Let's Play a Game - Chapter 13

Sophia Hess is Shadow Stalker.

Sophia Hess is a 'hero.'

Even over an hour later, that bombshell is still exploding in my mind.

Yet, here I am, perusing the Central Library as if nothing's wrong.

After the talk with Mr. Ba… No. Uncle Alan, I went by Public Records downtown for a copy of the police report. Unlike the hospital, they managed to print out a copy for me on the spot.

With that logged away in my power's journal system, I have some free time.

So, why not look for skill books in a public repository of knowledge?

Currently, I'm strolling through adult non-fiction.

I'm taking my time to Observe each book as I browse, and the boxes that pop up tell me clearly what is and isn't a skill book.

I don't want to just grab books at random to see if I get a prompt or not, nor do I want to increase the chances of accidentally 'eating' any of the books with a visible light show in such a public place.

Too bad Observe and Speed Reading aren't getting much experience any more from these books and their tiny blurbs.

I'm sure by the time I'm finished here I can eke out at least a level for each, so in the end, it should be worth the effort.

It's still freaking tedious though.

I've already Observed several history books, encyclopedias, and different biographies, but none of them are skill books or anything else my power can interact with.

I can probably read them for intelligence gains, however that wouldn't be as efficient as just reading skill books the long way, which is what I'm here for anyways.

I keep looking while my mind wanders.

The hospital, the nazi, Aunt Zoe, Uncle Alan, Public Records…

Today has been so busy, but I'm not tired at all. Especially when it comes to my emotional state. I haven't been this easy-going in years!

I thought I'd still be freaking out about my powers quasi-Mastering me, but after today, there's no way I can be afraid of it. It's just too useful for me to think of as a bad thing.

Gamer's Mind…

If I figured out Sophia was Shadow Stalker without it, I probably would have immediately gone home and called it quits for the day to recharge. Hell, I'd have done that from just the talk with Aunt Zoe.

I wouldn't be able to think through any of this crap.

If I ever learned that one of my tormentors was a Ward? Without my powers?

It would've broken me for good. Even worse than the locker did...

Which would mean…

Huh.

Quilts! Quilts! Quilts! gives me a sewing skill? That should come in handy when I need to make a costume. And it also doubles as a… blueprint book? That's kind of neat. I guess recipe books are only a Cooking thing.

Whatever.

Yoink.

Where was I?

Oh, yeah.

Suicide.

Well, if that happened, I honestly wonder if any of them would even care that they instigated a suicide? Would there be guilt for what they did, or would they just pat themselves on the back for a job well done and move on to the next mark?

'Whoever can tear down a teenager to the point of suicide the fastest wins! Current record is one and a half years! We can do better than that now that we have the experience!'

My face twists into an expression of visceral disgust.

They probably would be that sick, wouldn't they?

I blow out a puff of air.

Walking through the different aisles, I stop at one section and take the time to glance at the books in front of me.

Most of it's about computers: books on programming languages, how to operate a cellphone or laptop, web design, guides to word processors and spreadsheets, etc.

There's a book on Dragon NaturallySpeaking for Dummies that almost excited me, but a brief Observe told me while it's endorsed by the cape who shares the software's name, it really has nothing to do with her.

Why couldn't she have made a "How to be a Tinker!" book or something?

Oh well.

Fortunately, most of the books here are clearly skill books. Curiously, most of them overlap.

All the different computer language books are just skill books for a general purpose Computer Programming skill, and it's the same for all the "how to" books about Windows X, Y, and Z or Microsoft Office, them specifically netting a general Computer Operator skill.

The few books on typing also give a typing skill of course, and together with Speed Reading and the Computer skill, it'll be incredibly effective.

They all seem both useful and practical on their own, and amazing together, but…

I think I should wait on them.

Unless I develop some Tinker powers, I don't see them becoming necessary in the near future.

It's not that I'm planning on ignoring them forever, but…

Seeing as some skills are based on activities I've been doing all my life and I'm not gaining things retroactively, if something is part of my normal schedule, why not try to pick up the skill then?

