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Generated: Jun 15, 2022 12:23 PM
Post last updated: Jun 15, 2022 12:23 PM
orb of immortality
A VN contact team stranded in Loop Hero
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Somewhere, there is a village.

It's small and dim and ramshackle, built on hard grey ground without much to recommend it. A cluster of crude huts surrounds a small campfire, which is somehow warmer and brighter than all the lights in all the rest of the village combined. Beyond the huts, a patch of grain fields is faintly visible in one direction, and a long row of trees in another, and here or there a watchtower looms above the thatched roofs; above all that, there is only darkness, without sun or moon or star to light it.

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Nelen Utopia and his team were not supposed to land here.

Not that it doesn't look like it could kind of use it, but they were aiming for somewhere else.

"- everybody okay?" he says.

"Check," says Cassiel, and "Yes," says Natsuko, and "Fine," says Zanro, and "I seem fine" says Tarwë.

"Tarwë, write it up. Nobody light anything up, I want to let our eyes adjust and avoid startling people. Stick together," Nelen says.

He gets affirmative murmurs. Tarwë writes and unlocks a status report without looking at his computer.

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A grubby little face, of indeterminate age and gender, peeps around a half-open door at them.

"You've all got names?" the kid says suspiciously. "Where'd you dig those up?"

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"- I'm not sure I understand the question," says Nelen.

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The kid frowns at Nelen in mutual confusion for a few seconds.

"...like, you're new here," they attempt to explain, "but you have names, and you act like you know each other, and stuff. And you look—I dunno. You look different."

It's true that the team are, collectively, much less dim than their surroundings. It's sort of subtle and hard to spot, because the light here is very low; but the five of them do seem to catch the glow of the campfire a little more firmly than even the stones that encircle it, or the dead tree a few feet away.

The kid, leaning out a little farther around their door, asks with increasing suspicion, "Are you... real?"

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"Are... a lot of people you meet not real?"

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The kid's frown deepens severely, and they pull back behind their door and shut it with a muffled thud.

Distantly, their voice can be heard yelling: "GET THE HERO, GET THE HERO! THERE'S REAL PEOPLE BY THE CAMPFIRE, WITH NAMES!"

At this, a general bustle begins to stir. For a minute or so, though, nobody shows up to confront the team directly.

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They stick close together, forming a sort of circle facing nervously outward.

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Before they can even hear her footsteps, the Hero's arrival is visible in the way the scenery brightens up ahead of her. She doesn't glow, but the light is brighter when it's near her. Sounds are clearer, and there are hints of scent in the world that it didn't have before. The edges of objects are sharper, crisper, less vague and dim and blurry, in a way that doesn't entirely have to do with the amount of light shining on them.

She rounds the corner and strides into view, wearing a red-orange cloak and a mask that looks like it belongs at a masquerade, blonde hair escaping the hood of the cloak in untidy strands. And she, more than anything else in this place, even more than the newcomers themselves, is real. The whole world seems somehow to orient itself around her. Realness radiates from her, and the huts and the campfire and the stones and the dead tree all bask in it.

"First things first, safety rules," she says. "Don't leave the village. Don't even walk where you can see the edge, if you can help it. Stay where you can see and hear the fire, until somebody has the time to show you around. Latrine's that way," she gestures, "if you're real enough to need it." She squints dubiously up at the team; she's a little on the short side, for a human of her age and gender. "I'm not sure the rest is going to apply, but just in case: don't put anything down for now if you ever want to pick it back up again. If there's stuff in your pockets you're keen to keep, double-check that you've got it every time you remember. Every time, not 'oh, I just looked a second ago, it's fine'. If you're not touching it and it's not in your sight, it might not be there next time you look. With me so far?"

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"I think so," says Nelen, as they all take various items out of their pockets and redistribute them more visibly. "Thank you."

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"Good. That'll do for now even if I'm called away. Now I would like you to explain how you came to be here with your names and your stuff and your memories and all."

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"We're not sure. We were trying to visit a different place, and either it reacted to our approach, or this place intercepted us somehow, or some third event occurred which diverted us. If people normally arrive here missing their names and stuff and memories I don't know what excepted us."

