Chapter 23:

Houses Fall

Mylo and the Summoned Hero

On their way to the vacant lot the next day, Mylo and Ezre couldn't help but note the detours where the cobbles gave way to fresh, drying asphalt, and the skyline that was already pierced by new structures—few for now and naked to the wind, their glass and steel towered so above quaint stone townhomes. For part of the way, they had to walk on top of a brand new pipe, triple the diameter of the old, black and grippy with gutta percha insulation.Bookmark here

Where Kasumi's new grid and the old blocks agreed the buildings changed first. From the foundations of the old Adventuring Bureau house, steel weaved a lattice and glass oozed up the side. It seethed and breathed. Mylo, frozen gyre and all, could only crane his neck and watch—all the buildings had to do was reach up.Bookmark here

"Amazing, isn't it?" he asked Ezre. "Looks like we've got a bit of our tourist crowd back too."Bookmark here

"Yeah, real amazing. Hope they put the street back together soon."Bookmark here

Today at the vacant lot, Kasumi stood waiting for them. This time she had someone with her. Triangular ears and swishy tail. Mylo didn't remember her little intrusion into his head, and for her part Couzinet made a show of not recognizing him by blinking and shrugging and turning away.Bookmark here

"Good morning, Mylo," Kasumi called, but her voice was raw, frustrated.Bookmark here

"Hi."Bookmark here

"I found a catgirl." Kasumi pointed at Couzinet's flicking ears. "I'm going to take her to Paul's now, and I'll make her dress up like a maid."Bookmark here

"Hey! I didn't agree to this!"Bookmark here

"Don't you want to come and see?"Bookmark here

Maybe this was Kasumi trying to mend the rift? Playing a bit of dress up was one of the first things they did together. Recalling earlier times—not a bad idea, in theory. Back when they were figuring each other out. Back when he didn't know what she was calling him.Bookmark here

Get a clue, Kasumi. If I enjoyed dress up for its own sake, do you really think I'd wear old, comfy t-shirts until they disintegrate?Bookmark here

"I'll pass."Bookmark here

"Geez! What's with you?"Bookmark here

Mylo walked past, and felt his chest tighten. This wasn't what he wanted, wasn't what he'd daydreamed for their next meeting, wasn't him. Bitterness overrode him and forced another step, and another.Bookmark here

"Hey, Mylo, look." Behind him, Kasumi's voice started soft then steadied. "Everything's so new to me, I got a little lost. Please, I can explain, if you'll let me try."Bookmark here

Mylo stopped. He turned. He saw Kasumi wearing her sequined top hat, feather boa, and yellow rimmed star sunglasses. The smile died on his face.Bookmark here

"If you can't apologize without your cheap tricks, don't even try."Bookmark here

Couzinet took Kasumi's hand and dragged her away. "Come on, we're wasting time and you're underleveled."Bookmark here

Mylo and Ezre got started with breathing and wind sprints, but then Ezre broke out a pair of simple wooden swords. "Better hone your reflexes in case someone drags you into a ruin again. Show me your stance."Bookmark here

Mylo gripped the sword as if it were a snake—white knuckle tight and as far from his body as his arms allowed.Bookmark here

"Okay, so we're starting from the top." Ezre circled him, pushing here and pulling there to adjust his posture. "Did you really kill a boss monster? I don't mean to be rude, but you seem—"Bookmark here

"Helpless."Bookmark here

"Unprepared. I was going to say unprepared."Bookmark here

Breathing as she showed him yesterday, Mylo tried to hold the new stance and remember it. "Well, it was a bit embarrassing. The boss monster was a lemming, normal sized. I ended up snapping it shut in that old lunch box I take to work, and it suffocated."Bookmark here

Ezre had a good laugh. "A kill's a kill. Did you get any good items?"Bookmark here

"I don't know." The sword tip drooped. "I had to go to work when the box opened, so it all got swept into a safety deposit box. Manakey, so...yeah."Bookmark here

"Well, I guess we better get you fixed up." Ezre knocked the tip of Mylo's sword back up with her own. "Let's start, come at me."Bookmark here

His Stangeria street-urchin days hadn't prepared him to fight with an elegant weapon. Mylo's slashes weren't slow, but he reached too far, opening himself up to hits and unbalanced at a modest push.Bookmark here

