General FYI.

As I'm sure many of you are aware, the world (or at least my country) is going to hell in a handbasket again as far as COVID is concerned. The hospital where I work is demanding more of my time with cases on the rise, and that means my drive to write has also taken a nosedive. Neither Magical Girl Escalation Taylor nor Spells in Silence will be going on hiatus per se (obviously), but I just wanted to let everybody know that updates will be even more sporadic than they already were the last few months. I may also wind up writing more for one work than the other depending on where my muse is when I do have the time and wherewithal to write; not a guarantee but a possibility.

I'll still be around, and I'll still reply to reviews and PMs, but I do ask for a little patience.

Realign 14.21

Monday, August 29

The secretary who guards the way into Legend's office on the top floor of the New York City Protectorate office stares when seven mages and Guardian Beasts fly through the door on the side of the building and into the waiting area. You give her a small wave while Kayleigh hops off your back, her weight easily negated by your telekinesis for a short flight like this. Samantha sets Standstill down on the ground, and Cat Sith bounds off your own Beast's shoulder before returning to her human form. "Hi again," you tell her. "Legend asked us to come and talk?"

"Uh…" The middle-aged woman tapped on the tabletop screen in front of her, her eyes visibly flicking back to you even behind her white domino mask. Not that you blame her for her nervousness, not really. You did just roll in with a large amount of firepower at your back. She seems to find something on the schedule, however, because she clears her throat and says, "Oh, yes. The Arcana. Legend is waiting for you… Wait, are you that Arcana?!"

From the change in her voice's pitch, you have to grimace. You suppose she was only looking at the number of you before. Now she's figuring out the firepower aspect.

"We'll just go see the boss now, yeah?" Standstill says in a desperate attempt to break the building tension. The secretary just nods numbly, and you follow your Protectorate liaison into the next room.

Much unlike the other times you have visited Legend in his sanctum, he is not alone. On the edge of his desk sits another, familiar black-garbed figure, and Alexandria gives all of you a nod as you start filling what space is available. Samantha and Cat Sith revert to their basic animal forms and clamber onto their respective mages, which makes things feel at least a little less cramped.

Legend clears his throat to get your attention, an entirely unnecessary move. "Thank you all for coming. I know it was on short order."

"We can make time," you say with far more confidence than you feel. Even though you have dealt with Legend and Alexandria individually, the both of them together are still an imposing sight. "I'm more curious what the purpose of this invitation is."

He looks over to his female counterpart, who picks up the conversation. "We asked you here for a very simple reason. We wanted to thank you." The other girls all look at each other in confusion. "As we told you before, Calamity, the Fallen have been a thorn in our sides for many, many years now. We were unable to put them down like the mad dogs they were because of protection of the sect dedicated to the Simurgh, but through your actions in… decapitating that particular snake," she says with a smirk, "you made it possible for the very first time for us to rid the world of them."

"We're glad we could help," Missy says when it becomes obvious that none of you know what to say to that. "It would have even been better if we could have done that without causing the rest of the Fallen to attack Kansas City."

"Don't blame yourselves. From what most of the Thinkers we asked said, this would have happened no matter whose actions made the Fallen as a whole vulnerable. You just found yourselves in the perfect position to do it first." Legend gives Missy one of his most photogenic smiles, then shares it with the rest of you. "So no, that wasn't on you. Don't beat yourselves up because a cult lashed out. Instead comfort yourselves knowing that everyone who would have died from their attacks in the future now owe you their lives. You saved more people than you can imagine, and that is the greatest thing that any group of heroes – or heroines," he adds with a small laugh, "can do."

Laura coughs into one hand and says in a tight voice, "We, uh… Thank you, Legend, uh, sir."

A smile twists your lips. «Chill out, Laura. Everything's fine. No need to be nervous.»

«Don't tell me to chill out we're getting thanked by fucking Legend how am I supposed to be calm!»

You blink, then again, and then your eyes turn to stare at her for several long seconds. That did not sound like she was nervous, at least not in the way a flipped villain might be standing in front of the remaining members of the Triumvirate. If anything, her telepathic voice was almost more of a squealing—

Oh. Oh, no way.

«Kayleigh? Is Laura… Is she a Legend fangirl?»

«Ha ha! Oh, yeah. Like you would not believe. She's adored him for years, since like middle school or something. She just always tried to stay in the closet about it, especially after she got sucked into Winter Hill. And yes, I am one-hundred-percent going to tease her about this later.»

