Shuffle, Cut and Deal Chapter 1

Chapter 1

 

Fort Masina

 

The next morning Vectoria rolled out of her bed and groaned in agony. Clearly one of the orcs in yesterday’s fight had split her head open with an ax and she was just now noticing it. That was the only explanation. A hangover couldn’t possibly hurt this much. She felt horrible, but at the same time she felt a little more alive. Stronger than yesterday. She started to fold into the position used in the Godlands to pray, and as she bent, her brain wobbled and rattled about in her head. Surely, she thought, I have done well enough Twir will give me a spell to cure my hangover and make grog.

Carefully she bowed her head and started to pray.

 

Interlude—Celestial Plane

 

No, Twir thought, irritated as Vectoria Magna began her morning prayers. She is not getting make grog.

Twir was still a very minor goddess. She had only 8,243 followers and only 2,315 intercessors. So she needed to coddle each and every one. But there were limits and Vectoria Magna seemed intent on pushing them.

How, Twir wondered not for the first time, did I end up with a half-orc intercessor? Of course she knew the answer. Twir didn’t require mortal sacrifice, which most of the gods of the Orclands did. That was very attractive to Vectoria Magna, who had been bred specifically to be sacrificed. And she tried, Twir had to give her that. The mostly illiterate half-orc girl was absolutely dedicated to the goddess of clerks and scribes.

Unfortunately, Vectoria’s inclination was to spend as much of her time getting drunk and laid as was half-orcishly possible—and that was just about all the time. No, she would not be getting spells to turn water into grog or water into ale or even water into small beer. Instead, she would get water into tea. Strong tea. And she would be getting another copy of learn spelling. Twir calculated that it would only take another hundred or so of those and Vectoria would be literate.

 

Fort Masina, 5th of Barra

 

Vectoria felt Twir’s displeasure with her for getting drunk and she felt appropriately guilty. At the same time, she felt more than a little resentful about her guilt and Twir’s disappointment. A girl’s gotta have a little fun sometimes, after all. In any case, she ended her prayers with no hangover cure in her spells. She had received mud to stone, three of them but the very weakest sort,  a couple of healing spells but they were for minor wounds and didn’t work on hangovers. Well, she hadn’t really expected a hangover cure. Don Eduardo had made it clear that Twir wasn’t the god of partying. Twir also gave Vectoria a spell of reading and one of writing. They would let Vectoria read and write for five hours after she cast them. And, more importantly, each time she cast them she remembered a little more of how reading and writing worked.

When Vectoria stood up to head out for work, her head pounded more than usual.  She winced and brought a hand up to feel the peeling skin of her face. Vectoria, like most orcs, didn’t tan, but burned, then peeled where not covered by green fur.  That was her face from neck to forehead and in front of her square ears. The ears themselves had a light green fur that accented the upper back corner of her ears. She knew that she shouldn’t have gotten drunk last night, but it had been a long day and Private Urk had muscles on his muscles and, well, things had gotten out of hand. Vectoria, at nineteen . . . well,  intellect wasn’t what she was looking for in a playmate. She grinned, showing her prominent canines, then winced as her head throbbed.

She checked the spells that Twir had granted her again, hoping against hope for a headache reliever. No such luck. Aside from reading and writing she had a spell on spelling. She would cast it when she got to work and maybe she would have fewer spelling errors. Not that anyone but Twir noticed spelling errors. Spelling was mostly a matter of individual preference, except for followers of Twir.

Oh no, not tea again! Granted, the muddy brown tea the spell produced woke you up, but it tasted like shit. Well, worse than shit, actually. She thought about those two spells of minor healing. I wonder who is going to fall on their ass at drill today. Bet it’s not Urk. He might not be bright even for an orc, but he can move well. Really well when his instincts take over.

***

    Vectoria fell to her knees as she was walking to the drill field behind their camp.

It wasn’t the hangover. She suddenly had the memories of someone named Vicky Hill, a staff sergeant in the United States Army with a bachelor of science in business. Which Vectoria knew all about from that new set of memories that was hers and not hers all at once.

Vicky Hill. A small, weak human woman who had never swung a sword, much less a battle ax. And who didn’t have a half-orc’s head for grog or, for that matter, a half-orc’s pain threshold.

