Monday, January 20, 2020

Battle Vixens! - 52


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Episode 52: All the Black Pawns

The drive to the city was long, but it would be worth it today. After repeatedly being told not to get his hopes up, Marcus was finally invited to—well, not exactly their headquarters but at least someplace run by the VI for an in-person interview, and "maybe some tests". Until and unless they actually rejected him, his hopes were firmly in the "up" position. The world was on the brink of ending, and this nerd was going to—possibly—have a chance to be a part of the group trying to stop it.

He hadn't lied on the physical examination. Well—that wouldn't have done any good anyway, he'd signed off on giving them access to his medical records. There wasn't that much there, just that he was an overweight loser (more or less) at risk of an early-ish heart attack. But for the moment, he was still young and maybe there was time to prevent that. It didn't seem like his physical prowess was what they were after anyway. It was hard to tell what they wanted, from all the questions in the interviews. Like, there had to be twenty of had he ever wished he could...? and at least ten different versions of what would he do if he could...?

The rock station he listened to on the road had a DJ in the morning who occasionally interrupted with news about the black monsters' attacks and the VI's heroics. It was through that medium that, about halfway through his trip, Marcus learned that Dawn had been killed. The car was filled with words of anger and disappointment for the next few minutes or so, before he settled down and focused on the road again. It wasn't too crowded this time of day—just a bit before lunchtime—but it never hurt to be at least a little careful, right?

After checking the mirrors and looking well ahead, Marcus turned his attention to the peripheral for just a moment. Were there any deer about to jump out into his headlights—well, no, they were off right now, but—figuratively speaking? No, but...was that a person up ahead on the left side of road? Two, three, five people? There was something a little...off about them, he thought. As he came closer, it was increasingly clear why. First: No clothes. Second: None of the—let's say—features of a human being which a lack of clothes would be expected to reveal, either? Third—and this as he came right next to them and passed them by—no faces. Skin like plastic.

Okay, that wasn't normal, mannequins on the road? Marcus had time to think this just briefly before he instinctively checked his rear-view mirror once more and saw them walking across the street behind his car, to the other side. It wasn't a monster; they weren't attacking him or his car after all, and even politely waited for him to pass before crossing. So...what was it? Well, it was definitely weird, and that was enough for him. Marcus grabbed at his phone, committing a small driver's sin for the sake of hopefully being a helpful person for once in his life.

"911, what's your emergency?"
"Uh, hey, there's..like, walking mannequins? On the road? Just..like...going across it," Marcus said, feeling that he sounded increasingly stupid with every word.
"Where are you, sir?" The operator sounded serious. Now that was probably a change, he thought; a couple of weeks ago this kind of call would be ignored or laughed off, or at worst result in a policeman showing up at the caller's house to search it for drugs. He quickly rattled off the name of the road he was on, and the last mile marker he remembered seeing.

There was a short pause. Then: "How many did you see?"
"Uh-umm. Like five or six, I think, they were behind me and there's a lot of trees so—" he cut off as his car crested a hill over a relatively clear patch of land. "Uhhh. Scratch that, I just—I'm right next to like, gotta be twenty or thirty of 'em at least. They're just...standing there, waiting for my car to pass, and then...crossin' the road."
There was a substantially longer pause than before. Marcus wasn't sure if his call had been dropped or if he should say something else, and just when he was about to ask, a new voice on the other end said, "Listen carefully. Whatever you do, do not engage them or interact with them in any way. Get away from them and reach your destination as quickly as you safely can."
"Uh—o-okay. Got it," he said, nodding to nobody.
"Thank you for your report. Be safe." The new voice hung up, leaving Marcus with just the sound of the radio again.



Chandra was in Frank's office again, along with his secretary. Her computer was on one side of his desk, turned toward the center of the desk where those present could more or less see it, displaying a rudimentary heat map. "They seem to be split into two distinct groups, one headed for us and the other toward them," she said, pointing at the city on the map, then Light's town. "It's tough to tell how many repeat-counts we're getting from different callers, but even our lowball estimates...aren't good. Even unarmed, that many is too much for all the law enforcement agents we've got available in either town."
Frank nodded seriously, furrowing his brows. "Still no violent action?"
She shook her head. "One caller a few minutes ago said he'd shot a few down before they got a hold of his rifle and tossed it to one side, and then just shoved him over and walked away."
He shook his head and sighed. "Got their sights set on a seige. It's not inconceivable that she's been distracting us with the imitation powers, all the while getting this ready to go."
"What I don't understand is what she wants now," Chandra said. "If she just wanted to kill people she'd be doing it. This seems like the windup to a, threat or an ultimatum."
"I suppose we can only wait and see. But—if there's going to be an attack on this scale..."

Frank turned to his secretary. "I think we'll need more than just our trump card."
"Sir." Opal nodded, dialing a number before handing him the receiver.
"...Corporal."



Emma left class early in a state of confusion and worry. Thankfully, at least one friendly face was waiting out in the halls. "Amory! What's going on?" she said, half-running over to him.
"You, haven't seen the news?" he said.
"No...one minute we're talking about Shakespeare, a-and the next thing I know they're evacuating the school!"
"Well, ah..this." He turned his phone screen where she could see a video cutting from one clip to another, one shaky phone camera to another, and one or two distant traffic copter's in the middle. Each view showed several faceless puppets trudging along. "This is what's going on. I guess the puppeteer decided to really show her hand."
"Are they..attacking people? Can we, do anything about it?" she said as quietly as she could manage—although most of the other students had already filed out of this part of the school, and those left weren't paying attention to the two of them.
"Not yet." He dropped the phone back to his side. "And, I thought I'd pick you up before heading to the graduate lounge to meet with everyone else. Maybe get a conference call through to Rowan or somebody over there. It's our town and the city they're starting to surround," Amory said.
"L-let's go then," she said, giving what felt like at least a somewhat determined nod. Comperehending the sheer number—the magnitude of their enemy's actual power—was terrifying, but not in a way that compelled her to run. If anything, the terror was in the knowledge that, one way or another, she was going to go out there and fight someone with such power.

He led the way out of their present building and toward the proposed meeting place. It didn't take long for them to encounter an empty hallway. "Do you, um. Know about what else has happened today?" Amory asked with a touch of nervousness.
"No. I..I was, busy this morning," she said sheepishly, dreading any request for further clarification. "And then I came straight to class..."
He took a deep breath inward, and let it out: This was bad news. "She got Dawn."
"No..." Emma's expression deflated—if it was possible—further than before. "How? She was.."
"She just suddenly decided to leave and confront her, alone. The...going theory is that she convinced her to do it."
"Why?" She pulled her glasses off for a second with one hand and wiped some tears off with the opposite sleeve. "She..didn't deserve that. It..I only met her once, but.."
"I'm sorry I have to tell you," Amory said quietly.
"No, no..it's..." Emma sniffed loudly, and then tried to salvage a bit of dignity with a deep inward breath, restraining herself from crying any harder. "It's my own fault. I get so wrapped up in my own stuff, I don't really..pay attention to the rest of the world sometimes. I should've known about it already, by now. Right?"
"I wouldn't say 'should have'," he said gingerly. "I really wish we didn't need to know about it. Or better, it wasn't happening."
"Y-yeah.."



