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Galar Kayle sighed. It wasn't even noon, and this was already proving to be the worst day of his week.

With Tebes out collecting the tax shortfall with Linduin, much of the day-to-day law enforcement had fallen to him; he now spent his mornings serving the burgon, his afternoons performing such bureaucratic tasks as were needed, and his evenings (and sometimes his very early mornings) handling such minor crises as occurred in the village, from breaking up drunken brawls to catching thieves and preventing the various peasants and craftsmen from murdering each other over their seemingly endless disputes. He ended every day exhausted, his temper was constantly worsening, and he was gripped by a miasmic and unrelenting fear for his son which kept him tossing and turning for many of the few hours of sleep he could snatch. Galar Kayle knew his son better than most fathers (though still not nearly as well as he believed) and had painfully accurate perceptions of both Linduin's aptitudes and his shortcomings. He knew all too well that Linduin would have to be thrust into the fire of adulthood long before he would ever be ready, and that the time had come for that to happen whether or not either of them desired it. Such knowledge, however, did very little to assuage his beleagured heart; for the truth is that Galar Kayle really did love his son, and rather fiercely at that, but was woefully inept at expressing it and even worse at communicating it. The one good thing about the current situation was that it allowed him to vent his frustrations often and vigorously upon the heads of those who gained his ire in his provisional posting as deputy reeve, and vent he did. The villagers of the burgon's estate and its surrounding habitations were beginning to wear hats despite the unseasonably warm weather, purely for the protection against drubbings they provided. Today, however, he'd received word of a potential situation, and was forced to abandon his day's labors at the manor early.  Taking up his walking stick and struck out for the village proper, hoping for another drunk to discipline.

The burgon himself had not been idle; he had taken over much of the administrative work that was normally his clerk's purview, and had even taken to fixing his own meals, doing his own laundry, and cleaning some of his own messes (activities which the burgon detested with every fiber of his being). The circumstances had actually prompted him to enact some long-shelved plans to begin machinations for acquiring mining rights to an iron deposit he'd been sitting on, and the irony of this was not lost on him; but the fact was that it had become clear to all involved that Haelid's governmental apparatus was no longer functional without a fresh infusion of capital, human resources, or both, and that it was only the psychotically tireless efforts of Tebes that had allowed it to limp along up to this point. The burgon had made up his mind to grant Tebes a knighthood when he returned.

Had Tebes and Linduin's efforts worked out in a more genial fashion, it was likely that the burgon's decisions would have improved the province quite noticeably. Tebes, granted the prestige he deserved, would have mellowed and begun to apply his considerable talents to creating and sustaining a law enforcement tradition focusing on prevention rather than retribution which would have improved the standard of living for everyone within six years. The mining rights, which would have been found to be significantly more productive than first assumed, would have created an influx of skilled labor and sparked impressive economic prosperity within another ten years. In twenty, Haelid would have been a flourishing trade hub, overseen by an aging Galar after the burgon had passed it on, and maintained by a now-educated and eminently more capable Linduin. But absolutely none of these things occurred, because the burgon answered a knock on his door shortly after Galar had gone out into the village for a patrol, and was greeted by a stocky figure in a singed and muddy hooded robe.

"Yes?" the burgon prompted, none too politely.

The figure held up a broken plank, lightly charred around the edges, with several runes painted in a worrying reddish-brown substance. The burgon eyed them suspiciously. "What are these supposed to be? Do you have any idea whose time you are wasting?"

Velinaer Dax'taxu, who would have been sweating under his hood if he'd possessed the required glands and dermal structures, remained still, hoping that this might not be another complete fucking disaster. With no knowledge of whatever language these people spoke, he had no idea if the fat, balding man who had answered the door of this ridiculous straw-topped wooden building was incapable of reading his sign (which read "PLEASE HELP ME -- NEED NETWORK CONNECTIVITY" in the most basic and accessible runes of Auld Shula) or could read it and was telling him to go fuck himself. His undead minons, who now numbered nearly a dozen, were hiding in the woods where he desperately hoped that they would stay this time.

It should be noted at this point that Velinaer, if he had been thinking more clearly, was quite capable of crafting more rigorous controls which would have kept the various classes of zombies and skeletons he had accumulated up to this point from misbehaving. However, his judgment was quite seriously impaired by his recent experiences, and to be frank it was nothing short of a miracle that he was functioning at all. The burgon, knowing less than nothing of all this, continued to behave in his usual fashion. "Well, out with it, man! What business have you here?"

Velinaer's spirits deflated. He still had no idea what was going on, and this guy was becoming increasingly irate. He resolved to get the hell out of here before things got any worse, and turned on his heel to leave. This had the unfortunate effect of angering the burgon even further, as he was not accustomed to persons leaving before he had dismissed them. Outraged, he reached out and grabbed Velinaer's shoulder. This was not a fortunate turn of events, and had a large number of consequences.