Vectoria’s hands went out in an automatic response to the fall. She came up, hand on her battle ax and there was nothing to fight. The headache was gone, along with all her other aches and pains, her sunburned face, even her hangover. Nothing but the memories that were hers and at the same time not hers. Those were very much still there.

Great Twir, what is happening to me? she screamed in her mind.

 

Interlude—Celestial Plane

 

Twir was almost as shocked as her intercessor, but gods are different than people. She had time because while Timu, god of time, was the only god that could turn time back, even the most minor gods could slow it down to examine what they needed to or speed it up to make it pass quickly.  Gods can spend as much or as little time on anything as they feel they need to.

Also, while not the omniscient entity of monotheism, a god can know what she needs to about her followers and certainly about one of her intercessors.  In a frozen instant between one heartbeat and the next, she examined Vectoria and found the extra memories which led her to Vicky Hill.

It was almost Vicky Hill’s last moment.

Gods, even minor gods, don’t care for finding out that they were made up as a joke. What saved Vicky was her dream. She was dreaming about computers. The idea of computers entranced Twir’s orderly mind, and that was enough to get the goddess back under control. Twir was not big on fits of temper, and this new world she had access to only through Vicky looked very interesting and much more her sort of place than the Orclands.

There was opportunity here. That timeless instant was days of consideration for Twir. Time enough for Twir to remember that causality between the universes was complicated and she had many origins. Vicky Hill’s desire for a god of secretaries was just one.  And through all that consideration, no time at all passed for Vectoria or Vicky.

Vectoria was strong physically and strong in her faith, but no intellectual giant. Vicky was short and slight and made ninety-eight pound weaklings seem hearty, but had managed to educate herself and earn a degree. Hard-working, both of them, and at their core they were much the same person. It could be fairly said that they shared a soul. They were both honest in their beliefs and fair in their dealings, at least as the worlds they came from judged such things.

Each of them had, at their core, that which made an intercessor of Twir. And in the merging of them and the copying of each to the other, missing parts had been filled in. All in all, Twir was pleased. She noticed that the merging had healed both of them of hurts and stresses such as the sort that were left when an intercessor prayed for spells or a god sent the intercessor hints. She decided that she could offer them a little reassurance.

She sent them a feeling of well-being. It’s all right, the feeling told them. It couldn’t be a strong feeling, for even the strongest human would melt like a snowflake in a furnace before the voice of a god.

Twir now had one more follower but, even more, she had new opportunities in both worlds. That made Vicky Hill one of her most important followers because, for right now, Vicky was the only intercessor of Twir on her world.

Twir examined the WarSpell books and rules for several months in a frozen eyeblink. The game designers, in a moment of political correctness, had offered intercessor, as well as priest, to describe those persons that could receive spells from the gods as well as the hierarchies that offered prayers and sacrifices to the gods.  For those that dealt with demons or evil gods they offered the term bargainer. The distinction between good god and evil god was one that the mortals focused on much more than the gods did.

The knowledge from Vicky’s world would change the world of Vectoria in profound and unpredictable ways. And Vicky’s world was a world of clerks that might come to follow Twir to some extent. And prayer is a basic sustenance of gods.

“What— what has happened?” Vectoria prayed.

“But it was only a game,” Vicky’s dreaming mind complained.

Twir laughed for the pure joy of something new. And spell checkers. And computers. And programing languages.

 

Fort Masina, 5th of Barra, Moments after the Merge

 

Vectoria looked around Fort Masina and Vicky Hill’s memories showed it to her in a new light. It was filthy with the detritus of an orc camp and about as far from a proper military base or town as Vicky could imagine.

When was the last time they policed this place? Vicky’s memories demanded. The answer was clear in Vectoria’s memories: never.

The orc barracks were mud huts with sod roofs. Six to eight feet wide and about ten long. Their floors were three to five feet below ground level and their roofs about as high above ground, though that was a rough, very rough,  average. The term “uniform” would have run fleeing in panic at the sight of these structures. Orcs normally dug burrows in the earth and these were about halfway between a burrow and a house. A common orc intercessor spell was stone to mud or mud to stone. It was used in digging through stone, providing supports for the burrows and in the making of stone tools. Even an acolyte of one of the Orc tribal gods might receive a spell that would convert a couple of square feet of stone to mud or a few gallons of mud into stone.  An acolyte, Vicky’s memories filled in, was a first level character of the priestly or intercessor class in WarSpell.

