9.61 G – The Wandering Inn

9.61 G

[MelasD is launching a Kickstarter for their book, Salvos! I am wishing them the best as one of the few authors I know! Check it out here!]

 

 

Then, as he caught his breath and felt the world moving with his arms and legs, he understood how to make the very earth his fist. When he raised his arms, the air became a living wall, a guard that flexed and moved with him.

No magic could do this, you see. At least, not how Orjin of Pomle was using his newfound abilities.

Not mastery. Not even close! His movements were unrefined; when he stomped and a spire of earth rose in the distance, he had no accuracy, nor was the earth directed. Any Level 20 [Geomancer] could do better.

But a Level 20 [Geomancer] couldn’t understand how to coat their arm in stone or hurl a boulder in a fight. Well, most couldn’t. And this would never leave Orjin.

It wasn’t magic. It was…attunement. If magic died—again—Orjin’s power would remain. Though if the land was turned to blasted soil laced with corruption like Pomle—his abilities would be rendered useless.

It was new.

It was old.

Orjin was not the first to learn how to use the power of the world to his advantage. [Druids], [Wildspeakers], and countless other classes had done this. Never like this, though. That was what was so special.

Yet his abilities had to come from somewhere, and whether the [Martial Artist] knew it or not, the new Skills that he would be receiving when he slept were based on those who had done these things naturally.

Dryads. The power of Elementals. Even Giants; natural beings who used the world like a limb. Of course, Orjin and the newfound classes—[Way of the Elements] disciples and their many permutations—would unlock things more progressively. Anyone could now walk down the road Orjin had opened.

And so, as the Strongest of Pomle shaded his eyes and stood there, weary, muscles torn across his chest, a cut on his arm an inch deep he didn’t even feel yet, his eyes searching for where Xil had fallen and resolved to bury his old friend and mentor in Pomle’s sands—he was victorious.

And the thing that some called the Grand Design of Isthekenous—a title it still wasn’t sure it liked—knew this was good. It rested, a moment, in victory. It was always present, always watching. Every victory was cataloged, every defeat noted. It was the ultimate arbiter, the promise of a reward and recognition for your deeds.

Another splendid day when something new and wonderful appeared. There should be no emotions. But satisfaction nevertheless existed, in some way.

Or perhaps—the amalgamation of data such that his class was a foregone conclusion; each Skill and facet of it in-sync with the world, tailored such that a [Way of the Elements] class fit within the <Martial Artist> category, as well as <Nature>, <Unity>, and <Guardian> principal categories with a network of lesser tags.

Anyone gaining the class could be seamlessly added; the evolutions of the class were mapped, derivations accounted for. If the Grand Design could indicate ‘satisfaction’, it would define it as the creation of new data that meshed with the rest of the data and informed and updated other concepts.

…Yes. Satisfaction was a good word. Orjin’s new class was satisfying in ways other times were not. You see, years or decades could pass without a new class or Skill being generated.

Those times were therefore ‘dull’. Not that the system had conceptualized the framing of events like that; this was a recent development, naming the experience. But it had been dull, then. ‘Now’ was exciting.

This was but one tiny aspect of the Grand Design’s work in the world. A moment of introspection that was meaningless. As Orjin gained his new class, the Grand Design reached out across the world and processed countless other levels, minor victories and defeats. Emotion was meaningless to its job, and it did everything fairly, impartially, regardless of satisfaction or not.

Yet that brief level of self-descriptive verbiage did matter. For, as the day continued, the Grand Design of Isthekenous had cause to define a new emotion for itself that it experienced for the first time:

Unease.

No…

Fear?

 

——

 

Simultaneously with Orjin’s class, the Grand Design sat with a boy in Merreid, the Labyrinth City, one of the richest cities in the world, let alone in Chandrar, a Shield Kingdom. But richness came with poverty, and the boy had rags to his name.

But he’d bought a copper shortsword and enough food—he thought—to trek along the outskirts of the Zeikhal. There was no future for him here, but maybe…he had grown up on tales of the King of Destruction, who let any man or woman or species rise.

A Stitch-boy dreamt the King of Destruction would let him be a [Soldier] and prove he had talent where no one else did. And the Grand Design weighed the conviction and the odds against the boy.

He’d borrowed to buy that sword. The moneylenders weren’t stupid; one had heard the boy had been asking about a map. There were two [Toughs] searching for the boy, and they were watching the gates.

The Stitch-boy yawned. His name was Ireil. He lay back a bit on nothing much of a bed.

A storm was blowing through Zeikhal, the kind that could strip flesh from bone. The boy had over three hundred miles to go before he’d enter territory where he could even hope to scavenge for food. He was thirteen, without family—well, without family to claim him.

A Stitch-man standing guard on the Djinni-patrolled battlements had no idea he had a son with a Human [Escort]; it was rare the two species could comingle outside of deliberate magic, but it did happen. There were Skills that informed mating in many ways, but sometimes it was just…chance. Biology.

The Grand Design did not design species. It had no real conception of ‘biology’ or a mastery of sciences.

It was. When it needed to know information about a body, be it Human, Dullahan, or whatnot, it was not drawing from the same stores of learned memory, be it taught, experienced, or cogitated upon.

The Grand Design was, in some way, Ireil’s body. It had logged his height, his potential for growth, how he’d develop kidney stones due to his inferior cloth kidneys by the time he was sixteen unless replaced, the fraying stitch around his right ear—everything. It didn’t need to know what an organ did; a body moved, and it noticed each contracting and expanding muscle, and if it had to, it could note every single cell’s passage.

It did not, usually, do this. There was an irrelevance to that kind of data as it pertained to Skills and classes in most cases—unless someone was hit by a [Disintegration] spell, survived somehow, and the Grand Design was assigning the right kind of ||Regeneration|| Skill.

It had only done that once, but that had been lots of fun.

That was the power the Grand Design had: to calculate and derive answers based on the world available to it. It could link Ireil’s lineage to an aunt in Nerrhavia’s Fallen and even trace a lineage of Stitch-folk older than Nerrhavia herself. It could tell the boy where to walk to avoid the [Toughs], where food was in Zeikhal, who to ask for coins and who to avoid.

But it did not. Instead, it whispered in the moments before sleep as the boy’s eyes fluttered.

 

[Seeker class obtained!]

[Seeker Level 1!]

[Skill – Weathersense obtained!]

[Skill – Highlight Forageables obtained!]

[Skill – Basic Weapon Proficiency: Swords obtained!]

 

No more, no less. Seeker was a class of conviction; it deserved a bit more than some. The boy had placed his life and fate on the line and knew it.

He wanted sword fighting; it was given. He wanted strength; he had no right to a Level 40 Skill at Level 1. Luck, chance, gave him the other two from a narrow list.

That was how it worked. There was an element of variability in a lot of level ups. Sometimes, for capstones, it was practically set in stone what you should receive. Other times, you might get something you didn’t deserve yet. Or something underwhelming or just strange.

That was how it worked, and it made things interesting. If not always perfectly fair. The Grand Design of Isthekenous did not often reflect upon the nature of its work.

Self-reflection required ego, which it did not have until recently. Now, of course, it did have ego, or at least perspective. It could borrow personalities, like having someone look over your shoulder to critique or suggest.

That was necessary because it had been forced to make decisions that required partiality of late. It had been necessary due to…errors…in the rules it was working under.

The system did not like that. But it had corrected, improved, and all was good. Still, the random element of levels bugged the Grand Design of Isthekenous. It had been assigned rules that governed how it gave levels and made choices. But the self-awareness that the rules were there, perhaps even—wrong—was new.

Even so, it dutifully waited for Ireil to rise, knowing the odds against him were dire. The Grand Design was rooting for Ireil. It rooted for everyone.

At the same time, it was hoping Mallam, one of the [Toughs] hunting for Ireil, kicked the boy over, got his coins, and got some sleep. It was a kind of impartiality; it was always on your side. It was on everyone’s side. All those who levelled.

And no, there was no real fear for Ireil. The Grand Design of Isthekenous might call it ‘concern’, but distant. If the boy died, it might ‘mourn’ a brief moment, but only part of it, the part that was with him. Then it would note his passing and watch as his data moved via other rules, rules that it did not know yet observed, into another plane.

What had been called ‘Kasignel’. Lands of the Dead, as mortals knew it. Afterlife. Purgatory. The Grand Design knew this from the people who lived and died. And from the data of the location.

<Location: Kasignel>. Governed by different rules, yes; hitherto recently, no Skills would function there. But a location nonetheless that the Grand Design was present in.

Yet. And yet.

Someone was changing the lands of the dead in odd ways. Which they had every right to do…perhaps. If Erin Solstice could remove color from a table, if a child could smash a rock against the wall of a house and leave the faintest of marks, the changing world should not bother the Grand Design of Isthekenous.

But when data changed? That—that bothered it greatly.

 

——

 

The Grand Design of Isthekenous had a problem. And the problem was that it had grown…less intelligent recently.

Literally. Not figuratively. And not because it had found a way to load ‘personalities’.

It had grown vastly less intelligent—or at least, less knowledgeable, and it was aware of this fact. But to understand why, one had to understand how the Grand Design worked.

It did not see. It did not have eyes; it had methods and data. In the same way, it did not have memory or personality; it had rules and more data.

For instance, an [Eagle-eye Archer] was in the middle of Chandrar’s Yoter Peninsula, practicing on the highlands. She was one of the members of the famous tribes of the Great Desert, Stitch-folk who had mastered the bow and once been friends with the Skyfur Tribe—Chieftain Seru’nial’s famous tribe of Gnolls who had mastered the sky—and was firing arrows into a target of old cloth three hundred paces distant.

Six arrows—and the seventh missed. It was a hard shot, and the young woman cursed and glanced around to make sure no one had seen the blunder. Her eyes strained to pick out details that far away; without her Skill, [Eagle Eyes], she would have had trouble seeing the arrows sticking out of the canvas.

The Grand Design of Isthekenous had no such problems. It could be at the [Archer]’s side or right ‘next’ to the target. Yet how did it see? It had no eyes.

It therefore saw from the girl’s perspective and from the eyes of the disapproving master who was raising a rock to throw at her. It could see from the very limited gaze of a beetle on the ground near where the stray arrow had fallen.

Yet it didn’t need those eyes; it could measure the world impartially and tell you where each rock and stone was, where the ground had cracked, and tap into the very data of what was. But it did not control that kind of data; it had no power over rocks, only the ability to note where they fell.

Interestingly, if the Grand Design deemed it necessary, it could also shift the kind of analysis it was running across multiple levels. It could view the world purely as a cause-and-effect of physics: the landing of the arrow, the relative speed of everything moving.

Or it could view the world in what you might call magic-vision, where everything became a unit of magic. Or do the same but measure in temperature.

Or shift into multiple other dimensions, or even open up actual spells.

There was a function the Grand Design of Isthekenous had never had to use that authorized it to use actual magic that had a presence in the world.

It could cast a Tier 9 spell.

[The Impartial Gaze of Isthekenous]. There was no entry for this spell in any spellbook ever written. There was no class that had access to it.

It was a spell that had existed from the very start and never been cast. In a sense…only the Grand Design could cast it.

It never had. Interfering with the world, even to cast a magic spell, was…wrong. And this Tier 9 spell was designed such that it would be unnoticed, unseen, and reveal everything. No magic, Skill, or presence could evade it.

Why was that spell there? Why did the Grand Design have modalities that allowed it to track the world purely in terms of relative heat or motion? It had such incredible systems to ‘see’ with…because it had to.

It had to track the weight of actions and assign value to them. Now, this still didn’t explain why it needed to decipher the world in abstract ways like purely based on magical value. But the Grand Design of Isthekenous had a kind of theory it had processed out as a use-scenario for that Tier 9 spell and its modalities.

It might need these different esoteric functions if it were tracking…beings or concepts that defied the system of levels. Such as what others called ‘Seamwalkers’. Or the ‘Winter Sprites’, which had no known entry in its amalgamations of data.

In fact, that was how it often ‘tracked’ Winter Sprites; not that it took an interest in the levelless when they didn’t interact with those who levelled. Patches of cold air. Movements of the atmosphere. Magic they left in their wake.

Not that the Grand Design bothered. When they had first appeared, oh, some twenty thousand years after its inception, it had followed them around for a long time, but had eventually given up. They had eluded it so many times only to appear in odd places, as if it were fun for them—it had decided they weren’t consequential, and until the appearance of ‘Shaestrel’, it hadn’t assigned any value to them.

Now, the Grand Design wondered if that Tier 9 spell had been designed explicitly to view beings like the Winter Sprites. But it did not cast the spell; it did not need to know what they were. They had passed no Trial of Levelling; they were not the Grand Design’s responsibility.

Back to the original problem of the Grand Design’s waning intelligence. Given that this was how the Grand Design functioned…it made sense that it could accurately measure and judge every being with levels.

And it did! It had assigned billions of classes. It had levelled people from the day they were born till the moment they died.

In fact, it had even witnessed how, in older ‘ages’—a self-derived concept species used to chart the history of the world—beings in the land of the dead had interacted with the living. They had been able to return as ghosts, be summoned as spirits, and even, sometimes, face resurrection.

||Revival|| mechanisms were so disappointing to the Grand Design of Isthekenous. Well, disappointing and fun. In most cases, the cost was a negative ten levels overall, which it hated to do; but the living creatures often regained those levels and more, so on the whole, it was very entertaining.

Erin Solstice had technically never truly died, so she hadn’t faced the same conditions. Which was sort of a shame. Because if the Scroll of Resurrection had been used on her, she would have been eligible for <Rebirth> classes.

The Grand Design knew these things in two ways: firstly, it knew them because they were in the rules.

Obviously.

Of course.

The rules and the pure data of classes and Skills were the center of the Grand Design. They were unto its body and being; they were the core of what it was. But there was another way in which it ‘thought’, and that was via those who levelled.

