All the best conversations happened around the game table. Maybe it was just the idea that everyone was supposed to be doing something else, that these were digressions rather than the main topic, or maybe it was just that Juniper was terrible about reining things in. Sometimes the game would go on pause for a half hour or more as they went back and forth about whatever bullshit got brought up. Arthur instigated a lot of it, naturally, because he was Arthur, but part of it was Juniper, whose games were always about bugfuck weird shit that seemed like it was calculated to draw people into grand, sprawling arguments about all kinds of different topics.

“The problem is multiculturalism,” said Arthur, waving a hand. “Look, it’s really great to be able to go into a big city and get foods from all over the world, to see all kinds of crazy art, to have all these canons to draw from and translated text and all that. The flip side is that it represents a complete and total breakdown in the useful parts of those cultures. We’re talking about cultures and customs that have been around for dozens of generations, things that are tried and tested, and now they’re all torn apart and being used in ways that they were never meant to be used, different parts of them cast off from each other, recombined, and who’s to say that the end result, which is going to be the result of survival of the fittest and memetic strategies, will be something that’s actually good for people?”

That was classic Arthur.

“You’re talking about foods?” asked Tom.

That was classic Tom.

“No,” said Tiffany. “He’s talking about foods as a segue into talking about other things. It’s -- what’s the name for it?”

“Motte and bailey,” replied Juniper. “Named after an old style of castle. But I’m not even sure it’s that, he’s probably just talking to talk. And really, the cultural conflicts that we’re talking about in this city aren’t like that, they don’t arise from synthesis, they arrive from differences.”

“Sure,” replied Arthur, blowing right past that objection. He turned to Tiffany. “You disagree with the premise?”

Reimer watched carefully. This wasn’t quite flirting, but it was something close to it. There was a knowing way that Arthur talked to Tiffany, like they were close friends, and they were close friends, but part of being close friends was that you never let on how close you were, because it could get really awkward, really fast. Tom was given to those moments of sentimentality, maybe because his dad had died when he was little, and it gave Reimer the creeps, even if Tom was debatably his best friend.

“Look,” said Tiffany, which was often what she said when she was about to try cutting through Arthur’s shit. “Just last week you were talking about how it might be possible to build a culture that’s the best of all worlds, or a morality that starts from base principles, and I was sitting here arguing that maybe it would be possible, but the reality was going to be malicious actors and market forces fucking things up.”

Reimer sat and watched. There was a lot to like about Tiffany. There was a lot to hate, too, if you wanted to, things like the way she said ‘malicious actors’ and ‘market forces’ when there had to have been a simpler way of phrasing it, or how she didn’t take naturally to swearing but did it anyway because that was what everyone else did.

“Let’s step back,” said Arthur. “The Ha-lunde are a valued part of the international community.”

“Which ones are they?” asked Craig.

“Corpse fuckers,” Reimer replied. “Though they use something like a cow now, instead of the bodies of their enemies.”

“Gross,” said Tom.

“Which isn’t an example of multiculturalism,” said Tiffany. “They changed because they had to, because they were probably going to be wiped out if they didn’t adopt the sane solution to how they were made.”

“Right,” said Arthur. “But to the Ha-lunde, it wasn’t the sane solution, we erased a part of their culture, or, arguably, they voluntarily erased a part of their own culture. But even then, it wasn’t a one-way street, the Ha-lunde have helped to shape imperial law, so there are a lot of places now, even outside traditional Ha-lunde lands, where you’re allowed to kill a guy and then fuck his corpse to have your baby, so long as you have enough witnesses sign off and proper consent forms filled out so everyone knows it’s on the up-and-up. And because people are oh-so-worried about discrimination, you get a lot of places where having sex with a corpse is legal even if you’re not Ha-lunde.”

“And that’s a problem in your moral framework?” asked Tiffany, folding her arms and raising an eyebrow.

“I never said it was a problem,” replied Arthur. “It’s just what it is. You look at things like sexuality and gender, and obviously what humans end up having is going to be influenced by what goes on in the cities, and the cities have all kinds of species getting together, some of them all women, some all men, and yes, I know, those are terms that we’re applying where we really mean human-centric descriptions of what we can visibly see, but so far as I know, that’s an open problem, unless you want to learn the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax for hundreds of species and thousands of cultures.”

“It’s not hundreds,” said Juniper. “Two hundred.”

“Two is hundreds,” said Arthur. “One hundred, two hundreds.”

“Right, but you’re making it seem like more than it is,” said Juniper. “And we all know the number, so why be imprecise? It makes your point look weak. Also, I think thousands of cultures is probably wrong too, because for that to be true, you’d have to have an average of ten cultures per species, which I think you’d only get to if you were really liberal in your counting.”

“Even if it were ten cultures,” said Arthur. “The point stands that when you meld them all together, you get this confusing mish-mash, one that hasn’t been time-tested, one that’s probably just a collection of thoughts and ideas that don’t form a cohesive whole except to the extent that people try to shove it all into being one thing, which it’s not.”

“Oh, so now you’re going to talk to us about overfitting?” asked Reimer. “I’m going to make a note so I can remember this day, and refer back to it later the next time you have some insane theory that you’re marshalling a ridiculous amount of selectively picked evidence for.”

Arthur waved him away. “I mean, you’re still planning on going to an athenaeum, right?” asked Arthur. “I think that this is something that we should all be thinking about. It’s a different world out there.”

“But, again,” said Juniper. “Some of that, like the city that you’re making your base right now, is just cultures clashing with one another, rather than cultures integrating in some kind of blended ur-culture.”

“It’s a natural consequence of two cultures living together,” said Arthur. “Unless you’re telling me that the people of this city are completely segregated?”

“Mostly they are,” replied Juniper. “There’s no idea that people can pick and choose what they want, that’s modern imperial thinking. When there’s a holiday for the Urush, it’s only for the Urush, they don’t have Telleki people coming to partake in it, going through the streets with streamers, eating the holy food, et cetera. And yeah, sure, there are maybe a small fraction of people who are mixed-species, or who fall in love with someone of another culture and start a blended family, but that’s not the norm, and it’s not really what I’ve been talking about. If you guys come back here in another twenty or fifty years, then sure, it’ll be germane.”

“Sorry,” said Arthur, in a rare apology. “It’s just, I’m hopefully a year and a half out from going to the athenaeum, and it’s going to be so different from Sporsan. I’ve been to Caledwich twice, and that’s at least still Anglecynn, but it’s crazy how many species there are walking around, how much there is to consider, how people take it all in stride, how frickin’ weird it all is.” He sighed. “That’s all, tangent over, I’m sorry.”

And Juniper, being Juniper, would bring all that conversation into the next campaign they played, where this time the world was as cosmopolitan as the athenaeum cities were, with every effort on Juniper’s part to make them as blended and bizarre as possible, pushing his worldbuilding as hard as he could and trying to drive the plot from a place of multiculturalism.

Reimer had already put in his own application to study at Sound and Silence. Arthur was almost guaranteed, he was the head of the local Future Leaders of Anglecynn, plus his father had a little bit of pull with the capital, and of course Arthur was brilliant, even if he was a chode sometimes. Reimer had only hesitantly mentioned that he’d applied, only after he’d quietly sent the application in. When he’d learned that Tiffany had applied to an athenaeum too, it seemed like it probably wasn’t going to happen for Reimer, because she was whip-smart too, and three people being athenaeum-bound from their little podunk town seemed unlikely, just on the face of it. It was far too early to be worrying about how strange and alien Li’o might be, when the future was uncertain.

And indeed, the summer came, and Reimer finally got his letter, which was a firm but polite rejection. That was a kick in the teeth, and Arthur began to grate even more, because of course he’d gotten in, and Tiffany had too, different athenaeums (Clocks for her, the Vervainium for him), but still. It was a real kick in the teeth.

