“My original body?”
Either something on her face gave it away, or Liam’s Lie Detection kicked in, because his face grew more grim. And with it, Leah grew again more fearful of him and what he might try now.
“I’ll admit, it was a bit of a stab in the dark, but your reaction there gave me all I needed. I’m not going to try and spread your secret around - not if I can help it anyway. You’re more useful to me as a secret, not as common knowledge.”
The fear became tinged with a fringe of hope. Did he know about what had happened to her? Could she get some answers? Even if the risk was great, she knew she needed to know about her new body, and what had caused her to end up in it.
“Ok, cats out of the bag then. So-”
“Wait, wait… what cat?”
“The cat. There isn’t any cats here. Why are you talking about cats?”
Leah looked at him with her head tilted and eyes narrowed for a moment, seriously considering his intelligence for a moment, before realising that whatever was translating for her evidently had trouble with colloquialisms. Her face ended up in her palms, tilted down.
“It’s something that obviously doesn’t translate well. It means ‘Now that you know my secret’.”
Looking back up, it was clear the serious mood had been shattered, as Liam’s face had a smirk that she could SWEAR was mocking.
“Really? Thats a terrible saying. It doesn’t make any sense!”
“Lots of things from my language don’t. It sort of came about as a result of taking all the neighbouring languages and ramming them together to see what happens.”
“I’m really glad I don’t have to learn it then. We’ll talk about how you can speak my tongue so well later, though. What were you saying?”
“I was going to say, now that you know my secret, it clearly seems important to you. What do you know about me, and this body? The first I knew of it was when I woke up here.”
Liam rubbed the back of his balding head, and looked away.
“Honestly, not a great deal, and thats if you are what I think you are. Even what I do know is conjecture and rumour for the most part, but if even a fraction is true, you are a walking goldmine. And you are really, INCREDIBLY lucky that you got found by us, not another, less scrupulous group.”
“Really? What kinds of things?”
She decided to put the fact that she had been right to be concerned about information getting out to the side for the time being.
“Some say those bodies, the Magalyte Dolls, are vessels for the gods, with a portion of their power stored in them for safe keeping. Others say they are meant for the rulers of the old Empire. Most agree that they are in some way linked to Magalyte tech. Like I said, lots of rumour. And this isn’t exactly common knowledge either. I only found out about them through luck.”
The side of Leah’s lip raised in a half smile.
“Well, I can at least trade a little information back to you. As a show of good faith, of course.”
Liam’s eyes lit up immediately, and she could practically see the money bags floating behind them.
“Anything, anything at all!”
“I am definitely a Magalyte Doll, at least if this status page is to be believed.”
He leaned back from her words, taking in a deep breath before letting it out slowly.
“Wow. Ok. In that case, I want to amend our deal. If you stick with us, I swear we will keep you, and the secret about you, safe. We will help you to the best of our ability, and in exchange…”
He grinned manically. It was Leah’s turn to lean away.
“When you inevitably rise to power, we get to ride your coat tails and reap the rewards with you. How does that sound?”
His hand shot up, and he spat in it before proffering it to her. Leah peered at the saliva covered hand, and raised her eyebrow. Liam clearly mistook her expression.
“Uh, sorry, must be culture again. Its a handshake, you take my hand with yours, and we-”
“I know what a handshake is, we do the same thing where I come from. We don’t generally spit on them first, though.”
Liam’s grin grew wider.
“Well, neither do we really, but I learnt of the custom from an old sailor, and I quite like it. So, you in?”
Leah sighed, knowing she’d immediately regret taking his hand, if not the decision behind it, and grabbed the sticky wet hand. It was exactly as unpleasant as she had expected, though his grip was firm as they shook.
“Excellent. Well, first things first. We should wait for Cass, and then we can fill her in on what we’ve been over. I guarantee she’ll be a lot nicer once she knows we have a gold mine with us, even if she does have to play babysitter for a while.”
“I’d really rather you don’t call it that.”
Cassandra’s anger had bubbled down from a raging inferno into a simmering, constant irritation, much to the chagrin of the guards who were helping her. First she had watched most of her team die, then Liam picks up some naked tramp in a dungeon - and he is TOTALLY projecting about the attraction, obviously - who they now have to babysit back to town where they can hopefully use her as a consolation prize for the fact they let the Baron’s son die. She knew he had his reasons, he always did, but it didn’t help with her mood. The barrow was finally clear, and she had swept it for any secret passages or hidden loot. She wished that Liam had offered to do so, but she understood his reasoning for staying behind. Rangers just weren’t meant to be looking into caves in so much detail, though! Whats done was done, though, and that meant they could return to camp. The clearing had taken longer than expected, even with Cassandra’s ‘motivations’ with the guards, and now it would look like they would be camping for another night before setting off. The hinterlands were not a good place to travel at night, as well she knew.
