World 39: Black Bullet

UNFORGIVABLE DEEDS

Previously: Traitor’s Fury

Themesong: There is No Other Way from Pacific Overtures

Okay, so, I’d finally gotten back from Vordlandia… bleh. That last year hadn’t been fun. We’d 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.

I was certain that if I still had nightmares, I’d be having them. The guilt hit me at odd times, making me long for the surety of youth where I hadn’t had to condemn hundreds of millions to horrible deaths because I couldn’t find a better solution that saved everyone and prepared the surviving societies to deal with the horrific realities of their universe… a universe full of Vord. Sometimes it was enough to remind myself that I still made things better. Sometimes, but not always.

For all Tavi’s work in the original timeline, female equality under the law hadn’t been something he’d even thought to pursue, and he had managed to give away humanity’s sole advantage over the other races to boot. They’d also lost the powerful presence of the Fury Alera, several more cities, and spawned two major active volcanoes in some of the most fertile lands of the Empire… So I hadn’t made things worse. It was enough that I’d chalk it up as a win. So, another decade down, another jump to plan.

However… The exact nature of the jump-to-come was a bit of a problem. For one, I had no idea what the hell ‘Black Bullet’ was. Like. None. The machine was peach colored, with black sci-fi looking text, and looked faintly Japanese in style if not in actual language. On the screen was a Star-Wars style text crawl. Frowning, I wandered over to take a look; might as well see what I could figure out from that…

“What the hell did I just read?” I commented to no one in particular. “Three human cities left, a global plague that creates monsters… and the only thing standing between humanity and the darkness are little girls born with this horrific disease?!” 

Dyna, who’d been teaching Wompus McGee (her Furret) to do a handstand backflip double twist (or at least trying to) at the edge of the greensward, looked up and over. “How do sick kids help fight a plague? Are they like… umm… antibody factories? Do they have some kind of immunity to the disease… and if so, how does that help?”

Those were good questions, and not ones I had answers to. “No idea yet… I mean, how does it help but I don’t think they’re immune… just maybe more resistant… apparently it’s still killing them, even as it gives them quote incredible powers and abilities,” I said, frowning deeply.

“Huh,” Dyna said, trying to get Wompus to stop chewing on her hand long enough to complete the tumble. “Sounds like a weird version of magical girls… do they have cute animal partners?”

I continued reading the crawl. “No… looks like they’re paired up with a partner called a Promoter? Don’t know if that’s a human or not. The girls are called ‘Cursed Children’ or ‘Initiators’… this is not well written. But the virus is called ‘Gastrea’… and it’s also a parasite?” I blinked at that.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Dyna pointed out, then acked as Wompus flomped onto her and demanded treats, figuring that if she was distracted, he didn’t need to keep practicing.

Her words echoed my feelings, because viruses aren’t alive in a biological sense. Bacteria are alive… viruses are merely self-replicating strings of genetic material. All viruses are, technically parasitic… except for maybe prophages which combine with Bacteria in odd and usually terrifying ways. The viral part of the prophage was a symbiote… or had been integrated into the Bacteria in a way harmless to the host… but the whole thing was still a parasitic lifeform.

“Yeah… I know… I’m not holding out high hopes for this one. I mean, literally, the infoblurb here says that there are only three things preventing the eventual extinction of humanity on this world; those Initiator-Promoter duos, a made up metal called Varanium that apparently repels the monsters created by the… disease,” I hedged. Clearly it couldn’t be viral in the classical sense. “and apparently is effective as a weapon against those creatures… and me. Woo… saving the world again, never wanted… what am I to do?”

Dyna giggled. “That’s not how the song goes!” Wompus nodded in agreement, then tried to drag his mistress off. She flailed at him, digging in her heels. He might be larger than she was, but she was almost twice his weight and much higher level… and much smarter. Which didn’t stop him from occasionally trying to mate with her… though technically she was genderless and incapable of laying eggs.

“Bad Wompus,” she childed, flicking his nose. He licked her hand and then began chasing one of the Bidoofs that had wandered by. “Anyway… what are you going to do? I don’t think there’s a way out of this, is there?”

“Not that I’ve found,” I agreed, “Not without deciding to head home, and I’m not doing that until I’ve figured out how to make everyone I care about immortal and I’ve been to Dune… and maybe a few more places… DC, Marvel… Oz… Wonderland… My Little Pony…” I blinked. I’d been drifting off into list mode. “Anyway… I guess I’ll save the world like I always do. I mean… it sounds grim, but it’s probably not really that bad. Right?”

I didn’t really believe it, and neither did Dyna, who gave me a look that clearly said, “You be nuts, boss-lady.” Of course, since both of us are telepaths, I was completely aware of exactly how many ways she thought this sounded like a bad trip waiting to happen.

I hit the start button on the console, already trying to figure out what the protocol that might be effective at treating this weird disease. At once, the entire machine started fading to red… and then to black… and then, ebon letters wreathed in unsteady halos of light swamp up out of the pitch black void of the monitor.

It was a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche, probably his most famous one, and almost certainly his most often misquoted one. “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” Well… thanks for that. Just what I needed after allowing an alien race destroy most of an entire people… feeling really good about that choice.

“The Banker is an asshole,” I muttered. Dyna merely nodded. Then I started reading the new text, now looking like snowflake obsidian on a field of dried blood. I’m certain that the choice of color was not an accident. There were only three origins, Drop-In, Initiator, and Promoter… I guess I should feel grateful there wasn’t a choice to be a Gastrea Monster. All three were free, though being a Promoter meant I’d get a free Initiator Companion, while being an Initiator meant I’d get a free Promoter Companion.

So far so good… but then I opened the starting locations list… and my unease turned to vitriolic rage. There were three choices… Cairo, Detroit, Tokyo… not bad in of itself… but then the details registered on my awareness and a red fog of rage began to push in at the edges of my vision.

Those Cursed Children? The last hope of humanity? Yeah… in Cairo, they were used as prostitutes and killed for sport. Little girls. Enslaved, forced to fight for people who viewed them as little more than products to be used and discarded. In Detroit they had cybernetic augmentations installed in them that guaranteed their loyalty. In Tokyo, they were forced to live in poverty and frequently attacked or even lynched while the government ignored their plight… which, as it turns out, meant that Tokyo was the best of the three by a large margin.

I growled low in my chest and the VMoD’s screen shattered as I blasted the thing across the center of my warehouse, smashing through a wall and rebounding off of Zane, who took one look at me, standing on the green at the heart of the area, surrounded by an elemental haze of hoarfrost and magnetism.

“No… no… no-no-no-nononono!” I muttered, then roared. “Fuck this… fuck this hard. Fuck you, you fucking machine! Fuck you, Banker. Screw this entire thing. You want to see me save this… this… this horror show? Fuck it. Burn the world… burn them all…” I seethed, stalking over to the machine, looking down into its smoking ruin. “Is that what you want to see? You wanted to see just how far was too far? Well… this has gone beyond the pale…”

Out of the smoke of the shattered VMoD a figure of smoke and shadow rose, rapidly resolving into a masked man with silver skin and wings that were comprised of nothing but void. “You seem… concerned, Jumper,” he said, sneering behind that emotionless mask.

“You might say that,” I snapped, seething. “Who the fuck are you and how the fucking fuck did you get into my goddamned warehouse?”

“I am no one of import… merely an agent of an interested party,” he half-crooned in what was probably meant to be a calming tone. “As for how? Your destruction of the Console has allowed a small rift in the Potentiality Matrix. Not much, and it will soon be mended, but before it is, I have an offer for you. One that concerns the fate of this world.”

“I’m listening,” I said coldly. “But my patience is razor thin at the moment.”

“Understood,” the visiting entity smarmed. “The Gastrea are truly an abomination… and I offer you a way to destroy them once and for all… accept my task and I shall help you rewrite fate in your own favor, ensuring the survival of you and your companion. Neither of you will fall to the virus.”

“Big words… but I don’t hear any specifics,” I said, staring at my fingers and causing razor sharp shards of ice to grow into talons. “Talk faster.”

If he was intimidated, he didn’t show it in tone or affect, but he did pause briefly as if mentally editing his spiel. “Very well… When you arrive, you’ll be presented with an opportunity to save an member of a global conspiracy, one dedicated to the complete and utter annihilation of all Gastrea. Assist this individual and you’ll quickly find yourself leading what remains of mankind as IP Rank One… the most respected duo in the entire Initiator-Promoter Corps. With dedication and effort, you’ll take back the world from the Gastrea; indeed, all the fear and hatred the people once felt for the IP will be replaced with awe and respect for you and your companion.” 

“Big of you to assume I wouldn’t go into this as a Drop-In,” I snarked, sensing that the other shoe was waiting in the rafters. “But let’s assume I do choose to go either Initiator or Promoter. Go on.”

His mask hid what felt like a smile… a huge, grotesque one from his body language, which reminded me painfully of the more evil versions of the Joker of Batman fame. “Very well…,” he said, bowing and throwing out his arms wide, “All that fame will be yours alone… for in the end, in ten years time, at the conclusion of this glorious war, only you and your companion will remain… the other Cursed Children and their Promoters will be gone… forgotten, lost in the shadow of the great hero, the one who saved the world for humanity! They will turn over the vaccine that they will have discovered in the final days of the long and terrible war and your fame will carry on into other worlds, where any humans you encounter will instinctively see you as a hero, a redeemer, a saviour!”

Throughout his speech, his voice had risen like that of a well trained classical orator, and his gestures, though clownish, held an almost biblical majesty. He was an inky-winged angel reaching towards the heavens, and his final words were a clarion call.

“Wow… you are a fucking psycho,” I said, and (summoning my rifle to my hand) shot him in the head.

He looked somewhat offended with the one eye that survived the blast that destroyed 80% of his head… he’d apparently had a lot of them under the mask. “Don’t you want the glory? Don’t you want to be the one who saves the day? Don’t you want to be number one? Don’t you want to survive?”

I don’t want you to think that those questions were asked in sequence, or proceeded from anything like the shattered remains of his face. No, they came from the hundreds of mouths that appeared like a demented version of Rocky Horror Picture Show’s lips in the twin abysses of his wings.

“Oh, you naive manipulative thing,” I crooned, then took a deep breath, relaxing a bit and muttered to half to myself like a demented hybrid of Galadriel and Golem. “No… no sweetness. I’m not going to save this world… that would be too easy. I’m not going to uphold your precious cabal and allow those poor girls to be a lamentable and forgotten sacrifice to the cruel injustice of this unholy war. Oh no. No. I will not raise my hand against so much as a single Cursed Child. No… Your cabal on the other hand? Well… I’m going to kill every last motherfucking asshole on this festering blight of a world. You abominations have done it… You’ll get your way… You’ll get your show. Sometimes the darkness wins. I am Balance after all.”

A clarion clear laugh echoed through the space around me and I turned from the eldritch abomination to see another VMoD… probably the Rogue Machine… on its screen was a young blonde girl, her laughter cutting the dark mood of the scene like the first light of a new dawn. “Yes… yess!” she cried. “They will all burn!.. You may call me Lucy… May I enter?” she asked politely. 

I flash-stepped backwards to a position where the Dark Angel and the Daybringer were equidistant from me, the three of us forming a perfect triangle. Caught between Baal and Lucifer… great. “If you mean no harm to any in this place, you may enter,” I allowed after a moment’s consideration. “Enter and be welcome, if you come in peace, and you shall in turn be allowed to leave in peace.”

“Do not trust her,” the Dark One said. “My task is simplicity itself and the reward great!”

“Yeah? Is that so, you Technophage?” I asked, invoking the old word for an eater of children. “Just how many of my fellows IP Teams are there for me to allow to fall?”

“There are,” said Lucy, “currently seven-hundred thousand, five-hundred and two ranked pairs… plus several hundred thousand more unranked Cursed Children without Promoters.”

“And you’d be expecting me to kill all those who don’t fall in battle, right?” I asked, mouth twisted in hatred as I watched the more obviously evil of the duo reform his head and mask.

“They are already doomed,” he said as if I hadn’t just shot him… I shot him again, blowing away both his knees and putting multiple shots into the wing-mouths. He didn’t fall. Honestly, fuck this guy. “Salvation often comes at the cost of those who would not survive anyway. Let them fall. The Human race that survives will replace them within a few years as they surge forth from their new Eden’s to reclaim the world that is rightfully theirs.”

“You can shut the hell up and let the girl talk…” I snarled, “She at least had the good manners to ask if she could enter my domain… even if that machine probably shouldn’t be here.” I turned back to her. “So… what’s your pitch. I’m assuming you have one?”

She laughed again. It was soft, light, and slightly seductive as she flowed out of the machine. She looked about ten or eleven, long of limb and hair, and blue of eye. “I do! I will provide you with not only a guaranteed method of saving yourself and your companion, but also with a way to save all those you deem worthy of it.”

“And the price is letting the world burn?” I asked archly.

“Indeed!” she said with a bright smile. “Society will fall, the cities be destroyed, their people massacred by the Gastrea with few survivors! And it will all be your doing!” She was practically gleeful at the idea.

“Will it now?” I asked, tilting my head to the side and contemplating just how much I was being played. “How so?”

“Each city that still stands is protected by several rings of monoliths containing Varanium,” she explained, waving a hand and creating a hologram what looked like an OCP version of Detroit dotted with a ring of two kilometer wide, three kilometer tall, hundred meter thick slabs of black matter. “Siphon the Varanium from a monolith and you’ll be able to utilise it in a vaccine of sorts to prevent a Cursed Child from ever falling to the Gastraea within their cells. It will even cause a symbiosis with the virus while rendering it non-communicable… a symbiosis that will dramatically increase the power of the host!”

“And, of course, that will inevitably result in the Gastrea creatures breaking through the cordon and ravaging the cities, am I right?” I was a bit calmer now… but no less furious. The realization that this whole idea of just letting a bunch of monsters destroy what was left of the human race wasn’t bothering me more (and was actively appealing to the more vindictive part of me) probably should have worried me, but I was too pissed off to care.

“Yes!” she cried. “You’ll quickly become public enemy number one! And I’ll see to it that public enemy number two and his partner will be there to assist you!” She grinned. “I think you’ll like them!”

“Are you going to promise me eternal infamy in all future worlds?” I asked, referring to the eldritch abomination’s offer. “And how will all these worthies be saved if the world is overrun by horrors and death? Little girls don’t make the best farmers.”

“Oh no,” she said, shaking her head and making her braids bounce. “Nothing so banal. Your prize for letting this world burn will be being able to leave this world behind as the last bastion of civilization crumbles… leave it behind with those few you have chosen! They will follow you to your next world… but no further!”