I have a Computer class at school first thing, I play around with Basic as a member of the advanced class, and I plan on going back there on Monday. I'm bound to pick up at least one if not all of these skills there from just day to day activities in that one class.

Going by that logic, it makes sense to cast a wider net by avoiding skills I can gain from just going to school.

So for now, I'll ignore the computer books, and look for other skills.

After a few scans at eye level, I glance upwards and my eyes catch something on the top shelf.

Sign Language for Everyone by Cathy Rice?

Observe.

A skill book for Language: ASL?

Huh. That's the first time I've seen a sort of hierarchy inside of a skill title. I guess that means Language itself is a skill of some type, with different kinds of languages fitting underneath its umbrella.

Hmm.

I could probably grab several language primers here if that's the case. I wonder why I don't have an English skill, but honestly, it's not important.

American Sign Language though…

Thinking about where I can use it, I can't help but smile.

Why not? It's not something I'll pick up in school and it's basically free experience points.

Who knows, maybe I can pull off a Miracle on 34th street in my hero career? While I'm not likely to run into any deaf kids with Panacea living here, it's still a possibility.

Eventually, when I do run into someone who's deaf, it'll come in handy.

I grab the book and move on with my search.

Before I can find a new book, my mind wanders again back to today's horrible revelation.

I sigh. I almost distracted myself from it again.

Beyond actually knowing her identity, the whole talk with Uncle Alan did lead me to believe that Emma's new attitude can be entirely blamed on her.

Sophia Hess, the 'heroine' Shadow Stalker, is responsible for all of this.

I'm going to have to keep that in mind whenever I do confront them.

At least the situation doesn't feel so insurmountable anymore.

Without all the emotional baggage holding me down, everything's so much clearer. It makes getting things done so much easier.

Before this week, I never let myself dwell on this. I went to school, endured, came home, did my best not to think about any of it, and then came back the next day.

I just sat there and took it.

Sure, I tried in the first few months to reason with Emma and ask the teachers for help, but when those went nowhere, I gave up.

Last fall I started writing the journals, but that's not exactly being proactive is it?

But now, without my depression holding me back, I did more today about the bullying then I have in the entire last year.

Uncle Alan and Aunt Zoe, people I thought I would never see again, are actually going to look into Emma's behavior.

Things might actually get better for once!

At least where she's involved for sure.

I just have to figure out what to do about Sophia the fucking hero, Shadow Stalker.

No.

That's wrong.

She's just Shadow Stalker.

She's no hero.

Knowing Sophia first hand, I don't think she went out of her way to save people because it was the right thing to do.

I think she just hurts criminals because she can.

She's just an angry vigilante who hurts acceptable targets, not a hero who saves people.

The only reason she got chained to the Wards is because she did something stupid and got arrested for it.

Nothing really changed as far as Winslow is concerned. I just know now that she's a bully on a grander stage. That's all.

A bully with super powers, but a bully nonetheless.

This whole thing has even soured my opinion of our branch of the Protectorate for recruiting her.

What kind of group sees her as hero material?

Sure, it's tempered by the knowledge that she was forced into being a Ward on pain of jail time, but even with that making it at the least a little bit more palatable, it's still something that bothers me. It bothers me a lot actually.

Ugh.

I'm being biased.

No matter how I look at her or what she does as a cape, I'm always going to see her with victim-tinged glasses.

Given the crime in town, I have to admit it's practical to use what resources you have.

At least the PRT and Protectorate are keeping her on a short leash, and they know about her problems.

I guess my main issue with her being recruited comes down to one thing.

Do they know about Winslow, about her behavior there?

Brandish, a real hero, called it aggravated assault. That has to break her probation.

...Is that why the police just stopped their investigation for such a flimsy reason? So the PRT could protect their precious Ward so they can use her where they need her?

Am I just acceptable collateral?

I shake my head.

No.

I'm jumping to conclusions because I'm still mad.

I might be mistaking incompetence for malice.

I can't do anything about this now but worry and fret.

I should just focus on what I can do and put this mess off until Monday when I'm face to face with them.

