Ellis Company

From Zaori

This is all a dream. I'm still dreaming it now. I don't know where it's going.


Notes:

  • The year is 677 from when the world began.
  • There are 10 months to the year, and 40 days to the month in all but the harrow month.
  • There are 20 hours per day, 100 minutes per hour.
  • The Salarak are elves, though they don't really know the distinction.
  • There are no gods.

Chapter 1

Amini village - Erredon wilderness - 677.10.2 - 13:42

It was a simple in and out, in a rainforest, in the rain. Water trickled off the leaves, dropping down onto Alise's map and sliding off the creases. It was a folding, self-updating plastic affair that didn't need to be at all dry to work, but the water was not helping her get her bearings, either.

"You know," her companion Martel said, pushing aside a particularly sodden palm frond, causing a small torrent of water to fall out, "We should be there by now."

"You see it?" Alise asked, not looking up.

"Nope," Martel replied.

"Well this wayfinder is being really, really unhelpful," Alise said. "Unless it's a pathfinder. Or am I the pathfinder? Those words mean exactly the same thing."

Martel stopped and peered back at her carefully with his odd dark eyes. "You sure you're holding it the right way up?" he asked after a slight pause.

"Pretty sure," Alise muttered. The wayfinder was pointing directly ahead, and the map agreed. They should be there by now.

Martel nodded and slashed at some vines with his machete. "And that," he said, punctuating it with another slash, "is why you're the one holding the map."

"Huh?" Alise replied, but he had already started forward again. She looked back to the map, following, and almost immediately ran into him when he very suddenly stopped.

"It's down there," Martel said.

They were at the lip of a tall cliff, but the trees below were still considerably taller than they were. The only thing that really distinguished the cliff was the fact that the ground was very suddenly much further down on one side. The Alini village was nestled around a pond of sorts at its base. Or possibly a puddle. By jungle standards it only really stood out by being strangely flat; its surface was almost entirely covered in leaves and flowers.

Stuffing the map into her pocket, Alise pushed past him, and, holding onto a bamboo, leaned over the edge to get a closer look. "Great," she said. "How do we get down there?"

"Well, there's the obvious," Martel said.

"We're not jumping," Alise said, leaning back. Something wiggled on her neck, and she reached back to wipe it off, only to wind up with a handful of slug.

"Why not? Weave us an antigrav spell, we'll be fine."

Alise gave him an uncertain look, sighed, dropped the slug onto Martel's wet curls, even more unceremoniously cast the spell over the both of them, and then shoved him off the cliff.

Only once she was satisfied that he had indeed floated down like a proper feather and was completely unharmed did she hop down herself, landing completely ungracefully next to Martel in a heap.

Several of the alini frogfolk peered at them curiously, guardedly, from between their huts.

"Hi," Martel said.

Alise got up quickly, and said loudly, "We are totally peaceful, except for the fact that we are here to kill your leader. Where is your leader?"

"You're not so good at the diplomacy thing, are you?" Martel murmurred.

"Duru hurumanak aru nuru," one of the alini ventured.

"Well, they apparently don't speak high salari," Alise replied. To the alini, she added, "Leader," punctuating it with hand gestures like something big.

Martel gave her a dubious look.

Alise sighed. "Plan B?"

"We had a plan A?" Martel asked.

"Yeaaa-no," Alise said, and marched off past first few bewildered frog-folk. Their warriors reacted quickly, several advancing, holding weapons. With a hiss, the air filled with darts, and larger things, but Alise threw fireballs in front of her, clearing the air, and more at any alini who got in her way.

Martel hurried after, sword out, watching her back, making sure nothing followed, but in light of fireballs, the alini didn't really pose much threat. They quickly got to a likely location - a large structure between several of the other huts, fenced off and gated. The reinforced gate, the moat, and the spikes only made it seem more likely.

Alise gave Martel an enquiring look. Martel shrugged. Alise replaced her enquiring look with an irritated one, and hurled a fireball at an alini hiding behind a decorated circular sign.

The alini were hanging back now, apparently having gotten the idea that these two interlopers were, in fact, not to be messed with. Something resembling fear laced their motions.

"Nuke it?" Martel suggested.

"You know I'm running out of fireballs, right?" Alise said.

"What, you don't have a whole bag of them?" Martel replied.

Alise frowned, pulling a crystal out of her pocket. Why hadn't she thought of that? Just because she spent all her time normally perfecting her summon didn't mean she couldn't have a (nearly) endless supply of fireballs too. Some basic energy dampening should be enough to keep even large quantities of reagents stable...

She held the crystal aloft, channelling the energies and patterns into it, and cast her aeronautical drone, fashioned after its technological equivalents, up into the trees above. It took a moment to catch the air, and as she linked her mind into its guidance, she caught a few moments of tumbling confusion before it righted and took off in a direction. It dodged the first few trees, guided by her vague notions, crashed right through another, and tore up a whole grove's worth of leaves before she got it around in a silent deadly glide back towards the frog-folk village.

She really needed to work on this, too.

Next to her, Martel tapped his foot impatiently.

"It's coming," Alise said.

He raised an eyebrow.

The drone clipped out of the trees and soared overhead, a triangle nearly a metre long and two across, disappearing again almost as suddenly as it'd appeared, and the two mercenaries made ready for a fight in the eerie calm. Martel sketched out the beginnings of a spell. A moment later, the missiles the drone had dropped exploded on the gate, sending it flying.

They ran toward the explosion, not even waiting for it to subside. Their target was the chief, and the intel had said he would be here today, and so here they were too, small party, quick mission, charging into the only obvious enclosure.

As a result, they didn't expect the dragon that exploded out of the smoke, grabbing onto the wall and perching, flapping its admittedly somewhat singed wings for balance. Alise was nearly knocked over, and Martel just stopped in surprise before throwing up a shield to block the force of the wind.

"That's not an alini!" Martel yelled, only somewhat at Alise.

"Ya think?" she yelled back, recovering her footing.

"No!" Martel yelled back. "I lied!"

They dodged to either side as the dragon threw a plume of acidic flame at them, and by the time they were up again, the dragon had taken off, rising into the trees.

Martel frowned. "Fireballs, then?"

"We should have had a full squad," Alise said. "We're not at all prepared for this."

"Yeah, well, we're here," Martel pointed out. "So our best bet is to just kill it and not die first?"

"Oh, I'm not arguing," Alise said. "Just pointing out the obvious! Also I'm almost out. Did I mention that?" She pulled out another pinch of fireball dust, flinging it upward, but in the back of her mind, she was doing calculations, bringing the drone back around, trying to think how to hit another flying target. It wouldn't be easy, but if she just aimed it right, she could predict how the dragon might dodge their more traditional fireballs, and fling a pair of high-energy ballistic explosives right into it...

Martel started a fireball as the dragon swooped down for a pass at them, and Alise began to do the same. She needed to aim it up, not at. Just up, to direct the dragon away. Or so she hoped.

The dragon dodged the first few without effort, but then Alise threw a completely crappy one: it fizzled upward half-heartedly before finally exploding in the dragon's face, seemingly completely at random, throwing the dragon off its course and causing its own spat fire to miss as well.

With the time this bought, Martel threw another fireball up at the dragon as it winged its way back up, and this one hit with proper force.

"I'd say 'nice'," Martel said, "but that wasn't nice at all."

"Oh, stuff it," Alise said. "Next pass, I'ma drone it. Just fling the fireball straight up and it should hit."

"'Kay," he said, and as the dragon came down at them again, he did exactly that. The fireball missed completely, the drone flew by on its silent wings and not quite as silent propulsion jets, and a moment later, the dragon had become a great explosion in the air above them, raining down on their heads in smoky pieces to the ground around them. A large chunk fell in front of Martel with a splat. Others splattered down around, stuck to trees, and generally smelt a great deal.