The phone on the desk rang. Sitting in front of it was a tall, older man in military uniform. His dark hair was graying at the edges and he sported a few wrinkles, but he looked to be in pretty good shape for someone in his early forties—if you didn't count the prosthetics taking the place of his right leg from the thigh down, at least. His piercing, bright green eyes watched the phone ring once or twice before he leaned up toward it, reaching forward and picking up the receiever. "Frank."
"Corporal. Isn't this the base commander's office?"
"That it is. He's just stepped out for a moment." The corporal took a moment to pull the chair closer so he could keep the old, corded phone on him without constantly leaning forward. "I was wondering when you might call."
"You're aware of the situation." Neither side elaborated on or responded to this, which amounted to a confirmation. Frank took a deep breath and exhaled again, just enough into the receiver for it to be heard on the other end. "How likely do you think it is we can get mobilization?"
"That would be what the base commander is busy with right now."
"Really."
"You are aware we're in a declared state of emergency. Martial law isn't exactly in effect, but the military has been granted just a little autonomy to help deal with 'extraordinary threats' as they arise," the corporal said. "If this ain't one of those, I don't know what is. Now, I imagine you have a better sense of the numbers than we do at the moment. I have been given command of a pad and a pen to take down any logistics we need to know about. While you're at it, maybe you can get Officer Shepherd to recommend a deployment for me as well."
"Of course." There was a pause which both sides understood a nod to be occupying. "I'll hand you over to Chandra, then."



All of the vixens still alive in the city gathered in a single conference room. Rowan, currently in fox form, got out her phone, set it on the table in front of her, and sat quietly waiting for a minute or two longer. Simon leaned slightly toward her. "So ah...what're we waiting on?" he asked—almost exactly in time for the phone to ring from an unfamiliar number. The blue-haired vixen snapped it up to the side of her head, answering the call right away.
"Hello, Rowan." A couple of the others already in fox-ears recoiled slightly, showing signs of stress, sadness or outright rage. She was—predictably—using Dawn's voice for this. Rowan herself did not so much as flinch. "Do you, see now, what I am capable of? I know, you have your, army. You understand: I have, mine."
"Tobias Mond. What do you want."
"Do you, really want me, to say? I would, cut off, anyone listening if, they...shouldn't know." There was a brief pause—the puppeteer maybe thought they were tracing the call. Rowan had determined this was unnecessary—and likely to be useless; she was smart enough to use a burner phone and a good long walk away from her real location for a call like this anyway. "I, want, her. Who makes us, strong. Who woke, the sleeping."

There was a brief look around—not even everyone who could hear the call knew what she was talking about. Simon, who did, mouthed 'how does she know?!', which Rowan just held up a hand to, shaking her head. She had a guess as to the answer of that, but it was really an irrelevant question right now.
"This one, was very rowdy, you know? Bring her, to the bit of, the forest she, blew up. If she will, come to me, quietly, then my puppets, will leave you, alone. If you, do not, they will kill, and destroy, everything in their path. Beginning, one hour, from now."
"Do you believe that's long enough for her to even physically reach that location?" Rowan asked, in a coldly neutral tone of voice.
"I don't, care. That's what, your army is, for. Isn't it?" The phone hung up at this point.

Rowan set the phone down again. For the benefit of those who didn't have all of the information, or hadn't overheard the call, she said: "She wants Amp, the individual whose power awoke everyone the monsters put into comas. Amp is also capable of temporarily enhancing the power of any other vixen."
"Well—that's...she can't have her, right?" Zeno said. "We don't negotiate with terrorists and stuff, right?"
"Now we know what she wants, what she has, what she's planning, and where she is." Rowan said, pulling up the VI app and going through the contacts. "That means we can form a plan." She patched in Frank, then Dr. Rory Quinn, and then set the phone into a waiting dock with speakers and a microphone that would allow all present to hear and speak effectively with the other callers.



In the university's graduate lounge, Rory took a moment to put her phone on speaker, just after hearing some clicks on the other end. A man's voice came through which none in that room quite recognized: "Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Frank Smith. It seems that all of the cards are on the table, so we can finally see who really has the better hand."
"We have one hour before she begins the attack," Rowan reported. "Less, depending on how good her word is."
"Time is short, then. But there should enough time for a few introductions." Frank had patched in the commander of the military base nearby; he briefly introduced himself as such before going quiet. Everyone in the lounge except for the Quinns was in vixen form, and introduced themselves using those names—Light, Gemma (in her 'combined' form), Ning and Amp. Some of the empowered ones with Rowan followed suit, one or two—including Simon—introducing with both their "hero" names and real names.

"I assume that Tobias—our puppeteer—made demands, then," Frank said.
"She knows about Amp," Rowan reported. "I think this is the Giver's doing. Wants her dropped off where Dawn was murdered."
In the lounge, a few concerned expressions were turned her way; the fluffy vixen only tilted her head slightly, muttering a slight "Oh."
"Her 'soldiers' have a very slow method of transit, so she hasn't finished surrounding either town just yet," the base commander said. "We have everyone available en route, and a significant advantage in weaponry based on what we've seen so far. The numbers still don't look good, however."
"She will almost certainly send some of the puppets wielding stolen power," Rowan said. "Hide them among the 'normal' ones. Some will probably stay with her—and at least one will go to await Amp. It is important to consider which ones. It is to be expected that the one which can teleport will remain with her, in case this gambit fails and an escape route is necessary. Strategically speaking, at least one capable of harming large groups of people at once should be expected in each location, and one of low combat usefulness is likely to be assigned to wait."
"She has access to at least three different puppets that can detect past my illusions," Light said. "Probably—one will be in each location. Maybe the one with the blindfold waiting for Amp in case I try to come with her—it's strong, but it only has melee attacks."
"Fire and shadow are excellent crowd control," Rowan continued. "One to each location. Dawn—possibly to remain with her, as you say.

"The wind and the plant powers are the other two most likely for crowd control. Plant may not work well with fire, and wind seems to 'cancel' lightning. So that pair at least is likely approaching your location, Light."
"So—we need to decide who's going after her, then," Amp said. "Right?"
"Correct. Ideally, we should leave some crowd control behind in each town, and a group who can deal with the powers we expect to see...but we need a strong team to fight against her and her puppets, as well. I nominate myself and Light, firstly—as the most skilled and experienced at fighting other vixens, respectively."
"'Experienced'?" Simon cut in, but was presumably waved off.
"Both of us also have capabilities which are effective against a large group if she's keeping some of the 'normal' puppets in reserve for defense. Additionally, if we can disable the elements able to sense through her powers, Light's illusions would be invaluable for catching her off-guard. Gemma would be also be ideal for overall versatility, especially in case some of our predictions were incorrect."
"Ahem," Rory said. "The two of us should come along, too. She seemed real interested in my power the last time I fought one of her puppets, so I could make a decent distraction. And my husband's a healer, which is pretty important to have in enemy territory, right?"
"...Agreed."
"I want to stay here," Ning stated. "I..I'm sorry if it's selfish or unhelpful, but..."
"I understand. You should anyway—we've, volunteered everyone else in your group to the strike team," Rowan realized aloud.

"Some extra support is coming your way from us," the base commander cut in.
"Our trump card," Frank added. "Powers should work very well alongside electricity, I think."
"Two more should be sent, then," Rowan said, "from us."
"I'd rather stay here, if it's the same to you," Simon said. "I mean..all my stuff is here."
"We need you here to fight large groups anyway," Rowan said with just a hint of a sigh. After a brief moment of further discussion, Tora and Fay were decided on to head over.

