Alexis’s life had been turned upside down over the past two days, and it wasn’t even the first time this year. She’d known they had been mind controlled, that the gods were using them to kill Julian — or, rather, the Boss as Sarah called him — but while she’d had misgivings about their methods, she’d never questioned the necessity of it. They were jerks, sure, but well-intentioned jerks. They had to be, or Alexis and her gang’s suffering would have been for nothing.
And then the very same man she was supposed to kill brought her back to life and asked for nothing in return.
It boggled the mind.
And now here she was, dragging behind her a cart full of cloth for the express purpose of helping her sworn enemy organize a tropical vacation.
Alexis sighed deeply as she parked the cart in the clearing next to the tower. She was still of half a mind to run away, even if she had to drag Cam and David kicking and screaming by the scruff of their necks, but part of her wanted to see the resolution of this whole… charade. Even if she didn’t know who was fooling who.
Before she’d been spirited away to this strange new world, Alexis had considered herself a pro at reading people — but the whole Dark Lord situation had her completely frazzled. Her experience told her Julian had been nothing but honest with them, but that perception clashed with her expectations. He didn’t act like she’d have expected an alleged Villain would. Was he just pretending to be good, then? Could somebody even be that good of a liar?
Her knack for reading people had kept them away from the Temples’ grubby hands, but now she found herself unable to trust in her own instincts — and to top it off, Alexis wasn’t only responsible for herself. The decision to take the two younger boys under her wing hadn’t been conscious, but nevertheless, she felt a keen sense of responsibility for them.
“Yo,” David’s voice broke her out of her reverie, and she turned around as he closed the tower door behind him.
“Hey yourself,” Alexis said, a smile creeping on her face. “How are you holding up?”
“I’m alright,” he said with a shrug, but Alexis didn’t miss his eyes darting around, nor the almost imperceptible shiver that overtook him. “Was just looking through the library with Cam — whatever you have to say about him, Mister Crane has a really impressive library.”
Alexis ignored his reaction and the way he avoided using Julian’s given name. Of the three, she was the only one who’d managed to get over the almost Pavlovian discomfort they got when referring to the Villain, and calling David out on it would do him no good. He needed time to sort things out for himself.
“I’m guessing we won’t be seeing Cam any time soon, then.”
David snorted. “Yeah, by the way he was behaving around those books, he’ll probably be able to make some time for us in a year or two.”
“Nothing caught your attention, then?”
He fixed her with his eye — he realized what she was doing, and he knew that she knew. But his gaze softened, his eyes sparkling with something akin to relief. Perhaps gratitude. “I did, actually. It’s not all magic and fantasy-land science. There was a fair bit of fiction,” he said, raising an eyebrow. “Fantasy, to be precise. And I don’t mean, like, fantasy because it happens in this world — but, like, fantasy-fantasy, with weird species that don’t exist. And, get this — dinosaurs.”
Alexis was content to let him ramble, but that last remark made her eyebrows shoot up. “Dinosaurs? Really?”
“They weren’t called that — they called them Featherfiends, but the description was definitely talking about a T-Rex,” David said enthusiastically.
“Huh,” Alexis said. “I guess that’s not really unexpected? We have stories of dragons but no dragons, they have stories of T-Rexes but no actual T-Rexes.”
“Unless they do,” David said, his eyes glinting.
“No way. You can have either dragons or dinosaurs. That’s like, an axiom.”
“But what if they do?”
“They don’t,” Alexis said, though her confidence was not a rock-solid as it had been a minute ago.
“Anyway, how are you doing? You were looking really lost in thought when I got here.”
Alexis grimaced inwardly — she’d hoped he hadn’t noticed that. “Just pondering the meaning of the universe,” she said, cringing slightly at David’s raised eyebrow. “Fine, fine. I was wondering if Julian really meant what he said.” Not quite the truth, but she didn’t want her friend to worry needlessly.
“That he’ll help up get revenge? I don’t see why not,” he said, shrugging. “He’s clearly no friend of the gods.” He spat out the last word.
“Yeah, but, why’s he even doing this?” Alexis asked, bringing her arms protectively to her chest.
“Well, they clearly have it out for him, and- oh. That’s not really what you’re asking, is it?” David asked, tilting his head as he stepped closer to Alexis.
Her face twisted into a bitter smile. “Not really,” she said as she squeezed her arms tighter around her body.
“Do you think he’s lying?” David asked softly once he was right next to her.
“I don’t, not really, but…”
“If it’s too good to be true, then it probably is?”
Alexis only nodded.
They were quiet for a minute, until David finally sighed. “I wish I had an answer that made everything alright, but you probably know more than me anyway. But if there’s one thing — what’s the worst thing that could happen now?”
Alexis raised her head, looking David in the eye. “I guess… we get sacrificed in some grand ritual? Or tortured for eternity or something?”
“If he wanted us tortured for eternity, he could have done that already,” David said. “As for dying… we were already dead when we were summoned here. It’s just that nobody saw the need to tell us.