Martel nudged one of the smoking bits with his foot. "Mmm, dragon bits," he said.

Then there was another explosion in the woods and he jumped.

"Er, sorry," Alise said, wiping sweat off her face with her arm. "I might have slightly lost control of the drone."

"Slightly," Martel said, his hand on his heart. "Only slightly?" He looked around worriedly, but all the alini were all hiding, more emphatically afraid than previously.

"Was that it, then?" Alise asked. She was shaking, but decidedly not falling over. Nope.

He shook his head with a shrug, and trotted off back to the enclosure the dragon had come from. Alise followed at a walk. Even with all the adrenaline she was too exhausted to move any faster.

The enclosure was basically empty, and somewhat on fire. What looked like a huge nest was shoved against the far walls. Bits of pottery and broken bones were all about the ground.

Martel shook his head. "So the chief was a dragon?" he said incredulously.

"I... maybe?" Alise said.

"Well, there certainly isn't anything else here," he said. "Let's move out, then."

She nodded and followed closely as they made their way back out of the frog-folk village, this time out the actual entrance. This time, none dared get in their way.

Erredon wilderness - 677.10.2 - 15:10

Later, once they were back in the open jungle, a patter of rain rustling the leaves higher up, they found a place to make a camp and rest up a bit.

Martel put up a tarp while Alise just stood there blankly for a bit. Until he was far enough along, at which point she just sort of collapsed under it.

"So... conjurer?" Martel asked.

Alise didn't reply, instead lying with her face half in the mud.

"I see," Martel said, sitting down next to her. "You know, sorcs aren't supposed to overextend themselves like that."

Alise continued to not reply.

"I mean, I'm half a sorc myself," Martel added. "And I'm fine."

"I am so tired it isn't even funny," Alise said in a monotone. "I haven't slept in weeks because I've so much studying and exams to finish and it just doesn't end it never ends and I needed a break so I took the easiest looking mission on the board so I'd get a break for just a few days because I couldn't take it anymore. I can't take it anymore."

"What?" Martel said, confused.

Alise finally rolled over, pulling her face out of the mud. "I'm not even a real merc," she said. "I'm a student. I just took up sorcery because it seemed like it'd go really well with all the tech stuff. I mean, what if we combined this shit? Why did nobody ever combine it?"

"Wait, then... why are you..." Martel looked at her, confused.

"No reqs," Alise said. "I just signed up because I could."

"And here I had such a high view of Ellis Company," Martel said, leaning back. "In no way did I consider us an eclectic pile of outcasts and failures and wannabes. And citizens."

"Are you?" Alise asked, not moving.

"What?"

"An outcast, failure, or wannabe," Alise said.

"Eh."

Alise sat up suddenly, wiping some of the mud off. This mostly just moved it around. "I think we did fine. Thing's dead, mission's complete. Just need to get paid."

"Now that," Martel said, "is a proper merc attitude."

"Sure," Alise agreed. "Still not sure how we survived that, though."

"What? The unexpected dragon? Happens all the time," Martel said.

"Pfft."

"We survived. Somehow," Martel said with a shrug. "Maybe that should be our motto."

"I think that is our motto," Alise said.

"No, I'm pretty sure our official motto is currently down as 'We need a better motto'," he said.

"'Insert better motto here'."

"'Lacking a decent motto since 674'," Martel said, and handed her a fruit. "You know you're covered in mud, right?"

"But I'm not getting rained on," she said.

"Right," he said sarcastically. "You're a bloody desert of dryness. Of course."

The rain started splattering down on the tarp a moment later.

Assignments Office - Ateris Malor - 677.10.4 - 09:87

When Martel and Alise got back to the mercenaries' Great Hall at the grand citadel of Ateris Malor two days later, they went straight for the assignments office.

Alise cornered a clerk, getting between him and his desk, and glared down at him in his chair. It didn't matter that he probably wasn't the clerk who had given their company the assignment; he was still a clerk, and thus it was his job to deal with this.

The glare was then broken by Alise breaking into an enormous yawn.

Martel said, sidling in to also loom over the clerk, "You sent us to kill an alini."

"So?" the guy said.

"The alini was actually a dragon," Martel pointed out.

"Eh?" the guy said.

"Like it was disguised," Alise explained, finally done with her yawn. "A dragon disguised as an alini, so everyone thinks its an alini, like a dragon in a pond doing a duck impersonation," she went on, flatly. Then she just glared at the guy for a moment and added, "Except this dragon wasn't disguised at all. Or doing a duck impersonation."

"It was just a dragon," Martel added helpfully.

"It tried to kill us," Alise went on.

"We killed it," Martel finished.

"We expect to be paid for this," Alise said.

"Dragon," Martel said.

"For this dragon," Alise agreed.

Meanwhile the clerk was looking quite uncomfortable, having completely given up on getting in any words edgewise with these two mercenaries who were standing entirely too close to him. Then, realising they'd finally finished, he said, "Er."

"We expect to be paid," Alise repeated. "You gave us a job, we did the job, turns out the job wasn't quite accurate in its description, so we expect recompense for that too."

"It's not rocket science," Martel pointed out.

"I do rocket science," Alise said. "It really isn't."

"Look, guys, it doesn't work that way," the clerk said, waving his hands defensively.

Alise and Martel exchanged looks, possibly menacingly.

"But I can give you for the contract," the clerk added hurriedly, "and a bonus for the dragon, since those all have standing warrant anyway. That good enough?" He held up a pair of bags.

Alise made a show of thinking about it.

Martel watched her for a moment, then turned back to the clerk and said, "No."

"Er," the clerk replied, what little colour he had left draining out of his face. It wasn't that mercenaries would normally beat up the folks in the office, but it did sometimes happen. And some of the particular companies could get quite creative about it, too. Not that he was entirely clear which company these two belonged to. He didn't recognise any sort of insignia on them at all.

"It'll do," Alise said finally, handing over the confirmation and then deftly plucking the bags out of his hands. "Next time, make sure they get the description right, yes?"

"Right," the clerk said shakily. "Before you go, what company did you say you belonged to?" he asked, then added hastily, "For the records."

"We're Ellis Company," Martel said, pulling Alise back out of the narrow desk space.

"Oh," the clerk said. He'd never even heard of that one.

Ellis Company hall - Ateris Malor - 677.10.4 - 10:01

Ateris Malor, as the second-largest citadel of the Salarak, was the primary base for many of the mercenary guilds. Ellis Company was no exception, maintaining a company hall off the Great Hall with all the important amenities. They had sofas and tables; training rooms; beds; snacks; several whiteboards; an entire wall of sticky notes[1]; a closet full of fireballs; and even, on fancy occasions, a sign outside encouraging people to join up, with the particularly encouraging byline 'we do stuff, no reqs'. And an arrow pointing to the door. The arrow was important.

Most of the mercenary companies/guilds had specific requirements and purposes, taking on very specialised assignments and growing in size and power as they found more like-minded individuals interested in doing those assignments, but Ellis Company wasn't specific at all. Their entire company was a hodge-podge of complete randoms, with everyone there for all manner of reasons. As a result, they did pretty much everything, from the simplest of jobs to the most important assignments.

Martel liked it for its unpredictability, and had joined for exactly that reason. Alise had apparently joined because it was there and had no requirements. He wasn't sure what to make of this. He wasn't sure what to make of her.

As they headed in, he asked, "I suppose you need to get back to your riveting citizen life now?"

Alise pantomimed choking to death.

Some folks glanced up as they entered. A couple waved.

"Hey, Bob," Martel said to one. This only narrowed it down slightly; they had something like five Bobs.