Back in camp, the sun was beginning to set, red streaks painting the afternoon sky. She saw the pair sitting at the edge, away from the guards who were pointedly looking anywhere but at them, deep in conversation. Her face turned dark. When had they gotten so friendly? And after Liam put the screws on her as well. Never mind that she had started it. Maybe she should have stayed behind instead of Liam, and it could have been them talking… no, bad thoughts. She walked over, arms crossed.
“So glad to see you two have hit it off. I hope you haven’t given away everything we own to make it up to this one, Liam.”
Liam’s customary grin was wider than usual, only deepening her irritation.
“Give away everything we own? Ha! Come on, sit down, I’ll tell you all about it.”
“If I end the evening missing a sword, I want you to check your back. Thats likely where it ended up.”
She sat down with them anyway, despite her comment. Liam rifled through his pockets, before extracting a small black box, decorated with white-blue lines and a dial. He played with the dial for a moment, swore, then slapped the side. A high pitch whine filled the campground around them.
“There. Probably should have thought of this earlier, but in my defence, I was rather excited. Its not every day you learn what I’ve learnt!”
“Really Liam? Who was it telling me about spycraft 101 not two weeks ago at that tavern.”
“That was a honeypot. These…”
He waved an arm at the guards on the other side of camp.
“Are paid guards, who know we know where they and their families live, and very much do not want to get on the bad side of some adventurers. And none of them were close enough to hear the important bits. I stake my reputation on that.”
“Well, your reputation is already staked on this being worth my time. So, out with it. Whats so important that you two are now best friends?”
They filled her in, and Cassandra’s face went from irritated, to bemused, to suspicious, and finally to shock.
“And you have proof of this, do you?”
“The fact that I’d know if she was lying. Come on, Cass.”
She turned to Leah.
“Ok, Miss Doll. I’m going to trust Liam on this. You better be useful to us.”
Leah shrugged, raising her hands palms forward.
“I honestly don’t know if I can be. Liam knows more about it than me, and he thinks I can.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right about that. He knows a lot about a lot of things.”
She glared at Liam, who only shrugged with a smile.
“So, now that we’re all such good buddies, is there anything else you’d like to share with us? Anything at all?”
Leah sighed, weighing up the options in her head. They had already elected to help her, and they now knew enough to get her into serious trouble if they wanted to anyway. And if they knew the last part of her story, then it would explain a whole lot of things and save a lot of questions. Plus, this clearly wasn’t going to work unless everyone trusted each other, and she needed their trust now more than ever. It wasn’t if she could trust them that stayed her tongue, though, it was whether they’d believe her. She voiced as much.
“Honestly, I don’t know if you’d believe me.”
Cassandra and Liam shared a glance, before laughing.
“Seriously? After everything you’ve told us, that we believed, you think theres MORE to this story that will blow our minds?”
“Cass is right, Leah. Whatever it is, we can’t exactly help you if we don’t know the whole situation. You can’t have proper preparation without proper intel, and proper preparation prevents piss poor performance.”
Leah was actually shocked that had translated so well. It must have shown, because Cassandra turned her face away, snickering, and Liam rushed to explain himself.
“Look, I uh, didn’t mean to be so serious about it. But we did agree to help you, didn’t we?”
“I guess you are right. But, you’ve got to promise you won’t call me crazy after what you hear.”
And so she told them she was from another world. The reaction was predictable.
“Well, I suppose I stand corrected. You can tell us something stranger.”
Cassandra’s face looked caught between anger at being lied to, suspicion that the whole thing is an elaborate trick by the two of them, and humour at the fact she would tell such a brazen lie with a straight face.
“Now, I know I didn’t exactly ask for proof before. But I’m starting to suspect you really do have a way around my lie detection.”
Liam, by contrast, looked humbled and shocked, leaning back with his hands behind his head. His entire worldview had been shattered, either by the existence of other worlds, or the fact that there was someone in the world who could lie to him so brazenly without him sensing an ounce of deceit.
“So, and I think Cass will agree with me on this, we are going to need to see some hard proof first. The only reason I’m not sending you off with a smile is because I think I owe you at least this much. Do you have anything you can use to prove this?”
Leah wasn’t concerned, not immediately. She knew that the other trait, at least by its name, would vindicate her. And he was clearly keen to believe her before. She said as much.
