World 39: Black Bullet

UNFORGIVABLE DEEDS

Previously: Traitor’s Fury

Themesong: There is No Other Way from Pacific Overtures

Okay, so, I’m back from Vordlandia… bleh. That last year wasn’t fun. Managed to save some, but so many died, and that croach… ugh… seriously… ugh. Nutritious in the same way Kix cereal is and twice as horrid. Only slightly better than carrots.

Anyway, I’m sure if I had nightmares, I’d be having them. The guilt hits me at odd times. But I remind myself that I still made things better. For all Tavi’s work, female equality under the law wasn’t something he achieved, and he managed to give away humanity’s sole advantage over the other races to boot. Still, another decade down, another jump to plan. I look over at the Vending Machines and see “Black Bullet”. I have no idea what that is. Like. None. Might as well see what I can figure out from the…

What the hell did I just read? Three human cities left, a global plague of monsters… and the only thing standing between humanity and the darkness are 10 year old girls with this horrific disease? Ones who are used as prostitutes, lynched, abused… No… no… fuck this… fuck this hard. Screw this entire thing. Burn the world. No… no sweetness. I’m not going to burn this world… this has gone beyond the pale. I’m going to kill every last motherfucking asshole on this festering blight. Sometimes the darkness wins. I am Balance after all.

Fuck it. Let’s see the Vord Queen cope with this. I’m not exposing anyone else to this shit. I get one import this jump… if I go Promoter or Initiator. Well, I’m not going to inflict Initiator on Regina, so I guess she gets to be the Promoter. Which means I’m 10 years old again. Woo! Behold, I am become death, the destroyer of… well, not worlds, but cities at this point. Three fucking cities, apparently full of the worst of humanity. Christ. Humans are the real monsters?

I dunno if this is Anime or not, sounds like it, but can’t be sure. Honestly, if it didn’t have Tokyo as one of the three cities I’d be defo thinking not, but… I mean, for fuck’s sake, they’ve put bombs into these little kids heads. How the fuck mental are these people.

But fine, let’s do this build.

Initiator Free. Initiators get “Roach” and “Rabbit” Free… and the other 4 Initiator Perks cost a grand total of 900 CP… might as well get the set. Roach hardens my skin and gives regen enough to recover from all but the worst wounds in minutes, though it does come with a vulnerability to Varanium, which bypasses the resistance and regen. Well, okay, just as long as all my other nigh invulnerability and regen perks aren’t nerfed by wondermetal, I’m okay with that. Rabbit is an agility and strength boost, giving boosted jump distance, double jump, and the strength to allow a 10 year old little girl to fire an anti-materiel rifle.. or kick so hard as to render it meaningless… “May or may not increase fertility.” wait, what? May or may not what? 10 years old… rabbit… oy.

The second tier contains Owl & Dolphin. Owl is a ridiculously powerful vision booster, granting darkvision, rendering me immune to all but the best illusions and camouflage, improving my aim even further, and increasing the general range and resolution of my vision many fold. Wooo? Yoooo? Bang! Headshot. Dolphin  on the other hand came with improved intelligence and echolocation strong enough to grant blindsight and the ability to ‘see’ through walls. It was a twofer of sensory goodness. I can see you… and hear you. You cannot hide from me. I’m coming to kill your murdering, child-raping ass.

The third and final tier of Initiator perks (and I can’t help thinking that normal Initiators get a grand total of 1 of these, not all damned 6… so I’m some kind of Super Initiator even not taking into account all my Out of Context Abilities and 13,000 years of training and practice) are Spider, which is… well… the Spiderman package. Wall cling, danger sense that words for me or when anyone I care about is in danger, sticky webbing from my fingers at will… monofilament wire webbing to be specific… MONOFILAMENT WIRES AT WILL? Fuuuuck me sideways and call me George! Daaaamn!  Oh, and the Friendly Danger Sense will be useful as sin… and Mantis… a general boost to all bladed combat, with nigh precognitive fighting style which will allow me to parry reflexively and deflect attacks I didn’t even see coming… up to and including bullets while I’ve got a blade (or two) in my hands. And since, you know, I’ve got Soul of Ice and a Shehai blade, I’m always going to have one if not both.

That leaves me with 100, just enough to buy the “Varanium Weaponry” upgrade, which allows me to upgrade my existing weapons with a Varanium Alloy. Varanium Mjolnir anyone? Oh, and let me just commit to paper the wording on those bombs, one of which is now installed in my head. “Cybernetic Upgrade – Welles: An explosive installed within your cranium allowing your superiors easier control and neutralisation of assets, allowing for simple disposal once asset exceeds use by date. Free Unupgrade for intitator.” EXCEEDS USE BY DATE? ASSETS!? Guess what’s coming out of my head asap? Yup. That’s right. Fuck you people. Fuck you very very much. I’m going to install one of these inside each and every god damned one of your heads and then make you beg me not to push the trigger, you psycho-freaking-fuck heads!

Once I managed to calm down again… fuck keeping calm… my eyes were actually igniting the air in front of my face which made seeing the screen hard… I keyed in Regina (she had to have a name, right?) and ran through her options. Interesting the number of teamwork perks a Promoter gets. Huh. I wonder if the Boss slotted this jump in special. It seems tailor made for this situation.“Let’s Get Tactical” and “Flight of the Coward” are free… and again, the other four would cost 900 and are divided into pairs of two. That would leave her with 100, and I laughed and slotted her with a copy of Roach as well. Not that she’d need it in her normal form, but she wouldn’t be in Vord form for any part of this jump. This was her first import, no alt-forms for her.

Tier one contained, as I said “Let’s Get Tactical” which was uncanny battlefield analysis coupled with an instinctive knack for determining an optimal approach for any given fight, complete with vulnerability/weakness optimization. It was slightly scary, but par for her course. I didn’t want to cripple her, I wanted her to become a willing ally. That was paired with “Flight of the Coward” which granted a considerable talent are disengagement from conflict… while bringing her allies with her. It was, again, something she already knew, but recontextualized into a framework that included allies.

Tier two lacked a cohesive theme, with one teamwork booster in the form of “Bonds that Bind” and one combat booster in the form of “Combat Techniques”. The first gave her a kind of synchronization with close allies, allowing her to instinctively determine what we were going to do next and to coordinate with them… and it worked both ways! If that didn’t teach miss “I am the Vord” teamwork, I don’t know what will. The second was a bit of what seemed like Anime-Inspired Insanity… the ability to perform blatantly reality warping stunts such as splitting a steel bar in half with a butter knife… but only after concentrating and loudly reciting a long declaration of intent. It was just weird, it was.  Plus, I think I can cut a steel bar with a butterknife already… hell, at this point, I might be able to cut a butter knife with a steel bar if I thought about it for a second or two.

The highest tier of Promoter abilities were similarly themeless, but even more blithering. “Finishing Blow” gave her the perfected ability to massively boost the power of a single attack from her arsenal… but only once per day at most… and at the cost of, at the very least, rendering her hors de combat and at worst resulting in a multi-day coma.  It was that draining. Ack. I dunno if SHE would ever use it, but it would be spectacular if she did. The other one, “Sharing is Caring” simply let her share any one power she possessed with me, a power that could be changed once at the start of each new jump. Well, that waaaas interesting. Right now, she didn’t have any powers besides the ability to control the Vord that I don’t (Except the stuff from this jump), so… huh. Maybe she should share this power with me so I could share one of my powers with her… like Third Eye of Satori. Might help her understand people better. Yeah, let’s go with that.

Ahab & Joy decided to go in as an IP team, with Joy as the Initiator, but Ahab going in as a female Promoter, apparently concerned that this world did something fucked up to the minds of the men. It was a theory, and that’s all we had. Joy got Roach and Rabbit of course, and Ahab got Let’s get Tactical and Flight of the Coward. Plus each of them got some Varanium shit. Woo!

As soon as I hit the confirmation, a second screen appeared and two individuals flashed on screen. One was a masked man with silver skin who promised me that Reggy and I would survive and we’d destroy the Gastrea (the monstrous mutagenic virus that defined the plot) and all we’d have to do is kill every single other Cursed Child and all their handlers. Of which there were at least 700,000 ranked pairs and who knows how many unranked Cursed Children without Promoters. Fuck that guy. The other was a young blonde girl calling herself Lucy, who promised a guaranteed method of saving me and my companion, and she’d assist me in saving those I deemed worthy. All it would cost was the downfall of the cities, with few survivors. I’d have to take the varanium from the monoliths that protected the cities and transform it into a vaccine of sorts that would prevent Cursed Children from turning while at the same time dramatically increase their power. I’d get another Promoter & Initiator, public enemy #2 she says, as companions, and I’d be able to bring all those I deemed worthy to my next jump, but no further…. “Let it all Burn” she said. Plus, the jump ends when the cities are gone.

I took her offer. Of course I did. I knew it was a deal with the devil, but in this case, better the devil you knew… The chance to save the worthy from this hell hole of a doomed world. Better than leaving them to rot in the wasteland even assuming I could cure the disease. I’d spent most of a decade trying that in Zombie Land. And there were billions of people on the line there. This was only a few million, and most of them were awful people apparently.

Oddly enough, Zane was not bothered by my choice to import Reggy over him. “Ugh. that place sounds terrible.” What he was worried about was me trusting Queeny.

“She can’t go back. She’s stuck with us. This is a bit of a test. We’ll see how it goes.  Are you okay with me bringing down the last bastions of humanity?”

“I don’t see as you have much choice. The others mostly agree. Kendra and Toph are a little unnerved by it, as is Selene, but Uriel and Sextus understand, Joy and Ahab understand. Bao… look, it’s a bad scene all around. But even the softest of us wouldn’t sanction the bullshit these people are doing. Save as many as you can, right?”

I nodded. “Right.”

Regina and I dropped, into a tiny office. She looked good as a human, a little on the small side for an adult, and very flat chested, but not bad. Of course, I was smaller. On the desk in front of us was a box that had a hand stamp. I tested it on a piece of paper. “Worthy!” it said, with a smiling bunny face above it. Great, at least I knew how I’d mark the worthy. Fucking Bunny Rapture. Now to find someone who wasn’t a Cursed Child who was worthy. Normal kids it is.

We went outside, Regina asking me a string of questions as she tried to adjust to her new persona. The two Regina’s were surprisingly similar, one a sociopathic insect, the other a socially awkward aspergers case. Both asked “Why?” a lot.

I answered her as best I could as we headed towards the nearest school. Found a bunch of kids and some teachers, scanned them all. It was kinda weird playing judge and jury, but if I was going to do this, I was going to save as many worthy people as I could find. Most of the teachers failed my standards. About half of the kids, elementary schoolers like myself, passed. Bullies, jerks, and altogether too many little shits. This wasn’t a good world.

I tested the stamp on one little girl and she blinked, looking down at her hand… as she faded out of reality. Huh. By the end of the a 10 minute period, 376 kids had vanished from the school and the rest of the school was in an uproar. I slipped out, having never been noticed.

“We are supposed to kill the Gastraea, Selene. Why are we not doing that?” Regina asked.

“New Mission. Go get a sandwich at that restaurant. You know how money works. I’ll be back in 20 minutes. Don’t kill anyone that’s not trying to kill you.” I left her there and entered the warehouse. “Well?  Any idea where they went?” I asked as I shapeshifted the bomb out of my head and spit it onto the floor. “Bleh, tastes of brain matter,” I commented, cricking my serpentine neck as I sealed the hole in my skull.

“We’ve got a box over here that’s registering 376 confirmed.” Toph said, pointing to a box that had pink bunnies on each side.

“Have you found these allies yet?”