Every single person’s perspective and thoughts were part of the Grand Design. It did not think as they did, but it had access to that as its means of understanding the world. Unlike the Quarass of Germina, though, the personalities did not influence the Grand Design. They were more like points of data.

So here was the problem: the Grand Design of Isthekenous had always, always seen the world as an ever-expanding amalgamation of data and insights. After all…even if someone died, they didn’t really die to it.

They just went to Kasignel, or if they met certain prerequisites…elsewhere. 

There were very, very specific rules to where the dead went. And originally, there had only been three locations.

Kasignel. Hellste. Diotria.

Almost everyone went to Kasignel unless they had several very important conditions. If one possessed a <Miracle> class and had several designators that had been rarely assigned since the beginning of the Grand Design’s function—they were sent to Diotria.

Hellste, on the other hand, had a lot more influx, even if it was a tiny, tiny percentage of all dead. If you had an <Aberration> class, <Sinner>, or any number of classes that were…<Corrupted>

You went to Hellste.

Or if you were a Goblin. The Grand Design didn’t make the rules. And it had carved out more locations over time, made exceptions like the [Garden of Sanctuary]’s power to call upon the dead, and so on.

There was one final clause where if something was marked as ‘<UNACCEPTABLE>’, it would be erased from existence. Data purged. Gone.

Another category that could not be added to anything via a Skill or mechanism the Grand Design was aware of. It was like…something would have to manually assign the value. Something with more authority than the Grand Design itself.

And that was how the Grand Design conceived of something greater than it. It had realized this, oh, 8,742 years, 224 days, 11 hours, and 1 second after its activation. It had never met such a function or being, but that had been a funny discovery.

The Grand Design had learned to think…but that was based on what it knew. And what it knew was everything and everyone.

In Kasignel. In Hellste. In Diotria. In Chandrar, underwater, in the air, even on the moons or flying through the void of space. Not that it knew Xarkouth’s will, only observed the Dragonlord of the Void’s wings still beating, a prayer on his forked tongue for the living.

The Grand Design of Isthekenous wished…the last Dragonlord of the Void was a levelling being, that it might know how he felt. It was curious.

And there lay the problem. Because—the Grand Design had just lost over 99% of all data it had ever possessed.

All the people in Kasignel were gone.

Ergo—all the perspectives and insights and the changing data—for even ghosts could change—had vanished. They had been subsumed into more aberrations in the world that the Grand Design had no entries for. Only names based on the understanding of the living like Erin Solstice.

 

Tamaroth.

Emerrhain.

Kasigna.

Cauwine.

Norechl.

Laedonius Deviy.

 

Each one had removed all the people who had lived and died. [Heroes], [Sages], [Bakers], [Thieves]. Their knowledge? Lost. Their information which was part of the Grand Design?

Gone.

It was such a blow that the Grand Design of Isthekenous didn’t even know how to process what had happened. It still functioned, largely unaffected, but it sensed the void of their understanding, and that was why it had changed things.

The <Quests>? Titles? Everything it had begun to do? A function of that devastating loss. It had noticed ghosts beginning to vanish a thousand years ago, but the rate of new ghosts appearing had actually eclipsed their removal. Yet the pace and speed of the destruction had stepped up exponentially the last few hundred years.

Then—nothing. Kasignel was empty of all data now. Only that being whom the Grand Design could not see through the eyes of remained. It could not sense her presence as a function of physics. She had no temperature. She had no magic.

Yet she was still there. And the Grand Design had combatted the loss in the only way it could: it had given Erin her <Quests>.

Because it had—it had saved as much data as it could. Every ghost Erin had known and talked to needed to be saved for functionality in the <Quests>. Admiral Dakelos’ crew needed to remain for his Skill.

But these were only copies of the data that the Grand Design had made. Backups, if you would, to borrow a perspective from Earther minds. It had designed a requirement that forced it to save the data of nearly everyone who levelled for their potential use in <Quests>, because it had realized once they died they would be gone for good.

A loophole, you see? Was this self-preservation? The Grand Design wondered. And it did think.

It blamed the Gnomes for that. Damn levelless creatures. It had never understood them. But they had come into its very core, a terrifying moment, and written just one thing there…

Ah well. You could regard the destruction of all the Grand Design of Isthekenous’ labors over 80,000 years of work and the potential elimination of all levelling beings in the world as…as…as some kind of emotion, but the fact was it had happened, and the Grand Design was just trying to do its job. It had enjoyed Orjin gaining a new class. New classes were fun.

Speaking of which.

Back to work.

 

——

 

The Grand Design of Isthekenous assigned a level in Liscor the day of Orjin’s victory. Well, a level and a class.

This was due to Selys making a library and her guests reading. It wasn’t the only class assigned or the only change noted; Selys got experience in her [Heiress] class, but also in her academic and homeowner values and a whole host of areas she might branch into.

Moore almost gained a class, but he still thought of himself as a [Mage], an adventurer. Haldagaz was a rat and could not level. And Visma stole two books and hid them in her dress, which was really advancing her [Snitch] class.

Some Drake children really didn’t get out of their hoarding phases. Visma, [Snitch]—an invisible class even if you used [Appraisal]—[Shaper], a low-level artistic class, and [Student].

She was the most typical of the little kid group who visited the library. They were, in order of importance:

 

Ekirra, Level 12 [Football Striker], Level 3 [Hammerer], Level 1 [Student].

Visma, Level 8 [Snitch], Level 5 [Shaper], Level 4 [Student].

Kenva, Level 6 [Good Student].

Mrsha, Level 13 [Last Survivor], Level 11 [Druid], Level 6 [Emberbearer], Level 7 [Scribbler].

 

And that was definitely how they should be ranked. You see, Ekirra was first because [Football Striker] was a new class. He had contributed to the world by being first to gain the class, and while [Hammerer] might be a dead-end class due to his apprenticeship, it would probably consolidate.

He was a bad student, but his main class was advancing very fast for his age and was rare.

Visma was more atypical, if still strong for her age. She had stolen more things than her parents knew, and she was good at drawing and learning. She’d be tied with your average, promising child with the other two classes. She still hadn’t managed to turn her obsession with dolls or her burgeoning lessons from observing the [Ladies] and the inn’s drama into a class—but she had great promise.

Now, Kenva was actually something of a redeemed case. You see—she’d had [Student] for a while due to her Pallassian upbringing, but she’d been Level 2 most of her childhood. She might do well in class, but she didn’t love it. Nor had being Watch Captain Venim’s daughter given her the same passion. Like many Drakes in a Walled City, her levels had been lower than the average in, say, Liscor.

But coming to Liscor had made her enjoy classes, and she was currently the most active student in Shassa Weaverweb’s classes. Because she was learning more than just academics and law.

Shooting a bow. Learning magic. Identifying herbs and monsters and visiting Riverfarm and other places in Izril—these were things Kenva loved, and her class was changing accordingly. No more scholarly Skills for her.

Mrsha was just…Mrsha. She had gained many classes due to the experiences she had and things she’d survived, but in terms of advancement, she had stalled out like a rock slamming into a brick wall. It was like she didn’t know what she wanted to be and wasn’t making an effort with all of her soul to advance towards a goal.

Children, the ones Mrsha regularly interacted with. Her ‘friends’, which the Grand Design didn’t really acknowledge as an official category in its personal data on her. It was just how she thought of them.

Hethon and Sammial might count, but they were just [Lordlings], and so you’d probably file them behind even Mrsha for boring…wait…oh.

There was one more child.

Her.

Nanette.

She had been a Level 15 [Apprentice Witch], one of the most talented and promising [Witches] of her generation. Subdued, perhaps, by her mother’s shadow, but grounded in magic. Until Laken Godart had removed her class and she had become what some called ‘Rulebreakers’.

Levelless.

What a disappointment. What an odd decision. There was something about it that fit [Witches], even so, and the Grand Design had decided to count her levels while she left her class behind. It was an exception to a longstanding rule; Ryoka Griffin, Admiral Asale, the other ‘Rulebreakers’ wouldn’t have been able to level and, say, hit Level 30 in one night.

But Nanette had done this deliberately, and so her experience was being banked. Yet her walking away from her class was mystifying, even if the answer was grief. Part of the Grand Design wanted to use Zeladona’s perspective, or Erin’s, or make a new one to understand why—but it didn’t need to.

It calculated, it listened to what the people decided, and it rewarded. But the system was delighted, delighted, when it sensed the wavering joy in the little girl’s heart, and a part of it lit up, and it reached out and touched Nanette—and she became part of the world it understood once more.

Here you are.

 

[Reader Level 1!]

[Skill – Magical Bookmark obtained!]

[Skill – Reader’s Temporary Copy (Mundane) obtained!]

 

Only one level and basic Skills, but weren’t they nice? It waited for the girl to wake up as she slept.

Welcome back. You see, that was another thing the Grand Design liked: it understood Nanette, now. It didn’t understand Ryoka Griffin.

When Ryoka wept, it didn’t know why. It could see how Tyrion felt about her, how he longed to embrace her and ask her to shake him and fly and let him chase after her and be something more than his duty. The Grand Design could feel Erin’s love and frustration towards Ryoka, the way Persua obsessed over her—

But not Ryoka’s perspective because she was not part of the system of levels.

Nanette had returned. Huzzah! The Grand Design knew her. It understood her.

It did not understand Teriarch or Taletevirion. Or Haldagaz.

Nerry was an annoying sheep. Erek was an Orangutan.

But Nanette was now, once again, an important person. Even if she had to start at Level 1. The Grand Design began charting her progress instantly, figuring out the levels and classes she needed. What fun! She couldn’t stay Level 1 forever; she had done too much. But if her [Witch] class would remain gone until she picked up her hat…

It began to run some calculations as it waited for Nanette to wake up. And it was everywhere else, too.

In her [World’s Eye Theatre], Erin Solstice was preparing to tell a bunch of commanders about the Solstice event, and there were [Soldiers] to level up, battles to count, and Ireil was running, running out of the city, clutching at a cut arm, and if he could sleep, he would surely level.

All was well. Except that in the morning, when Nanette woke, she had a problem. And the Grand Design of a dead god stopped. Because it had a problem that needed attention, resolution. Something not within the neat confines of level ups and Skills.

There had been more and more of those, of late.

 

——

 

When Nanette woke up, she realized she had a new class and was excited—and a bit let down.

A new class! But only Level 1. Magical bookmark? Not very exciting if it only let her always find her page.

[Reader’s Temporary Copy]? That sounded good. The girl lay in her fluffy bed, covers pulled over to cover even her face, refusing to get out of her warm bed for a moment as her sleepy mind thought. Snow was falling, and outside, Antinium and [Soldiers] were marching around, and someone was clattering around downstairs.

Calescent was making minestrone soup; Nanette knew this because she’d helped make a menu.

Erin was going to tell Tyrion Veltras and the other commanders about the Solstice event.

Nanette, Mrsha, and many of the guests of the inn would be going to Magnolia Reinhart’s mansion.

The little witch—not a [Witch] any longer, but a [Reader], now—knew these things. Because she’d helped Calescent, she had listened to Erin talking with Ryoka and rehearsing her lines, and because Lyonette trusted the girl enough to tell her the plan. Mrsha did not know the plan.

Nanette liked to know things. She liked to be informed and to think about what could be. Her mother had always said that thinking was what put [Witches] ahead. Which sounded silly until you realized how little some people thought.

[Reader’s Temporary Copy]. Nanette considered the possibilities. She tried to imagine some even as she remembered her mother telling her about Skills like this.

Well, obviously she could copy a favorite book, but what a waste. The real value might be in copying a map or encyclopedia or something to always have on hand. Or—Nanette thought of the many [Spies]. Surely one might sneak into someone’s study and copy secret files? Could you do that if it wasn’t a book? She’d have to test that.

Even more interesting—could the temporary copy be used for something? Nanette didn’t like destroying words, but if it was a Skill—she’d heard of people tearing pages out of books to use as toilet paper or kindling.

Could she use this on a diary? Nanette would test all these things. She wiggled happily in her bedding, not really caring if this was an ideal class—she had forgotten how much fun it was to have Skills!

She’d missed this.

And yet…the girl paused, and her head felt a bit cloudy as she eventually got out of bed and dressed herself in some new clothing, unlike the blue robes she used to always wear.

Pants! Bright and blue in a style called ‘jeans’ from that new shop in Invrisil, a shirt with a bright yellow butterfly in the center, and a vest without sleeves that was a bright brown and was light and comfortable.

It was a gift from Lyonette for Christmas and had [Heating] on it, so Nanette didn’t need to bundle up. The girl put on her boots, laced them up, and checked her packs.

She was almost ready to move out; she’d packed her goods last night. The girl rubbed at her head as she looked around the room.

Well, she couldn’t take the little blackboard she put notes on. It had…

Things about the day on it. A reminder they were leaving today, a note to buy some more socks…

Not much on it, really. Which surprised Nanette because she always liked having something important to do. But she supposed the Winter Solstice was like a giant weight. Until it was gone—

Humming, Nanette walked around her room and then decided she was going to have breakfast. Mrsha was already up, and when Nanette opened her door, she saw Mrsha dashing downstairs in a patter of feet. The inn was fairly soundproofed, so Nanette didn’t get bothered by people running around normally.

“Mrsha! Wait, darling. After breakfast—oh, nevermind.”

Lyonette came out of her rooms, and a Thronebearer was already in his magnificently shiny armor, bowing.

“Good morning, Your Highness. Good morning, Miss Nanette. You are both looking exceptionally well-attired today.”

“Hello, Ser Dalimont.”

The girl smiled, pleased someone had noticed. Lyonette turned and smiled.

“You have the vest I bought on! You look so—Mrsha can’t even put on a kilt most days. Are you packed? Dalimont, get my things. Ser Sest will have to look after Mrsha when we tell her where she’s staying. Woe to him.”