The fort was built with, earth, daub, and of stone made from mud. It was on a small rise about a thousand yards from a creak with pretensions of grandeur. The Creek was a tributary of the Connio River called the Soka River it was all of fifteen feet wide and maybe four feet deep, except in the rainy season when it flooded for about six weeks. This wasn’t the rainy season.

Vectoria looked out the open gate to see a line of orcs with pots walking down to the Soka to fill thin-walled stone pots with water. It happened every day with the orcs of Fort Masina rotating the duty.  It was a duty that Vectoria’s status as a half-orc and an intercessor of Twir protected her from. It was also an everyday thing that was commonplace to Vectoria and utterly new to Vicky. It had never once come up in game play. Nor had the fact that, when not out on a dungeon crawl, Vectoria had spent much of her magic making and repairing those pots.

As she watched the green-furred orcs fill the large pots with river water, the reason for the lack of cleanliness became a bit clearer. If you have to walk half a mile for water, then carry it a half a mile uphill, you want to have better uses for it than washing walls. Uses like drinking or cooking.

Vectoria turned around and looked past Don Francisco and Don Tomas’ compound to the temple of Noron. The temple was an oblong amphitheater. A stone wall sixteen feet tall surrounded a salle. There were altars to the good gods circling the salle. Behind the altars was seating so that the matches to Noron could be watched. A domed roof with a large central opening, or oculus, mostly just enough roof to keep the parishioners dry on rainy days.

Vectoria’s memories supplied another fact that had never come up in game play. Until the Temple was completed the only spells that either Intercessor Robert or Don Eduardo had received were mud to stone.

That had been before Vectoria had been rescued. Don Eduardo had told her about it as part of her training. There had been a quid pro quo between the gods.  It was common for a temple dedicated to one of the good gods to also have altars to the other gods that god was friendly to, but it was usually limited to the major gods Noron, god of contests, war, and judge of princes might be expected to have an altar to Prima, goddess of healing,  Cashi, goddess of trade, Justain, god of law, or any of the major good gods. But this was the only temple of any of the major gods that had an altar to Twir in it. At least the only one Vectoria knew about.  Don Eduardo had explained “I think there was a deal struck between Noron and Twir. Twir gave me mud to granite, even mud to marble, to help get Noron’s temple up fast and in exchange Noron allowed an altar to Twir in his temple here.”

Now Vectoria remembered that altar and, remembering, saw it as Vicky Hill would see it. Suddenly Vectoria laughed out loud. For one of the mystical mysteries of the altar of Twir in Noron’s temple was the layout of the alphabet. It was common, Don Eduardo had explained to Vectoria, to all of Twir’s altars and no follower of Twir knew what it meant. They weren’t in the standard order of the alphabet. Each letter was in its own little rectangle and there were numbers and other symbols, also in rectangles, that no one understood the reason for. Twir’s followers had worried over it for as long as Twir had had followers. Now Vectoria knew. It was the layout of a typewriter keyboard. No, it was the layout of a computer keyboard, complete with control, alt, and function keys.

Vectoria was still smiling as she looked just beyond the temple to Count Masina’s hacienda. It was also stone. He had insisted. Vectoria had been an acolyte by then, and had helped with the construction. In spite of which, she wasn’t allowed into the hacienda at all, nor into the Temple of Noron when Count Masina was there. It didn’t bother Vectoria, but the thought enraged the new memories that were Vicky Hill’s. It was a horrible wrong and just the way things were, all at the same time.

Vectoria turned back to the drill field and the orc holes. The orc holes were different. They were earth and daub, with just enough scrub wood and stone to keep the roof from caving in. They were also about half underground. The ceilings were about four feet above ground level and the floors about four feet below it.  They were narrow so they didn’t need as much arch and didn’t need as much magic. The walls were slanted, again so that they needed less arch and magic. Wherever possible, they used a sort of daub made of shit, mud and grass instead of stone arches. And they were dirty. That was because even minor magic was expensive, and the orcs couldn’t afford it.

Nor did they trust it. Among the orc tribes, magic was paid for in blood and death.