“Nope. The monoliths are fucking huge, like 500 stories high. Massive as fuck. And the people. Jesus. The people. I get that they’ve been through a lot, but it’s like most of them lost their humanity along the way. Fifteen teachers were convinced that their charges were going to turn on them. Three of them were hoping specific girls turned out to be Cursed Children so they could visit them in the brothels they go to. And one was actually a government agent tasked to blow up the entire school if it got infected. I say was, because she isn’t anything anymore besides wormfood.”

Like I said, this wasn’t a great place to live. Hell, even the Jump Document lied to me. There were more than 3 cities left. Granted, Detroit, Tokyo, and Cairo were the only major cities left, and all the others were more along the lines of military camps… camps that had not yet been destroyed by one of the absolutely titanically huge Class V Gastraea, the eleven Zodiac Gastraea who’d fucked this world so hard it was on full on meltdown. I fucking hate biowarfare… and that’s clearly what this was. The Zodiac Gastraea could go full Godzilla.

Anyway, Regina and I began prowling the outer districts of Tokyo, where only the poorest people… and Cursed Children, lived, scooping up hundreds of them with each pass. Christ on a crutch, so damned many kids living in abject poverty right outside a thriving megalopolis. They had a few protectors, but overall… it was a horrorshow.  

About 4 weeks after we got there, the head lady of the Tokyo Area called all the top IP (Initiator Promoter) teams to a meeting. I wasn’t invited, but I’d been scoping out the other Promoters, bugging their coms, stuff like that, and I’d followed them… oh, and Sextus was dealing with the mother of all Cultureshock. Astraea was… possibly even more horrified than I’d been by this world and you could see she just wanted to hug every one of those poor little girls… she couldn’t, she was still a spirit, so she kept hugging me instead.

Seitenshi, that was what they called the Ruler of the Tokyo Area, was a young attractive woman with an old guy you didn’t have to scan to sense he was a snake as her chief advisor. She tasked everyone with recovering a box that had been eaten by some Gastraea… and then a lunatic in a mask showed up and shot a bunch of people and left this low ranker Rentaro a head in a box. I hope like hell Mask Guy isn’t Public Enemy #2, because he’s fucking crazy. He’s a cyborg and his head is full of batshit crazy. Rentaro (also a cyborg) is much nicer… though his Initiator is a little Yandere (unlike Mask Guy, who’s daughter/initiator is full-on Cute but Psycho.). Rentaro was aiming for a better world and Enju, his initiator, was seriously in love with the guy (7 years her senior). Mask Guy just wanted the world to burn to justify his (and his daughter’s) existence. Fucked in the head, but not really evil. I could see his point, if I squinted. His daughter… she was not right. She needed therapy in a big way.

But anyway, this case. The reward was just too good, the prestige of the catch too attractive. People were going to die. I tagged Rentaro, since he seemed to know what the hell was going on, monitoring him if he headed out of the city proper. He did. Followed him to one of the outer districts which I hadn’t gotten to yet (there are a lot of them and I was being thorough. I didn’t want to leave anyone behind if I could help it.). Turns out Enju had run away from home after being outed as a Cursed Child at school. Fuck this world.

Helped him find her, she was with a bunch of other CCs and their caretaker, nice old guy. After getting Enju to head back with Rentaro, I zapped them all into the box. Four weeks down and I was running at an average of about 1,200 a day. Reggy had only had to kill about thirty total fuckheads and we still hadn’t faced a Gastraea. That was going to change… fast.

Next day, Rentaro and a bunch of other IP teams headed out into the wilderness to track the box. Mask Man was there too, and psycho daughter. Mask man was not happy when I sent psycho daughter into the aether, but I was merciful and sent him too. Sent the Initiators of the other teams, and just 2 of their 10 Promoters (the ones who cared and didn’t think of their girls as tools… though even those two weren’t great people, but someone who cared a bit was better than someone who didn’t care at all. I was going to have a huge number of kids who needed caretakers if I didn’t watch out.) One of the Promoters got himself nailed to a tree by his dangly bits and left, screaming, for the Gastraea. Fucking bastard.

And the Gs came. Lots of them. Swarms of them out of the night. Reggy understood this, knew the thrill of battle, and went after them. I had to save her from them. “They’re venomous… and you’re not immune. Like your Wax Spiders and everyone else. They bite you, you turn into one of them.” I didn’t tell her that she’d wake up in the Warehouse if that happened. I wasn’t sure it would work on unpurchased companions and wasn’t eager to find out. Sure, it had worked on Uriel, way back when, but dude was dead and from a world where ghosts were real. He’d been a ghost since I killed him. I wasn’t even sure Reggy had a normal mortal soul. Should look at what I got from her daughter sometime. Later.

Gastraea are fucking ugly, fast, and gross. Enju killed the one with the box… and then Tokyo was attacked by the Scorpio Gastraea. It was Pacific Rim Kaiju Big, and four times as ugly. While Renju went to try and bring the thing down using a fucking Railgun the Tokyo Defense Force had just left lying about in the forest… wow, convenient, I flew off to Tokyo Bay to make sushi out of the big thing.

I am… not a weak entity. I can attack at hypersonic speeds. This fucking thing healed faster than anything I’ve ever seen. I was just about to break out the frost magic and see how it liked that (I’d been leery of using mass damage attacks because the city was… you know… right there.) when the railgun fired. I was, barely, able to get out of the way in time. 90% the speed of light gives you a little warning, but I still hurt myself slamming across the water of Tokyo Bay at hypersonic speeds. Ouch.

What, the fuck? Seriously. If these people have the tech to build these god-damned railguns, how did they lose to the Gastraea? This place made no sense. It was like a morality play of… oh… right. It was a morality play about how humans are the bad guys. Fuck it.

Long story short? 2.6 million Cursed Children, 9.4 million others, in the box, 7 years, 241 days. That’s how many I was able to save, maxing out the box, and how long it took (not counting the month between jumps). I didn’t even have to bring down the monoliths (though I did to get the varanium for the vaccine, but only after the Gastraea had killed everyone. Hell, some of those monoliths had been rigged to fail. Fucking humans.). I just took away all the Cursed Children. I was the last one standing. And I watched as Cairo, the last bastion of human civilization on this world fell.  

“I do not understand. How can you care about some of your kind and still let this happen?” Reggy asked.  She was Reggy now. Regina was too formal for common use.

“It’s a mystery. I could not stop the end of this world. So I saved everyone I could.”

“You did not try to save the world.”

“I didn’t. I could have spent all my time doing so and failed… then the jump would end and no one would be saved. This world, these people, had transgressed so many rules, so many, many basic rules of human decency… crossed lines that can’t be uncrossed. And still, if I’d been certain there was a way to save them, I would have tried. But I can’t sacrifice their innocent victims just to take a chance that the undeserving would be saved.”

“But you’re allowing twenty to die for everyone you’re saving.”

“Twelve million innocents saved. I could have risked them to try and save the rest, but it would have meant letting a couple million innocents die for certain, and allowing millions of scumbags, bastards, murderers, and people who willingly looked the other way live. And it might have been for naught. I didn’t make this world a hell hole. I can only hope the next one is better. And can cope with a couple million superpowered pubescent girls.”

There was a beach this time, but no party. Just a candlelight vigil for a world that was ending, and a hope that maybe, just maybe, humanity would learn from this. But I doubted it. I didn’t know who the hell the companions I’d been promised were, but I kinda hoped they’d fuck off. I wasn’t feeling very good about myself right now and didn’t want to be associated with anyone who’d rejoice at what we’d done. It was like cauterizing a wound, necessary, but fucked up. Twice now I’d let hundreds of millions die. The first time to make what I hoped was a better world. This time… I wasn’t sure. But I hoped like hell it wasn’t a trend.

Next: World 40 – The Promise

Resources: Build, Document

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World 38: Codex Alera

TRAITOR’S FURY

Previously: More of the Same

Themesong: Nobody’s Side by Elaine Paige from Chess

Sometimes you see an IP and think, “I could fix all that world’s problems with X and a bottle of wine.” Sometimes you see an IP and think, “Yeah… no… I’mma hide and not do that.” Sometimes there isn’t an easy answer. When I saw the next Jump in my sequence, I had both those thoughts in quick succession. Codex Alera. Jim Butcher’s second major series. Codex Alera, Roman Legionaries with Elemental Bending powers that vastly outclassed those of the AvatarVerse… fighting blood-magic wolfmen, empathic barbarian elves, ents (in the past at least), and icebender yetis… and the fucking ZERG. Codex Alera.

“Fuuuuuck.”

“Yes SJ?”

“Not now Ryoga.”

“Haha. No. Is there a problem?”

“Slightly, yes. I need a nuke. Get me. Mmm… the Purifier mark III Clean Neutron Bomb.”

“Geez! What the hell in this jump needs that.”

“They’re called the Vord. A mutative, biological weapon of a race dedicated to destroying all non-Vord life. If I drop the bomb on the Forest of Silence, that will take the Vord out of the equation. I just have to wait until after Tavi and Kitai and Doroga are out of the area.”

While my team prepped the bomb, I went to the machine to make my purchases. I hit the Drawbacks first, I knew I’d need the points. No limit. That was… worrying. Bastard [+100] was first on the list. It made me the illegitimate child of a High Lord but locked me into being Aleran. Fine by me. Dull? Being predictable isn’t my shtick. Unwanted Gadara? Someone to disrupt my plans by their incompetent desire to be my rival? Nooo thank you. This is going to be tricky enough. Collared? No. Just… No.

Invidiae Erit [+200], for the jump, treachery becomes part of my nature. People will begin to plan for my inevitable betrayal and I will plot against even my trusted allies, just in case I need to. I can cope with that. Murder of Bloodcrows [+300], fanatically loyal spies and assassins trying to destroy me. And they never stop coming. I’d have taken more, but the remaining options were frankly terrifying. No. 1600 CP would have to be enough.

Wait, I’d locked myself into a background… Aleran. It was [100], so 1500/1600 would have to be enough. I rolled for location and got… Antillus? Seriously? I’ve got something like 3 or 4 days to get to the Calderon Valley, find the Forest of Silence (Wherein the Vord Queen sleeps)… and nuke the site from orbit… and I’m on the far side of the continent. Wait, never mind… I’m hypersonic. 2000 miles ain’t nothing to me. I rolled for my age and snagged 21, as old as it came and 6 years older than Tavi. That works.

Steadholder was discounted for Alerans [50] (1450/1600): “Your furies have some more raw power compared to the average Aleran. While this may not help your delicate crafting, your strength and stamina will impress the city-folk, even if you have a tendency to name your Furies like a paganus. This also boosts the crafting you might find handy on a holt, like using Earthcrafting to handle animals or for barn-raising, and allows for better understanding of local nature spirits (like Furies).”

Test of Wits Veteran [100] (1350/1600) wasn’t discounted, since I wasn’t Marat, but seemed a bargain: “You have delved into the Wax Forest and brought back the Blessing of Night. Several times, actually. Your agility and stealth have been honed to the point where you can reliably evade the Keepers of Silence long enough to get in and out alive. As a Jumper, this means you have an improved ability to evade extraordinary senses like motion and heat sensing. You also have an uncanny sense of what surfaces can bear your weight without breaking (which would alert the Keepers) that applies to anything from croach to ice to even the floors of a burning building. And last but not least, you have a knack for transporting sharp or spined objects by hand without self-injury.”

Making up for the 100 point item not being free, the 200 CP item was. Fury-Crafting, something every Aleran had (besides Tavi). For no points at all, plus a dice roll, I snagged myself a Fire Fury. Excellent. Burn Baby. I named her Hestia, goddess of the Hearth and Home.