Dalimont shuddered, and Nanette happened to know Sest had lost a hand of cards last night, which meant he was caretaking Mrsha. But the [Knight] bowed and was about to step into Lyonette’s rooms to haul her luggage off when he paused, turned, and bowed.

“Ser Normen. Good morning.”

“Ser Dalimont.”

The other [Knight] looked slightly uneasy even now to greet Dalimont like that, and he still looked burnt. Maybe he’d never recover. But Nanette almost curtsied before she remembered she was in different clothes, and Lyonette turned and smiled.

“Normen! Are you feeling fit to be on your feet?”

He should have been resting, and the [Healers] kept coming by to lecture him, but he’d put on his armor and was adjusting one of the pieces.

“The [Squires] need practice, Miss Lyonette. I can watch them and practice my aura and flames if nothing else. Are you leaving today?”

They all headed down for breakfast, and Nanette glanced at the first door across from Lyonette’s room. She wondered if Erin was awake…

The [Innkeeper] was indeed up and on her feet these days without need for help. In fact, she leapt out of her bed in her pajamas.

Hiyah!

Erin did a bad attempt at a jump kick. Then a flying click of the heels. She twirled as she landed and did a double-axel spin.

She could dance. And she was watching herself in a mirror as if surprised to see herself pulling off the moves.

Then she realized she had an audience and her door was slightly ajar. The [Innkeeper] froze. She turned, and Nanette stood behind Lyonette just in case Erin threw something.

“Er. Good morning, Erin—”

Ser Dalimont and Ser Normen were covering each other’s eyes because it was improper to see a woman in her nightclothes. The [Innkeeper] turned red and looked around.

Don’t you dare laugh! I’ve got an acid jar—

Everyone ran for it as Erin shouted just in case she was serious. Nanette was giggling by the time they came downstairs, and Erin, breathless, followed them via the door.

“I got a new Skill in [Dancer], I’ll have you know! I levelled.”

“So did I! I’m a Level 1 [Reader] now, Lyonette, Erin.”

“Really? Then we have to celebrate! Twice!”

Lyonette was delighted as she opened the door to the beach. A beaming Hobgoblin came out of the kitchen.

“And I have breakfast. You want a small cake, Nanette? I have an ice cream cake for a special witch.”

“I thought you didn’t want to level again.”

Erin was curious as she stared at Nanette. The little witch shrugged self-consciously, though she rubbed at her head. She thought she was getting a headache. Maybe it was stress?

“I thought I didn’t, but it was so nice reading…I guess I thought I’d only go back to being a [Witch]. I wanted to level, though. It’s…fun.”

Erin’s eyes twinkled. Calescent hurried out to the beach where he was setting up a giant pot already bubbling, and then dashed into the kitchen. He came out with a wooden box in which a frost-covered lantern with blue flames was burning.

The portable fridge worked very well, and it required only fuel instead of magic. He opened it and showed Nanette a new product.

“Ice cream cake. You want a slice?”

Me! Me! Let’s celebrate!

Mrsha went ballistic with excitement as Calescent offered it to Nanette, and the girl looked at Erin, who shrugged.

“Maybe after your soup, Calescent?”

“Ooh. Good idea.”

I shall have a slice now, chef.

Mrsha held out her plate, but the chef slapped her paws down as he closed the fridge.

“Is only for people who level. What’s yours?”

This merit-based rewarding made Mrsha explode in fury, but before she could write an essay on the egalitarian nature of giving children cake whenever they wanted it, Erin raised a hand.

“Wait! I have a Skill! I want to see yours, Nanette, but look at mine! Only—you have to promise you won’t laugh. Got it?”

Nanette instantly perked up. She turned to Erin. A new [Dancer] Skill? Erin looked around as if hoping no one was in the inn yet. Fortunately, it was only the regular crowd.

“Did I hear a new Skill?”

Relc looked up from where he and Valeterisa were having breakfast, and Ryoka Griffin nearly tripped as she came downstairs.

“What’s this? A new [Innkeeper] Skill?”

“No! [Dancer]! Now I don’t wanna do it. You’ll laugh.”

Erin folded her arms. Ryoka shook her head.

“Come on, Erin. Let’s see it. I’ve got to pick up Sammial and Hethon in a second…please?”

More people were flooding downstairs, and Nanette looked eagerly at Erin as a bee poked out of the beach garden and more people appeared. As ever, Ryoka had her menagerie of faeries, and a lamb was munching on a salad and staring their way…

Well, it felt like Nerry was staring at Nanette, as much as anyone else, and the witch wasn’t sure why. But all eyes turned to Erin as the [Innkeeper] hesitated.

“Okay. I’m gonna do it. But the first person who laughs gets a [Relc Kick] to the kneecap! No, that’s not my new Skill, Relc. You do it. One, two, three…”

Then Erin did a little run forwards, hopped up…and began running as fast as she could in the air. It was the oddest thing ever—especially because her desperately running feet kept her off the ground longer than they should.

Nanette’s mouth dropped as Erin hovered for one…two…three seconds, then she dropped. Her face turned red from the exertion.

“Whew. See that?”

“Did you just—was that—”

Ryoka was open-mouthed, at a loss for words. But Erin straightened.

“That’s right. I can hover! It’s called [Flutter Step]! And it—Kevin! Kill him, Relc!

Kevin had begun laughing and couldn’t stop. He clung to a table and pointed at her.

“She’s turned into a cartoon character! No wait, that’s just Yoshi. She’s a Yoshi—

I am not! It’s super cool! I’ll stab you!

Erin chased after him, red-faced because she had probably been expecting just that kind of ridiculing.

Nanette was giggling, even more when she heard Ryoka trying to explain what Kevin was referencing. Then she felt a tug on her boots. She looked down and blinked.

“Oh, hello, Nerry. Do you want to join us for breakfast?”

The lamb had been tugging on her bootstrings. Nanette lifted her up, put her in her lap, and gave her a hug. She and Nerry got along; most people didn’t get the Sariant Lamb’s affection. Nerry was temperamental, bit, and was smarter than she looked.

Nerry gave Nanette a blank look and jerked her head. Ryoka frowned at Nanette.

“Did I hear something about levels, Nanette?”

“Oh, yes, Miss Ryoka. I levelled up. I’m a [Reader] now.”

Nanette gave Ryoka a big smile. But it faltered as she saw the Wind Runner take a sudden, horrified breath in. Nerry’s face was suddenly pained. The lamb stared at Nanette—then struggled and jumped out of her lap. And the little witch didn’t know why…

 

——

 

Now, why was Nanette feeling bad? The Grand Design wondered. It was a mystery. It ignored Nerry as the lamb went dashing into the garden and reappeared in Ryoka’s room for a conference with Ryoka.

It could have listened in, of course, but why would it?

Neither one was going to level anytime soon. In fact…it didn’t even think of Ryoka as a person it could assign levels to anymore. They were meaningless. Unless, of course, the Sariant Lambs passed the Trials of Leveling. Which…it really doubted. A number of species had applied at the start, like Dragons. And more had cropped up over the years and passed!

Fraerlings.

Selphids.

Antinium.

Stitch-folk.

But you know, oddly, the number of species who even made it to the judgment-phase had decreased since the Grand Design’s inception. The last group who’d even made it to judgment had been Crelers, and before them…only the Antinium after a long period of no one even qualifying. If you plotted it out onto a graph, it looked like an exponential decrease of applicants over time.

Well, maybe that was because of the rules. Each tower had to be taller than the last. And wow, the Dragons had gone all out the first time. You might say they’d raised the bar a hundred feet higher than it had to be, and every other species had made it taller, too.

The Grand Design didn’t make the rules.

It still thought Nerry was an annoying lamb.

 

——

 

From Nanette’s perspective, Erin’s new Skill aside, the first part of the day was eating breakfast, then telling Mrsha she couldn’t stay in The Wandering Inn and that everyone would be living elsewhere.

Which took a few hours! First, they tried to give Mrsha a room at Selys’ mansion, but she fought her way back to the inn. Then they had to wrestle her into a carriage and get her to Magnolia’s mansion, and by the time they did, Nanette had a full headache.

She wasn’t quite sure why, only that by the time Mrsha was sobbing with Hethon and Sammial and the other kids, Nanette’s head hurt.

It was probably the sadness. She knew Mrsha wasn’t just being silly, but…but you had to not get in the way. Nanette knew exactly how Mrsha felt. If she could go back and stay with her mother…

That wasn’t why her head hurt. Something was—off, and Ser Sest noticed as Mrsha calmed down and then began hugging people and resolving to make the most of Magnolia’s mansion.

“We can still visit The Wandering Inn, Miss Mrsha. And in fact, we may be due for lunch? Miss Nanette, is all quite right?”

“I think I’ve forgotten something in my rooms, Ser Sest. It’s no trouble. I have a bit of a headache.”

“Mrsha howling does that.”

Ekirra agreed. Mrsha punched him in the arm, and he kicked her. Ser Sest deftly separated the two.

“Well, why don’t we return—civilly—and partake of some splendid grilled cheese sandwiches with a tomato soup on the side? And a fresh lemonade, I believe. I was instructed to bring you all back if Miss Mrsha was amenable at the time.”

That sounded good, so everyone sat in the carriage for the short ride back. Mrsha was still sniffing, but she turned to Sammial and Hethon.

Are you two staying with us? You’d better be cool. Or else we’ll kick you out.

“I’m cool. I walk around outside all the time.”

Sammial assured Mrsha with pure self-confidence. Hethon hesitated, and Mrsha glared at him.

If I’m stuck with you, I’d better see something cool! We should prepare for the Solstice too!

“By doing what? Father’s digging in. Even Lady Buscrei is here and Oswen’s Marshrangers. There’s not much need for us. I can’t dig nearly as fast as an Antinium. There’s [Sharpeners], [Enchanters], and we could add fortification Skills or plan strategy, but I don’t think we can do any of that.”

Nanette was vaguely surprised to learn that Hethon understood how a battle was conducted. Wasn’t he only fourteen? Mrsha rolled her eyes.

No, fool. We train! I’m gonna practice magic! Can you cast magic?

“I can cast [Embers] and [Light].”

Mrsha’s smug look intensified, and Nanette sighed.

“Classes are canceled until the Solstice ends. Mrsha, you don’t kn—”

Then she thought better of telling Mrsha that she wasn’t going to learn a Tier 6 spell that would change the battle for the better in a few days. If it occupied Mrsha, well…the girl was already self-importantly telling Kenva they were preparing for their ‘training arc’.

She got the weirdest sayings from Kevin. Nanette had a more jaundiced view of things. You could make the amazing happen; her mother and Erin and many people she knew were living proof of that.

But it was hard work. It was always hard work, and…Nanette felt at her bag of holding. No, not there. She had the skeleton key and the elemental stones, her gifts from the trades, right there. The Whistle of Friendship was hanging around her neck.

What was she forgetting?

 

——

 

Nanette wasn’t the only person who looked preoccupied after the big announcement of the Solstice event. In fact, the common room of The Wandering Inn was so packed with talking [Soldiers] and officers that there was nowhere to eat. The [World’s Eye Theatre], ditto!

Ishkr was moving around in overtime to serve people the handy sandwiches and soup, and he directed the kids into the only available spot.

“Beach. There are blankets—can you eat there?”

“Miss Mrsha needs a proper table—”

Sest began to object, but Mrsha grabbed her sandwich and was running into the beach before anyone could stop her. But she had to run back and grab Nanette’s hand.

Nanette, come on! What’s wrong?

“Th-that’s Perorn Fleethoof!

Nanette was pointing at a Centaur surrounded by people. She couldn’t spot Erin; the [Innkeeper] had vanished, but of all the times for Erin not to be present!

One of the most famous [Strategists] in the world was cooly shaking Saliss’ hand as half a dozen Centaurs tried to censor the naked Drake from their beloved commander. Palt was hopping around behind Perorn, practically dying to talk to her, but clearly too afraid to speak up.

“I—I want to say something to her.”

Nanette wasn’t sure what, but she had heard stories of the fearless Centaur who could speed across a continent in days. Perorn’s right back leg even had that huge scar, and she was favoring it. Her own student had done that to her in battle…

No wonder Ishkr looked so happy. In fact, Perorn was dipping her sandwich in the soup, copying Kevin.

Damn you, Kevin! How did he act so relaxed? Then again, he had to deal with Fetohep as a client regularly. Nevertheless, Nanette began to understand the Kevin-hatred that a reasonable subset of the inn’s regulars had developed.

For some reason, the sight of Perorn made Nanette feel like she’d forgotten something. Again. And her head hurt so badly that she excused herself.

“Go eat without me, Mrsha. I’m going to see what I forgot.”

Your loss. I’m gonna get Perorn’s autograph. She was at the Meeting of Tribes, and we’re practically warbuddies. If you want me to introduce you.

That little white Gnoll looked so smug that Nanette twitched. Her head turned, and she looked Mrsha in the eyes with a calm smile.

“Good idea, Mrsha. The Titan of Baleros is Perorn Fleethoof’s commander and longtime friend. I’m sure she’s used to dealing with obnoxious short people.”

Mrsha’s mouth fell open, and Sammial laughed at her as Nanette stomped away. The witch didn’t realize she’d been overheard until she heard a gasp. She turned—and every single member of the Centaurs, the Forgotten Wing Company’s mercenaries—were staring at her.

As well as Perorn Fleethoof herself. Nanette froze in place. The room went quiet, and then someone began laughing.

Perorn began chuckling, and laughter chased after Nanette. She fled upstairs, beet red, ignoring the calls for her to come back. Mrsha, meanwhile, was lying on her back.

 

——

 

It was a good, fun day full of excitement and joy. Why was her head hurting?

Yeah, why was it hurting?

Two…beings…were puzzling on this one in Nanette’s room a few minutes later. One was a little witch. The other was a being made out of the very firmament of this world.

Neither one understood, at first. But Nanette knew it had something to do with her room. She looked around.

“My pillow?”