"Question," Clark said, interrupting the flow of conversation for the first time. "How are we carting people around, exactly?"
"Got some trasport choppers ready to go," the base commander said.
"Okay. And...if we use one of those to go to puppeteer, how exactly do we prevent her from
hearing that and just teleporting far away? Or, if we drop out a ways off and then walk the rest of the way—same question, given she can see or 'sense' us even if Light's trying to hide us."
"Um...I can mute sound," Gemma volunteered.
"A
chopper?" said Rory.
"Not, like this. But...I think I could with um..help." She glanced in Amp's direction, and received a reassuring nod in return.
"I can make any other vixen temporarily more powerful," Amp said. "It's a...very short range effect, but the results can be pretty impressive. I'm not surprised she wants me if she knows what I can do, but I wonder whether she knows all of my powers."
"What, there are others?" Simon said. "I mean, besides...?"
"Well, I'm very difficult to hurt. Different reason from Rory—the shadow monsters literally can't touch me, and nobody 'feels' like they want to attack me. But vixens especially—can't raise a hand against me," Amp said with a confident grin. "Their magic can't hurt me, either. As another answer to Dr. Quinn's question—she won't feel very inclined to leave if she thinks she's
so close to 'having' me."

"You sound like you have a plan," Frank commented.
"Bring me along and set me where I can walk the rest of the way to where she wants me," Amp said. "
After I use my power on everyone I can, I mean. I'll present myself, she might stop the attack at least for a second or two and let her guard down while she has her puppet or puppets start leading me to her. If she does call off the attack for a second, the defenders can take advantage of that to thin her ranks by just keeping up the attack. Then—you strike, and so do I. I can't actually attack, but I do have a way of 'taking away' power just as I can enhance it. It'll probably get rid of whatever puppet she has 'escorting' me right then and there, so it can't come back to help her..well, depending on how it all works I'd say at least not right away. One less that can sense through Light's illusions, more than likely."

"That seems like a solid plan overall," Frank said. "Let's talk logistics for a moment. The base is closer to us than they are to you. So, we'll send everyone on the strike team and support for your town your way, and then the rest of the strike team loads and heads out. Think that'll work?"


After working out several more details, including the precise placement of the vixens defending each town from the puppets to coordinate with the troops and police forces, the call was eventually hung up so everyone could get ready. Once Opal nodded to her boss that they were off the line, he said, "Hope you don't mind my borrowing your last name for the time being. I've been advised not to share my full identity with everyone just yet, but I had to introduce myself somehow."
"Heh. Quite alright, sir."




Man, this bit of the story is difficult to write. Think I've held onto most of this episode for half a year at this point, but the next part is what really makes me nervous. SO many moving parts to track. And trying to describe military stuff makes me especially nervous as I have basically zero knowledge when it comes to that, so a lot of it will probably be terribly incorrect.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

The "Best" RPG Ever-100


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Katherine woke herself and Zack up at the same time—after jolting Aria awake, after everyone said their general goodbyes. That time was fairly deep into the morning; after all, they'd all had a rather long night. While she had already had the experience of..mutually petting someone before with Nora, it was a bit different to fall asleep that way and wake up still clinging to someone else. Not...bad, but different. She carefully peeled herself off of Zack and pulled up onto her knees on the bed, while he swung around so he was facing the same way she was, his legs hanging off the side.

"Morrr-ning~," the catgirl said, and received a groggy but not unfriendly grunt in repsonse. Her head tilted slightly as she caught sight of some thin metal links across the back of his neck. She reached forward and prodded them slightly. "You're still wearing the abstinence charm thing? I'm pretty sure that stuff's worn off by now."
"Yeah." The wolf-girl stood up and stretched. "I still don't like the idea of being attracted to guys, so..whatever of that the stupid curse gave me, this should cancel out, right?"
"I'm sure it's helping," she shrugged. "Well, I need to get back to my room before everyone else wakes up enough to be witnesses."
"Mmnh. See you 't breakfast."
"Yep!" Hopping off the bed, Katherine headed out the door and made quick work of the short distance back to her own bedroom. It was almost a shame they were going to let this secret out soon, as it gave her an opportunity to feel sneaky, slipping thorugh the upstairs hallway unnoticed by all.

"Mnnh?" Almost as soon as she was gone, Lupa woke up. "Nnh...yah!" She pulled at the covers over her and threw them violently away—actually, directly at him.
"..Morning, Lupa." Zack carefully picked it off of himself and set it in a pile on his own bed for now.
"Ack! Sorry, Master!" She sat up, cross-legged, on top of the bed. "This one didn't know what the weight was and threw it off quick in case it was an attack!"
"It's just covers. People usually sleep under blankets and stuff to keep them warm," he said. "...I hope Katherine taught you how to clean yourself in a shower."
"Um..?" Given the light headtilt, she didn't know the word.
"The thing in the bathroom that spits water at you from above."
"Oh! This one thought that was skywater," she said, and then nodded. "That makes more sense now."

"Your tail's almost as bad as mine, so it probably needs more attention than hers does," he said.
"Bad?"
"Gigantic. Fluffy," he clarified. "More fur is more to wash."
"Oh," she nodded cheerfully again.
"Same goes for hair."
"Um...people do this every day?" she said, pulling herself down onto her feet and standing up.
"Usually. Especially after a workout or a battle. No one I've met likes being covered in yesterday's sweat. Well—you don't have to wash all your hair and fur every day, but it gets kind of rough and tangled if it's not groomed often enough."
"Hmmn." Lupa held her own tail forward with a hand, considering this point. "This one will try it," she said.
"Alright. Nora's still asleep," (which his hearing informed him of) "so you can have first go in there. I guess..tell me if you have any questions," he shrugged.
"Okay! Thank you, Master!" she said excitedly, heading inside.


Lynn was awakened by a knock from her bathroom door. "Pssst! Lynn," Rayna's voice came through. "Are you up yet?"
"I guess..?" She sat up and took a look out the window—the sun was up, but it was still morning. "I'm surprised you are, after that late a night."
"I slept enough. More importantly, I have exciting news. Can I come in?"
"Sure."

The fox-girl was still in her bedclothes, which implied whatever news it was had come up immediately after she woke. "Okay okay. Check this out," she said excitedly. After holding up one hand and making a few tapping and sweeping motions with the other, her hair appeared to turn blue.
"Uh..I guess that's no normal illusion if you're so excited about it," the human said.
"Yeah! My hair is actually blue now. And I can do this." With a further motion of her hand, the color of her hair shifted around through various hues like someone was dragging their mouse around in a color picker for it.
"So..you got up to that 'reality bending' skill or whatever?" she said, pulling around to hang her legs off the side of the bed.
"Mm-hm!" The fox-girl left her hair at a bright neon pink.
"Can it do anything...useful?"
"Uhh...some?"

"For one thing, this is technically an enchantment I'm applying to myself. With the skill level I have, it'll wear off or can get dispelled, but little cosmetic things like this are very high efficiency and can stick around for months with no maintenance, which is totally different from constantly maintining a visual illusion. New-grown hair will keep the new color unless I specifically set it not to. Forrr the moment the only, I guess, useful things I can do is some stat buffing, and that's way lower efficiency; without upkeep it won't last more than a few minutes. But! All of that can be leveled up. I can make everything more permanent by leveling the main skill, raise the efficiency of specific effects much more with skills that focus on them, and some of the higher-up skills really do allow for indefinite no-upkeep effects and true reality alteration—as opposed to the dispellable stuff—at the highest levels," she rattled off quickly.
"That's great and all, but I think you might have to repeat all that to everyone else," Lynn said. "Still, I'm happy for you."
"Yeah, I don't mind explaining something twice. I—when we were fighting the weird tentacle starfish thing, I felt sorta useless," she said, her ears drooping slightly. "But now I can finally do something other than illusions! If someone needs a little extra strength or intelligence, or..like, I can change a blade of grass into something that looks in every way like a person or animal for a brief moment to pull the attention of even something like that demon. Eventually I might be able to manipulate almost every attribute that I can 'see' with the HUD-vision stuff, since that's how what I can already do basically works and with the new skill I can see a lot of the options future skills will give me grayed out, waiting to be unlocked."
"Could you give yourself a temporary copy of someone else's abilities?" she suggested, standing up.
"Maybe! Probablyyy, at least a lesser proportion of them. The possibilities look endless!"