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"...so you came here from... somewhere else? Somewhere far enough away that this," she gestures vaguely at the sky, "hasn't happened to it yet?"

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"- yes. This, uh, happens to a lot of places?"

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"All of them that I know of, but maybe you know more than I do. I didn't have my memories when I showed up here. I just remembered... bits and pieces of reality being swallowed by the dark, and me not wanting them to. And sort of a vague smudge of a life, before that."

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"How big is the area known to be affected by the unreality?"

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"...well, it's sort of hard to tell, what with nobody remembering much. We know there's a lot that's been lost, but we don't know how much there was of it before that happened. How big is a world supposed to be? Because this one's down to," she makes an encompassing gesture, "pretty much what you see."

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"- ah.

They're supposed to be pretty big."

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"Well. Welcome to the camp," she says wryly. "...how did you come here, and in the place where you were before, was there a dark spot in the sky that shouldn't be there? I... couldn't fairly ask you to try going back, in case you land in that," she gestures upward, "and are never heard from again. But if you can somehow move through it without getting even a little bit dinged, then it's possible you could bring people here before it ever touches them..." She chews her lip thoughtfully. "Feeding and housing them all would start to be a problem fairly shortly. I'm the only one who can expand the camp, or add to our supplies. I don't know, it's just a thought."

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"There are many hundreds of worlds," says Nelen. "Most of them have many planets in them - a planet is a sphere of earth and rock and metal in various proportions, so big that you can't tell it's round when you stand on it - and most people live on planets. We're from an organization that governs a lot of peoples in a lot of worlds. We were about to contact a new one. This isn't it. We were teleporting, and if we were even near where we were supposed to be, we'd have been extracted by now."

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"...hm," she says. "So—if there are still planets, that's the word, somewhere in this world, that haven't been swallowed yet, you've never been there and wouldn't know where to find them? Is that about the size of it?"

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"Yes. It's - not impossible we could figure something out? - mostly Natsuko could figure something out."

"Augh," says Natsuko solemnly.

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The Hero blinks inquisitively at Natsuko.

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"Nelen and Cassiel and Tarwë and I all have different magic," says Natsuko, "and my kind is the kind that is most likely to be possible, with just the five of us, to turn into a way to get to any uneaten planets that might be in this world. Or adjacent ones. I don't think it's actually a good idea to do that unless Vanda Nossëo hasn't grabbed us in a few days, because my mana most likely won't recharge here - if it does that would be a lot of information about where we are all by itself, though not very useful information - and I'd have to get all of it from other people, who also won't recharge here. Not good development conditions even if I were a research wizard, which I'm not!"

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"...what's 'mana', more specifically? What magic do you all have?"

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"Mana's the energy I use to cast spells," says Natsuko. "It only regenerates when you're adjacent to a particular set of worlds and this most likely isn't one of them, and even if it is, that isn't helpful, because those worlds aren't safe to travel through. I'm a wizard - I can make buildings and heal and fly and stuff - but I shouldn't do any of it if I can avoid it, since the mana I've got is probably all there is while we're here."

"I can sing magic songs," says Tarwë. "Though they work recorded as well, and there are recordings on everyone's computers."

"I can change stuff into other stuff," Cassiel says.

"I can teleport, heal, turn people into birds, and make illusions," says Nelen.

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"When you said you could get mana from other people, does that mean just people who are from the right world like you, or could you get it from people here, too?"

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"People from worlds where mana doesn't recharge usually still have some," says Natsuko. "It just doesn't come back if it's used or taken. But it doesn't look like there are a lot of people here."

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"There's not a lot of people here but one of them is me," she says. "Does it hurt, or do anything bad to people, to take their mana? Because if not, you should try taking mine, and then I should go for a walk, and we should see if I have it again when I get back."

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"It doesn't hurt or do anything bad to people under ordinary circumstances but this world is very very strange," says Natsuko, "so I don't especially want to try that in the first fifteen minutes of our being here especially without a good model of why you think you might recharge."