Then Arthur had gotten in a car accident, and died in the hospital weeks later, and not long after that, Reimer had gotten a letter saying that he had gotten into Sound and Silence after all. It was hard not to think that Arthur had died so that Reimer could go. Maybe someone high up in the Lost King’s Court had been informed of Arthur’s death and seen that there was an empty spot in their quotas, then gone through the other applications and seen that there was another application from that same small town. It was possible. Probable, even. The vagaries of the Mage’s Agreement, and the interface between the kingdoms, the empire, and the athenaeums, were all kind of a mystery from down on the ground in Sporsan.

So Reimer was wracked with guilt, and his group of friends was imploding, and he was trying to get his life in order for living in a foreign country and becoming a mage, all of which meant that he didn’t have that much time to prepare himself for the extreme culture shock, not that there was a whole lot that he could have done to prepare, other than taking the train into Caledwich a few times.

Set aside all the stuff about Juniper being replaced by a dream-skewered version of himself, and the stuff about the game system that he’d made getting grafted onto his soul, and the fact that Juniper very much appeared to be a repeat of Uther Penndraig, and how manifestly unfair that was, how bugfuck insane it was, how weird and alien and unsettling it made the entire world. Set aside how much Reimer’s future was in question, how much money he’d made, the fact that Juniper’s version of the ideal woman was something between his girlfriend and his assistant, or all the other weird shit that went on in that weird house that they just happened to have in Li’o. Take all that weird, barely comprehensible junk, and toss it off into a corner for later examination.

Reimer had a girlfriend!

Kind of.

Reimer’s dad had always been one to comparison shop before buying anything, combing through the options that were laid out in the catalogs, talking to people who owned various makes and models. It had taken months to get a new refrigerator, because Reimer’s dad must have looked at a dozen of them; it was always a running joke that whenever they went over to talk to another family, Reimer’s dad would go have a look at their fridge. It was an approach that Reimer took up.

So when Reimer was twelve, and he wanted a new bike, he went into it very prepared, with a budget and a plan. He was going to talk to people about what kind of bike he wanted, he was going to look through catalogs, and he was going to get his dad’s help. Only what ended up happening instead was that they went to a community picnic, and Reimer’s dad got to talking with someone from his work, and later that day he brought a secondhand bike home.

The thing was, it was a fine bike, it was basically everything that Reimer had wanted, but there was something that offended him about the way he’d gotten it, because there was no real element of choice involved, it was just handed to him without any real struggle or effort, no comparisons, nothing like that. It was just so lazy, so unconsidered, even if it was a perfectly fine bike.

Reimer’s worry was that he was Lisi’s bike. She had been looking for a boyfriend, or if not a boyfriend, then something, and he had been there, and apparently through no effort on his part, he’d met whatever her mysterious criteria were.

They were spending enormous amounts of time together, though a lot of that was intensive studying time, which Lisi would spend reading through thick books that were outside of their normal coursework, and which Reimer would largely spend on things that were more frivolous, though writing as much as he could about past campaigns and character builds was its own variety of work, even if that well was definitely running dry. When that wasn’t doing it for him, he would read the broadsheets, read the latest obol book, or listen to a radio play, sometimes just waiting for her to be done.

They talked a lot, through meals, between classes, and after she was done with her reading. He never really got the sense that she cared, but they traded stories all the same, hers always more interesting than his, stories about Quills and Blood, which she’d started training at when he was still wandering through the woods poking at snakes with his friends. He enjoyed hearing about Sanguine through her eyes, a place that was as alien to him as Li’o, but in completely different ways, rigid and hierarchical in spite of how many different species made their home there, firm and controlled, as though the vampires that had once made their home at the Sanguinary Estate had left an imprint so deep that it could never be erased. When Reimer talked about Sporsan, and what it was like on the agrarian ass-end of Anglecynn, Lisi nodded along, asked her pointed questions, and never seemed like it was making all that much of an impression on her, which was fine, because there was no reason that it should.

It was, however, one of the reasons that Reimer felt like he was Lisi’s carelessly chosen bike.

After the handjob, Reimer had thought a lot about culture shock. He and Lisi were both human, both from Anglecynn, even, but they came from radically different backgrounds. His father worked in a factory that made aluminum boats, and his mother worked part-time for the town. For Lisi, it was a completely different story, one marked by big cities and a fair amount of independence, all in the backdrop of imperial cosmopolitan social mores.

It made it impossible to understand the context of the handjob, or what Lisi thought about it, or what it meant. Reimer didn’t know whether they should talk about it, but Lisi didn’t bring it up. It really seemed like you should be able to talk about something that you had done together, but if there were rules out there, Reimer didn’t know them.

Some days, when they were sitting together in her room, after she’d finished her intensive reading and note-taking, she would come up to him and give him deep, passionate, aggressive kisses, and he had no idea how he should respond to that, except to enjoy it. He would touch her, and she seemed responsive to it, but there was never any repeat performance from her, nothing like that first time, when it had all happened without any real effort or awareness on his part, some strange alchemy that he hoped he would someday understand, a thing that had happened to him. Logically, he thought that he could probably take the initiative, remove her shirt while they were kissing, or bring her over to her bed, or something like that, but there was a persistent fear that she would be affronted. That first time she had done everything without so much as asking him his opinion or waiting for him to stop being shocked by the turn of events. So if she actually wanted him to go further, why wouldn’t she do it on her own?

He had tried, once, when she was straddling him and kissing him, running her hands over his body, wearing a dress that allowed her bare legs to touch his. He’d touched her, first her knees and then her thighs, working his way up as they kissed, completely unsure of himself, because he hadn’t gotten that far with any of the girls back home. His fingertips touched her underwear … and then she grabbed his wrists and firmly moved his hands away, back to her thighs, only slowing down slightly with her kisses. He had taken the message and hadn’t worked up the courage to try again.

Reimer waffled on whether or not he was being a coward.

On the one hand, he had seen Arthur and Tiffany go through the same thing, not that they had ever even kissed. Most of it, Reimer only learned after the fact, but it was the kind of thing that you learned about and suddenly the world made a lot more sense. Arthur had plotted, planned, and dithered, and eventually Tiffany had lost interest. It was something that Reimer had talked to Tiffany a lot about, in those waning days of their final year in Sporsan, after Arthur and Juniper were both gone, when she was trying to reinvent herself and prepare for the athenaeum in her own way, no longer Tiff, now Tiffany, a name that Reimer tried to adjust to but often failed at. Maybe, if he sent her a letter asking for advice (which would take an awful lot of explanation to even get to the question) she would say that he should go for it, or that he should just wait a few days, or something equally encouraging.

On the other hand, Reimer didn’t know the rules, and this was one of those situations where there could be rules about not asking about the rules, which you couldn’t find out until you had transgressed. Reimer was, by his nature, a plotter and a planner, but how could you plot and plan if you had no idea what was going on, and you weren’t even sure whether you were allowed to ask?

This went on for a week and a half, with not terribly much changing. They spent huge chunks of time together, ate their meals together, talked enough that he started to think he actually knew who she was, and made out on the small couch in her room almost every night (once on her bed, which felt like it was leading somewhere but didn’t). Reimer had always heard it said that when you were in love, you would know it for certain, and he didn’t know it for certain, but he wasn’t sure whether that meant he wasn’t in love, or if people who said you would know it when it happened were just full of shit. He was definitely infatuated though, despite how weird and intense Lisi could be, or maybe because of it.

And yes, there were daydreams of being a prince in the Lost King’s Court, though he had very little conception of what that would actually be like, and placed very low odds on it ever happening.

It wasn’t all about Lisi, but in the context of her, it all seemed like footnotes, aside from all the Juniper stuff, which was too big and too strange to grapple with.

Reimer went looking for people to play games with, not that he thought he’d ever find a group like he’d had in Sporsan. The system that Juniper had cobbled together (which was an insult to cobblers everywhere) seemed like it was lost to the sands of time, or more likely, living on only in reconstructed form from what Reimer could remember, but it wasn’t a great system anyway. There was a whole world of other games out there though, and Reimer found a group advertised on a bulletin board, one which explicitly said ‘newcomers welcome’.