About halfway through making breakfast, Katherine picked up a pair of minds in the nearby sky—both of which she recognized, and one of which seemed somehow...less hazy than before. For now she went with the one she knew could easily be reached. Mira.
Yoo, Kath.
How..is she?
Pretty good. Way better than last night. We'll fill you in once we get there.

Not long after, they came into the kitchen. "Good morning," the catgirl said cheerfully, and received just a sheepish nod from the dragon-girl in response.
"Mornin'. You the only one awake?" the witch asked.
"No, but everyone else is still upstairs getting ready for the day."
"Mmnh..." Rose fidgeted, looking very much like she wanted to say something.
Katherine paused—at least physically; her telekinesis was still doing the work of cooking—to look at her. "You have something important to say?"
"Um, yeah, uh.."
"You should say it at breakfast. Especially if you want everyone to hear it."
"Oh. Uh..okay."

"Besides," she said, turning around to look at something. "People take shocking or awkward news a lot better in the middle of a meal."
"Really?"
"Sure! For one thing, there's something in people's instincts about eating. Anyone you're eating with is a member of yourrrr, tribe, or pack, or whatever. So they're automatically friends, even when they're not. But especially when they are. For another, if you don't like what you're hearing then your options are to listen anyway or miss out on the food."
"Heheh...I-I guess so," she said nervously.
"Maybe more importantly, everyone will be here, and you don't have to say it...what, seven different times, worst-case? Unless you didn't already tell her...whatever it is?"
"Um. Right. I-I mean I did," she said. After a gentle wave in the direction of one of the kitchen table chair from the catgirl, she nervously skittered over there, Mira gracefully floating over to sit next to her.
"I'd offer to help, but it seems like you've got a good rhythm going," the witch said.
"Indeed I do. You can pick it up some other time."


Someone—maybe the Captain of the guard, or maybe the people in charge of the house's construction—had ensured that the table had space enough, and chairs enough, for no less than four extra people beyond the expected eight (after accounting for the fact that the entire house was outfitted for twice as many people as it was originally going to be for in the first place). So once the telepathic call went up and everyone was seated, it still wasn't overly crowded—even with Rose and Lupa added to the lot. Nearly everyone took note of the dragon-girl's presence in particular, Zack and Aria both asking if she was okay and receiving a positive, if a bit nervous, response, and the rest either witnessing one of those two or choosing to reserve such questioning for later.

After they were all seated, but before touching any of her own food, Rose gave an uncharacteristically reserved throat-clearing to try and get everyone's attention, before realizing she basically already had it—except for Lupa, who seemed content enough with the dragon-girl's earlier assurance she was okay to start tearing at her food like nothing had ever been wrong.
"Um...so...a-about last night," she started. "I was uh..the..like, the demon-thing...it um..." She trailed off and shrugged, giving up on trying to explain this. "I-I'm just sorry if I worried everyone. I'm..okay, really, and I...sorta was throwing a tantrum at myself because...stuff...um." Rose turned slightly in Mira's direction, and giggled nervously when the witch gave her an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

"W-well, I guess most of you might already know this, or a-at least had a guess..uh. I'mmmm, from Earth too," she said slowly. "Annnnd, I've known all of you are for..a while. A few days, at least. That's it, I guess."
While those of the group who'd been less privy to the earlier 'investigation' took a moment to process this, Aria—sitting next to her—reached over to put a hand on her shoulder. "Welcome to the party," she said. Several of the others echoed the general sentiment of this right after, with someone saying "This whole thing is crazy, right?" Rose just nervously giggled in response to all this, and most of the table quickly turned to general, casual chatter as though nothing too unusual had just been said.

Among this, Lupa paused in her eating, pulling some food the rest of the way into her mouth with her tongue, and turned to Zack with a questioning look—it read to him as 'asking permission to ask a question'.
"What?"
"Um..what's 'Earth'?"
"That's..going to be a lengthy explanation for you," he said. "Look, it's where we're from—everyone here in the house but you I guess—as opposed to, where we are now. I think that's the best I can do without help."
"Okay," she nodded, accepting this explanation completely. Zack just shook his head as she tore back into her food again, unsure how to take a complete lack of follow-up questions. At least it meant he could keep eating too.

"Hey, you have a skill tree too, right?" Aria said after waiting what she presumed to be long enough to distance the question from Rose's announcement somewhat.
"Hmn? Oh, yeah! It's a literal tree too, heehee!"
"What've you been buying? Actually, I'll just have you draw it for me like everyone else has."
"Uhh..okay? But like, a bunch of skills were just already there for me when I got here," she said, immediately concerned with the sudden interest in this topic.
"I guess that explains why you were so powerful already as soon as we met..."

"Hey, speaking of skills!" Rayna said. "Did anyone notice anything diffent about my haaaiir~?"
"You're making it look pink?" Zack said.
"Yes, but—it's not an illusion. I finally got that skill that lets me do other stuff, too," she said.
"How exactly do you know it's not an illusion?"
"Because I'm not spending any energy maintaining it," she replied. "I'm using that skill to actually change the color attribute of my hair. It's a long-lasting enchantment, technically."
"Okaay..so how do we know it's not just a long-lasting illusion you can make now?"
"My Sight tells me otherwise," she said, in a tone that indicated this settled the matter in her mind.

"No, no, I think he's onto something," Lynn said, drawing a very 'not you too' expression from the fox-girl. "How can you trust that your Sight thing isn't just telling you it's meaningfully distinct from an illusion? I mean, you can already fool almost every normal sense we have, so those can't very well be trusted to tell us whether it's real or not."
"It wouldn't make any sense for my power to try to fool me about how it works."
"Yeah, but you could be misinterpreting what it's telling you," Katherine joined in.
"Well—I can do stuff like buff other people's stats with it too," she said, changing tack. "You can't fake making someone stronger or smarter or...whatever. And that's the same skill and spell, so by extension..."
"You told me yourself this morning that you can only do small boosts, though," Lynn countered. "Isn't it pretty easy to boost someone's confidence by making them feel a tiny bit stronger, and then that confidence gives them what they perceive to be the same results as a real boost of strength?"
"W—maybe, but I can level those same skills up to increase the boosts past any kind of placebo effect," Rayna said.

"I don't remember anything in those skills' descriptions that suggest their exact method of achieving that effect won't change when you level them up," Aria said. "Maybe it really is just an illusion now, and it's a 'fake it till you make it' thing?"
"But that's not how anyone else's skills work, right?" Lynn asked—not so much changing sides as obeying her own 'devil's advocate' urges. "You don't start out, like, casting 'fireball' by throwing lit matches and then suddenly the exact same skill becomes the ability to magically create fire from thin air."
"Yeah," the fox-girl said.
"That doesn't settle the issue about the hair, though," she continued, swinging back the other way. "I mean, a skill with so many different effects at once could plausibly achieve them differently."

The illusionist put a hand up to her forehead, starting to get something resembling a headache. "Aria, you're the one who told me what this skill does. You told me it 'makes my illusions real' or something, right? I didn't even get that it did that. So, what, do you think you read it wrong the first time? Let me.." As her eyes were already closed in frustration by now, she consulted her skill tree and tried to read through the skill's description again for herself, and actually understand it this time.