Alise wandered off in the direction of the refrigerators before he had a chance to ask her anything more.

Ellis Company hall - Ateris Malor - 677.10.4 - 15:92

Later, Martel was sparring with some guys. It wasn't standard sparring. It probably wasn't useful sparring. But it was sparring where everyone had two swords and very bouncy balls were bouncing around in every direction around them. The small audience they'd begun with had either dispersed or joined in entirely very quickly once the balls had gotten going.

Mostly they were all trying to avoid the balls. Occasionally one of them would try to hit another one with a sword, or one of the balls.

"Hey, does anyone know what our motto actually is?" Martel asked, right before nearly getting smacked in the face by a sword that wasn't even aiming for him... or anything, for that matter. Jonesae, the holder of the blade, was instead flailing wildly away from a ball.

"I dunno, wasn't it 'We do stuff' or something?" Merrow suggested, slashing at another ball. Merrow was one of the company leaders, mostly due to a technicality. All the leaders seemed to be leaders due to a technicality; actual status in the company seemed to be more based on arbitrary determinants by each individual than anything common to everyone[2], but by Salarak law they still had to technically have leaders.

It wasn't entirely clear what had even happened to the original leaders.

"Oh," Martel said, slashing out at a random person who got too close. It turned out to be a Bob. "Maybe we should change that."

"Probably," Merrow said.

"How about 'Doing everything'?" Martel suggested, and only as soon as he said it did he realise this was hardly an improvement, right as a ball punched him in the kidney.

"Sure," Merrow said.

Serin wilderness - 677.10.4 - 18:21

A short train ride past the walls of the Citadel, past the orderly farmlands, was a generally untended station on the border with the untamed wilderness that claimed all beyond. This, for reasons others didn't even care to ask, was Alise's stop.

She stood there for a bit, watching as the train slid on toward the next citadel, and the rest of the world, before turning to the dark shadow of the trees. The path was minimal, a track of slightly more tread ground, the brush cleared just enough to pass through without difficulty, heading down into the swamps. It was a dead place, full of rot and so little growing. Even the ruins were decaying, the crumbled stone buildings sinking ever deeper every year.

Except for one. It was little more than a length of wall, about 50 metres long. It was pretty ordinary, aside from the fact that it simply wasn't there from one side.

In its place was an opening in space, shimmering down the length of the wall, overlooking another place: a roofed-over walkway with dark stone columns, and further off, a vista of alien scenery. Its colours seemed distorted, or perhaps simply wrong; even in the day it was enough to give one a considerable headache.

Now, in the night, it was also glowing horribly.

Alise lingered at the end of the wall and watched it for a moment, looking down the Shimmer's length, absent-mindedly pulling bits of tape out of her hair. It was a marvel, really, this hole in reality, a reminder that the world was simply not so simple as it seemed on its surface. That there were other worlds, too, and other rules, other realities. They had magic here, of course, and the old laws that shaped all sciences, which had always hinted at such things, but this was so much more obvious, just staring anyone who saw it right in the face. From here, the other side seemed so unreal, but from there, it was here that did not look real.

People knew the Shimmer Wall was here. People avoided it. Few dared step through.

Alise traced a finger across its surface, feeling the slight buzz of the boundary, and then stepped through, dropping lightly down to the hard stone on the other side. Here it was cold and grey, dark, but vast. Beyond the pillars was a plain of dry, dusty hills rolling off into the distance. Trees, alien and old, thrust inky blackness against a stormy sky. The air, if it even still was air here, felt electric like the barrier itself.

There was no colour this side of the shimmer. Everything was blacks and greys.

One of the columns had a sign affixed to it. The sign said, in large text, "THESE ARE THE DEAD REALMS," and in smaller text under that, "Home to the Dead God. Do not bother the Dead God, who does not like people, and you will be welcome here."

"Hail the dead god," Alise whispered. She wasn't entirely sure who that was, or if it even was anyone at all, but it didn't really matter. It sounded good. It fit.

She headed out into the not quite grass, and felt the strange gasp as all the trappings of life faded behind her as she left the wall and its strange shimmer behind. There she settled down at the picnic table tucked under her old black tree, leafless and ancient, growing twiggage in squiggles, and pulled out her box of coursework from its hollows.

Central University, Engineering - Ateris Malor - 677.10.7 - 10:00

Alise handed in her exams without incident. She didn't tell them she had cheated. It wasn't cheating to take extra time, or time off in the middle. It wasn't cheating to go to a realm where there was no hunger or tiredness, and time passed differently. It wasn't cheating to just work and think and finish in one impossible go. Not technically.

But it still felt like it.

As she headed out of the college hall, she checked her mail. It was citizen stuff, mostly. Advertisements and notices. Solicitations for job opportunities and further academics. A letter from her father. She stuffed it in her pocket and headed out, off to spend a night pretending she was normal and partying with the other students.

The partying wound up ending rather abruptly when it became pretty clear that she wasn't exactly normal among them, either.

Especially after the fireballs.

Ellis Company hall - Ateris Malor - 677.10.9 - 00:62

Alise went back to the Ellis Company hall and hid in a closet.

The closet was full of fireballs.

She hastily vacated the closet, but grabbed a few bags regardless, and went to pick up an assignment, instead.

It didn't even matter that it was after midnight - the company was nothing if not not on top of the time of day, and perfectly lively. Someone had also apparently been taped to a wall.

"Help," the someone said monotonously as she approached.

"Um..." Alise replied, stopping in front of him. There was a rather large amount of tape. It looked suspiciously like the tape she'd found in her hair a few days ago.

"Get me down, please," he said.

"Okay," Alise said, and threw a fireball at him, aiming low to try to keep it off his head.

He screamed, the tape caught fire, and he slid back down to the floor, and ran away.

"Oi, wait," Alise yelled after him. "Who did that?"

He didn't stop, and just kept running.

"Right," she said, and headed over to the board with the sticky notes with the guild commissions. Underneath them was a whiteboard covered in pictures of flowers, ponies, and decapitated birds, as well as a whole lot of disturbingly well-drawn blood.

She wound up with a stronghold job. They would assault it in a team of six, take out the folks hiding out there harassing the citizen-class, and generally check the place out for oddities. Simple, straight-forward stuff.

Takreath Mountains - 677.10.15 - 17:22

The journey was a few days, first by portal, then train, then mule.

The stronghold was a fortress halfway up a mountain, full of rock folk. They set up camp on a hill opposite the mountain with a good view, and better cover.

Martel was along again, as well as a healer named Jessa, two guys named Bob who were, unhelpfully, also doing the same thing as each other[3], and a heavy blade by the name of Amalia.

Amalia never said much. Jessa wouldn't shut up. Every time someone tried talking to a Bob, it got confusing. The unofficial team leader wound up being Alise just because she kept coordinating things on the way there because nobody else would do it. She wasn't particularly happy about this, but also didn't care enough to do anything about it.

"So that's a stronghold," Jessa said, peering out over the cover they'd set up.

"Yup," Martel said.

"It looks really strong," Jessa said.

"Have you ever done this before?" a Bob asked.

"Nope!" Jessa said cheerfully.

The Bob sighed heavily.

Amalia, cleaning her swords off to the side, glanced over with an unimpressed look on her face.

"Shouldn't matter so long as she follows orders," Alise pointed out.

"I'll do whatever you say," Jessa said.

"Stay alive and heal the rest of us if we need it," Martel ordered.

"Right!" Jessa said.

A Bob snorted.

Takreath Mountain stronghold - 677.10.17 - 18:40

They spent the next two days watching, noting patterns.

They struck the following night, at the opening and return of a patrol outside. First they rammed an uprooted tree into the gate before the rock guards could close it. Then they killed the guards outside with a great clashing of swords, fireballs, and bullets. All the guards outside.

