, and whether she liked it or not, she suspected it influenced her way of thinking too.

However, she was not unwilling to embrace this culture. She had every misgiving about what Selphids could do from her time as a Human as Geneva Scala.

—But she also had some sympathy towards Selphid existence. In her fresh body, she had taste, smell, even the vaguest sense of touch. But to live without it was hard.

It was not an excuse, but she also had a sense of just how much another Selphid, Okasha, had been tormented during her captivity.

When you were out of a body, sensation was magnified in some ways. Light felt harsh—and if you were in a glass jar, the slightest sound was overstimulating—and you were helpless.

A combination of both being blind—and yet blasted with over-intense light. Deaf, but aware of booming sounds. Trapped in a small world of perception.

Okasha in her natural state, out of Geneva’s body, was also a lot more retiring than Beth remembered. Or maybe that was the effect of captivity.

The two met in neutral ground, which was a bowl of water they poured into and talked in. To Beth’s surprise, Selphids could exist in a bowl of water without issue. Which suggested they could derive oxygen from the water, like a fish.

Communication underwater was also not a problem—when two Selphids met, they ‘talked’, and shared ideas and communicated such that Beth could feel some of Okasha’s memories and senses like a real thing.

You’re so…strange! You don’t behave like a Selphid at all, Beth.”

“And you’re shyer than I thought, Okasha.”

“Yes, well—you’re bold as brass, Beth! Look at you, inchworming along!”

That was how Beth moved, like a caterpillar. She was climbing over some objects in the bowl; the Selphid-made container had props, much like how a room had furniture.

“I’m not supposed to move like that?”

For answer, Okasha rolled forwards, like a pool of magma. Beth instantly copied her, but Okasha assured her she wasn’t wrong.

“Some Selphids move like that—it’s just super confident.”

Like walking with your chest puffed out, Beth supposed. She was amused…until Okasha whispered.

“Do you think Geneva will ever trust a Selphid again? She needs me to walk—but she can move with her mind. Could you fix her?”

“I don’t know. Maybe with Fraerling help, but her nerves are damaged, and they’ve been long healed. I…would hope she trusts you, Okasha.”

“She says she does. And maybe she can stop me if I go insane again. But I’m…sorry. About everything. Bodies, real, living bodies, are too much for me. Everything else pales in comparison.”

It was almost like speaking to a drug addict who was describing the world when they weren’t high on something.

In fact, it wasn’t a bad comparison. Beth knew she could eat blood, and the byproducts of her own body fed into her. But Geneva’s body was producing adrenaline, all kinds of hormones…maybe the Selphid’s incorporation with her wasn’t one-way.

“Tell me more about being in Geneva’s body.”

“I don’t take over! I just assist—”

“No, I believe you. But it’s still hard to imagine how you can co-exist without damaging her.”

“It’s…tricky. I have to make sure not to push anything around, and I can’t move through the membranes and break a blood vessel to move. Also—I keep having to make sure the body doesn’t hate me.”

“Hate you…oh, the immune system reacts to you?”

Okasha moved around restlessly.

“It’s sort of used to me. Yeah, you have to deal with that. And learn what things you can do to help Geneva. You can make her tired or give her a boost of energy—but that’s bad. That’s…touching the Minacien Wall. I’m not going to do any of that unless she asks, I promise. The Duck talked with me, and I think Geneva and I will talk things out more.”

“Good.”

Okasha peeked at Beth sidelong, or rather, her entire body moved out and nudged Beth.

“…You could take my place. Then it’d be two Genevas in the same body.”

Beth thought about that only a moment.

“I think we’d annoy each other to death, Okasha. I’m doing my own thing, and we’re too alike—and not alike—for it to work.”

“Oh. Okay. But I just want you to know—I like you. I mean, it’s hard being a Selphid, sometimes. But is it wrong that I was happy that you’d know how I felt? It’s like—I think the other Selphids feel the same way. The Last Light is a good person. She’ll help everyone. But you know what it is to be us.”

Beth considered this, then she did the equivalent of a ‘nod’, her body rippling in affirmation.

“I’ll try to help, Okasha. Promise. But I won’t be a tool of the Minds.”

“Of course not. But any Selphid will help you if they know what you’re doing. Promise, Beth. By the way…I have something for you. I dunno if it’s a gift, but when you asked to meet, I thought I’d ask.”

A gift? Okasha timidly offered Beth a ball. It was…a ball for the two Selphids, tiny—and given how small they were, it was miniscule.