Hmm.

Well, that's one downside to Gamer's Mind.

When I see Sophia on Monday, I'll have the inhuman self-control to stop myself from decking her right in the face.

Okay, I need to be productive right now.

I have a mana bar that I have no idea what to do with.

I'm surrounded by tens of thousands of books.

Let's find a book to help with my mana.


I close the front door of my house, and sigh in frustration.

Unlike this morning, I could no longer level sprint efficiently without a costume.

I went over my skills before I left the library, and given I can now Sprint at a maximum speed of thirty-six miles per hour for over ten minutes, it's clearly a parahuman ability. I'm no Velocity, but I can now outrun every Olympic runner in history.

Sure, I can Sprint at a slower speed, but since the skill isn't being pushed to its limit, I barely get any experience for it anymore.

I do have my Egyptian skin that makes me look and sound like an entirely different person, a form I could use to out myself willy nilly in public to keep leveling different skills…

But I don't think that's the smartest move without an actual costume or more skins.

I'd rather have more buffers between myself and my hero identity before I do something like that.

For now, the best way to level Sprint is to practice somewhere like the Trainyard. It's a large place that's mostly abandoned and empty, so it would give me plenty of room to run, away from the prying eyes of a city's worth of cell phones.

Another annoyance: at the library, there's a maximum number of books that you can check out at a time.

It differs a little from place to place, but for Brockton Bay's Central Library, the limit is one hundred books.

I would have loved to have checked out a hundred skill books.

But, thinking about it for more than a second, I knew that would have been a terrible idea.

A teenage girl checking out a hundred books at once would be suspicious. Any group that pays attention to that sort of thing would probably investigate me as a possible Thinker.

And I don't want anyone to do that.

Sure, Tinkers are the bigger force multiplier, but Thinkers are a boost to whoever has them in their own way. Knowledge is power, and proper intelligence can make all the difference.

For the sake of subtlety and to avoid conscription, I forced myself only to check out what I could reasonably carry in one trip… sans Inventory.

Going back for more books after dropping off one arm load would also raise eyebrows, so in the end I left with only seven books.

I chose the books such that they gave the impression I was just hunting for a new hobby. They weren't something way out there like quantum physics or relativity textbooks. Besides, those weren't actually skill books…

The books I checked out are all circulating, so I have three weeks to read them before either getting an extension or returning them.

I'm sure I can get away with returning them in a week without it looking too weird, but if there's a different shift in charge, they shouldn't notice too much. Besides, I only have to deal with an actual librarian when checking books out.

Too bad I can't really use my skin for this. I need a photo ID to get a library card, and when it comes to paperwork, my Egyptian self doesn't exist.

...Maybe I'm being paranoid about this, but I'd rather be safe than sorry.

There are ways I can streamline this in the future: I can always drag Dad along and have him carry some too or switch it up by going to different libraries.

Sooner or later, my Speed Reading skill will be leveled to the point that I can read everything from just glancing through the books so eventually all this cloak and dagger will be pointless, but for now, I can't be too careful about outing myself.

In my room, I take each book out of my inventory and place it on my desk.

Quilts! Quilts! Quilts!: The Complete Guide to Quiltmaking, Sign Language for Everyone,The Stanislavski System: The Professional Training of an Actor, Balancing and Sport Acrobatics, Parkour and Freerunning Handbook, Complete Idiot's Guide to Ventriloquism, and Meditation for Beginners.

The big one is Meditation, because it deals directly with mana.

Unfortunately, it's the only book in my hunt today that does.

If anything gives me an insight on how to use mana, this one will be it. The problem is that it doesn't actually use mana. It only helps me regenerate it faster.

So, it could be a dud and I might need to find something else to figure it out, but…

Depending on how it works, it might just do the job.

Mana is some form of energy. Magic hoopla or not, my power's very nature makes whatever mana is somewhat quantifiable, and the closest comparison I have is it being some nebulous "pool" of energy.

This "pool" or better yet, "battery," has been full as long as I've been aware of it. I haven't used any of it yet, but I know it's also gotten larger every time I level up or gain more intelligence. It's getting bigger and bigger.