When he got there, a dozen people were playing card games, eight of the antlered ahu, two dwarves, a bear animalia, and a ghill, which made Reimer the only human. It was the first time in his life that he’d been the only human in a room, and he almost left, not because of any xenophobia, but because he thought that it would be awkward. His inner Tiffany said, ‘but that’s probably how they feel all the time’, so he went in and sat down, at which point the bear animalia came to join him and immediately began asking him questions. When she (probably she, it was hard to tell) confirmed that he was a complete newbie, she placed a deck in front of him and began explaining the game, which was apparently a card game where you were in charge of constructing your own deck. It was extremely popular with the ahu, but hadn’t really spread beyond them, something that the club was trying to change.

So Reimer was given a ‘starter deck’ and a bunch of other cards to build something with, and he got stomped a few times before realizing that this was just another form of character optimization, and he hadn’t spent nearly enough time trying to break the game. Half of it seemed to just be planning and theorycrafting, which he felt like he’d spent a lifetime preparing for.

It was weird, talking to a bear. Not unpleasant, no, but still a bit weird. Reimer wasn’t a xenophobe, not by any stretch of the imagination, but Sporsan was about ninety-nine percent human, and the remaining one in a hundred people were split into their own unique enclaves, not more than three or maybe four of them, depending on how you counted, refugee groups that had been assigned by Anglecynn (the trotters, with distinctly red-hued skin, banned from school sports because they were about twice as strong as humans) or a single family that had moved a few generations ago and expanded (the Mo’quell family were tention, small and rodent-like, and there were enough of them in Sporsan that most places had special seating). This, this was just a bear animalia, Piper, with her own culture and history, and that, too, brought to mind the conversations they’d had at the gaming table about what it meant to live in a place that was such a strong mix of cultures and societies, because Piper came from a whole family of bears, with their own experience of the world.

After Reimer had rebuilt his deck, with Piper keeping him company, he played it a few times against one of the dwarves and got thoroughly crushed. As it turned out, there were a lot of meta-rules to learn, governing principles of deck construction that he hadn’t known until he’d actually tried it for himself, some of which tied into higher order emergent properties of the internal systems the rules set up.

He was in the middle of remaking his deck when a loud, layered tone filled the room. He looked around, coming back up from his deep thoughts on the game, and saw that four of the ahu were sitting there with their mouths open, all holding a note, not all that loud, but not really quiet either.

“What’s going on?” asked Reimer.

“Not sure,” said Piper. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

There were some attempts at jostling the singers, or trying to get their attention by clapping next to their ears, but none of the group’s crude diagnostic efforts bore fruit (the card games momentarily on pause), and the ahu kept sitting there, doing nothing but making that noise, without any sign that they were aware of the world around them.

“I’ll go get help,” said Reimer.

He’d been a part of the Young Drakes, a youth group that put a focus on disaster preparedness, which involved about one third mundane problems (earthquakes, flash volcanos, tornados, sinkholes, blizzards), one third exotic problems (rogue gold mages, dragons, wars, all manner of magical creatures), and one third total batshit stuff that had never happened in the entire history of Aerb (planning for unknown exclusions, basically). It wasn’t clear, at this point, what kind of emergency it was.

Step one was to go get help, someone with medical training if possible, a mage if you could find one. Back in Sporsan, there had been plans in place, and activating those contingencies as quickly as possible was supposed to be one of the key things to do, especially because a rapid response from Caledwich could solve a whole hell of a lot of problems.

Unfortunately, Reimer didn’t get much past step one, because as soon as he was out of the room and running through the halls, he could see that this wasn’t localized at all, it was everywhere, afflicting scattered people all through the building. He quickly ducked into one of the rooms and looked out the window, which allowed him to confirm that it wasn’t even local to this building, because there were people outside, only a few, standing stock still with their mouths open as others looked on nervously.

Reimer had been moving quickly, but after he saw that, he started running, trying to pace himself so that he wouldn’t get winded. There were two good options of where to go, if something strange like this was happening, the first being Juniper and his merry band, the second being Lisi, and Lisi was far, far closer. Reimer was still running for help, it was just a higher order of help, because this was the kind of outside context problem that Uther had always been dealing with.

By the time he got outside, storm clouds were forming in the sky, sickly green, tornado weather, just like he’d seen once or twice back home, except there were never hundreds of people sitting around letting out a weird noise with their jaws slackened and faces blank. Reimer was mildly surprised that he was the only one running, but everyone else seemed like they were stuck in the confusion and panic phase of things. Reimer focused on running and breathing, trying his best not to tire himself out, because in the back of his mind, he was thinking about the off-the-wall stuff they’d prepared for in the Young Drakes, like new exclusions, which by their nature were nothing like anything before. Rule one for that? Leave the presumed zone, as fast as you possibly could.

Reimer wasn’t at that point just yet. It wasn’t even necessarily trouble, just a weird storm and some people zonking out while singing the same not-song, and as he went over that in his mind, that made it seem worse, not better. He kept up his running though, trying not to worry that he was overreacting, and trying to think about all the planning they’d done in the Young Drakes for all kinds of crazy shit. It was generally accepted that there was no such thing as stealing if you were trying to escape an exclusion zone. Reimer knew how to do an ignition bypass on a car and drive it without keys, if need be. Unfortunately, he had practically nothing of any value on him, not from a material wealth standpoint, and not from a survival standpoint. There were things back in his room, but that was on the other end of campus.

He dashed past the Canis Building and went into Lisi’s dorm, and said his thanks that the man at the front desk was one of the slack-jawed not-singers, because he’d been stopped a few too many times in the past two weeks. Reimer took the stairs up three at a time, still trying to conserve energy, because who knew how long he was going to have to run for. He was going to need water, and in a disaster, plumbing was often the first thing to go.

When he burst into Lisi’s room, she was sitting there, as he’d hoped she would be, on her bed, reading a book, wearing a light green dress that stopped just below her knee. She looked up at him without any of the annoyance he was worried she would be feeling.

“How was --” she began.

“Something’s happening,” said Reimer. He was breathing hard. “People screaming for no clear reason, a big storm overhead, I don’t know what it is, but it’s not good. We should think about leaving Li'o, at least for the rest of the weekend, until we know what’s happening. We have to move now. Maybe talk to Joon and Mary.”

Lisi tossed her book to the side, slipped down off the bed, and crouched down in front of it, facing away from Reimer. She slid a long, heavy leather suitcase from underneath it, and before Reimer could protest that it really would be better for them to move, Lisi had opened the suitcase, giving Reimer a view of what was inside.

She handed him a pistol in a hip holster, then put on one of her own, and after that pulled a sword from the suitcase as well.

“You said you had experience?” she asked, handing it to him.

“Uh,” said Reimer, trying to think back to what he’d said. He’d mostly used a sword during games period at school, and that was much more choreography and forms than it was actually knowing how to hit and kill things, and the swords they used were simple, kludgy things that were made by the hundreds and blunt as a watermelon. Aside from that, he’d had a little training with his father, which was really just playing around, and more about the tradition of it than because he would ever be expected to use one. “Some,” he said. He hoped that he hadn’t lied to her, or exaggerated too much, but it was very possible he had. The sword she’d given him was a masterwork, at least going by the sheathe and grip.

“Good,” she replied. “It’s an entad that charges you up when it hits, you’ll be faster, stronger, make that first strike count if we have to fight.” She pulled a second sword from the suitcase and buckled it to her hip. “When did this start?”

“Ten minutes ago,” replied Reimer. He buckled his own sword on. He was a little skeptical of the utility of it, given that they needed to be on the move, and while he’d always found swords to be surprisingly light, he also knew from experience that adding a few extra pounds could make a person miserable while on the move. “Maybe a little less than ten minutes. I came as fast as I could.”