"How about let's work on defense first. You just block and parry."Bookmark here

"Okay."Bookmark here

***Bookmark here

Couzinet glanced around. It was crowded, too crowded. Sure, the town had brought in some architects and crafters, but most of them should be working right now, not wandering around nonchalantly. The tourist crowd wouldn't come back mid-rebuild. It wasn't like they were following, but the average motion always seemed to agree with where Kasumi and Couzinet's direction. She tried to steer Kasumi toward the town gate, away from placid faces, glancing eyes.Bookmark here

"Come on," she whispered and tugged on Kasumi's hand.Bookmark here

The hero kept her gaze on the cobbles, muttering something only she could hear.Bookmark here

Walking as fast as they could without breaking into a run, they darted around corners. The crowd fell away behind. Now the streets were nearly empty, save for a few crowd-members who trotted to catch up when Couzinet wasn't looking. A graying old man in a waistcoat seemed particularly determined.Bookmark here

Couzinet took a zigzag route and kept looking around. The Jagai's agents were here and not really trying to hide. They were bound to find the hero eventually, but she thought it would take them longer. If she'd have known how quick they'd be discovered, Couzinet would have summoned the hero at home rather than come to this windy wasteland.Bookmark here

Dodging into the rundown part of town turned out to be the wrong idea. They rounded a corner onto a street which overlooked some crumbling apartment buildings and was currently packed with people.Bookmark here

"Hey, Pelgram!" The hero was recognized and yanked out of Couzinet's grasp. "We need your opinion. The grid you laid out almost matches these old buildings. They need fixing up, sure, but couldn't we leave them standing? It'd be less wasteful to renovate."Bookmark here

Kasumi looked at the mournful old buildings. She might have run by them while exploring the town, but they didn't mean anything. And they leaned and stained and stood unsightly.Bookmark here

"Tear 'em up," Kasumi said, unconscious of the fact she still had the top hat and boa on. "You've got no amusement, no geology, and hardly any nature worth seeing. Your new Edule needs to sparkle like a diamond, a gem of the north, if you want to have any future as a tourist town. People flying in from the south are going to go right over these, don't you want to show them something beautiful?"Bookmark here

The townsfolk mumbled a general agreement.Bookmark here

Just like that, Mylo's apartment was condemned, to be torn down an hour later.Bookmark here

Couzinet reached into the throng and extracted Kasumi. "We have to go!"Bookmark here

An icy hand touched Couzinet's shoulder. She spun around. The graying man in the waistcoat had caught them up.Bookmark here

"I'm a friend. Come with me," he hissed and beckoned towards an alley.Bookmark here

Couzinet doubted that. She asked Kasumi, "Is he your friend?"Bookmark here

"Never seen him in my life."Bookmark here

But there weren't many options left. All construction ahead of them, a group of plain-clothes agents behind, and to the other side a maze of winding streets neither of them knew.Bookmark here

This time, Kasumi pulled Couzinet. "Come on, it's a chase, right? We have to keep moving."Bookmark here

They followed the man in the waistcoat into the alley.Bookmark here

"I know who you are, but don't worry. My name is Wilkins, I'm going to transport you into the woods just outside the town wall. A friend of mine will meet you and take you the rest of the way."Bookmark here

Couzinet's ears flattened. This was shady, and she didn't plan on trusting Wilkins's friend, but if he got them outside the wall that would be a major relief.Bookmark here

Wilkins led them to a little cul-de-sac where an small, flat contraption awaited. Copper fittings held down an aragonite pad and a dozen hoses ran to a low-slung canister.Bookmark here

"It's old and it can't take you far. Destination isn't programmable, you'll go to the receiver-pad, where my friend is waiting."Bookmark here

"Ooh!" Kasumi's eyes sparkled as she jumped on the pad. "Beam me up!"Bookmark here

Couzinet stepped on as well—no way were they going to be split by some stranger.Bookmark here

With a little wave, Wilkins depressed the foot pedal. The hoses hissed and shook. A brief glow lit the hero and the cat from beneath. Achieving saturation, the paired-aragonite sent a up a pulse which folded around the pair, then shrank into nothing.Bookmark here