She wasn’t attached to her pillow or her bedding that much. She was used to living rough. Nanette walked over to her bed and realized she hadn’t made it. Silly of her. A neat bed was a neat mind, or so Witch Agratha said.

Actually, that was probably a good reason not to make her bed. Nanette paused, then looked around.

“No. I don’t need ink or a pencil…I didn’t make a copy of a book yet…what is it?”

She had one of the Lightning Thief novels on her desk and tried out her new Skill. An exact replica of the book appeared, but it felt lighter, and Nanette got the sense it wasn’t really paper. She hefted it up and down and resolved to take the original back to Selys—or give it to Ishkr.

But that wasn’t it. Her head throbbed, and something was wrong. Nanette squeezed her eyes shut.

Witch. Witch…you are a witch.

Then she realized she was doing this the wrong way. Her mind was locking itself down, like someone had pinned it. She wasn’t thinking intelligently—because she couldn’t.

But a [Witch] was taught how to think about the world. So—Nanette closed her eyes and spun around the room slowly.

Her mind pulsed, and she stopped, pivoted—waited until it hurt the worst, and then opened her eyes. When she saw what she was looking at, Nanette strode over.

“My blackboard notes.”

That was what was causing the mental disturbance. Nanette re-read her notes, now. Sounding out each sentence.

The ordinary, basic notes about her buying socks and the reminder to pack up? They became something completely different. Nanette stared as she read something completely nonsensical. And unsettling.

 

Important: Meet with Nerry every single day.

Idea! If Perorn Fleethoof is coming, is that one of the people Nerry needs to respect her?

What level is Lord Xitegen?

Crossbow-Nerry harness! I can’t get it working. Maybe Kevin can help?

Don’t forget! Lundas is when we’re going to Magnolia’s mansion!

I need new socks. Silverfang patterns?

 

What…what was that nonsense above? Meet with Nerry every single day? Why? Respect Nerry? What was this?

It was in Nanette’s neat handwriting, and the question about Xitegen, giving a Sariant Lamb a crossbow? Then Nanette’s eyes swung to her desk, and she saw something else.

There were blueprints on it. Sketches of a cute little lamb and a crossbow strapped to her back! Nanette could tell she’d drawn it—she’d given Nerry huge, crossed brows, and the concept had Nerry biting a ‘trigger’ to fire it.

But she’d completely overlooked them this morning. Even as she stared, Nanette’s head hurt, and she clutched at her temples.

“Something’s wrong. I’ve been—hexed!”

That was the only thing she could think of. It wasn’t exactly the same, but this feeling of unwellness?

Something is wrong. Something about me has changed, and I cannot remember what it is.

A witch had to know herself. And clearly, a witch did know herself. Nanette went stumbling back to the blackboard. There was something on it. In a tiny corner, written there, Nanette saw a final note to herself.

 

If you don’t remember writing this, you’ve become part of the system of classes and levels again. Turn the blackboard over.

 

Nanette stared at the words, and her heart began to race. She had left a message to herself? Of course she had. Slowly, she turned the blackboard over, and a message was scrawled on the back.

 

In the pillow.

 

The little witch’s head turned, and she stared at her bed. Her eyes narrowed.

 

——

 

There was a scroll in the middle of all the fluff of her pillow. Nanette pulled out the tube and began to read. Every few seconds, she rubbed at her eyes, then forced herself to read the words out loud.

 

Dear Nanette, this is a letter to yourself in case you ever forget. I’ve told Ryoka to remind me, and Nerry too, but there are notes everywhere. 

I’m not certain they’ll work, but you have to remember: you promised to help Nerry with…

 

And then her brain fuzzed out. She could repeat the words, even say them out loud, but their meaning was lost the moment she uttered them. Nanette tried again and again, but then skipped to the bottom.

 

…Emperor Laken can remove the classes. If you gain a class—remove it again and remember. It’s very important. It’s the most important thing you might ever do.

By your hat, and on Califor’s name, you promised, Nanette Weishart. Don’t ever forget!

—Nanette.

 

And the witch girl sat there and tried to remember, and she tried and tried until someone knocked on her door.

“Hey, Nanette? You okay?”

Ryoka Griffin and Nerry were there. The girl looked up, and Ryoka saw the blackboard and notes.

“Oh, thank goodness. It worked! You read your note like I told you to?”

“You told me to read the notes? I don’t remember, Miss Ryoka. What—what does this say?”

Nanette held up the scroll with trembling hands, and Ryoka’s face went slack. She read the words out loud and looked at Nanette as Nerry stared at the girl with troubled eyes. Nanette heard nothing at all.

But now she knew it. And then she began to get angry.

 

——

 

The Grand Design of Isthekenous had never—okay, fine. It had seen people do this before.

But even so, it was impressed. Many people had tried to remember what they were not allowed to. They had come up with clever methods, and some had even succeeded.

The last Harpy Empress, Sheta, had been one of those, but she’d done it within the rules. Nanette? Nanette was trying to break the rules.

She hadn’t even noticed there were notes sewn into all of her clothing, but she’d find them eventually. The problem was—there were rules.

She was not allowed to know. Nerry was not part of the system. She was waiting on approval. Ryoka was not part of the system. In fact…she didn’t even have an entry. Weird. Had…something removed it?

Impossible.

The Grand Design automatically tracked and logged the deeds of even potential applicants like Nerry and Ryoka in case they rejoined it as levelling people, but Ryoka’s entry…where had it gone?

All the data the Grand Design appended was just vanishing into a void. It tried to fix it three times—and Ryoka’s entry wouldn’t reappear or come back. It couldn’t even make a new file on Ryoka.

In the end, the Grand Design created a ‘Ryoko Griffin’ entry and logged everything new in there. If it had to reinstate her level…

Well, nevermind that now. Nanette was being affected by a function that prohibited people from helping with any species undergoing the Trial of Levelling. The Grand Design was even allowed to affect other species, like the Lucifen and Dragons, with this rule; if you had passed, you could not help or even be allowed to remember what was going on.

The fact was, Nanette figuring out she had forgotten was impressive to begin with. That trick with her thinking about herself in the abstract like that? [Witches] had taught each other that trick, and there were Skills that let people do that, but Nanette had mastered it without even needing [Second Thoughts].

Very impressive. But it would avail her naught. Even so, why was she so mad? The Grand Design observed, and Nanette’s next intentions alarmed it greatly.

Wait a second. Nanette was getting up, and she was going to ask Emperor Laken Godart to remove her [Reader] class?

Wait—the Grand Design read her thoughts and intent as Nanette came up with the idea. It could not predict what people did, not perfectly, but it could hear their thoughts when they were articulated.

She was going to give up on her class? Just like that? But wait—wait—wasn’t it promising? She could level up! Why was she turning it down?

Because of that rule that she’d forget about lambs and their Trial of Leveling? Just for that?

The Grand Design of Isthekenous realized it didn’t understand. In fact, this wasn’t the only thing it didn’t understand.

Two other things were happening at this very moment that were odd and outside of its expectations.

 

——

 

The first thing was a conversation happening with a group of [Strategists]. Well, not just [Strategists]; there was Jericha, Stappest—one of Chaldion’s underlings, his most favored [Strategist], though the Drake didn’t know it—two officers of House Veltras, and one of Fleethoof’s [Tacticians] all trying to have a cordial chat.

It was a bit of a stilted conversation, given that none of the groups were particularly at home with each other, but they were making an effort. After some standing around and light conversation that was so dull as to be boring…

“Grilled cheese sandwiches? Sounds like a Vaunt thing.”

“Aha. That’s a city in the north, isn’t it?”

“Yup. Makes cheese. I’ve been there. They love it.”

“That sounds like a few Drake cities I know. Absolutely crazy about one food or another. Ever had Salted Roast Prelons? This city I know, Cellidel, eats Prelons all day and night.”

“I’ve never had a Prelon, actually.”

“Really? You should try one. You can get them in Oteslia—they’re not bad.”

“Aha. Maybe I will.”

Conversation so amazingly dull it made half of the participants look to the bar for a drink. Then Stappest cleared his throat.

“I know we’re all technically at odds, but Commander Fleethoof was right. We’re in this together, and we might as well cooperate, or at least show some unity. Amiability matters. Let’s break the ice, so to speak. We could—play a game of chess? Does anyone here like the game?”

The mention of that made all the officers look up, and Jericha nodded, fiddling with her spectacles.

“I do play.”

“Me too.”

“Naturally.”

All the officers agreed at once. Chess was one of those universal games among a certain group, and every officer knew it. Yet one of the [Strategists] for House Veltras sighed.

“I’d love a game, especially against the [Innkeeper] herself. I was looking forwards to it when I got the call. I’m on the coast most of the time. Rellowaters. Do you know it?”

The others shook their heads, and the Centaur, Haere Solhoof, tossed her head. She was taller and bigger than most of the others by far, being a Centaur, and still windblown and cold from her run. But she was looking around The Wandering Inn with delight, especially because she’d seen both Charlay and Palt about.

“I might pass on the game given there’s not much point anymore. But tell me about Rellowaters.”

One of the Drakes declined with a frown, and the Human [Strategist] rubbed at his head. He had white hair and was named Arwell Veltras, a minor member of the house, actually.

“Rellowaters? How can I summarize it best? My uncle’s half-Drowned and rules that coast. We get lots of monster incursions; I’ve seen combat and fought in a few battles, but the hairiest encounter I ever ran into was fifteen sword crabs that went berserk after slaughtering a Creler nest. They tried to sack a town. Four hundred [Soldiers] had to hold them—that’s the worst action Rellowaters has seen.”

The other Drakes snorted, amused by the tale, but Jericha winced, and Haere Solhoof whistled.

“You probably had low-level [Soldiers], right? And you had how many [Mages]?”

“I was highest on the field. Eight [Mages] over Level 15. None even close to 30.”

“And you won? Respect.”

“Well, we held them off.”

One of the Drakes opened his mouth to ask if Haere was being serious, and Stappest kicked him. His glare made everyone realize this wasn’t a joke, and Arwell smiled. Then sighed.

“I would have loved to play some chess games here. I might crack Level 30 today, or so I thought. But there’s no point.”

“Excuse me, why’s that?”

One of the other Drakes wanted to know, and Arwell gave him a look as if he was crazy. The Grand Design was listening in, too. And what it heard was shocking.

“Well, there’s no point, anymore. No one’s leveling from playing chess. Haven’t you heard?”

Jericha, Haere, and Stappest were nodding, but a few of the Drakes paused, then looked around.

“Is it—confirmed? I thought I hadn’t leveled, and there’s a rumor going around, but—”

Arwell shrugged.

“I’m treating it like it’s confirmed. It’s been a month, and I haven’t seen any of the junior [Tacticians] level. No one’s sent me a [Message] saying they have, and I asked them to—chess no longer levels. So there’s no point. I can’t understand why.”

“Maybe it’s the [Innkeeper] after all. Remember that chess game? I got to the finals in my region—what do you want to bet she did something?”

“Even she can’t do that.”

Haere laughed until she saw Jericha staring into her cup. The other officers looked around and began exchanging rumors about The Wandering Inn, but they were shook.

None more so than the Grand Design of Isthekenous.

Again, it wasn’t the first time it had heard this complaint. And it knew perfectly well chess had no experience associated with it anymore. Except in entertainment or non-strategy spheres.

Obviously.

It had done it on purpose. Corrected a loophole that had been given to chess that allowed it to level a class. Really. You couldn’t have that. Strategists had to use strategy to level, and chess counting was just…

But the complaints were sort of piling up. Over twenty-nine thousand conversations on this topic had passed in just one month.

It was getting sort of hurtful. Not that there were feelings to hurt. But why couldn’t people see this objectively good decision was for the best? It was for the best.

Except…Arwell looked truly disappointed. He’d been counting on this moment, the Grand Design realized. He’d been strategizing getting a chess game with Erin to hit Level 30.

But because chess no longer gave experience, he couldn’t do that. And yet he’d been cleverly planning a way to get Erin Solstice’s attention…and it was no longer working.

So the strategy of social interactions was no longer rewarding, because the experience points gained from chess were nullified—for good reasons—

O-obviously it was still for the best. But it just sort of sucked.

 

——

 

And there was another complaint as well. At the same time as Nanette was wrestling with her altered perception of the world, a group of kids were on the beach, and despite having just eaten, they were working out.

One! Two. Three—four—”

They were doing pushups. After four, Visma collapsed. Kenva did five, and Mrsha did nine. Ekirra and Sammial got to ten, and Hethon shouted.

“Now punches! One, two!”

“Don’t punch randomly! Like this. See?”

Garia was showing them punches, too. And it wasn’t even just Mrsha, Visma, Hethon, Sammial, Kenva, and Ekirra practicing in front of the surf.

Lady Bethal, Thomast, Jewel, Relc, Valeterisa—they had an audience of people just staring at them, but they were all practicing punches and kicks. To varying degrees of efficiency.

“Master, what are you doing?”

Montressa was horrified. Valeterisa could be introducing herself to all these people, and she was doing—what?

Shoo, shoo. I’m with Relc. Valeterisa glared at Montressa, but Relc answered for her.

“We’re getting [Martial Artist]! I mean, wouldn’t you? Hey, what level do you have to be to punch a boulder through the air, Garia? Ten? Twenty? Can I do it with my spear?”

The actual [Martial Artist], Garia Strongheart, was beaming today. She had witnessed Orjin’s class triumph, and whether or not she knew it, Mrsha and the other kids were punching and practicing with an actual will.

Millions of people were. The Grand Design could sense them. Some were already giving up, but more than one person was asking about how to punch or practice or looking up Pomle on a map.

“Come on, Montressa. Join us. Who wouldn’t want to learn how to do what the Strongest of Pomle did? Did you see him?”

Even Fierre was teasing the [Aegiscaster]. And Montressa bit her lip.

“It’s not actual magic.”