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"Eh, fair enough. You should have some time to settle in. Just—if you can find a planet that hasn't been eaten yet—planets are big, you know?"

She shakes her head.

"Anyway, the reason I think I might recharge is partly because I come back to life when I die out there, but mostly because I'm pretty sure every time I take a walk I reconstruct a little piece of the world from scratch. If anything in this world can bring back a part of someone that's not supposed to be renewable, I'm it."

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"Well. I'll try it if we run out of better options, but this early on, I think better options include 'wait'," says Natsuko.

"What do you mean about reconstructing a little piece of the world from scratch?" asks Nelen. "Is this a problem that can be fixed by adding more stuff to the world, Cassiel can do that and she doesn't run down a resource like Natsuko."

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"Stuff doesn't—actually, back up just a little. Am I successfully getting across that I don't know whether, right now, there's a whole planet out there, full of however many people are supposed to be on a planet, which I'm betting is more than a couple dozen, that won't be there in fifteen minutes?"

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"- that had not come across, no," says Nelen.

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"Okay. Well. I don't know that. There might be one. There might not. There might be no planets left anywhere, or there might be a million of them all safe for years to come, I don't have the first clue and I don't have any way to find out except if you guys come up with something. But that's why I want to try things instead of waiting. In case waiting loses planets. I don't even actually know if there's any way to safely make this camp big enough to support a planet's worth of people, but, you know, I would rather have the problem 'we found a planet and it's in danger and now we have to figure out what to do with it' than have the problem 'we don't even know if there's a planet to find', even though the first one's harder. Because if the planet's there and in danger, it's there and in danger whether I know about it or not. And even if all we can save from it is another couple dozen people, that's a couple dozen more survivors than it would've had without me."

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"- our people have resurrection," Nelen volunteers after a beat. "I don't actually know if the state of the art will work on people from here, because here is weird, but a universal version is in the works."

"Maybe I should take a tiny tiny bit of your mana, just enough that I'll be able to tell if it grows back," says Natsuko, "and not enough that it appreciably reduces how much there is to work with - I'm holding as much as I can, right now - maybe I could offload more onto Tarwë first, he might not be holding his max -"

"Go ahead," says Tarwë.

She attempts this. "- okay. I made a little room in my capacity and I can take a little off you now. Do you have a name, or -?"

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"I'm just the Hero. I haven't tried to figure out what my name used to be or pick a new one. Go ahead and grab a little mana from me, and we'll see if it comes back after I go for a walk."

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Natsuko tries tapping the Hero for a leeetle bit of mana.

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A leetle bit of mana is certainly available at this address, and plenty more besides. If tapping someone for mana is the sort of action that tells you how much mana they have going, Natsuko may observe that the Hero has, like, a lot - definitely more than one person's worth, plausibly more than five.

"All good?" she says.

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"- yeah. You have a lot of mana for someone who isn't actually a wizard."

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"Somehow I'm not surprised. —there's been some hints that I am actually three different people merged into one, on top of all the other weird bullshit. Anyway. I should go for a walk. Do you guys need anything special while you wait? Somebody'll probably come by to feed you in a bit."

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"We should be okay - is it all right for Cassiel to turn some of the air into stuff -" says Nelen.

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"...some of the air? I'd be a little concerned. Uh, one sec, let me grab you something we've got plenty of."

She ducks into one of the nearby thatched huts, and comes out with what looks to be a small bundle of firewood.

"Will this work?"

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"Yes, that works fine," Cassiel says. "Also I can turn the air into more air, if you're low on air, it's just most places aren't." She starts turning a piece of firewood into cloudfluff and then expanding it into a larger amount of cloudfluff.

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"I'd be cautious about that if I were you, in case something about you turning things into other things breaks whatever makes them stay real," she says. "I don't have any reason to think we're running out of air, I just also don't know how I'd notice if we were, you know? Anyway. If you're fine for now, I'll head out. I should be back in a quarter hour or so."

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"Thank you," says Nelen. Cassiel slows down a bit on turning the cloudfluff into more cloudfluff but still slowly goes about making a bench for all of them to sit down on together.

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The Hero waves and walks away; the world dims in her wake.