“Perhaps there they’ll finally find the peace they deserve,” I muttered. “Not the ‘peace’ of the grave.” I shot my last words like a bullet of hatred at the Dark Angel and offered my hand to Lucy. 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. “I don’t trust you much… but you have a deal… now kindly get the hell out of my warehouse… both of you!”

They left, with Lucy’s machine flickering, then dying and the Dark One’s smokey form being sucked back into the smoldering ruin of the VMoD. I wandered off to my meditation chamber, and when I returned, six hours later, the machines had both changed significantly. The Banker’s VMoD was now a bank of Gachapon machines and the Rogue VMoD was what looked like a high security computer memory transportation briefcase. It had a flashing indicator that showed two sets of numbers.

The first read “Standing Monoliths: 131” and the second was “Worthies Stored: 0”. Wonderful. Just bloody wonderful.

Fuck it. If I was going to do this, I was going to have an actual stake in this game. That meant being either an Initiator or a Promoter… and that meant one companion… With a somewhat vengeful smirk, I made my choice. I was going to be the Initiator… and my newest and least trustworthy companion would be my Promoter. Let’s see the fallen Vord Queen cope with the bullshit of watching a world burn. I wasn’t exposing anyone else to this shit… and you better believe my warehouse was going into full scale lockdown until the jump was over. I wasn’t risking bringing one trace of this Gastrea with me… well… except in those I was rescuing… shit… Hopefully this vaccine shit worked.

Of course, that meant that I was ten years old again. Highly subdued ‘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 didn’t normally believe that, but this was fiction made real. Anything could be true, apparently.

I didn’t know of this Black Bullet was Anime or not, but it had the feel of it… or maybe that was because it had Tokyo in it and everything was being vended from capsules. Was I being biased? I read through the blurb for the Initiator Gatcha… it was a tiny little model of myself as a ten year old girl wearing a samurai-style officer’s uniform, like something out of the Meiji-Era, and a Katana on my back. Well, that seemed to suggest Japan. But I couldn’t be sure. Honestly, if it hadn’t had Tokyo as one of the three cities I’d be defo thinking not, but…

Then the personality overlay began to manifest and I twitched violently. I didn’t understand why they hated me for something that wasn’t my fault. I didn’t know why they called me a monster. I didn’t understand why I hadn’t known my parents, why I was abandoned…. I did understand that, without focus, without keeping a tight control over my emotions, I would fall to the monstrous doom waiting inside my cells. I understood that I was reviled, feared, hated. That my crimson eyes marked me as both saviour and enemy of mankind. I understood that I’d fight. and that I wasn’t alone.

My Promoter was my guardian, my watcher, the member of the Civil Security Agency assigned to keep me safe… and keep others safe from me. I knew that there was a bomb inside my head… a bomb that would be used to kill me if I defied the CSA… And I knew hatred. How I hated all this. Hated the Gastrea. Hated humanity. Loved and Hated my Promoter as a only a child could. But seriously… for fuck’s sake, this was the second time I had a bomb in my head. How the fuck mental are these people.

But fine, let’s do this build.

Being an Initiator was free, and for their crimes, Initiators got a pair of perks called ‘Roach’ and ‘Rabbit’ Free… and the other four Initiator Perks cost a grand total of nine-hundred Choice. I sighed and figured that I might as well get myself the set. It wasn’t as if there was much a selection… the entire bank of Gachapon Machines only contained eighteen pods… and six of those were items. Apparently being a Drop-In granted no discount on anything… and also apparently, there were no drawbacks at all… then again, this whole fucking world was a Drawback, wasn’t it?

Roach’ would harden my skin (something I already had from nano-blood) and grant regen enough to recover from all but the worst wounds in minutes (which my Conduit Regen already covered). Double daming was the fact that both hardness and regen could be countered with Varanium… though apparently that was true of all Gastrea creatures and Cursed Children. Thankfully, the info sheet didn’t say anything about the wondermetal nerfing all my other nigh invulnerability and regen perks, so I was (mostly) okay with that. Not pleased at the worthlessness of it… but fuck it.

‘Rabbit’ was general musculature boost package. It would not only provide increased jumping distance but apparently grant the ability to double jump… so yeah… probably Japanese there. The strength boost was enough that it would allow a ten year old little girl to fire an anti-materiel rifle without suffering from recoil… or kick so hard as to render said rifle irrelevant… that would have to be one hell of a kick… And then I read the last line. “May or may not increase fertility.”

Wait, what? May or may not what? Ten years old… rabbit… oy… did all Cursed Children have that power? Because that made what Cairo was doing just… were the Cursed Children a deliberate vector for the Gastrea? Or a human adaptation? Both sounded horribly possible… and horrible illogical. A vector that fought the other vectors wasn’t a great idea… and an adaptation that had no male variation? Not great for the genepool.

The second tier of Initiator Animal themed upgrades contained ‘Owl’ & ‘Dolphin’, which thankfully weren’t all but useless for me. Owl was 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 (which probably wouldn’t amount to much improvement but would still be nice) and echolocation strong enough to grant blindsight and the ability to ‘see’ through walls. It was a twofer of sensory goodness.

To no one in particular, I muttered “I can see you… and hear you. You cannot hide from me. I’m coming to kill your murdering, child-raping ass.” My voice was really too cute to be issuing these kinds of threats… I felt like Mathilda from Leon the Professional.

The third and final tier of Initiator perks (and I couldn’t help suspecting that normal Initiators probably got a grand total of one of these things, not all damned six… so I was going to be some kind of Super Initiator even not taking into account all my Out of Context Abilities and thirteen-thousand years of training and practice) were ‘Spider’ and ‘Mantis’

Spider was, obviously… well… the Spiderman package… without the super-strength or extreme agility. It had the wall cling and the danger sense and the web-shooting fingers. Now, obviously, the lack of the strength and agility boosts weren’t a problem for me, but the local Spider Initiators weren’t screwed there, since the danger sense was apparently super friendly… as in it would give me a kind of tingle whenever anyone I cared about was in danger… so that was nice… potentially useless if they were too far away to get to in time, but… have to check the range… and I had greater than normal speed, so that was something. But the real bonus? The webbing wasn’t just high-tensile sticky stuff… No, this was monofilament wire webbing to be specific… MONOFILAMENT WIRES AT WILL? Fuuuuck me sideways and call me George! Daaaamn! That was definitely something I didn’t already have. Have to see if I could make it less dangerous… but that’s what experimentation was for.

But if Owl and Dolphin could be useful, and Spider sounded like a lot of fun… ‘Mantis’ was actually right in my sweet-spot. A general boost to all bladed combat, it granted nigh precognitive fighting ability with a blade… the kind needed to reflexively parry or deflect incoming attacks as long as I had a blade or two in my hands… attacks that I hadn’t even seen coming… attacks that included bullets. And since, you know, I’ve got Soul of Ice and a Shehai blade, I was pretty much guaranteed to always have one if not both.

Of course, that meant I only had another hundred Choice to spend, since there didn’t appear to be any way to get more… not that I really wanted much from the Item or Promoter section. Still, that hundred was just enough to buy the ‘Varanium Weaponry’ upgrade, which allowed 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 Initiator.” EXCEEDS USE BY DATE? ASSETS!? Guess what was 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 goddamned one of your heads and then make you beg me not to push the trigger, you psycho-freaking-fuck heads!” I snarled… I’m pretty certain everyone besides the Vord Queen was actively avoiding the palpable aura of fury I was giving off at this point. And she was only staying because I wasn’t giving her a choice.

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 Queenie Vord (she had to have a name, right?) and ran through her options.

It was interesting to see the number of teamwork perks a Promoter got. “Huh…” I grunted, wondering if the Banker had slotted this jump in at this point on purpose. I had no idea how the jumps were chosen, nor any idea if the Banker was actually the one doing the choosing, but this list of perks seemed almost tailor made for dragging Queenie… no… that’s a terrible name. A name for a dog. Vordica? Bleh. Boudica? No… Veronica! Not quite. Heh… Betty and Veronica… no… Reggie… Reggie? Regina Vord!… for dragging her into. A crash-course in humanity, good and very very bad.

There were two free perks on the Promoter bank as well… and again, the other four would cost nine-hundred, being divided into two pairs at one-fifty and three-hundred respectively. That would leave her with just one-hundred, and (with a wry laugh) I used it to pick up ‘Roach’ for her 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, the two freebies. The first was ‘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. Then again, I didn’t want to cripple her; I wanted her to become a willing ally not remain my slave. That was paired with ‘Flight of the Coward’, which granted the former Vord-Queen a considerable talent for disengagement from conflict… while bringing her allies with her. It was, again, something she already knew how to do, 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 would grant the Promoter-to-be a kind of synchronization with close allies, allowing her to instinctively determine what we were going to do next and to coordinate with me… and it worked both ways! If that didn’t teach miss “I am the Vord” teamwork, I don’t know what would.

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. Cut At Will is a hell of a rush when you get used to using it.

The highest tier of Promoter abilities were similarly themeless, but even more blitheringly broken in a weird way. ‘Finishing Blow’ gave the one born to consume worlds 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 you’ll ever use this,” I told her, “but it should be fucking spectacular if you do.”

She just frowned at me, having no idea what I was talking about, since I hadn’t handed over any of the weird little toys that symbolized her power ups.

The last one, ‘Sharing is Caring’ was just bonkers. It would allow her to 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 generate and control the Vord that I didn’t (Except the stuff from this jump), so… huh. Maybe… I had a sneaky idea.

For several minutes after handing over the toys to my new ‘friend’… explaining what each would do and watching her eyes go wide as the information flowed into her… I considered the pluses and minuses of the forming plan. Once she could understand what I was talking about, I had her share ‘Sharing is Caring’ itself with me… then turned around and shared one of my powers with her.

Which power you ask? Why ‘Third Eye of Satori’ of course! I figured it might help her understand humans a bit better for one, and allow her to figure out who was and wasn’t a scum-sucking fuck-head at the same time. Now if I could just keep her from killing the wrong people… If I’d been in a better mood, I’d have laughed as I watched her eyes go even wider as the depths of who and what I was actually registered on her. Yeah… sometimes the Abyss gazes back at you, huh bitch?

Of course, I couldn’t actually make the trip just me and Regina. Ahab & Joy got to come along as well and there wasn’t much I could do about it even had I wanted to. They decided to go in as an IP team of their own, 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 almost all we had to go on… hopefully it would be enough.

Oddly enough, Zane was not bothered by my choice not to include him in this mission. “Ugh. That place sounds terrible,” he commented when I explained my reasoning. No, he wasn’t worried about being left out… What he was worried about was me trusting Queeny.

“She can’t go back,” I pointed out. “She’s stuck with us for good or ill. This is a bit of a test to see if we can trust her to behave just a bit… 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 Selen, but Uriel and Sextus understand, Joy and Ahab understand. Gaius thinks you should burn it with fire, but that’s pretty much par for his course. 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.”

INSERTION

Regina and I dropped into a tiny office and I took my first look at her as an actual person instead of an unholy abomination. 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 seemed the best bet.

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. We were in the Greater Tokyo Ward of Meguro it seemed, though much had changed since the last time I was there. The streets were more run-down, less meticulously clean, and every adult had a hunted, haunted look. There were gun emplacements everywhere, and many buildings were ruined.

Eventually, we found an elementary school, Ishibumi, the campus dominated by a large tree in the courtyard. There we found a bunch of kids and some teachers and 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… not terribly shocking… but what was horrifying was the number of children who failed… Only about half of the kids, elementary schoolers like myself, passed. The rest were a bunch of bullies, jerks, and altogether little shits. who honestly believed it was okay to spit on cursed children or pelt them with stones. Hell, even among the worthy were many who would need some significant therapy or adjustment. This wasn’t a good world.

I tested the stamp on one little girl who was mostly innocent and she blinked, looking down at her hand… as she faded out of reality. Huh. By the end of a ten minute period, three-hundred and seventy-six 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, Sabra. Why are we not doing that?” Regina asked… I hadn’t actually explained the plan to her… I wasn’t certain the Vord Queen would have been able to understand the why of the thing before her human persona integration.

“New Mission,” I said glibly. “Go get a sandwich at that restaurant. You know how money works. I’ll be back in twenty minutes. Don’t kill anyone that’s not trying to kill you.” I left her there and entered the warehouse through the sterile entryway to my medbay. 

“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 the data briefcase that now had pink bunny stickers on each side. I hadn’t put them there before… but hey, at least they were cute. 

“Have you found these allies yet?” the Earthbender asked, picking up the bomb with biohazard tongs. She was wearing a hazmat suit in Earth-Kingdom Green.

“Nope. The monoliths are fucking huge… Massive as fuck. Like tall enough to seriously impact weather patterns. And the people!” I growled, laying down on the diagnostic bed and allowing the machines to take blood samples. I couldn’t make a Gastrea cure without the Varanium… but I was going to make a retrovirus that turned it into a symbiotic cell organelle… like mitochondria… and thus rendered it non-communicable. That, and a vaccine that kept those uninfected in vitro from passing it on or contracting it. I sooo wasn’t spreading this thing to any other world.

“That bad?” she asked, freezing the bomb with liquid helium.

“Yeah…” I sighed, wincing as the medbed took a bone sample. “Jesus! That hurt! And the people… these fucking 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 VMoD had lied to me. There were more than three 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 were doomed… but had not yet been destroyed by one of the absolutely titanically huge Class V Gastrea, the eleven Zodiac Gastrea who’d fucked this world so hard it was on full on meltdown. I fucking hate biowarfare… and that’s clearly what this was.

What’s a Class V? Well, of course… the Zodiac Gastrea could go full Godzilla. A normal Class I possessed one of the various powers that defined the varieties of Cursed Children (and I’d been right that most Cursed Children only had one gift)… but each additional class increase granted the Gastrea another power and a massive increase in size and toughness. Class Is could be dealt with fairly simply by a Initiator-Promoter duo. Class IIs were a challenge, and Class IIIs were immensely strong and dangerous. Class IVs were the kind of enemy that had to be run away from by all the most skilled IP teams. 

The Gastrea used an ability called ‘Evolutionary Jump’ to rapidly mutate, which was how humans that became more than 50% infected transformed into Class Is and how Class Is became Class IIs and so on… though apparently it was thought to be impossible for a Class IV to become a Class V, meaning they were almost certainly artificially created.

The Class Vs were, in fact, so powerful that the Monoliths were incapable of stopping them, which was why the pre-fall humanity had built giant fuck off mass-drivers the size of skyscrapers to shoot the bastards… though I could only find reference to them in the loosest terms on the Infonet… no details on where they might actually be now.

The net was similarly useless in explaining where the Gastrea came from aside from some speculation about Mitochondrial Eve and ‘The Devil’s Virus’… implying that the Gastrea were from the Garden of Eden and linked to what christian doctrine called ‘Eve’s Sin’ or ‘Original Sin’… as if self-knowledge was a bad thing… I just don’t understand people who think ignorance is a good thing. 