“I think I do, actually. Its my other trait, Of Another World. Which, I didn’t actually have a chance to read the description of, you kind of interrupted me there. But I think the name itself is pretty self explanatory.”
Liam’s head whipped around as Cass almost cut Leah off. His expression was sharp, and his gaze fierce.
“Cass, no. You can’t just ask-”
“I can, and I did. Look, if she’s lying, then she has an easy out, and we can go our separate ways peacefully. If she isn’t, then she’s in more need of our help than any of use realised. So I think this is justifiable.”
Liam’s gaze didn’t falter, but a measure of tension left his body.
“I really don’t like this. She doesn’t know any better if its true.”
“That still doesn’t change the facts.”
Leah decided that enough was enough with the dancing around the topic, and cut in.
“What, exactly, are you proposing?”
Cassandra’s smile was fierce and grim.
“You show me your status page.”
Liam’s shout attracted the attention of the guards even through the sound muffling barrier. As one, they turned to look at the developments at the edge of camp, and coin started to be passed around, bets being placed on whether a fight would break out amongst the three, and odds on who would win.
“Leah, showing your status page to someone is putting yourself in an incredibly vulnerable position. They can see almost everything about you, and that knowledge is dangerous in the wrong hands. You need to trust someone absolutely if you are going to give them that information. They would know your strengths, weaknesses, how you see people, even your history and what you have done to some extent. This is not something to be taken lightly at all.”
“Wait, can’t the analyse detect these things? I know at least it can understand skills being used, if I can see them.”
“To a very limited extent, yes. The problem with analyse is that in order to actually see any important information, you need to have a certain level of knowledge about it already. And to see into someones soul well enough to rival sharing your status page would require you to know them well enough that you wouldn’t need to. It is a useful skill, don’t get me wrong, and comes in very handy, but there is only so much it can show you. Sharing your status page is on a whole different level.”
“So what if I just share only a portion of it?”
“Just, you can’t?”
He sighed in exasperation, sharing a suffering look with Cassandra.
“Yes, just you can’t. Don’t ask me how, I don’t know even the slightest bit about this. Just, everyone knows that you can’t.”
“Have you tried?”
“I don’t generally get into the habit of sharing everything about myself to people, so no, I’ve never really had the opportunity to test if its even possible. But everyone knows that you can’t. Get that idea out of your head, or you might end up doing something incredibly stupid.”
Liam’s face was fixed and grim. Leah could tell that he was deadly serious about this, but that didn’t make him right. And she did have the perfect test bed opportunity here, plus a hunch on how she might go about it.
“Well, seeing as I’m going to be sharing my status anyway, I might as well give it a go. If I do this, though, will you trust that everything I’ve told you up till now has been true?”
“Apart from the blatant lies when we were interrogating you, yes. If Cassandra vouches for you after you… do it… I’ll take her word for it. Gods alive, you are crazy…”
Leah rolled her shoulders, already trading preparing for what she was going to try as she spoke.
“So how does this work?”
Cassandra took over.
“Just take my hand, or touch it. When you feel something reaching towards you, let it in. If you try to resist at all, it won’t work.”
“Its one of the rules of the System. You can’t force someone to share their status. So if you get cold feet, you can back out at any time.”
“But you shouldn’t.”
Liam gritted his teeth, and looked away, refusing to respond. Shrugging, Leah leaned forwards, and touched the palm of Cassandra’s hand with her finger tip. And immediately, she let her mind retreat, the world fading from her perception to be replaced with her mindscape.
She was back in the blank room with the map of her mind floating in front of her. Though she could tell something was different this time. She could sense her body, as if it was a shape reflected in a dark window, muted but still visible if she focused. Not wanting to leave the mindscape just yet, she instead tried to conjure up a window, to see through her eyes without connecting directly to them. A portal, the size and shape of a TV, floated in front of her suddenly. One moment it wasn’t there, the next it was as if it had never not been. The world outside her head was slowed, and she could see it clearly, as if she had all the time in the world to examine what was going on. The guards in the background, gradually inching closer to each other as they whispered conversations. Their lips moved as if in molasses, words impossible to read without taking the time to see the entire movement. Liam was returning his gaze to the pair, his head slowly facing forward. It was unclear exactly how much faster her perception had become - every time she tried to focus on something in particular, it felt like it changed speed, confusing her examination. But that was an experiment for another day.