“I don’t know whether this is just some really subtle mind control that’s making me want to stick around to help,” he said, glancing at Alexis expectantly. She shook her head, and David’s shoulders sagged in relief as he continued. “But at least now we have the chance to live again. And what would we even do if not stick around for another adventure? Buy some chicken and start a farm?”
Alexis puffed out a laugh. “I don’t know, a farm doesn’t sound too bad.”
David shot her a look full of derision. “Nah, retiring to a farm is what you do after you finished your adventures. That’s, like, an axiom,” he echoed.
“Fine,” she said, a true smile blooming on her face. “But I’ll hold you to it. When all this is over and done, we’re starting a farm.”
Cameron had always had an intense kind of love for learning, as far as he could remember — so much that even school hadn’t managed to beat it out of him, with all its senseless repetition and mind-numbing rigidness. He hadn’t been surprised in the least when the System decided he should be a Mage. It was, after all, the natural conclusion. Mages were supposed to be scholars and scientists, people looking to unveil the mysteries of the universe and unlock the door to greater understanding, and there was nothing Cam wanted more than to know everything.
And now, as he shuffled around the colossal library hidden inside the tower, he knew he’d finally found someone who spoke his language. Four levels of the tower were packed to the brim with books, all neatly arranged and cataloged, sorted by topic and alphabetically by title. The library he’d had back home was a cramped little room — almost a closet — at the back of the school building, and Cam had already gone through its entire catalog. Most of it even twice.
But this one had everything. The vast majority of it was magic, which Cameron most definitely didn’t mind — he was already giddy to try out some clothes-drying Force spell he’d seen in an old, ragged tome labeled “Domestic Uses of Magery.” After he’d been summoned to this world, he’d been quick to learn that wet clothes sucked, big time. But there were a lot of more mundane topics as well, including a handful of parenting books, of all things. Cam had given those a careful look, expecting them to be some kind of secret code or cipher, but nothing stood out.
Cam supposed he shouldn’t have been surprised. If there had been some awesome secret magic tomes that needed to be obfuscated, the… Julian wouldn’t have so nonchalantly allowed them access to the library. If there really was anything juicy like that, he would probably have hidden it in his private quarters.
But as far as Cam was concerned, he’d already hit the jackpot. A thick book, bound in black leather so old it was more cracked than whole, yet one that had seen frequent use as of late. The language was archaic, even with the System’s translations, but with just a glance, Cam had been able to learn more of the gods than he’d found when he’d sneaked into the temple’s reliquary.
“David! Hey, come check this out,” Cam said, calling his friend with a whisper-shout. There wasn’t anyone else in there, but it was still a library, after all. The sacred rule had to be obeyed.
Cam waited a few moments for a reply then turned around when none came, confused. David was nowhere in sight. A memory wormed its way to the surface, of David tapping him on the shoulder and saying something, but Cam hadn’t even noticed. He’d been too engrossed in the words before him.
In hindsight, the boy supposed David had said something among the lines of ‘see ya later dweeb,’ which made the most sense given his apparent absence.
Shrugging, Cam returned to the book before him. The heretical text claimed the gods were impotent in this world, able to work only through their followers. It wasn’t that they were weak in any way, though — by all records, everyone whose mortal life had been recorded had been a world-shaking superpower before their ascent.
The book also mentioned that the priesthood denied all claims of the divine being limited in any way — that their lack of intervention was a choice, a deliberate decision to let mortals figure their own lot in life.
It was a tough claim to disprove, for the most part, and several months ago Cam would have agreed with the priests. They’d summoned the heroes, after all, and from what he had learned of magic, that kind of feat required serious chops. Something a limitation would never allow.
Yet, throughout history, many Heroes fell to Villains, and always in waves. The gods clearly cared enough to intervene, but why would they not simply summon enough Heroes at once to overwhelm the Villain in the first place?
The idea that the gods could be using a soft touch was a possible explanation, that they were giving mortals a chance to defend themselves without tipping the scales entirely in their favor. But the more he thought about it, the more Cam was inclined to throw away that hypothesis — after all, by now they had to be aware the entire cohort of Heroes had turned coat. Would they not take this as a deliberate slight against them and smite them appropriately?
Moreover, Cam was already inclined not to trust the words of the gods and their followers. Julian was a prime example — the man clearly had a utilitarian approach to morality (after all, most would have cringed at the idea of desecrating the dead, using them for cheap labor), but unless he was hiding some serious skeletons in his closet (which Cam supposed was a reasonable possibility) there wasn’t much about him that Cam considered damnation-worthy.
No, the truth about the gods’ machinations had to be somewhere in the middle, but the chances of solving that mystery from inside the library were slim. And for the first time, Cam found himself genuinely excited for the future.
Putting the book back in its spot, he went to search for a new target. If he wanted to be of any help during this expedition, then he had a lot to learn.