“You know, I’ve seen a lot of weird stuff in my life.”
“This is still the weirdest,” Jon answered.
Jon and Amar stood on the A30 road in the middle of southwest Cornwell, surrounded by a chaotic sprawl of abandoned cars, barricades, and police officers and costumed superheroes standing around looking confident and officious. Only someone “in the know” like Jon would have noticed how helpless and desperate every single one of them really were.
“Its rate of expansion is exponentially growing,” Josephine Manners said, even her usually perfectly sedate voice tainted by awe. “Boys, you got six or seven days until this thing consumes all of England and Wales, the eastern Irish coast, and southern Scotland. No pressure, of course.”
“Just a day in the life,” Jon murmured.
Before them, there was the confusing, almost impossible projection of a city of stone and steel that looked like the child of a medieval city and an industrial town. A quick glance might have led one to think it was a film being projected onto the sky through some kind of holographic technology. A closer inspection would, however, sooner or later reveal that the image rippled like a pool of water. It was as if the “waves” were somehow written on the very fabric of reality itself. By that point, the normal human brain would struggle to communicate exactly what it was perceiving and find itself failing much like a cat trying to comprehend a television set that’s been turned on.
Josephine struggled to tear herself away and looked at Amar. “Any initial impressions?”
Amar shook his head. “Even from outside, I can only barely touch on the minds of the people…inside, if that concept even applies here. I can see, though, that their original personalities are still intact, if buried, but they all really do absolutely believe they’re characters from that book…”
“Books”, Jon corrected.
“Right,” Amar replied, instinctively rolling his eyes.
“Any clues about what’s happening?” Josephine said, her eyes once again fixed on the cosmic abomination before them.
“I can’t sense any kind of intelligence, human or otherwise, driving the warp itself, if that’s what you mean,” Amar said.
“Figures it wouldn’t be anything we can just shoot.”
Amar took a few steps toward the shimmering cityscape. He looked at Jon with a grin. “Let’s go meet your favorite characters.”
Jon chuckled in spite of himself. He honestly couldn’t think of the experience as some kind of warped vacation, albeit one in which millions of lives hung in the balance, but he supposed that point of view was better than fear.
“Ul dinea,” Jon said loudly. He could feel the power of the gem course through him.
“Don’t know if this might help if your minds get washed, but remember the briefing! Find the Finch family of Nunsplan! And good luck!” Josephine called out. Both Jon and Amar nodded back to her as they stepped into the image of a city that shouldn’t exist.
Flashes from his life (but was it his life) and some life that wasn’t at all his (no these are memories) cluttered up all his senses, even his sense of smell. He knew the gem was protecting him in its own way, as it did from any telepathic assault, but even it was faltering like a flimsy dam crumbling before a raging river.
“I think I might be losing me,” Jon shouted or only thought. He wasn’t sure. He tried thinking of his mother – her reddish-blonde hair swaying in the sun as she danced to Soundgarden and he sang along with the lyrics one lazy Saturday afternoon – and his first boyfriend Darnell sneaking cigarettes down in the alley a few blocks from their high school before they had their first wonderfully, beautifully clumsy kiss – and his dog Pepper who, when he hid from her by covering his head with a blanket, would dig through to excitedly lick his face.
Jon you got to trust me
But he remembered some advice he got from a Final Guard training seminar. “The best defense against most kinds of psychic assault sadly aren’t clinging to positive emotions like love and joy, but to trauma, to grief, the more vivid the better.” Right away, Jon went to thoughts of seeing his only sibling Drew in a coffin, in a suit he would have never ever been caught (dead how ironic) in, all while Jon felt the weight of the Mantra gem in his pocket. And following that memory was the look on poor, poor Ambrose’s face, his best and oldest friend, the man who proudly called himself his brother from another mother, when he saw what Jon had done, when he was just hours away from being eaten whole by his horrible madness without a single friend to help him.
But even that felt less substantial, less real. Had he imagined all that? Had Ambrose really shown up that awful night in the old, abandoned apartment complex? No, that couldn’t have happened. He would never and anyway he wasn’t Jon Cantlon at all, but Upesh Domat, a young but well-established sorcerer
Turn off the gem
I am in the service of the Grand Duke
Please trust me I’m not your enemy anymore just listen if you can hear me at all please turn off the gem
“Amar?” Jon asked no one in particular. Then, “Ul dinea.”
Jon screamed as he felt the memories of the life of this Upesh Domat flood into his mind, but something slowed it to a trickle, assuring him in a firm voice that he was Jon Cantlon from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania who once upon a time was the superhero codenamed Mantra. The voice continued talking as Jon felt consciousness fail him utterly.
Jon awoke in the most comfortable bed he ever slept in his entire life. His first instinct was to wonder if he was going to be late for whatever he had to do that day, but where his alarm clock should have been was a cherub-like figure made out of what appeared to be green glass. He looked down and was wearing green and blue robes that, without consulting a mirror, he suspected made him look like a cross between a clown and a tent.