Firstly, the burgon died instantly. Velinaer's body was spellwoven with a large number of protective magicks, which safeguarded the owner of said body from a large number of hazards ranging from hostile energies and phenomena to unwanted intrusions of one's personal space. Velinaer could have suppressed some or all of these had he known of their existence and/or methods of operation, but sadly neither of these things were true and he was caught rather off-guard in any event. Secondly, his undead minions, responding to their master's perceived danger, immediately ran to his defense with a large amount of groaning and other unsettling noises. Thirdly, the burgon's livestock, already restless from being rather inconsistently fed and groomed over the past week, were in turn prompted to agitate collectively, which caused the eventual and rather spectacular failure of the eastern wall of the livestock pen. Goats butted pigs, pigs bit cows, and cows began to flee. The stampede was small, but energetic, and naturally gravitated directly towards the village's outbuildings. Fourthly, Velinaer's already tenuous sanity took another hit.

Confronted with the evidence that he had just killed somebody yet again, Velinaer froze up, his mind deciding to take a short break from reality in hopes that things might calm down on their own after a minute or two. This meant that when Galar Kayle arrived, horrified and furious, he found a large knot of zombies standing around a mysterious figure in a robe, who in turn was standing over the burgon's corpse.

***

Cheis of Veraleigh was impressed, despite herself. This was truly a monumental, first-class clusterfuck.

Linduin Kayle sprawled on the floor, unconscious, the shattered pieces of what had moments ago been a rather powerfully enchanted sword scattered around him like confetti. Her body, currently uninhabited and with roughly eight and a half minutes to live, now had a gaping wound on the back of her neck to go with the gaping wound in the front of her throat, and would probably exsanguinate long before her water-breathing enchantment ran out now. Also, her soul had been yanked out of it rather rudely.

She looked around, taking everything in. A soul manipulation error producing a spontaneous full-stack astral projection? This didn't happen every day. She poked curiously through the dissipating remnants of the unraveling thaumaturgy which had until recently been the sword's enchantments. Not a bad soul harvesting workup, although the creator's brute-force implementation was fairly inelegant and had lost roughly two-thirds of every soul's energy to wasted loop iterations. Also, shitty error handling, as her current situation evinced.

Well, she had a couple more options now, which was nice. The ability to perceive and manipulate astral and vital flows was handy in her current situation. She stabilized the other two villagers, ensured that Linduin would survive (and siphoned off a burgeoning excess of vital energy which would have produced a mild concussion), and drained a bit of life force from the dissociating drunk to induce a gentle and hopefully restorative sleep. With a feeling of mild satisfaction, she turned her attention back to herself.

Yikes. She was really a mess. Her limbs and organs, represented to her in her current state as an ordered tree of data structures, were badly damaged and showing less than fifteen percent capacity in most of the indicators. At least her brain was intact, which was nice. She hoped to be needing that very shortly.

She resisted the temptation to channel the bit of energy she'd stolen from the drunk into her body; it wouldn't be enough to do more than stave off another minute or so of blood loss and she needed to think a little more strategically if she wanted to survive this. Concentrating, she transubstantiated it into mana and channeled roughly a quarter of it into the flickering and deeply corrupted web of spells around her own consciousness, fortifying and brightening them a little to her current mode of perception. This was going to suck.

She couldn't repair the emulator; the damage was too severe and it was too big in any case for the miniscule amount of energy she had at her disposal. She wished she hadn't purged her mnemonic cache now, as she might have been able to salvage an extra macro or two. Oh well. She could try to repair her schema browser and get back some virtual blueprints, but most of that wasn't likely to be useful unless she happened to have a backup for a healing potion or something, which she doubted -- it was a bit like a sailor having an emergency bucket of seawater. She delved deeper into the web, aware that her time was running out.

Some extremely busted status enchantments. Those weren't going to help. A fragment of her epidermal insulator enchantment. Awfully tempting, but dying comfortably was probably less valuable than potentially not dying at all. Some deeply corrupted backups, one of which was showing signs of cacopneuma infection; that was probably what had killed the emulator. She'd definitely have to get rid of that, even if she was going to die; she didn't want her corpse performing an encore performance of that headless guy she'd killed.

Aha -- some system checkpoints! This was worthy of celebration. Normally these would be completely useless to her without the emulator, but in her current state she could do a little pointer manipulation and probably overwrite some of her current limb variables. Preferably in the limbs that were mortally wounded, she hoped.

She'd have to be careful, of course. One wrong move and she'd kill herself, give herself terminal brain damage, turn herself into a demonic entity, or all three. She cracked her metaphorical knuckles and got to work.

***

Linduin Kayle awoke, feeling very confused. His memory of recent events was hazy for a number of reasons; trauma sufficient to knock a person unconscious tends to interfere with one's short-term recall, and his grasp on reality had been a little squirrelly in general at the time due to all the inexplicable and terrifying things he had just witnessed. He was also upside-down, hanging from a tree with his arms and legs bound, and very thirsty. He smacked his lips in discomfort, then peered blearily about, trying to figure out where he was and what was going on.

