Eann demanded an explanation for my sudden show of magic power and I couldn't give her a good one. "It just happened." I said.
"Now, now, what's important is she saved us all." Kaddash smiled. "Thank you, miss Lucida."
Everyone was tired so we decided to camp for a bit. It was now daytime. I didn't even notice when dawn came.
"There was no night time at the end of the world…" I squinted my eyes at the sun. "And there was no sun."
"Well, here all we had was the night. But then our ancestor caught the sun from another place and locked it on our sky. Now it just flies around Kirush." Said Kaddash.
"Nice story." I said. This old mage seemed fond of legends. I started to tell them about the solar system, and the galaxies, and the theories I'd read about the life of the universe.
"How many gods do you need to maintain that? That sounds huge!" Eann exclaimed.
"In theory, just one would be enough, I think. At the very creation of things." I tried to recall that Stephen Hawking book I read a long time ago. "But I had an angel watching over me and then a Reaper came pick me up, so I don't know. Maybe there are billions and billions of gods out there."
"Must be." Eann nodded. Her arm was being attended to by another mage.
I thought for a bit. "I still believe in science, though. Maybe the gods have perfected our world and they were walking among us, not doing anything with their power. Maybe I'd met one without even knowing…"
Why then, was my life so boring?
"How do you know all that stuff without talking to gods, though? How do you know how old a star is…?"
Eann kept bombarding me with questions and my head started to hurt. I gave up. I was never that good at Physics anyway. Good thing, the language spell that Eann casted on me expired in the middle of it and we could no longer understand each other. Although, as I had been speaking their language for a while, I picked up some words here and there. The spell seemed to temporarily copy Eann's vocabulary and grammatical understanding into my memory.
We continued on. I was able to move the vehicle on my own, although not correctly. I just pushed it with the winds like pushing a big toy car. One mage stayed awake to point me in the right direction. The rest of them were sound asleep the whole way back.
We arrived in Enmerki a few hours later than the other mages. I was excited to see the city, and I was not disappointed. The buildings were very big and many of them had open arches instead of doors. The animals all looked like monsters. The people were "diverse," to say the least. My companions briefly introduced me to a mage at the city's gate and I was given another language spell. More importantly, I was fed and got to sleep a little.
I had a strange dream.
In my dream I was chased by the Reapers and the Charon at the entrance of Irkalla. My feet slipped and I fell, but I never hit the ground. I emerged out of the darkness and then headed straight towards the wall of cosmic water. The currents inside were fierce and terrifying, like monsters lying in wait. I desperately wanted to stop, but could do nothing against the momentum. The cosmic ocean sucked me into it, and tore me into pieces. I could not scream, and there was no sounds from the outside, yet inside myself was a terrible noise, the noise of my soul being ripped apart and each piece of my spiritual body torn away. The pain was indescribable…
I woke up to the frightened expressions on Kaddash's and Eann's faces. I was screaming and convulsing in bed. They asked if I was okay.
"Just a bad nightmare…" I said, relieved to see my body was still intact.
"You are invited to a royal dinner tonight." Eann said. "The king and the Grand Mage would like to see you. Can you go?"
"Sure. I don't see why not." I smiled, having calmed down. "How are you recovering?"
"Much better." Eann held her arm up to reassure me. "Although all of us would need a few days to get our energy back."
"There might be talk." Kaddash said "About having you join the Royal Mages, given your demonstrated capability. Thought I should give you a heads up. Give it some thoughts." He patted on my shoulder.
"Mage? I.. I'm not sure I qualify." I blinked. "I don't actually know any spells…"
"You'll learn." Kaddash kindly said. "We'll be there to help."
"Well, if you say so… I don't know where to go either..."
I was taken to the Palace in the afternoon. It sat on a hill, and looking at the architectural details I guess the advantage of having mages as builders was that nobody had to care how difficult or costly the design was. The King was tall, or should I say, long. Every part of him looked elongated. Several wives sat with him. One of them looked to be the queen, with golden patches on her skin.
I was reserved an honorary seat at the end of the table, opposite the King. To the left of me was Eann, then Kaddash, and to my right sat the Grand Mage, Ultus. He looked ordinary, about 40 human age, with dark slickback hair and had a pleasantly calm demeanor. The rest of the seats were occupied by some princes and princesses.
"So…" The king said, his eyes for some reason seemed to look above my head. "I heard you came from the new land of the living."
"Yes, si-... Your Majesty. We call it the Earth." I nodded.
"Mmm." The king absentmindedly acknowledged my answer. "...And yet you can use spells?"
I was fumbling for words when Kaddass cut in:
"More of an impulsive and intuitive control of elemental power, Your Majesty, but she could do it very well."