The Gastrea War had been long and bloody and humanity had definately lost. Of the eight-billion some humans who’d lived on this world in 2021, the year the war broke out, 90% had died and — of the remaining eight-hundred million — most had been turned into Gastrea. Now, twelve years later, the total global population was about a hundred-and-sixty million… enough to restore the human race… but there wasn’t a safe place to do it and the Gastrea outnumbered humanity four to one.

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… and yes, even with the state of the world as it was, Tokyo, Cairo, and Detroit were thriving. But for these children? They had a few protectors, but overall… it was a horrorshow.

About four weeks after we got there, the head lady of the Tokyo Area called all the top IP 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. 

I’d had to break my own rule. That’s how bad things had gotten. I couldn’t cover the area I needed to cover, and I needed everyone I scooped up to be innoculated… and so I’d brought the best healers and scientists out of the Warehouse.

And that included Sextus, who was a powerful Knight Aquas… and Knight Aquas means healer… as well as powerful Knight Ferrus and Knight Ignis… both of which meant he could murderize even Class IVs without too much trouble. If there hadn’t been millions of them… well, maybe we could have saved this world.

But even higher on the list of healers was the Maiden Astraea, a powerful magic user who hadn’t lost all her powers when she’d given up her arch-demon’s soul. She was, if possible, 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… Until I gave her a Gigai (fake body) so she could protect the little ones. Gave her something to do.

But about this meeting… 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 hoped like hell Mask Guy wasn’t Public Enemy #2, because he was a fucking lunatic. A full on cyborg, his head was full of batshit crazy… so much so that figuring out who he was wasn’t really possible in the limited time I had to scan him from my hiding place in the vents.

Rentaro (also a cyborg, but not fully borged out) was much nicer… though his Initiator, Enju, was a little Tsundere (unlike Mask Guy, whose daughter/initiator, Kohina, was full-on Cute but Psycho Yandere). Rentaro was actually full of hope that this world could not only be saved, but remade into a better, more humane place for humanity. Enju, all of eleven, was seriously in love with the guy (7 years her senior)… Weee! Deep in Japanese Lolicon fantasy… though Rentaro had pretty much zero designs on Enju… Engrish for Angel, btw… and she was pretty certain she was going to die before she ever got him to punch her V-Card.

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 so I would know if he headed out of the city proper. He did almost at once, despite being near totally unqualified to go after a target as powerful as the one who’d taken the case.

Regina and I 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.). It turned out that Enju had run away from home after being outed as a Cursed Child at school. Fuck this world… yes… drive off the only people who might fucking save you from the monsters. That makes tons of sense… Again… I hate the willfully ignorant.

Figuring that the duo was cute in a kind of helpless, hopeless way, I helped him find her. She was with a bunch of other CCs and their caretaker, nice old guy. After getting Enju to agree to head back into the safe-zone with Rentaro, I zapped them all the others (and their caretaker) into the box. Four weeks down and I was running at an average of about 1,200 a day. It was a drop in the bucket and I knew it. Even to save a tithe of the remaining population at that rate would take thirty-six and a half years… and that was assuming the population stayed stable. It wouldn’t.

Thankfully, Regina had only had to kill about thirty total fuckheads and we still hadn’t faced a Gastraea. That was going to change… fast.

The very next, Rentaro and a bunch of other IP teams headed out into the wilderness to track the box as a group. Mask Man & Psycho Daughter were there… doing their best to kill the others because they’re both deeply damaged people.

Mask Man was not happy when I sent Psycho Daughter into the aether, but I was merciful and sent him too. He might be a tool, but he was actually her father and cared for her in his own demented way. He wasn’t actually worthy, but it was hard to fault someone who cared for a Cursed Child in this hellish world.

Part of the reason I made an exception for him was because, when I’d sent the Initiators of the other teams into storage… only two of their ten Promoters actually cared about their charges and didn’t think of their girls as little more than tools. Even then, 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 that I just didn’t have if I was doctrinaire about this… Plus, war does bad things to ones morality and perspective. Maybe out of this craphole the less than ideal adults would shape up some… with enough therapy.

But there was one thing I wasn’t going to compromise on. One of those eight remaining Promoters got himself nailed to a tree by his dangly bits. Fucking bastard. Perverts I could cope with… even those who crossed some of society’s lines… but this guy was a serial killer of children, hiding behind a badge. I left him, screaming and thrashing, as bait for the Gastrea.

And the Gs came. Lots of them. Swarms of them out of the night. Regina understood the mise en scène of this place, the existential essence of the moment, knew the thrill of battle, and went after them. She’d been born for battle, born to destroy entire species, and she recognized a kindred soul in the Gastrea… and, as was very Vord, what was similar to her was the biggest threat of all.

Her fire fury, Luxuria, charred wave after wave of the smaller ones to ash, her earth fury, Ira, smashed and crushed and mangled the medium ones… but there were legions of them and they kept on coming.

In the end, I had to save her from the swarm. “They’re venomous… and you’re not immune,” I pointed out. “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 I hadn’t actually paid any Choice to import her into this jump. I 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 Regina had a normal mortal soul. I should look at what I got from her daughter sometime. But that was for later.

Gastrea are, let me be clear, fucking ugly and gross… they are also relentless, vicious, incredibly fast, and massively tough to kill without Varanium. Even Vordknights would have had trouble against the Gastrea.

While we whittled down the swarm, Enju managed to kill 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. I flew off to Tokyo Bay to make sushi out of the big thing while Renju went to try and bring the thing down using the fucking Railgun called ‘The Ladder of Heaven’ that the Tokyo Defense Force had just left lying about in the forest… wow… how convenient that one of the missing building sized mass-drivers from the war was lying around in the jungle just where we were… Okay… Clearly Enju and Rentaro were the MCs of this little fiasco.

I am… not a weak entity. I can attack at hypersonic speeds and my attacks can flatten entire city blocks at a time. 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.

The eighty centimeter wide chunk of accelerated varanium had crossed the thirty kilometers between cannon and kaiju in one nine-thousandth of a second… if I hadn’t been slowing time at that exact moment, the flash-bloom of superheated air might have vaporized me. Point nine c, ninety-percent of 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 had the tech to build a mass accelerator that could boost something nearly to light speed, how in the name of God 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 at twelve million, and how long it took (not counting the month between jumps) to complete the jump. 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 said sadly, feeling the weight of all those I couldn’t save and all those I’d killed. “I could not stop the end of this world. So I saved everyone I could.”

“You did not try to save the world,” she pointed out.

“I didn’t. I could have spent all my time doing so and failed… I could have killed and killed and killed. I could have paved entire continents and it wouldn’t have changed a thing. There were too many Gastrea and too much damage… the Gastrea had killed and replaced most of the animal life. The seas are teeming with them. There were too few of us to turn the tide… these people were trapped in a holding action… and were losing their humanity and their world by inches… but they would have lost.

“You could have tried,” she insisted stubbornly. Was I actually getting a humanity lecture from the Vord Queen?

“Why do you care about them?” I asked.

“I do not. They are all vermin,” she said with a shrug. Okay… good… I think. “I simply do not enjoy failing. Had you unleashed me to turn my Vord against the Gastrea sooner…” She motioned to the cache of queens that were even now hatching. Fuck the Gastrea. I’d given them their victory over humanity… let them have a taste of biowarfare. 

“Then we’d probably have a word covered in croach and mutant Gastrea Vordknights under the control of your daughters who’d want you dead. Have you forgotten them?”

“No…” she sulked a little. “Unfaithful wenches… next time I make daughters they will respect my authority!”

“Yeah… that,” I pretended to agree. “But as I was saying, we could have laid waste to millions of Gastrea a month and in the end, the decade would be over and no one would be saved. The Gastrea would still control the world and this branch of humanity would still be doomed.”

“And so you abandon them to their fate as you did the Cane of Canea?” she asked, twisting the metaphorical knife of accusation.

I shook my head sadly, watching the last of the Cairo’s defenders blow themselves up in an atomic fireball rather than be turned. “This world, these people, had transgressed so many taboos, 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,” she pointed out.

“More,” I said, “I’m ending all the lives that could be. The ones who would have died as lamentable sacrifices to an unremembered struggle. But at that cost, twelve million innocents have been 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 to 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, the scattered and hidden enclaves of humanity that I hadn’t been able to find 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 at that moment 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

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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. The second major series written by Jim Butcher of Harry Dresden fame. A sextet of books that spanned the better part of a decade and chronicled the rise to power of a simple shepherd boy and a tribal elfin lass as their world was rocked by a series of brutal wars and terrible intrigues.

Codex Alera. Concieved on a bet that he couldn’t take two random (apparently discordant) themes and make of them something amazing. Those themes? Pokemon and the Lost Legions of Rome.

Codex Alera. A series that features 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. A story where I could shortcut almost the entire story with a single surgically applied high yield nuke, but doing so would practically doom the cultures of this world to centuries of war, slavery, and (most likely) eventual extermination.

Codex Alera. Where Genocide was a way of life. I loved the series, but sooo didn’t need this shit.

“Fuuuuuck!” I growled, slamming my fist against the side of the cabinet.

“Yes SJ?”

“Not now Ryoga,” I grumbled, trying to put my roiling emotions into some semblance of order.

“Haha,” he chuckled dryly, then placed a comforting hand on my shoulder. “No. I wasn’t…” he paused, cleared his throat, then asked “Is there a problem?” His tone was compassionate, concerned, and I could tell he was worried about me.

“Slightly, yes,” I said, firming my tone and pushing away my doubts. “I need a nuke. Get me. Mmm… the Purifier mark III Clean Neutron Bomb.”

“Geez!” he snapped. I could see his eyes fly wide with shock in the reflection on the VMoD’s glossy surface. “What in name of all the myriad hells in this universe requires a Purifier to take out!?”

I didn’t look at him, my gaze a thousand miles away as I remembered the numerous atrocities that filled the pages of the Codex. “They’re called the Vord,” I began. “They are a rapidly mutative, biological weapon of a race dedicated to destroying all non-Vord life. Just one queen, damaged and deeply conflicted very nearly destroyed an entire world where the average soldier can lift over a ton and the lords of the land can generate white hot pyroblasts, fly, turn invisible, regenerate, sharpen their swords to monomolecular flaming weapons, and move faster than the eye can see. Where continent spanning magics are not unheard of and…” I swallowed, realizing I was rambling a bit. “Look, if I drop the bomb on this place called the Valley 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.”

He frowned, then turned me around. “I don’t know who those people are. So why don’t you explain this to me like I have no idea what you’re talking about and then explain why you’re having doubts about destroying some nasty monsters.”

I breathed in deep, trying to calm the nervous energy churning in my gut. “Right… Okay. So, the main character of the series is named Tavi of Calderon. Raised by his aunt Isana and uncle Bernard… siblings, not a couple in an edge of the empire garrison community called the Calderon Valley, Tavi never knew either of his parents… or so he believed. For fifteen years, Isana had claimed that her younger sister had had an affair with a Legionnaire before both of them died in the Battle of Calderon when the Marat Tribesmen invaded the valley. That same battle where the Imperial Heir and his bodyguards were slaughtered to the man.”

“She was lying about his parents being dead?” AJ asked, speaking up from the cheap seats as it were. I hadn’t even noticed him sitting there on the edge of the green, playing with several of the ferretoid pokemon.

“Not… not exactly,” I allowed. “It is complicated, and not something that’s revealed right away… in fact, it’s one of the bigger reveals of the series, though one that is blatantly obvious if you’re paying attention. Yes, Isana’s little sister died in the Battle of Calderon. Yes, Tavi’s father died in the Battle of Calderon. But Isana’s sister wasn’t Tavi’s mother, and Tavi’s father was no mere Legionnaire.”

AJ, who’d been part of my crew back in Great Detective aaahed, but Ryoga (who is a little clueless at times) blinked, then asked, “Ah what?”

“Isana’s Tavi’s mother,” AJ said. “And this imperial heir is the father?” he asked.

Uriel, seated at the edge of the green, sipping his coffee, spoke up. “Tavi… it’s short for Octavius or Octavian, right? His father was Septimus?” Of course he’d think of it. He was from a Romanesque culture that had Latin-style names. His own was Uriel Septim VII… or, spoken, Uriel Septim Septimus, the twenty-first emperor of Tamriel. If anyone in my crew would make the link between Roman naming customs and a nickname like Tavi, it would be him.

“Got it in one,” I said, tapping the side of my nose. “And Tavi is no bastard. Isana and Septimus were married in secret, and the battle was the day of Tavi’s birth. And one of the bodyguards did survive, acting as Isana’s dimwitted servant and Tavi’s protector. The story opens fifteen years after the Battle of Calderon, mere days before the Second Battle of Calderon is to take place, a repeat invasion by the Marat.”

I took a seat on the stool, facing my crowd now. “Every adult Aleran can command at least on and sometimes up to half a dozen of the powerful nature spirits called Furies. This art is called Furycrafting and there are six elements that can be crafted; Wind, Water, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Wood. Those who live in the cities tend to draw on nameless and weak but numerous furies, while those who live out in the farming communities called Steadholts tend to name their furies and be considerably more powerful. Military service is compulsory in the Empire, with men joining the Legion and women being camp followers… mostly cooking and laundry, but yes, companionship as well, to use a euphemism.” I shrugged as if to say ‘different strokes for different folks’, then continued.

“To be a full fledged Legionnaire, one must be an Earthcrafter, since they can draw endurance from the very planet and can use their gifts to march faster and make themselves stronger and tougher. Most Legionnaires also have some Metalcrafting, which allows them to make their weapons unnaturally durable and sharp enough to cut through solid stone, or Woodcrafting, which allows them to draw bows with several hundred pound draw weights and turn themselves invisible while near any form of plant matter. Scouts often are Windcrafters, who can fly, extend their senses, and accelerate themselves. Watercrafters can heal and soothe emotions, and they possess empathy and slowed aging as well, while Firecrafters can attack with fire or riot emotions like anger and fear.”

“And they all can do this?” Ryoga asked, clearly a bit envious.

“Well, to some extent. Citizenship is earned by demonstrating sufficient power with multiple Furies or overwhelming power with a single fury. Bernard is the first, an ex-Legionnaire with Wood and Earth Furies. Isana is the second, as the single most powerful (by the end of the series) Watercrafter around,” I explained, then segued back to the actual plot. “At the beginning of the series, Tavi is the only Aleran with no ability to Furycraft and bitter as hell about it. He doesn’t know that his mother / aunt stunted his growth as a child to make the connection between him and his father less likely to be discovered.”