Another look at her, and you turn your gaze back to the professional heroes. You do not think you need to ask her or Kayleigh why that is. The reason seems fairly obvious. Legend is known to be very popular in a very specific community.

You snicker to yourself. 'In the closet', indeed.

"…and no, I'm not worried about how the next generation is stepping up to solve the problems we couldn't," Alexandria says in response to something somebody said. "If anything, I'm happy about it. It means when our time is over, the world will be in good hands."

You cannot say for sure, but you would bet money that her eyes flick to you for a second when she says that. Your own expression must betray you because the corners of her mouth quirk for just a moment.

"That isn't all of them, though," you add in quickly. "We've been talking with Dragon, and she's looking into searching for the Leviathan family as well. How long that will take, well…"

"We're aware. We asked her to do the same." A blush tints your cheeks at Legend's comment. "The Simurgh family might have been the hardest to find, but the Leviathan family is the hardest to hold onto. When she does find them, you will not have long to get to them before they slip away."

"Then it's a good thing we can teleport, isn't it?"

"Indeed." You look over at Alexandria, who is now smiling in a way that sends a shiver down your spine. "Speaking of teleportation, I've heard that you and Legend have taken a few different trips to other worlds. I'm a little jealous."

"…Sorry? It was just the one time."

She laughs and makes a small sweeping gesture with her hand. Not dismissing it, not entirely, but almost. "I joke, mostly, though I am interested in seeing other worlds. Being able to access other worlds and the resources they possess? That is a dream for any number of people, and one you could make a reality."

Your mouth opens to respond almost before your brain catches up. Didn't she, or Cauldron at least, have their own method of accessing other worlds? She admitted that they pulled people from other worlds for some of their experiments, and their base was certainly built in an alternate dimension. «Why didn't you access those resources when Cauldron was active?» you ask directly. «Or by 'resources', do you mean people?»

«I mean material resources. We could have tried obtaining them, but minerals and oil and all the rest need infrastructure to do so. Infrastructure we did not have, and we assumed wouldn't need until we were sure humanity wasn't going to go extinct in the next few decades. We were single-minded in our goals.»

"Just me shuttling people back and forth wouldn't be enough to harvest anything," you say, this time out loud so everyone else can hear.

"I don't expect it to be," she counters. Legend and the rest of the team look back and forth between you like spectators at a tennis match. "But if we can survey different worlds and find ones that are promising, particularly those without humans or alternatively those with human societies roughly at our level with whom we could engage in trade, we can focus on getting there en masse rather than spending time on the search itself."

That is not exactly unreasonable, and if they plan to stay away from primitive worlds, there won't be more capes being viewed as gods as just one example. You slowly nod. "Okay, I can see that. It isn't like I had anything else planned for the rest of the afternoon."

"None of us did, really," Kayleigh adds. The others nod.

"So we're all going exploring. Any specific requests?"

Alexandria crosses her arms and gives you a challenging look. "Surprise us."

She wants to be surprised, does she? «How many worlds did the Enforcers say there were in this cluster, Storm?»

«Fifteen to eighteen, Mistress.»

«They couldn't tell for sure?» That is surprising. You would have assumed their instruments and measurements would be more accurate than that.

«Not all with clear visibility. Some… shadowed.»

A shadowed world. That sounds like a proper surprise. «Do you think you can get us there? And if you miss, what happens to us?»

«Teleportation can be attempted. Will abort if no safe arrival coordinates found

You give your Device a glance. Perfect Storm's definition of 'safe arrival' leaves something to be desired if your arrival on a volcanic hellworld hovering over a boiling lake of lava was any indication. "Do it."

"Who are you talking to—"

The floor lights up with a casting sigil before Standstill can finish her sentence, and everything around you vanishes into the void. For one, two, three seconds you float in nothingness, but just when you start getting worried the light around you winks out to leave you in darkness.

You blink a couple of times, and your vision clears. You do not stand in total darkness. It is more the dim light of late evening as it is transitioning into night. Grit shifts beneath your boots as you turn to take in the surrounds. What you see makes you stare in incomprehension.

Laura, surprisingly, finds the most apt words to sum up the situation. "What the fuck is up with those trees?"

The small patch of trees maybe thirty feet away are not biggest things you can find to stare at, but they do seem to encapsulate everything that is wrong with this world. Trees, as you know well, are made of wood. That fact held true for every dimension you have visited thus far. This planet did not seem to get that memo because its trees look sculpted out of gleaming brass. You flick a couple of fireballs in its direction to shed more light on the situation, and from their light you see grain like real wood carved into the surface and leaves drifting in the faint breeze that shine like mirrors.