I’d always intended to take the complete Aleran Tree, having guessed it included Cursor Training, Legion Training, and the power of a High Lord. I was not disappointed. Legionnaire Extraordinaire [200] (1150/1600) granted me the skill to get an army moving and transform even the most pathetic of new recruits (called fish in the vulgate) into battle hardened veterans who’d hold even when woefully outnumbered. It made me skilled at battlefield tactics, as well as an expert on setting up defensible positions, including battlefield construction and fortifications. And it granted me a second Fury, and the crafting skill to easily rank as a Knight of the Legions. I rolled again, snagging Earth as my second element, and I named this one Gyges, one of the hundred-handed, fifty-headed Hecatonchires of Greek myth.

Cursori Glance [200] (950/1600) granted me cursor training, including skill with several methods of combat (unarmed, sword, staff, knife, etc.), as well as impressive stealth skills… but that wasn’t the primary focus of the training. That was undercover espionage, the ability to maintain a cover identity for an indefinite length of time while still being “you”, with a boost to make my skills at deceit and manipulation unparalleled even in a society where being able to sense emotions and honesty was par for the course. Occlumency Upgrade Get!

And last, High Lord [300] (650/1600), which meant that I was within shouting distance of Aleran Elite, the ruling class of the nation, the High Lords themselves, and with 6-8 years I’d be able to reach even the power of a First Lord. It granted me at least one of each type of Fury, and the knowledge of how to bind furies in more advanced methods, such as wards or gargoyles, or patrolling hounds of fire… and even came with knowledge of politics, especially the politics of those with power both personal and temporal. Six more Furies… wonderful.

My second Fire Fury I named “Nemesis”, Goddess of Vengeance. My second Earth Fury I named “Alecto”, the Eryine of Unceasing Anger, one of the three original Furies. My Wood Fury became “Treebeard”, my Air Fury “Nike”, my Water Fury “Calypso” and my Metal Fury “Mithras”.

The only reason I’d wanted to take Marat was the Chala Bond… and it wasn’t locked out to other races. So I bought it. For [400] (250/1600) it allowed me to import a companion (it had to be Zane, I wasn’t soul bonding with anyone else), which would grant him a background other than my own (or drop-in), and 400 CP to spend. That meant Marat or Cane. And we’d mingle our traits, I’d gain his eye color, and other things… Hmmm… If I went Marat… there wasn’t a benefit there, because Marat eyes would match mine. Sure, I’d gain strength and resistance to the elements… but frankly, I’d get more of that from a Canim…and not waste a freebie. No. I gave Zane the Canim background.

That got him “Canim Strength” for free, “The Strength and endurance of the Canim are monstrous compared to a human and you are a physically fit Cane. You can outmarch a Legionnaire and out-muscle an Earthcrafter.” He picked up “War Master” for 200, “Your skill in tactics alone could let you quickly climb ranks in a warrior caste society and your strength is impressive even for a Cane, with more room to improve if you strive for it. More importantly, acts of valor come more naturally to you and are more recognized & rewarded, if if just with more respect.” and “Hunter” for 200, “The Hunters of the Canim are their spies and assassins, but meant to preserve the spirit of the law while getting around its letter. They are focused explicitly on stealth and can pass unnoticed even among those who are not only trained to notice such things but whom possess superhuman sensory powers.”

That left me with equipment to buy. I picked up the Jar of Blood [100] (150/1600)… I don’t know how I’ve managed to avoid any Vampiric IP’s in my jumps so far (besides Buffy), but there were going to be more. Many more. And an infinite supply of ethically pure blood, one that could copy the specific blood of any mortal I’ve encountered? Yes please. A Jar that refilled every night, and replaced itself if broken? Excellent, indeed. I’d have to build a cryogenic bloodbank to harvest and store the blood for future use.

To augment my ability to make allies out of former enemies, I picked up Gadara For Life [100] (50/1600) “Just because someone is your enemy doesn’t mean you can’t be friendly with one another. Sure, they’ll try their damnedest to kill you on the battlefield, but off it you might be discussing books or playing boardgames with them. You have a knack for picking up friendly enemies and have a better shot at convincing them to work with you as long as there is a greater mutual threat whether it is due to their honor in being the one to defeat you, enlightened self-interest, or you are just that much fun to fight.“

That left me with 50… and there was only one thing that cost 50. Advanced Weapon [50]. I shrugged and picked up a Balest. I was easily strong enough to use one, and having one on hand would make duplicating them easy. I tossed it in with my free Weapon and Armor. Fine and Dandy. Quincy the shit out of that later.

Joy decided to go Marat, joining the Kevras-ha, the Horse Clan, which decided the nature of her Chala Bond. She named her Horse “Sorrow”. Ahab went Aleran, picking up Fury-Crafting and a Wind Fury he named “Ophinicus”.

I handed out orders to my followers, and told my newest trio that they were more than welcome to settle here if they wanted… but that, since I hadn’t imported Astraea, she’d still be a spirit and it might not be safe for her to leave the Warehouse. She might die… or she might become a Fury. Best not to risk it. I hit the button and jumped.

The moment I hit the world, I knew almost all my plans were for naught. For once, the perks I’d chosen had had a very small solution set, and the world had slotted me into that neat as a pin… unfortunately, that solution was as the bastard daughter of the heirless First Lord of Alera, Gaius Sextus… 80 years old and holding the nation together by the skin of his teeth. Alera, where the average person was superhuman, where the average Citizen could rival the Avatar out of the Avatar state, and where a High Lord… of which there were a dozen or so, was all but an unstoppable force of nature… Alera, enemies on every border… Canim to the west, Icemen to the north, and Marat to the east… and not one but two civil wars brewing… Alera, with not only no clear line of succession… with no line of succession at all… and I’d just become the de facto symbol of the foolishness of placing women as second class citizens.

I was Gaius Septima Juliana… half sister of the slain Septimus, Princeps of Alera… one of only four people alive who knew of the existence of Gaius Octavian, the only person alive who knew the Vord were coming, and my presence had tossed the delicate strands of narrative into complete disarray.

Worse, I was a spoiled brat who’s latest tantrum had gotten me sent to Antillus so High Lord Antillus Raucus could try and keep Alera’s First Princess in line.

I looked around at the stretch of the Shield wall and swore. “Shit… shit shit shit!”

“What’s wrong?” Joy asked.

“If you could stop the Civil War from happening, but doing so would condemn more generations of African Americans to suffering and death… would you? I can stop the Vord. I can. I can stop them cold. I can kill Kalare and stop the war in the south. I can leave everything as it is… I could even probably end the war with the Icemen. I know as much as Isana learned and I’m more than a match for Raucus in the Juris Makto…. But I can’t. If I do, it won’t solve anything. I’ll save millions of lives… and damn them all just the same. The Races of Carna will continue to slaughter each other, Alera will continue to stagnate, and eventually the Canim will attack and with their superior tech and numbers they will destroy Alera. And then they will destroy the Icemen and the Marat. And then, someday, the Vord will eat them anyway, because they won’t be ready.”

She just looked at me, shocked. “You’re going to let the Vord kill hundreds of millions…”

“I… I was able to do what I did in Westeros over 300 years. I cannot rebuild 4 cultures into a collective whole that will last centuries in a decade. I’m not omnipotent. The balance of power is too off. The Canim have no reason to trust the Alerans and even with Kitai and Doroga… look, Butcher shaped this world well. He made it so all the bad things that happened eventually worked out for… eventually, the better. All I can do is… is tweek things. Shit. There goes the vacation. Get everyone together. You have to find a remote section of Maratae and Diagon Alley the fuck out of it. We need granaries, armories, and housing. Lots of it. Stasis pods. As many as we can build. Get the robots on construction. I’ll handle everything for the first couple of years. Just… we’ve got… We’ll save as many of the children and makers as we can. Aleran and Canim.”

I looked around at the wall, symbol of Alera’s ability to not think about the reasons for a centuries long war, and sighed. I headed inside to talk to Raucus, commander of ½ the Aleran forces on the shield wall. I needed to go visit my mother, I lied. I’d be back in a few days, I lied. My hulking Cane bodyguard loomed behind me. Everyone tried to pretend they didn’t see him. Zazz wasn’t a singulare for nothing.

I chuckled as we stepped out onto the walls again “Z… you wanna step inside or you want me to carry you to Calderon?”

“Can’t we take the shuttle?”

“Wuss. Look you do what you-”

The first assassin’s arrow flew out of the snow several hundred yards from the wall and shattered against my face like glass. I looked that way, speeding my senses to make the shards of wood and metal seem to stop falling as I entered bullet time and drew on Nike at the same time. I crossed the distance between walltop and Bloodcrow so fast I left my body behind, leaving Zane to catch me as I slumped, while my spirit form’s sword passed cleanly through the assassin’s weapon, arm, shoulders, and back, then out another dozen feet before the blow stopped. I leapt back to my body just in time to see a Legionnaire running up, asking if I was injured. I shook myself and grunted. “Just surprised, soldier. Get back to your post.”

Walking away from the massive fortress that was Antillus, I was already calculating how to build anti-Vord defenses. I wasn’t going to stop the Vord entirely, but they weren’t going to have a good time of it.

Several days later, I fought at Second Calderon. I wasn’t there to change the outcome, it had gone relatively well, but I did save some lives that otherwise had been lost. I made sure Fidelias didn’t kill Warner’s sons, that Aldric ex Gladius didn’t kill Perelis of the Black Blade, and that the Windwolves didn’t kill the Rivan and Garrison Knights Aeris. I fought Aldric, but didn’t kill him. Just to see if I could go toe to toe with the second best swordsman in the entire realm. It was… interesting. I had a lot to learn about Metalcrafting. I had my goons shadowing every named character, making sure I hadn’t butterflied up the whole thing. Bernard, Hashat, Doroga, Tavi, Kitai, Isana, Fade, Amara, Fedelius, Aldric, Odiana, Geraldi, and Gram all had to survive.

I had snuck into the Forest of Silence and claimed a pair of Blessing of Night Mushrooms for study in the Lifestream Garden and medbay. But ultimately, the first betrayal was my own… of my own plans against the Vord for the Chance to fight the Vord. I wanted to fight them I realized, but more than that, I needed the relative safety of these Vord to prepare the peoples of this world to potentially fight stronger Vord Hives, ones not ruled by defective queens.

Over the next couple of years I watched my nephew grow as a man, and as an agent of my father. I convinced Meister Killian, trainer of the Cursors and betrayer of them as well, that his plan to appear to aide Kalare’s infiltration of the Cursors was unwise… I threatened to feed him to wild pigs if he tried it… He couldn’t know of the struggle I felt within me to do so anyway… or the tacit arrangement I have with the forces within me to do so the second things have played out. I did tell him to allow Gaella into the Cursor’s training program. I would need her.

I also stopped Father’s new bride from poisoning him. She tried poisoning me instead… but that just made me laugh. “Cyanide dear? I like the taste of bitter almonds. Try it again and First Lady of Alera or no, I’ll make you wear your ovaries as earrings.”

I could have stopped Father’s slip into a Fury Exhaustion Coma… I could have brought him out of it at any time… but I didn’t want to. The bitch in me felt he deserved it for not making me the heir… then rationalized it as a learning and growth experience for Octavian… who’d rule long after I was gone anyway. I did tell off Tavi for not listening to Varg. “No information is ever not useful… especially not something an Ambassador brings personally. You were foolish to send him away without listening to him. The hurry is not so great.”