"Wait, no..okay. Yeah." Everyone waited in anticipation of her results—except for Lupa, who was just being quiet because everyone else was. Rayna opened her eyes again, and they displayed the faint glow they had a few times before. "I get it. It's fake and it's real."
Lynn supplied the quickly-spoken "What?"
"My class is like one of those Zen riddle things," she said, gesturing to try and explain it. "You remember how the description went: An illusionist is someone who has 'pierced the veil', which implies seeing the truth. The very first thing I started to be able to do after picking it was to see truth—the way things really, objectively are. But the name of the class is 'illusionist', someone who hides the truth. I can hide the truth from the senses of everyone else because I can see it. If I couldn't see it, I'd be no good at hiding it because I wouldn't know what to hide."
"Okaay," Lynn said, "but how does that..?"
"Hold up, I'm not done," she said, holding out a hand before dropping it again. "I get powers that affect reality because at some level, reality is an illusion. The 'reality' every person experiences is the sum total of all the senses they have—sight, sound, magic, instinct, whatever, and it's not exactly the same for different people—like, I can smell stuff you can't, and probably Zack or Lupa can smell things I can't. For example. If I can change the reality a person is experiencing by affecting every sense they have with a super convincing illusion, then I'm changing that one person's reality, even if I'm not technically doing anything but making an illusion that fools them. But my perception is slightly special because I really do see the truth somehow, at least a tiny little window into it. So if I want to change reality, all I really have to do is make an illusion good enough to fool that. Sight-with-a-capital-S. If I can change what I see when I'm looking at the 'truth', then somehow or other I must be changing that truth itself. Obviously making that level of illusion is really hard, which is why I have to know how to make all kinds of 'normal' illusions first."

"You got all that from the skill description?" Aria said after a pause long enough to process the rant.
"Not exactly. It's..I dunno, it feels like reading it was the straw that broke the camel's back. That skill," she said to inform everyone who wasn't Aria or a mind-reader, "is called 'Fool Truth'. Its description just says 'Illusions gain the power to affect truesight.' Truesight being..the name of the base skill that gives me all the HUD stuff, which I started out with a couple levels in....what?" Aria was giving her a bit of a look.
"That's, not the description you wrote down on the paper," she said. "It was way longer and more technical than that, and I think I'd have to re-read it to even..."
The fox-girl sighed. "Someone's messing with us, then? We can look over it again after we're done eating. At least I understand now, though."
"So..is your hair color an illusion or not?" Zack said—since he didn't exactly grasp the earlier explanation.
"Yes. I am an illusion, so naturally everything about my hair is," Rayna said. "But I'm obviously real, so..so is my hair color." She grinned at him long enough for him to give a thoroughly confused look for a couple of seconds and then just shake his head, resuming eating rather than trying to point out the logical problems with that pair of statements.


Rose looked a little dazed from this entire conversation, so Lynn made an effort to include her in the new topic. "Hey."
"Um..yeah?"
"Were you a guy too? I mean, before—on Earth."
"Y-yeah.." She was obviously wondering how Lynn had guessed this before picking up on a particular word: "Wait, 'too'?"
"Oh, yeah," Katherine said. "Every single one of us was male before. Just another weird aspect of the whole situation."
"Oh! Um, I-I didn't know that part," she said. "Thought it was just me and Mira..an' maybe Zack."
"Anyway," the catgirl continued, smoothly changing the subject. "There's an extra door in the front hallway. Since we know about each other now, maybe we could get someone to put a door in your forest and link it to that one—just like the one we've got that links us to town. Then it wouldn't be as much of a hassle to get back and forth."
"Ooh. That'd be great!" Rose said, nodding.


"Ah, right," Nora said. "A-as long as we're..saying stuff, th-there's something..." She trailed off almost as soon as she realized she had everyone's attention. "It's..."
Are you still okay talking about this now? Katherine asked her privately. We can put it off a little longer...
No, no. I'm just nervous saying something with this many people's eyes on me.
I'll say it, Zack thought—not having heard this bit of conversation but easily guessed its content.

"Look, we weren't exactly honest about how her 'spirit weave' power works," he said. "Because it's..embarrassing. To get the beastfolk form, she has to.." He was blushing a bit, and waved his hands as though this explainedi t.
"She has to
pet that kind of beastfolk," Katherine finished for him. "So, yeah, the three of us have all done that thing with each other." She shrugged, mostly just feeling relieved to have it out in the open.

Everyone was quiet for a second or two: Rayna had her arms crossed and was nodding slightly; Lupa, whose plate had been clean since before the whole discussion of Rayna's new power started, just looked on with a blank stare of mild confusion; Rose was looking away from the three of them but obviously blushing and grinning slightly.
Aria broke the tension by fistpumping and yelling "Woohoo Nora!" Clera glared at her, quickly rolling up a napkin and hit her forearm with it. "Ow—heyy, what's that for?"
"I was pretty sure that was it," the fox-girl said, ignoring the silent argument the winged girl was still having with the shifter. "I mean—not only can I hear things, but y'know, my Sight tells me a lot about how any effect I'm looking at works, and I've certainly looked at it. At least now that it's out in the open you can complete the collection, riiight?" She said with a toothy smile in Nora's direction.
"Uh. Um.." The elf just blushed and slid down in her chair in a vain attempt to appear smaller.

"Why is everyone acting funny, Master?" Lupa asked quietly—not that the table couldn't hear her anyway. "Petting, weird?"
"Well—no, I guess not. For beastfolk, at least, it's normal. But we're all originally human, so it is weird for us," he tried to explain.
"Human?"
"You know, like Lynn?"
Lupa fixed her with a long stare, as though attempting to identify what difference this made. "No ears or tail," she concluded. "But then, humans used to pet this one all the time," she said, and Zack sighed in despair of ever explaining this in a way she'd understand.

"You were a dog then, right?" Lynn said, "Since you said something about having a previous master." Lupa nodded. "Well, see, it's normal for a person to pet a dog. And it's normal for beastfolk to pet each other. But humans kind of see it as weird for people to pet each other. Beastfolk are more like animals, so it's more normal to them to show affection that way."
"But, tall one pets people too," she said, pointing to Nora and prompting a deep blush from her.
"Just because people find something weird at first doesn't mean they can't get over that and do it anyway," Mira said. "I know I did," she added with a grin in Rayna's direction which went over the small wolf-girl's head. "If you already like the idea, then once you understand that beastfolk like it, and see it as a sign of affection, you can give yourself permission to enjoy it. But that doesn't mean it's for everyone. So you shouldn't expect everyone to be comfortable with petting you, either, any more than you would've been comfortable with someone petting you when you were a big, strong wolf."
"Ohh. Okay," Lupa nodded again, thoughtfully. This at least got through to her a little bit.


When everyone was about finished, Katherine said, "Look, we've had a stressful few days lately. There's plenty of literal money in the metaphorical bank. I'd suggest we take a day off today, unless someone objects orr, like, the Captain or someone comes bursting through our door with some new distaster to deal with."
"Yeah, I agree," Lynn said. "I didn't see Rast at all yesterday, kinda like to know what happened with him..." While Rayna teased her about this, everyone else started chiming in their own agreement to this plan.
"All right, I think it's settled then," the psion said, starting to pick up plates to move them toward the kitchen. Mira winked at Rose before sprouting some shadow-tendrils from her back and using them to pick up some of the dishes not already floating in the air.
"New demon powers," she said by way of explanation.
"Uh-huh..are you sure those things are able to keep dishes balanced on them?" the catgirl said with a look of concern. "They don't exactly have all the features that hands do to keep something fragile held up."
"I have very fine control over them, even all at once," the witch said, standing up and starting toward the sink with it all in tow. "And they're stronger than they look. Or are you just annoyed someone else can pick up a lot at the same time too?"
"Not particularly," Katherine said, refusing to take the bait.
"Anyway, you cooked, so I'll take care of the cleaning," she said, using her actual hands to transfer her load of dishes from the tentacles to the sink.
"Okay. Just remember you volunteered," she shrugged, setting her own load carefully down before leaving the kitchen.