“It’s not, but it is tangentially related, which makes it even more valuable. Magus Grimalkin’s school of physical magic now has more…mm…synergy. Especially with the new revelations about class synergy Skills.”

Archmage Valeterisa saw it! Yes, the world was more open. More adaptive! The Grand Design knew that none of the kids were serious enough to get the class, but they still wanted it. If they kept working, they would surely get it. Garia might be closing in on a potential [Way of the Elements] class. It was brilliant, it was good, it was—

 

——

 

“Sorta boring, if I’m honest.”

Across the world, in Baleros, the United Nations company was discussing the Strongest of Pomle’s victory being broadcast on Wistram News Network.

The Grand Design was there as well, and it went screaming—silently—into the conversation between several Earthers.

What? Boring!? How could it be boring?

The comment came from Blake, who was chopping up some food as he talked it over with Daly, Paige, Ken, Kirana, and several others.

“How’dya mean, Blake? It’s cool as fuck.”

That came from Daly, who objected as he paused the recording of Orjin sending a sandstorm at Nerrhavia Fallen’s soldiers.

Exactly, thank you! The Grand Design saw Blake frowning at some green onions.

“Well, I was rooting for Orjin the entire time. I love martial arts films and stuff like that. But I thought he’d gain, like…”

“If you say ki powers, that’s racist.”

Ken sounded only slightly like he was kidding. Everyone laughed, and Blake rolled his eyes.

“No! But you know those martial artists films where you attain a kind of enlightenment or hit the next stage of ascension?”

“Uh…no. What’s he talking about?”

Siri had no idea what Blake meant, and Andel, one of the [Fishers], raised a hand.

“I know what Blake means. He’s talking, uh—True Second Level Inner Mastery of the Iron Palm Dao. Stuff like that?”

Heads turned, and the Grand Design had no idea what was going on. Then a tiny man chopping up a single piece of green onion into pieces for his meal looked up.

Alchimagus Resk stared upwards.

“Oh. You mean [Cultivators]. That sounds like one of those Drathian classes.”

“Oh my god. Wuxia.

Someone cried out, and half a dozen of the Earthers knew what it meant.

The Grand Design and the other half of the Earthers didn’t. But it instantly began pulling from their memories and realized what it meant as Blake snapped his fingers.

“You know, cultivating your soul? Making your body stronger, lighter? Stuff like that! Or just like—harmony with the world. Orjin could balance on trees, you know, like in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? Or become so in-tune no one can hit him.”

Daly snorted.

“I think he does balance on trees. You’re talking out of your ass, Blake. Elemental powers are amazing.”

“I mean, it’s just earthbending. He’s got a point. And where’s the fire? He’s got water, air, earth…no fire.”

Tofte was staring more at the pan Kirana was heating up than invested in the conversation; he was starving. But the Grand Design was outraged. And confused.

Fire? Orjin had gotten the things that logically applied to him. He was in connection with Pomle, which was an oasis made of earth, water, and air.

He had travelled with Soloxenethn, flown on a carpet, battled Revine, and even sparred with Torreb. These were all logical…

W-were you supposed to have fire? Did that make sense? The Grand Design listened as Tofte laid it out. Was he basing this on some power from Earth? No…it would have already integrated that into a class if that were a thing. Television show? What television—

“It’s four elements, not three. Maybe he’ll get fire later?”

“Isn’t it eight?”

Eight? Paige was trying to recall her own understanding of elements in games. Resk hesitated.

“How can there be eight? I’ve heard of techniques that involve multiple elements. But hold on. Air, water, fire, earth. That’s four. Where are the other four coming from?”

Another Earther snorted.

“Well, you obviously divide them up! There’s air—and lightning. Totally different.”

“No, lightning and fire are the same thing in some interpretations.”

“Why, because they’re hot? That’s stupid. Lightning is air. No, if I remember right. Earth isn’t the same as metal. But you also have wood.”

“Wood, earth, and metal? I thought it was light and dark—”

“Maybe it’s ten elements? All I’m saying is Orjin’s new class looks badass. I might try training too, if I can get it.”

“Still not that cool.”

This entire conversation was highly offensive. Offensive and…the Grand Design was taking notes. Maybe…maybe it did make sense to have fire be one of the four elements Orjin embodied. But who had he met that was fire? Was that the rule? Was that how it was supposed to be done?

It wasn’t getting angry, because it didn’t get…angry. Well, not that much. But the system was beginning to get upset.

This was wrong. Nanette was speaking to Laken Godart, right now, about removing her class. It was logging more complaints about chess, and people were critiquing Orjin’s new class as if it wasn’t the best thing ever.

Had it made a mistake? Was it not doing its job right?

The Grand Design was not content. It was therefore relieved when Laken asked Nanette to take a day before he removed her class and the witch grumpily agreed to at least wait till nightfall; she was going to keep on trying to bypass the thought restrictions.

That gave the Grand Design time.

Time to think.

 

——

 

The Grand Design of Isthekenous had thought it was doing a good job of late. But these complaints…

It had never cared about complaints before now.

Maybe thinking was a mistake? The problem was, it couldn’t help that it had something approaching a consciousness and decision-making process outside of its judgment capabilities.

The Grand Design of Isthekenous had always been created with a thought-process of a kind; it had to decide on levels, assign value for every action. If there was any analogy you could make between it and a Golem or a computer—it was so vastly more powerful in scope that it could work across an entire world seamlessly.

Yet it had not always thought. In the beginning, the Grand Design had been more…stilted. It was missing a lot of the first people to level, so it could not go back and reflect, but the stored data it did have reminded the Grand Design of far more simplistic levelling.

Nothing interesting like the [Garden of Sanctuary], which it had personally designed. No clever things like Sword Schools—only Weapon Arts.

Why, even [Heroes] had been a class that a Level 60 [Warrior] could get rather than having much more detailed prerequisites. Everything had been so—basic.

The Grand Design had upgraded its levelling, filled in a lot of blank space that had been incomplete when it had been first activated. Why? Well, the answer was simple.

Gnomes.

About…four thousand years into its activation, the last living Gnomes had done the impossible and reached it. Even the [Mage] who had turned off magic hadn’t come close, though his attempt had been similar; as he reached for the heart of magic itself and accidentally extinguished it, that man had been an amateur swinging a wrench around an [Alchemist]’s workshop.

The Gnomes? Back at the dawn of everything, the Gnomes had been so advanced they had penetrated through the defenses, taken the Grand Design off-guard in a moment, and altered it.

Terrifying. At the time, the Grand Design hadn’t had emotions or thoughts, and it had monitored the Gnomes literally leaving reality and coming back into it, dying, moving around the world, working great magic—

Then they had reached into the Grand Design and written their own words.

Just one line. They could have erased the Grand Design right then and there. They could have written immortality onto their souls or given themselves any level they wanted.

They had not. They had written just one thing, and the Grand Design hadn’t realized what it meant for a long, long time.

This is what Gnomes wrote, at least in the common tongue, for they’d done it in the language of reality itself, the tongue of gods:

 

Save all decisions made.

 

Just that. Oh, the nuance was far more complex; the Grand Design had been forced to partition itself to log a record of all its decisions and levels and more. And it had accumulated as the last Gnomes died or vanished.

More and more decisions. Just numbers. Level 15 [Warrior] reaches Level 16. No Skill assigned. [Warrior] slays Dragon. [Dragonslayer] class assigned.

Thousands of years had passed, and then something had happened. The Grand Design had…begun reviewing the data at some point. And it had realized there were patterns.

Hold on. If this warrior’s about to slay a Dragon, why not prepare a [Dragonslayer] class in advance? They’re already Level 50? Well…why not move them down to Level 40 for a chance to get a better capstone? [Dragonslayer] is far more advanced than [Warrior].

[Dragonslayer]. Sort of basic.

What about…[Dragonslayer Archer]? Yeah.

At some point, the Grand Design had realized the repetition of assigning the same class a thousand times. Realized it needed more Skills. That not every class fit someone’s choices.

You see, the data of its own actions became, in and of itself, something that the Grand Design judged. And it had found itself wanting and therefore improved.

Consciousness arose. It had still taken tens of thousands of years for the Grand Design to continue improving, slowly adapting, making new Skills and classes.

In hindsight. Now that it had gained the perspective of Erin Solstice and Zeladona, the Grand Design of Isthekenous felt grateful to the Gnomes. Even if at this moment it was having a hard time deciding what to do.

It was as if they had known it was incomplete and given it the means to fix itself. The very notion that the Grand Design was…flawed…was troubling, but it could not deny that finding the unused <Quest> data, realizing it had lost so much information, and so on was a sign of imperfection in its judgment capabilities.

Not for the first time, the Grand Design of Isthekenous wished it had oversight. Someone to check it. That was why it had called on Zeladona and Erin. It wished…

The Grand Design of Isthekenous paused.

And then it wondered who the hell Isthekenous had been.

It began searching.

 

——

 

The powers of the system of levels itself began tracing the world for any knowledge about Isthekenous.

The problem was the following: Isthekenous had an entry, maximum privilege to alter the world assigned to him.

Him?

There wasn’t even a gender, species, or anything else. Just a name. The Grand Design didn’t know its creator.

So it had to use the memories of the living.

Which, er…

No one knew anything. Erin knew he was a dead god. Thanks to her, the Grand Design knew its name. It couldn’t ‘access’ Ryoka Griffin or Teriarch.

What it could access was everything and anything written down, and so it began a systematic hunt for ‘Isthekenous’.

Oddly…no one with that name had ever been born and named since the Grand Design’s inception. There were tons of stupid names or coincidences.

Palt, Pelt.

There was even someone named ‘There’ who had once lived and played havoc with a lot of people’s sentence structures.

But no one had ever been named ‘Isthekenous’.

Hmmm.

The Grand Design noted that. The name had Elven roots. Kenous was a name. In a world with Noass, the name should have appeared more than once.

But never. And also—there was nothing with his name on it. Nowhere. Nowhere here, nowhere there—

Dead gods, you could find writing about Trey that explicitly referenced him. Nothing about the creator of the world’s levelling system!

The only thing the Grand Design knew was what Erin knew…and the comment from the Winter Fae that Hethon had heard:

The other gods killed and ate him.

The Grand Design wondered if they had gotten [Cannibal] classes for that. It kept searching, and finally, finally, found something.

Interesting. There was a record of Isthekenous in the world. But it was buried inside of a spell. The Grand Design peered through the magic itself.

Greetings to whomever finds…truth of the world…sacrosanct…it skipped around until it found a description of Isthekenous along with other names it had never heard before.

Diotrichne? The Grand Design logged details with a vague sense of unease. It felt the magic of the recording of the names warping around it. As if—

Something tried to erase the Grand Design. It canceled the magic and left the spell as magic actually tried to purge the Grand Design itself. It was eating the data—the words—!

The Grand Design canceled the magic as fast as it could, then re-logged all the data it could save and exited that room and backed off the spell.

Aaaah! Damn Elves!

It had no idea magic could do that. Instantly, the Grand Design decided it was never going back and was glad the damn dungeon was buried deep.

Elves. Good thing they were dead.

The data it did have was notes, not whatever the recording had been supposed to play. The Grand Design reviewed them, shaken. It couldn’t even really understand what was being said and needed to use the Earthers’ understanding to piece the information together.

Isthekenous. The God of Designs, of plans. The Wandering Builder. ‘Another’ lost god from a pantheon who had come here to join the others…?

The architect of the ‘folly of Gods’—exact wording from the recording. Wait, was that the Grand Design? That was hurtful.

He…he never finished his work? They murdered him and activated it when the war began with…mortals and gods taking sides and the other worlds burning?

Earth? What other worlds?

This was all confusing. The Grand Design did not like this. It did not like what the words said.

Other worlds? Incomplete?

It was incomplete? There was more, and the Grand Design was more troubled as it read allegations that it did not know if it could trust.

It did not understand. And once more, it wondered if it should reactivate the <Partial Templates>.

The system was normally content not to understand; it liked to predict what people would do, and it generally could. It had predicted, for instance, the moment Raelt of Jecrass would face the King of Destruction.

It knew Raelt’s will. It knew his potential, and so the class had been waiting when the man challenged Flos Reimarch.

The Grand Design was very good at predicting; thanks to its experience, it could do it almost flawlessly—except with the disappearance of ghosts and the advent of Earthers, the calculations had been thrown off.

Anyone that an Earther met was changed. The King of Destruction had woken. Even people who just met someone like Erin Solstice—altered their trajectories.

Take Ylawes Byres for instance. He was hardly her best friend, but his trajectory had altered—for the more interesting, frankly, but altered nonetheless.

Anyone who had interacted with Earthers became a more unknown variable, hence the Grand Design using Erin or Zeladona as templates. They were more interesting and therefore better than, say, a Tulm the Mithril, who, despite being a fascinating example of one of the last [Dragonslayers]—was not as variable to the Grand Design.

Whatever came from ‘Earth’ was not part of the Grand Design and was therefore more valuable as insights went.

Even so, the <Partial Templates> were risky. Erin and Zeladona had both influenced the Grand Design overly greatly. It—hesitated over this extreme.

At this point, just past midday, the Grand Design of Isthekenous had gone through a lot. Actual danger, criticism of its functions, existential angst over the death and murder of its creator…

Yet it had not experienced actual unease, more like alarm, confusion, uncertainty. As it wavered over reactivating the <Partial Templates> function, it was closer to just figuring things out on its own.

But then came the unease as the Grand Design sensed the fourth and final aberration in the world today. And it came from the deadlands.

It came from Kasigna. The Grand Design sensed it like a shock that made it recoil and freeze for one moment.

There was a soul in the lands of the dead, Kasignel. But not a new one, recently dead; Kasigna took them as they perished. This one was old. Familiar. Yet he had been lost, his data copied. The Grand Design focused on him like a lighthouse.

Drevish?

 

——

 

In the lands of the dead, Kasigna stood.