“What?” Ryoga asked, aghast. “Why would she do that?” “Because Septimus was betrayed at Calderon One. One of the most powerful crafters in the entire empire, surrounded by some of the most elite metalcrafters around, and an entire legion? They should have made short work of the Marat. When I say that High Lords are bullshit, believe me. And the Imperial Heir is at least the match for any High Lord. Isana was certain that if Tavi’s parentage was known, he’d be killed. Say what you want about Isana’s methods, but she absolutely loves her son and was trying to keep him safe. She loved him enough to pretend not to be his mother for twenty years just because she thought that might place him in danger.”

“Okay… that seems more… reasonable… I guess?” Ryoga allowed. “But how does this kid with no powers make an impact? I mean, does he learn some ancient martial art?”

“Magic?” Uriel suggested.

“He trains a host of woodland creatures into a ragtag band of furry warriors?” was AJ’s guess.

“No. Look. I’ll get there,” I assured them. “Tavi was stunted, not blocked completely. He eventually awakens his crafting over the course of the decade. Most Alerans awaken their crafting between twelve and fourteen. His growth was slowed, so he awakens it later. But his real talent is in using his head. He’s incredibly intelligent and highly adaptive, able to out-think most of the best intriguers in the empire by the end of the story. At the start, however, he’s just an angry kid who wants to get laid.”

“Is that actually important to the plotline?” Ryoga asked, sounding dubious. I laughed. “Yes, actually, it is. There’s a special flower that this pretty girl wants and Tavi shirks his shepherd duty to go find it. This means that two of his sheep wander off and his uncle gets pissed about it, rightly so, and says he won’t give Tavi the… well, not funds, but the means to get funds, to allow Tavi to go to the Imperial Capital to attend the academy there. Tavi gets upset, goes off to find the sheep, gets captured by Marat and sets the plot in motion.”

“Sounds a bit contrived,” Uriel hazarded.

“Perhaps, but it does flow mostly naturally. The conventions of drama and all that,” I allowed. “Anyway, Tavi ends up in the Marat encampment as the four Marat chieftains argue about the right course of action.”

“What, exactly, are Marat?” AJ asked. “Are they just a different people from the Alerans? I assume that the Empire is Aleran?”

“Yes to both,” I nodded, confirming the supposition. “Alera Imperia is the Rome stand-in and capital of the Aleran Empire. It’s people are traditional humans, originally from Earth, and they occupy the majority of the continent of Alera on the world of Carna. There are at least four other sentient races on Carna, almost certainly none of which are native. There were at least two others that the Alerans exterminated over the last thousand years. All the races of Carna are extremely warlike, or at least extremely good at fighting wars.”

“Races? Or Species?” Uriel asked. It was a good question, since his native Tamriel was home to four discrete species of sophonts (Argonians, Khajiit, Men, and Mer… i.e. lizardfolk, catfolk, humans, and elves), but Men and Mer both had multiple ethnic groups and Khajiit differed from each other depending on the phases of the moons they were born under.

“Specieses,” I said. “The Snowmen of the North are not, as far as I know, genetically related to the Canae Wolfment of the West, or the elf-like Marat of the East. Alera is sandwiched between. The Vord are the last of the races that matter, but only their queens are sophonts.”

“They’re insects?” Ryoga asked.

“Don’t distract her!” AJ insisted. “Marat first!”

Ryoga smirked at my little buddy, then gave an eyeroll and said, “Fine. Marat first.”

“Good,” AJ agreed, then quirked an eyebrow at me.

“Marat first,” I agreed as well. “Like I said, very elf-like. They wear little if any clothing, usually just a loincloth even in sub-zero weather, have white hair and dusky skin. Each Marat clan, of which there are currently four, although there used to be a fifth, forms a spiritual bond with one of the lifeforms native to their vast grassland home continent. Said home continent is connected to Alera via the Calderon Isthmus, with the end of the valley closer to Maratea blocked by the mass of the fortress town of Garrison.”

“She’s drifting off topic! Quick, someone jar her elbow!” AJ snapped and Ryoga saluted, then flicked my ear.

“Har… har,” I snided. “Anyway. Four clans. Wolf, Herdbane, Gargant, and Horse. Herdbane are giant predatory Moa or Ostriches. Think a Chocobo that’s as likely to disembowel you with their dewclaw as let you pet it. They prey on sheep, hence the name. Gargants are essentially giant elephant moles that serve as pack animals. Horses and Wolves you know. The connection isn’t just empathic, though there is clearly that. It seems to alter the individual Marat’s genetics, with Wolf clan having wolf eyes and wolf-like hair, Gargant clan being tougher and stronger, Horse clan being faster, and Herdbane being more vicious. Doroga, chief of the Gargant clan and father of Kitai, becomes one of Tavi’s greatest allies… at least once Tavi saves Kitai’s life in the Valley of Silence.”

“You mentioned that before. What is it, and why were they there?” Uriel asked, rising to get himself a danish and more coffee. His seat was immediately claimed by Ziggy, who curled up in it as if to say “My Warm Spot!” Lazy weasel-thing.

“Mmm… how to explain Marat decision matrices without making them sound insane?” I began, then shrugged. “Look, remember that aliens are aliens. The Marat worship The One, which appears to be the Sun but it’s hard to be certain. Anyway, they also do not know how to lie. Like… at all. The most one of them can do is ‘be mistaken’. So when they have a disagreement of policy, one of them must be right and the other ‘mistaken’. To determine which is which, they hold a contest before the one. A test of wisdom and intelligence and skill. The Valley of Silence, also known as the Wax Forest is home to an incredibly dangerous lifeform called ‘The Keepers of Silence’, and a mushroom that can cure any poison or illness, apparently. The Keepers, which are a form of giant poisonous spider, tend the wax-like ‘croach’ which covers the Forest. The croach entraps lifeforms that get caught in by the Keepers, then digests them into a green goo that the Keepers eat. The Keepers attack anything in the forest and protect the mushrooms, which only grow in the center of the forest.” “And getting one of these mushrooms is the contest?” Ryoga asked. “Sounds like fun.” I shuddered, then laughed nervously. “Sounds horrific, but you do you, buddy,” I said. “But otherwise, yes. Tavi and Kitai are competing against each other… but this is where things get weird. See, while Tavi is trying to prove that the Wolf Clan’s leader is ‘mistaken’ about Marat and Alerans needing to fight (and he also doesn’t want to be eaten by the Marat), Kitai is not trying to prove that the Marat should attack the Alerans.”

“Eaten?” Ziggy squeaked, and the others nodded in agreement.

I rubbed the bridge of my nose, then sighed. “Look, it’s not particularly important, but the Marat ‘partake’ of the flesh of their vanquished enemies to gain their strength. So, yes, they are cannibalistic and eat other sophonts, but not as a primary source of nutrients. Anyway, Kitai is, as I’ve said, the daughter of the Gargant Chief, but wants to join her mother’s Horse tribe, which is ruled by her aunt Hashat. Doroga objects, so Kitai wants to prove that her father is ‘mistaken’. So the two youths enter the forest and get the mushrooms and Kitai is nearly killed but bonds to Tavi, becoming the first and only member of Clan Aleran… she calls him Aleran and ho boy is she a Tsundere. For saving the life of his ‘whelp’, Doroga and Hashat help the Alerans fight off the Wolf and Herdbane, thus resolving book one. It’s mostly self-contained and a nice introduction to the story.”

“Then come the Vord?” Ryoga asked.

“Then come the Vord,” I agreed. “The Valley of Silence is, in actuality, the local outpost of the Marat’s ancient enemy, the one that nearly destroyed them in ages past, but the Marat do not recognize the Wax Forest as being Vord because the Vord are, as the Marat call them, ‘Shapeshifters’. They take many forms because they adapt. The Vord queen that was maturing in the Forest wakes early thanks to Tavi and Kitai’s actions, and gets a sample of Kitai’s blood when she bites her. The Queen takes on a green version of Kitai’s form and is the primary antagonist for the rest of the series. She and her children kill hundreds of millions, and that’s why I need that bomb,” I finished, turning my back on the others and looking to the machine, my resolve firming as I began to plan.

While my team prepped the bomb, I activated the Machine’s interface and began to plan my purchases. I hit the Drawbacks first, since I knew that I’d need the points. No limit. That was… worrying, at least at first. Then I saw how few Drawbacks there actually were and relaxed a little. Of course, my relaxation lasted until I’d read all eight… yes, only eight… of them. Good lord… had whoever’d constructed this jump actually read the series? Because I could have made twenty drawbacks just from the horrors of the war, let alone all the rest of the general unpleasantness that abounded in this setting.

It is not exaggerating when I say that the Codex Alera series was the first one that ever pushed my suspension of disbelief not because the situations depicted within were unrealistic, but because I honestly couldn’t see how the good-guys could actually win the day. The Vord are that fucking horrifying. Thus my decision to nuke the fuckers out of existence and damn the consequences.

As I said, there were only eight Drawbacks, and so, despite the utter lack of a soft limit (the hard limit of taking them all would get me nineteen-hundred extra Choice and pretty much guarantee a chain-fail), I ended up with only sixteen-hundred Choice total after making things harder for myself, in three different ways.

Of course, I wasn’t stupid enough to take the six-hundred point drawback that gave a Vord Queen all my powers and many of my memories. I’d have had to be a great deal more insane than I already was to sign up for that one. Of the two three-hundred pointers, one (Great Furies!) would turn all the many, many wild furies of Alera against me… and their number included mountains, volcanoes, rivers, eternal thunderstorms, and entire forests. And don’t think that just because a mountain is normally a sedentary thing that they can’t get up and crush anyone they’re annoyed at. In Alera? Occasionally mountains do just that. Yeah… Great Furies was contraindicated in a big way.

But if ‘Great Furies’ was underpriced, the other three-hundred pointer, ‘Murder of Bloodcrows’ was overpriced. The Bloodcrows were the private army of High Lord Kalarus Brencis Majoris (his asshole son was Kalarus Brencis Minoris), also known as High Lord Kalare. A slaver, rapist, traitor, and all around asshole, with the removal of the Vord as a threat, Kalare would have been the biggest threat to the security of the realm, and the Bloodcrows were his primary tool. They were spies and assassins, their loyalty enforced with furycrafted items called discipline collars that made disobedience functionally impossible.

Most Bloodcrows were talented furycrafters, or at least strong ones, and they were fanatically loyal… but for all that, even though the drawback guaranteed that their numbers would never run out and they’d never stop coming, they were still human and I really wasn’t going to be at risk from anyone short of a High Lord. None of the Bloodcrows were anywhere near that level of power. That was half my drawback points.

Beneath the high value Drawbacks were a brace of two-hundred pointers and a trio of hundred pointers. I discounted ‘Collared’, one of the brace, which would have marked me as a slave and given me the social standing of one. Thankfully, despite the name, it didn’t actually put a discipline collar on me, and the text did say that I could buy my freedom… but it also implied that I’d have to earn the money rather than use out of setting funds. So it was right out. Also out were ‘Dull’ and ‘Unwanted Gadara’ from the trio.

Dull hit the chopping block as it would make me a predictable, inside the box thinker, making me a plodder at both warfare and intrigue. In a society like Alera or Canae, that intrigue debuff was a game-breaker, even if I wouldn’t have to plan a war against the Vord! That there was a tiny chance that Dull might make my attempt to nuke the Wax Forest predictable was just… no. Not for four times that many points.

A Gadara (as in ‘Unwanted Gadara’) was an concept introduced to Aleran Society by the Canim (the three meter tall blood-magic using wolfmen of the continent of Canea). To the Canim, whose entire society was extremely aggressive, warlike, and obsessed with competition, a Gadara was a treasured thing. Where even ones children might challenge you, where friendship was often vulnerability, a Gadara was a constant… an enemy that one could rely on. Back on Origin, we’d had a concept called ‘Frenemy’, which is something like a Gadara… except that, in general, Frenemy wasn’t really a term of endearment. What can I say? Canim are weird.

Anyway, as to the drawback, a friendly rival might have been worth the hundred points. It might even have been fun… except Unwanted Gadara guaranteed that this moron would constantly be disrupting my plans… not intentionally, just because they had timing on their side. Once or twice? Yeah, that could be worth a hundred. Someone to regularly disrupt my plans with their incompetent desire to be my rival? Nooo thank you.

That left the cheaper ‘Bastard’ and the more expensive ‘Invidiae Erit’. The first would make me the illegitimate child of a High Lord but also lock me into being Aleran. That was fine by me, as I hadn’t been planning on being Marat or Canim even if the document offered them. I still hadn’t checked. The second? Well, to explain the second demands that I explain Aquitainus Invidia. 

If High Lord Kalarus was the closest thing to a human antagonist in the early series, Invidia (wife of High Lord Aquitainus Attis) is the true spider in the web. Without her machinations, Calderon Two would not have happened. Without her meddling, the Vord would not have been quite as effective. Without her betrayals, the good guys probably would have failed. Yes, Invidia was a scheming, vicious, untrustworthy bitch. She was also the closest thing the Primary Vord Queen had to a friend, and that human weakness ultimately brought down the Vord.

The drawback invoked this treacherous habit, since (for the duration of the jump), treachery would become second nature to me. People would begin to plan for my inevitable betrayal and I, in turn, would plot against even my trusted allies, just in case the need to betray them arose… or seemed like a good idea at the time. I could cope with that. Sure, never being fully trusted would make things tricky… but anyone who trusted anyone else implicitly in Codex Alera was probably a fool… or in love… or both. 

So there I was, sixteen-hundred Choice in hand, locked into the Aleran background, which was, to be honest, fine. The question was… what other backgrounds were there? A quick screen wipe later, I had my answer. Aleran wasn’t the drop-in option. Odd, considering the fact that Alerans were the only humans on Carna, and annoying, since Aleran cost a hundred Choice… but I could cope with it. The backgrounds I was locked out of were Drop-In, Marat, and Cane (kah-neh, not caen)… and somehow Cane was priced higher than Aleran. Apparently the Jump Constructor felt that physical strength was somehow worth more than Furycrafting? I was (of course) assuming that Furycrafting would be an Aleran power… and halfway wondering what Drop-In could possibly have to make it viable as an option compared to the others.

Me? I’d have had Aleran be the drop-in and made the fourth background Vord… but apparently the constructor thought that was too powerful… Vord Queen was priced at nine-thousand and one Choice. Riiight. Clearly a joke. 

Anyway, being locked in to Aleran meant that I’d have to make do with only fifteen-hundred Choice, so next thing I did was roll for my starting location. There were two location tables, interestingly enough, though the Canim one was grayed out. Alerans and Drop-Ins started in Alera, Canim in Canea, and Marat in Maratea, though there was no table for the Marat… obviously because the Marat, as nomads, had no cities or clearly defined nations.