"Mmm. You know, Kad, I did not ask you." The king said.
"My apologies, Your Majesty."
"Mmm… and your name is?"
"Lucida." "Eann, Your Majesty." I and Eann both responded to the king's confusing gaze in our general direction at the same time. Either way, he did not care much. He raised his golden chalice:
"Enjoy the feast, my dears." He said, full of ceremony. "May Enmerki ever prosper!"
We repeated the same phrase and drank up. Strangely, the food here is certainly different from Earth, but alcohol is pretty much the same. I guess the gods have decided that no matter what world you were in, getting drunk was essential.
"His Majesty has a lot on his mind." Ultus smiled at me "But please, make yourself at home."
I appreciated his friendliness, especially the fact that he wasn't throwing questions at me like Eann did for the past 2 days.
"Thank you. It's not like I have another place, so I'm glad I'm welcome here." I said.
"Certainly. Certainly." He poured me some more wine. "So which part of the Earth did you come from? And which century?"
I widened my eyes in surprise. "I'd been living in 21s century America, when I died. Wait, do you know Earth's geography? And what do you mean which century? There is a discrepancy in time between the two worlds? I think time in Irkalla was perfectly the same…"
"We’ve had some people strayed from Earth before. The time stretch depends on the bubbles that surround us. Sometimes the distortions they emit are so great that our time dimension becomes isolated from the outside system." Ultus smiled and immediately started explaining, like a professor to his student. I might just fall for this man, I thought. The demon of my dream seemed to be a formless mass of terror trapped in a fortress anyway…
"I heard about these bubbles." I nodded, curiously. "Kaddash mentioned colliding with one to save the land. But I didn't get it."
Ultus glanced at Kaddash, in a moment his eyes seemed stern. I felt bad. It was probably some kind of secret. But not such an important secret that Ultus couldn't tell me, he decided. "It's like this." He said and tapped on his chalice. Bubbles started coming up from the purple wine. "Tiamat is like the inside of this chalice. Most of her is covered in bubbles of completely different realities, moving around each other in no particular patterns. Our land, Kirush, is just one of them; one that is stable enough for us to live in. The End of the World, where you came through, is said to be one of the rare areas that are left relatively unaffected by the wars between gods aeons ago. You happened to enter our land when the Kirush bubble was sharing a border with the End of the World. Most of the time we can't be sure what are next to us. Some realities are very dangerous, some are inhabitable. If necessary, there is an option to identify a bubble that is similar to Kirush and use magic to force a collision that could merge the two realities. That, of course, requires a lot of work."
I kind of understood, though not everything. "But… when I entered this world I came out of a random wall. Shouldn't I come out at the edge of Kirush?"
"Not necessarily." Ultus laughed softly; he seemed a little excited by the topic. "Although one can certainly cross the border to enter another bubble, survivors have told us that the place from which one emerged was mostly random. Moreover, the actual borders are where different realities clash, so oftentimes they are made up of highly chaotic magic currents and are very difficult to cross. However, the interaction between these bubbles sometimes create areas where the realities are mixed and portals might appear. If I'm not wrong, you have traveled through one such temporary portal."
The explanation fascinated me. That meant there were countless different worlds to explore!
"Temporary? Does that mean I can't return to the End of the World now even if I enter that wall again? Do you know how many bubbles are there?" I asked.
"We don't exactly know. Tiamat is so chaotic that new bubbles might be born, while old ones may merge into each other, or collapse." Ultus took a moment before he continued. "Normally, a portal should remain there for a while. But with the fortress of Valn sealed off, there is little chance for you to go back."
"That's right…" I put a piece of something fried into my mouth. The conversation got so interesting I almost forgot I was hungry. "But, if we're lucky, maybe the demon will go through the portal and cross over to the End?" I suggested, feeling slightly optimistic. At least I made Ultus laugh:
"That would be indeed very fortunate, yes…"
I realized Ultus had barely started eating, so I let him have some peace with his food. I had no idea what these ingredients were, but the food was great. After a few bites, it was him who continued the talk on his own:
"Truth be told, I had a very small suspicion that you and the demon Belial had come through the same portal, but that does not seem to be the case…"
"I wouldn't know." I shrugged. "He might have come through it a few days earlier. Not that I had felt anything like that while I was wandering the flower field… How did you know the demon's name?" I couldn't imagine that one stopping to introduce itself.
"We detected a demonic energy at the fortress, so we sent a mage squad to look for survivors and deal with it." Eann butted in. "By the time our group arrived, most of the inhabitants of fortress Valn had fallen under the control of Belial. It was through their mutterings that we learned the demon's name."
"Is this the first time you've ever heard of that name?" I blurted out.