***Bookmark here

Kasumi blinked in darkness. A bit of light streamed in through the cracks, but it was almost nothing compared to where they'd left. Outside the wind howled.Bookmark here

"Um, hello?" Kasumi called to the empty room.Bookmark here

Couzinet hopped off the disintegrating receiver-pad and felt for a door, throwing it open when she found it. Light and chill wind rushed in. As she pushed out and adjusted to the bright day, Couzinet saw the spires of new Edule rising over hills to the south, and the sun above them.Bookmark here

Wilkins hadn't sent them far, but he'd sent them north. Wrong way.Bookmark here

"Kasumi, we're getting out of here."Bookmark here

Looking around at the decaying ramshackle huts, Kasumi felt the thrill of the chase fade. So this was it. She felt continents of distance from Mylo, not realizing that this ghost town was the first place he could remember. This was Stangeria, Mylo's first home, and it stood dead. Its bones opened to the wind.Bookmark here

I really blew it. He hates me, doesn't he?Bookmark here

Coming back distraught, Couzinet had murder in her eyes. "Kasumi, get over here and help. We've been trapped."Bookmark here

Kasumi followed her to the edge where an ethereal green curtain prevented passage.Bookmark here

"So I lost my new friend, then I get stuck." Kasumi let her hand droop against the magic wall. It wobbled but held. She dragged the feathered boa off and dropped her sequined top hat in the dust. "Hey, kitty, do you think I was wrong?"Bookmark here

"Now's not the time to get thoughtful!"Bookmark here

Kasumi's voice went hollow. "Is this a game? You summoned me, you should know."Bookmark here

Couzinet was a bit preoccupied with the clanking of armored feet stepping out of the ghost town behind them.Bookmark here

"Someone's coming! Let's hide!" She couldn't get Kasumi to budge.Bookmark here

"But if this isn't a game. Then...then I got the other kind of isekai."Bookmark here

Out of the shadow's of the decrepit mining settlement, Mr. Morin stepped forth in gleaming armor. It was made of banded strips of metal—a traditional construction method for an old family. The pauldron blazed with a yellow and red family crest. He looked at the pair of them, and pointed.Bookmark here

"I have no evidence of your involvement, thus no quarrel with you, cat. Stand well clear, this fight is between me and Pelgram."Bookmark here

Couzinet shouted at Mr. Morin, "Stay back or I'll shove an icicle between your legs!" He stopped advancing.Bookmark here

She tried to drag Kasumi back up, but Kasumi was fighting back tears. "If I was wrong, then I never get to see anyone—my friends, my mom, my—"Bookmark here

"You were right. This is a game!" Couzinet grabbed Kasumi by the shoulders and looked into her eyes.Bookmark here

No more gambling—she'd taken enough risks for one day, and a probe's chances against a more conventional class in open combat were slim. Their best nets all vented inward, at the mind. She needed Kasumi if they were going to get out of this.Bookmark here

Time to bluff some answers.Bookmark here

"R-really? Then why are there no quests?"Bookmark here

"It's a new game, not based on quests."Bookmark here

"And Mylo? I thought he was part of the game."Bookmark here

"He doesn't know he's part of it, he can't!"Bookmark here

Light returned to Kasumi's eyes. "He's programmed not to realize?"Bookmark here

"Exactly. Now, bad guy's over there, kick his ass!"Bookmark here

Relief straightened Kasumi up and out. Just what she'd wanted to hear. Now she could push aside doubt and focus. Kasumi sized up her opponent, and grinned.Bookmark here

"F— finally! Some PVP!"Bookmark here

Mr. Morin settled into a rooted stance. "You have brought shame on me, already in exile. I will have you pay for your actions."Bookmark here

"Bro, I don't know you or shame." Kasumi heard her words and corrected, "Erm, this shame you're talking about, I mean."Bookmark here

Between the magic curtain and the remains of Stangeria they circled, sizing each other up. Mr. Morin stayed low, grounded. Kasumi strutted.Bookmark here

Kasumi got warmed up. "Men knew civilization couldn't last. So instead of building a pillow fort—"Bookmark here