Speaking of the Canim, Zane had been tasked with hampering the Vord in the city deeps, the others retasked from their work and sent off to destroy the Vord in the Calderon Valley… to insure the survival of Steadholder Aric (Taken or not), as well as shore up the defenses of Count Bernard’s forces… But I couldn’t be there… Not yet… I had a Duel to watch. I smirked as Isane and the Slave/Cursor Sarai showed up at the Kalare’s party, listened in as she spoke to Lady Placida, grimaced as Lord Kalare struck Sarai, but cheered a little as Isane stood up for the slave. I watched Isane encounter Lady Invidia, then intercepted the Lady Steadholder and the Cursor as they snuck out of the party. I had a scant few minutes, but it should be enough.

“Kalare has assassins waiting for you at the House of Nadis and there are Vord in Alera Imperia.” I said, stepping out of the shadows next to the door. I spoke truth, so they believed me. Nice how that works. “Don’t ask how I know of the Vord… some of my companions are in the Calderon Valley with your brother right now. They’ll try and keep him safe. And I’m going to get Riva to send men… but first, we have to get you to safety. Go directly to the Citadel. Tell the guards you’re there to see me. They’ll let you into my antichamber.”

I watched as they nodded, climbing into the coach and preparing to ride off… and then I sent out a psy blast that stunned them all… even the horses. I tapped the ground and it rippled, then swallowed carriage, beasts, and men. They’d wake to find themselves in the Grey Tower, Alera Imperia’s theoretically escape proof, crafting-proof prison, in cells that would block all their fury crafting. They’d remember riding to the palace, being arrested as assassins, thrown in irons. Meddling do-gooders… I couldn’t have them messing up my plans by getting killed or captured by… anyone. And Tavi would need a reason to break in.

With that I jumped back over the wall, walking into the garden just as Brencis Minoris was about to challenge his father to the Juris Macto in order to gain his citizenship…. Only I had other plans. Kalarus Brencis, High Lord of Kalare, was a traitor, a murderer, and a monster. He’d staged this whole event so his son’s citizenship could be earned in front of the other High Lords of Alera. Someone would earn their citizenship tonight, but it wouldn’t be little Kalarus.

I strode into the center of the cleared area and said, “Can I have a word before this little… event?”

Lord Antillus glowered at me “Not now, Septima.”

I smirked “Oh, yes now. My Lords, Ladies, little people who don’t actually matter but think you do… I must speak. I must speak to the honor of our host, Kalarus Brencis… Keeper of the Great Fury Kalus… Defender of the South… Master of slaves and slavers. And Traitor to the Realm.” There was a collective gasp. “He has raised illegal legions, created his own personal cursors… the Bloodcrows, and plotted against the High Lord. He’s even bound Kalus to go wildly out of control if the First Lord moves against him. Haven’t you sweety? Planning on killing your own people if you can’t get your own way?”

The crowd was… shocked… this wasn’t how things were done. Kalare was livid however. “You spoiled little bitch! How dare you utter such lies?! I demand you retract them this instant, or face me in the Juris Macto.” I laughed. He’d played right into my hands… Of course, he had to prove his innocence and if he defeated me or my champion, he was counting on me to call for a champion, no one would ever be able to accuse him of the crime again.

Of course, it wasn’t going to play out that way. I accepted… and I didn’t call for a champion. He was bigger, older, more experienced in Furycrafting than I was. My furies were stronger (marginally) than his… and I was a slip of a girl. It should have been a hard victory for the High Lord. But it wasn’t even close. I had centuries upon centuries of skill on him, was stronger, tougher, faster, and could slow time even as I called upon a wind fury to make me faster at need. He fought to kill me… I fought him to the pain.

I took an eye first, “For those you’ve looked down on with scorn.”, then his right hand, “For the women you’ve abused”, then his left leg, “For those you’ve ground underfoot.” I took his manhood, “For the horrific person you son is…. And all the slaves you’ve raped.” I took his right ear, “For the cries of the immortals you’ve tortured and twisted.” I took his other leg, “For your people who you’ve oppressed.” and his other hand, “for the slavers you’ve supported and the families you’ve destroyed.” I took his other eye, “For the children you held hostage from their mothers to command their loyalty.”

It was a tribute to just how tough a High Lord could be that he kept on trying to fight. I slashed the backs of his knees, bringing the brute to the ground, then whispered in his remaining ear, “Grant me your link to Kalus, and I’ll call for a healer.” I hammered against his defenses to crush his will, whispering in his mind that if he survived, he could get revenge later. With a strangled sob, he nodded and I could feel the shift of his will. I smiled, though he couldn’t see it, then whispered… “I lied.” and cut his traitor head from his shoulders with one flick of my sword.

My sword drank up his blood, and I channeled it into a crafting the likes of which Alera had never seen, a Blood Fury. I sent it winging south, seeking out any trace of itself and obliterating any slave collar lock that was bound to the former High Lord. I looked over at his son, hammering the drug and wine-addled boy’s will with enough mental might to bring down a trained Psyker. “Fall to your knees, boy, and pledge yourself, now and always, to the House of Gaius and…. If you’re sincere enough, you might keep your father’s realm.”

I glanced over to Lady Kalare. “You… my father’s guards will show you to the Tower. You shan’t leave it again until the First Lord is certain of your son’s loyalty.” My gaze fell upon the grovelling boy and placed a compulsion on him that bound him to my will. “You are a bully and a coward. Lord Antillus, I commend him to your care. Let him serve two years on the Shield Wall… as a base Legionnaire. I hereby strip you of the name Brencis and name you Asinus… defy the name and prove yourself and you shall be welcome to rename yourself in two years time… live up to the name and you’ll die a Jackass.” I ignored his look of barely stifled rage, knowing that the boy was a bully and a coward and had been shaped like that by his father. I was being nice, though he didn’t know it.

I looked around at the witnesses there gathered and asked, “Do any of you here doubt my authority to do as I have done?” There were quiet mutters, but none dared come to the defense of a family of traitors. I turned to Lady Aquitaine and said, “a moment of your time, my lady.”

I took her aside. “My father would be ever so grateful if you would, please, tell Fidelius how much he’s missed. Also, If you’d be so kind as to send some of your forces, say that secret legion of yours, to Calderon… to the slopes of Garados specifically… a hostile and brutal alien race called the Vord are attempting to use the valley as a nesting ground. They are a threat to everyone… including your home city and must be stopped as soon as possible. Do this and I guarantee the First Lord will honor both you and your husband… don’t, and I can ask Lord Riva, who would love to play the hero… especially after how much he bungled the defenses of Garrison.” I impressed upon her the very real danger and how much glory she could win for herself. Meanwhile I’d save the day in Alera Imperia. And I did. I needed to see the Primary Vord Queen, and show her she needed to fear me. I injured her badly, but allowed her to escape. Inside I mourned all those who would die for my sin.

Fastforward again, and now I was mistress of Kalare, with Gaella / Rook at my side, her daughter (and Brencis Minoris’s) Masha, bouncing on one knee. I liked the ex-leader of the Bloodcrows, even though her former minions kept trying to kill me, and I needed her help as I launched my own Civil War. Over the last few years, I’d taken control over the lands of Kalare and transformed the Immortals into Legions of former slaves. In fact, I’d transformed as much of the populous as I could into a legion of the oppressed and convinced them that Aleran society had allowed their subjugation for far too long. I’d made a deal with Sarl, just as Kalare had, but I was always planning on betraying him. Alera needed this civil war…. Tavi Needed it. And I needed to save the city of Kalare from a volcano. One of two cities I’d need to save.

Events unfolded as closely to the text as I could make them, though I didn’t kidnap Placida Aria or the daughter of Raucus… Instead, I had them as allies, as I did most of the Dianic League. This was a political war as much as a civil war. An end to slavery and legal equality of the sexes. That was what we demanded, and we weren’t asking. Finally, the senate caved, rather than facing a war on two fronts, and Tavi sailed with the Free Aleran and the First Aleran towards Canea. I’d kept things on track… now I just had to save as many ships from the storm as possible, my agents having already rescued as many children and makers from the fallen Canim ranges as possible.

I went with Tavi, wanting to get away from Alera, leaving Rook to control the complete evacuation of citizenry from Kalare as soon as the Vord made their move. She’d reinforce Ceres with our legions, sending our citizenry towards Alera Imperia. Of course, he didn’t know I was me, not the hulking Silverfurred Cane (Shapeshifting, bitches).

My goal here was to keep as many of Tavi and Varg’s ships from sinking as possible, even if it meant killing Levithan’s personally. Once we got to Shuar, my goal was to evacuate as many Cane as possible. My machinations had swelled the number of Narashan refugees from 20,000 to almost 80,000. And I had one more goal.

As the allied fleet of iceships departed the last port of doomed Shuar, I descended upon the Vord that remained, the last of the Primary Queen’s daughters, slaughtering her forces with killing frost and fire like miniature suns. It took me several days to find her, but perhaps she found me, sending everything at me she could. I froze her in ice and shook my head, “Not worth my time.” I considered not killing her. I considered leaving her as a growing threat that would further unite the people of Alera reborn. But I decided against it. They’d have to unify on their own. I burned her to ash as she struggled in my arms. Then rose into the air and launched myself back towards Alera and Alera Imperia.

In this world, no one had ever doubted the threat of the Vord. People don’t doubt my words… even in this world where they know I’m going to betray them. Thus, I hadn’t had a part in planning the defenses, the withdrawl, the layered planning that went into it all.

Kalares Brencis Minoris had still sold out Alera to Invidia and the Primary Queen. She still had fury Crafters… but I had a jar of Brencis’s blood. I landed in Alera Imperia the day before the Vord were to reach it and slapped father upside the head. “How dare you appoint Aquitaine to follow you? How dare you try and sacrifice the city. You are a terrible leader. You should have recognized Aquitaine years ago, but nooo, you had to play your games. Yes, Kalare would have started a civil war, but he wouldn’t have had the allies… all you did was make things worse. And now I have to save Alera Imperia from you and from the Vord. Oh… and those crows are taken. We should probably destroy them all.”

I don’t think having her crows vaporized pleased the Queen. I don’t think having Alera Imperia become an icy tomb for 90% of her army pleased her either. Gaius Sextus went into a stasis pod inside my warehouse. My collection of Romanesque Emperors was growing.

Things proceeded apace. Phrygia, Antillus, Placida, Aquitaine, Riva, and Rhodes were all but impregnable, the supplies I’d laid in for the last 8 years and the defenses I’d designed holding the Vord off as they laid siege to city after city, spreading their forces. Isana had brought the legions of the North, Rook had brought the legions of the South, Aquitaine had the Crown Legion, but it wasn’t enough. Riva had to fall for the Vord to proceed into the Calderon Valley, where it all had begun and where it all must end. I needed Kitai and Tavi and the Primary Queen all there, with me… and thus I’d designed Riva’s walls to fail, but fail slowly enough that most of the people could evacuate.

The final battle came, Tavi and Kitai awoke the Great Furies Garados and Thana to battle the queen and she tried, and almost succeeded, in claiming them. But she was too slow and got herself impaled. She tried to flee. In the original, she ran into Thana’s Windmanes which ripped her apart. This time… she ran into me.

The conversation with Zane and Joy and Victoria, those who know me best, went something like this: “The Fucck? Why?”

“Because the thrill of battle is strong in me and the Furies of Alera are battle spirits. And because someday there will be a jump where We face Tyranids or Zerg or Xenomorphs and, we won’t be ready… I realized… I want a Vord Queen. I want the Kitai Vord Queen. I wanted her at her weakest, having tasted defeat most violent… and I wanted to offer her salvation…”

“You must be fucking insane!” Joy snapped.

