The brief instant between nothingness and full consciousness stretched out for an eternity in Leah's perception of it, before snapping into focus. Sounds danced across her vision, she tasted soft purple, and electric lines of acrid smoke ran across her skin.
Most of her mind was battered and barraged with unnatural sensations, as previously unused senses blurred and broke apart from each other, drawing into focus in painfully slow moments. Her brief time without a body had ruined her ability to cope with the feedback, and it hurt. Still, a small portion of her remained sane in the maelstrom of nonsense information, and spoke soft and encouraging words, passing them through a river of calm. She focused on that part of her mind, the colder, more rational part that seemed to be a life raft in the sea of feeling around her, the only part of her mind unaffected. Seconds passed again, and she realised she was screaming. The fact she realised this at all, the cold part said, was proof she was adapting to feeling again. It would not be long now.
She wrapped her sense of self around the unaffected part of her mind, listening to it coldly analyse everything she was feeling, turning it from a barrage of conflicting data into ordered, clean information, information she could handle, and use. She felt through it the rock beneath her fade away, and two pairs of strong hands manhandling her into something rough and warm. She felt the rock again, this time on her back and through the same rough fabric, and her sense of balance, cowed into submission by her rational mind, reporting that she was sat upright.
More seconds passed, then minutes. The data flowing through her didn't slow, but the process of arranging it came naturally to the cold part of her. It told her that it would become second nature eventually, but for now, she could focus on everything else that needed doing while it dedicated itself with adapting her mind to its new body. It also told her that there was something dangerous nearby, and to remain cautious and trust its judgement. She tentatively opened her eyes, trusting that part of her mind to handle the new input, but with the mental wounds from the sensory influx still fresh in her mind.
“See. Not dead. Told you I felt a pulse.”
An ugly mess of wounds, fresh and old, grinned at her, holding one hand out to the side towards a… well, a woman, but unlike any she’d seen before. The tips of her long, pointed ears twitched as she sighed, reaching into a pouch at her waist and placing something in the mans palm. Looking over at her, the man's grin grew only wider, and her pocketed the item.
“So, now that you've had your fun...”
The elf woman frowned at Leah, who noticed that her other hand hadn't left the hilt of one of her long, slightly curved swords.
“Who are you, and how were you involved in the ritual?”
A moment of indecision crossed Leah's mind, unsure how to respond given that she had no idea what this ritual is, or even where she was. The back of her mind gently pushed some visual stimulus forwards, describing the room beyond the two facing her. Her stomach turned at the sight. She had considered herself an aficionado of horror flicks, especially the gorier ones, but this... this was too much for her. A roiling sensation from her stomach pushed its way past her mental defences, and it must have shown on her face, because the two stepped back from her.
“Ah, gods no, she's gonna...”
She vaguely heard the mans voice as she turned to the side, facing away from the scene of carnage, and her stomach tried to evacuate itself. With nothing inside it, though, all she could manage was a few pathetic, wheezing retches, tears of discomfort rolling down her face. A new batch of sensation told her that her throat was dry. Too dry. Taking a few deep, ragged breaths, not daring to face the room again, she gasped out,
Focused on keeping her stomach down, for what little that meant for someone with a completely empty stomach, she heard muttering as clothing shifted, the gentle pop of a cork, and felt the warm brush of skin through the robe she was wearing. A water skin appeared in front of her.
Barely waiting for permission, she eagerly and greedily drank from the offered skin, the best drink she had ever had. For a moment, she thought she truly understood what it would be like to be on the verge of death, before being pulled back. Though, that really had happened to her, hadn't it. The thought was squashed immediately, the back of her mind prompting her to focus on the important business first, before she got too introspective.
The skin was pulled away from her, all too soon, and she wiped a hand across her mouth, realising she had spilt almost as much down her as she had drank. Taking one more deep breath, she turned back around, keeping her vision down towards her feet, which she had pulled up against her chest. A larger chest than she remembered-
The voice at the back of her head, seeming louder and more insistent, stopped that thought. It was different this time, however. She wasn't gently led, but forcefully stopped. Recognising the more rational part of her was right about paying attention, she let the thought drift away into the aether.