But it was hard. Semi-malleable, so nowhere near the level of metal. Beth played with it, tossing it to Okasha, who ‘tossed’ it back underwater.

“What is it?”

“It’s Geneva’s lucky orb. I made it out of her body.”

You took something from—

“No, no!”

Okasha hurried to explain to Beth.

“I don’t think it’s supposed to be there. I’ve never found it before, and I’ve been in all kinds of bodies. Maybe it’s because she’s a telepath? Or from Earth? I found bits of it all over the place. Then I formed it into this. Tada! I love it. I keep finding more scraps, and it’s not metal or anything that dissolves…do you know what it is?”

Beth felt the ball all over and didn’t know. Only when she returned to her body to ‘look’ at it did she do a double-take. Then she groaned.

“…I think we should show this to the Fraerlings, Okasha. Or the Titan. And Geneva. You might lose it, sorry. Maybe we can replicate it or break it down.”

“What? Is it valuable after all?”

Okasha was stunned. Beth though—massaged her forehead as she stared at the tiny ball of microplastics. Geneva was not going to be happy about this one. If Selphids ever got to Earth and Beth managed to show a lawyer this—they were going to have a field day suing everyone. But maybe this was useful?

There was a lot of potential in the Forgotten Wing company. Plastic, Selphids—if there was anywhere to find an answer to some of the questions plaguing this world, Beth hoped it was here.

 

——

 

The process of analyzing Selphid tissue, corpses and samples from living Selphids, was long and tedious. And that was before they even got to Geneva and Beth.

An entire team of Fraerlings was doing the job.

First, fixation of samples with a [Stasis] spell to prevent them from degrading or changing. It also meant that Geneva and Beth weren’t as worried about dangerous contaminants—though they were still in full PPE.

Second, dehydration before the samples were sectioned—and again, Fraerling magic could desiccate anything they wanted. They were quite taken with the concept, and then they embedded the samples in wax before sectioning the microscopy samples.

One of the top [Alchimagi] came in himself to deliver another batch, including a monster from the Dyed Lands. He pointed at it excitedly.

“We’ve got the last batch for the day, [Doctors]. It was fun enough to get half of Rozcal’s unit in on the job.”

“Fun? Thank you. What was so fun, Alchimagus? Sopren?”

The Fraerling’s eyes glinted.

“Sectioning the damn samples, of course! We had to get an Adamantium greatsword off one of the Armorbane units to cut the green one. We didn’t even have to stain that sample. You’ll see.”

He bowed his way out, and Beth raised her brows. The dyes, ironically, were the hardest thing for the Fraerlings to copy. But when they’d heard Earth and the Minds had found a dye that could bind onto the cells, they had worked day and night to replicate the process. It seemed they were unused to being bested, so they were working harder on this than obliging the Titan’s requests for arms and magic, or so Beth understood.

And grateful the two were for it—but both couldn’t help but groan as the final shipment arrived. Putting each sample on a slide, dying them so she could get a good glimpse of the samples, and then noting down miniscule changes under a microscope was not how Beth or Geneva had wanted to fulfill their career on Earth.

“I’m not sure what I’m looking for. We could do multiple zoom levels if the Fraerlings upgrade the microscope.”

Beth complained after processing fifty-two samples in over six hours that evening. Two days had passed since the first wounded had arrived at Elvallian, and they had been getting samples all day. The [Doctor] sighed.

“Neither am I. The cell structure is so damn strange. They have cellular walls instead of membranes—I think they’re cellular walls. Chitosan rather than cellulose? But Selphids are so flexible…”

“Maybe we’re closer to legos on a fundamental level? Geometric connections—but so remote that we seem organic and fluid higher up?”

“Hmm. I don’t know what the comparison I’m looking for is. We’re not biologists…but I can’t help but feel like Selphids match some organism perfectly.”

Geneva scratched at her head. Beth paused—and her eyes lit up.

“What, a slime mold? Perhaps a magical one.”

Geneva whirled and snapped her fingers in relief.

That’s it. How do you keep remembering all the terms I can’t come up with? I have to dive back into my memories to do that, and it’s not easy. Because you’re a Selphid?”

She looked exasperated and envious. Beth just smirked.

“[Perfect Recall].”

“And you do not want to help me with coming up with a glossary of all the medical terms? I’ll make you write it!”

Geneva shook a fist at Beth—then the two went back to discussing slime molds. There really were a lot of parallels, and now that Beth thought of it, the parallels were obvious.

Wait a second. If her factoids about plasmodial slime molds from a project in high school were accurate…weren’t they able to pass on information between molds once they met? Almost like Selphid Minds. She shook her head in amazement.