“She’s a monster-” Victoria added.

I interrupted her. “She has doubts-”

Zane interrupted me in turn. “She is pure evil!”

“No… the Tyranids are pure evil… she is fighting her instincts, seeking to become more.”

“Balance.” Atura said, speaking through me.

“We are a monster too… by the reckoning of some.” I added.

“Fine… but how do we keep her from using takers on us?”

“I said we’re bringing her with us. I didn’t say I trust her. She wants to know what being human is. I’ll import her as one. But I’ve defeated her and she has nowhere else to go.”

“This is madness.”

“This is the chance to redeem something that was made for evil through no fault of its own.”

“But the cost. All those who died.”

“They died in the original timeline too. By my count, I’ve saved ten times as many as died in that timeline. It wasn’t enough, but it never is.”

I broke the link and turned to the captured Queen. “Do you understand my conditions?”

“If I take this collar off, I die.”

“Yes.”

“If I make another Queen, or a Taker, without permission-”

“No. If you make another Queen or a Taker, without a direct order from me, and only from me, you die.”

“I do not understand why you let me live. I am your enemy.”

“Because you are a child who had very bad grandparents. But you possess something human within you. I offer you the chance to try and be more. But if you harm any of my companions, or seek to harm or disobey me, I will make you pay, little Queen. I am unlike anything you have ever known. I offer you a chance to know what it is to be human. But until then, you are Vord and cannot be trusted.” And I sealed her into the prison I’d built just for her. “I’ll be back with Supper in a bit.”

She was a mind reader, but even a hundred queens could not have read my mind working together. On the other hand, she’d never had to try to keep someone out of her mind, and I dived deep within it, placing barriers to her actions, instilling a desire, however Yandere, to please me. Yes, it was unethical, but this was a creature who didn’t even vaguely understand the concept of ethics. Trust but verify works for humans. For Vord? I’m not certain any security was enough, but the only alternative was to destroy her, and that would be a loss.

In the meantime, I returned to Alera for the last year and a half of the Jump. I present Tavi the keys to the ice-mountain that encompassed Alera Imperia. “The Ice will last 100 years. It was either that or fire. You’ll need a new capital, and Calderon seems a good place for that. I name Rook as Regent of Kalare, and her daughter Masha, daughter of Brencis Minoris, as High Lord Kalare. I’ve someone I’d like you to meet.”

I took the new First Lord of Alera and his wife deep into a cavern under Garrison, modeled on the First Lord’s sanctum in Alera Imperia, and showed him a huge jeweled mosaic globe of the world floating in the center of the room, on one wall a mosaic of the solar system and on the other wall, the galaxy. “This is Carna, the entire world. It is like your grandfather’s mosaic. And this is Carna.” I said, stepping aside to allow the powerful looking man who was neither Canim nor Iceman, neither Marat nor Aleran. “He is the spirit that has kept you out of the Feverthorn Forest for centuries, since your ancestors destroyed the Children of the Sun. I have asked him to watch out for all the children of this world, and this globe is made from stone from all over the world. If you earn his respect, he might allow your people to reclaim the jungle.” I pointed at the solar map. “That map is made from stones from all the worlds and moons of this star system. That,” I pointed at one fierce sapphire, “Is Carna. The others have not been named yet.”

Then I pointed at the galaxy map. “Every diamond is a star. Every sapphire a star with a world like Alera. And every emerald (and there were far too many emeralds) is a star with a world where there are Vord.”

“How do you know all this, Septima?”

“I have my ways, my nephew. I never wanted your throne, Octavian. You’ll be a far better First Lord than I. But, for the love of the Great Furies… stop trying to give Furycrafting to the Canim or Marat. If Marat want it, they’ll need to do like Kitai. It’s the only advantage humans have, don’t give it away to races that are already physically stronger and longer lived than humanity. Also… have your mother look into why Watercrafters don’t live longer. Their ability to heal themselves should make them longer lived.” I patted his head.

“One last present, First Lord. There are vast fields of grain in Maratea. It might be tough, but you should be able to feed everyone, if you spread it out by eating croach as well. But you owe Hashat big time.”

I left, laughing, but sobered as I emerged into the air. Still so many Vord, even if there were no more queens. Still so many dead. And so much of the land covered in Croach… but two fewer active volcanos. Two fewer wastelands. Change was coming, but I would be gone long before it came.

Next: World 39 – Unforgivable Deeds

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World 33: Alan Wake

Eye of Gold

The next jump made me scratch my head in confusion.  I had played a little of Alan Wake (I even had the DLC… but I’d never gotten further than the first act… but it didn’t seem like there was enough story depth to really take more than a couple days… and even then… the reason it was called Alan Wake was because it was an intensely personal story…  so what was the point of the jump?  I examined the machine more closely, reading through the introduction.  It wasn’t set in Alan Wake’s story… just in his world, his version of Earth.  There was no indication of timeframe, just a descriptive of a world where the Darkness and Light waged an unending war for the… souls… I guess… of artists… and artists could call upon the darkness, opening the door a little more every time.

I casually tossed the age die… a small black thing that felt unnatural and slightly too heavy and slick… 23.  And the wheel of locality gave me Free Pick for the first time in… eh… didn’t matter… I didn’t know any of these places but aside from “The Dark Place” I imagine they’re all within fairly easy walking… or at least hiking distance of one another.

All the Backgrounds are free, but Drop-In and Taken are clearly traps. and trouble Artist isn’t my thing. I think, rather, I’ll take the Investigator… and the assume it’s a trap.  I’ve been a detective before… I know the routine… and my skills are a little rusty.

Investigator comes free with “Bright Falls Finest” (It becomes easier for you gain acceptance to any law-enforcement organization you wish to join.  You are also granted more autonomy in your work than you would otherwise have.).  As well as a Flashlight with the unique ability to automatically recharge its battery over time… though batteries can be replaced manually should light be needed immediately… interesting toy… hmmm… I wonder if I can somehow alter my eyebeams to be more light and less… blast.  Must work on that.

In the meantime, however, I skip “Trail of Clues” and opt  instead for the Investigator Capstone “Touched by Darkness” [300] (700/1000)… You have been touched by the supernatural, giving you insight into its nature.  Thoughts that would tear a normal mind asunder can be understood by you.  Nothing is too strange or horrifying for you to understand.  How can I pass up the chance to gain immunity / resistance to Secrets Man Was Not Meant to Know? (which I don’t believe in, but taking chances is insane). Suck it Necronomicon Ex Mortis.

But the light side has one more perk for me that I must claim as my own “Champion of Light” [400] (300/1000)… with apologies to Atura… I can’t really afford both the light and dark uber abilities.  “Under any bright light, you regenerate health extremely quickly and can even come back from the brink of death.  You can also focus any projected light into a stronger, more focused beam, which will destroy beings comprised only of darkness and dark enchantments.  This does burn through power faster however.”… wonder if that will work on a lightsaber.

I consider the Poet and the Muse, a 300 point import, with great perks… but it would put my companion in dire straights and I could not, in good faith, do that to any of my friends… and no way am I giving the Dark Presence… whatever the fuck that is, one of the Kihara’s…. This world is fucked up enough already… I can sense it.

Speaking of senses, I do buy “That Was Close” [200] (100/1000) “You gain an instinctive and uncanny ability to dodge attacks that were clearly meant to kill.  When attacked unexpectedly, time appears to slow down to you, better allowing you to dodge the attack… also works in ambushes!”  excellent… more defenses!

I look at Trusty Blade… but I have many swords, not the least is my Shehai Soul Blade.  I looked at everything… then decided on Artist [100] (You gain an innate talent in the art style of your choosing.)… which I bought twice, once for drawing & painting, and again for sculpture…. If I got good, maybe I could make my own Figmas… I’d gotten somewhat fond of the things.

That put me 100 over but I balanced that with “Daylight Savings” which meant the nights would seem longer and the days shorter.  As handicaps go, it was annoying, but unless there was an axial shift, it wasn’t going to be more than 18:6 or so.

Ahab seemed almost happy when he looked over his options, then opted for Drop-In, which allowed him to pick up Suave.  “Always wanted to be one of those handsome glamorous types.” and with a perk like “You give off a vibe that makes you appear dark and mysterious, but also handsome and refined, expect to be a big hit at parties.” he would be… and Trusty Blade “A sharp blade of your choice ranging in size from a kitchen knife to a sickle, it always seems to find its way back to you either by returning to your pocket or being placed conveniently in the environment.  Impossible to lose and useful for throwing at enemies.  Always sharp.”  Believe me when I say a happy Ahab is a worrying sight.

Joy meanwhile, chose to embrace her softer side “I’ve been a spy for centuries darling.  I want to be a terrible artist now.”  We all laughed, but she followed through, took the Creator Option, took pottery as her art style, and tucked her free Flashlight into her cargo pants

“Everyone ready?” I asked.

“I need to go to the bathroom,” Zane said.

“You can go when we get there.” I shot back, then hit the button.

I stood at the edge of Caldron Lake.  Hmmmm… very pretty.  I turned my back on it and looked back towards the road.  A black suited secret service agent stood there.  “Ready to go, Agent James?”

I nodded “Yes.  I think so.  I’ve seen everything I need to see here.”

“Where next?”

“Oh… back to the airport I think.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

The Secret Service Agent didn’t ask any other questions. As far as he knew, his superiors had told him to drive an FBI Agent from SeaTac to Brightfalls.  And now we were going back.  The Agency had given me an assignment… he didn’t need to know it would never be done.

Back at the airport, darkness falling outside, I bid the Agent farewell and sent the limo back into storage… then flashed my badge to get on a flight bound for Mexico City.  As far as I could tell, I wasn’t on The Dark Presence’s radar… and I had no desire to put it on mine.  If it came after me anyway, there’d be a reckoning, but for now… I walked out of the airport in Mexico City, walked into the parking lot, and boosted the first luxury sedan I found.  Left the city doing 140 and still accelerating, my high beams slicing through the night.  

Ditched the car in Cancun, found the most ridiculously large yacht in the harbor and asked the owner if he’d mind terribly dropping me off in Montego Bay.  Once there, I met up the others “Ladies and Gentlemen, and Ziggy… Welcome to Jamaica.  Take turns, enjoy yourself… don’t bring people back to the warehouse.  We’ve got funds, but if you need anything more than reasonable food and gear, you’ll have to work for it… or earn it another way.  Try not to destroy the island.  We’ve got 10 years here… Let’s make it count.”

Jamaica… land of rum, music, dance…. It became our home town. Our den of debauchery, our way of avoiding the existential ennui of saving the world and leaving friends behind.  There was darkness here too, it was probably unavoidable in this world, but like vampires, powerful clusters were rare and there didn’t seem to be any real point in doing more than purifying any Taken we encountered.  We lived like a crime crew, SJ’s 18 (a good number according to Judaism… and incidentally 6+6+6… making it a contender for the number of the beast).  

Joy got a gig as a nightclub singer… she was… terrible.  Ahab got a gig as a bouncer… he wasn’t.  Velma and Bao did PI stuff, Uriel opened a surf shop. Cirno ran a shaved ice hut on the beach.  It was a vacation, a way to avoid the rest of the world.  

I… made comic books… based on my adventures… or just random doodles or doujinshi.  I had no responsibilities in this world, no one to kill, no one to cripple.  There were the usual bad things happening in the world, and I certainly could have gone to, say, Zaire and topped this world’s version of Robert Mugabe… but someone one would take is place.  He was a psychopath, but he wasn’t in my way and dealing with him was for his people.  Same for the other tyrants.