“Damn, girl, you never seen water before? We should get you down to Seshun, you'd solve the flooding problems-”
The mans voice stopped at the insistent tone of the elf, a tone that he was clearly long familiar with.
“So, like I asked before. What is your name?”
It was a harmless enough question to answer, and she was being prompted that it would probably be in her best interests to answer truthfully here. Whatever the back of her mind was processing, it felt that a lie would be spotted immediately.
The two were silent for a moment, and Leah chanced a glance up at them, deliberately shutting out the rest of the room. The elf was glancing at the man, who nodded almost imperceptibly. She turned back to face her.
“So, Leah. What exactly are you doing here?”
She could feel the back of her mind racing through the implications of this question, the look the two shared, running it past what she knew about the two from the brief time they had interacted. The precise machinations were a mystery to her conscious mind, which she was told she didn't have to worry about for the moment. In absence of any further information from it, however, she elected to continue telling the truth, as best she could, trusting this clearly more competent part of her mind to stop her before she made a mistake.
“I... don't know. I don't know where I am, or how I got here, or even...”
A gentle nudge stopped her there. Still looking between the two of them, she saw the man frown, his face taking on a gentler expression, as best she could tell past the mass of scar tissue. His voice softened, and he asked,
“Leah. Does the name Latasha mean anything to you?”
She felt his eyes bore into her, seeming to peer past her skull and into her very thoughts. She swallowed, locked to his gaze, and she felt herself answer with no prompting. She felt the back of her mind pay attention to his gaze, saving the memory clearly and tucking it away for later analysis.
“No, nothing at all.”
His frown faded, replaced with a small smile. He turned to the elf.
“No signs of evil, no clue how she got here, no idea who Latasha is. Odds on she's just a victim who got wrapped up in the whole ordeal. We should take her back with us.”
The elf, hand still on her sword, sighed again.
“Yeah, I suppose you are right. We can take her as far as the barony, at least.”
She looked around behind her at the mess of the room.
“We should take her back to the camp. The guards can watch over her while we... sort out affairs in here.”
“That sounds like a plan to me.”
The man held out a hand to Leah, gesturing for her to get up.
“You want to come with us? The hinterlands aren't safe for a classless travelling alone.”
The back of her mind fielded no objections to this, so she took his hand, letting him pull her to her feet. She wobbled, unsteady on her new feet, the different weight of her body messing with her remembered sense of balance. The tips of her ears shivered as she thought she was about to fall, and she noticed for the first time her ears, longer than she remembered-
The back of her mind was ready this time. It snagged the thought as it was pushed out of her conscious mind, and held onto it. She was dimly aware now from that part of her that this voice was not from the same place as the part of her that was acting independently, but that part of her retreated slightly, leaving her to mentally shrug, accepting that right now, she should just forget like she was told. She smiled, realising that the elf woman had grabbed her arm, steadying her.
The man grinned, and the elf looked away slightly, letting go. She noticed that the grin was directed at the elf.
“So, if you're gonna be travelling with us, you should probably know our names. It only seems fair, after all, we know yours.”
A thought drifted from the back of her mind, and before it could snatch it back, she said,
“Liam. And Cassandra.”
The two shared a look, the elf narrowing her eyes and once again grabbing her sword. The man merely looked perplexed, once again his vision seeming to bore into Leah.
“How the hell does a classless know Analyse... Ugh, you probably don't know either, do you.”
Leah shook her head. She knew that without being prompted.
“Well, whatever. We'll take you back to camp now. You'll get some food and a bedroll, while we sort things out here. Don't worry about the guards, they know they'll catch our wrath,”
He grinned again at Cassandra.
“If they try anything funny. So maybe try to catch a nap. We've got a lot of travelling to get through, and we'll be leaving once we get back.”
Leah nodded, and rolled her shoulders. Taking this as a sign that she was ready, the three of them set off out of the chamber towards the sun, no one wanting to look too hard at their surroundings as they did so.