The die came up three, landing me in Antillus? Seriously? Antillus was the northwestern-most city in the entire empire. It was Seattle to the Calderon Valley’s Boston… if Boston was on a land-bridge connected to the Siberian Steppe. Well, that was just peachy. I’d have something like three or four days tops get to the Calderon Valley, find the Wax Forest (Wherein the Vord Queen slept)… then nuke the site from orbit… and I was on the far side of the continent. Wait, never mind… I’m hypersonic, Orbital distances ain’t nothing to me. Plus, you know… I have space ships. Wigging out over nothing.

I rolled for my age and landed at twenty-one, as old as it came and six years older than Tavi. That worked. It wasn’t like I had any intention of trying to steal him from Kitai… or steal Kitai from Tavi. They were a cute (if weird) couple. The shepherd boy and the savage… with a savage sense of humor. 

Next up was perks… and finding out what the hell the difference between Drop-In and Aleran was. As it turned out… Drop-In was, essentially, Tavi. ‘Shepherd’ was the not-quite-freebie, and it was all about being a steader and knowing your way around the wilderness or a farm with equal skill. ‘He Followed Me Home’ was all about finding potential allies… but only when lost. ‘Quarrel With a Tavar’ was about escalating your attacks without sacrificing your morals… it didn’t sound particularly useful… but I was already queen of escalation, so maybe that’s me. Incidentally, a Tavar is essentially the Canim version of a wolverine, i.e. relentless, vicious, and giving absolutely no fucks. ‘Innovator’ was about adapting knowledge and technology to new purposes… useful enough, but overpriced in my opinion. And ‘Logic is a Fury of its Own’ was a logic and deduction booster… the kind that allowed one to strategize around a mind-reading enemy and relying on controlled instinct. All traits that Tavi demonstrated, the ones he used to keep himself alive and sane without the powers of his people.

But it was only half of Tavi’s skill set. For Tavi was also trained as a Cursor (read master spy) and a powerful Furycrafter… at least in the last two books. No, the distinction between Aleran and Drop-In was a false one… but alas, I was not the Constructor, I was the Jumper, and my task was to experience this world and make my mark on it, not to influence the choices of those who would visit it. 

The Aleran line was all about, well, Furycrafting and Intrigue, the two things that Alerans did better than anyone else (no matter what the Canim might say). Of course, right off the bat there was a funny moment. Remember how I said that ‘Shepherd’ was all about being a steader? Well, the not-quite-freebie (this jump’s freebies were weird… another thing I judged the Constructor harshly for… along with really minimalist and boring formating.) for Alerans was called ‘Steadholder’. It was not, as it happens, anything having to do with life on a Steadholt (rural farming communities). 

No, Steadholder (a Steader lives on a Steadholt, a Steadholder runs / owns the Steadholt) a boost to the raw power of your… my furies, as well as to my strength and stamina, especially when it came to the kind of furycrafting that was typical on a holt… such as using Earthcrafting to manhandle animals or raise a barn. It also provided a better understanding with and of local nature spirits… which Furies were the local version of. I wasn’t certain if the propensity for naming my Furies (a habit that the Pagani embraced while the Urbani shunned it) was part and parcel of taking the perk… but to be honest, I’d have named my Furies anyway.

I like naming things. Things should have names, especially if you care about them. Of course, once a thing has a name, you should be extra careful to only occasionally actually call them by that name. If I hadn’t had a flawless memory, I would have no idea how many different nicknames I had for my friends. Hell, Ziggy has over six-hundred different (and sometimes faintly insulting) nicknames… such as Senior Poopy-Pants and Wubble-Butt the Conqueror. Thankfully, unlike Zane, Ziggy didn’t try biting me when I called him such silly things.

Steadholder cost me fifty choice, which I paid with only minor grumbling. Sure, I didn’t have any Furies yet, but I wasn’t leaving this document without them, I can tell you that. But before that, I picked up the Marat not-quite freebie, ‘Test of Wits Veteran’. Sure, at a hundred Choice it wasn’t discounted, since I wasn’t Marat, but seemed a bargain. There was, however, some question about just how much of the description was fluff and how much was actually true.

See, the first line of said description was. “You have delved into the Wax Forest and brought back the Blessing of Night… several times, actually.” Was that actually true? I mean, aside from the benefits of the perk, which gave me agility and stealth that had been honed to the point where I could reliably evade the predatory Keepers of Silence long enough to penetrate to the heart of their home turf repeatedly, having actually been to the Wax Forest meant I wouldn’t need to actually look for it… not that I expected a small valley full of wax covered terrain to be very hard to find. Still, knowing where, exactly, the queen was sleeping meant that I could, in theory, take her out with a nuclear grenade, rather than taking out the entire valley with a Purifier… if I wanted to. I’d have to think on that… and see if my new self had actually been to the Wax Forest several times. Maybe that part only applied to Marat.

‘Veteran’ also meant that I’d gain a permanent improved ability to evade extraordinary senses like vibration sensitivity or infrared detection, as well as an uncanny sense of what surfaces would bear my weight without breaking (was this thing calling me fat?)… not that I actually had to walk if I didn’t want to. The reason that was important was because the wax surface of the Croach was quite fragile… strong enough (barely) to support the weight of a slight teenager like Tavi or Kitai, but nowhere near strong enough to support an adult Marat or Aleran. When the Croach was breached, the Keepers would swarm to repair it, since it was their food supply and (somehow) what the Vord warriors breathed. As an added bonus, ‘Veteran’ also gave me a knack for transporting sharp or spined objects by hand without self-injury. I guess that was useful. If I ever wanted to juggle sea-urchins.

Making up for the hundred Choice perks not being free, the two-hundred pointers were (except for Drop-In). For Alerans, this was ‘Fury-Crafting’, something every Aleran (besides Tavi) had. Of course, picking my own Fury would have cost me fifty Choice… and no, apparently I wasn’t allowed to buy more Furies… at least not from that perk. Which was odd, because a not inconsiderable amount of Alerans had multiple furies… maybe there was a way to buy more later, although the text did state that this was merely my starting Fury and (like any Aleran with sufficient will) I’d be able to bind more to myself, assuming I was up to the challenge of subjugating said spirit. Some were quite incredibly powerful.

Still, for no points at all, plus a dice roll, I snagged myself a Fire Fury. Excellent. Burn Baby. I named her Hestia, in honor of the Greek Goddess of the Hearth and Home. Hestia was a hound comprised of living fire, the kind who would curl up in a fireplace rather than next to it.

I’d always intended to take the complete Aleran Tree, having guessed from the outset that it included Cursor Training, Legion Training, and the power of a High Lord. In this, I was not disappointed. ‘Légionnaire Extraordinaire’ cost me two-hundred Choice and granted me the all the knowledge needed to get an army moving (logistics, command, motivation, etc.) and the talented needed to 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 a dab hand at battlefield tactics, as well as an expert on setting up defensible positions, including battlefield construction and fortifications.

It also granted me a second Fury, and the raw Crafting skill to easily rank as a Knight of the Legions. Yeah, yeah, I know that they should have been called ‘Equestrians’, since Romans didn’t have ‘Knights’ per se… blame Butcher for that, not me. Neither name really works, since the people in question in the books were seldom, if ever, mounted. When one had Earthcrafting, Woodcrafting, or Windcrafting, a human didn’t really need to ride on a horse to travel far or fast. Regardless of semantics, I rolled again, snagging Earth as my second element, and I named this one Gyges, named for one of the hundred-handed, fifty-headed Hecatonchires of Greek myth. My Gyges would not be so handy, but would (rather) be a giant ogre formed from moss-covered stone that had the appearance of being the ruins of some ancient city or temple.

Also at two-hundred Choice was ‘Cursori Glance’, which (horrible pun aside) granted me the training of an Imperial Cursor. The Cursori were the First Lord’s messengers and spies, his hands and trusted agents, used to keep control of the highly fractious empire. Their training included multiple methods of combat (unarmed, sword, staff, knife, etc.), as well as impressive stealth skills… but neither fighting nor sneaking about were the primary focus of their rather comprehensive training. That focus was undercover espionage, the ability to maintain a cover identity for an indefinite length of time while still keeping the Cursor’s sense of identity and purpose intact.  To fully understand just how tricky that was, one must understand that every single Watercrafter and most Firecrafters could sense emotions and honesty… and that was a good quarter of the population. To that end, ‘Cursori Training’ came with unparalleled skill at deceit and manipulation. Unparalleled… in a society that included such master manipulators as Kalare (master of the Bloodcrows), the Aquitaines, Fidelius (renegade former Cursor), Ambassador Varg of the Canim, and Tavi himself. Occlumency Upgrade Get!

And last, there was the Aleran Capstone, ‘High Lord’, at three-hundred Choice, which meant that I was within shouting distance of Aleran Elite, the ruling class of the nation, the High Lords themselves, and with six to eight years of serious effort I’d be able to match the power of a First Lord. High Lord 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’, for the Greek Goddess of Vengeance, though mine would be a faceless male swordsman with eight blazing arms ever searching for an opening or weakness. My second Earth Fury I named ‘Alecto’, the Erinys of Unceasing Anger, one of the three original Furies of Greek Myth. She would be a towering humanoid, a rough hewn caryatid with jagged stone spikes for hands and feet. My Wood Fury became ‘Treebeard’, a la Tolkien, a cthulhu-esque monstrosity of branches and lianas certain to terrify all but the bravest of opponents. I named my Air Fury ‘Nike’, for the Greek Spirit of Victory, a nearly invisible sylph of dawnlight cloud sparkling with nascent seed lightning. For my Water Fury I chose ‘Calypso’, the Nymph of the Odyssey who detains Odysseus on the island of Ogygia for seven years. Continuing the theme, she too would be a faceless form, a wave blown by unseen winds to crash endlessly upon alien shores. And last, there was ‘Mithras’, my Metal Fury, a steel-skinned elf, the Greco-Roman mystery god of Contracts and Order, named for the Zoroastrian Mithra, God of the Covenant, of Light, and of Oaths. The name seemed fitting.

Aleran had been one of my two choices going in, and had always been the more likely of those two. The only reason I’d considered being a Marat was  for their ‘Chala Bond’, the geneto-spiritual connection that allowed them to absorb the best qualities of another race. Thankfully, and through the power of being a Jumper, the perk version of that bond wasn’t locked out to members of other races. So (of course) I bought it.

For the not inconsiderable cost of four-hundred Choice (leaving me with a mere two-fifty in the bank), ‘Chala Bond’ allowed me to import a companion as my Chala. Of course, there were only three real options: Zane, Ziggy, and AJ, but I decided that it had to be Zane… I wasn’t about to soul bond with anyone else.

That purchased granted him a background other than my own (or drop-in), and four-hundred Choice to spend (there wasn’t any other companion import option, which (to be frank) was strike three against the Constructor). That meant he could be either Marat or Cane and we’d mingle our traits. I’d gain his eye color, and other things…

“Hmmm… If I go Marat… there isn’t really a benefit there, because Marat eyes will 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,” I said to myself, wondering only a little if I should consult with dog-boy… and then I laughed. Of course. Obvious really. I gave Zane the Canim background. Woof Woof.

That got him ‘Canim Strength’ for free. See, the strength and endurance of the Canim are monstrous compared to that of an unaugmented human and  Zane would become physically fit even for a Cane. He’d be able to outmarch a Legionnaire and out-muscle an Earthcrafter. Of course, none of that strength helped him as I dragged him out of the pool where he was enjoying a float and about sixteen beers, and plopped him down in front of the VMoD and told him to spend his points before I dyed his fur puce.

He glowered at me, but sobered up enough to read the screen, then picked up ‘War Master’ and ‘Hunter’ for two-hundred each. The first granted him skill in tactics sufficient to quickly climb to the upper echelons of command in the highly militant culture of a warrior race like the Cane. It also made his physical strength impressive even for one of the Wolfmen… with the ability to grow even stronger if he bothered to work at it. As a final bonus, it meant that acts of valor would come naturally to him and be that much more likely to be recognized and rewarded, even if only in the form of increased respect from society at large. As for the second, well… the Hunter Caste of the Canim People were their spies and assassins, those who preserved the spirit of Canim law and tradition while skillfully circumventing the letter of said laws. They were focused explicitly on stealth and were skilled enough to pass unnoticed even among those who were not only trained to notice such things but whom possessed superhuman sensory powers… like telepathy, empathy, and acute danger sense.

Seriously, a group of Canim Hunters managed to sneak into the presence of a Vord Queen without her noticing… and Vord Queens aren’t just mind-readers. To say that the Vord are among the most paranoid living things in most universes is not understating them. They’re well aware that every other lifeform will almost instinctively seek their destruction… which is fair, considering that the Vord ‘Purpose’ is to grow, to consume, to take everything and make it a part of the Vord. It’s still paranoia when everyone really is out to exterminate you. It’s just justified paranoia in that case.

Once I’d released Puppy von Pupperman back to his aquatic libations, I was faced with the question of what to do with my remaining Choice. The remaining perks didn’t thrill me (at least those I could afford) and that left me with equipment to buy. But one look at the available items and I almost regretted passing on the remaining perks. Only one item appealed to me in the slightest, since most of them were hideously overpriced (seriously a Blessing of Night Mushroom for six hundred? It didn’t even respawn more than once per jump! The Discipline Collar was the same price… and there wasn’t even a Cane or Drop-in one at that price… if it was possible to give something four strikes, the Gear & Equipment section of this jump would have earned five.)

Regardless, I took the only thing that was both interesting and reasonably priced on the entire list. It was called ‘Jar of Blood’, cost a hundred Choice, and was designed to be used for blood magic rituals of the kind the Canim Priest caste was known for. It refilled every night, safely stored its contents for as long as needed, and could replicate the blood of any mortal creature that I had ever encountered… specific blood types as well. Honestly, it was probably worth twice what I was paying for it… 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. An infinite supply of ethically pure blood? Yes please. Excellent, indeed.

I’d have to build a cryogenic bloodbank to harvest and store the blood for future use. Thankfully, my Personal Reality had the Eternalizer which meant that I could harvest the blood on a daily basis (or build an automated system to do it) and store it indefinitely without risk of spoilage. It would be biologically and magically viable… I wondered how many liters the jar was. Considering the size of a typical Cane… I was guessing at least five liters, possibly ten.

Unfortunately, nothing else on the item list really spoke to me, so I went back to the perks and picked up ‘Gadara For Life’ so as to augment my ability to make allies out of former enemies. Just because someone was my enemy didn’t mean that we couldn’t be friendly with one another. Sure, they’d try their damnedest to kill me on the battlefield, but off it we might be discussing books or playing board games! I love board games! ‘Gadara For Life’ gave me a knack for picking up friendly enemies and meant that I’d have a better than average shot at convincing them to work with me… you know, as long as there was a mutual threat great enough to invoke enlightened self-interest… or because my enemy just wanted to guarantee the continuance of game-night… or be the one to finally vanquish me… which they totally would do after dinner. Promise. 