As soon as the table was clear, Aria rolled out a big piece of paper and got out some pens, offering one to Rose—who took it cautiously, clearly afraid she was just going to snap it in two. "All right, so just make a copy on paper of what your skill tree looks like in your head. Then I can look through it and help you come up with an effective build for future leveling."
"Okay," she nodded, at least trusting in the shifter's obvious confidence in her own ability to do this sort of thing.

"Yeah okay, someone is definitely messing with us," Rayna said, having unrolled the record of her own skill tree. "Look." Aria came around to do so, and headtilted hard at what she saw.
The lower half of the tree, and the upper half, were both present, but there was a blank space where the name and description of the skill that bridged the two should have been—the description which Aria had read before and taken as reason to advise the illusionist to rush and get one of everything below in order to quickly afford it.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

The "Best" RPG Ever-99




Tsaron burst into place next to Bimorphaeus, looking somehow completely out of place in the setting next to his younger self at first. "Finally! Ezra, I noticed somebody walking your dream and thought, 'that doesn't look normal'. So..I.." His focus shifted slowly to the other him at this point; the deity was looking at him with a neutral expression. "Ah, hello there."
"I got tired of holding you," Bimorphaeus stated. "Well—it's all right; eventually I'd have asked her to relay some of this to you anyway. You've both got some of the same questions, after all." Tsaron looked dazed and stumbled back a step or two as he was suddenly hit with the entire mental recording of their conversation—since the point where Ezra realized it was a dream—at once. "Now, one of us is going to have to change, or this will quickly become confusing."

In a fluid, incomprehensible motion, Bimorphaeus changed his appearance, the entire concept of his being within the dream, to that of a tall, white-haired Canis woman in gleaming armor, swords sheathed on either side and a spear hanging from her back. "..How's that?"
"You just had to pick another of us, eh?" Ron complained.
"What happened to her, anyway?" Ezra asked.
"You didn't hear?" he said. "She fell leading some of her order's finest in taking down a particular gigantic, blood-hungry demon...? One which some clerics had to seal away afterward? She even gave some particularly inspired suggestions for what the seal should do to whoever draws the blade before that battle, you know."
"When was this?" Tsaron gave her the year. "Oh. I was busy weeding out corruption in a kingdom half the world away at the time. Though I'm surprised I didn't hear about it afterward."
"The less famous a sealed blade is, the less likely it is to be drawn," Tsaron said.

Bimorphaeus cleared her throat, getting both of their attention again. "That answer your question well enough? Although I might add she had many children before her passing, who went on to be parts of many noble lines...you may have met one or two of her descendants since then, and not even realized."
"Oh."
"...Of course," Tsaron agreed. "You all do seem to love your coincidences."
"Not everything's on purpose," she said with a slight shake of her head. "Now, as I was saying before you interrupted...we had no choice but to go looking for a new group of heroes, and fast."

"So, that bunch? They're your new heroes," Ron said. "Why kidnap a bunch of live people from the same world again, if dead are so much easier and other worlds might have, I don't know, stronger or otherwise better people?"
"There are a number of reasons," the goddess said. "Young people are more positive and hopeful than those who've recently died, for one. For another, all the best candidates for our new criteria—which I will go into in a moment—were alive at the time, as that concept applies. This, can be a bit confusing to the uninitiated: We can look upon your world in a manner which allows us to keep it 'in stasis' relative to us, or in a manner which moves it forward in time at any gradient we like. But we cannot affect your world in any way which would amount to time travel; once we've seen past a certain point we can only interact with that point or later. Whether those we selected would still be what we wanted by the time they died, we were uncertain, so we chose not to risk it. As for why we chose not to seek help from another world..."

"Well, we considered it," she said with a small nod. "Yours is not the only one we found in the initial search with a similar language group to ours, and there were a few candidates with people openly wielding magic, which would make them more adaptable to our world and likely more initially powerful as well. But as we were making our plans, a particular traveler of worlds approached us. This being..what we are to you, she is to those who are that to us," she said, "at least in terms of power and age. She advised us that the more worlds one seeks help from, the more visible one becomes to other worlds. And there are things waiting among those other worlds which would make our current difficulties seem like a fly to be swatted by comparison. She also...

"Well, are you aware of what happened to Valorum?"
"He got killed," Ezra said bluntly.
"Ceres said it was 'more than that', but didn't exactly have time to elaborate," Ron added.
"Right. His...soul was damaged, a feat we hardly considered possible. 'Damaged' is an understatement, really; you saw the way his body was shredded by that hit he took, so you should imagine something similar done to the soul. Amidst everything else we were trying to do, Demaeus was desperately trying to put him back together again. Being somewhat more of an expert with that kind of thing, she offered to take that soul off of our hands to find a way to heal him, in exchange for giving us some help constructing the vessels needed to bring people between your world and ours alive and unharmed. Given that healing him was our goal in the first place, the deal was clearly, intentionally lopsided. We did not argue."

Neither of them said anything for a moment, simply taking this in. She continued: "I should explain what was so difficult about that in the first place. In your world—between your planet and others, you have 'space'. Space is dangerous, more or less, because it is empty. But the way between your world and ours is not through 'space'; if you can imagine a direction other than the three usual ones, traversing between the two requires going that way. If you go that direction, the region between worlds is often called 'Void'.
"Unlike space, Void—or at least the part of it surrounding both of our worlds—is dangerous because it is full. Anything trying to traverse the Void must contend with a constant, neverending torrent of immensely powerful, undirected magical energy whose full force annihilates most things, and even small amounts of which can twist and warp living creatures. This energy is called 'Breach' by most everyone with languages similar to ours; its presence around a world tends to protect it from certain kinds of threats, so it isn't entirely a bad thing.
"Souls are bound together tightly enough to withstand Breach untouched, which is why bringing the dead through is so much easier. We needed to create vessels which would be essentially 'airtight' against Breach in order to bring our new candidates through safely. As I said, the traveler gave us some information on how to build them, but we needed a dry run to ensure that everything was working properly. For that, we chose a dog whose owner had recently died, which would have probably suffered afterward regardless. Our first attempt at the seals...were not perfect," she said. "What resulted looked no different from a beast monster—a dire wolf, to be exact—so we left it with other dire wolves, deep in the frontier, not expecting to see it again."

"You're talking about Zack's little pet, aren't you," Ron said; Bimorphaeus nodded.
"Somehow that intense concentration of magic eventually resulted in the formation of a unique soul, with beneficial properties that even Sophol didn't predict. When he wanted personification, we jumped at the chance to grant the same kind of power we had the rest of the new group of heroes."
"...Which you still haven't explained," Ezra pointed out. "What about this group makes them worth the trouble?"
"Well, as I said before, you were chosen for your demonstrated abilites—what you had thoroughly proven yourselves capable of throughout your lives. This, we imagined, would make you fine heroes. It did not," she said flatly. "When you go looking for power and skill, you find people willing to wield it in all kinds of ways. For our second try, we needed something else—and ultimately settled on your model." With this, she pointed at Ezra in particular.
"Mine." It was half a question.
"Not—just you, of course. But certainly not him," she said, without being clear which 'him' she meant. "Ceres and Valorum, and the one whose appearance I take now, all similarly demonstrated the kind of qualities our heroes would really need to have. We are fortunate to have more or less accidentally selected so many; otherwise things would have exploded in our faces with far more force than it already did.