The latrines were way too close to the barracks, and not used with any great consistency anyway. The drill field was a muddy patch of meadow that had no grass because the orcs had marched back and forth on it until it was dead while they tried to learn to move in formation.

There was trash and junk all over the place. It offended Vicky Hill’s sense of order. The weapons and armor were well kept and cared for, but even they were a random collection of cast offs with a couple of stone axes in the mix.  Most of the orcs went barefoot. Thick hard soles and heavy nails, almost claws, on their feet were the only protection from the rocks on the ground.

Those claws and the ones on their hands were useful as hell for digging in the earth. Not nearly as good as tools, but with Vicky’s memories they suggested that orcs had been burrowers for a long time.

The orcs were gathering in the drill field getting ready for their morning weapons drill. Some of the orcs had breastplates, bracers, greaves or other bits and pieces of metal or leather armor. But it was never complete, and most of the time the orc only had one or two pieces.  The weapons and armor they owned affected their fighting styles. Okan, for  instance, always advanced with his left leg forward but used his right arm to block. He had a greave on his left leg and a bracer on his right arm. It was all strange and filthy, like a spaghetti western on steroids. And yet it was all just as it had been. Nothing had changed . . . except Vectoria herself.

As she looked about the camp, more orcs came ambling out of the huts, wincing at their headaches and laughing at the headaches of others.  Don Tomas came hobbling out of the larger hut he shared with Don Francisco.

What Vectoria had suspected for at least a year was now confirmed from Vicky’s memories. Don Tomas was nothing of the sort. He had been born Tom Junior in a peasant hut on the Hartford estate in the Kingdom Isles and had no connection at all with the Plamith family. He spoke Nasine well enough, with a strong Kingdom accent. It was a fairly upperclass Kingdom accent and one that he had worked years to gain. He had knighted himself by the simple expedient of introducing himself as Sir Tomas Plamith of Hartford. When he translated that into Nasine he made it Don Tomas de Hartford y Plamith. She smiled slightly at the thought. And most of all, Vectoria remembered that Don Tomas and Don Francisco were also players of the game. Their names were Spec Five Tom Warren and Staff Sergeant Frank Johnson. Tom worked in the motor pool and Frank was a black hat, an instructor, over at the jump school. “Hey, Tom,” Vectoria said in English, unaware that she had spoken until she heard the words in the strange yet familiar language.

“Do you address me, Vectoria?” Don Tomas asked in Nasini.

“Do you know Tom Warren?” Vectoria asked in English again.

“What language are you speaking? Did that petty god of yours give you a new spell and what use is it?”

“Vicky, is that you?” Frank shouted, coming out of the hut.

“Sort of, Frank,” Vectoria said. Then, in Nasini, with an orcish accent, she continued, “I’m Vectoria, but I remember Vicky.”

“And I’m apparently Francisco. Either that, or I’ve been out of the sun way too long.”

Vectoria laughed. Frank Johnson was black and the joke which would have just made Vicky uncomfortable didn’t bother Vectoria at all. She held up an arm. “Well, at least you don’t have green fur.”

“You don’t either, Vectoria,” he said looking her over carefully. “It’s more like a pale green down. Actually, it looks better than it did yesterday. If Francisco’s memory is to be trusted. I mean, you still look like a half-orc or maybe like a third-orc.”

“I don’t think you can do a third-orc.”

“I don’t know. Maybe you can if you’re partly Vicky. Am I a little darker than Francisco was yesterday?”

For just a second Vectoria was confused by the question. Francisco was a bit vain about his looks, but Frank wasn’t.

“Do you see Frank in my face?” Francisco clarified.

Then she realized that Francisco or Frank, or both of them, were trying to figure out if they had gotten more than memories. If there had been physical changes. And she remembered that Vectoria had a presence of eight, below average in the stats for WarSpell. Vicky Hill didn’t have stats, at least not that she knew about, but she was pretty sure Vicky was more attractive than a presence of eight. She suddenly wondered if her canines were shorter than they had been yesterday or her ears rounder. “You might be a touch darker, Don Francisco, but it’s hard to tell.”

Not that the  memories weren’t enough. Vectoria remembered conversations about Francisco she had had with Frank during the games. Frank had played Francisco as a real hidalgo, all about his honor, with his nose in the air, and looking down at everyone else, especially the orcs. They had laughed at it. At the same time, she remembered Francisco and his touchy Nasine pride and willingness to find a deadly insult in the way someone parted their hair.