Then they moved inside.

It was a direct assault, brutal in its simplicity. All who stood against them died. A few surrendered and Martel told them to leave. They ran for it, fleeing into the night, melding into the mountains around.

The few times it was needed, Jessa did just fine.

Each room was cleared, one after the next. Each floor was cleared, each after the other.

Amalia took point on the way to the command chamber.

"Wait," Alise said, stopping in the hallway before what seemed to be a major door, fortified more than any they had come across previously.

Amalia glanced back.

"Looks like they'll be waiting for us. We'll need some sort of cover," Alise said.

"What's this, a plan?" Martel asked.

"My sword can block," Amalia said.

"Sure, sure," a Bob said, "but what if they're doing more of the blocking than you? Your sword's better killing than blocking."

"Set up an ambush, draw them out?" the other Bob suggested.

Alise nodded, and gestured for the Bobs to round the corner, then put Jessa vaguely behind them.

"One," the Bobs said when they were ready.[4]

"Martel, got any smoke spells?" she asked, sidling over to where Jessa was, eyeing the angles.

He nodded, stowing his sword. "Definitely. Amalia?"

"One," the blade said, positioning herself at an angle behind the Bobs.

Martel danced up to the door and hurled a smoke bomb over it.

Back behind the corner, Jessa asked, "Aren't they rocks?"

"Er," Alise said. She'd completely failed to consider this.

"They still need to breathe," a Bob said. He was above; the Bobs had their guns pointed around the corner, waiting, one above, the other kneeling below.

"But they're rocks," Jessa said.

"Walking, talking rocks," the above Bob said.

"And they need to breathe for energy," Alise said at least, having finally worked it out herself.

A muffled explosion sounded around the corner, followed by Martel running back to them and a cloud of smoke billowing out overhead.

A moment later, the Bobs opened fire. Martel threw a fireball. Not to be outdone, Alise ran wide and threw another fireball.

Amalia hacked at a rock guy who got through, knocking him down into bits.

A few more fireballs and hackings later, the smoke was clearing and everything was fairly still. Amalia shouldered her enormous sword and glanced back at the Bobs.

The Bobs straightened up and came around the corner in full, guns still at the ready, but much more relaxed.

The door was hanging open, smoke still drifting out in wisps.

Martel sketched out a shield and headed over and pushed his way inside, kicking the door open. He looked about quickly, then dispelled the smoke and gestured the others over as well.

The room was clear. There were desks and tables and a few chests, and quite a few weapons. Bedding had been piled into a corner. On the main table in the centre of the room, a large map of the surrounding area had been laid out and annotated.

"This is it, then?" Jessa asked.

"Looks like," Alise said.

"Organised, for bandits," a Bob said, looking over the map.

"For rock folk, you mean?" the other Bob said.

Martel frowned at him. "What are you saying?"

"They're rock folk, right?" the Bob said. "Rock folk don't do this. Rock folk... live on rocks. They do rocks. Why are they holing up in some ancient citizen fortress using citizen weapons on citizens? They have no use for citizen stuff."

"But these were," Alise mused.

"Farming equipment? Food? Livestock?" the Bob asked.

"What use could they have for any of that?" Martel asked.

Jessa nudged the bedding in the corner with her foot. It had flakes of rock in it. "Do they bed? Normally?" she asked.

"No, not at all," the first Bob said. "Rock folk just sit and boulder."

"What, like..." Alise began, then realised she had no idea what she was even asking.

"Like they hunker down and look like boulders," the Bob said. "And that's how they sleep."

Looks were exchanged.

"Well, this isn't weird at all," Martel said.

"They think they're... us," Jessa said. "They don't understand."

They cleared out the rest of the rooms, finding more oddities and no answers. Most of them were abandoned, empty. One was full of old shadows, and older laundry. The shadows attacked; the laundry didn't.

Jessa and Alise made sunlight and the shadows fled into the walls in terror.

In another room they finally found another rock warrior, and instead of killing him when he tried to fight, they bonked on him until he surrendered. It took a bit, but even rock grows loose.

He dropped his pike and rumbled, holding up stony arms, gesturing for them, from the look of it, to please stop hitting him.

Alise put a hand to the rock guy's head and placed a spell between them. It was like the link she used to fly her drone, but different, intended to let her into his mind and maybe allow some form of communication.

Through this link, she got thoughts, ideas, images. She thought she felt words floating around, too.

"Say something," she told the guy.

He rumbled, but in her mind she heard the words as if he were indeed speaking them. Don't hurt me.

"He's trying to speak," she said, looking back to the others.

"Rock folk don't speak," a Bob said. "They can't. They don't even have mouths."

"They rumble," the other Bob said. "Like avalanches."

"Who are you?" Alise asked the rock guy.

It doesn't even matter, she heard behind the rumble.

"It does," Alise said. "I hear you. I want to help you. Please, tell me what you know."

The rock person stared at her. Then he rumbled. My name is Tarnis. I don't know what's going on. I only know this is all we have, the only thing we can do. I'm so sorry.

"What is?" Alise asked.

Here. This place. The others wouldn't accept us back, they didn't even recognise us anymore. And when we tried to explain, we tried to tell them what had happened, they turned against us. The words came with images, memories of the events. The feeling of coming home, of finally seeing his wife and daughter after so long away, and having them only run in terror. The swords, the torches. The people who wouldn't even sell them what they needed when they tried to pay in coin. Having to take it by stealth, by force. Not being able to use it. The confusion. The hunger. The fear.

The rage.

"Who were you?" Alise asked. "Before they forgot you, who were you?"

The feeling of loss and longing was incredible, washing over her in a wave, almost carrying her away before she could focus on the voice he couldn't get out. Merchants. Travelling the mountain roads, passing home only when we could afford to. There was a memory there, too. Something in the mountains, something terrible.

"You found something?" Alise said.

The memory solidified. The ruins. The crumbled building. The room. The glowstone. The explosion. The pain.

The rock man screamed, rising in pitch and volume, filling the room, rattling the walls, horrible in its intensity.

Alise managed to break off the spell a second before Amalia clove the rock man in two with her blade.

In the sudden silence, Alise said, "They were citizens. Something they found turned them to rock folk, but they weren't really, so they still tried to be citizens."

"I'm going to go out on a limb and say it didn't work," Martel said, looking down at the shards of the dead rock man.

"Yeah," Alise said. "You could say that."

"And what'd they find?" a Bob asked.

"Some sort of glowstone," Alise said. "It was in some ruins, probably on a trade route."

"Are we going there next?" Jessa asked.

"Should we?" Alise asked.

Martel fished out the assignment and checked the exact wording. Then he nodded. "That falls under 'resolve the underlying problem, if any'," he said.

"Whoops," a Bob said. "Shouldn't have gone identifying the underlying problem, should we?"

The other Bob rolled his eyes.

"We're investigating! This is awesome," Jessa said.

Takreath Mountains - 677.10.18 - 03:21

They returned to their previous camp opposite the now once-more abandoned fortress for the night. Jessa had a very long conversation with the mules. Martel called in to report on their status, and got a confirmation from a guildy who may or may not have been any more in the know than the rest of them that they should indeed continue and try to check it out, unless they didn't feel like it.

The next day, Alise sent out her drone to locate the ruins the rock-turned merchants had stumbled upon. She laid back and soared on the mountain gusts and rises, spiralling out, drifting from pass to turn. Only a small part of it was search pattern. Most was simply her sheer love of flying, and most especially places like this, the brisk air, the high skies, the texture and distance and variation of the land below.

She didn't focus on looking. She figured if it was there, she'd see it eventually.

Then she did, spotting the shapes even before she knew what they were. The odd rectangles that were a sharp contrast with the random variety of the rest of the rock and trees, not mountain at all, but stranger.