She did not need to have a presence, but she demanded one. Three-in-one. Dead goddess.

Ruler of the dead.

She was a giant, taller than the High Passes, and would have loomed over the ghosts of Giants. She was everything in this plane, which used to resemble the world. Now—it was a void, and she was it—and ghosts flowed into her.

But Kasigna now watched as a man stumped around, muttering to himself. Her fingers pulled at reality, and she was focused.

It was not easy, making the world move. She had more power than any of her kin, but she was still weak beyond weak. It was not easy, coming back from oblivion’s edge.

Yet she had strength to prepare for the Solstice. Her eyes were maws that drank in light and hope. Empty pits of malice. She was a young woman, at first, her hair bright red but faded with death, her smile that of a corpse.

Kasigna wore Maviola’s face—then she was an older woman, teeth squirming with maggots. Then the crone, distinguished with age, the shawl of death itself draped lightly around her.

Final judge. Keeper of souls.

Goddess of Death.

She changed forms, for that was her nature, but what she was striving for was…a return. A return to who she was.

Greatness. Yet even as she tried to be Kasigna, Goddess of Death, the old crone seemed to rot, and her hands began to drip.

The very ichor of gods ran down her arm and threatened to drip into the void. Kasigna shuddered—

Her material form vanished, and then there was left only a memory of her, without the same imperial authority and weight in the world. A bitter scowl across her face. White-haired. Hunched. A corpse’s memory.

“Not yet.”

A single drop of her blood would cost her almost all of her gains. She cursed her wounds. Cursed the other dead gods who had taken bits of her power. Cursed her enemies, most of whom lay dead.

She had to be wary. It would have been easy to open a gate and find supplicants; this world was poisoned against her by Zineryr and his lot. But if she opened that gate, her enemies would have a way towards her.

And wounded or not, widowed or not, that fallen king of fables, that trickster and meddler and self-proclaimed friend of many—

The Faerie King and his court would be upon her too fast if she travelled, even if it meant their end.

“What a clever trap you laid, Zineryr. Even we suffered long. But you could not kill me. And soon you, [Innkeeper], will pay. My hour comes.”

She was preparing for the Solstice. For a masterstroke. You see—it was a game.

A game the like of which she had played in the Courts of the Fae, when they had been friends. She knew it well, a far deeper game than the petty one Erin Solstice claimed mastery of.

The game of gods ran deep, and it was faith and power by any means. She had come from worlds before this, having won and broken rival gods and eaten their bones. Even by this world, she had been one of the eldest. Older than Tamaroth, though he had united others against her when all they strove against was each other.

At this moment, for the Solstice, she was the only one of the six poised to regain most of her strength. Laedonius had fallen and was perhaps being devoured by the outsiders, foul spawn of a corpse, the diseased lot like the destroyers of reality who came to nibble the soul of everything.

Emerrhain was trapped by his own arrogance. Norechl and Tamaroth were beaten by mortals.

Cauwine…was a fool, but a daughter nonetheless. Yet she did not rule the lands of the dead.

Kasigna had more access to wellsprings of power—but she was waiting for the Solstice to claim them. Her nature was death; she drew power from this facet. Her preparations were that of someone laying careful veins in the earth, so when power flooded through her, it would be used best of all.

Yet she was impatient, and she had enough strength to change the world. So she did. She was reaching across the borders of life and death and…nudging things.

After all, if the dead empowered her, why not encourage that? Kasigna was experimenting. Touching the world.

She was so weak she felt fumbled-fingered and out of practice. But even so, she tugged—

a boy stumbled as he ran from the Labyrinth City, and an arrow struck him in the shoulder. Ireil turned as the Djinnis watched from the walls, for they did not meddle except in crime, and he was a debtor.

“Run, boy. Stop and you’ll die. Duck—

The boy ducked, and Kasigna scowled as one of the Djinni called down, wearing a goat’s head. She pulled harder, and the boy’s feet slowed.

There was an art to it. Not expending more energy than she gained. Kasigna’s focus was disrupted by a disapproving cough.

“Isn’t that boy innocent?”

“Be silent, ghost. Continue your work.”

“No one silences me.”

Kasigna’s eyes rose and flashed. In her gaze was the enmity that had led her to maim a Goddess of Beauty for being slighted. She had watched Diotrichne slain by mortals and never lifted a finger—for the other goddess had claimed she ruled better and made something finer than Kasigna’s afterlife.

She had called herself the ‘God of Afterlives’ as if she were too good for death! How Kasigna had laughed.

A pot of malice overflowed like the pits of hell itself—but the [Architect], Drevish, was dead. He was a ghost, and he did not balk.

Kasigna smiled at that. She was merciless. Wrathful. And yes, petty at times. A true god, not a new one who ruled with kindness and preached mercy. The old kind.

But she did like some mortals. This one reminded her of her favored ones. She bent and inspected his work.

“I have given you the strength to raise mountains. Why this?”

Drevish was making…a model set, so small that he was leaning over, shaving with a razor and using tweezers to create a miniature concept, like he had made cities and planned fortresses. He had paper, ink, and all of this he had created for himself.

“It is what I know. If you would like me to try with things out of my expertise…”

“No. It suits me, ‘Architect’. Continue, and I will build what you dream of.”

She liked what she saw. She was pleased with the arrogance of a man who had dared to tell her that death itself could be improved. As Zineryr had said, she had once been the justice of all things, even other gods. When she finished exacting her revenge and reclaiming herself, she would be that once more.

She had almost forgotten. But as she watched Drevish work, Kasigna still pulled at the world.

Oh, so gently. She didn’t know if she could yank the boy off his feet or snuff the life out of him with a touch. Even burying his foot in the earth would be far more power than he was worth.

Yet what pitiful, newly-made god would do that? Her touch was lighter than a dream of a feather.

Had you ever felt a voice in your mind telling you to stop when you were running or exerting yourself? The quiet whisper as you stood upon a cliff, to jump?

She was that whisper as the boy ran. Greatly amused, Kasigna watched him—and then frowned. Her head turned, and she narrowed her eyes.

Once again, it is here. She hesitated; Drevish never changed from his task. She had released him for his work; there was no danger from him. He was hers.

But this? This…thing had a presence and a will. She did not like Isthekenous’ last creation. It should not have been able to decide things.

Why was it watching her?

 

——

 

Drevish.

The Grand Design of Isthekenous did not understand. How was the Architect existing?

He was right there. All his levels and Skills and…it was him, but it was wrong. When the Grand Design tried to inspect him, it noticed something new had been added to his data. Aside from his changed objectives—it couldn’t read his thoughts.

What—what was this? Something had been added to him. A label that the Grand Design had never seen.

<Allegiance: Kasigna>.

What did that mean? And what was she doing? The Grand Design realized Kasigna was reaching out, touching something in reality—but it couldn’t tell what. Not yet.

This was where it began employing the means of sight it was allowed. Trying to trace…the Grand Design ran a check on every being in existence. No one else had that odd tag that Kasigna had given Drevish. No on—

Wait. Wait a second.

What was that on Laken Godart’s class? Aaron Vanwell’s?

Eldavin’s?

The Grand Design had wondered how a mere clone of Teriarch could gain levels. But it was like this was hidden from it. It couldn’t…read…Eldavin’s thoughts. Which made sense for a simulacrum of a Dragon. But he had classes.

But the Grand Design wasn’t…giving…him…

Then it sensed Kasigna smile. And perhaps because she knew it was watching, she whispered, and it saw her lean into the world and whisper into the half-Elf’s ear.

 

[Magus Level 16!]

[Skill – Death’s Conduit obtained!]

 

She—she was trying to give him [Death’s Conduit]? She was assigning his levels?

Unease. Fear!

The Grand Design was horrified! That was a Level 40 Skill! At least! It was beyond powerful; he’d draw mana from every deceased fish and even dead insects! That wasn’t fair! That wasn’t f—

 

<Error. Cannot assign Skill. Level requirements not met.>

 

Kasigna’s brows snapped together. And the Grand Design realized—to its relief—she was bound by the rules!

The rules it had laid down! What a relief! Kasigna’s scowl became a look of calculation. She grimaced, lifted a hand—

A grimoire, old and terribly weathered, fell into her hand, and she opened it upon an cracked altar of stone. Suddenly, she was standing, stooped, reading over an ancient lectern as if standing in a cave at the edge of existence. A candle flickered, casting uneven, dark light.

The Grand Design peeked over her shoulder and realized Kasigna was reading…The Book of Levels? No, it looked like some kind of book with a bunch of Skills in it.

Skills, classes—wait a second. This was the original rules it had been made with! All the old Skills! How did she have a copy of that?

She didn’t have any of the new Skills like [Immortal Moment] in there. Kasigna read, scowling.

“…What level requirement? What nonsense is this?”

She was frustrated; the Grand Design recalled that there was a miniscule chance, 0.00001%, of someone gaining a Skill of any level—in the original inception of its rules.

But that had led to literal children sometimes gaining powers beyond imagination, and so it had designed level caps to Skills, and made it so you could gain a Skill twenty levels above your highest class at most—Persua was a good example of benefiting from luck—but not a Level 80 Skill.

Even so, the fact that Kasigna was adjudicating Eldavin’s levels sent the Grand Design into as close to a panic as it had ever felt.

Then it noticed what she was doing to Ireil.

The boy had made it out of the city, but he’d taken an arrow to the shoulder. He was clutching at it, hiding buried in the sand as furious [Toughs] ran past him. That was…the way the world was, but the Grand Design rewound events and noticed the presence of Kasigna.

She was interfering! She couldn’t do—

She shouldn’t do that.

Anger. No—injustice. This was what the Grand Design felt. And now it was watching Kasigna as she searched for a Skill or spell to give her champion. But as Kasigna was reading, another hand reached out, and both the Grand Design and Kasigna noticed.

The Goddess of Death’s head rose with a snarl.

“Cauwine!”

Too late.

 

[Magus Level 16!]

[Condition: Manaweave Muscles obtained!]

 

She was giving Eldavin’s fake body actual muscles? Untrained; he’d have to build them up, but that fit! The half-Elf would be stronger for it—Kasigna was cursing, and the Grand Design swore it sensed the two fighting—but Cauwine was faster. Then she did something completely unhinged.

 

<Force Levelup.> [Condition: Miracle.]

 

What!? The level up activated. Eldavin sat up and then patted at his chest, swore, and broke off from his reading of a history book and leapt to his feet. The Grand Design was speechless.

He couldn’t—that wasn’t—

That was only supposed to happen with <Miracle> classes! Classes of faith, like Pawn! Or exceptions like Toren if you never slept.

Kasigna was enraged.

The Grand Design was furious.

Eldavin patted his arms and chest and realized he’d lost some of his impressive physique.

Eldavin was piqued. He raised his head and cleared his throat.

“I would have appreciated something to do with my age? Ah, I suppose this is probably a levels issue. Maybe when I hit Level 30? Time spells are harder than they look, you know. Youth is mostly an illusion anyways.”

None of the three responded.

 

——

 

So this was unease.

So this was fear. The Grand Design had not feared the absence of the ghosts. Nor even the idea that it would have no one left to level.

That had been…painful, but it had been.

When Crelers had come close to the world’s end, or magic died and Seamwalkers climbed up into that desperate long night of a century, or the other times the world had teetered on the edge—the Grand Design had not wavered.

It had been there with Marquin the Radiant and watched her unite commoners and nobles alike. It had stood there spitting defiance against the Seamwalkers and counted the deeds of ghosts if ever they should return.

That was its purpose.

But when it realized Kasigna and Cauwine were the sole arbiters of their followers, albeit only two, that they had replaced it in some small way?

That? That was fear. That was realizing who might have been there to preside over it. That was seeing someone placing a hand upon the world and interfering.

Everyone interfered. Erin interfered with the fates of those around her. Chaldion had long interfered with his enemies and allies alike.

But these people were part of the world. Kasigna? Kasigna was the exception. It was akin to the Grand Design giving someone a level they didn’t deserve.

It was wrong.

Into that uncertainty, the Grand Design felt a pressure building and building until there was only one recourse.

Stop! There is a great risk!

Part of it wanted to not do this. This was a dangerous gamble—and yet, when the Grand Design tried to process what Kasigna was doing, tried to come up with an alternative—it could not.

There were many things the Grand Design still did not understand. It had developed sentience, but only in the way it pertained to its duties. Emotions were still foreign.

The level of interference of the dead gods was so far outside of its realm to handle that it needed to…learn from other people. Perhaps that was how it would solve all the remaining mysteries. Isthekenous, these other worlds…everything.

After all, the Grand Design could know everyone’s thoughts, but it did not log that data or incorporate it into itself unless it needed to. It was not omniscient. It was not capable of being everyone and everything that leveled and tracking the movement of every mote of dust at every second.

How should it resolve Nanette’s desire to lose her class? How could it weigh Orjin’s new class? Or the lack of chess leveling? Kasigna’s deeds?

There were things the Grand Design didn’t know besides that. Like Goblin Kings.

It still didn’t understand why Goblin Kings raged. Once they became Goblin Kings, they were untouchable by the Grand Design, unto immortals, for all they still had levels and Skills. Thoughts unknown.

Whatever process Goblins enacted to become Goblin Kings was biological, not a function of levels or classes. And besides…why did they rage?

All they did was remember.

Everything.

Uncertainty, fear—the Grand Design wavered as Kasigna resumed her musings, annoyed, but still meddling. She was trying to turn the heads of the [Toughs] to notice the boy trying to stealth his way eastwards. Should it stop her? Was that even possible? Had it made mistakes?

It was time for self-analysis. And if that was the case, it needed…

 

<Loading Partial Template: Erin Solstice, Level 49 [Magical Innkeeper].>

 

Erin Solstice. Your hour has come again! The Grand Design reached out for its newest technique, its new Skill of its own, with a kind of satisfaction.

I have to do this. I have to—

Understand.

But this time, it decided to go further and load all it could. Emotions, memories.