More, she remembered how he treated the orcs . . . as not much more than dogs. Dogs he was fond of and treated kindly, but not with the respect due another person. She was sort of an exception to that because she was an intercessor of Twir. And, she realized now, because she was another player—not a non-player character like Beak, Urk and the rest.

***

    Don Francisco wasn’t having a good morning. He had the memories of Frank Johnson, and those memories didn’t paint a flattering picture of Don Hernando Francisco de Montoya y Cortez. He remembered that his pride in his birth and lineage had been comic relief in the game, Frank goofing around for the fun of it. Francisco was Frank making fun of every stuffed-shirt bigot he had ever met. And yet Francisco was not a coward and he had an iron sense of honor. In fact, he remembered from the game that Tom’s wife, Andi, the game master, had just loved putting his character in places where his honor required him to sacrifice his pride.

Suddenly, he was laughing. And if it was a little hysterical, it was still laughter. Andi would love this, for never had Don Hernando Francisco de Montoya y Cortez been so humbled inside himself as knowing, truly knowing, that all the glory he took in his blood and heritage was nothing but a joke.

“Have you gone insane?” Don Tomas roared. “Why are you laughing like a loon?”

With great difficulty, Francisco got himself under some control. “I have just learned that all my pride in my station is little more than a joke. And what makes it worse is that I understand the joke.”

He remembered his life as Frank Johnson, the son of an unwed mother and unknown father, who had worked his way out of the slums to a position of responsibility in the United States Army, never asking for or being given so much as a crust of bread by virtue of his ancestry, in spite of what some assholes said about affirmative action. Francisco remembered getting his jump wings and his ranger tab. He remembered a night jump into Afghanistan, laser locators, and precision guided ordnance. Firefights with the rag heads who were killing people over their version of God.

At the same time, he remembered being Don Hernando Francisco de Montoya y Cortez the third son of a noble house of Nasine entitled by his blood and birth to a place at the high table, but being denied that place because though his family was of the best blood in Nasine, it was still not wealthy. Having to come to this continent of orcs and dark godlings to make the fortune and gain the lands that should have been his by right of birth. He remembered fighting orcs with sword and buckler. Orcs who were trying to capture him to sacrifice to their dark gods.

He remembered why he was fighting in both lives. In Afghanistan he’d been serving a country founded on the principles of freedom and equality.  In the Orclands he had been an adventurer, in it essentially for the money, but also to bring honor to his house, his country, and, in a way, civilization to the Orclands.

Both these men were him, and the core they held in common was that iron sense of honor. As Andi and Tom had said, if “Frisco” had his prickly pride, he had a good heart. Don Hernando Francisco de Montoya y Cortez would probably never fully put aside his pride in the accomplishments of his noble ancestors, but now he had a new perspective on that pride.

Don Tomas looked around. He looked at Don Francisco, he looked at Vectoria, he looked at the orcs standing around looking confused and a little worried. “Let’s take this inside, Don Francisco.”

He turned and headed for their hut.

Don Francisco bowed and motioned Vectoria ahead of him in the best Nasine style. Grinning madly, Vectoria preceded Don Francisco into the hut.

“Vectoria? What are you doing here? This is human business.”

“Not so much this time, Tomas,” Vectoria said.

“Watch your tone, Vectoria. You’re a valuable property, but not so valuable that I will accept defiance from a slave.” The word Don Tomas used was escalda and could, based on context, be translated as servant, slave or instructee. And had to do with the fact that the orcs were,  at least in theory, being instructed in the proper respect for, and religious practices of, the human pantheon, especially Noron, and owed service for that instruction.

“Say, Tomas, you might want to step back a little from that,” Frank, or perhaps Francisco, said. “The gods have apparently done something a bit strange. Vectoria may be our slave, but Vicky is no man’s chattel.”

“Who is Vicky? What is Vicky? Will you tell me what is going on? What is a frank? What are you two talking about and what is that horrible language you’ve been using?” Don Tomas shouted.