In games, the mana bar holds an amount of energy that gets used up and is slowly charged back to full. I'm not using my mana right now, but it's possible I'm actively connected to whatever regenerates it. My "battery" is effectively always plugged into a wall.

So, I don't know what the "power grid" here is, but I have to be connected to some greater source of energy to recharge...

As my "battery" gets bigger, that connection to whatever source of energy should also be stronger, and especially so while I meditate.

Hopefully, even while I'm full of mana, that connection should still exist.

If there's any moment I should be able to feel and use my mana, that would be the time.

Given that all aspects of my power so far have had some form of physical connection to myself, and this is the only skill I have that has any impact on my mana directly, I should feel something when I use it.

...Sure, this is all a big guess, but it's my best one right now.

I check my clock: Two-Forty-Eight PM.

I pick up the Meditation book and flip to the end.

It's thin, only ninety-nine pages.

I should easily be able to read through this before Dad gets home, and get in some meditation practice.

Well, better get started.


Your "Speed Reading" skill has increased by 1!

For insightful reading, your Wisdom has increased by 1!

You have read the skill book [Meditation for Beginners]. You learned the Meditation skill!

[Meditation (active) Lv 1 EXP 00.00%]
A skill used to recover Mana. With more
mastery, more mana can be recovered.
Cannot be used while moving or doing another action.
20 MP gained per minute.


I close the book, look up, and blink as the knowledge funnels into place. I know how to meditate now. The posture, the breathing, and the focus I need…

But that book… unlike the First Aid skill book... That was… different.

Very different.

The First Aid handbook was very much a no-nonsense manual. There were guides, lists, step-by-step processes. It even had anagrams to remember in emergencies, like the ABCs: airway, breathing, and circulation.

This Meditation guide? There's a lot of flowery language, and next to no technical information. Sure, it does have a few chapters on what to do and how to focus, but after that? It's mostly focused on emotional and spiritual concerns.

Going through this book felt more like I was reading a hippie's guide to meditation rather than a PhD's.

Even so, it's the most spiritual book I've read that has had any sort of impact on me.

Spiritual… Religious… The two terms to me have always been quasi-synonymous.

I've always been kind of agnostic, simply because I've never cared about religion. The same with both Mom and Dad. We've never been to church outside of holidays or done anything particularly religious together. Honestly, I like the concept that one day after I'm dead, I'll be able to see Mom again… but…

No.

It's not something I can actively believe or put my hopes on.

Maybe the afterlife exists. Maybe it doesn't.

But I'd rather focus on the here-and-now than try to meander through the constant back and forth of "Our god is real! No, our god is real!" crap to figure out which religion is the one for me.

Even then, it's not like it would do much for me.

The Triumvirate and even the Golden Man himself haven't fixed all of the world's problems, so if a god or messiah does exist, they'll have to do a whole hell of a lot before I ever consider worshiping them.

But this book isn't the typical religious stuff I hear about. There's segments about moving on and letting go of the past. Getting rid of your tethers to events or emotions that hold you down and prevent you from being the kind of person you want to be.

It's all very internal and about self-improvement. Sure, the book does says that meditation doesn't require me to be spiritual, but given all the stuff about personal enlightenment, dharma, and loving-kindness…

It's the most contact I've ever had with any religious material. It's definitely more connected to Eastern religion than Western, but it's religious all the same.

And… it sounds really good to me.

If I followed everything in this book… well, when's the last time I've had true peace of mind and could just live my life without worry? I don't know if I've ever felt like that, even before Mom's death…

There was always something to be afraid of, something to worry about, something that filled me with anxiety, however minor. Getting rid of all that?

It sounds… great. But I don't think I can do it. It requires steps I can't take.

There's an entire chapter on "forgiveness meditation" and a quote by some monk that states "Hatred never ceases by hatred, but by love alone is healed."

It's… nice and warm, but in practicality, I can't bring myself to think like that. As it is, I don't think I can even forgive Emma, let alone Sophia, and both of them are insignificant compared to the more heinous people in the Bay.