She focused the scan as she approached, first doing a quick fly overhead, then coming back, lower, for a more careful look, swooping about in lazy ups and downs that were the slowest she could go without the drone falling out of the sky.

She wished she could have it hover, but this would have to do.

The ruins weren't remarkable. Similar were scattered throughout the land, and many in far better condition than this; the stone was crumbled, the metal twisted and corroded, the roads and walkways cracked and broken, with trees erupting between the chunks. Shatter lay amidst the detritus, standing out in strange glints and hues against the grass and needles. Broken poles punctuated the corners.

No signs of oddities stood out, but the problem with proper oddities was that they never did.

She swung the drone around for a few more passes over the ancient city, broad and about, looking for anything, anything at all, enjoying the joint feelings of speed and inertia, before drawing back up to plot a path back out of the high mountains.

"It should take about two days," Alise told the others once the drone had re-located them.

Some words were said, and they headed out. Alise led the way, tracing the drone on her map.

Ruins - Takreath Mountains - 677.10.21 - 9:40

It took three days. They came into the ruins on an old road, grey and cracked, not stone at all, after spending the better part of the morning catching glimpses of the ancient ruined city through the trees. Trees were growing straight up through the road. Trees were growing out of the ruins. Trees were generally everywhere.

Jessa kicked at some chunks of road that had broken away completely.[5] "They say these ancients weren't even from this world," she said. "That their cities only showed up after, and we got them as a hand-me-down from some other world entirely."

"Some other world?" a Bob asked. "Why would we wind up with their stuff?"

"Maybe there was only so much world to go around, so we all got the same bits," Jessa said.

"Or maybe it all happened here," Martel said, "without any other worlds involved at all."

"But they're the same," Jessa said. "They're all the same, underneath their futures, perfect copies, every one."

"What worlds are these?" Alise asked.

"The other ones!" Jessa insisted. "The ones I see in my dreams, the ones where the ancients lived on, where the Minstrel never conquered the gods. Worlds without classes, worlds without people, even worlds where we would have covered the lands in cities, or lived in the sky, or destroyed it all such that only death remained. Worlds where everything is different. But the same. Their ears are... different."

"Have you ever seen any of these waking?" Alise asked.

"Once," Jessa said. "I messed up a spell, it came out as something else, and when I came to, it was all... different. Nobody knew me. Everyone talked funny. Everyone had... personal carts. Like the trains, but not. They kept asking for my identification."

"Yeah?" Martel said. "Did you give them a slice of bread?"

"No?" Jessa said. "I just... cast the spell again and then I was back. And then I never cast it again. But I still see them."

"Just as long as they don't see you," Martel said.

"Interesting," Alise murmured.

They were passing a few old carts now, collapsed into rusting lumps of metal and wood, but more than that, they were at the outskirts of the city itself, with the remains of walls jutting out of the forest floor, maybe going up a metre, or two metres, but rarely any more.

Martel cast a tracking spell, highlighting the paths of those who had most recently passed through, even showing the very memories of their passing in this space. Wildlife, hunters, various travellers. Those who came looking for resources to scavenge and sell.

They found the merchants quickly enough; they had passed through relatively recently, and slowly, and cast brightest silhouettes against the backdrop of the spell. From there, it played back their passage in shadows, walking along, replaying events. The party followed behind them, not hearing the words as the figures conversed in silence, stopping and waiting while the figures explored various ruins, poked various poles, picked up various invisible items.

Amalia led, carrying her heavy sword on her shoulders, dull-side down, looking around for signs of anything amiss. Behind her, the Bobs had their guns at the ready.

Jessa yawned.

Alise's drone soared overhead, though from it the spell's effects were invisible. From her drone, she saw only the party as they passed through the ruins, stopping seemingly at random, following an ambiguous path. And deer. She saw some deer, too.

She nearly tripped a few times. Being in two places at once was hard enough when she wasn't moving on the ground, too, though after the past three days she was getting a bit better at it.

The figures led them to a building, more intact than most of the others, this one built of crumbling stone and covered in lichen and moss, with even a second floor and a roof. They seemed excited, and stopped. They seemed to argue.

Amalia walked through their bright shadows and peered inside through the grand doorway, but the inside was uninteresting, just tumbles of rocky rubble, bits of sticks and leaves and detritus carried inside by elements and animals alike.

"This is it," Alise said. "They went inside and... whatever it was, it happened here."

Amalia looked back and shrugged, ambling back toward the others.

"In there?" Jessa asked. "They got... stonified in there?"

Alise nodded, then frowned. This didn't fit. There weren't enough of them, for one. How many had they fought in the fortress, some fifty or so? But here only eleven odd shadows lingered, replaying their final events.

She dismissed the drone in order to better focus, calling back the memory with a helper spell, but the memory was still so confused. They'd gone inside. They'd split up and explored, just generally checking the place out, guessing at what it had meant. Three of them had happened upon a room with a display case on a pedestal, perfectly intact. Inside, the glowstone.

She tried to recall what had happened, but all she kept getting was the scene as they had filed in, looking on the glowstone. Not what had happened after. Not what they had done?

"What happened?" Martel asked. "Exactly?"

The glowing shadows of the memory-figures were still milling around, arguing, clearly excited. Perhaps betting on what they would find, joking about the possibilities. Or lunch. It was unclear.

"I don't know," Alise said. "I can't remember. It's there, I just can't..."

He gave her a skeptical look, then said, "Well, there's the obvious."

"Go in and check it out?" a Bob said.

"Yeah," Martel said.

"We'll do that," Alise said. "But just me and Jessa first. Rest of you, stay here in case... something happens."

"Keep in touch," a Bob replied, yawning.

"Me?" Jessa asked, clearly surprised.

"You're the one seen the other worlds," Alise said. It seemed relevant, somehow, supposing it was even true. "Let's wait and follow the spell, though," she added.

"If they ever get a move on," Martel said.

A Bob snorted.

Municipal building - ruins - Takreath Mountains - 677.10.21 - 12:16

The spell's shadow-figures finally got a move on a few minutes later, and Jessa and Alise followed them inside. When the figures split up, they followed the three Alise had picked out from the memory as they explored room to room. It wasn't organised at all. They clearly weren't looking for anything in particular, just spending an afternoon in curiosity. A vacation of sorts for the travelling citizen class. A mountain hike. A trip down history.

Jessa found something glinting amidst the rubble in one of the rooms, and picked it up - a necklace, dulled by time, in twists and spirals.

"Careful," Alise said. "You don't want to set anything off."

"It's fine," Jessa said, holding up the necklace to examine it in the oddly dusty light. "It has no magic."

"Good," Alise said. "Still, mind what you touch. Point it out first so we can both give it a look."

Jessa nodded, looking a bit ashamed.

The shadowy figures turned into another room. Broken furniture, crumbling filing cabinets, and bits of grass decorated the floor.

The figures spent a time going through the filing cabinets, so they just stopped and waited.

Alise juggled some balls of light.

The next few rooms were even less interesting.

Finally the shadows headed for the stairs, and Alise realised where the room, where the thing itself, had probably been.

"This way," Alise said, breaking away from the path of the shadows, hurrying up past them, into the darkness that was the floor above.

Everything was oddly hushed. Their magic lights threw sharp shadows against the crumbling masonry and dirty ground. It was cleaner here, but only barely - less random bits lying around, more strange swatches of black and colour on the walls, more outgrowths of plaster, more dusty sticks and less dirty ones.

The dust drifted underfoot like soft snow in the cold lands. Here, it was not so cold, though an odd chill still lingered in the dark.

They walked in silence, slowly, hesitantly, passing the gaping maws of various doorways, the darknesses around their corners jumping away at the approach of the two interlopers, and back as they passed on by.