She could feel another presence, outside her mind, but knocking at the front door. It didn’t want to come in to talk about our lord and saviour Jesus Christ, as it were, but it still wanted to know more about her. She didn’t feel it leaving yet, or making any headway at breaking in, so she left it for the time being, and headed for the door representing her submind. The portal representing her vision followed her, moving off to the side slightly as not to impede her vision. She noticed that she could still look at it without moving her head, though chose not to. Again, no experimentation outside what she had planned, and the sensation gave her a mental stomach ache at any rate. Inside the chamber, the familiar view of the submind, before so much like her prime mind, had gone, replaced with a truncated and distorted version. It was the best she could throw together in the short time she had to work, and thanked her lucky stars she had an opportunity to practise mental manipulation before. Though she would have preferred not to practise on her own mind in the future. The smaller copy of her mind had been replaced with an even smaller version, one that had only the knowledge of her name, her level and her traits. The image was hazy, though, and stutters were appearing in the pattern. Frowning, but knowing she didn’t have the time to correct it, she remained in the room, and opened a new door inside it, this one leading outside. The door opened, and Cassandra looked in.
She could feel Cassandra’s mind, but only as a presence, one that she was acutely aware of watching her. Though, she noticed, only a part of her, the part that was contained in this room. Even with her perception stood here, the presence wouldn’t be able to see her. This was just a facsimile of what was actually happening, for her own benefit. Though the presence could see everything inside this room, Leah had no way of looking back. She wouldn’t even know it was Cassandra if she wasn’t already aware of what was happening. What felt like minutes passed, as the presence scoured the entire room, then scoured it again. Making one more pass, it finally elected to retreat from her mind. Satisfied that the experiment was over, Leah let her mind drift back to the real world.
A noise like a low buzzing suddenly sharpened and sped up, a noise that she had been casually aware of the entire time she was in her mindscape, but had chosen to ignore.
“-in the hells?”
“Cass, are you ok?”
Liam had his hand on his knife again. His focus was darting between the two. Had he misjudged her? Did she have a way to go back along the connection with the skill she had mentioned?
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. Just… how in the hells?”
Leah blinked, full perception returning, and looked between the two.
“Did it work? I think I felt you looking at me in there.”
“I… I think it worked? I saw your traits, but…”
Liam shuffled a step back, knife partially drawn.
“But that was it. Only her name, level and traits. How in the hells did you pull that off, Leah?”
Leah breathed out slightly, her eyes focused now on the knife that Liam was holding steady in its sheath.
“So it worked. Thats a relief… I’ll go into it after you get your confirmation that I’m not lying. I’m actually quite curious to see whats in the trait myself, because I never actually opened it.”
Cassandra shook her head, eyes as wide as they could go, then turned to Liam, a genuine smile appearing on her face.
“Before I do that, you should check me out. Because if I saw what I think I saw, there must be something wrong with my head.”
Not wanting to take any chances, Liam drew his blade fully, and held it in a resting guard. He looked directly at Cassandra, their eyes meeting, and a low thrum of power surrounded him. Leah could feel the effect of his Compel Truth fully, for the first time, and she opened her eyes to watch the mana flowing around him. The swirl of mana that had been flowing through and past him before had a focus now, gathering around and inside his mouth and eyes. A gentle blue, tinged with a bright gold, flittered through the white of the mana, and he spoke.
“Cassandra. Are you under any compulsions other than my own.”
This was his trump card for detecting mental intrusions. So long as he wasn’t compromised, he could compel someone to tell the truth, at a fundamental level. It skipped right past their brain, and drew the answers from their soul, where the true memories lay. The only problem was, it took an incredible amount of mana to sustain, and both parties had to maintain eye contact the entire time. But by skipping past the brain, it would also get past all but the most potent of mental influences that could try to intercept it. And if someone that powerful wanted to put a hex on them, they were already dead.
That answer was as good as he was going to get. If he didn’t trust Leah now, he never would. And if she could fool him at this level, then he stood no chance if she was hostile anyway. He dropped the skill, sighing with exertion as a rush of mana fled his body. That would take a while to recover. He sheathed his blade, and raised his gaze back to Cassandra, this time without the influence of mana.
“So? I think I already know the answer, but…”
“She’s telling the damn truth. Whatever is going on here,”
She waved her hand at Leah.
“Its going to be big. And we’re getting in on the ground floor.”
Resigned to whatever came next, and as satisfied as he was going to be, Liam allowed himself to loosen up, and leaned back against a tree, feeling dead tired, but also excited. The day had just gotten crazier and crazier, and it showed no signs of stopping.
“Well then. Trust established, I suppose. Now, as Cass said, how in the hells did you block her out?”
“Its a long story…”