The second-to-last thing that Lisi pulled from the suitcase was a small pipe that looked like it was carved of bone, which she inspected briefly before sliding it into a backpack, which was the last thing she brought out. “Food and water for three days,” she replied. “Bottles and spikes. You’re carrying it.”

He should have figured that Lisi would be more prepared than he was. She put on thick, sensible shoes as he strapped down the backpack, and as soon as that was done, they were out the door, moving at speed down the steps together. Maybe he hadn’t been as focused on it, but the singing, if you could call it that, seemed like it was getting louder, and when they passed through the front doors of the dormitory, the clouds overhead were thick and low to the ground, their color unnatural. It was definitely tornado weather, the green that you sometimes got with a fading bruise, but the clouds were too low.

“We need to get to safety,” said Lisi. “Do you know where Juniper is?”

“No,” replied Reimer. He looked back up at the sky and saw a claw descend from it, only briefly, one that must have been the size of a car. The clouds swirled in its wake, but didn’t lift. “Kaiju,” he said, voice barely above a whisper.

“What?” asked Lisi, who hadn’t seen it, and was still moving, apparently away from campus, toward Juniper’s house.

“Kaiju,” said Reimer as he followed after her. He hadn’t attached the sword quite right, because it was banging against the top of his thigh as they moved. “Juniper had this world, these giant things, monsters, with people living in their shadows. Each was as big as a small town. And it was a low magic setting, only about a dozen kinds, all at the lower ends, no athenaeums, so people hid underground, except some of the kaiju were burrowers, so the mortal species were reduced to being scavengers or worse.”

“I don’t follow,” replied Lisi.

“I saw something,” said Reimer. “Something bigger than the biggest dragon.”

“Lead with that next time,” replied Lisi. They had gotten out of campus and were walking down the street. There was practically no one letting out the tone now, though there were a lot of people outside, looking up at the sky and talking in low voices.

“I don’t think it’s anything that we can fight,” said Reimer. “They weren’t, in the game.”

“We’ll see what they say when we get there,” replied Lisi.

“We’re stealing a car,” said Reimer. “It’ll be faster.”

He took out the wires behind the steering wheel and connected them to each other to create a short that would cause the soul energy to be harnessed again. Reimer was quickly trying to recollect everything that he could remember about the kaiju. He’d been doing ‘work’ like that for Amaryllis for almost two weeks now, writing down everything that he could think of. She had gotten the broad strokes first, then wanted to move on to the deeper lore, the minor characters, the off-hand things that Juniper (the other Juniper, the Aerb one) had thought up. Reimer understood the desire for the game system rules, given that this alternate-but-still-the-same Juniper somehow had game stuff grafted onto him, but all of the campaign stuff … that was a little more confusing, and it was confusing in a way that Amaryllis hadn’t been able or willing to help with.

It was after he’d gotten the car going, on the way over, that Reimer saw the claw descend from the sky again, this time with others following it. Lisi saw too, and stopped for a moment to watch as five claws of enormous size sliced through the air together before returning to the cloud cover. One of them touched down on the ground, somewhere in the city.

“That’s not good,” said Lisi.

It was the first time that Reimer got the sense that she was anything less than completely prepared for what seemed like it might be the end of this little section of the world. In a way, it was comforting to know that she wasn’t superhuman, and that she could say stupid things like ‘that’s not good’ when claws began descending from a greenish sky.

When they got to the house that Juniper was staying at, it was closed up tight with no lights on. Reimer banged on the front door, yelled for them, and then finally tried to force the lock. The windows were frosted, which he was pretty sure they hadn’t been the last time he’d been over.

“I’m breaking in,” said Reimer, glancing only briefly at Lisi.

“If they’re not here, we should go,” said Lisi. “Out, away from what’s happening here. We should be fine if we can make it to one of the major roads with a car.”

“I’m worried it’s too late,” said Reimer. “Other people will be evacuating. That will clog the streets.” He cupped his hands and tried to look through the frosted glass, to no avail. In the distance, he saw the claws touch down again, this time a little more firmly before retracting. “I’m going to break the window.”

“There might be wards,” said Lisi.

Reimer hesitated, then smashed through the window. Wards that stopped a person weren’t really a problem, it was the annihilation wards that would absolutely fuck you up, and in most places their use was prohibited or at least tightly controlled. He didn’t know whether that applied to this place, given that what Juniper and his new friends were doing didn’t seem like it was entirely legal to begin with, and if it was all legal, then they were so far up the power scale that little things like laws could be swept away with a politely worded letter.

That the window actually broke was a good sign. Reimer stuck his hand, careful not to touch the glass, moving slowly so that he could feel with his extended fingertip if there was an annihilation ward. Instead, there was nothing. Looking inside, he saw only darkness, none of what he remembered being in the sitting room, though he didn’t have a good internal map of the place, which had been built in a confusing way that made him feel like rooms were different the second time he went through them. Or maybe it was magic, who knew.

Lisi unzipped the backpack on Reimer’s back and pulled out a shielded dawnrod, which provided illumination as bright as daylight. When she shined it into the house, it was completely empty, not just with all the furniture taken out of the room, but all the walls too, nothing but bare ground, the walls of the houses it abutted, and skeletal rafters holding up the roof. It was like there had never been a house there at all, and only the facade remained.

“Well, that’s a neat trick,” said Reimer.

“We should get back into the car,” said Lisi. “Drive out of town, and stay there until we know more. We wouldn’t even need to miss classes.”

“Agreed,” replied Reimer. “I’m glad that I went to you first.” That just sort of slipped out, but she didn’t seem to take it the wrong way.

“Me too,” she replied. “Let’s go.”

They hopped back into the car, which took more wrangling to get going, then took off as fast as traffic allowed. Unfortunately, that wasn’t terribly fast, because by this point, other people had the same idea. There were still one or two people singing mixed in with all the others, standing stock still as everyone moved around them. Reimer tapped on the wheel as he tried and failed to maneuver around the person in front of him. Something was blocking traffic, and they just didn’t have the time to deal with any of this, not if that thing whose claws were coming down from the sky did something that was more than just menacing.

It was when they were stopped that the back door of the car opened up and a man slipped into the back seat. Lisi immediately drew her pistol and aimed it squarely at him, but he had both his hands up, and she didn’t shoot, which Reimer was thankful for, given how close the gun was to his head and how loud it would be. The man was, Reimer belatedly realized, a dark elf, but before he could let that sink in, the traffic began its sluggish motion again, and Reimer stepped on the gas.

“Out,” said Lisi.

“Lisianthus Penndraig,” he said. “Arthur Reimer.”

Lisi didn’t lower her gun. “Who sent you?”

“No one,” he replied. “But I travel alongside Amaryllis Penndraig and Juniper Smith. My name is Heshnel Elec.”

“Nice,” said Reimer with a sigh of relief. “Good to have you.” But he was an elf, even if he was a dark elf, who didn’t even really practice cannibalism, not like the other variants did.

“You were watching the house,” said Lisi, slowly lowering her gun.

“I was in the house,” replied Heshnel. “You just couldn’t see me. Given the choice of staying where I was and following, I elected to see you to safety.”

Reimer glanced at the dark elf in the rearview mirror again. Heshnel had something on his lapel that Reimer eventually realized were flower buds. “You’re a flower mage?” he asked, returning his attention to the road, and the traffic that was still going too slowly for his tastes.

“I am,” replied Heshnel.

“Anything that would let us get away from whatever is coming down?” asked Reimer.

“Not far enough, and we wouldn’t be able to take the vehicle with us,” said Heshnel.

“Are you a proficient flower mage?” asked Lisi, still turned around in her seat.

“I studied under Vervain,” replied Heshnel. “My flower strains date back five hundred years.”

“Good,” replied Lisi, finally turning back to face the road.

“Any reason you’re not with the others, fighting that thing?” asked Reimer.

“I’ve fought too many battles in my life,” said Heshnel. “Juniper will prevail, or he won’t, but I will do my best to be far away.”