That left me with fifty Choice… and there was only one thing in the entire document that cost an undiscounted fifty Choice. Strike… what was this… strike ten? Really? Sigh. This setting so deserved better than this. Hell, Demon’s Souls had a tenth the character of Codex Alera and it had had better balance and greater style. Sigh. With my final Choice coin I purchased ‘Advanced Weapon’, selecting the Canim javelin-crossbow called the ‘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.

Since I was done and there weren’t any other Companion Builds to shepherd, I wandered over to where Joy and Ahab were discussing their choices. Joy had 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 had gone Aleran, picking up Fury-Crafting and a Wind Fury he named ‘Ophinicus’. He’d have to rely on his native talent to pick up other Furies if he wanted to join the Legions. “Ophinicus?” I asked. “Don’t you mean ‘Ophiuchus’? or do you mean ‘Opinicus’?”

“What’s the difference?” Ahab asked. He wasn’t the most nerdy of my companions, preferring practical skills to history or mythology. When we roleplayed, he largely ignored the lore if it was a fantasy setting… and spent the entire game session waiting for the fights to begin and eating ice-cream. Sometimes he even napped during the ‘slow’ bits… i.e. when everyone else was doing the actual roleplaying part.

“Well… one’s a constellation called the Serpent-Handler, and the other is a kind of griffin with the body of a serpent, the legs of a lion, the tail of a camel or bear, and the head, neck, and wings of an eagle,” Joy said. Cultural information was her speciality. “Oh… I dunno. I just thought Ophinicus sounded cool. It’s from Heraldry.”

“Nooo,” Joy sighed. “The heraldic one is the Opinicus. With a Puh, not a Fuh.”

“Yeah?” Ahab said, “Well Puck You.”

“Very mature,” I said, sighing, then wandered off as they squabbled. Immortality isn’t for the faint of heart.

Figuring that I had time to kill, I handed out orders to my followers, and told my newest trio that they were more than welcome to settle here in Alera 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. That taken care of, I hit the button and jumped.

INSERTION

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 solution neat as a pin… unfortunately, said 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 (Not counting their spouses and heirs), 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 but 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 potentially tossed the delicate strands of narrative into complete disarray.

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

I looked around at the stretch of the Shield Wall, the continent spanning defensive barrier that divided Alera from the frozen north where the Watercrafting Icemen lived, and swore. “Shit… shit shit shit!”

“What’s wrong?” Joy asked.

I had not thought about the problem well enough. Or rather, I’d planned a solution for the most obvious problem and not bothered to ask if my fix would, in fact, fix things. I sat upon a merlon and faced my friend. “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 asked.

“I… hmm…” she said, considering. After about a minute she answered, “Probably not. It was something that needed to happen. Why?”

“Well… 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 swept my hand out to indicate the endless tundra and glaciers beyond the wall. “I know as much as Isana learned when she mediated the end to this wasteful and self-perpetuating hostility.” I sighed, leaning back, letting Alecto support me so I didn’t fall off the wall.

“Hell, I’m more than a match for Raucus in the Juris Macto, so I could force him to the peace table rather than letting him beat up Isana until he saw reason…” I groaned, rubbing my face with my hand. “But I can’t.”

“First? A juris whato?” Joy asked, “And second… why not?”

“The Juris Macto is ‘Justice of the Fist’… It’s a trial by combat… a duel to the death. Win and your cause is deemed just. It’s legally binding. And if I do all that I said… 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 four cultures into a collective whole that will last centuries or millenium 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 the better. But that word ‘Eventually’ is key. It takes time, and lots of tragedy.”

I stood up, looking to the south of the wall, at the hills and fields and forests of Alera, seeing so much more than was actually visible. I could see in my mind’s eye the memories of my new self, the one who loved and hated this land so much more viscerally than any mere reader could. There were so many people living out there, so many traditions and customs and… and it had such incredible inertia. A thousand years and more of war and peace, of struggling to master this alien yet familiar world, of securing a future for the Aleran race against all who would have claimed the land as their own.  Too much inertia, too much… to reform things, I’d have to become the badguy… or use the one the narrative provided.

“All I can do is… is tweek things,” I sighed. 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 too,” I said, planning it all out even as I spoke, letting my mind work out the details in the background. “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.” The makers were the fourth Canim Caste after Warrior, Hunter, and Priest. Although still far stronger and tougher than a normal human, they were largely useless in a fight… though their native ferocity made them dangerous if cornered.

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 half 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 (imperial bodyguard) 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?” he whined. As a three meter tall wolfman, he actually whined very well.

“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 as my kinetic-reactive subdermal nanoarmor did its job. 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. Crossing the distance between walltop and Bloodcrow so fast that I left my body behind, leaving Zane to catch me as I slumped, 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 the city of 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, as it had gone relatively well all things considered, but I did save some lives that otherwise had been lost. I made sure Fidelias (mercenary assassin and part of the cabal that had orchestrated Second Calderon) didn’t kill Warner’s sons (hapless passersby), that Aldric ex Gladius (mercenary sellsword and another of the conspirators) didn’t kill Perelis of the Black Blade (skilled but doomed imperial swordsman), and that the Windwolves  (mercenary bullyboys under Fidelias and Aldric in the employ of the Aquitaines) didn’t kill the Knights Aeris (flying scout / messenger legionaires) from Garrison (the citadel in the Calderon Valley) and Riva (the fortress city nearest the Calderon Valley).

I fought Aldric, but didn’t kill him. I just wanted 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, which could turn a half-wit into a deadly swordsman, but my knowledge of the sword wasn’t anything that any mere mortal with a couple decades could match, even ones blessed with narrative’s kiss.

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 for my plans, and the narrative, to stay on course.

Before the outbreak of hostilities, I had snuck into the Wax Forest of Silence  (where it turns out I had, in fact, been before) and claimed a pair of Blessing of Night Mushrooms for study in the Lifestream Garden and medbay. I made certain the ones I took were small and less obvious, so that the two that Tavi and Kitai would claim later were not missing.

Still, in the end, I did fall prey to the treacherous drawback. Of course, 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. Wanted to feel the rush of battle against a foe as powerful as a Vord Queen, of planning a war against a foe as implacable and dangerous as the Vord. It was hard to say how much of that was EssJay the Eternal Gamer and how much was Septima, but both parts of us wanted this, needed this.

But it was more than that. We knew something that no one else in all this world would have known… not even the Marat with their legends of the Vordu-ha that had nearly exterminated them long ago. We knew that the Vord of Carna were not alone. We knew of the Purpose and of the many many Vord Hives spread across the stars of this Galaxy. They were a plague and the peoples of Carna needed the relative ineptitude of the local Vord to imprint upon their cultures an unending hatred for the Vord. They needed to be prepared to potentially fight stronger Vord Hives, ones not ruled by defective queens. Ones with entire star empires of telepathic cooperative queens, ones who had destroyed untold thousands or millions of other races as they travelled from world to world.

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… Okay… that’s not true. I didn’t convince him. 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 had with the forces within me to do so the second things had played out. I don’t like idiots or traitors… how ironic. I did tell him to allow Gaella (Kalare’s Bloodcrow infiltrator, controlled ) into the Cursor’s training program. I would need her.

I also told Father’s new bride, Atticus Caria, to stop poisoning him. Why was she poisoning him? Because being First Lady of Alera wasn’t as much fun as she thought it would be. Also, she was sleeping with Aquitanius Attis… an affair arranged by Invidia, Attis’s wife and schemer par excellence. Of course, this prompted Caria to try 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 during the Vord’s first invasion of Alera Imperia… 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.” He was, of course, suspicious of my motives. Ah well. Cute kid, in a petulant way. I was looking forward to seeing him after he hit his growth spurt. At the moment he looked fifteen, even though he was actually nineteen. 

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 (he and most of his people had been Taken by the Vord in the books… think Invasion of the Body-Snatchers only much more violent.), 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. So many things to do… so many people to save… so many more to doom. Septima… you may have problems.

See, Tavi’s uncle Bernard had been made Count of Calderon following the Second Battle thereof, and Isane had come to Alera Imperia, the capital of the Empire, to seek reinforcements after Doroga, Chieftan of the Marat Gargant-ha Tribe had brought warning of the Vord. To that end, she’d partnered up with a Slave-Courtesan named Sarai. Sarai, a master social manipulator, was (of course) a Cursor.

With Tavi distracted by the fact that Sextus was in a secret Coma and Canim Ambassador Varg being cryptic and me being… well… intensely suspicious, Isana had been forced to seek assistance from Lady Placidius Aria (the wife of High Lord Placida and leader of the abolitionist Dianic League)… at a fancy party being given by Kalarus Brencis to celebrate the majority of his heir, KB Minoris. At that party, Minoris would duel his father to prove himself worthy of citizenship… essentially a formality, since (as a High Lord’s Heir) his father wasn’t exactly going to go full out against him.

As an observer, I smirked as Isane and the Slave/Cursor Sarai showed up at the Kalare’s party in their finest outfits, understanding once again what my elder brother had seen in the passionate young paganus. I listened in as Isana besearched Lady Placida for aid that would not be given, grimaced as Lord Kalare struck Sarai because she dared exist in his presence, but cheered a little as Isana stood up for the slave. I watched Isana encounter Invidia, wanting very much to stop her from forging an alliance with the heinous witch, but I stayed my hand, remembering the terrible plan. Never had I felt more like God-Emperor Leto Atreides, only with far more imperfect ability to map the future. What I wouldn’t have given to be able to see this world’s Golden Path, to know if I was doing the right, the necessary, thing.

As the Lady Steadholder (Bernardholt had become Isanaholt when Bernard had been elevated to the peerage) and the Cursor snuck out of the party, I intercepted them, knowing what fate had in store for the pair. 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. Treacherous bitch I might be, but as long as I wasn’t lying, my perk stripped away people’s biases… including the bias informed by the fact that I couldn’t possibly be trusted. “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 Furycrafting. 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 into the Grey Tower… practice for later. Sure sure, I could have let things play out… but I like Sarai. I didn’t want her dead if I could stop it.

With that, I jumped back over the wall between myself and the party, 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. Now is the perfect time for this. Sooo many witnesses. My Lords, Ladies, little people who don’t actually matter but think you do…” I said, being my most ostentatious, bowing just enough to be insulting. “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.” I pointed the finger of accusation at the man, a knowing smirk touching my eyes for a moment as I met his gaze.

There was a collective gasp, but I wasn’t done yet. My voice rose in volume even as it dropped in pitch. “He has raised illegal legions, created his own personal cursors… the Bloodcrows, and plotted against the First 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?” I sneered at the man, taunting him now, pushing him towards a confrontation he could not possibly avoid… or win… not that he knew that.

The crowd was… shocked… this wasn’t how things were done. Parties were not disrupted by accusations! The First Lord’s Bastard did not speak this way to a High Lord of the Realm! High Lords of the Realm did not plot treason! The gathered glitterati muttered and stared. 

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, no doubt, he assumed my champion), no one would ever be able to accuse him of the crime again. This had to be as close to win-win as he could imagine a public denouncement being. His cunning little mind was no doubt figuring out how to turn this to his advantage. Kill my champion and humiliate me and, by extension, my father. The night was getting better and better… but he was still pissed as hell. He really didn’t like to be shown up by anyone, but a woman? That was utterly unacceptable in the worldview of Kalarus Brencis.

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. To be certain, my furies were stronger (marginally) than his… but I was a slip of a girl. It should have been a hard victory for the High Lord, one he’d have emerged battered from but vindicated.

Unfortunately for him, it wasn’t even close. I had centuries upon centuries of skill on him, was at least an order of magnitude stronger, tougher, faster, and  smarter than him. And I 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. If you haven’t seen Princess Bride, go do so now… I’ll wait.

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 your son is…. And all the slaves you’ve raped.” I took his right ear, “For the cries of the slave-warriors 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 emotional defenses with my psyche, pressing in 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.

I almost shivered with pleasure as I felt Soul of Ice dranking up his blood, and the power within it. Then I raised my soulbound blade above my head and I channeled that power into a crafting the likes of which Alera had never seen. It was a giant crimson bird, a Blood Fury. The first of her kind. I named her Andromeda even as I sent her winging south, seeking out any trace of herself and obliterating it. The why of that act was simple… Slave Discipline Collars were bound by the blood of the master, and destroying that blood would destroy the lock that bound so many people… including Kalare’s secret legion of slave-soldiers, his ‘Immortals’. Hah! Soldier Fanatics they might have been, but they were far from immortal.

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 !” I thundered, eyes practically sparking with lightning. I added in a hefty dose of Firecrafting to push his terror level very close to the breaking point. “If you’re sincere enough, you might just keep your father’s realm.”

I glanced over to Lady Kalare. “You… My apologies, but 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.” She flinched, but didn’t object. At that moment it would have taken a very, very brave, or very foolish individual to risk my wrath.

My gaze fell upon the grovelling boy and I placed a compulsion on him that bound him to my will even as I spoke. “You, Kalarus Brencis Minoris, 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 him of the name Brencis and name him Asinus…”

I lifted the trembling teenager’s chin and, looking him right in the eyes, said, “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 sins.

Fast forward again, and now I was mistress of Kalare, with Gaella (Whose real name was Rook) at my side, her daughter (and Brencis Minoris’s through an act of violence) 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 of the lands of Kalare and transformed the Immortals into Legions of former slaves, The Free Aleran Legion. 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 (Head of the Canim Priest Class and a world class sociopath), just as Kalare had, to gain power from the Blood Magics of the Canim Priesthood, but I was always planning on betraying the Priests, who were fanatics in their own right. Betrayal… It was in my nature after all. I did all this because Alera needed the 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. In the original timeline, father had unleashed the Fury of Mount Kalus to destroy the city and its Lord. Too many deaths to serve the pride of a madman.

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 (their word for nations) as possible. In the original, all but Varg’s home range of Narash and the far northern range of Shuar had been obliterated, and even Narash and Shuar had only had a few thousand survivors. 

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 the city of Ceres with our legions, sending our citizenry towards Alera Imperia. Of course, Tavi didn’t know I was me. I mean, how could ‘Aunty’ Septima be a hulking Silverfurred Cane? Well, obviously… Shapeshifting, bitches!

My goal in coming with Tavi was to keep as many of Tavi and Varg’s ships from sinking as possible, even if it meant killing Leviathan’s personally. The original story had features terrible storms and giant predatory sea monsters. Couldn’t have that. If people were going to die in my Alera, they were going to do so to make a better future for everyone… not so a monster could have lunch.