His confusion dispersing and giving way to a dull fear, Jon followed the smell of eggs out of the bedroom and down an ugly spiral staircase through a foyer and gallery decorated with grim paintings and busts and into a kitchen that in atmosphere better resembled a torture chamber.
“Hey. I sensed you were starting to wake up, so I started breakfast,” Amar said cheerfully over a frying pan he was heating on a cast iron stove. “There wasn’t much food I could find here, so, hm, I hope you don’t have allergies or are vegan or something. And I literally have no idea how to make the coffee here.”
“No, it’s fine,” Jon said, noticing that on a small table a plate had already been made with biscuits and sliced apples doused in cinnamon alongside a cup of water. As he started to eat, he noticed that Amar was himself no longer in the jeans and button-down shirt he was given while in the “custody” of the Final Guard, but in very old-fashioned trousers and a frock coat.
“What exactly happened to us?” Jon asked, his own remaining memories of their trip into the warp fading fast.
“Well, the silver lining to this whole ‘reality warp’ thing is that it only tries to rewrite your mind when you’re first passing through the outer edges, but it still drops you off right where it thinks you need to be no matter what. All I had to do was lead you while you were half-conscious to bed,” Amar said as he plated the eggs and sprinkled pepper over them. “But the pressure of the warp was really intense, even worse than I anticipated. I could barely defend you and keep my…um, I guess ‘Steampunk World’ persona from taking over.”
“But you still saved me.”
Amar paused and flashed an awkward smile. “Yeah, well, I mean, anyone would have done it. But, yeah, it started to get past the mental barriers your Mantra gem provided.”
“How did you…”
“If you think of your gem’s psychic protection, it’s like a concrete wall. It’s extremely powerful but it’s not exactly responsive. Things can get around it or keep chiseling away at the weak points. At the very least, if you dropped the gem’s protection, letting me join my mind to yours, I could actually maneuver, adapt for both of us. But it was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. Like you I had to sleep for I think twelve hours.”
Amar brought over the plates and started eating greedily. “Hm-mmm.”
“So what is this place anyway?”
“It’s all yours.”
Jon looked around. He tended to be austere at best and neglectful at worst when it came to his personal sense of décor, but this place was desolate, approaching Lovecraftian.
“I guess you mean…” He stopped to recollect the awful name that echoed in his brain as he transitioned into Steampunk World. “…Upesh Domat.”
“Yeah. I skimmed a few of his memories, or rather the impressions this thing conjured up to be his memories. Apparently he’s…”
“…the court sorcerer to the Grand Duke.” Jon blurted out.
“So he’s a character from your books?”
Jon shook his head. “Barely. He’s mentioned quite a few times, but only shows up briefly in The Last King of Ethmark and is the villain in one of the video games, which, by the way, some people argue isn’t canon, so…”
“I guess the important question is, do you know any spells?”
Jon concentrated on the frying pan that Amar had finished using. He tried willing a fireball to strike it or a lightning bolt or shards of ice to manifest from nowhere and strike it off the stove. But nothing happened. He turned to Amar and threw up his hands.
“Well, that’s helpful,” Amar said, sighing.
“What about you? Do you know who you’re supposed to be?”
Amar concentrated rather intensely on his remaining food. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Come on,” Jon said. “I know the whole franchise back to front. You could be some minor character who would be involved in something that could help us.”
Amar exhaled and mumbled something under his breath. “Apparently I’m Suzter, Upesh’s most trusted footman.”
Jon’s inevitable laugh was punctuated with unconvincing apologies.
Amar looked positively unamused. “And I suppose he isn’t privy to anything that might help us with this mess?”
“No, he really isn’t.” Jon said, grateful for the distraction from the real perils of their situation.
“Well…would it help if I told you he’s an important NPC in the video game?”
“…It’s a start.”
The library was cavernous. From the chair he placed in front of the shelves that comprised the history and geography section of the library, Jon scanned over the history books, seeing full titles on the spines referring to places that at least sounded familiar based on his knowledge of the Legends of the Steam series. He picked out one book which claimed to be a history of the Fortunese Empire, an ancient and extinct island dominion that, as far as he remembered, was barely mentioned in any of the books. To his shock, as he skimmed through the book, it was as full of names and dates and other details as any well-written history book in reality.
“What are you looking for, exactly?” Amar said, as he took a break from telepathically scanning for the family Josephine Manners tasked them to find.
“Proof that this isn’t another reality, I guess,” Jon said and described how he hoped that the thick tomes he cracked open would be full of nonsense or indecipherable scribblings. Instead they were full of English or, as it was known in Steampunk World, the Common Language of the islands.
Amar sighed and stretched out his legs and arms. “Well, we really need to talk. I need a break anyway. I’ve been trying to scan the whole city, and you have no idea how much pushing your telepathy to the limits just exhausts the entire body.”