"No. We have heard other demons mention it on a few occasions. But this is our first encounter with it." Ultus said.
"Really? I didn't know that." Eann talked with bread in her mouth.
"You need to read your books." Ultus gently scolded her. "Why did you ask that, anyway?" He turned to me. I considered for a few seconds what to say.
"Hm… even though we don't really have magic on Earth… at least nothing publicly confirmed to work, Belial is a well-known demon name." I said, thinking. "Having read stories of demons myself, I find it strange. Firstly, this 'Belial' is far too different from what is often depicted of him. Secondly, given that demons have a way to directly enter Kirush, the fact that such a prominent demon has not come here before, and that he is not more well known to you, is strange."
"What are your thoughts, then?" Ultus asked, calmly sipping on his wine.
"We Earthlings could simply have been wrong this whole time. And Belial suddenly became interested in Kirush." I shrugged. "Or Belial indeed never had an interest in Kirush, and that thing is an impostor." I said, full of hope.
"Why do you speak as if it could have freely come had it wanted to invade our land earlier?" Eann shook her head.
Well, because according to my belief, he had a whole army of demons and how difficult would it be with an army of demigods, and magic?
"In any case, what the name of that demon is is not important. What's important is how we deal with it." Ultus said.
"...I think it is important." I spoke after mulling over it for a bit. The mages raised eyebrows at me, questioning.
"If it is indeed an impostor, we can go find the real Belial and ask him to deal with it." I said. "I can go, if nobody wants to."
The mages became really quiet, staring at me. Finally one of the princes broke the silence, he had been listening in:
"You are outrageous!" He uttered. "Going to a demon and asking him to go to our land? Unthinkable!"
"What is it? What is it?" The king and his wives, who were busy talking with each other until a moment ago, became alert.
"It is but a theoretical discussion gone overboard, Your Majesty." Ultus calmed the king down. "We are discussing how to get rid of the demons on our land."
"That's right…" The king said, looking vaguely above Ultus's head again. "Get rid of them! Can you do that, Ultus?"
"We will triumph, Your Majesty. We only need the forces and the right strategy."
"Good. You have the mages. You can ask Sitina, if you need the blades. I expect good things from you, Ultus."
"Naturally, Your Majesty."
"Father, if you'll allow me." The prince who just yelled at me stood up. "I shall bring my finest soldiers and mages to take back Fortress Valn."
"After our nearly dying to seal it!" Eann hissed. "You'll open the door of Death for this land."
"You only nearly died because of how incompetent you were!" The prince puffed out his chest. "And needed to be saved by this preposterous fool, an outsider! The way I see it, you should have died trying to defeat the demon, instead of staying alive to cower and spread your cowardice."
What a fierce and handsome one. He's gonna die, I bet. This type always dies in movies.
"And how exactly will you defeat the demon, Your Royal Highness?" Kaddash asked. "Anyone with little magical capability would immediately be influenced by the mind control when they approach the Fortress. Even mages felt an enormous heaviness in the mind and found it harder to perform spells. Our seal is of the strongest type and would need the exact same people in the exact same condition to revert it, and some of our comrades have fallen. Let's say you can lift the seal, what will you do if you fail and become consumed by the demon? What will become of our future?"
The queen worriedly looked over to the crown prince:
"Relax, Carmant, we have time. They say the seal should last a few years at least… You can gather a stronger army…"
Prince Carmant reluctantly sat down. Eann threw in a nonchalant suggestion:
"You can always practice by defeating the demons in Ansransa. Even though the portals there have closed several years ago, they still have demons infesting the land. Trade with Ansransa has been bad, why don't we go help them?"
Prince Carmant resolutely stood up:
"Send words to Ansransa, I'll go!"
The queen seemed to want to say something but a guard had already shouted roger to the prince and left. Ultus looked a little restless, but stayed silent. The king looked vaguely at the prince, mouthing "well, well…"
I decided to mind my own business and finish my delicious bowl of stew. I could swear, though, that Eann was snickering under her breath. The witch, indeed. The prince was unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, not that stupid. He surely saw Eann's face twitch and pointed his finger at her:
"You are going, too!"
Eann seemed bummed out. She held up her arm and heartfully spoke:
"Your Royal Highness, I am wounded and cannot be allowed to slow you down!"
Pissed, the prince glanced over and shifted his finger to me instead:
"Then you! You broke her arm, you go in her stead. Time to prove you're fit to be a member of our most prestigious mages!"
I choked on my stew. That talk hadn't even been mentioned yet! I never said I'd become one of them!
But Ultus patted on my back and gave me a quiet smile that said "Please, help that fool."
So, for some reason I decided on a whim to also be a fool. I wiped my mouth, stood up and asked:
"When do we depart?"