Mr. Morin smacked a palm on the dirt. Thin purple tendrils arced between the grass around Kasumi's feet. Couzinet saw, shoved, and they fell to either side as plasma erupted from the ground.Bookmark here

"Oh come on! Nobody around here likes a good arksis intro?"Bookmark here

"Shield up!" Couzinet bellowed. "This guy hates you."Bookmark here

Mr. Morin kept attacking, pushing Kasumi back. He settled into a practiced rhythm of projectile spells and conductive spells which erupted from the grass or the crumbling wood. At first he targeted Kasumi alone, chasing her with deliberate steps and spells that got closer as he figured out she only dodged by backing up—just a question of how much to lead his shot. Then his helmet took a ball of ice from Couzinet.Bookmark here

"Fine, 2 on 1 it is."Bookmark here

Couzinet fired spells as she searched for a break in the curtain, but it went all the way around.Bookmark here

Kasumi was having a ball. She kept backing up and ducking around the old miners' huts, which disintegrated when a spell arced out of their fragile walls. It wouldn't be long before all the cover lay in splinters.Bookmark here

Finally! PVP! And a one-man gate camp at that. Cocky b—, I'll show this scrub—Bookmark here

A bolt of lightning caught Kasumi in the shoulder. A quarter of her hitpoints vanished. She stumbled. It was a world apart, like she'd touched a live wire. Seeing her character take a hit on screen had sometimes been frustrating, but never visceral. The pain echoed after the spell ended.Bookmark here

"How do you like that?" Mr. Morin roared, lifting his buckler shield to block an icy spear. "Hurts, don't it?"Bookmark here

Kasumi took refuge behind another shack. The wall betrayed her, spraying lightning and splinters.Bookmark here

Half health.Bookmark here

"I'm a reasonable man!" Mr. Morin called. "You tell me who sent you and all their little hiding spots, and I'll let you live. I want the big fish, not his lackey."Bookmark here

Why am I hiding and kiting? I might do that in a real fight—not in game.Bookmark here

Kasumi stepped out into the lane. She took a deep breath and walked toward her opponent. Most of Stangeria was creaking rubble now.Bookmark here

"Kasumi, what are you doing?"Bookmark here

But she didn't listen to Couzinet, she kept advancing on Mr. Morin, who held his fire and his ground.Bookmark here

"Good." Mr. Morin grinned behind his shield and a barrier. "I like working with sensible men."Bookmark here

Kasumi twitched. A hand clenched and opened. Bookmark here

"For the last time. I. Am. Not. A man!"Bookmark here

The stream of flame started before her hands had risen. Kasumi torched the grass and brought her fire onto Mr. Morin. He crouched and raised his buckler and a spell barrier.Bookmark here

When the spell ended, Mr. Morin's barrier had failed, as expected. And his health, almost unscathed. But the buckler shield crumbling sent him gawking. He scrambled backward.Bookmark here

"But—that had third level fire resistance!"Bookmark here

Kasumi gave him a sweet smile. "Aw, don't look so scared little guy."Bookmark here

Pride, like his shield, ablated. "'ll let me surrender? Here, I've lowered the barricade, you can leave whenever." Bookmark here

"Surrender? But then you'd have to walk to town."Bookmark here

Mr. Morin tried to follow the logic. "Uh, what?"Bookmark here

"Say hello to the priest or whatever for me."Bookmark here

Kasumi peppered him with flame wisps. The first few fizzled out on the old Morin family armor, but took a chunk of metal with them. Soon the shots sailed through gaping holes.Bookmark here

"Huh, that's weird, he's not dissolving into coins or items. Hey, kitty, do I have to shoot him more?"Bookmark here

Couzinet walked back cautiously. "No, you got him. Did you really need to end him like that?"Bookmark here

"Of course. When in PVP history has someone not gone the rest of the way—unless someone paid them to stop, that's been known to happen."Bookmark here

Stangeria lay shattered and a bit charred. The wind howled differently, without the standing structures to tune its voice. Less mournful, like some of the ghosts had been released.Bookmark here

"Let's wait for nightfall in the mouth of this mineshaft. We have to skirt around Edule, and I don't want to be seen."Bookmark here

"But there's something I left in town...."Bookmark here

Marshall Eastman
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