The local police avoided us, the local crime bosses too.  I flared the Slice of Life hard.  I didn’t want any trouble.  Joy and Ahab had given me the idea… Ian Fleming, James Bond, bungalow in the Caribbean. Just… drift away in margaritaville and find my lost shaker of salt.  Short hot days… made short because I slept through them, long nights, drinking, painting, zero responsibilities.  It couldn’t last forever… but 10 years would do.  Ten years to leave not so much as a ripple on this world, made for artists to struggle with their inner demons.  

Well, I had no inner demons.  I knew who and what I was, and never stressed when the words didn’t come or the picture didn’t form.  There was always tomorrow, always rum, and wine, and seafood.  Always a jungle to explore or a fortune to be won or lost at the gaming tables.  I found that, when it really didn’t matter, the warehouse really didn’t care how many of the others were out and about.  They were just… chillin. I suspect that if there were too many in scene, thing would be different, but at parties, at the beach, it really didn’t matter..

I know you’re hoping the Dark Presence tracked me down, drew me back to Washington for a final showdown.  But it didn’t.  We’re talking about a stealthy dark spirit that had trouble with normal writers (I did do some research on the foe).  It wouldn’t have had a prayer in hell of fighting me… Velma could have handled it by herself most likely.  I was a damned big gun to bring against something like the Presence… and maybe it knew it.  Certainly, the way I dispatched what Taken I did encounter by simply purifying them and returning them to their normal lives might have helped demonstrate to the entity just what the balance of power was.

To be honest, I had more trouble with the FBI, wondering why one of their agents was in Jamaica, running up a monstrous tab for coffee and take away… and how come I was being chauffeured everywhere by a succession of what had to be highly bemused Secret Service agents, but just because the beancounters weren’t cleared for Operation Jumper didn’t mean the paperwork wasn’t in order.  Still, I was collecting a paycheck from them, the least I could do was to… you know, do investigate local things for them.  It was something like “X-Files: Jamaican Nights”

In the end, the final showdown was with Alan himself. Lord knows how he found me, but somehow he’d become convinced that I was “interfering with the plot of his book and stealing all his inspiration.” and apparently, that meant I had to die.

Of course, the fact that he was trying to kill me with a flashlight and a revolver made the whole thing…. Laughable. Even if he managed to hit me with 6 consecutive headshots, by the time he reloaded, I’d have regenerated back to full health… especially since he kept shining that flashlight at me and boosting my regen.  

“Wh… where am I?” he asked, once I allowed him to wake up.

“Sailfish.” I answered, knowing it wouldn’t mean anything to him.  It was a nice bar and grill, good food, fairly touristy, but nice enough.  “Try the rum punch.”

“But I… this doesn’t make any sense.”

“Yeah?  Have you realized that you left your wife at home and flew off to a tropical island to shoot a total stranger?”

“No… I mean… I was fighting you and then… we’re here.”

“Oh… yeah.  I whammied you.”

“Whammied?”

“Ensorceled.  I’m a goddess… witch… spirit… what have you.  I’m not of this world.  You know the Dark Place?  I’m the other place.  Want to see?”

He nodded, still a bit dazed, taking a long pull of his punch.

“Good?”

He nodded again, then asked “how does this work?”

I didn’t answer, simply took him into the Palace of My Mind.  I’d redecorated.  The Palace sprawled across nearly three dozen mountain peaks, silver clouds swirling below and, above, massive storm clouds full of lighting and glory.

“Are… these buildings made of frozen fire?” my guest asked.

“To one way of looking at it.”

“Where are we?”

“My Mind.  These are the palaces of my memory.”

“And that massive one?”

“12,000 years worth of civilization.”

“But where is… you?”

“I am in everything.”

“Why did you bring me here?”

“Why not?  Not everything has a reason.”

“Are you the light?”

“If you mean, am I the anthesis of the Dark Presence?  No.  It is beneath me.  Beneath my notice really.  It’s your demon to defeat.”

“But you could, if you wanted to?”

“Irrelevant.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You lack perspective.” I said kindly

“You lack compassion.” he snapped.

“You cannot comprehend the strangeness that is me or the terrible weight of my compassion.” I said without rancor.

“People’s lives are at stake!  If it returns again it might destroy another town.”

“Tell me, Alan… do you worry about the lives lost in your books?”

“No… they’re fictional people.”

“How about the lives lost in other fictional works?”

“Welll… I guess… sometimes… when I connect with a character and they die.”

“So it is here.  I see an entity struggling to free itself.  It doesn’t take children…doesn’t outright kill… it’s an enigma… I am disconnected from it… for me crushing it would be like a man kicking a dog… and it’s not my dog.  If you want it gone, write it gone.  You’re the author.  Yours is the power.”

I returned him then to the bar.  We talked a bit longer, but it was merely noise.  He was gone when morning came, back to his world of gloom and darkness.  I wondered if he’d go the way of Hemingway.  But for me, it was a couple more years of Oscar Wilde.

On the last day of the world, I found Kendra looking out at the bay.  “Conflicted?”  I asked.

“You don’t have to ask, you can read my mind.”

“I try not to do that to my friends… “

“Is that what I am?  I know you didn’t mean to bring me along.”

“No.  I didn’t.  I wanted to save your life and I forgot to pull you out of stasis.  Honestly, I never found a time I thought you would be safe.”

“I’m a lousy Slayer.”

I shrugged “You clashed with the theme of the show.”

“It’s very hard, sometimes, to think I am a fictional footnote, a character created only to die ignominiously.”

“Better than the fates of many fictional characters.  You had lines.”

She laughed dryly.  “I sometimes think about….” She waved her hand vaguely.

“Going home?  I picked Jamaica because it was your home.”.  

“You thought I might decide to stay?”

“Of my 17 companions, 14 are gifts of the chain, if you want to call it that.  It would be unfair to claim absolute free will for any of them, though of course they’re free to go if they want.  Uriel invited himself… and I owed him… since I accidentally killed him.  Toph… Toph I invited… but you?  I never asked.  You could return to Buffyverse if you wanted… but you’d have to be insane to do so… you could have left on any of the other Earths as well… but this is a nice enough one… you might be happy here.”

She hmmmed.. “No… I… I… I’m not unhappy.  Just… Who said “You can Never Go Home Again?”

“Thomas Wolfe.”

“Well, he was right.  I thought about staying here…. But it’s not my home.  And no, I don’t want to go back to the Buffyverse… I was… am.. Nothing there.  With all the slayer potentials awoken, I’m not even The Slayer… at best I’d be The Ugly.”

“The Ugly?”

“Good Buffy… Bad Faith… Ugly…”

I nodded “Gotcha.”

“But with you… I’m The Jumper’s Slayer.  I get to help save worlds.  Sure, I’m… third fiddle?  Is that a thing?” I shrugged.  “Third fiddle to you and Zane…. But we kick butt and do stuff.  Plus, if I ever do go back, I want to be so powerful I can just punch Angeli’s pretty boy head off.  I won’t, but ooo… if he hadn’t made Drusilla.”

I laughed and put my arm around Kendra’s shoulder “You’ll be fine.  Let’s go get some Rum.”

“I did want to ask… why did you stockpile quite so much rum?”

“Planning for a Pirates of the Caribbean Jump.”

“That’s an injoke, isn’t it?”

“Oh… you might say that.”

World 37: Demon’s Souls

MORE OF THE SAME

Previously: I Give You Everything

Themesong: Wide Awake by Katy Perry

Let’s clear something up from last time. Bleach filler arcs may be less likely to kill you than normal arcs… but they’re never easy and seldom pleasant. And speaking of unpleasant… that’s the shock that faced me when I stepped back into the Warehouse after the end of my Shinigami Tour of Duty. “DEMON’S SOULS?”

“Shhh… keep it down… some of us are trying to sleep.”

“Yeah, well… you can sleep later. Demon’s Souls is the next jump.”

“Yeah? So? We just did stuff with souls. What’s wrong with this one?”

“Demon’s Souls is the first of 5 games by a manufacturer / studio that thinks in Nintendo Hard was for pussies. These are the kind of games where you walk out the door… and die. Then you respawn back in the first room, walk out the door… and die. After about the fifth try, you make it out the door, down the hall, past some undead, and encounter the first boss… and die. That’s the central mechanic of the game… unrelenting hardness. It’s a dungeon delve, city exploration thing where you die a lot. You collect souls as currency and as leveling up experience… and lose them when you die… as well as your human body.”

I went over to the machine and brought up the overview: “Your soul has been bound to the Nexus. Upon your inevitable death (I stressed those two words), you will return there as a phantom, leaving behind your body and souls. As a phantom, you will be much more vulnerable to physical damage. Should you die again before you regain your souls or fade away due to intense despair, your adventures end and you will be sent home. Fortunately for you, no demon of this realm shall consume your soul and any curses placed upon you here will be removed at the end of the jump.”

Lovely. I remember playing a bit of this game and doing a spectacular amount of dying. Also watching my cousin play and thinking… ugh… grim, foreboding, and unfun… so why did I buy Dark Souls again? Insanity. Some of these names sound vaguely familiar. Might as spin for starting location, because it’s all going to suck. I get the Nexus… the underground fortress beneath Boletaria. It holds the souls of would-be heroes in the hopes that one of them can succeed in lulling the Old One back to its slumber. Well, I guess this means I won’t have to find it on my own. A roll of the dice and I’m 25 again… how many times does this make it?

Four Origins… Wanderer, Knight, Magician, Priest. I consider, long and hard… then take Wanderer. I don’t want memories of this place. I don’t want a sense of belonging here… and what’s more, I don’t want the sense of regret and despair that might come with seeing a world I knew so well brought so low. No… Wanderer it is. Whereupon I’m presented with an ethical quandary… The perk “Soul Gathering” was free but not mandatory for everyone. If I took it, whenever I killed someone “worthy” (i.e. powerful) their soul would drop nearby for me to pick up. The souls of the unworthy would simply be automatically picked up. Did I want those souls? What would I do with them? Ultimately I decided that, yes. I’d take the perk. At the very least, I could do my duty as a Soul Reaper and perform a Soul Burial on them… and I might just find a use for this… ability?… down the road.

Wanderers also got “Stable Movement” as a freebie, the ability to run on stuff like Ice or Wooden Beams without falling down. I briefly reconsidered my choice of Wanderer, but after reading through all the capstones… I didn’t think I could, in good conscience, take any of them. They were, to a one, fundamentally evil, using the souls of the slain as power sources. The Wanderer one stripped powers and abilities off of powerful souls for implanting into others (at the cost of contaminating their persona). The Knight one allowed you to turn those souls into weapons and armor. The Mage and Priest ones allowed them to be transformed into spells / miracles. Good lord, this world was horrific.

I wouldn’t have taken the Priest line anyway. The God of this world was not my God and I wasn’t pledging myself to any higher power besides myself. Not after Supernatural. Which left me in an interesting position. I’d never before faced a jump where I didn’t spend a single point on perks. I considered rejecting Stable Movement, since it was all but useless in the face of my other abilities, but decided, in the end, to keep it. It couldn’t hurt and rejecting it would just be being petty. Maybe I’d do better in Gear?

Wanderers began with Leather Armor, a Falchion Dagger (falchions are swords, not daggers, siiigh), and a Wooden Shield. I resolved to burn them all just to get the newb taint off me. Still, I plunked down [200] (800/1000) for a regenerating supply of Full Moon Grass and Old Spice. Each came with 10 uses, with the Grass being a potent healing item (for both the living and dead) that refilled every other day, and the Spice being a powerful mana restorative that could be used for cooking and refilled every three days. If nothing else, I could alchemy these things into useful items.