“Well, we should have taken fucking bikes or something,” said Reimer. “Because this is absolutely ridiculous.” Nevermind the fact that Reimer basically didn’t know the streets of Li’o at all, it was taking forever to get anywhere, and he would have suggested that they just run, but if they could ever get out on the open road, they would be going so much faster that they might actually stand a chance of escaping the worst of it.

The sky darkened, and Reimer instinctively looked up, trying to see what was happening above. “Fuck,” he said, as he saw the claws descending, this time with the rest of the leg wholly visible. The thing, the kaiju, touched down with an almost gentle grace, its long hair and many-mouths looking vaguely peaceful. It wasn’t quite on top of them, but it was very, very close, and the thunderous sound of the claws crashing down was loud, even over the sound of the city. There were screams of terror and minor popping sounds, either distant gunfire or explosions. A few of the claws had come down in front of them.

Traffic had stopped. Maybe too many people were looking up instead of going forward.

“We need to get out,” said Reimer. “We’re not moving fast enough, we can get back in a car or hitch a ride when we get to a place where the roads are clear.” He opened the door without waiting for a response. If those claws had come down on the streets, then traffic would be even worse, or blocked entirely, and it was already terrible.

“Where are we going?” asked Heshnel, exiting the car on his own.

“Wherever will have us,” replied Lisi. “We have enough supplies for a few days, enough money to pay our way.”

“We’re going away from that fucking thing,” replied Reimer. He looked back at it, its size beggaring belief, and old questions about the square-cube law came bubbling up to the surface of his mind.

They abandoned the car and took off, not quite running, because the sheer size of the kaiju was mind-boggling enough that a dead sprint would probably wind them before they even got to the furthest claws ahead of them. Reimer paid special attention to Lisi, worried that he would look back and she would be gone, but she kept pace with a grim determination. She was a blood mage, with what seemed like a fair amount of combat training and aptitude, and he shouldn’t have worried, but he did.

Ahead of them, Reimer saw the claws begin to move, ponderously slow because they were so big, but incredibly fast given how much was being moved. It wasn’t going the same direction they were, not quite, but it wasn’t moving away either. Stopping wasn’t an option either way, and Reimer tried to focus on navigating his way down the street, past all the cars that were now virtually stopped. The three of them weren’t the only ones who had decided to flee and to try to go on foot, but there was enough room to move.

When he glanced back, he saw something in the air, a flying ship of some kind, large enough that it would have been shocking, if his mind weren’t getting used to the size of the enormous creature it was battling. There had always been a lot of talk about what kind of defenses the nations of the world were packing, what powerful entads and obscure magics they would bring to bear on a powerful attacker. Most of that stuff was completely secret, but this was apparently what the city-state of Li’o, one of the more powerful, could whip out to face down a threat.

“Keep moving,” said Lisi, pushing him along with a shove so hard he nearly lost his balance.

They kept up their half-jog, moving just a little bit faster than before. Reimer was getting tired; he had been pretty active in Sporsan, but there wasn’t much to do for physical activity at S&S, and three weeks of doing little but walking had worn away at his endurance a shocking amount. He was also carrying the pistol, and the sword, and a full backpack.

“I’m leaving the city,” said Heshnel. “I will regroup with you in Karatern, if you survive. This isn’t my fight.” His voice was smooth and calm, with none of the hard breathing that Lisi and Reimer were doing.

“You’re talking to them?” asked Lisi.

“Parson’s Voice,” he replied, which meant nothing to Reimer.

“Tell them we’re okay,” replied Lisi.

“No,” said Heshnel. “Their work is more important. Knowing we’re together would be a distraction.”

That conversation might have gone on for longer, but one of the enormous claws came down from the sky and smashed straight through a building just in front of them. Heshnel moved quickly and used a bud taken from his lapel, which exploded outward with twisted branches, stopping the falling debris from coming down on everyone. He didn’t stop to savor the moment though, or even to acknowledge the people he’d saved, Reimer among them.

“Keep moving,” said Heshnel.

Reimer followed after. The pistol and sword at his hip felt useless against a thing that size, and he might have dropped them, except there was a chance that he would be forced to use them against people at some point in the near future, something that made his stomach churn just thinking about. People could get feral in situations like that, he had read a few unflinching survivor’s accounts from those who had been in exclusions when they happened.

They kept moving, and the kaiju kept moving too, almost as fast. They were following the street, and the kaiju was following his own path, but he had so many legs, and was moving so fast, that it was hard to be sure that they were staying out of his way. People were in a panic now, and the streets were so clogged that hardly anyone was using their cars, at least in part because the kaiju’s many footfalls had been demolishing buildings and tearing up the roads.

It seemed like their paths had finally diverged when there was an explosion high overhead. The flash of light got to them first, bright enough that Reimer winced, and the shockwave came afterward, rumbling across the city like thunder from a hundred feet away. It rattled windows and kicked up dust. Reimer blinked a few times until he could see properly again, then looked up at the kaiju just in time for the rain of blood and gore to start.

The blood came down in droplets, and the smallest of the pieces came down like hail. As soon as the first of them fell, Reimer grabbed onto Lisi’s arm and pulled her inside the doorway of a building. The first of the bigger pieces, one the size of a small car, slammed down into the road, splattering on impact and hitting hard enough to kill a man. Heshnel hadn’t come with them: the dark elf was staying out there, trying to help others, using his flowers to do it in displays of pink petals or a flash of lightning. He took a hit, then another, not even seeming to feel them (and, unbelievably, it seemed like he was taking the hits because he chose to, so that he could save more people). More and more meat was landing in the streets, the bigger pieces the true hazards, but everything else as completely disgusting as Reimer could imagine it being. He was terrified that something would hit the building and crush them, but it was the only shelter available. When he looked at the ground, he saw pieces of finger, long pieces of finger with too many joints, and worse, they were moving, twisting and curling as if in agony.

Eventually less in the way of flesh was coming down, though the rain of blood continued, and Reimer stepped out of the alcove he’d found for them to look up at the kaiju. He hoped that this was, somehow, a good sign, but when he tried to take in the immense beast and saw its knees buckling, he felt his face fall. It was massive, big enough to cover a few city blocks, and it was coming down, probably close to them.

“Run!” he shouted to Lisi, and he took off without looking back to see whether or not she was coming. He got his answer a second later, when she went bounding past, moving so quickly that she had to have been using blood magic. Reimer focused on his own running, but the ground was slick with blood, flesh, and those weird pieces of fingers that seemed to be everywhere. He wanted to look behind him to see whether the kaiju was still tipping down in his direction, but he didn’t want to take his eyes off of the treacherous street ahead of him. He nearly stumbled when he saw a corpse, someone who had been hit by something hard falling down on them, or maybe taken out when a building collapsed.

When a shockwave lifted up the earth, Reimer slipped and fell down into the blood-slick pieces of flesh that dotted the street. A firm hand on his arm lifted him back up to his feet.

“Are you injured?” Heshnel asked.

“No,” said Reimer, looking instinctively to where the shockwave came from. It was a horrifying wall of flesh, nearly as tall as a skyscraper, with giant tears down the side of it and blood gushing from its wounds. The legs were folded up or crunched under it, and the entire mass of it, so fucking large that you might have been able to fit every building in Sporsan inside it, lifted up for just a moment and then slapped back down.

“Juniper killed it,” said Heshnel.

Reimer turned and stared at the dark elf. “No,” he said.

“We lived,” sighed Heshnel. “I had thought it would take longer, a siege instead of an onslaught.”

“Are we safe?” asked Reimer.

“I don’t know,” replied Heshnel. “Nothing like this has ever happened before, not even to Uther.”

Reimer heard running, and turned to see Lisi coming back to him, albeit at a much slower pace than when she’d left. “Why are you stopped?” she asked.

“It’s dead,” replied Reimer.