“What do you have in mind?”
Amar plopped himself down on an ornate study, using a cushion from a nearby chair as a makeshift pillow. “We really ought to theorize about what we’re up against.”
Jon closed the book shut and returned it. “Okay. You go first.”
“I think it’s a…um, well, in my language it’s called a zikiku mum, which literally means a ‘born ghost.’ An entity that’s created by a normal human mind through pure thought and concentration. I can’t remember what your people might call—”
“A tulpa?” Jon had taken enough classes on the paranormal in college and had been around Liz enough to pick up a lot of vocabulary.
“Yes! Exactly! Except instead of it being a single, individual entity, it’s somehow spawned an entire world that’s slowly replacing your world.”
“But how could that happen? The psychic energy required would be tremendous.”
“Yeah, that’s the question.”
Jon looked back at the books. “And that’s what’s really troubling me. You still haven’t been able to pick up on any kind of intelligence behind this, right?”
Amar shook his head.
“But this thing is still…well, it’s like a video game where the world inside the game is randomly generated by some kind of program, right? Like it’s taking all the constants from the Legend of the Steam Cities, but it’s filling in the rest on its own. People couldn’t have written all of this even if the series went on for another hundred years,” Jon said, gesturing at all the books in the library. “But this thing is, as if it’s somehow taking on the complexity of reality and making it its own.”
“So this isn’t some kind of illusion. This is something that’s genuinely reprogramming reality, that’s what you’re saying.”
“Yeah,” Jon said, the implications of what he was theorizing crashing down on him in that minute.
They were quiet for a minute until Amar hopped off the desk. “Which probably means, even if I can’t detect it, we’re still dealing with a cosmic or god-level entity, which pretty much means we’re screwed.”
“Maybe not, if I’m right, anyway.”
“Please give me a reason not to be your footman for the rest of your life.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not thrilled about being some *(^$%*#’s pet sorcerer either. But, anyway, the other possibility as far as I can tell is that a member of the Finch family was not only ground zero, but is what’s driving it. I read somewhere this theory that, like how people are once in a while just born with random powers, it’s theoretically possible someone could just be born with god-level gifts.”
“That’s absolutely horrifying, but please go on.”
“Yeah, that’s what it sounds like at first, but they go on to say that it’s not something to automatically worry about. It’s pretty easy to imagine the circumstances where someone figures out they have superstrength or invisibility or whatever. The ability to fundamentally alter time and space and energy and matter just by concentrating, though? Maybe that person can go through their whole ives and never realize it because the power is so huge and transcendent they just wouldn’t ever tap into it, especially if they just lead a quiet, boring life.”
“The greater the power, the more the likelihood a person might never have it provoked in their everyday life. I guess that makes sense.”
“Yeah, but maybe this is a case where someone hated the world or wanted to be part of these books they loved so much, they actually did invoke that power without meaning to, consciously, anyway.”
Amar chewed over that for a minute. “And if that’s the case, this person might be reasoned with. That’s a big, ugly ‘might’, though.”
Jon shrugged. “I know, but I really do think it’s what we’re dealing with.”
Amar laughed bitterly. “Your theory is the one less likely to get us horribly killed, so I’ll take it.”
Before Amar could finish his sentence, the library window facing out onto the street and nearest to both of them exploded inward. The culprit was a dagger that flashed through the air as it landed squarely on a wall. Crouched on the frame was a tanned, weathered woman wrapped in rags and furs. She was still long enough for Jon and Amar to process her image, but before they could react she was on Jon, knocking him to the floor and holding another dagger to his throat.
However, two more figures had leaped from apparently nowhere through the window. One of them, a tall, well-muscled man in what seemed to be a soldier’s uniform, Amar struck with his telepathy, trying to disorient his senses. He bellowed with pain and confusion.
“Stop your sorcery!” the woman screamed at Jon.
Amar heard Jon choke out a protest until the third figure, a reptilian humanoid dressed not unlike a medieval nobleman, rushed to him. Amar tried to fight him telepathically, but the being’s alien mind was practically immune. Before Amar could dodge or fall back, the reptile had grabbed him by the legs, knocking him down. Its slick hands were at his throat in a second.
“Try something, break your neck,” the being hissed. Amar nodded his understanding.
Still recovering from Amar’s attack, the soldier steadied himself against a bookshelf.
“You alright?” the woman said, her knife still at Jon’s throat.
“Yeah. I don’t know what kind of sorcery that was, but it stopped now.”
He looked over at Amar and Jon mercilessly. “It makes sense that only someone as arrogant as you would be hiding out right at your home. You just made our job easier.”
He confidently walked over to Jon, pulling a rapier that had been holstered on his back and placing it just over Jon’s chest, as if the woman holding a knife to his throat was not enough.
“Now, Upesh, tell us where your master is keeping Madeline Finch.”