I skipped over Turpentine (I could freaking make that if I needed it… and I wouldn’t, since its primary use in this world was setting weapons on fire). I skipped the Grindstone too… my weapons didn’t wear out. Artifacts are good that way. The Throwing Knives (infinite supply) was cheap enough to be tempting… but not that tempting.

The Fragrant Ring, a magician’s toy, was a slow mana regen item, which, honestly, wasn’t that bad a choice… but The Thief’s Ring would make it difficult for enemies to notice me. Both not half bad… but did I really need either. I… didn’t know. Maybe if I found them I’d keep them. Were they Items in the game? I couldn’t remember. The Stone of Ephemeral Eyes was an extra life… that…was more tempting.

But there were 600 point items that tempted me more. The Northern Regalia was a suit of armor and two powerful soul-rending swords named Demonbrandt and Soulbrandt. But I had a Zanpakuto and had already been to Bleach. How often would I be fighting Demons and Ghosts? How soon would it be before I ate those words. The Nexial Shard could be used to make a great underground fortress, with archstones to teleport to the Nexus… and a new shard would be granted 10 years after using the last. Did I really feel the need to build a series of underground megabunkers in every jump? I… kinda did… but not 600 points worth.

But then there was the Storm Ruler, a powerful weapon that, when swing, would cause the very winds themselves to tear my foes asunder. It didn’t require ancestral spirits or a monolith forest to be at full power (as, I assumed, the in setting copy would) and could grow over time (as, I assumed, the in setting copy couldn’t)… and its power could be applied to any melee weapon in my collection.

“Oh that’s just greedy that is! You could spend those 600 letting us import!”

“Zane… I will bop you. This setting is bleak with a capital yerg. You’re welcome to come along of course, but I don’t want anyone being tainted by this place.”

“What about Ahab and Joy?”

“I can’t stop them… but at most they’ll get a freebie. Do you actually want any of those creepy ass powers?”

“Nooo… but… the 300 pointers aren’t terrible.”

“But-”

“And Soul of Ice does not need a wind attack.”

“But-”

“And do you really want your SOUL BLADE corrupted by this place?”

“No, but-”

“But what?!”

“Soul of Ice has that Mjolnir form! It would be perfect!… wind and lightning.”

“Can’t Mjolnir already do that?”

“It can call up storm winds… but not winds that cut enemies apart.”

“Right… you want that power, you’re going to have to disadvantage for it. You can import us with those 600 CP. Look, it even says we don’t get origins so no corruption.”

“But that’s highway robbery! It’s too expensive.”

“What are we, chopped flarn?”

“You are not a Centauri.”

“I know… my hair isn’t quite that fabulous.”

“Look… I’ll think about it. But no promises. Maybe I’ll do Fellow Slayer and bring you along instead. But 600 for no discount 400 for 8? That’s twice as much as I’m willing to pay. And even Fellow Slayer is pricy. This game world is meant to be solo and isolating.”

“Fine… but if you don’t import me-”

“You’ll come along anyway and annoy me just the same. Importing just makes you fit in better, it doesn’t limit who comes and who doesn’t.”

I looked at the Drawbacks. I really did. New Game Plus 7 would allow me to take both the import option and the Stormlord’s Power… but did I really feel like an unrelenting challenge of darkness and despair? I did not. Sudden Surprise [+200] (1000/1200) wasn’t half bad though, making my foes not complete idiots, giving them a modicum of cunning, making them prone to ambushes and attacks from above. I could put up with that. I could also put up with “Barred Entry” which would make every door & window unbreakable (including the walls) and locked and mean I’d have to find a key… or pick the lock… the drawback didn’t say they were unpickable… no… never mind. Sounds like a recipe for frustration. Fuck it.

Storm Ruler’s Power on Mjolnir of Ice… how I want you… but I can’t do that to the others… So Demon Slayers [600] (400/1200) it is. Too damned aspensive, especially without the ability to buy items. 400 each to Zane, Joy, Velma, Toph, Kendra, Bao, Francine, and… sigh… Cirno. I’d offered the last to Ahab, but he begged off “I think it would be interesting to import to this world as a Priest. I’m willing to take the risks. It sounds fascinating.” I raised my eyebrow and then shrugged, not pointing out that with 400 he’d be a better priest. It was his call.

Velma took the first two mage abilities, “Heightened Capacity” (Improved Intelligence and mana capacity, plus the ability to cast Flame Toss, Soul Arrow, and Water Veil) and “Acolyte’s Knowledge” (You are well-versed in magic and with improved damage capacity when casting spells)… wasn’t much… but smarts and mana-cap are always good to pick up.

Zane, Toph, Bao, and Francine took the priest abilities “Simple Belief” (Once you set a goal, it becomes hard for others to sway you from your cause. As a result your willpower and determination are improved and you gain the ability to use the Heal Miracle.) and “Faith’s Reward” (Your dedication and faith allow you to understand the blessings of God and as such improve their potency. Your willpower has improved and miracles cost you less to use.)

Kendra took Heightened Capacity and Faith’s Reward. I banged my head against a wall. Whyyyyyy? I didn’t bother asking, as I’m sure she had her reason.

Cirno alone took the first two knight abilities “Move Set” (the knowledge of how to handle and use many weapons, but rigidly, as if following a book, yet able to be innovated and improved.) and “Knight’s Honor” (an ‘incredible’ strength boost, allowing her to move as if wearing simple clothes instead of heavy armor. It also came with a lifetime’s training in a single weapon. She picked ‘Big Smashy Hammer’.) Oy.

Ahab did as he’d promised to do and imported himself as a Priest “You are trained in the way of Miracles, blessings from the Lord. Times might seem bleak but you have faith.” which got him Soul Gathering, Simple Belief, and an equipment pack that included Mirdan armor (whatever that was), a halbard, a talisman of god, and a heater shield.

Joy begged off the jump entirely. “I… think I’ll avoid this one.”

“You sure?”

“Nothing I want actually. Want nor need.”

“Thief’s Grace?”

“I’ve already got that, don’t I?”

“I… yeah, honestly… but a boost is a boost, right?”

“Give it to one of the others. Petra Maybe. Or Ziggy.”

I considered. With Ahab auto-importing himself, and Joy begging off entirely, I had two additional slots to fill or CP would be wasted, since it couldn’t be banked. At least I was pretty sure it couldn’t. The screen of the VMoD flashed that no, it couldn’t when I asked. So that meant I should invite two others.

I settled on Ziggy and AJ, suggesting the Wanderer’s 100 & 300 for AJ and actually just selecting them for Ziggy. Stable Movement would be good for both fuzz face and swordboy, and the stealth boost of Theif’s Grace (as well as its boost to agility and dexterity) would be invaluable to both kleptomaniacal weaseloid and one who was the second best swordsman among my crew. AJ glowered at me whenever I said that, but he knew it was true. Perhaps it was the fact that I fought for my life every time I bared my blade, perhaps it was merely the CP, or maybe the fact that something in the diminutive Gallade that kept him from going all out against me. It was hard to say, but he seldom gave less than his best in our daily bouts and was constantly inventing new flourishes with which to try and trip me up.

After the imports, I had 400 CP left, and since I really had nothing left to buy from my “OMG Must Have!” list, I snagged Thief’s Ring (Subdue’s your presence, making it difficult for enemies to notice you) and Stone of Ephemeral Eyes (Can only be used in Soul Form and when used it allows you to regain your body. Outside of this jump it allows you to cheat death once before crumbling away forever.) That ran me out of points and, with no small amount of unease, I locked in the jump settings.

How to describe Boletaria… Imagine London without all the charm, at 2am, in the fog. It had the kind of ridiculously overbuilt and convoluted defenses one sees in fantasy art that would cost a fortune to maintain, require crippling taxes to build, and serve ultimately no purpose because the threat either comes from within or cannot be stopped by walls. Or (in this case) both, for Boletaria was full of zombies and demons and mutants… and the Soul Mist that had made them. It was beyond unpleasant. The game fails spectacularly to tell you just how horrible everything smells. It smells like a rancid sewer full of decomposing bodies… because that’s exactly what it is. It is a crumbling ruin, populated by the mad and the dead and by feral beasts feeding on both. The term “Fetid Mire of Misery and Despair” springs to mind.

Everywhere there is danger, and if the monsters don’t respawn in the reality of the setting, more always seem willing to move in to take the place of the dead… and there are phantoms, black and horrible and vicious, that appear from time to time to attack. The great Demons, the “Boss Monsters” lurk around any corner, waiting to catch the unwary, as much prisoner to their own wicked nature as those they hunt. It is a sick arena of dread, an unending spiral of decay. Almost nothing here is reasonable, everything wants you dead. Me dead. It is as if our very aliveness is an affront to them.

And so I stay in the Nexus and send my followers out into the world to explore. I only venture forth when they need me, when they call upon me for evacuation or to take out a boss or a dragon. I am Captain Deus Ex Machina, arriving just in time to deliver the righteous smiting of an unjust and uncaring god.

And I don’t. This world… or at least the parts we see, are so far past saving it isn’t funny. The existential ennui, the bleakness of the tragedy that has unfolded here serves no purpose and I can find no way to make things better. All I can accomplish is to stop this darkness from spreading… but to what end? Who am I saving? Who is there to rescue? The last Monumental? These few half dead survivors? What world would they inherit if I ended this plague of evil once and for all?

Still, thanks to my restraint in not taking Barred Entry, my team has been smashing through doors and barred windows and sometimes walls to find anything anomalous. Books are especially prized, but sane or semi-sane refugees are also welcome. I want more information on what happened here, and why.

What I know is that Boletaria’s King, Allant the Roman-Numeraleth, made a devil’s deal with the Old One to grant his kingdom limitless wealth or some goofy shit like that. It hadn’t worked and everyone had died and most of the defenders had become corrupted, transformed into demons themselves. I know all this because The Maiden in Black and the Monumental, the last of an order of batshit insane monks, tell me so.

The Maiden in Black says it will all be made well if we lull the Old One back to sleep, but she does not say that all who have died or been driven insane will be restored. I do not trust her, and suspect her motives for helping us. I further do not trust her because her thoughts are hidden from me… Have I forgotten how to trust those I cannot scan? I wonder.

The Monumental says much the same, but says that the Maiden in Black was once a Demon and that’s why she can put the Old One to sleep if all the other Great Demons are slain. Five archstones link the Nexus to five parts of Boletaria or neighboring kingdoms (The Palace, the Stonefang Mines, Latria’s Penitentiary, The Shrine of Storms, and a fucked up place called the Valley of Defilement) with a shattered Sixth Archstone leading to the Northern Lands, home of the Giants and grave of, so they say, hundreds of thousands of knights… but if Boletaria could field an army of knights that vast, it already had limitless wealth.

I remember that World Tendency is important, something about how dark the world is… but I have no idea how one would judge that, or influence it for that matter. I do remember that there are something like twenty boss fights in the game, though in playing I’d only ever beaten Phalanx, Tower Knight, Armor Spider, and Flamelurker… the four easiest of the lot. In addition to the normal bosses, there were 2 Dragons in the game and a Primeval Demon in each of the five regions. But who the other bosses might be, I had no idea and that meant scouting and research. And I wanted to know what lay beyond the sixth Arch, which meant repairing it.

One by one, my followers brought me the Demon Souls of Phalanx, Tower Knight, Penetrator, Armor Spider, Flamelurker, Fool’s Idol, Maneater, Adjudicator, Old Hero, Leechmonger, Dirty Colossus, and the five Primeval Demons. They left the Dragons and the Vanguard (the “unbeatable” tutorial demon) to me, as well as the 5 Demons whose power blocked access to the Old One. And the Black Phantoms that kept stalking my companions. Once each Primeval and the worst of the Black Phantoms in each area were dead, I noticed that the Arch Stones to that area were pulsing a definite white, while those areas left to be cleared were dark and inky.