Cassiel's bench is maybe a little dimmer and more faded than its surroundings, but it's solid to the touch and does not collapse if sat on.

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"I'm writing as fast as I can," murmurs Tarwë.

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About five minutes later, the kid from earlier returns, carrying a loaf of bread in one hand and a hunk of cheese in the other.

"Hey, real people. You hungry?" they ask, holding up the food.

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"Do your people need the food? We'll be all right without, and Cassiel can make food," says Nelen.

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"We've got enough. She'll probably bring back more than this from her walk. Suit yourself, though," shrugs the kid.

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They didn't land hungry. They will sit and wait, occasionally exchanging murmured remarks of concern. Cassiel makes and passes around almond brittle.

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The kid munches on bread and cheese and peers curiously at the almond brittle.

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"Do you want some?" Cassiel asks.

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"What is it?"

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"It's candy. Almonds and sugar."

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"...sure," the kid decides, not without some hesitation.

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She hands him a piece.

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They have to juggle their bread and cheese a bit in order to receive candy, but as soon as the candy is in their hand it is eagerly snarfed.

"Wow!!! That's really good! I'm telling everybody!"

And they're off at top speed toward some more distant part of the village.

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...Cassiel will make a big pile of almond brittle to hand out in anticipation of more people.

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More people do in fact show up, in a hesitant trickle of ones and twos with minutes in between.

One in particular, a scarred man wearing an apron, tastes the candy thoughtfully and asks, "How is this made?"

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"I made it with magic - I can make other things too, if you want more variety -" She pulls a handful of cloudfluff off the bench and grows it back to replace what she took and turns the handful into an apple. "But it can be cooked, too, though I don't have a recipe."

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"Oh!" he exclaims, surprised. "Now there's a trick. Can you tell me the ingredients, at least?"

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"Sugar and almonds!"

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"Hmm!"

He nods thoughtfully and wanders off still nibbling his almond brittle.

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"The Hero returns!" calls a familiar voice, laden with cheerful irony. Even the sound of her voice seems to brighten the place up a little. She strolls into view around the corner of the hut where she got the wood earlier, and leans in to toss a handful of pebbles into a bucket on her way past it.

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"What are the pebbles for?" asks Nelen.

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She shrugs. "I picked them up on my walk. I always bring back whatever I pick up; it's the only way to get more stuff. I assume there'll be a use for everything eventually."

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"Is there anything to - walk on, out there?" wonders Natsuko.

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"There is for me. Anybody else tries to step off the dirt and they just disappear. When I head out, though, there's a path." She kicks the dry grey ground. "A little like this, but more faded."

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"And... pebbles. Is there anything else?"

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"Mhm. How's my mana, though?"

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Natsuko gets up and goes over to her to check.

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She's full up.

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"- yes, it's back. I'm still not a research wizard but I guess neither was Boots way back when, so I can try stuff, and can use the spells I already have. Can I try to make a house for us?"

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"Hmm... so, yes, but when somebody's new here we usually want them to sit by the fire for at least their first day or so, and," she gestures around at the huts, "there's not much room for another house here. I can go make some room at the edge but then your house will be at the edge, which isn't exactly comfortable or safe. I guess I could go make a lot of room at the edge, maybe put something else up just to shield you from it..."

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"What does the fire do?" Nelen asks.

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"Keeps things real. Usually all you lose if you leave it too early is bits of your clothes or the ends of your hair or all the stuff in your pockets or whatever, but back before we learned to be cautious, a couple of people got pretty badly sick because they went exploring the edge out of sight of the campfire right after they showed up and they faded a lot. One of 'em died. You're technically safer with me than the campfire but I can't stay to watch your house all the time, I have to be out on the path gathering supplies as much as I can."

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"How do you... work differently from everyone else?" asks Nelen.

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Big shrug. "That's a very good question and I'd love to have an answer but I don't really."

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"How did you find out you work differently from everyone else?" Zanro asks.