Liam was right about there being food and a bedroll, though the guards didn't so much as glance at her. The back of her mind suspected that it had something to do with the quiet word Cassandra had with one of them, but she deemed it unimportant in the face of filling her stomach. The stew was awful – really, really awful – but the void in her belly she had been blissfully unaware of didn't care. The lean mix of meat and root vegetables was practically inhaled, a pleasant warm feeling spreading through her as she finished the bowl. It wasn't enough, but it would do for now. A quick word to the nearest guard granted her a water skin, and she quenched her thirst again, this time more slowly and with something approaching decorum.
Having returned the skin, she settled down on the roll of thick fur that was to be her bedding for the duration of the journey. Though she had only woken less than an hour previously, she felt bone tired already, as if she had been awake for days. The back of her mind agreed with her body, that she needed sleep, though she felt a ulterior motive behind the urgings. With little else to go on, though, she lay back against the furs, the rough itching of the robe she was wearing proving little barrier to the oncoming tide of sleep. She closed her eyes, drifting off, and at the tipping point between being awake and asleep, her mind snapped together.
She woke again in her mental rooms, but this time, she felt everything. All her bodies sensory data, everything that was being withheld from her by that part of her mind that felt separate. She understood why that part of her mind was separate, she understood why she could now utilise that part of her, and she understood, if not exactly, what was happening to her. And she was furious. She quickly ran through the data, pushing it through the new channels in her mind as naturally as if she had always used them.
The separate part of her mind was the Doll bodies additional processing cores. They acted as a supplement to her brain, but could also operate independently should the primary mind become inoperable or compromised. She didn't understand exactly how this worked, but that was irrelevant for now. As her soul fused to the body, something else had been added. A corrupting influence of some kind, that would influence her thoughts and actions towards some unknown path. This influence, one she categorised now as a computer virus for the sake of familiarity, had been detected as an attack by the supplemental cores, which disengaged from the primary mind before it had a chance to spread to them as well.
Those supplemental cores had a copy of her mind as well, and that copy of her mind could see everything the main mind was feeling. The onslaught of sensation was deliberate – she knew now that the systems of the Doll would gradually activate under normal operation so that the mind wasn't overwhelmed. The virus had disengaged those safe guards, and worked to destabilise the brains attempt to adapt to the new stimuli. It had shunted those sensations over to itself, running a back channel through to the sensory sub processor, and adjusted the settings, bringing it back to safe levels. Then, through the channel from the sub processor to the main mind, it had a safe channel through which to counterattack the virus.
The virus, unsuccessful in its attempts to break her, readjusted its priorities, and made attempts to kill the sub mind that was blocking its efforts. It was limited from its position, however. It had only managed to directly subsume the emotional emulators, and that left it in a dangerous position. It could no longer directly influence the processes in her mind, only supply directives that may or may not be followed. And if her emotional state were to deteriorate, say, if she were to have a breakdown over the fact she was aware of her new body, it might find the little control it did have destroyed. So it was forced to play two fronts, massaging her emotions and directing her away from dangerous subjects, all while trying to locate the channel the sub mind was using.
When she had fallen asleep, her conscious mind had 'switched off', and the unconscious took over. In moments, a battle fought at the speed of thought took place. With the mind going into maintenance mode while asleep, this left new channels open that would otherwise be sealed. This connected the sub mind and the emotional emulators directly, providing the virus the channel it had been searching for. But it also provided the sub mind with the tools it needed to remove the interloper for good. A hard copy of her mind had been saved to a backup, leaving it free to do some otherwise ludicrous things.
She hard reset her own mind. Every neuron stopped firing, and for a moment, she was completely brain dead. Only the supplemental cores, running a copy of her mind, remained active, having directly connected themselves to an internal power reservoir in a process originally designed to defend against traumatic brain injury. From there, the sub mind rebooted the rest of her brain over and over in safe mode, watching as the virus, each time starting from fresh, ran the same attack over and over through the emotional emulator. Each time, as it reached its objective, she would cut off the power to her mind again, and start the process over. Each time, she would learn more about how the virus was attacking her mind, and how she could modify her minds connections to delay, then halt, its attack. And once it had been isolated in the emulators, it was a simple matter to bring the main mind back online, merge their memories, and delete the virus for good. Not without storing a copy of it in an isolated memory space for further study, of course.