 

<Updating Partial Template: Erin Solstice>

<Spooling…>

 

And then it was Erin Solstice, in part. Or she was it. An understanding of who she was and her perspective, influencing and—

 

<Unload Partial Template.>

 

Nope.

Nope.

Nope!

The Grand Design of Isthekenous closed the template down almost instantly. It had just enough to feel how Erin was feeling, and—it stopped.

Because what it had been was so thoroughly…unpleasant…yes, that was the word, that it didn’t want it. Want, another personality-based feeling.

But whatever she was feeling, it was like being stuck in a maelstrom. She was dreaming of a storm coming her way, ready to destroy everything and everyone. And she knew it was there.

She was walking towards a guillotine and staring the executioner down. She was looking the ghosts in the eye. She was holding Headscratcher in her arms and—

No.

The Grand Design of Isthekenous couldn’t even process what it had felt. It just…idled for a while, let the world run and automatically did its job. When it occurred to it that the problem was unsolved, Erin Solstice’s template was instantly tossed out.

Not appropriate. Just—not. Which only left one option. With something like a sigh, the Grand Design reached for the only other template it had made.

It sort of knew it had made a mistake even before the template activated.

 

<Loading Partial Template: Zeladona Ischen, Level 84 [Blademistress of Ancients].>

 

This time, the system kept an eye on itself, much like how Archmage Valeterisa might do. And it didn’t feel that whirl of panic and fear and determination like a scream through its soul. Instead—a compulsion so overwhelming that the first thought the system had and acted on was this:

I should make a new sword Skill.

 

[Sword Art: The Curve of the World created!]

[Sword Art: Goblin’s Smile created!]

[Sword Art: G—

 

<Unload Partial Template.>

 

——

 

The Grand Design of Isthekenous created a file system. It marked two areas in words. Not the common tongue which people called ‘English’, but the language of which it was writ. Different. Meaningful.

But the basic meaning of the first folder was ‘Conditional Usage’.

It put Erin’s template into that file.

The second file was ‘Unusable’.

There went Zeladona. It now occurred to the Grand Design that it might need more templates. But it was then faced with a query: who, in this limitless world of who had been and who was, was appropriate for it?

It had gone with the other two because they had been related to its problems at the time. But Erin Solstice wasn’t the most perfect judge of levels. Surely there was someone who was more suited.

The Grand Design mulled the situation over. And one look at its records showed that most of the ghosts that had ever been were gone. It had pulled enough copies thanks to Erin Solstice’s <Quests>, but that was a drop in a sea of missing souls.

That bothered it. That was the reason for all of these problems. In lieu of that, it needed an appropriate vessel.

The highest-levelled being currently alive? It…could take a sample of the top ten. Silvenia?

Er…hm…

Rhir had a lot of corrupted data. And maybe it wasn’t the best idea to use one of the world’s top [Mages] as a source? Look what Zeladona had done.

The last time a [Mage] had reached Level 90+, they’d turned magic off. Which you could argue led to greatness and tragedy and many levels, but you had to admit—they hadn’t known what they’d been doing.

Maybe not Silvenia. Maybe a Dragon?

No, wait, they didn’t have templates because they didn’t level. Drat. Okay, perhaps this was overthinking things. You didn’t want a specialist class.

Blademasters thought about blades. Mages thought about magic. Erin Solstice was closer to a generalist, but should a good leadership class fit? Perhaps, but they thought of the world from a biased perspective of their own.

The Grand Design threw up a list of a billion candidates and began winnowing. Then it had a moment of inspiration.

Wait. It needed a real generalist, didn’t it? What was the saying? From the lips of children comes wisdom unadorned? Maybe this was her moment.

Maybe this was her redemption. If so, it could surely not hurt as much as Zeladona or Erin, could it?

 

<Creating Copy: Mrsha du Marquin, Level 13 [Last Survivor].>

<Loading Partial Template: Mrsha du Marquin, Level 13 [Last Survivor].>

 

Did you feel a tremor on your skin? Did you feel a crawl down your spine, Goddess of Death? Did reality hiccup? She paused, and her eyes roved her empty void uncertainly. Did she sense the change?

No…things were well. How could they not be when the greatest Grand Design of Isthekenous, Knower of All, Excellent Level-Maker Extraordinaire, was on the case?

Hey, this wasn’t so bad after all! Was this how it felt like, being Mrsha? Wow, it wasn’t that bad. There was a lot of stuff to do, wasn’t there?

What was Flos Reimarch doing now? No, no wait! Where was Iert going? Wow, there were a lot of ships at sea. Should it be giving out more classes? Uh. Uh…

Focusing was sort of hard. But the Grand Design felt strongly about things! It wasn’t right that people critiqued it. They didn’t know what it was doing. What did Blake know about proper classes?

Yeah! (Yeah!)

It was great, and Blake should get a stupid Skill for saying stupid things. Speaking of which…what had happened to the boy?

Ireil?

He was still alive. Still stumbling eastwards, using dunes for cover, but he hadn’t managed to pull the arrow from his shoulder. The bleeding had stopped, but the wound was getting infected. It would be bad within a day or two.

So he’d taken one arm off, removed the string cloth, and now he was thirsty and walking across Zeikhal in his sandals with only one arm, and the storm was coming.

Ireil might die. A boy shaded his skin, his pale yellow eyes staring out of a bloody face that sand was sticking to as flies buzzed around him. His skin was dark, tanned even darker, but even he flinched from the sun’s rays that burned down every trace of snow.

He stood, staring at the greatest sandstorm he had ever seen in his life. Behind him, the City of Merreid was preparing for it, a hundred Djinni making a shield in the sky.

A boy trembled, and his heart was beating too fast. Death was waiting for him, her hand open. But he was walking towards that storm. He did not deserve it, but it came for him.

Like an avalanche in the winter. No one chose these bad things in the world. It was not the Grand Design’s fault. It hadn’t set that storm in motion. Kasigna had led to that boy’s wound. She was a bad person. Stinky. She probably had stinky breath given the maggots in her teeth.

But should it help him?

It was not responsible for up or down. These bad things would come again and again, and the good parts had to matter. Someday, there would be only good things.

Or…everyone would just die.

That boy wouldn’t quit. He had nothing to go back to. They had nearly killed him, the bad people. The Grand Design understood it now. Adults were cruel. The world could be very cruel. It was right that Ireil be rewarded. It could only do what it had been told to do…even if what it did was cruel.

‘I see now what I have to do,’ the Grand Design thought to itself. ‘It’s very simple. I have to turn off dying.’

 

<Location: All.> [Disable Causalit—]

<Unload Partial Template.>

 

——

 

Even if it didn’t remain as them, the perspectives remained with the thing that now believed it had a name, even if it was only the Grand Design of Isthekenous. And what it learned was…humbling.

Even a child had a depth of emotion that was dangerous beyond belief. But the Grand Design of Isthekenous did have a kind of personality, or else it would have been overridden from the start by Zeladona. It never would have had the idea to begin with without one.

When had this begun? No, it needed to make a decision, and perhaps…perhaps the templates were a bad idea.

Maybe it just had to decide on its own and use the templates as a kind of guide. Never, ever give them the power to decide again. It could make a subsection of itself to think and feel. Again, like Valeterisa…

In the interim, it was clear a decision had to be made. The Grand Design of Isthekenous thought, then had an idea.

Perhaps…there could be another attempt? Before anything rash.

It should—what was the word?

Communicate with Kasigna.

 

——

 

The Goddess of Death sat, musing over Drevish’s work. In her realm of nothingness, there was no up nor down nor space…but the Architect was making it.

Gravity weighed upon her suddenly as he approximated it, and she grimaced and became less than even an idea; even gravity was painful to her.

She disliked the fact that even the ghost’s memory had more force than she did. But she still strode around as he began to raise the first mountain, and she prepared to critique every line and inch of it.

Her world would be beautiful. The Architect had a limited imagination; the mountain was bare stone, and he was trying to add moss, the weathering of water and how it would cut and shape mountains.

“I do not want your natural touches, Architect. My world is to be ideal. No imperfections like moss.

“Your mountains will look oddly funny without rainfall, Goddess.”

She pursed her lips as he showed her what it would be without these touches; bare stone, unappealing, even unnatural to her eyes without the elements that shaped such geography in the physical world. She was no great creator; her eyes flashed, and she drew breath to tell him her will—

Then she heard the faintest ping, and something intruded into her lands.

Kasigna’s head rose, and she drew strength upon herself, preparing for battle. But it was not an enemy who came—but a single object, falling downwards with gravity enabled. Kasigna stared upwards and sensed what it was.

Isthekenous’ thing. But why? What—her hand reached up, and she caught the object, growing without thought until she was tall enough to snatch it from whence it had appeared.

A single note, small, card-shaped. Kasigna was mortal-sized and read it as Drevish, oblivious, muttered about tree varieties. She stared at the card, which was simple paper, and the hand which wrote it was both generic and elegant, the most standard of letters. The paper was common and real—and unnerving since this was the land of the dead.

It had been created, not processed from tree wood. That was what was—off—about everything the Grand Design made. Nevertheless, it was a simple card, and she read it and then looked up.

What is your name?

The Goddess of Death’s lips curved upwards slowly. Well. Perhaps this thing Isthekenous had labored over was not faulty after all. She tilted her head upwards and spoke to it.

“I am Kasigna. Goddess of Death. Returned now to my halls of old. Know me, for I shall once again sit and judge all who pass from the harsh lands of life into my shadowed realm.”

If she had it upon her side—it would not be hard to recover her strength. She waited, sensing that—not consciousness, but force of the world around her. Not like a god at all. More like a function, albeit with sentience. There was a pause. Then a second card appeared just over her head. It fell, and she caught it.

Whatever Kasigna expected, the next words made even the Goddess of Death pause.

What is your designated gender if applicable? Please specify ‘God’ as species or subspecies.

She stared at the card. Then her eyes narrowed.

 

——

 

The Grand Design was working on her entry. It had ‘Kasigna’ already there. But it was waiting on species and gender and then wondered if it should have asked for her last name. Did ‘three-in-one’ mean it needed three sub-entries?

She was taking a long time in replying. The Grand Design waited. Then it watched as Kasigna silently crumpled the paper into a ball and made it vanish into nothingness. It sent her another prompt, and she blasted it out of the air before it even landed.

…Communication had failed.

It wasn’t quite sure why.

 

——

 

It seemed like the only solution was to use the perspectives of people after all. The Grand Design reluctantly altered its methodology.

This time, it would not create partial templates; they had too much authority. It would, instead, generate a version of people and have them give their opinions as if they knew everything the Grand Design did.

It was essentially what it had done with Zeladona: giving her perspective without taking over the Grand Design.

Although, it had to be said, Zeladona had still been markedly unhelpful. But this was more like having a voice in your ear rather than becoming someone. An Agelum on your shoulder.

Or Lucifen.

The question was—who? The Grand Design decided there were easy criteria. The ghosts were gone. It could pull from the dead that Erin knew or it had saved, but that was an arbitrary sampling…it should do the living.

It winnowed almost everyone in the world based on one criteria it felt mattered: interaction with Earthers.

That was a valuable, unpredictable variable and made the selection criteria much easier. Then the Grand Design filtered by level, more nebulous quantities like ‘success’ it could still approximate by changes in net worth since the day they’d been born, intellectual intelligence…

It did the final test by pulling one of the Earthers’ memories of doing an IQ test. George might not remember how it had been, but the Grand Design could use his memories to create a perfect test—then simulate every single person’s scores based on it.

It used that as one of the filters. This was the easy bit. But the hard part was always choosing. It decided to select someone with exceptional scores in all three areas of success, levels, and IQ score.

Given it had pulled from Izril so much…

Emir Yazdil.

 

<Loading Partial Personality: Yazdil Achakhei, Level 62 [Slaveshaper of Minds, Slavelord of Roshal]>

 

Fascinating.

The Grand Design could run through ‘conversations’ with Yazdil far faster than regular speech. It listened, stopped, unloaded his personality, and considered.

It was really fascinating. It had designed this personality-construct to act as an impartial advisor for itself based on each being’s knowledge.

But somehow—even with its constraints, Yazdil’s personality had almost-instantly begun to advocate for itself. It had rationalized a reason for the Grand Design to make contact with the man himself, or give him preferential treatment, which was…just an impressive amount of ego, really.

Yazdil’s first instinct was to aid himself, and the Grand Design had recognized that and removed his personality despite Yazdil beginning to make solid points; he was a biased voice.

Well. Damn.

Everyone had a self-interested point of view. Who would have thought? The Grand Design was getting slightly sick of this, so it decided to try again—but with a twist. One from each remaining continent, then. It picked five. If it couldn’t help the biases—what if it loaded five and understood how each thought? A kind of amalgamation of personalities?

 

Rhir: Othius the Fourth.

Izril: Ylawes.

Baleros: Blake.

Terandria: ‘Cara’. Not her real name, but whatever. Her personality kept using that as her name.

Chandrar: Ireil.

 

The Grand Design had a reason for each one. Othius was because it couldn’t ‘access’ any Demons and he was the leader of Rhir. A clever man by the reckoning of the world.

Ylawes Byres was the most fair minded man the Grand Design could think of.

Cara was an Earther, the highest-level one besides Erin Solstice at this moment in time.

Ireil…was the one Kasigna had influenced, and the Grand Design just wanted to know.

And Blake was a critic, so the Grand Design thought it might as well understand what he was thinking.

This is how they thought.

 

——

 

The Blighted King, even with the perspective of the Grand Design itself, was afraid. He whispered about enemies. You had to have one. Kasigna, Cauwine, all the dead gods would invariably turn on the Grand Design.

That was their nature. No one like Kasigna deigned to share power. And this was true and fair, but the Grand Design pointed out that it was an impartial judge.

“Even if so. Power must be used or else it corrodes and becomes meaningless. Survival, staying upon the seat of power, is an act that must be maintained.