“We should keep moving,” said Lisi. “The last place we want to be is Li’o. We’ll get to some place where we can teleport back to Anglecynn.” She said that offhandedly, a reminder of the resources she commanded.

“There’s something there,” said Heshnel, looking up at the top of the wall of flesh. Reimer tried to follow his eyes, and did in fact spot something, a black figure, just one at first and then others, hard to make out, the shape nearly humanoid. “Back.”

Reimer backed up, putting Heshnel between himself and the things, which, who knew, could have possibly been a peaceful society living on the kaiju’s back, but were probably terrifying beasts constructed of pure hunger, if the day so far was any indication. Reimer watched the first one drop, and as it fell, something clicked in his brain, and he was staring at an empty spot in mid-air, not sure why he was looking there instead of further up. More dropped down, and the same effect happened again, a momentary confusion about what he was seeing, followed by his eyes tracking back up to where these black shapes were dropping down, until they were all gone, and it was like they had never been there at all.

“What am I supposed be looking at?” asked Reimer.

“I’m not sure,” replied Heshnel. “It must have been nothing.” He relaxed slightly.

“We were all just intently looking up at the top of the wall of flesh, combat ready, for no reason?” asked Lisi. She was still tensed, and Reimer tried to put himself into the combat pose he’d learned for using a sword, feeling awkward and trying to get his feet and shoulders positioned correctly. He drew the sword for the first time, and was greeted by a crackle of electricity and the smell of ozone, both of which quickly faded. The sword was, no surprise, perfectly balanced. He slipped the backpack to the ground, hoping that he would fight better with it off.

Heshnel toppled to the side and was on his feet in an instant, seemingly unharmed. He hand went to his lapel and pulled forth another of his buds, which exploded outward in crimson petals that filled the area, hanging in the air, motionless except where they were disturbed by movement.

As swordsmen went, Reimer was a rank novice. As far as fighters went, he was even worse, having never been in a serious fight in his life aside from when he’d gotten in the middle of other people fighting. But this, flower petals in the air, disturbed by an unseen force, this was something that he’d played out a dozen times at the table, these were the kinds of scenarios that he had dedicated roughly half his life to. He gave a shout that came out more like a scream, with his voice cracking, and swung his sword through the air where the petals were moving.

He might have wondered whether he had connected at all, but the sword lit up with electricity, and shortly after that, his body did too. Lisi had said that he would be charged up, but he’d had no real idea what it would be like. The lightning crackled through him, like it did the vitrics, and he could feel his heart hammering in his chest, faster than it had ever gone before. The strike must have killed whatever invisible beast had been moving in front of him, because it fell to the ground, deep black fur and long, snake-like tail, neither of which fully distracted from how long its claws were. It wasn’t like it had become visible. Rather, it was like realizing that you could see the bridge of your nose all along, your brain had just chosen to filter it out as pointless.

Heshnel was pulling more buds out, using them with abandon. He was taking hits too, not the deliberate hits that he’d been taking when he was saving people from the rubble, but hard and awkward ones that saw him momentarily off-balance. He had a dirk in his left hand and was swinging with it, but he was going based on the movements of the flower petals suspended in the air, and his elf luck was either weak or not working on whatever these things were. The hits, which seemed like they should have been grievous based on the way Heshnel recoiled back from them, didn’t seem to be doing any damage.

The suspended flower petals moved in front of Reimer, and he swung his sword again, this time feeling it connect, but with no associated beast dropping out of the air, and further, no extra charge from the sword, no rush of power except what was still inside him. He swung the sword again, this time putting the full power of the electric charge in his body into it, and sliced through something in the air, where the petals were disturbed. This time a monster did materialize, his brain suddenly deciding to show it after all, collapsing to the ground with a deep cut through its torso.

It was about that time that a clump of hair fell from the kaiju and landed in a pile on the ground not too far from the wall of flesh. Reimer probably wouldn’t have noticed, had it not been directly in his view. The gross thing about it was the color, which was a flesh tone, peachy pink like … like the pieces of finger that were still littering the ground. Reimer tried to focus back on the petals, to see if any were moving near him, or if there was a single one of the creatures that he could kill without too much danger, but his attention was drawn back to the hair, which had split off into individual strands that were slithering like snakes across the ground.

“Hair!” shouted Reimer, mostly because of the adrenaline.

For whatever reason, Heshnel was taking more of the brunt of the attack than Reimer was, maybe because he was closer, or maybe because he was by far the bigger threat. Despite the times an attack came from seemingly nowhere and threw him off-balance, he was holding his own, an analysis of the situation that held right up until the thin snakes came slithering across the ground en masse. They were whip fast, and though they didn’t seem strong, they wrapped their way around him, and around spots in the air where they petals were disturbed. They came for Reimer as well, in from the sides, and he swung his sword at them as fast as he could, hacking like he was trying to get through the underbrush. His sword caught on something in the air, another of the invisible things, and he reeled backward, using his electricity-boosted speed to get out of the way of claws or other things that might be in the air.

Lisi came up behind him, firing her pistol with a look of grim determination on her face. Her arms were coated in blood, and her green dress was stained with it, but there were three of the rat things laying on the ground where she must have been standing. Reimer was grateful, and tried to find his stance again, but really, he was just swinging his sword through the air and hoping that the lightning inside him would last.

He hadn’t been looking when Heshnel fell, but he saw the dark elf on the ground, unmoving, and felt his breath catch when he saw the elf’s head rolling backward, away from his body, which was being ripped apart.

“We have to go!” shouted Reimer, but he wasn’t sure that he could outrun these things that his brain refused to see. A few of the snake-things, which were made of fucking fingers were dead around him, and he knew that he couldn’t outrun them. He ran all the same, grabbing the backpack for some idiot reason, leaving the dark elf behind them. Reimer felt a wetness on his back as they fled, with the pain coming only later, but there was nothing beyond that, just the feeling of blood coming out from his back and soaking his clothes.

One of the finger-snakes latched onto Reimer and wrapped around his leg, pulling him off balance, and though he cut through it with his sword, he fell enough to bang his knee on the ground. Lisi pulled him sideways and he half-hobbled with her, through a nearby open doorway, which she slammed shut behind her and leaned back against.

“Leg,” she said, breathing heavily.

Reimer, shaking, extended his leg to her, where the finger-snake was wrapped around him. Up close, it really was just a series of knuckles, complete with small hairs, like someone had been trying to figure out what horrible monstrosity they could make with a truckload of surplus human fingers. Lisi quickly unwrapped it from around his leg until she got to the end, where it had apparently bit him. She pulled once, and he winced at the pain.

“Not sure what removing it will do,” she said. “It’s pretty firm.”

“I got clawed up on my back,” said Reimer. “Probably bleeding out anyway.” It finally occurred to him that this might actually be the point where he died. “You should kill me and bottle my soul.”

“I can heal you,” said Lisi. “I can give you some of my blood. Platelet forcing.”

“You don’t know platelet forcing,” said Reimer. He was feeling a little woozy.

“I know it can be done,” she replied. She looked down at the finger-snake and the junction where its teeth, or whatever they were, had attached it to his leg. “I’m going to pull.”

“Okay,” replied Reimer.

When she pulled, she must have used blood magic for extra strength, because the finger-snake’s teeth (many, many teeth, in concentric circles) ripped out flesh too, and didn’t go quickly. It had been damned near placid with its teeth sunk in, even though it was missing its back half, but once detached it writhed and squirmed like a cornered animal. Lisi dispatched it calmly, ripping it apart into small pieces.

“Bleeding,” said Reimer, looking at his leg. It was shaking, all on its own, and he hoped that this wasn’t how he died, but he knew that this was how people died sometimes, when terrible things came out of left field and all your preparations came to nothing because you were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Lisi grabbed his leg at the site of the wound, and a moment later Reimer felt warmth flow through his body from the site. He wanted to protest that she should go, should save herself, that she should kill him first and bottle his soul to spare him the hells, but he was selfish, and wanted her here. He was selfish, and wanted to live.