After a few of these, Jessa latched onto Alise's sleeve, clinging with both hands, staying as close as possible. Alise glanced back with a frown, but then didn't say anything.

Even so, this slowed them down even more.

Finally, Alise said, loudly, "Blaaaaah." Even with all the inherent creepiness around them, it summed up her feelings about the situation entirely. It was blah, tiresome, and they were taking it entirely too seriously. She wanted to go home. She wanted ice cream.

Jessa jumped.

"Sorry," Alise said. "And hold on a moment. Should probably call the others before we die horribly." Shooing Jessa off her sleeve, she got out her messenger and called Martel. Holding it to her head, she wondered vaguely if maybe they should be using earpieces. The more organised companies tended to use earpieces for these things.

"Yo," Martel said on the other end.

Alise told him, "Yeah, so, we're upstairs and the thing is probably in the next room and I'm just calling now in case something horrible happens in the next five minutes, and if we don't call back in five minutes you should assume something horrible happened and probably not investigate."

"Sure," Martel said.

"Also we should probably get earpieces for this," Alise said. "They'd help."

A Bob joined in the call and said, "Yes, we should."

The other Bob did the same and said, "I have an earpiece."

"Motion to get everyone in the company an earpiece as standard equipment?" Martel suggested.

"What, like a sensible company?" Alise asked.

"Like professionals," Martel said.

"You offering to get it made it an official thing?" the second Bob asked.

"Sure, why not," Martel said.

"You're just trying to make your way into the leader chair," the other Bob said.

"Now why in the world would I do that?" Martel asked.

Alise left the call and raised an eyebrow at Jessa.

Jessa laughed nervously.

Then Alise reconnected and said to the others, "Five minutes, remember. I'll call in five minutes from now."

"I think we'll remember," Martel said.

"I was reminding myself," Alise told him, and ended it again and put the messenger away, though she also checked her watch.

"We should be fine so long as we don't touch anything," Alise told Jessa. "Come on." She scooted down a few more doors, tossing balls of light off the walls. Some stuck. Some bounced.

Jessa followed a short ways behind her.

They reached the relevant doorway and peered inside, lights jiggling in orbit around Alise's head, casting revolving shadows across the otherwise uninteresting room. There, the pedestal with its case. There the broken furniture. There the missing wall. There the hundred other rooms all smashed together as one.

Jessa stuck her hand in the lights, and they stopped moving.

"Sorry," Alise said.

They gave the room another look, this time directing a single light inside. It was mostly still. Aside from the missing wall, still. Aside from the shimmering floor, the jagged edges of reality clashing with each other, the flickering between slightly different scenes as one version of the room gave way to another at the slightest change in perspective.

"Uh, what?" Jessa said, rubbing her eyes.

"Shimmer," Alise said. Like the shimmer wall in the swamp, almost, but... not.

Alise glanced down, making sure the floor beneath their feet, at least, was solid, stable, not in flux like the room before them, and indeed it seemed to be. In fact only fragments of the room seemed to shift, shimmering shards jutting across the space, centred only on the pedestal, the case, where the glowstone should have been.

It wasn't there.

Jessa started to take a step forward into the room, and Alise grabbed her and yanked her back.

"What?! I..." Jessa stared at her fearfully, but Alise only shook her head.

"It's not you," Alise said. "Its the room. It's..."

"Broken," Jessa whispered.

"Yeah," Alise said. "Like the shimmer, but it's not stable." She paused, then said, "I've got an idea. I really hope I'm wrong, but..."

"What?" Jessa asked.

Instead of answering, Alise made another ball of light and tossed it into the room. It went in less than a metre before hitting a shard and suddenly disappearing.

In another shard it reappeared before vanishing even more quickly.

"Different worlds," Jessa whispered. Suddenly she exclaimed, "You don't think that's where the other rock folk came from? They were all here in their own worlds when suddenly boom they all wind up here?"

"That's exactly what I'm thinking," Alise said. "Parallel events in different worlds converged here, and..." she stopped, looking confused. "Oh, of course. Of course there wouldn't be other versions of us here trying to figure it out."

"What?" Jessa asked.

"I thought if I chucked in a light, all of... me might chuck in a light, but there's no reason other mes would even be here when the rock folk all wound up here anyway. All the mes in the other worlds never would have come at all because they wouldn't have had rock people to investigate anyway because that wouldn't have happened there because it happened here."

Jessa blinked, then said, "Why would the other worlds have yous at all?"

Alise frowned. "Why wouldn't they? I mean, if they're..." she stopped. She had almost said 'if they're the same', but why would they be the same, either?

Jessa was staring at her. "That's just it," the girl whispered, "they're all different. Every one of them. Even if they have different versions of you, they'll all be completely different too." Jessa glanced back into the room, and then said in a tiny voice, "You won't see them in there. You just won't."

"You've met them, haven't you?" Alise supposed. "Other... Jessas."

Jessa just stared at her.

"Er," Alise said.

Jessa stared into the room. Their lights outside only kind of illuminated it. The shimmers looked a bit like a kaleidoscope sometimes, normal others.

"I'm getting another idea," Alise said.

Jessa gave her a worried look.

"It's either slightly better or significantly worse than the last one," Alise went on.

"That's not very reassuring," Jessa said.

Their messengers binged. Jessa jumped, then grabbed her messenger and stared at it uncertainly.

"Er," Alise said, then answered, "Sorry, hi, we're still alive, unless you're calling from not entirely the right world, in which case I have no idea whether or not whoever you were trying to call is actually alive or not, because we're probably not them."

There was an entirely too long pause, then Martel's voice said, "What?"

"It's a shatter," Jessa said. "A place where the worlds collide. There were too many rock people because they weren't all from this world. We tracked ours here, but ours and a whole bunch of others must have left after."

Martel said, again, "What?"

"So, you know the thing we thought was probably behind this, the exploding glowstone?" Alise said. "It wasn't there. Instead we found a room full of all the wrong worlds."

"You know," Martel said, "It's been more than five minutes."

"Yeah?" Alise said.

"It's been nine," Martel said.

"Sorry," Alise said.

"We got a bit distracted," Jessa added.

"By a room full of shatter," Martel said skeptically. "Tell me you didn't try stepping through it."

"I don't think they'd be talking to us if they had," a Bob pointed out.

"I was going to try flying in my drone," Alise said.

"That is a terrible idea," Martel said.

"Can you close the shatter?" Amalia asked.

Alise and Jessa exchanged glances. Finally, Jessa asked, "How?"

"Alise said it started with a glowstone," Amalia said. "Someone activated it, set this off? These ruins are from the first world, they'll be mirrored across the realms. Find another which still has the glowstone, set it off again. The effect a second time may cancel out the first."

"How do you know all that?" the other Bob asked.

"Are you seriously giving me an actual reason to try flying my drone into that mess?" Alise asked.

"Well, that makes sense," Martel said.

"It does?" a Bob asked.

"No," Martel said.

"It does," Jessa said, then added, much more quietly, "I think."

Alise glanced at Jessa, then said into the messenger, "Um."

"Yes," a Bob said.

"Sure," Martel said.

"It will work," Amalia said.

"Let's call it in, first," the other Bob said.

Municipal building - ruins - Takreath Mountains - 677.10.21 - 13:01

Calling it in, nobody upstream had any better ideas. Several worse ideas, however, were provided.