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"...well, I showed up on the path, and when I looped back around to the start of the path, the camp was here. Nobody else wanted to try stepping into the dark on account of how that's terrifying, so I just went back out. When I bring stuff back it stays real, in a way that stuff that comes along with people when they show up often doesn't. When people have stepped into the dark, nobody's heard from them again."

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"Where's the food come from?" asks Cassiel.

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"Well, we've got wheat fields and vegetable gardens now, so there's that, but most of what we eat is stuff I pick up on my rounds. I can carry a lot of stuff these days. The path... it's hard to explain, but the more I walk it, the more it - grows? Anyway, I can pick up a lot of different things there."

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"Okay. We don't want to inconvenience you insofar as what you're already doing, we're just from a very different place and confused," says Nelen. "Please don't let us keep you from going for walks. We'll sit here and keep writing to our people back home and Natsuko can start sketching out some ideas." Natsuko is indeed already doing this; she has produced her computer and is assembling all her old school notes.

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"Okay. I'll get a spot cleared for you to set up your house in a little while, and I or somebody else will let you know when it's probably safe to go there. Sound good?"

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"Yes. Thank you."

"Is it all right if I sing?" puts in Tarwë.

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"...sure, don't see why not."

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Tarwë sings. A bit loudly. It's ugly here.

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The Hero looks mildly impressed, but doesn't comment.

"Is there anything else you want to use your mana for, so you can grab some more before I head out again?"

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"Uh, nothing right now," says Natsuko, "if there's no room for a building and no one is injured or anything - even if they were Nelen's heal is better than mine."

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"All right, I'll see you later then." And she's off.

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Cassiel keeps making snacks for unreal locals, and Nelen puts up some colorful illusion lights to cheer Tarwë up a bit.

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Locals drop by for snacks; the kid, once they figure out that Cassiel can make multiple types of candy, keeps asking for new varieties and then circulating reviews on the rumour mill which then lure in more consumers. That guy who wanted a recipe for almond brittle is their second most frequent visitor, after the kid. Occasionally someone will throw another few sticks on the campfire, but it's unclear whether it needs it; even with a very inconsistent feeding schedule, its flame remains steady and bright.

The Hero is in and out a few more times over the course of the next while, stopping in to deposit wheelbarrowsful of assorted items in the nearby storage building and asking the team if they need anything before she heads out again, on trips that seem to last several hours at a time when she's not cutting them short for testing purposes. With no lights in the sky, it's hard to discern the length of a local day, but there does come a time when the lights in the huts start winking out one by one and a villager comes by to ask the team if they'd like to be brought bedrolls so they can sleep by the fire.

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"I can make us mattresses," says Cassiel, "thank you." She turns her cloudfluff into a less glowy similar substance, and Nelen and Natsuko and Zanro go to sleep; Cassiel and Tarwë sit up, her drinking coffee and reading, him continuing to write down everything they've observed for their report.

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Cassiel and Tarwë may note that the Hero does not appear to need sleep, what with how she keeps showing up on the same approximate schedule this whole time.

 

After the village has woken up and people have been coming round for candy again for a few hours, the Hero gets back from her latest excursion and she's... different. Her face is the same shape, at least all the parts of it that were visible under the previous outfit's mask, but she's paler and her hair is straight and white instead of dark blonde and messy, and her outfit is totally different.

"I've got a place for you set up near the edge," she says. "Managed to get it blocked off from the real edge by a farmhouse and some wheat fields. It should be big enough though I guess I don't know how big the houses you make are. I think it's probably safe to go there. How are you all doing?"

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"We're okay," says Nelen. "You look different, is that normal?"

"I used a bit of mana cleaning us all up since we don't have showers here," says Natsuko.

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"Yeah, you remember how I said there's been some hints that I'm three people merged into one? This is part of what made me think that," she says. "I have three different... faces? They're the same face, but also," she gestures at her hair. "And I can switch between them and get, not exactly different skills, but different, like - aspects? I'm lighter on my feet when I use the mask, I can do different magic when I'm like this, I don't go back to my first face much anymore because I don't like it but it had its own stuff going on. Anyway! Want me to show you to your house spot so you can see if you can fit a house there?"