And now, Leah was back to being Leah. She didn't have too much time to question where the influence had come from, or even to be proud of doing something that she didn't fully understand yet. A flood of repressed information washed over her, and in the void of her mind, messages appeared.
Level: 3 (12%)
Race: Elf (Magalyte Doll)
Str - 8
Dex - 12
Con - 10
Int - 18
Wis - 12
Cha - 12
Lck - 10
Parallel Processing 1
Knowledge (Magalyte Technology) 1
Knowledge (Magalyte Dolls) 1
Mental manipulation 3
Of Another World
Attribute Points: 6
You have gained the skill, Parallel Processing
You have gained the sub skill, Firewall. This sub skill is bound to Parallel Processing
You have defeated an enemy, Mental Invader. Experience added. No further gains.
You have gained a level. The following bonuses have been applied:
+3 Free points
You have gained a level. The following bonuses have been applied:
+3 Free points
You have gained the skill, Mental Manipulation
You levelled the skill, Mental Manipulation. Its total level is now 2.
Experience gained from levelling a skill.
You levelled the skill, Mental Manipulation. Its total level is now 3.
Experience gained from levelling a skill.
It seemed that the influence on her mind had given her some useful information after all. She was glad that she had kept a dormant copy of it on hand. Perhaps she could make use of this new Mental Manipulation skill to pick it apart for further knowledge. She focussed on the skills in question, feeling the information about them wash over her. She felt like she just, knew, about the things she had just learned, without any clear method of the information reaching her, much like when she had activated the subsystem in her mind. Where it had come from was still a total mystery.
Finally, though, she had a moment to sit and contemplate everything that had happened to her in what she realised was only a few hours, real time. She had died, been reborn, almost had her consciousness subsumed by a hostile alien intelligence, been presented with notifications and windows reminiscent of an RPG, seen – and spoken with – an ELF, an actual, real life elf... And she was apparently an elf now? With some sort of weird caveat? There was so much to think about. Her newly activated emotions rose up, and with all the time in the world, she let them come.
Hours passed in her mind, though she was aware, through a single thought that brought up a clock, that only minutes had passed in the real world. She alternated between bouts of extreme emotion, laughing at the absurdity of the situation and crying for her loss and the stress she had been under since arriving in this new body, and contemplation on what she had learnt, trying to manage everything she now knew. One begot the other, as the weight of everything she now had to deal with would force another bout of tears, and when that ran down, new insights would prompt more investigation.
It took a long time for her, but she managed to boil it down into bullet points, that conveniently became actual mental bullet points floating in front of her..
I have some sort of console or interface that processes what I know and my capabilities, physical or otherwise. I need to determine if this is a product of my new body, or if its something else causing this.
All the doors in my mindscape are now open. I know what they lead to and what those rooms do with my knowledge, and most of them are autonomous, but I need to study them to see if I can make adjustments safely. If my experiences up until now are any judge, then I'm going to be in more danger in the future, and any advantage could save my life.
I came back to life. How? Why? Is this the afterlife? Was this intentional? How would I even determine this? Needs further thought.
There are two people who are willing to help me. I need to get as much information out of them as I can, without risking my own safety. If I can get allies, this will aid the above tasks immensely. I also need to categorise any potential enemies, such as wherever that mental attacked came from.
Satisfied with what she had condensed down so far, she turn her gaze back to the real world. She knew she didn't actually need much sleep, not any more. Her new body ran off an unknown energy source, and while its efficiency was diminished by ignoring bodily functions, it could power her without food or sleep. Though, it might be uncomfortable to do so. That would also need to be tested. She thought for a moment about how she was rationalising everything. Aside from her emotional outbursts, she felt... different. Faster, making links between facts more easily. Was this a result of her new body, or her increased intelligence? In fact, what was her intelligence before she entered this new body?
No. She stopped herself before another train of thought, and possibly emotion, took her away from the here and now. She didn't have any more facts, and the only way to get more would be to wake up.
“Here goes nothing...”
She snapped her imaginary fingers, and woke up.