"What we realized—and it sounds terribly idiotic to have to point it out—is that heroism is a trait of one's character, not of one's power."
"So, what," Ron said, "This bunch of self-absorbed kids have better character than me? Because they are willing to rush into all sorts of danger for no good reason?"
"You've got the order backwards," Bimorphaeus said, "and you're missing some pieces besides. Each one was chosen for a different reason, to suit a certain purpose. That is why keeping all of them alive, for as long as possible, is vital to our current plan. To explain what those are...hmm.

"Mortals tell tales that I am a poor communicator, but the truth is, I am the best of the lot. The other gods have no idea what it is like to be one of you, much less the best way to make a mortal understand something. Divested of any physical form, the very thing I continue to exist in is the collective thought of every being on our world," she said. "Nonetheless, words are sometimes simply inadequate. I would prefer, with your permission, to simply show you what we saw in each of them."
"I have no objection to that," Ron said; Ezra nodded agreement curtly.
"All right. Come with me." She gestured to follow her along the path from Ezra's memory to somewhere—symbolically and mentally—else, and began to walk. The two of them followed into a more dreamlike experience than the relatively rational conversation of the past several subjective moments.


First there was Zack—as they knew her, a Canis woman in the armor and equipment of a knight. "In" him was a vision of a single defining event: A child standing obliviously on a road, facing away from an oncoming car just cresting a hill—just now coming into view, moving too quickly and seeing too late to brake to a complete stop. From one side, a figure suddenly ran in, grabbed the child and dove back-first out of the way, tumbling along the concrete as the car zoomed by, brakes screeching.
The figure stood up, becoming a bit clearer—an average-looking, dark-haired man helped the child onto its feet, and after making sure they weren't hurt yelled something about being careful and keeping off the road. At this point some other figures approached, including the car's driver, and—noticing this—he turned and ran before anyone could find out who he was. The incident was reported on the news, some witnesses being interviewed on a TV set in the front office of a warehouse. The same man from before came into a nearby door, some of the workers noticing some damage to his clothes and scratches on his arms—and laughed when he told them flatly that he'd tripped in the parking lot on the way there.
"Hey, if it was on the property, you should see if you can get anything outta worker's comp, Zack!"


The second was Katherine. A tall, broad-shouldered man sat behind a DM's screen (and although the "audience" might not have understood what that was, for the purposes of the dream they did now) with a crowd of people sitting at the table before him. He was describing worlds, people, and creatures, putting the players into one situation after another that forced them as well as their characters to work together and get to know each other better.
He stood up, going into a neighboring room where two or three of the indistinct players followed or already waited. There were introductions, calm discussions, outright fights—in each situation he was doing the same thing: helping them understand each other. With his aid, strangers became friends, bitter feuds were defused and dissolved, and relationships were patched together that might have otherwise fallen apart. Perhaps he wasn't even aware of what he was doing, motivated only by wanting everyone to have a good time and relax instead of carrying the weight of the rest of the world into the game with them.
Everyone was welcome at Vinny's on game night, and one way or other, he made them feel welcome, too.


Mika, or Mira—whatever her name was, the witch appeared in both of her available appearances at once. Her explanation was different from the previous two, showing not a person in a location but simply an avalanche of words. Conversations, one after another, flooded by. It was clear that the same person who had become the witch was party in each of them, giving words of encouragement and support to people dealing with all kinds of situations—and one very important kind of help in particular.
The friendships visible through those conversations were strong, in fact enough so that when someone was thinking of hurting themselves—fed up with the world, terrified, or just off their meds—somehow it always came out in a private conversation to him. The shield of anonymity made them feel free to discuss their darkest thoughts without fear of someone "reporting" them. Every time, he encouraged people whose faces he'd never seen and—usually—whose voices he'd never heard to seek help, with frequent but not totally perfect success.
Whoever they met him as, whatever false representation by a virtual avatar they saw, the person behind that mask was always a shoulder to cry on, somebody to lean on...someone to talk to, if nothing else was needed.


For the tall elf girl Nora, a young man could be seen growing up in casts and crutches, both his parents and himself terrified of the slightest jolt or trip. With each injury came hospital visits, and sometimes long stays in the same buildings as families whose kids were at even greater risk. As he came to be one of the older patients, he became known to the younger ones as a source of knowledge, wisdom, and hugs—if you were slow and careful about it, anyway. To them it seemed like he knew a little bit of everything; whenever a child had questions, they'd come to Norrin first, before the adults, because he always seemed to explain it better. He would be sitting there, nose in a book, and then set it aside as soon as anyone came near to talk to him.
To all of them, he was just like an elder brother; he'd been here before, knew the routines and would happily help anyone new introduce themselves to the group. He even helped out with the work now and then, when it was deemed unlikely to risk harm to his ever-fragile bones. More than anything, Norrin was a frequent source of calm and stability to children and families facing upheaval and turmoil.


Lynn and Rayna were together, as they always seemed to be. The two of them had worked together for a long time before, too, hosting a show focused around examination and careful thought. They could be seen questioning every assumption, reasoning through any problem that faced them. Careful discussion and contemplation led them to the truth of many matters—admittedly, often trivial ones, but these were mere practice for the occasional speck of insight into more serious matters.
Ray and Lyle argued and researched and pondered until they found the truth, no matter how ugly that truth was. Once or twice they uncovered real corruption and exposed it to the world at large, and when they found some truly worthy of help, they sought to help them however they could.


"Don't give up!" a man's voice came from behind Aria. "Never give you. You can do it." Will's power lay in a boundless supply of determination, spilled out in words of encouragement and expressed and demonstrated publicly for all who cared to look and see. He gave of his time, effort, and self to see that others could survive, and simply watching and listening to him was enough to give some a fighting chance.


Two scenes at once played for Dr. Ian Kellen: In the first, he was enraged, furiously upbraiding a fellow doctor for his carelessness with another person's life, which—whether it had or not—could very well have cost that life. In the other, his hand was on a shoulder of a young surgeon who'd failed, telling him that he'd done all he could and not to let this turn him away from the practice for good. In both the doctor's essence was revealed: An absolute, uncompromising ethic when it came to the value of human life, a passionate drive to see that others took lives under their care just as seriously, and a gentle kindness toward those whose attitudes proved worthy of the vital occupation they had taken up.


At the end of this was Rose, the dragon. A shy, mildly overweight young man was seen sitting alone at home, quietly working a job behind a computer with nobody talking to him, or walking through the streets deliberately looking away from everyone around him. Yet, also, he quietly handed in donation after donation: Food, clothes, bedding, whatever was needed. He stood behind a counter, ladling out soup to hungry people; he followed instructions meticulously to help build shelter for the homeless. For every opportunity to give, to do good or help others, he seemed to take it and throw the full weight of his efforts and resources behind it. Hardly anyone he helped knew his name, but their gratitude for what he gave spoke volumes all the same.


The dream took on a more solid, coherent appearance again, as they came to the end of the symbolic "road" to be standing out in the backyard of the house Ezra had recently had built for the group. Bimorphaeus stopped just in front of the door inside and turned around to face the two old heroes, letting out a small sigh from the effort of expressing all of this so efficiently. "Does that answer your question?"
"I suppose it does," Tsaron said, "although I believe we both have just a few follow-ups."