“Calmly, Don Tomas. I have to think that the gods have something to do with this,” Vectoria said. “Even my memories of Vicky Hill would call this a miracle and she doesn’t believe in magic.” Seeing Don Tomas about to blow up again, Vectoria rushed to explain. “I have the memories of a life in another world, a world that supposedly didn’t have magic, but possessed its wonders from something called technology. Which, as I think of it, just means ‘way of doing things.’ So that’s not much help.” She held up her hand when he was about to blow again. And the gesture was so strange coming from a slave that he actually stopped.

Frank jumped into the pause. “I have the same sort of memories and according to those memories, this was a game. You were played by Tom Warren, who worked with machines of great complexity. They could go three or four times the speed of a galloping horse for hours at a time. But I take it you didn’t gain his memories?”

Tomas looked at Francisco, then at Vectoria, then back at Francisco. Then, very carefully, he went over to the little table and sat on a stool. “No. I have no memories. I, at least, have not been possessed by a being from another plane. Do you claim that you are now these others that possess you?”

“No!” Vectoria said. “It’s not like that. I remember my life. Those memories haven’t gone away. I just have this other set as well. I remember my morning prayers and I remember the spells that the goddess gifted me with.” Vectoria stopped and felt that special place inside her. She still had the spells, but she didn’t have the slightly pleasant pain in her spirit that should be left after her morning prayers. At least not as much of it. Right after whatever happened happened, the ache had been gone completely. Then Twir reassured her and some of it came back.

She had been taught she should not pray in the style that brought close contact with the goddess and spells until that pleasant ache had fully passed. Further, she had been taught that she should meditate in that way only when she was well rested, though in practice she had often prayed with a hangover as she had that morning. But the only pain she felt at the moment was the pleasant ache of Twir’s reassurance. Most of all, she had been taught that she should never pray for spells more than once a day, and she also remembered that as a rule from the game.

She wondered if she might pray again, early, to see if she could gain a better understanding. It was always hard to get clear messages from the gods. Some intercessors got feelings, which had to be interpreted, and sometimes the spells gave you a strong hint of what the god wanted of you. But nothing in this morning’s spells had indicated anything like this. And aside from the feeling that Twir was all right with whatever was going on, she had no clue what it all meant.

Finally, Vectoria decided not to take the chance. “I have my spells,” she continued before Don Tomas could speak again. “I am still me, but I also remember how to read in the English of this Vicky Hill. I remember reading books and I wonder . . .”

Vectoria went over to the table and picked up a sheet. Vectoria recognized the letters and Vicky’s understanding of how printed text worked and her experience with it lent Vectoria’s understanding a comfort it would not have had on its own. She began to read aloud.

“To my son, Don Hernando Francisco de Montoya y Cortez,

It is with regret that I must inform you that your request for additional funds must be denied . . .”

“That’s enough,” Francisco said quickly. Francisco was always embarrassed when he was forced to ask for money from home. And especially he didn’t like Tomas hearing about it or hearing that his family wasn’t sending the money.

“Oh, sorry, Francisco,” Vectoria said. “It was just on top of the pile.” It was, in fact, a letter that she had read to him some three days before, using a spell that Twir had given her. Now she could read it without the spell. Not easily, but she could work through it.

Why would Twir have given her the reading spell if she was going to get these memories only a few minutes after her prayers? That wasn’t the sort of thing Twir did. I wonder if perhaps Twir didn’t know that this was going to happen. Searching through Vicky Hill’s memories was automatic. Vicky had been brought up as a Baptist, but had grave doubts about the very existence of the all-powerful god that the Baptists worshiped.

Could it have been Vicky’s Jesus that did this without consulting Twir? Vectoria didn’t think she approved of that. Gods should respect one another.

Slowly, Don Tomas got up. “You two wait here,” he ordered. “I am going to get Intercessor  Roberto.”

Vectoria looked at Francisco and Francisco looked at Vectoria, and they shrugged. Whether telling the world about what had happened was a good idea or not was no longer an issue if they both knew Tomas. He was a little shifty sometimes, but if he decided something, he would stick to it to the death.

“So what happens now?” Francisco asked.

“You got me, Boss!” Vectoria said. “I’m not at all sure I could take being a slave. Vectoria was used to it, but Vicky wasn’t, and if Vicky’s reflexes get the better of me I’m liable to turn one of these haughty-assed make-believe conquistadors into pate de Nasine.”