“I love you,” he said. His voice cracked again.

“Hush,” she replied.

He fell silent. Her blood was doing its work. He wasn’t sure whether she’d figured out platelet forcing on the fly, or whether it was just her ability to control blood. They were compatible blood types: she’d done a test a few days before, which he supposed he was thankful for. He didn’t seem to be losing blood either, at least so far as he could tell. It occurred to him that he might live, if the empire brought its full powers to bear, if that huge ship could do effective clean up operations, or if some miracle happened. Then it occurred to him that he might have to live, having told Lisi that he loved her, which he wasn’t even sure was true.

“Why did you move my hands away?” he asked.

“What?” she asked back. She looked slightly annoyed that he was talking, but she often looked like that, and every time he’d asked in the past, she’d said that she was just annoyed that she didn’t understand, or that was how she looked when she was thinking.

“We were kissing,” he said. “And I was touching your legs. And I slid them up and … you moved them away.” This was the most trivial of trivial things, but he’d already told her that he loved her, and if he had screwed things up, then screwing them up a little more in exchange for some answers seemed like it might be a worthwhile trade, not that he’d actually been thinking that deeply when he’d posed the question.

“Ah,” said Lisi. She kept her hand gripped around his leg and shifted slightly. “I was on my period.”

“Oh,” said Reimer.

They sat in silence as she continued trying to heal him using blood magic. Eventually, after that seemed like it wasn’t really working, she dug into the backpack with her free hand and got out medical supplies. She had him flip over and began looking at his back while still holding his leg to connect their circulatory systems together. All of this was done with barely any words exchanged between them. Having Lisi clean his wounds was painful, as was the material she put down on top of them, but eventually it began to have a cooling effect, and at least took away some of the pain.

“I think you’re going to be fine,” said Lisi.

“So long as nothing comes through that door,” replied Reimer. He shifted uncomfortably, feeling the material on his back itch slightly, which was far preferable to the slicing pain that had been there before. “Clock is ticking on that dark elf out there.”

“I know,” replied Lisi. “Twenty minutes, give or take. Less, if we wanted leeway.”

“Others too,” replied Reimer. “Civilians.”

“You’re a civilian,” said Lisi, frowning at him like she was annoyed again.

“So are you,” replied Reimer. “At least, here you are, I’m not sure what you’d be under Anglecynn law.”

“I have a duty,” said Lisi. “No one would fault me though.” She grabbed a length of gauze from the backpack and began wrapping his leg with it.

“You’re going, though,” he said.

“Yes,” she replied. “If I can save two people from eternal damnation at the expense of myself, that’s pretty simple math.” She finished the binding and stood up. “I’m hoping for more than two, obviously.” Lisi unholstered her gun and took a breath. “You have a fair bit of my blood. Try not to waste it by doing something heroic. Stay here until help arrives.”

“Lisi,” said Reimer, but he didn’t know what to follow it with.

“You’re infatuated with me, not in love,” she said. “That’s okay. I’m infatuated with you too. It’s probably just hormones.”

Lisi opened the door, pistol raised. Beyond it was the cracked and ruined city, and standing above the drying blood and gore were froglike creatures of some unfamiliar species. They had small tanks on their backs and bottles of souls, but more alarmingly, one of them held Heshnel’s head.

Reimer thought that Lisi would shoot, but she hesitated for a moment, either assessing this new situation or thinking before discharging her weapon.

“They’re friends,” said Heshnel’s head, which was, impossibly, still animated. “I’ve been assured that we’ll be picked up shortly.”

Ropes had come down from the giant ship and touched them for long enough that Reimer wondered what was supposed to happen. Once ten seconds or so had passed, there was a flash of black, and Reimer found himself laying on a bed in a cavernous room with Lisi beside him.

“Powerful magic,” she breathed. She looked at their surroundings and Reimer’s eyes followed her. There were hundreds of beds like his, arrayed in rows, and the same frog people were moving around inside, tending to the injured. The sound was surprisingly muted, given how many people there were, but it didn’t disguise the screams of pain. “And tuung.”

“Tuung?” asked Reimer. The name rang a bell. “Wait, you mean those people Juniper was working with? The Republic of Miunun?”

“Yes,” replied Lisi. “I think this is their doing. The Council of Arches.”

“You think that Juniper has a giant flying ship and a few hundred frog people on retainer?” he asked. The odd thing was, that wasn’t actually out of the question.

“I think so,” replied Lisi.

One of the frog people came over to them with a clipboard in hand. It wore one of those tanks at its side and carried a small satchel with it. “Injuries?” it -- she -- asked.

“His back and right leg,” replied Lisi. “The back injury was caused by claw from some black rat creature, with etcher-grass applied a few minutes ago. The leg injury was the bite of a smaller finger snake, removed and bandaged. I also gave him a transfusion -- we’re compatible -- and attempted platelet forcing, which I believe was unsuccessful.”

“Your own injuries?” asked the tuung.

“Minimal,” replied Lisi. “Bumps and scrapes. Self-inflicted cuts that I have under control. Slight blood loss, but I have experience managing it.”

“Good,” replied the tuung. “Healing will be along shortly.”

“Thank you,” said Lisi with a short nod. At that, the tuung left them alone again, though they were close enough to all the other beds that it was easy to overhear other conversations, and there was nothing like privacy.

“Are you alright?” asked Lisi.

“Mostly,” replied Reimer. “I’ve only had magical healing twice in my life.” He paused. “Do you think it will be magical?”

“I don’t think that they would have this much infrastructure in place without having stockpiled large quantities of magical healing,” replied Lisi.

“Actually,” replied Juniper, appearing out of thin air right next to them, causing both of them to jump. “This place was constructed just shortly after midday, and the tuung that are doing most of the work treating everyone were hatched a month ago, depending on your reference frame.” He reached into his bandolier and pulled out a piece of wax paper that was wrapped around a small plug of something squishy. “We do have healing though.” He handed it over. “Eat this.”

“What is it?” asked Reimer, cautiously taking it and unrolling the wax paper. He skipped over the obvious questions like ‘where did you come from’ and ‘how do you have all this stuff’ and ‘were you listening to us’.

“Marzipan,” replied Juniper. “Entad-made.”

Reimer ate it down and immediately began to feel better. A quick check of his wounds showed that they had sealed entirely, leaving small, barely visible pink flesh where minor scars had formed, the kind that would hopefully be gone in a week or two.

“Better?” asked Juniper, watching them closely.

“Yeah,” said Reimer.

“Okay,” replied Juniper with a nod. He was wearing his full plate, minus the helm, standing taller than he really was and looking utterly imposing. He’d put points into PHY, that was what it was, it was all cheating … but he was still impressive, and probably more impressive without armor covering him. “Now, I would like your consent to check you over on a deeper level.”

“A deeper level?” asked Reimer. “Excuse me?”

Juniper looked up slightly, toward the ceiling.

There was a flash of black, and the cavernous hospital ward they’d been in was gone. Instead, they were all in a small white room with minimal lighting and no windows or doors, the kind of prison that you read about in books, one that you could only get into or out of with an entad. It was immediately claustrophobic and frightening.

“I need to look at your soul,” said Juniper. “Did you hear the people singing?”

“Yeah,” replied Reimer. “Just before the big thing came down.”

“They were compromised,” said Juniper. “I need to make sure that you’re not compromised, both of you,” he nodded to Lisi. “We’ve taken care of the thing that compromised everyone, but it might still have sleeper agents out there.”

“You’re a fucking soul mage,” replied Reimer. “I knew it.” There had been a lot of discussions about that when they’d been going over the character sheet. Amaryllis had been cagey.

“You said that you would ‘like’ our consent,” said Lisi. “What if we don’t give it?”

“That would be a problem,” said Juniper. “Depending on how hard of a no it is, I might just forcibly check you.”

“And if you found something, you would do soul surgery?” asked Lisi. “Unauthorized, unapproved, without consent, by an amateur?”