"I see it's true that every one of them was male," Ezra said. "Is there a reason for that?"
The goddess shrugged. "For the most part, that just happens to be who fit our needs best. Apart from that, Aphera thought it would be best to have everyone the same sex to..avoid romantic attachments among each other, and encourage them to get to know the people of this world instead."
"So why did you turn all of them into girls?" Ron asked right away.
She sighed again, this time in annoyance. "I refuse to be held responsible for that.

"It began this way: The only person we trusted to be a 'mentor' to a possible witch or warlock would not accept a male apprentice, but would be willing to change one into a witch instead. So we put in only 'witch' as an option...which wound up being chosen. Then, the same witch who was her mentor was also going to do the same thing to the knight, during an event which was deemed necessary to send someone who would otherwise be tied to an order somewhere deep inland out into the frontier. Then there was that ward on the blade which would change the sex of whoever pulled it and then seal off their memories, and one of them chose that too. The empathic soul most compatible with Ian also happened to have stray fire magic wandering the world, and we knew we could only take advantage of that if the soul was in a sufficiently familiar body, so the merging ritual also molded him to an appearance similar to hers.
"So with nearly half of them being changed one way or another, Aphera suggested we should do the same to all of them, to give them a predicament in common and draw them together somewhat. Also, I believe she had her eye on potential 'matches' for all of them—which she argued would give them further motivation to carry out our task beyond their natural inclination—and those of highest compatibility, who would also be conveniently helpful for other reasons, turned out to mostly be male. I was against the idea; Sophol sided with his wife of course; and Haestra and Dimaeus both said 'do what you want'. So here we are." She put up her hands helplessly for a second, then dropped them again.

"That brings me to something else," Ron said. "Why...more importantly how, do they have traceable history and memories of hailing from here, being that they, like us, are from Earth? You did no such thing for us."
"For why: Another matter of giving them more attachment to this world—motivation. This part I somewhat agreed with," Bimorphaeus said. "While they were in transit from your world to ours, we put them in a kind of stasis and attached their minds to some very convincing simulacra. At each juncture we asked the original mind what it would do, to determine the simulacrum's reactions and behavior to various events. At the end, we did a kind of merging to give their bodies the appearance and memories they should have if they had always been what the simulacra presented—but I was careful not to privelege the 'new' memories over their original ones. Essentially, the memories refer to events that really happened, and their actual minds are the ones which made the decisions leading to those events. It was a careful balancing act, but appears to have worked out reasonably well.
"This is true of all of them but two exceptions: It was determined that Clera's soul provided enough 'attachment' to this world without the added help of more memories, and that juggling three 'minds' at once would be too confusing for the resulting person; and the age Rose needed in order to have the level of power we wanted stretched back to before we had made the decision to bring in the new heroes, so we just set her simulacrum in her forest slightly before your town was founded and layered several copies of memory of 'doing nothing in her forest' over that of her past experience with people and hid her and the forest from perception until she was actually present."

"I thought her head looked a lot more muddled than the others," Tsaron commented. "You're aware she's a bit unstable, aren't you?"
"Well..some things are bound to get a little twisted when you try to turn a complete introvert into an extrovert," she said with a slight shrug, "as was deemed absolutely necessary for their success. At this very moment, some of that 'twisting' is in the process of being healed, so you needn't worry too much about her."

"Now hold on," Ezra interrupted.
"Yes?"
"When you said all that just now, you talked about everything that happened in the lives of their 'simulacra' as though it was inevitable. How were you able to guarantee things would turn out the way you wanted if you're not the ones calling the shots?"
"Ah. That would be Sophol's department," she nodded, shifting to Rayna's appearance. "There exists scrying magic to see how relatively minor and imminent events will turn out, but such things are incredibly unwise to rely on. Soph, though, he sees everything in the greatest of detail. He has watched the world for a very long time, long enough to produce highly accurate models of how people will behave in certain situations; how battles and conversations will turn out—so on, so forth. Put enough of those models together and he can tell you—to an astonishing degree of accuracy—how likely almost any arbitrary event is."

"Really?" Ron crossed his arms. "So how likely is it that these new heroes succeed at...whatever it is you wanted us to do?"
Bimorphaeus cleared her throat. "There are some unknown factors which are difficult to fully account for, I'm told. If everything goes exactly according to our present plan, it's around seventy percent that things go the way we want them to."
"That low, eh?"
She nodded. "It was more like sixty-five before Lupa's unique traits were understood. And bear in mind, too, there are...parts of said plan which you or they may not agree with. We're taking on some serious risks along the way to even having that high a chance of success in the first place. Even given the success of all the intended preparation, it's only, mmn...twenty-seven or so that all the heroes make it out alive? To say nothing of the other people expected to be involved."

Ezra and Ron exchanged a glance, both thinking the same thing—and the goddess surely knew it: This sounded like a battle. Perhaps there were other tasks with a high likelihood of claiming lives, but the insistent use of the term "hero" and the consistent choice of giving every person, even those entirely disinterested in or outright opposed to it, some measure of ability and experience in combat made it almost certain that some sort of fight was on the horizon.

"...So you gave each of them—plus Lupa—the same kind of potential you did us," Ezra stated. "How and why are they filling it so quickly, then?"
"I believe you have an idea of why," Bimorphaeus said, switching forms again—this time to look like Randall. "We are desperate. We're running out of bloomin' time. We need them to be as strong as possible when the time comes. As for how, well, we're simply dumping our own power onto each of them, using their experience in battle and other means of self-improvement—such as the little witch's demon-eating—as catalysts. Conveniently, all of them except the doctor already had a good semantic conceptualization for these sudden jumps in power and skill, so we simply adopted that as our way of allowing them to choose the direction of that growth. We're in no danger of dying or fading away, mind you, but by the time we're done it will be a little difficult to achieve other miracles for a long while."

"If you're willing to dump yourselves into others to do this, then why not just take care of it yourself?" Ron said, his annoyance at the god visibly piqued by the latest form.
"Because we can't. Nothing from, or intrinsically of, this world can achieve what needs doing. And that's as much as I can say on the matter for now."
"Painful information, is it?" he said.
"Who...do you think it is that makes certain information painful?" Bimorphaeus said. "Again, you've got the cause and effect reversed. A long time ago, we tried to get mortals to help us understand something related to your task, and simply knowing the truth was enough to drive some—though not all—mad. Sufficiently prepared minds will have a low risk of this, and there is reason to believe you all from Earth will be totally immune to it, but there is no reason to risk all of you knowing too soon in case that isn't correct. Anyway, I've been busy preparing their minds and steadily easing the pain off of related information for you and them. Please be patient; it's easy enough to add or remove pain to certain knowledge for everyone but incredibly delicate to do it for just a small group of people."

"Now, I think that about covers it. Do you have anything else to ask?"
"...Is there anything else you're keeping from us that you don't 'have to'?" Ezra said.
"Hmm. There is one thing I could tell you which I think would upset you some," he said, indicating her in particular. "Then again, you've always been difficult to predict."
"Well, what is it then?"
"I admit, I...don't really want to say it. It feels unfair for me to be the one who tells you, actually. Look, I'm absolutely certain you'll figure it out for yourself whenever you're ready to tell them you're from Earth," he said, holding out his hands.
"...Fine." If he was so reluctant to share it, then at least it couldn't be something important to their survival or success. "I suppose that's it, for now. But one of you had better find a way to answer anything else important we need to know. None of this 'silence for centuries' nonsense again," she said with a severe expression.
"I think I can get the others to agree with that," he said. "It shouldn't be such a jolt for you if one of them comes in rather than me, although..don't expect them to be quite as eloquent as I am."