One by one I studied the Souls, trying to determine what had happened to them and if a Soul Burial would fix it or if I had to Spiritbend them first. They resisted both processes, as if shielded somehow from giving up their corruption. The same was true of all the weaker souls that had been collected.

We steadfastly ignored the entreaties of the Nexus dwellers to trade them our collected souls in exchange for their wares… though more than once I found Cirno trying to sneak off with some of our gear to try and sell it to the other would-be adventurers.

Still, there is only so much stalling one can do, and only so much leveling one can accomplish if one is unwilling to allow the corruption of this world into one’s self. I find my curiousity growing, tempting me to experiment upon the Demon Souls, but I won’t. Not yet. Not until I learn more about them. But first, I should complete the collection.

The dragons then. Great beasts, surely. I had to know if their souls would be different from the humans or the monsters. It felt like… putting down a rabid dog. They could not match my maneuverability in the air, could not catch me with their claws, and the fire of their breath only served to empower me. I let them spend themselves, not wanting to cause them pain when I did what had to be done. After they’d exhausted themselves, all it took was a flash of Soul of Ice and I could add the souls of the Red Dragon and the Blue Dragon to my growing collection.

There was a difference there, and it allowed me to see clearer what the difference between the others was. The Primeval Demons’ Souls had no coloration. They were dark as night and without variation. These were the Souls of things that had never known mortality. Others, the Souls of corrupted beasts, were murky, full of emotions without form or edge. And the largest group, the Souls taken from what had once been Men? They were the most beautiful and most distressing, full of sharpness and twisted desire. I had no desire to have them within me… but I was growing to understand why I’d been unable to purify them or give them a soul burial. They were not singular souls… Rather, they were like the souls of the greater Hollows of Bleach, composite. Legion was, for all intents and purposes, a Gillian. A collective of mostly equal parts. All the others were Adjuchas, a single powerful consciousness driving something comprised of thousands, often tens of thousands, of souls.

Taking them apart would not be easy. But I needed the rest of the demons out of the way and this god awful mist gone before I could have the time I needed to work in peace. Vanguard fell first. I don’t know why I remembered him being imposing or difficult.

I took down Old King Allant in an assassination long overdue. Since he wasn’t the Real Allant, I sent in a duplicate me to face him, to draw him out and hold his attention. False King met False Slayer of Demons. It was a good fight. I almost felt bad interfering. But I did anyway, beheading the fake sovereign just as he ran my clone through. I took from that fight the legendary Soulbrandt weapon, which I sealed inside a guarded block of ice within my warehouse. I need a secure weapons locker. Cirno’s tried to steal the thing four times.

Since I had that, I figured I might as well get the other one. Old King Doran, the founder of Boletaria, was haunting some shrine in the capital and would only hand over Demonbrandt if you proved yourself worthy. He wasn’t a demon, so killing him was out, but it was nice going up against someone who had some real skill. No one else in this world offered me much of a challenge, though I suspect that someone with less combat experience would have been in a world of hurt. Dude was fast, but then again, what else would a demigod be? Once I’d driven the old man to his knees and backed off enough to let him gather himself, he passed over the Demonbrandt.

It was then I presented with a special temptation. This guy, Blacksmith Ed, offered to fuse Soulbrandt and Demonbrandt together… but doing so would take giving up The False King’s Soul. I was considering it, probably more than I should have… But then Ed pointed out that what I had was a copy of Soulbrandt, not the original. Which pissed me off waaaay more than it should have. I took out that anger on the Dragon God.

Firebreathing Dragons, Man… not as fireproof as they should be in this world. DG and me, trading fire, back and forth. Good times man, good times. He burned real good, in the end, and I claimed its soul, along with a big old blunt sword called the “Dragon Bone Smasher” according to the Nexus Dwellers. It wasn’t fake. Unfortunately, its special properties were that it protected the wielder against fire. Which was about as useful as kevlar on a tank. Two down, three to go.

The Old Monk turned out to be another simulacrum, though I have no idea who created him, but his attacks were highly predictable, and knocking him off his balance made defeating him extremely easy. In fact, it was so easy that I went right from there to fight the giant Storm Beast they called the Storm King. Flying creature… surrounded by smaller flying creatures. Honestly, if I didn’t need to kill it to get to the Old One, I’d have left the flying monster to fly to the ends of the Earth… But I did, and I couldn’t, and I felt bad about that… Right up until big flappy hit me with his tail and sent me crashing into the forest far below.

Zane was there, holding the Stormruler, clearly mocking me with the weapon. “That thing is useless until we figure out a way to re-empower it.”

“Yeah, but you look silly with twigs on your head.”

“Zane… is there a reason you’re here?”

“Yeah. Cirno found some magical katana in a pit, then got attacked by a crazy guy demanding she hand it over. She’s in pretty bad condition, but we got her back to the Medbay so she’ll be fine.”

I growled, “Where is this… man?” I may not care much for the Ice Fairy, but she’s one of mine and no one attacks one of mine, especially not to steal something from her.

“AJ and Ahab are trailing him.” Great thing about teamwork. I dropped by the Medbay to pat the wounded fairy and pass over some healing grass, then made my way to where AJ and Ahab were.

The guy was some kind of wannabe ninja, dressed all in grey, and had a mind like razorblades and poison. I got from him that his name was Satsuki and the sword was Makoto. I confronted him, ready to read him the riot act and claim a pound of flesh or two… when he dropped, dead, right in front of me. What the hell? I picked up the sword, then dropped it almost at once. Fucking thing was vampiric. I could feel it pulling the lifeforce out of me… fast. Like… How the hell had Satsuki lasted even the ten minutes carrying the fucking thing, fast.

I sealed it away with a sign saying “Warning, Vampiric, not in the good way.”… right after I nailed Monsignor Sky Flappy with it and waited until he fell out of the sky. He was dead by the time he hit the ground. Good thing about being able to fly? No longer being afraid of falling off of high things. Bad thing about being able to fly? Having to fly down to pick up the soul of a dead demonically corrupted Sky Flappy out of a bog.

That left one final bar to my path to the Old One… which was a problem, since that one was the Maiden Astraea… who was a healer and appeared to be a genuinely good person. She, and her bodyguard, Garl Vinland, tended to the sick and ill who resided in the Valley of Defilement. Not only did they seem like decent people, but Garl was covered from head to toe in Dark Silver, a metal said to protect the wearer from Malice and all magics.

Thus, I resolved to see if there was a way to resolve this peacefully. I froze Garl in place, wrapping the water of the swamp around his armor and massive hammer. “Stay there. I just need a word with the lady.” I told him, and I’d meant it. Unfortunately, Astraea didn’t see it that way. She didn’t give me a chance to explain that Garl was merely immobilized, instead assuming I’d killed him. She took her own life. I was a moment too slow, failing to realize what she intended, and for all my speed, I’d never tried stopping someone from suiciding before.

Her soul was unlike any of the others, pure, bright, and brimming with hope, with the desire to create a better world. I stared at it, there in the darkness of that unhallowed place, weighing what I’d done and what she’d done. And then I did what I’d sworn not to do. I partook of this world’s evil. I had to understand what had driven this woman to this place, this Saint to become an Archdemon. I raised the soul to my lips and breathed in the essence of the Maiden Astraea.

Memories flooded through me, lifetimes of concentrated emotions, every drop of concentrated spirit energy a bright or dark, bitter or sweet, experience. So many souls, so much life, the lives of nearly fifty thousand mortals, most of them slain by the Maiden’s followers, travellers come to the valley for immoral purposes, set upon by the madmen who worshipped the Maiden as a living goddess, a saviour… and through it all the power of the Maiden, her desire to do good, her feeling of abandonment by an uncaring God. I knew it all too well. I drank it all in, held it for as long as I could, communing with the Maiden, trying to understand why she’d willingly become a demon, the first mortal ever to survive the transformation with mind and will intact. And, I realized, no longer the only one.

The Archdemons had been a trap. A clever one. The Old One had given his power to 5 others, counting on them to gather souls for it… or to be taken out by someone powerful enough to defeat all 5 of the Archdemons… someone greedy enough to absorb all those souls… and to make a deal with the Old One for even more power. And for that purpose, I had now proven myself willing to do the second and able to do the first. The portal to the Old One’s Domain, hidden in the floor of the Nexus the whole time, finally opened. I felt like I was holding my breath as I stepped through.

The Old One was a blimp, and the Maiden In Black kind of waved him over and he opened his mouth, inviting me inside. Certain it was a trap, but relatively confident I could escape it any number of ways, not the least of which would be giving Old and Gruesome the mother of all brainfreezes, I stepped inside… only to face the disfigured flailing blob that was all that was left of the real King Allant. It took me longer to stop laughing than to kill it… and I wasn’t in a laughing mood. This idiot had killed millions and nearly destroyed the world for greed. I scooped up his soul as well.

The Maiden in Black asked for the Old One’s Soul, saying it would allow her to put him back to sleep. And then I understood. “You are a demon. It’s a power grab. And no. I’ll not do that. All that means is the cycle will repeat. Again and again. Forever. No. Stay where you are, Maiden. I won’t destroy you just to destroy you, but I didn’t come to this world for power. I came for knowledge. And to set things right.”

At last I knew all I needed to know, and there, on that beach, I worked my magic. One by one I shattered the Demon Souls, allowing the lesser souls they contained to fly forth, binding them around me in a swirling vortex, hundreds of thousands of them. I faced the Maiden in Black and said, “Watch Closely. I shall teach you a miracle.”

Then I exhaled, pushing out all the souls I’d ingested, cleansing myself of the taint of this place. That done, and with the Maiden in Black staring hungrily at them all, I pulled the water of the bay up into a spirit crafting, a dance of purification, as I released my Bankai slowly, focusing it down so that every tiny snowflake was a tiny me, holding a tiny Zanpakuto, and then, in the moment of purification, before the mists could bind those souls again, I performed the Soul Burial and sent the population of Boletaria and its neighbors to their final rest.

When the snow cleared, The Maiden stared at me with her eyeless gaze. “What have you done?” she asked, voice trembling.

“I have broken the cycle. The Old One is no more. You are now the only demon in the land. I cannot cleanse all of it, because my time is too brief. If you honestly would do good, teach those who come after me to help cleanse those souls. I have taught you the way. Go now. There is work to be done.”

And there was. Some other time I shall tell you of the work repairing the sixth archstone and my sojourn among the giants of the north. Of forging the Northern Regalia, and of purifying the lands as best I could. But that is for another time. For now… We returned to that beach at the end of ten years. The world had improved… but it was still vastly empty, the phantoms and insane, the twisted of the valley of defilement long cured or destroyed, the valley itself cleansed from the world through acts of bending and stranger magics.

As it turns out, I had not purged myself of all the souls. Astraea herself had refused to go. Two things bound her. One was the fate of Garl, the second a lack of desire to see this world’s God face to face. Garl, we found, kneeling over Astraea’s body, unmoving, starving himself. He resisted medical attention until I called forth Astraea’s presence and she told him not to be ridiculous. This was, after all, a world where death had less meaning. I brought Garl and his sister, the holy knight Selen Vinland back to the Nexus and made them an offer. “Come with me. There are worlds beyond this place. Worlds perhaps worth saving. I cannot promise much… but you might be able to do some good.” I offered my hand and hospitality… and they accepted.

Next: World 39 – Traitor’s Fury

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