Once we got to Shuar, my goal shifted to evacuating as many Canim as possible. My machinations had swelled the number of Narashan refugees from 20,000 to almost 80,000. It wasn’t much… but hopefully it would be enough. And I had one more goal.

As the allied fleet of iceships, massive Furycrafted Iceberg Boats, 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.

In the original, this queen had remained alive, with all of Canea to feast upon and prepare for the eventual invasion of Alera. Of course, she, like her sisters, was stunted, sterile, unable to produce daughter-queens of her own. The Primary Queen had been flawed by Vord standards and had known her daughters would try to kill her… but genetic imperatives meant she had to create them anyway. What can I say, the Vord are horrible… even to other Vord.

It took me several days to find the last remaining lesser queen, but perhaps she found me, sending everything at me she could. We faced each other across the shattered landscape of northern Narash, in the ruins of a once prosperous Canim city. She was a fierce foe, and the psychic pressure she could generate at close range was enough to give a couple of my Astral Layers pause.  But there are many many of me and she was not my equal.

Once I’d shattered her will and broken her ability to fight, I froze her in ice and shook my head. “You are not worth my time,” I told the queen-cicle. 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. Some risks were too much.

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 knew I was 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.

Kalarus Brencis Minoris had still sold out Alera to Invidia and the Primary Queen, thus giving her an army of Collared Furycrafters. But if she still  had Crafters, I had a jar of Brencis’s blood. She was cunning and clever and a terrible implacable foe… but compared to me, she was slow-witted, naive, and easily cowed. All she had done was plot against the enemies of her race… I had plotted against my own. Curse this damnable timetable.

I landed in Alera Imperia the day before the Vord were to reach it, the day before father would call upon the spirit of Alera itself and transform the glory of the imperial capital into a pillar of magma and ash. Confronting the old man, I slapped him upside the head. “How dare you appoint Aquitaine to follow you? How dare you try and sacrifice the city. You are a terrible leader. If you wanted to make him your heir, you should have recognized Aquitaine years ago, back when Septimus was killed, but nooo, you had to play your games.”

He gaped at me, then stammered, “Ka-Kalare would have-” but I cut him off.

“Yes,” I agreed snappishly, “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 said, pointing at the enormous murder of black corvids plunging towards the city. A couple moments later, a wall of fire arced skyward as every Knight Ignis within the city focused on the birds.

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 eight 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 for all that it still 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 Mountain Fury Garados and his eternal consort, the Great Storm Fury Thana, to battle the Queen. She tried, and almost succeeded, in claiming them. But she was too slow, distracted between claiming the Furies and fighting two Highlord Level Furycrafters, 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 Fuck? Why?” They were looking to where I’d shoved the Primary Queen into a force cage.

“Because the thrill of battle is strong in me and the Furies of Alera are battle spirits,” I said, without pleasure at the revelation. “And because someday there will be a jump where we face Tyranids or Zerg or Xenomorphs and we won’t be ready…” I trailed off, then said. “Look. It’s simple. I realized a while ago, actually… 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…” I said, shaking my head, “The Tyranids might be pure evil. This one? She is fighting her instincts, seeking to become more. She wants to be human. Or at least to understand.”

“Balance.” Atura said, speaking through me.

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

“Fine…” Zane said, back in his Lucario form. “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,” Joy said, looking deeply troubled.

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

“But the cost,” Ahab, once a doctor, said. “All those who died? For this?”

“They died in the original timeline too,” I pointed out. “By my count, I’ve saved a great many that would have perished 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,” she said. It wasn’t a question.

“Yes,” I agreed, clearly asking for more.

A human would have ground her teeth in annoyance. The Queen sounded barely more than curious, as if she couldn’t figure me out. “If I make another Queen, or a Taker, without permission-”

“No,” I cut her off, then corrected, “If you make another Queen or a Taker, without a direct order from me, and only from me, telling you in no uncertain terms to make a queen or taker, you die.”

“I do not understand why you let me live,” she said simply. “I am your enemy.”

I sighed, then looked her in the eye. Such intimacy was utterly alien to her… but she couldn’t maintain the contact for long. She flinched, gazing at her feet as I explained. “Because you are a child who had very bad grandparents. Because you possess something human within you, something that seeks to be better despite all that you are. 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 with that I sealed her into the prison I’d built just for her, sealed her in with only her thoughts for company. “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 since only her daughter queens could have tried it in the first place, and I dived deep within her, placing inhibition barriers to limit 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 presented 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 to float forward.

“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 stones from all over the world. If you earn his respect, he might allow your people to reclaim the jungle.”

That said, I next 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 did. 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 volcanoes. 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 out of my front door on the third day back in the Warehouse after the end of my Shinigami Tour of Duty. “DEMON’S SOULS?”

“Shhh… keep it down…” RayRay groaned from where she was hovering a dozen meters up. “Some of us are trying to sleep.”

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

“Yeah? So?” She asked, drifting lower. “You just did stuff with souls. What’s wrong with this one?”

“Demon’s Souls is the first of five games that I know of by a manufacturer / studio that thinks Nintendo Hard is 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 experience… and lose any you haven’t absorbed into yourself to level up when you die. You also lose your living body if you had one and darken the worldstate.” 

“Darken the what?” Dyna asked from where she was crouched atop the machine’s hutch.

“Worldstate,” I repeated. “The worlds… areas… zones of the realm in which the game takes place have a scaling level of menace. Full Light to Full Dark. Certain things only happen at the extremes, but in general, the world is nicer and less hostile under Full Light than Full Dark.”

That explained, I went over to the machine and brought up the overview, reading it to my audience, which was growing by the second… though at that point it only consisted of RayRay, Dyna, Ziggy and his ‘Daughters’, and a dozen or so of the pet brigade, including three howls and a giant spider: “On the first day, man was granted a soul and, with it, clarity. On the second day, upon earth was planted an irrevocable poison, a soul-devouring demon. Welcome to the Kingdom of Boletaria, once the home of many valiant heroes, led by the wise King Allant XII, who led it to glory and prosperity with the power of the soul arts. Allant, tempted by power, he pledged himself to the Old One, an ancient demon that hungered for souls. Soon, a colorless fog covered Boletaria, isolating it from the rest of the world. Your soul has been bound to the Nexus. Upon your inevitable death,” I stressed those two words for the benefit of my listeners, which now included AJ and Toph, then continued. 

“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.” That provoked a number of shudders from those of my audience to process what any of that meant while I stepped to the kitchen to get some coffee. I was going to need it.

This was all bloody lovely. I remembered playing a bit of the game back in the mists of time, and doing a spectacular amount of dying. I also remembered watching my cousin playing (and getting much further), all the while thinking, ‘ugh… grim, foreboding, and unfun… so why did I buy Demon’s Souls again?’ Insanity. Also insanity was that I’d bought the quasi-sequels ‘Dark Souls’ and ‘Dark Souls 2’ despite never having beaten the more than the first few bosses of the first game.

Some of the names sounded vaguely familiar — Boletaria, Allant, Old One, Nexus, Colorless Gray Fog, The Maiden, The Monumental — but I didn’t really have any context for them, nor could I readily separate what parts of my memories were from which of the three games I’d seen my cousin playing on my PlayStation while I read or played pokemon on my Gameboy. Shaking my head to clear the next to useless jumble of half-experienced non-sense, I figured that I might as well spin for my starting location, a pointless exercise because, as far as I could tell, all the choices sucked and, as far as I knew, none of it would make the slightest difference since they were all within a few dozen kilometers of each other. I ended up rolling the Nexus… the underground fortress beneath Boletaria that held the souls of would-be demonslayers in the hopes that one of them could succeed in lulling the Old One back to its slumber. That was nice; at least I wouldn’t have to find the Nexus on my own… That might have taken an entire hour or two… unless the Fog jammed Starfleet sensors.

More names were smattered throughout the document: The Lost Queen, The False Queen, the Maiden in White, Ed… but I knew none of them Well, I guess this means I won’t have to find it on my own. A roll of the dice and I was twenty-five again… how many times did that make it? Never mind, it didn’t matter.

There were four Origins: Wanderer, Knight, Magician, and Priest but, after long and hard consideration, I settled for the role of Wanderer. First of all, it was free, while the others weren’t, but (more to the point) it was also the outsider option, the Drop-In, as it were. 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 had known so well brought so low.

No… Wanderer it was. Safer to have no connections than an additional source of pain and despair. From what I knew of this place, despair far more likely to end a hero’s quest here than actual violence… especially considering that violence did little but transform a living hero into a shade that was no less dangerous.

No sooner had I locked in my choice of origin than I was presented with an ethical quandary in the form of the perk ‘Soul Gathering’. It was free for everyone but by no means mandatory. 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? Was it permitted to collect the souls of those I had deemed worthy of my blade if not my respect? Was it permitted for anyone to break the cycle of life and afterlife? Did I have any right to take more than the lives of my foes? Could I really lay claim to their… everything? Wasn’t that fundamentally wicked? It seemed like a source of nothing but corruption to me.

I didn’t know… and talking about it with my companions led to a symposium that lasted nearly six-hours as each voiced their opinion of, or disinterest in, the subject, but no resolution. Ultimately, and still very much uncertain of the rightness of my action, I decided that, yes, I would take the perk. At the very least, I could do my duty as a Soul Reaper and perform a Soul Burial on those lost and confused spirits… and I might just find a use for this… ability?… down the road. One that wasn’t reprehensible. A tool was only as evil as the use to which it was put… even if some tools were more suited to evil uses than others.

Wanderers also got ‘Stable Movement’ as a freebie, the ability to run on stuff like ice or wooden beams without falling down. It was, by far, the least useful perk I’d ever gotten. I could have done that in my original lifetime back in my prime. Now, after spending decades in the PokeVerse,  InfamousVerse, RanmaVerse,  MetalGearVerse, and AvatarVerse I had little trouble with terrain much nastier than ice or tightropes… and that didn’t even count the various means I had to fly, levitate, or teleport across such obstacles that might have stymied less mobile individuals.

The utter blandness of that freebie made me 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 implantation into others (at the cost of contaminating their persona). The Knight one allowed one to forge those souls into weapons and armor. The Mage and Priest ones allowed said souls to be transformed into spells or miracles respectively. Good lord, this world was horrific.

Of course, I wouldn’t have taken the Priest line in any case. The God of this world was not my God… Not that I was 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 and capabilities, 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, and a Wooden Shield. I resolved to burn them all just to get the newb taint off me… petty I know, but… eww. For one thing, Falchions are swords, not daggers, you unspeakable machine! I sighed at the mere idea of a dagger-sized machete… then blinked as the machine updated.

“Comma added, oh pedantic one,” it snarked.

I looked again, then chuckled. It now listed the starting equipment for a Wanderer as ‘Leather Armor, Falchion, Dagger, and Wooden Shield’. Excellent. So much better. I ignored the machine’s petulance and moved on. I was still going to burn the armor and shield, and melt down the weapons… even though I was pretty certain they’d respawn within a day at most. The only other option was to import some of my better gear as newb equipment, but there wasn’t any practical advantage to doing so, so I decided against it. 

Still, there were a few items I would not turn my nose up at, even if they weren’t the best. I plunked down my first two-hundred for a regenerating supply of ‘Full Moon Grass’ and ‘Old Spice’. Each came with ten 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 in cooking and refilled every three days. If nothing else, I could alchemy either supply into useful potions and tinctures.

Part of me wondered if Old Spice was more hot or spicy, more woody, pungent, earthy, nutty, or piney, more sweet, sour, bitter, or cooling, more fruity, sulfury, floral, or herbaceous… each spice had a number of different characteristics and each could be useful in different dishes. For instance, Oregano was both bitter and herbaceous, making it excellent for tomato dishes, where the bitterness of the tomatoes could hide the bitterness of the herb while allowing the savory flavor to shine. It was not suited for sweet dishes, where the bitterness would clash unpleasantly. 

Moving on, I skipped over ‘Turpentine’, which I could freaking make if I needed it… it wasn’t like it was a rare and magical substance. Of course, I wouldn’t need it for the primary purpose to which it was put to in this world… and no, not thinning paint or for medical purposes. This was clearly Gum Turpentine, a thick and highly flammable gel typically referred to as pine rosin… and it was used for setting weapons on fire to make them all the more damaging. If I needed a flaming weapon… I’d just use raw firebending.

Also skipped was the ‘Grindstone’, which promised to restore the durability of a weapon and reduce wear and tear… 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 had stealth fields and an invisibility cloak… I highly doubted the ‘Thief’s Ring’ could improve on that combo and I seldom ran out of mana since a lot of my ‘magic’ was powered by physical endurance or spiritual / mental power. I didn’t exactly have a character sheet showing me how much health, mana, stamina, willpower, or other forms of power pools I actually had or had used. Franky, to be honest, I was kind of glad of that fact. Having actual metrics would be… weird. It would feel too much like I was in an RPG rather than… I dunno… living an adventure?

I didn’t know. Maybe I was just splitting hairs. Maybe if I was offered such a status screen I’d take it. Information was seldom a bad thing. Anyway, I passed on the rings. Maybe if I found them I’d keep them. Were they Items in the game? I couldn’t remember. However, there was an item that was far more tempting. It was called ‘The Stone of Ephemeral Eyes’ and it was an extra life. That… that… was very tempting indeed. The relatively low three-hundred Choice price-point made it all the more attractive… even if it was only usable once.

Still, it wasn’t as if I’d ever actually died… yet. Did I really need the safety net? For one thing, there were six-hundred point items that had actual utility rather than merely being a failsafe. Take for instance, the ‘Northern Regalia’ which was a suit of armor and two powerful soul-rending swords named ‘Demonbrandt’ and ‘Soulbrandt’. Of course, I already had a Zanpakuto and had no plans to return to the BleachVerse any time soon. 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 ten years after using the last… But did I really feel the need to build a series of underground megabunkers in every jump? I… kinda did… but not six-hundred points worth… and none of these fucking things were discounted!

But then there was the ‘Storm Ruler’, a powerful weapon that, when swung, 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 said ‘full power’ 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!” came a petulant protest from behind me. “You could spend those points letting us import!”

“Zane…” I growled. “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?” he asked, shifting into puppy mode and pouting at me adorably. Thankfully, I am immune to Zane-based cuteness.

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

“Nooo…” he allowed, then picked up Ziggy and (holding the limp Zig in front of his face) pretended that Ziggy was talking, shifting his voice into a higher register. “but… but… mommaaa… The three-hundred pointers aren’t terrible.”

“But-” I tried to protest.

“And Soul of Ice doesn’t need a wind attack,” Not-Ziggy added.