Municipal building - ruins - Takreath Mountains - 677.10.21 - 13:05

Alise stared into the room of shimmer shards disconcertedly. The more she thought about it, the worse of an idea she realised this was. It wasn't just that she would be throwing strange magic at an unstable anomaly that was already throwing the very laws of physics out the window. It wasn't just that she was in essence going to be sending a piece of herself into who knows what, who knows where. It wasn't even that, odds were, she'd just get cut off from the drone as soon as she went in with it, nor that there would likely be no room to even fly the thing around in the first place, so even if the drone did get through in one piece it'd most likely just crash, or have no way to actually do anything on the other side, anyhow. Nor was it that if she did manage to set off the... event again, there was no telling what might actually happen to them in practice.

But all of that? All of that together was really putting her on edge.

She sighed and glanced down at the summoning crystal in her hand.

Next to her, Jessa smiled helpfully.

Alise gave the girl an annoyed look. At least she was acting less scared now, though.

Jessa shrugged. "It might explode," she said.

"Not helping," Alise responded.

They stared into the weird abyss.

Their messengers binged, but it was just Martel wondering what the shades was taking them so long.

Alise chucked in an experimental fireball. It fizzled and disappeared.

Finally Alise clasped the crystal and summoned, not casting upwards like usual, but instead bringing the drone to form in her hands in front of her.

Jessa poked it. "Cool," she said.

Alise glowered at her and then half-heartedly tossed the drone into the room. It drifted lazily forward, powering up as it fell, then shooting straight... up? The shard had changed, and she could no longer see the drone from where they were, but it was still there in her mind, still close, still moving, navigating nothing she understood.

She panned it around in a slow spiral, sensors detecting nothing and everything all at once, probably no imminent collisions, possibly no walls, suddenly definitely walls, ceiling, shimmer, imminent collision, and she brought it up suddenly, tracing the boundaries, walls, ceiling, more walls, but this room was empty, no glowstone here. She turned it back toward the shimmer, but the shard shifted before she even got there and suddenly it was another room, this one full of bones, piles of bones, piled up over decades at least. Nothing here. Cursing herself for not implementing any sort of hover, she flew in circles as the rooms shifted and changed, the shards of reality cycling through various variants of the room, some all at once, some in series.

Some weren't rooms at all, but woods, or ruins, or a vast cavern deep underground.

Some weren't anything.

There was no order to it that she could make out.

Another room.

Another.

A whole jumbles of rooms.

A room with a glowstone.

She came around to fly at it, but then the room changed again and the glowstone was gone.

More rooms.

Next to her, Jessa yawned loudly and sat down, and Alise realised she might as well do the same. This was going to take awhile.

"How long have I been at this?" she asked, still flying circles through another set of rooms, some more or less real than others, some full of strange things, some on fire, some devoid of all colour, some feeling like death itself, or whatever death would even be to a drone's sensors.

"A few minutes," Jessa said blandly.

"Feels like longer," Alise said.

"Probably is," Jessa said. "Time's weird between the worlds."

"Blaaagh," Alise said. At least the dead realms had a consistent conversion factor. She had no idea what was going on here.

She saw another glowstone and dove at it, knocking it off its pedestal, but this didn't actually achieve anything before she was in another room, with another glowstone. This time she fired a missile at it, and it exploded right on cue, taking out not only the glowstone, but the entire room, drone included.

Alise rubbed her head at the sudden loss of perspective, and stuffed the summoning crystal back into her pocket. She needed another weapon for her drone. Something smaller, good as a backup or just an alternative. Lasers, maybe.

"Something happen?" Jessa asked.

"I blew it up," Alise said.

"Oh," Jessa said.

They watched the broken room, looking for changes, but it was all the same. The same missing wall. The same shimmer on the floor. The same shards coming in and out of focus, shifting, showing visions of a hundred other rooms, and a hundred thousand.

Then, suddenly, it stopped. The room just stopped being broken all of a sudden and they didn't even realise right away that they were looking on a normal room, solid, stable, unchanging, bouncing their lights back consistently and solidly, because broken had become normal and this didn't even register as normal, it was just another form of abnormal, an abnormal normality.

Alise blinked.

"Wait, what?" Jessa said.

Then it actually sunk in and Alise said, "Oh. That did it? Okay."

Jessa added, "Well, okay."

"Yeah," Alise agreed.

"So... lunch?" Jessa asked, getting up.

"Yeah."

Ruins - Takreath Mountains - 677.10.21 - 13:42

They called it in. They had lunch. They had a brief argument about what the hell had happened. They decided they didn't actually care, and started the long ride/hike back down out of the mountains, back to the civilised lands, back to the carts and the train that would take them home.

On the way, they talked and discussed the nature of reality, the nature of the worlds, but while they all knew different things, none of it added up.

It seemed there were only questions and no answers.

Ateris Malor - 677.10.29 - 13:87

When they got back to the Citadel, the debriefing was oddly formal. They were called to one of the larger briefing rooms, where four nobles were waiting.

"Ellis Company," one of them, a guy in mostly purples, read off the report. "Sent on a stronghold job, assault and investigation as needed. You found an anomaly?"

"Shatter," Amalia said.

"And you say you stabilised it?" the guy went on.

"Seemed stabilised," Alise said. "Stopped acting all crazy-like, at least."

"I see," the guy replied. "What measurements did you take?"

Jessa was asleep, head down on the table, so Alise poked her.

"Nuuh?" Jessa said.

"Did we take any measurements?" Alise asked.

"I dunno, did we?" Jessa said, looking around blearily.

"Let's go with 'none'," Martel told them. "You'll probably want to send in a team properly geared for that, anyhow."

"Already done," one of the other nobles said, a woman with stern features. "Just need to be sure you didn't... leave anything out of the report."

Martel gave her a thumbs up.

Alise eyed the nobles suspiciously, wondering vaguely why they cared so much about this. On the other hand, they also cared a great deal about particularly fluffy dogs, so maybe it didn't mean much.

They ran through a few more questions, Amalia and the Bobs smiling and nodding, Martel and Alise giving vague and borderline snarky answers, before finalising the report and sodding off to go get paid.

Then they got back to the hall and split. Alise crashed on a sofa because that was what she was doing these days. Yes, they had beds. No, she didn't care. Sofa was softer anyhow.

Martel woke her later to hand her an earpiece. He winked. Not understanding on account of still being mostly asleep, she said, "nug," put it on, and went back to sleep.

Chapter 2

Ellis Company hall - Ateris Malor - 677.10.30 - 01:03

Alise woke up in the early morning feeling totally miserable. Some guys nearby were picking cactus thorns out of each other, and she watched them vaguely, not wanting to move, or think, or consider. She was back in Ateris Malor. She needed to figure out her life. She couldn't keep putting it off like this.

She had until the end of the month. It was the harrow month, the last and longest month of the year, with 43 days, and it was only the 30th. Plenty of time.

She rolled over and pulled the letter from her father out of her pocket. It was crinkled and worn, now, but she'd been putting it off, and hadn't yet opened it.

My dearest Al,

I know we didn't part on the best of terms, but I hope this finds you well. I still don't agree with your decision to pursue the new sciences, but if there was ever someone brilliant enough to take it on, it's you. So good luck. May you go on to create our future.

My concern now, however, is another matter entirely. There are undercurrents in the noble circles. Something is stirring, and I do not trust the direction it is headed. Perhaps it is nothing, but should everything go utterly sideways, keep your eyes open. Trust what you see, and use that brilliant mind of yours. The politics will extend into the sciences, and there may be those vying for your allegiances even there. Choose your sides wisely, as there may be no turning back.

Your sister got a new cat. This one is even bigger than the last one, and barely fits in the teleporters. She calls him Cuddles, and asks when you will come meet him. I have told her it may be some time, but we all miss you.

Forever yours,
Your Father,
Kalphus of Amarga

It even had the seal of their house, stamped under his name. Official-like.

And that was the problem, wasn't it? She didn't just have two choices, citizen life or mercenary... she had three, because she wasn't a citizen. She was a noble, but like any noble who ventured into an education, it hadn't been to make a life for herself, but for the sake of puttering. By all rights she should just go home, now.