“Yes,” replied Juniper.

“Good,” replied Lisi. “You have my consent.”

“Uh,” said Reimer. He turned to Juniper. “Do you remember that conversation we had?”

“I’m not from Aerb, I’m from Earth,” replied Juniper. “If I had the same conversation there with your counterpart, I don't remember it.”

“We were talking about if we were soul mages,” said Reimer. “We were talking about what we would change about each other.” It had been a transgressive conversation, one that should have stuck out in Juniper’s mind. You weren’t supposed to say that maybe soul mages mucking about in a person’s soul was okay, even though there were supposedly some ethical uses that the Empire of Common Cause sanctioned with long audit trails and cross-checking.

“Oh,” replied Juniper. “Right, I remember. Circumstances were a little bit different. I said that I would make you less annoying, if I recall, and you said that you liked being annoying, because it wasn’t being annoying, it was being right. I’m not going to change anything but what I’d need to in order to get you out from under the entity’s potential latent orders. We’re actually not even sure that he’s got sleeper agents at all. Most of his work has been pretty crude, from what I’ve seen.”

“How many of these have you done?” asked Lisi.

“A dozen,” replied Juniper. “Many, many more in the future though. Ideally we can find and clear the leadership of Li’o, and they can invoke emergency measures to avoid Article 86. Looks like it’s going to be triggered by dawn tomorrow if we don’t get things wrapped up.”

“You killed that fucking kaiju?” asked Reimer, sitting up slightly. The teleportation, or whatever it was, had taken the table with them too, and he was still sitting on it, even though there was no need. “It was you and your people?”

“Yeah,” replied Juniper. “I’d like to be modest, but mostly me.”

“Shit,” said Reimer. “That’s … that’s a lot to take in.”

“I’m on a clock here,” said Juniper. “Yes or no?”

“Yes,” said Reimer. “Just … don’t touch anything. Don’t look around.”

“I wouldn’t have the time to, even if I wanted,” replied Juniper. He placed his hand on Reimer's arm and closed his eyes.

“This is so fucking creepy,” said Reimer as he watched his friend, the alien, look through his very being.

“He’s more powerful than I thought,” said Lisi.

“I’m not sure that I can do this,” said Reimer.

“It’ll be over soon,” said Lisi. She moved closer to him and placed her hand on his shoulder.

“No,” said Reimer. “This, I mean, being a part of this, being a cog in the machine, part of Juniper’s entourage, wrapped up in all this. Lisi, we almost died today.”

“We didn’t die,” Lisi replied. There was a coldness in her eyes, there always was, but it seemed a little more apparent, more present. “Sound and Silence is going to stay closed for months, maybe years. There’s almost certainly been an enormous loss of institutional knowledge.”

“Sorry,” said Reimer. “What?”

“Do you think we’re students?” asked Lisi. “How many of our instructors are still alive?”

“I,” began Reimer.

“You’re clean,” said Juniper. He looked over at Lisi. “Ready?”

She gave him a curt nod. Reimer tried to see whether he felt any differently, but if Juniper had made any changes, Reimer couldn’t feel them. He didn’t think that Juniper would sink that low, but they’d had their fights, and Juniper could sometimes be a rat bastard when he was in a foul mood. Juniper touched Lisi’s arm, and Reimer felt a spike of jealousy that he tried to suppress.

“Fighting for my life made me realize that I really don’t want to be in fights for my life,” said Reimer. “Did you honestly like it?”

“It was different from what I thought it would be,” replied Lisi. “But I had always expected that I would be going up against people.”

“Did you like it though?” asked Reimer. He had no idea what her answer would be.

“No,” said Lisi. “I didn’t like it. It was necessary though. And I have the skillset for it.”

“Well, I don’t,” said Reimer. “Not the skillset, not the mindset, nothing, I made it through by the skin of my teeth, and I don’t ever want to do that again.”

“What are you planning to do instead?” asked Lisi. “Li’o is in ruins. It’s going to take an incredible amount of work to get it functional again. The most likely outcome is that the Rod of Whispers and the Temple will get moved somewhere else and all the students and teachers will live on a campus created by the fastest, cheapest possible steel magic. There’s not a guarantee that the athenaeum even exists anymore. It might be that the Empire takes over.”

“Sure,” said Reimer. “I’m not saying what I want to do, just that I don’t want to be a part of this.”

“I don’t want you to be either,” said Juniper. He looked Reimer up and down. There was no clue to how long he’d been listening in. “So far as I’m concerned, every single one of the alternates should stay away. I’m just not sure how feasible that is.”

“I’ll still help,” said Reimer. “I just … I don’t want to be a part of it, aside from telling you what little I know that might be able to help.”

“Deal,” said Juniper. “We’ll post you as far away from the front as we possibly can, pay you a salary to do whatever it is you want to do.”

“How safe is the world?” asked Lisi. “How much risk are we talking about?”

“Skin of our teeth,” said Juniper. “If we live, it will be by inches.”

“Manufactured inches?” asked Reimer.

“What does that mean?” asked Lisi, scowling slightly.

“Do you know the word kaiju?” Reimer asked Juniper.

“Yeah,” he said, raising an eyebrow. “How do you know the word kaiju?”

“It was from one of your games,” replied Reimer, feeling slightly confused.

“It’s actually Japanese,” said Juniper. “Means, uh, ‘weird beast’ or something like that.” He must have seen their confused looks. “Japan is a nation of Earth, Japanese is their language. Look, nevermind.”

“The rat things that killed your friend Heshnel,” said Reimer. “They were antimemetic, weren’t they?”

“Got it in one,” replied Juniper.

“Fucking hells, is this all stuff that you made up?” asked Reimer.

“‘Fraid so,” replied Juniper with a shrug.

“Define ‘all’,” said Lisi.

“Half the mortal species, seventy percent of the magical creatures, twenty percent of the magic, and about eighty percent of the entads,” replied Juniper. “But all the stuff that I didn’t make is still at least something that I probably would have, given time.”

“Shit,” said Reimer. “Shit. Even the Long Stairs stuff? Is that all out there somewhere?”

“From what we’ve been able to find, the Aerb Juniper’s stuff doesn’t show up on Aerb,” said Juniper. “Look, some of this is a bit sensitive, I probably shouldn’t be telling you more. The upshot is that yes, the world is probably in danger, more so today than it was yesterday. We’re doing everything in our power to stop it. But Reimer, we don’t need you, and I don’t want you to get hurt. I want you to go off somewhere you’ve always wanted to go, live the life you wanted to live, with,” he paused and glanced at Lisi, “A stable life, good friends, all that jazz,” the word was unfamiliar, “And ideally you can just forget about what I’m doing.”

“Shit,” said Reimer, again. He looked over at Lisi.

“Am I cleared?” she asked Juniper.

“Yes,” he replied. “Sorry, should have mentioned that. Are you in or out?”

“In,” she replied. She looked at Reimer.

“We have transportation,” said Juniper. “You can still visit each other, if you’d like. No need to pay the teleportation costs.”

Reimer thought he was probably blushing. “Thanks for the offer.”

“Look, I should be going,” said Juniper. “I’ll have Mary set something up for the both of you, or maybe just do it myself if I can find the time. I have hundreds of people to clear. Maybe thousands, though we’re trying to do it in priority order. Good luck.”

And with that, he disappeared.

Reimer looked down at his hands. They were shaking. His mind was going back to the battle, to running through the streets, to seeing that enormous thing fall down and not knowing whether or not he’d be crushed.

Lisi turned his head toward hers and kissed him. They had both been getting better at kissing, in the past two weeks, more natural, more confident, less awkwardly aggressive (on her part). Reimer let his stress and worry melt away a bit, and felt his nerves calm down. Lisi pulled away slightly and rested her forehead against his.

“This isn’t goodbye,” she said.

“You have to promise to stay safe,” he replied.

“I will.”


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Alexander Wales


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