“You think you have it bad? I’m a black man who owns slaves.” Francisco stopped. “Okay. I’m not exactly black anymore and you’re not exactly a slave, but, by Noron . . . it sure feels weird.”

“Oh, I’m a slave,” Vectoria said. “A purist might translate escalda as obligation or something, but you and Frank bought me and the others. That’s slavery.”

***

    Tooth came in after Tomas left and started cleaning up the hut. And Francisco suddenly felt another of those reverse deja vus that he had been running into all morning. Tooth was his batman, and he needed a batman. In fact, he needed servants. He had Tooth and Raina. Tomas had Beak and Flower, and that was just the personal servants.

The orcs were all busy all day, maintaining equipment that on Frank’s world would be thrown away as worn out. Frank had washing machines, sewing machines, indoor plumbing and microwave ovens available. Frank didn’t need cooks and maids and a personal servant to sew torn shirts or darn socks and clean his quarters. But Francisco didn’t have any of those devices and there was no way he could do his job if he spent all his time darning socks and polishing his breastplate or sharpening his sword. Not to mention scrubbing pots, or fashioning plates and bowls out of wood.

And none of this came up in the gaming. It had never been mentioned that he had servants of any sort. He looked over at Vectoria. She was looking back at him and he flicked eyes to Tooth and then back and saw the slight grin on Vectoria’s face. When Vectoria grinned even a little bit, her canines showed. It was at once familiar and comforting, utterly weird and more than a little frightening. He recognized Vicky Hill in that grin.

***

    Vectoria grinned as Francisco flicked a glance at Tooth. The old Francisco wouldn’t have done that. He would mostly have ignored Tooth, just not noticed him consciously. If he had noticed Tooth, would have just ordered him out.

Vectoria knew why Tooth was here. The orcs were curious and concerned. Something weird happening to Francisco could mean a change in their situation, and most of them were at least fond of Francisco and Tomas. Also, having Vectoria, their own intercessor, was a matter of pride to the orcs under Francisco and Tomas.  Anything that might upset that was a matter of concern to the orcs.

 

Interlude—Celestial Plane

“Noron . . . You need to know . . .”

What?” Gods need never be rushed, but are often irritable. Noron was managing a battle just at the moment and wanted to keep all his attention there. Besides, Twir wasn’t of the pantheon of good gods, she wasn’t even of the pantheon of evil gods. She was one of the hundreds of thousands of minor deities of the Godsland. Little more than a tree spirit. Almost, his angels and saints prevented the contact. Almost, but not quite.

“Something strange has happened,” Twir insisted. “One of your followers is affected.”

Grumbling, Noron looked and almost forgot the battle. “Most extraordinary.”

He examined Don Francisco with his memories of Frank Johnson, then looked at Frank Johnson with his memories of Francisco. They were good men, both of them, but would never make proper conduits to their worlds. They lacked the mental toughness that would let them survive the contact. That wasn’t a problem in Francisco’s world. Noron had plenty of intercessors there.

It was that other world that was at issue. Noron didn’t have access to the world of Frank Johnson. He could answer a prayer offered by Frank Johnson, but who would tell Frank that he needed to pray to the Noron of this world, not the Noron of another? For as their were infinite universes, so there were infinite gods. And if at the center they were all the same god, that center was far away and hard even for a god to reach.

Meanwhile, this Tomas, one of Cashi’s followers if Noron was any judge—and he was—had gone off to roust out Roberto. Noron examined Roberto. Not the most noble of his intercessors, but solid enough. Not likely to rise much higher in Noron’s service. That morning Noron had given Roberto a see faith, in case any orcs wandered in.  Not all that uncommon, since the orcs often preferred slavery to being sacrificed to a competing tribe’s god. And likely today, since there had been a raid not that far away from the camp and there were refugees heading this way. The spell let Roberto know whether the orcs really meant their conversion.

Noron smiled a benign and godly smile and tweaked the spell to suit the changed circumstances. He, after all, knew it was going to be cast soon and just how to adjust it.

Tweaking a spell was not a trivial act, even for a god. “You’re going to owe me a favor for this, Twir.”

Casual agreements between gods carry a level of detail and complexity that makes credit card contracts and software usage agreements seem open and straightforward by comparison. But while Noron was the god of contests, Twir—minor as she was—was the god of secretaries. The limitations on the favor were precise.

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