Commencement was at the end of the month. The applications for jobs and academia assumed a response by then. If she followed up on them, she'd have access to tremendous resources, the newest tech, all the possibilities of emerging sciences. And perhaps even a team at her disposal. Several potential employers and advisors had taken a particular interest in her thesis, expounding on the potentialities of aerospace magic, and provided particularly tempting offers. Her drone had been the case study.

But was that what she wanted to do? Why hadn't she responded to any of them? Why was she lying on a sofa in the hall of a disorganised, but very active, mercenary company? She didn't even have a home in Ateris Malor. She'd registered her residence as the swamp, and mailing address the university.[6]

She kind of wanted to be here, with Ellis Company. It was fun. They didn't care who she was. There weren't any deadlines. But she wouldn't be able to make anything amazing here. She wouldn't change the world. She'd just... exist until she got killed, probably.

She kind of wanted breakfast.

Alise had finally managed to pry herself off the sofa and was just fighting a guy over a box of cereal when three very heavily-armoured, and very heavily-beat-up, bladesmen burst into the common room shouting incoherently, tripped over a box of broken mannequin parts, and collapsed in the middle of the floor.

Alise and the guy she'd been fighting exchanged confused looks.

"Are they... members?" Alise asked, letting go of the box of cereal.

"No idea," the guy said. "I don't recognise them." He put the box back on the counter and they headed over to investigate.

An old lady everyone generally just called 'Granny'[7] started poking the bladesmen with a stick while everyone else who'd noticed also started to crowd around. "Ey. Ey!" Granny said, trying to get them to respond, punctuating it with further pokes.

One of them rolled over, waving a bloody hand at her to go away, but the other two simply lay where they'd fallen, breathing heavily. They were all pretty dirty, and bloody.

"Are you going to make me come down there?!" she yelled at them. "Make an old lady get down on her knees for you, is that how it is?"

"Maybe someone should drop a heal on them?" someone else suggested.

"Heal for the big strong guys?" Granny asked, poking them some more.

"Oh, stop that," Alise said, getting in front of Granny and pushing the stick aside. She paused, peering down at the bladesmen. They'd almost completely stopped moving. "Okay, now I wanna kick 'em, see if they're even alive."

Granny grinned toothily at her.

"Alive!" one of them croaked desperately. "Curse..."

"Oh, good," Alise said. "Now is anyone here a healer? No?" She looked around. People shrugged.

"I could break some potions on them," one guy suggested.

"Meh, we're not that desperate," Alise muttered. "Just this desperate." She cast out what was probably the messiest heal spell ever, clobbered together from various other spells she didn't care to learn individually, and committed to memory out of sheer persistence. It fell over the three bladesmen, and in fact half the room, with an almost audible SPLAT.

"The shades you call that?" Granny muttered behind her.

"'Run away, run away!' usually," Alise replied, squatting down in front of the bladesmen as they finally started to pull themselves back up. "Alternately, 'Oh crap the healer's down I need to heal the healer'." To the bladesmen, she added, "Hi."

"How did you..." the apparent lead bladesman began, getting up. He paused and then started over. "We thought we were dead for sure."

"Yeah, I think you got the wrong company hall," Alise replied, standing back up as well.

"Really, I..." He gave her a confused look, and then Granny a downright surprised look. "What?"

Granny cracked her knuckles behind Alise, smiling in a totally adorable and non-threatening fashion.[8]

"This is Ellis Company," Alise said. "Who are you guys?"

"We're... um..." The bladesman and his two companion bladesmen looked around uncertainly at the small crowd of curious Ellisers all sort of staring at them, waiting for an answer. "We're from Warrior's Creed," he said. "We were cursed! Sargayan, the warlock, he... he told us we'd live just long enough for our friends to watch us die, and teleported us back to the Great Hall. How did you know how to remove it?"

"Uh-huh," Alise said. "I knew you were cursed. Really."

The bladesmen gave her a confused look.

"Look, I'm not a healer," Alise said. "Apparently none of us are, because all our healers are on holiday or assignments or sleeping at sane and rational hours, or whatever it is healers even do. You just got lucky that my one heal spell happened to fix your problem because it's basically just designed to fix all problems within a certain amount of reason, bearing in mind this is what passes for reason around here, and I don't think we know what reason is."

"What?" the bladesman said.

"I don't know," Alise replied.

"Alright," another guy said, nudging Alise aside and addressing the Warrior's Creed bladesmen, "I'm Jeffa. How about we run through a debrief and just sort all this out, yes?" To Alise he added, somewhat forcefully, "Eat some food. You're crashing."

"Food," Alise said vacantly. "Right."

Shimmer wall - Dead Realms side - 677.10.30 - 05:78

The Sargayan job intrigued Alise. After the debriefing with Jeffa, the Warrior's Creed bladesmen had handed over their job as thanks, or perhaps as a precaution, and she had taken a copy as she headed out. She'd read it over several times on the train, trying to fill in the missing pieces. Ostensibly it was an assassination job, and it made sense, from the initial intel, for Warrior's Creed to have sent three blades. But what had been missing was the nature of Sargayan's magic. They'd stabbed him, and he hadn't died. They crushed his body, and he came back. Nothing they did worked, until finally they ran, and when even that didn't work, surrendered.

Sargayan was clearly a powerful mage - the crimes on his warrant already attested to this - but what he was using for his apparent immortality was likely very simple. An anchor of some sort. Find this and get it away, destroy it somehow, and the man himself would no longer be untouchable. What they needed was an infiltrator and a nuker. With her drone, Alise could potentially do both, entirely remotely.[9]

It just needed some modifications. The ability to hover, for one, and navigate small spaces. Pinpoint weapons. A way to refresh the summon without recasting it entirely. Fortunately, unlike with most prototypes, she didn't need to rebuild the entire thing every time she made a change. The summon itself did that. All she needed to do was update the schematics and commit the changes into the crystal.

The drone's schematics laid out before her on the picnic table, Alise got to work.

Stratus Falls - Serin wilderness - 677.10.30 - 10:14

Martel was also on a job, but one that he had explicitly taken. Three citizens had disappeared, last seen headed for Stratus Falls. Simple enough, rescue if possible, confirm the bodies if not, but for some reason he hadn't liked the look of it, so Jessa was also along.

The falls were mostly only interesting for being very, very tall. Now, like most of the year, there wasn't enough water to even come down properly - there was just a sad, slight trickle down the rocks, down more rocks, down more rocks, down even more rocks, down yet still even more rocks, and then into the wide, calm plungepool at the bottom, after which the creek tricklingly continued on. A small bridge went over the pool. Some paths wandered off into the woods. Nobody else was there at the moment.

Jessa headed over to the bridge and peered down into the pool. "Now what?" she asked.

"I take it they're not in the pool," Martel said.

She looked back to the pool and then said, "There's a... large bug?"

"All right, tracking time," Martel said. "Let's see if they made it here at all."


Notes

  1. Most of which were from maintenance complaining about the closet full of fireballs, but a few were also jobs and the like.
  2. Such as coming up with ridiculous sparing exercises, excelling at the ridiculous sparring exercises, or not getting involved in the ridiculous sparing exercises, among other things.
  3. Gunners.
  4. Nobody was quite sure where saying 'one' to indicate readiness had come from, but it'd caught on until nearly everyone in Ellis Company did it.
  5. Probably by trees.
  6. But packages still went to the swamp.
  7. Because she'd refused to provide any actual name, and looked like an old granny.
  8. A bit like a shark.
  9. A particularly useful feature of the plan in case she turned out to be totally wrong in her hypothesis. There could also just be several Sargayans or something.