“But-” I tried again.

“And do you really want your SOUL BLADE corrupted by this place?” the world’s least convincing Ventriloquist’s Ferret pressed.

I was trying very hard not to get cross. These were all good points. “No, but-”

“But what?!” Ziggy chose that moment to yawn hugely even as Zane’s voice cracked at how high he was pushing the falsetto. It made it seem like Ziggy was yelling.

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

“Can’t Mjolnir already do that?” AJ asked from where he was wrestling Francine for the last Snicker’s bar. Shopping day wasn’t until tomorrow.

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

“Right…” Zane said, draping the Zig over my head as he reverted to human form and stepped up behind me, pushing me out of the way and accessing the VMoD’s controls. “You want that power, you’re going to have to disadvantage for it. You can import us with those six-hundred Choice. Look, it even says we don’t get origins so no corruption.” He was pointing at the ‘Demon Slayers’ item, which came with the standard (but not universal) eight companion slots with four-hundred choice each.

“But that’s highway robbery!” I yelped, pushing him away from the Machine, even though he couldn’t actually lock in a purchase. “It’s too expensive.”

“What are we, chopped flarn?” he said, grinning down at me as I pushed at his chest in vain.

“You are not a Centauri!” I snarked, wagging a finger in his face.

“I know…” he anti-preened. Running his fingers through his silky black hair, he added, “My hair isn’t quite that fabulous.”

“Look…” I began. “I’ll think about it.” I held up my hand to forstal his dance of glee. “But no promises. Maybe I’ll do ‘Fellow Slayer’ and bring just you along instead. But six-hundred for a crap package that doesn’t include background discounts? That’s twice as much as I’m willing to pay. For that price, I’d expect you each to get eight or nine-hundred Choice… and be able to buy items. Even ‘Fellow Slayer’ is pricy. This game world is meant to be claustrophobic and isolating.”

“Fine…” he grunted, “but if you don’t import me-”

I cut him off, finishing for him. “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.”

With that in mind, 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.

I considered ‘Sudden Surprise’, which, at two-hundred, wasn’t half bad, seeing as how it would ensure that my foes were not complete idiots, giving them a modicum of cunning and making them prone to ambushes or attacks from above. I could put up with that. I could also put up with ‘Barred Entry’ which would make every door & window unbreakable (walls too, for that matter) and every entry would be locked. Thus, I’d have to find a key… or pick the lock… the drawback didn’t say they were unpickable… no… never mind. In retrospect, ‘Barred Entry’ sounded like a recipe for frustration… and an ungodly amount of backtracking as I had to search every open area for key #1 then repeat for every other damned key. Fuck it.

“Storm Ruler’s Power on Mjolnir of Ice… how I want you… but I can’t do that to the others…” I over-dramatized, pretending to be heartsore and near fainting. Ziggy licked my nose.

“So Demon Slayers it is,” I sighed. “Too damned aspensive, especially without the ability to buy items. Never say I don’t give you anything.” I commanded, then made my picks. The slots went to Zane, Joy, Velma, Toph, Kendra, Bao, Francine, and… sigh… Cirno.

I had offered the last to Ahab, but he begged off, saying, “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 the import he’d be a better priest, only without the unpleasant memories. It was his call. Then again, subsuming himself into the role he was inhabiting was kinda Ahab’s shtick. He routinely went so deep under that he ‘forgot’ who he actually was for a while. Thus, his slot went to Cirno.

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

“You sure?” I asked, not blaming her but not wanting her to miss out.

“Nothing I want actually,” she said, shrugging. “Want nor need.”

“Thief’s Grace?” I suggested.

She quirked an eyebrow, then chuckled. “I’ve already got that, don’t I?”

“I… yeah, honestly…” I allowed, then shrugged myself. “But a boost is a boost, right?”

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

I considered. With Joy begging off entirely, I had an additional slot to fill or the Choice Points would be wasted, since they couldn’t be banked. At least I was pretty sure it couldn’t. The screen of the VMoD flashed that no, they couldn’t when I asked, but it had registered that Joy had forfeited her slot, giving me a full slot to do with as I liked. So that meant I could and should invite two others.

I settled on Ziggy and AJ, suggesting the Wanderer’s basic and mid-tier perks 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 ‘Thief’s Grace’ (as well as its boost to agility and dexterity) would be invaluable for 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 Choice, or maybe the fact that something in the diminutive Gallade 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. It was otherwise a toss up which of us had more experience with the sword.

I’d heard, once upon a memory, that it took ten thousand hours of practice to become a master of anything. Ten thousand hours of drawing, ten thousand hours of kata practice and bouts, ten thousand hours of working on cars. Of course, that was a massive oversimplification. Inherent talent played a huge part in how well one did, and the degree of challenge experienced in those hours mattered as much if not more than the dedication applied to that practice… but in the end, the more time spent trying to improve, the better one got.

If ten thousand hours was a decent approximation for being world-class… twenty hours a week for ten years? What was twenty hours a week for ten-thousand years? Because that was how much time the pair of us had put in… Sure, I had had far more absolute time, what with always being incarnate and always being active in every jump, but if I practiced between sixteen and twenty-five hours a week, AJ practiced at least sixty and always sought out the best fighters wherever we went. In fact, it was he who was always came up with the new techniques for me to use, the new variations of training routines, programmed the sparring drones for us to fight.

Not that I wouldn’t have done it for him as well, but there simply wasn’t time to do everything I had to do. There were always more books to read, always more games to play, gamenights to plan, techniques to practice, skills to work on, meals to eat, meals to cook, things to build. Even with twenty-hours a day and another twenty-four hours inside my own head to work on purely mental things… Only a mortal could ever think an immortal could grow bored with all the astounding variety of things to experience and do.

Three-hundred-and-eight hours a week was just not nearly enough… and that was factoring in that I had glasses that let me read effectively as fast I could turn the pages… or (these days) scroll whichever way the text ran. Generally speaking, I figured it was simpler to just have a VI scan the texts I wanted to read, then project the text on a virtual display that scrolled past just slow enough that the glasses cancelled out the motion blur. This allowed me to read a staggering nine-hundred pages an hour (a thousand words a second) of dry text and three times that much of ‘light reading’… i.e. novels or comics. My companions tended to look at me as if I was mental when I complained that I couldn’t read faster.

Speaking of them, Velma took the first two mage abilities, ‘Heightened Capacity’ (improved intelligence and mana capacity, plus the ability to cast the Flame Toss, Soul Arrow, and Water Veil spells) and ‘Acolyte’s Knowledge’ (a basic grounding in the local magic system, with improved damage capacity when casting spells of any kind). It 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’ (a resistance to attempts to sway them from their goals once set, thus boosting both willpower and determination, plus the ability to use the Heal miracle.) and ‘Faith’s Reward’ (another willpower improver that doubled as a mana reducer for miracles and a potency booster for all divine blessings placed upon or used by them.) It was hard to argue with double boosts to willpower and improved efficiency. 

Unfortunately, then Kendra took both ‘Heightened Capacity’ and ‘Faith’s Reward’, leading me to bang my head against a wall. Whyyyyyy? Why would she do that? What was the point of splitting the bonuses? In Demon’s Souls, spells and miracles were not the same thing and she had pretty much no other magical abilities besides the ‘magic’ of Fairy Tail, which didn’t use mana at all, nor did any of it amount to divine miracles or blessings. Still, I didn’t bother asking, as I’m sure she had her reasons… even if they wouldn’t necessarily make sense to me.

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, enough to allow one to move in heavy armor as if it were little more than light cloth). Knight’s Honor 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, one trained in the way of miracles and blessings from the Lord Above and able to maintain his faith even in these bleak times. That got him which got him ‘Soul Gathering’, ‘Simple Belief’, and an equipment pack that included ‘Mirdan Armor’ (whatever that was), a halberd, a talisman of Fog-God (or whatever he was actually called), and a heater shield. How very D&D Cleric.

After the imports, I had four-hundred Choice left, and since I really had nothing left to buy from my ‘OMG! Must Have!’ list, I snagged Thief’s Ring and Stone of Ephemeral Eyes, which had two different uses, depending on what reality it was in. In the Demon’s Souls Jump, it could be used while I was in Soul Form to allow me to revive my body. Outside of this horrid world, it would allow me to cheat death once before crumbling away forever… hopefully I wouldn’t need it at all… but if I did, hopefully I wouldn’t need it more than once. That ran me out of points and, with no small amount of unease, I locked in the jump settings.

INSERTION

How to describe Boletaria? Imagine Victorian London without all the charm, at two in the morning, 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 failed spectacularly to tell you just how horrible everything smelled. It smelled like a rancid sewer full of decomposing bodies… because that’s exactly what it was. It was 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’ sprang instantly to mind.

Everywhere there was danger, and if the monsters didn’t respawn in the reality of the setting, more always seemed willing to move in to take the place of the dead… and there were phantoms, black and horrible and vicious, that appeared from out of the fog from time to time. When they did, they always moved towards the nearest slayer, be it me and one of mine, or one of the few remaining heroes, and once within range, they would attack ruthlessly and relentlessly. The only place free of them was the Nexus.

Then there were the Great Demons, the ‘Boss Monsters’, which could be lurking around any corner, waiting to catch the unwary, as much prisoners to their own wicked natures as those they hunted. It was a sick arena of dread, an unending spiral of decay. Almost nothing there was reasonable, everything wanted you dead. Me dead. It was as if our very aliveness was an affront to them.

And so I stayed in the Nexus and sent my followers out into the world to explore. I only ventured forth when they needed me, when they called upon me for evacuation or to take out a boss or a dragon. I was Captain Deus Ex Machina, arriving just in time to deliver the righteous smiting of an unjust and uncaring god.

And I didn’t. That world… or at least the parts we saw, was so far past saving it wasn’t funny. The existential ennui, the bleakness of the tragedy that had unfolded there served no purpose, and I could find no way to make things better. All I could accomplish was to stop the darkness from spreading… but to what end? Who was I saving? Who was there to rescue? The last Monumental? Those 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 had been smashing through doors and barred windows and sometimes walls to find anything anomalous. Books were especially prized, but sane or semi-sane refugees were also welcome. I wanted more information on what happened here, and why.

What I knew was 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 knew all this because The Maiden in Black, an eyeless ex-demoness in the form of a young woman, and the Monumental, the last of an order of batshit insane monks, told me so.

The Maiden in Black said it would all be made well if we lulled the Old One back to sleep, but she did not say that all who have died or been driven insane will be restored. I did not trust her, and suspected her motives for helping us. My distrust stemmed in no small part from the fact that her thoughts were hidden from me… ~Have I forgotten how to trust those I cannot scan?~ I wondered.

The Monumental said much the same thing as the Maiden, but added that she was once a Demon, explaining that that was why she was so certain that  she could could put the Old One to sleep if all the other Great Demons were slain first.

Five archstones linked 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). A shattered Sixth Archstone also stood in the Nexus, apparently leading to the Northern Lands, grave of (so the locals say) hundreds of thousands of knights sent by Alant to conquer the native Giants that lived in that frozen land… but if Boletaria could have fielded an army of knights that vast, it already had limitless wealth. So, I was sceptical.

From being lectured by my cousin — I’d asked why he kept disconnecting my PS3 from the internet… apparently there were were occasional online events that shifted one or more realms to their darkest setting — I remembered that World Tendency was important, but I had no idea how one would judge the lightness or darkness of a world… or where the boundaries of each ‘world’ actually lied. Neither did I have any idea how to influence the World Tendency for that matter… aside from dying while in a living body or killing one of the few humans who still lived.

I did remember (thanks to the fact that Demon’s Souls shipped originally with a small player’s guide slash walkthrough) that there were 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… and that only by using an exploit that gave me functionally unlimited Souls. Without the cheat, I’d been unable to even defeat the five story tall Tower Knight. Hell, even with that cheat, I’d found the game so unrelentingly gloomy that I’d given up beating it at all, always promising myself that I’d get back to it.

In addition to the normal bosses, there were two Dragons in the game that I knew about and (supposedly) a Primeval Demon in each of the five regions. But who the other bosses might be, or how to find any of them, or the Primeval Demons, 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. I knew the names because that was what the Monumental called them. They left the Dragons and the Vanguard (the ‘unbeatable’ tutorial Demon… that of course expert players had figured out how to beat) to me, as well as the five Great Demons whose power blocked access to the Old One. And, of course, the Black Phantoms that kept stalking my companions.

I tackled the second gate first. It was the one that led to the Stonefang Mine, an area fundamentally limited in scope by its very nature. Beyond the gate, in the dark depths of the mountain, I fought a Black Phantom of a wanderer named Scirvir who had managed to kill Velma and Cirno as they’d searched the area, and a giant pink whale-blob thing that, apparently was the Primeval Demon… it was not so much a fight as a slaughter.

Upon my return to the Nexus with my newest Souls, I noticed that the Arch Stone that I’d passed through to Stonefang was now pulsing a definite white, while all the other stones were dark and inky. Huh. Apparently that was how one could tell what the World Tendency of an area was… if only the borders were clearly marked.

Now that I had my hands on one of the Phantom Souls and a Primevil Soul, I figured that it was time to figure out what I was dealing with. 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. I wasn’t certain if I should be annoyed or pleased. Still, I wanted to encourage proactivity and initiative, so I gave her limits on what she could sell and a cookie… then, after she applied the puppy-pout, a head pat.

Unfortunately, there was only so much stalling I could do, and only so much leveling I could accomplish as long as I was unwilling to allow the corruption of this world into myself. I found my curiosity growing, tempting me to experiment upon the Demon Souls, but I wouldn’t. Not yet. Not until I knew more about them. But first, I decided that I needed to 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 pair of rabid dogs. 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, even in spite of my rules.

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 a slayer proved themself 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 his 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,” I pointed out.

“Yeah?” he agreed, then smirked as he added, “You look silly with twigs on your head.”

“Zane…” I asked, rolling my eyes at his silliness, “Is there a reason you’re here?”

“Yeah,” his grin faded into a grimace. “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. Counter to what you might think, the Medbay actually took time to patch the wounded up. It was far from instantaneous.

The guy turned out some kind of wannabe ninja, dressed all in grey, and had a mind like razorblades and poison. Confronting him, I learned that his name was Satsuki and the sword was Makoto. I squared off, 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 things 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 five others, counting on them to gather souls for him… or to be taken out by someone powerful enough to defeat all five of the Archdemons… someone greedy enough to absorb all those souls… and to make a deal with the Old One for even more power.

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, an overblown version of the Primordial Demons, and the Maiden In Black, having followed me through the portal, 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. “This is all a power grab to you, isn’t it Demoness? 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, Demoness. I shall teach you a Greater 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,” I explained sadly. I felt no triumph in this. “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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