“Biology and magic mixing. I really do wonder if the magic in Galas muscles shortens a lifespan or induces cancer or other unpredictable elements into the body.”

“Magical cancer?”

Both women shuddered. Then Geneva reached for another slide.

“You keep doing the Selphid samples. I have something else we just pulled from the Dyed Lands.”

“Aw—”

“I’ll bet you on who has to do the next thirty.”

The two stared at each other—then after a silent count of ‘three’, they threw out a hand.

Paper beat rock. Glumly, Beth went back to the Selphid samples, dying a batch as Geneva put her new item under the scope.

“What are you seeing?”

“…The first [Mercenaries] to push towards the Dyed Lands haven’t gotten there yet because of how many monsters are flooding out. I think a few [Scouts] made it close—but at least one died. It must be horrific fighting different ‘colors’, each with their own ability.”

Beth nodded somberly as Geneva spoke. Each monster had evolved over hundreds of years, seemingly, to be an exceptionally dangerous predator. It appeared like each color refused to hunt its own side; small or large, if something was Green, for instance, it would predate and be preyed upon by another color.

Fascinating ecosystem. But practically—Geneva gestured to what she had.

“There are other specialists looking at the horns, claws, organs—mostly for alchemical or other uses. I asked for a few samples for the microscope.”

“And?”

“…It’s all one color. Take a look. I didn’t even dye it.”

Geneva stood up, and Beth looked at the most colorful tissue sample she had ever seen. If Geneva hadn’t told her…

“It’s green on a cellular level. No, the cells and protein have to be auto-fluorescent. Or it’s just magic, but everything is green. Organelles, nucleus…ah! Wait a second. The cell’s morphology resembles myotubes. Look at those alpha-actinin. Z-band structure and striated. How bad did they say the monster they fought was?”

She didn’t want to imagine it. Geneva Scala shook her head.

“They claimed they had to use mithril to even cut the sample off it in the field. The Fraerlings used Adamantium to do the sectioning. This came from a monster that apparently grew and regrew. Perhaps it’s part of the regeneration factor?”

“Could be…”

“Here, keep working on the Selphids. I’m just curious. If I had a computer, I’d be making a full database of images. As it is, files.”

“There’s a computer in the United Nations company. When are you going to go back and tell them you’re alive? They saw you in the call. They had to.”

Geneva pretended she hadn’t heard the question. Beth folded her arms.

“Geneva…”

“What are you going to do, Beth?”

I am going to the Dyed Lands. The Duck has agreed to take me. Either I go with the Titan’s soldiers or with Selphids. Either way—I am going.”

The [Doctor] looked up. She stared at Beth.

“That would be exceptionally risky.”

“For you, yes. I’m a Selphid. Someone has to, and I’ll be glad to know you’re here.”

Beth—

The two looked at each other, and Geneva went back to staring at the slides—then trading places with Beth in silence for sixteen minutes. Until Geneva said something.

“Wait a second. Take a look at this. Which slide is…?”

Her head rose again. She had been calling out interesting things—unique cell types, odd quirks in the magical biology of monsters for Beth to see, but abstractly, with no real ability to process the data in a meaningful way.

But now—she was alarmed. Beth walked over, wondering what was so interesting, and stared down…and froze. She glanced up as Geneva consulted her notes.

“What monster is this from?”

“I—don’t know. It’s brown. Or black? I’m told both colors exist. But look at it, Beth. Why—it says this came from a squad that had been wiped out. One of the monsters was wounded. Look.

Beth looked, and the hairs on the back of her neck rose. She glanced up at Geneva.

“That’s not right. It’s a nucleus…but it’s not two. It looks like it’s got a growth. Like a fungi?”

Or something else. See how the cells are bunched up like that? The hide on whatever this was was so tough, I was told it required an enchanted mithril blade to harvest. Those’re Galas nuclei.”

They were. Beth could see the telltale signs of magical infusion in the nuclei, the repositories of a cell’s genetic makeup. In that sense, she was not seeing anything new in whatever monster had done this damage. But what made her true body squirm with sudden unease was—

The little node attached to each nucleus. Like an addendum to what should be a regular dot. She had never, not in examples of Galas muscle, not in any other species, ever seen that thing before. Then Geneva pointed out something else.

“Look…to the bottom right. It’s hidden among a lot of cells down there.”

“What am I looking for?”

“Just look.”

Annoyed, Beth searched around until she thought she found it. Then she stared.