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"Yes please." They will all get up and follow her; Cassiel drags the cloudfluff she's made.

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It's just a short walk away; the village is really not very big. The cleared space of bare grey dirt is big enough to fit a small house comfortably, or squeeze in a medium-sized one with some difficulty.

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Natsuko will make a house. She doesn't bother trying to make it matchy, since the existing architecture is so bedraggled; instead she makes a cute cob bungalow that doesn't stick out but also won't make Tarwë sad.

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"Nice house!" says the Hero. "Anything else before I head out again?"

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"I think that's all!" says Nelen. Cassiel drags her fluff in and starts furnishing the place.

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"See you later, then. I'll check on you between walks in case you need anything. Stuff in your pockets should mostly be fine by now but it's still best practices to keep your attention on things you care a lot about keeping, and my best guess is that any new stuff you make probably needs to be kept close and watched over like it's a new arrival for a little while before it'll be stable enough to survive being ignored."

She leaves; the world fades in her wake, to a dimmer state than the surroundings of the campfire. The house is mostly fine, but if they don't keep a close watch on any glass windows it may have, they'll find the glass to have vanished out of the frames in short order.

Soon after the Hero's departure, the kid comes by to ask for more candy. They ooh and ahh at the prettiness of the new house, and bounce excitedly about how cool it is that you can do that.

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Cassiel will fill up the shelves - Natsuko's basic floor plan includes places for them to bunk if that's called for but is still mostly a shop - with candy and other things that they might like that she can make, in lieu of a shipboard inventory.

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After there's been a little time for the rumour of Things On Shelves to spread, the cook comes by to see if any of the Things on these Shelves are ingredients he could cook with.

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They are! She's got meat and spices and sugar and flour up there.

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"How much of this can I carry away before someone begins to yell 'Stop! Thief!'?"

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"- you can have as much of it as you want, I don't mind," says Cassiel. "We just don't have much to do while we're stranded, so I'm making stuff for people."

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"Much appreciated," he says, and grabs some things off shelves—sugar and spices and especially meat. "Will you want to taste the results?"

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"If you like! I don't actually need to eat," says Cassiel.

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"Lucky!" he laughs. "Well, you can follow the delicious smells, or if you don't trust yourselves walking around town yet, someone might come by with a few extra portions to give you in thanks for all the candy."

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"Thanks!"

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Another villager comes by. This is one they haven't seen before, a woman with her hair in long braids and an old scar crossing one eye.

"So," she says. "What is your story, all of you? I heard something about other worlds, but I'm not sure I believed it."

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"We're an envoy team from an organization called Vanda Nossëo," says Nelen. "We were trying to go somewhere else, but had a teleportation accident."

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"Envoys? What kind of envoys? Envoys to where?"

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"Diplomatic envoys to newly contacted places! Of which this certainly is one, just not the one we were aiming at with the rest of our colleagues."

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"And what do you do in your newly contacted places?"

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"We tell them about their multiversal neighborhood, and open up trade and transit, and invite them to join Vanda Nossëo."

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"How's that work out for them, generally speaking?"

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"- well? It has some unavoidable cultural disruption effects, there's really no way to do it without - we could go slower but that kills people, going slower with access to healing and food and so on, so we go fast, and it destabilizes things and we try to be as gentle about it as we can without actually compromising on letting people self-determine. Sometimes there are idiosyncratic issues with religions or similar but delaying still kills people."

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She takes a moment to try to wrap her head around this.

"...you're so - so much - that just not talking to you fast enough leaves people dead that wouldn't be otherwise?"

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"- yes. I can heal anything short of death with a touch. If I show up an hour later, anyone who was going to die in that hour, or the hour before people trusted me enough that I got access to patients, or whatever the critical hour is, dies instead of being saved. Healing is a lot cheaper than resurrection and not every kind of person can be resurrected yet."

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"...huh. Did you tell the Hero that?"

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"- that I can heal? Yes."

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She shakes her head. "No, no—it's all the rest of it. The—mindset. I think she'd find it familiar."

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"She's mostly seemed to be too busy to chat about mindsets, so I don't know how much of it came across in what words we did exchange."