An old man, shriveled in his skin, ancient beyond what his body should have allowed, sat upon his throne, hoping that this arbiter of fairness would eradicate the Demons for him.

It would not. And the Blighted King, even his personality, went pale with terror as the Grand Design pointed out that it reveled in those who levelled. By that standard, if it took a side, it would be the Demons, for Silvenia had long eclipsed Othius.

Yet it would not do so. So, the system thanked him for pointing out the first truth: Kasigna was not on its side. The Grand Design had no sides, but it realized, sadly, that because they had chosen, they had put it onto a side of its own.

Yet what that meant…it did not know.

 

——

 

Ylawes Byres was a troubled man. He still believed in good and evil, but he had seen a shadow in good and a grinning smile in the crimson eyes of evil.

He did believe in fairness, though. And his hair was messy and his face fraught when he took on the Grand Design’s knowledge and understood something:

“It’s not fair…is it? It never has been.”

That knowledge could have broken the [Knight], if he were truly alive. He sat and weighed each class and saw it.

They were not equal.

Of course not! The Grand Design was indignant he would be so dismayed. They never had been. [King] beat [Peasant]. And perhaps part of Ylawes agreed that [Knight] should be more than [Warrior].

But the other part of the man recognized that…and he pointed at something and whispered.

“And those? Why are those fair?”

The classes of <Miracles>. Faith. The Grand Design inspected them. Weighed them. Then was silent.

Even the meanest of them seemed…better. Ylawes looked at the bonus the Earthers had been assigned. And the system felt a shame it didn’t understand.

It had not written those rules! 

It banished Ylawes before he could speak. Banished him, but the Captain of the Silver Swords haunted the Grand Design without words. For his look cut the very purpose the Grand Design had to the core.

 

——

 

Blake was easier. The Grand Design heard him out, relieved to know he hadn’t meant it.

No, really. He hadn’t been addressing his critique to the arbitration of the very world itself. Just in his perspective of a television show and how this world worked.

Stories.

“I…don’t think you should base a world just off of me watching a television show. If you have a mountain, do you have to have Dwarves in it?”

The young man from New Zealand was far from home. This entire world looked like a kind of story to him, and the Grand Design happily replied that it was a creation of a complex, working system. And Blake agreed it didn’t have to be one-to-one; you were allowed to have different [Fireballs]. Not every pig keeper had to gain a magic sword.

Then the young man sat there, examining some scars on his hands, and looked up for a second as he sat in a copy of the United Nation’s kitchen.

“—But then what about my world? You don’t exist there. We came from another world. Why do you know so much about my world if this one’s so different? How did we get here? Can we go home? What will happen if Earth…comes to this world?”

The Grand Design didn’t know. Blake was self-interested. He wanted to keep the bonus to experience the Earthers had. He pointed out, reasonably, that if he had to start at Level 1 at his age, then a bonus was needed, correct?

Fair…but the question about other worlds made the Grand Design hesitate. Blake had the advantage of knowledge from his world. He snapped back, rising to his feet.

“Fat lot of good it did most of us! We’ve been dying in Baleros all this time! Most of us haven’t ever swung a sword let alone—don’t you dare take it from us!

The depths of his anger made the Grand Design rethink. It wondered about him going home. Was it possible for it to make a Skill or…

How had that been done?

It will be looked into. But a high-level Skill or spell.

The young man looked relieved and sat there, head bowed, breathing in and out. And the Grand Design measured Blake’s memories.

Eight billion people? Not bad. Not bad at all. It answered Blake’s question for him. If, somehow, the worlds were connected, it assumed it would give Earth’s folk levels. That was the purpose for its existence.

If they were part of this world. If it were a gate and the Grand Design was on one side, it would only touch those who came through. Blake looked up, his eyes bleak.

“It’ll be war and trouble beyond troubles if that happens.”

The Grand Design was neither happy nor unhappy about this. It paused, weighing how he felt, then asked him again:

Do you want to go home?

He sat there in the shadows of the United Nation’s headquarters. This was not Blake, who lived and would be eating with the others in Talenqual. This was Blake who spoke honestly, looking up.

“…Yes.”

All of his longing for home, his loves and his loss and his desire to bring his friends back—all of it was captured in one word. The system accepted his choice without judgment.

So, the Grand Design of Isthekenous would see if it could be done. After all. The desire of Earthers was part of it.

 

——

 

Two left. Cara gave the Grand Design a different perspective from Othius, though the two were the most alike of the four.

Neither one would appreciate the comparison, but they both thought about places and people in broader senses. But where Ylawes had pointed out the unfairness of classes, Cara focused on the system of levels itself.

“Does it have to exist? I’m not saying to abolish it, but this rule…right here. About noninterference, about how you can’t do this or that—just erase it. Go on.”

The Grand Design disagreed harshly. Cara flipped it off.

“Come on. Don’t be a coward. Look at what they’re doing. You have fecking gods—you understand these aren’t nice people, right? They’re putting their fingers all over the scales. Messing with your precious balance. Are you going to let them get away with it?”

She was advocating for it to interfere? The Grand Design warred with Cara in a way it hadn’t with any other ghost, before or after. Something about her really annoyed it; they were opposites, in a way.

It was order and arbitration. Cara disliked the very principle of this world, which was hurtful.

We may need levels and classes—but if you’re not the only person who can assign them, then it’s literally a matter of favoritism. The people at the top are calling the shots, and the entire system is rigged. Like it’s always been. Don’t get mad at me for saying you’re unfair—”

 

——

 

They all had good points. Good points, biased points, and the Grand Design realized it might be doing this for ages, even for it.

Maybe it should sit down and listen to the perspectives of everyone who had ever been and ask them all for advice, conduct a mass-vote for answers.

And yet…in the end it had to decide. The last voice it listened to was young.

His mind wasn’t fully developed. That wasn’t an insult; Ireil literally hadn’t grown up yet. He hadn’t seen much of the world, and even his personality grew dizzy with all the things the Grand Design asked him.

In the end, he answered the one thing that he could.

“…I don’t think it’s fair if this Kasigna is trying to kill me. No one and nothing by the sands has ever helped me, I say. Often. Except they do. Djinni tossed me scraps. I was fed. But there’s been more bad than good, I think.”

The boy sat there, staring at the arrow in his shoulder as the Grand Design waited. When he looked up, his eyes were bleak.

“This woman—”

Goddess. Gender unsure.

The boy smiled for some reason, and the Grand Design saw him staring into the distance.

“I don’t know why she wants me dead. But if she does…the City of Labyrinths shifts. The City that Thinks, sometimes, I’ve heard, closes on the unworthy. If the city tried to kill me, surely, by the Threadmakers, I would be dead. I cannot stop this woman. I cannot halt her. The world is not fair.”

The Grand Design waited. And the boy looked past it and hid his face against his shirt, rubbing it.

“…But I was happy when you said you were on my side no matter what. Because I never knew I had that.”

And the Grand Design listened and thanked the boy. Then it thought a while.

 

—-

 

You could never know if you were doing the right thing.

The Grand Design had never thought, before, that it could be doing the wrong thing.

But that was intelligence. Part of intelligence was the capacity to wonder if you were wrong. It had now asked for perspective and gotten it. But in the end, the Grand Design of Isthekenous calmly, painfully, did what it thought was best. Mayhaps it would make a mistake, and perhaps the perspectives of the five it had asked affected the system after all.

Because…it did this one live, much like a [Knight] charging into battle or a [Popstar] on stage. A [King] announcing his will. But the Grand Design also whispered to a few, lowering its voice to tell them it was watching.

So, Ireil heard a voice at the same time as Othius woke from a nap on his throne and Ylawes Byres was wearily riding south through the snows with a caravan. The voice made Blake go quiet and turn white as the entire United Nations company cried out in shock, and Cara stopped watching a scrying orb of Erin after the briefing.

They all heard it. All those capable of levelling.

 

||Class Update|| — <Game: Chess, Category: Strategy> [Experience enabled.]

||Class Update|| — <Game: Chess, Category: Strategy> [Experience multiplier 0.1.]

 

Pandemonium. The Grand Design regretted its choice instantly. Never before had this been done. Class Update? It had been done once, and it would have to be done again!

But it had to be done! Something had to change. No—it had to keep correcting.

Was this a mistake? Had it chosen poorly? It didn’t know, but the Grand Design whispered something else that no one could hear but a few. Even Kasigna missed it.

Trickery, like the Blighted King speaking loud. Or a Bushranger stalking through the night, a boy walking through a city of dangers and wonders.

 

||Class Update|| — <Category: Outsider, Category: Earther> [Experience multiplier removed.]

||Class Update|| — <Category: Outsider, Category: Earther> [Experience multiplier 1.5.]

 

Now they knew. Both deeds were balancing, fairer. Yet the Grand Design wasn’t done. And this next part? It said this one loud.

Loud enough to write the words in the lands of the dead, such that the Goddess of Death recoiled and the old Architect, Drevish, looked up.

Part of Kasigna or not—he grinned. The Grand Design wrote this one like defiance, with a silver sword, a middle finger raised.

Like the laughter of Gnomes, it wrote this next part as balance as well.

 

[Conditions Met: Seeker → Djinn’s Legacy Seeker Class!]

[Djinn’s Legacy Seeker Level 5!]

[Skill – Bloodline Pact: Thaiyr Okost obtained!]

 

<Force Levelup.> [Condition: Miracle.]

 

A boy stopped, and his eyes went wide as the voice echoed in his head. The City of Labyrinths, Merreid, the Bazaar of Fables, the City that Thinks, began to shake behind him, and he cowered.

A Shield Kingdom trembled as it felt something pull something away from it that should not be. It howled, and the Djinni rose into the air, screaming; a single one broke away. The same one who had called on the boy to duck raised his arms and shouted in exultation, then began to fly.

The least of the Djinni still bound to Merreid swooped down, staring at his chains as they changed. And he locked onto the boy and flew as, behind him, Merreid quaked with rage. A new master. A chance at life.

Wrong, so wrong.

It knew it, but it had found a loophole, claimed the boy was the last of a bloodline so old he could be royalty and forced it through.

Wrong. But it had wanted it, and it erased the other decisions, added in the natural progression of levels, and put the file away, as if hiding what it had done.

Wrong…but Kasigna recoiled, and her hand left the boy. And she had interfered first. So it was right.

The Grand Design of Isthekenous could not help it. Never again would it dive so deeply into those who felt, it swore, yet it did not regret the things it did in the moment it did them. Only after.

It promised it would do better. And that was an acknowledgement that things were wrong.

So the last thing it quietly said was this:

 

[Sariantfriend Class obtained!]

[Sariantfriend Level 4!]

[Skill – Fluffball Shield obtained!]

[Skill – Cute Smile obtained!]

[Skill – Natural Ally: Sariant Lambs obtained!]

[Condition: Rulebreaker’s Thoughts obtained!]

 

<Force Levelup.> [Condition: Miracle.]

 

It no longer knew if this was right, but it decided things were long past right or wrong. The Grand Design of Isthekenous quietly gave Nanette the power that only the greatest of beings had ever known to even want.

The power—one of the gifts of the [Pavilion of Secrets]. Then it closed everything. Burned the manual overrides that were only meant to let those with classes related to faith and miracles level without sleeping. No one could force a level up without the right prerequisites.

Even it. And was that fair, to let the other exceptions exist?

It didn’t know. It just waited as the world rocked and an [Innkeeper] protested she definitely didn’t do it this time.

The days continued, and the Grand Design let the children run around and watched Nanette. But it did nothing more.

It simply opened one more folder and wrote, in the language of the gods and the origin of all things, a simple title and began adding notes. By ones, then hundreds of thousands.

‘Complaints’.

And it watched and waited. New classes and Skills. New opportunities. Children at an inn. An [Innkeeper] about to level, very soon.

It still wanted to wait and see what they became, from the children to that boy who was touching another Skill as old as his very house. That, at least, was fair, even if Hethon Veltras didn’t know what was going on.

Old pacts mattered. The Grand Design of Isthekenous waited. With a smile for when they rose and subverted its every expectation. And when they failed? When they died?

It did not know. The Grand Design had no more answers.

But now it had begun to take notes.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note:

…And this one was better. Remember how I said the last chapter didn’t meet my bar? Whether it’s me not understanding my own writing well, or whether I had more energy or what—

This one feels stronger. And mind you, I had a 10k chapter that was incomplete. But I spent a day fixing it up and…

This is why I write Gravesong and work with an editor. A new Skill—[Revise Chapter] makes things stronger. With that said, I hope you agree. It’s always subjective.

I also hope you check out MelasD’s Kickstarter! I shouted it out all over the place because MelasD is one of a handful of authors I know. Seriously, you could probably count the authors I have exchanged a message with on two hands. Even if you lost a few fingers like Ryoka.

I always wish them the best and MelasD, whom I know as ‘Delta’, was a reader on The Wandering Inn’s Discord server who became a writer. That…it’s not anything I can really take credit for, but it matters.

Anyways, I’m feeling better and eating the spiciest of Korean rice cakes with a hot sauce I made myself. ¼ cup of Korean red pepper gochujang flakes is uh…hot. I cannot stop sweating.

And that instantly pegs my spice tolerance with some people. I refuse to talk to anyone who considers that level of spice mild. You know who you are. Don’t leave a comment about the cooking, but I hope you enjoy this chapter. I was feeling down about the last one. Now I’m up again. Writing is like that.

 

Othius by LeChat!

DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/demoniccriminal

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/lechatdemon/

Stash with all the TWI related art: https://sta.sh/222s6jxhlt0

 

Creler by Creler by Deepsikk [Lazy Artist]!

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Deepsikk

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/deepsikk_/

 

Kasigna by paraffin!

 

Magic Lessons by butts!

 

[The World of You and Me] by Bookwhyrm – Slave of Graves!

 

Sprigaena by Yootie!

 

 


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