“…This one doesn’t have a node. And the nucleus is distinctly normal.”

No magical engorgement. No colorful strains. She glanced up at Geneva, then down at the cells. So if that little node on the other nuclei was responsible…

“What kind of effect could do that on a fundamental level?”

“I am assured by the [Enchanters] that magic cannot make Galas muscle easily. Even [Archmages] of old couldn’t do it.”

Geneva was reaching a conclusion, and so was Beth. The Selphid stared down and thought that while it was not the same, she had just seen something that Earth’s scientists would one day have to grapple with.

Namely, the evidence of genetic alterations on a cellular level. But this looked deliberate—even elegant. What in the Dyed Lands could—alter cells?

Was something making the monsters of the Dyed Lands? Then she wondered what had happened in those two hundred years. She had to find out.

This was enough for Beth’s curiosity. The Duck, the knowledge that she had the means and the opportunity to find that cure for the Wasting—all of this would have led Beth forwards. But on the one hundred and seventy-seventh slide of Selphid material, from a dead [Scout] who had been recovered from the Dyed Lands, she stopped.

Geneva Scala was yawning, but she looked up as she saw Beth’s head rise. Without a word, the Selphid pointed. Geneva shot to her feet, walked over—and looked down.

What both women saw was this: the alien, spiky cells of Selphid genetic material. Each cell had rigid cellular walls unlike most cells the [Doctors] were used to seeing. Long and thin. Foreign design to Earth. The long nuclei, the foreign structures that were not even based on Earth’s biology. Everything they understood to be, well, Selphid at the cellular level.

A single-celled organism—but one of incredible flexibility. Each cell had far more components to it than, say, a cell of Human skin tissue because the Selphids were capable of so much variation. Mechanosynthesis, chemical synthesis, allowed them to constantly change to new needs. They were packed with potential.

—And one more thing. Geneva recoiled so fast that Beth had to catch her with Okasha. The [Doctor] stared at Beth in alarm, and the Selphid smiled weakly.

“It’s there.

She pointed down at the slide, and when Geneva looked again, she saw it. Selphid cells, from living tissue, from dead, all looked the same. Just like that. Except where one [Scout] had found—something.

Something that they needed. Something that Selphids wanted. For better or worse—if only that Selphid had lived. For what she saw, in the long nuclei, the blurry, black strands of DNA—were no longer long, pill-like shapes, but at one end, in each cell—the black strand opened like the petals of a flower.

If only this microscope were even stronger and they could see the chromosomes with a fluorescent or electron microscope. But even the faintest, blurry shapes indicated something to Beth.

It blossomed—like the precursor to something else. An unsettling tendril of growth on the most fundamental level. Something—

Something was there. And Beth swore as she looked down at what she thought was beautiful—and unnerved Geneva’s eye with its spirals and twisted geometry—

Beth swore she would go there and find it.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Notes:

If you are a person who does the healing in Earthworld, you may notice that this chapter has a bit more finesse to it than most chapters.

That’s because I wrote it a month in advance, asked for a group of medical experts among the readers of Innworld, submitted a chapter for approval, and, based on feedback, edited and revised.

It’s not perfect, and honestly, I wish I had more time to make it even better, but I have more ideas for the arc, and the chapter itself is technical in a way I would literally not be able to do without talented people giving feedback.

Not just terminology, but methodology, understanding, perspective—this is why some of the best authors are talented in other fields. Gun nuts can write very convincing gun porn…I mean, action books.

Former soldiers can convey the horrors of war. Me? I fake it. Or perhaps, it’s more honest to say that my method of writing what I cannot personally experience is to think about how it feels. How it would be.

Nevertheless, when you’re dancing in concrete, tangible fields like medicine or science, you’d better know the steps, and I hope you enjoyed this chapter regardless of whether or not you know what it’s like to be in Geneva’s field—but if you do, I hope this chapter really was fun to read.

We continue onwards and believe me, we’ll be back to Geneva. And Beth. And all the others. If I need help in the future, I may put out a call—but it is hard to write in advance. For context, during my one week off in the Volume 1 rewrites? I had a spare two days in which I wrote this chapter so I wasn’t writing during my break. If I need to, I’ll announce an update off…mostly so I can get ahead and do this again.

Thanks! Back to normal, uninformed chapters for me.

 

Selphids (Linework) by Enuryn the [Naturalist]!

 

Apista, Valley, and Caleis Berkeson by mg!

 

Flames by OnionLittle!

 

Nerry the Gamer Comic by Lanrae!

 


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