"Good morning," said Cheis of Veraleigh, taking a well-deserved sip from a whiskey bottle which had survived the destruction inside the tavern. This was going to be an interesting conversation.

"Um... hello?" managed Linduin, swallowing a few times. "Who am... where?"

"You are currently in a tree," Cheis supplied helpfully, "while I decide whether or not to repay you in kind for breaking two of my fingers and trying to cut my head off. I seem to recall you promising you wouldn't try to kill me." Linduin gulped, fragments of their previous encounter coming back to him in pieces.

"I didn't know, um... what to do," he managed, after a brief moment of soul-searching and wondering if this was a nightmare. "You were dying, and I couldn't help you. I didn't want you to suffer."

"So you thought you'd cut my head off? Instead of, I don't know, holding my hand or something?" Cheis was becoming more amused by the sentence.

Linduin looked down (or up, depending on your perspective) guiltily. "I'm sorry. I just... I'm not very good at things."

She chuckled. "Well, ironically, you actually saved my life. Rather poorly and completely accidentally, but still." She bent down and sawed a knot in half, causing Linduin to abruptly become untethered and crash to the ground in a heap. He lay there, groaning, while she cut his bonds.

"Thank you," he gasped, wiggling his arms and legs vigorously in an attempt to restore circulation. "I thought I was going to die."

"What, just now? People don't die from being hung upside down, my young friend, at least not that quickly." Cheis was something of an expert on exactly how long it took various things to kill people.

"No," Linduin sighed, "in the tavern. I thought the villagers were going to kill me, that you were going to kill me, that that thing was going to kill me. Things have been trying to kill me a lot lately."

"Why?" asked Cheis, intrigued. "What do you do for a living?"

Linduin laughed bitterly. "I'd have to have a life to have a living." He scratched his nose. "I was doing a task for my father... helping the man you killed collect taxes from the villag--"

Linduin gasped, sitting upright and getting a stab of pain in his ribs for his trouble. "My bag! Where's my bag?"

Cheis shook her head. "One of the villagers scooted off with it. You probably aren't getting it back now."

"I... what? I can't..." Linduin slumped.

"It doesn't matter now," Cheis pointed out. "Your tax-collecting friend is dead and your father's probably not going to believe a single bit of what happened to you. Bringing home a sack of coins might soften that blow, but you'd just get yourself killed trying."

Linduin nodded. "You're right. As usual. Another thing that I suck at."

Cheis chuckled. "Well, best of luck to you, at any rate. I need to be going." She stood up, groaning as her bones and lacerations ached, and began trudging away.

"Wait!" Linduin called after her. "Where are you going?"

"Home," replied Cheis, wearily. "I've had enough adventures for a while. I'm going to go home, take a bath, get my spells sorted out, and take a nice two-week vacation. And anybody who disturbs me will definitely regret it."

"You can't just leave me here!" Linduin's mind raced, desperation creeping into his voice. "I could run away from home. I could... learn magic from you."

Cheis scoffed. "Please. If you suck at magic as bad as you suck at first aid, you'd be a bigger threat than the Garinthian Dragon. What do you even know about magic? What are you good at, kid?"

Linduin froze, his mind whirling. All the failures of his life, which he remembered quite vividly and with great embarrassment, seemed to be piling up on him. "I... I can do sums."

Cheis stopped, midstride. "You what?"

"I can read, and I can do sums. I don't know anything about magic, but I can learn! I'm not dumb!" Linduin was aghast at himself. Surely, these words coming out of his mouth weren't his own. This was his only chance to do anything with his life, his heretofore boring and thoroughly unpleasant life, and now he was blowing his only chance at it mere minutes after finding out that the world contained incredible magic and amazing monsters.

Cheis was skeptical. "You can do sums. And you don't know anything about magic."

Linduin nodded, eyes downcast. Here it comes, he thought. Another in a long line of stinging, emasculating rejections. He should probably just --

"Seven plus twelve." Cheis sighed.

Linduin jerked, disbelieving. "What? Um... nine... nineteen."

Cheis nodded. "Eleven minus twenty."

"Negative nine." Linduin had learned about financial debits painfully at twelve in an incident involving a smashed vase.

Cheis' interest continued to quicken. "Four times sixteen."

"Forty... let's see... forty plus twenty-four... sixty-four. Which is two to the sixth power."

Cheis blinked. That was unexpected. "You know about exponents?"

Linduin nodded. "And roots. There was a chapter in the book about logs, or something, that I was going to read next."

Cheis was stunned, disbelieving. This had to be bullshit. "And you know absolutely nothing about magic. Nothing about red or blue or black or any of that."

"Red... what?" Linduin was very confused. "Spells have colors?"

"Damn it," said Cheis of Veraleigh, looking furiously at her new apprentice.

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AMBLE

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