Behind the trees, you can make out the silhouette of an unlit cityscape, just as dark and silent as the rest of this world.

"Thanks for dropping us off into a creepy place like this at night, Calamity," Missy says with sarcasm dripping from her tongue.

"Uh…" You turn to check on Samantha. She is not looking at you, but instead is staring at the sky. She raises one shaky hand to point upwards. "I, uh, don't think it's night. Kinda looks like high noon to me."

Following her eyes and hand, you squint at something that is in the sky. It is not the sun regardless of what Samantha thinks, not with all the stars you can see around it. Your mask darkens, darkens some more, and finally tints everything blue. What you can see now is a bright ball of blue, one with innumerable cracks that crisscross all over the surface. And really, there is a lot of light coming out from those cracks, so you can understand Samantha's…

"Holy crap, that is the sun." You shake your head. "What's happened to it?"

"Insufficient evidence to draw conclusions," Perfect Storm says. "However, based on apparent structure… suspect Dyson sphere."

"That's impossible," Alexandria immediately retorts.

Kayleigh waves her hand. "Can those of us who don't do great in science class get an explanation? Like, what is that thing in the first place?"

"Stellar structure. Highly advanced. Collects majority of light from star to provide energy to resident society." Your Device's voice becomes quieter, and it admits, "Construction requires capabilities beyond Al Hazard or Galea. Structure only theoretical."

"For anyone to build it, they would need a technological base hundreds of years beyond anything we have, even if you include Tinkertech," continues Alexandria.

"Al Hazard and Galea are those aliens you told us about, yeah?" Standstill asks you. "The ones who researched magic and designed all the stuff we use?"

You nod. You told the team about the true origins of Perfect Storm – minus the fact it was originally a brainwashing superweapon built for genocide, obviously – yesterday. They… responded about as well as anyone could be expected to handle it.

"So this place has better tech than they did?"

"I guess?" Your head swivels around to take in the world around you. Now that you have some idea of what you are looking at, namely the setting of a sci fi movie, you can pick out details that you missed in your first bewildered glance. Details like the gigantic pillbugs or armadillos crawling around in and out of large craters in the distance, or what you could almost swear are massive manta rays swimming through the sky above.

But for all this new activity you notice, you still cannot see any evidence of human activity no matter how hard you look.

"None of this makes any sense," Legend says, breaking the silence that fell over all of you. "Earth Aleph and Earth Bet having similar levels of technology, sure, I can see it. But we've seen everything from Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt to this! How?! How can there be that much divergence?"

"Not first time extreme divergence found," Perfect Storm explains. "Noted during exploration by Al Hazard. Earliest conclusion was different societies advanced at different rates, but not sufficient to explain all differences.

"Al Hazard fell. Age of Prophets began as magical knowledge spread. Experiments done by Calliphacian researchers Modell and Marquise while studying how dimensions formed. Data showed different dimensions being different ages, sometimes thousands of years or more in difference.

"Discrepancies in societal advancement explained. Older dimensions had more time for species to develop. Dimensions not all created at the same time. Possible new dimensions arise from nothing. Possible dimensions collapse and new dimensions created as response. Not enough data to establish truth. No dimensional collapse observed according to information in databanks. Impossible to know without observation."

"Even so, how many dimensions are out there?" Alexandria wondered out loud.

"Locally? Between fifteen and eighteen according to available astrometry data. Throughout multiverse? Impossible to estimate. Earth Bet world cluster unknown to Galea. Many more dimensions yet to be found."

"Let's hope they're not all as creepy as this one," mutters Kayleigh, who is watching a boxy pillbug-like machine crawl out of a hole that starts spewing steam upon its exit. "I know I said I was up for an adventure, but can we maybe get out of here? I'm… I'm sorry, but this place really creeps me out. It's too… too empty."

"We can leave," Alexandria cuts in before you can say the same. "This place is… interesting, but I doubt it will give up its secrets easily, and certainly not to us. I may ask you to bring myself and some Tinkers here later, Calamity, but such an expedition will take time to set up."

You give her a nod and Kayleigh a comforting smile before light surrounds you again. This place is eerie, alright.

Even if you worry it might not be as empty as she thinks it is.

LORE DUMP! Because I haven't gotten many chances to do it all quest.

Silently Watches out.