If someone ever hurt, or killed Dad… I'd probably hate them for the rest of my life. The idea of forgiving something of that magnitude...

I'm not that good a person.

Maybe one day? But now…

No.

I shake my head. I read this book to figure out my mana, not for a philosophy lesson with a side of self-help!

I've already gotten plenty of that just from my depression evaporating, so I need to focus.

This is all a step into me becoming a hero, and while some of the mentality in here isn't bad… I can't fix a city and fight crime with love, compassion, and goody-goody feelings alone.

Mana though? That might be my ticket to actual super powers, with an emphasis on "super."

It's the main energy source for practically all special abilities in RPGs. I have no idea what I could do with it, but if just punching gave me a skill on unarmed combat, playing around with mana should give me something with a lot more oomph.

And that's something that could help me make a real difference in this city.

What time is it?

Three-oh-one PM. Good, I should have a few hours before—

My head shoots back to the clock in shock.

...Did I just read a book in under fifteen minutes?

The fuck?

It took me over three hours to read the First Aid handbook.

I think about it for a moment.

Okay, the First Aid book was a bit of a dry read, my mind wandered a few times away from the text, and there were some examples I acted out, but…

The difference shouldn't be that dramatic? Right?

Sure, this Meditation book is interesting, but if I knew I could read the book that fast, I would have just read the damn thing at the library!

I purse my lips.

No, no.

This book is thin, had a relatively big font, and isn't extremely technical. Not all books are going to be that quick to read, especially if I have to force myself to chug through it.

This is probably still the safer option for the time being. Until I can read a book from literally flipping through it, it's probably better for me to check them out and read them at home.

I'm already not looking forward to reading the quilts book…

Making a costume for myself is definitely something I'm interested in. The reading I'll have to do to learn the skill?

Not so much.

Well, if I'm ahead of schedule, I might as well use it.

I walk over to my bed, put my pillow in the middle, and sit on it, my back to the wall. I cross my legs, knees pointing down. Posture is important, so I keep my back straight. I place my hands in my lap and close my eyes.

Then, I just breathe.

In.

Out.

In.

Out.

Good.

It's an active skill, so once I'm fully comfortable…

Meditation.

The outside world sort of… dims.

It's still there, it's just not where my focus is.

I'm focused on me and me alone.

The outside world, it's just background noise.

The beating of my heart, the air flowing through my lungs, the minute shiftings of my body, and the myriad sensations flowing over me: that's where my attention is.

Meditation is about awareness of self.

For this moment, I'm focused on my body.

I'm not focusing on my emotions or my spirit…

Do I even have a spirit? Mana is like this nebulous energy source, so maybe? Or is it a soul? Are they the same thing? Different? It's something I've—

I let the thought drift away and focus back on my breathing.

The mind wanders. It's normal. It happens all our lives. As long as I remember to drag my mind back to what's important, I can progress.

That training of refocusing on the present is how I get better at meditating.

Because that's what Meditation is. It's constantly training that awareness of the present. Being mindful of the current now. Not tying yourself to memories, imaginations, or fantasy. Not drifting beyond now into past or future, but staying in the present.

Me. Here. Breathing.

That's what's important.

I have to focus on it.

Because somewhere inside me, there is my mana.

It's a pool… battery of energy special to me.

I know I have it. I just can't feel it.

I have to change that. I have to become aware of it, and feel it inside me.

So, I breathe.

In.

Ba bump

Out.

Ba bump

In.

Ba bump

Out.

Ba bump

I focus on my breathing and my heart.

...

I focus.

Focus.

...

I hear something.

No…

I feel something.

There's… this substance, and it feels like it's moving from my head… to the center of my torso?

And it's… swirling there.

Is that just my blood flowing from my head to my heart?

Wait.

Blood doesn't flow like that.

There's no pumping of an organ. No arteries or veins, it just flows like water down a river from my head directly in a line to my chest.

And the river suddenly just doubled in size!

In shock, I open my eyes and place a hand on my chest.

The channel from my head to my torso shrinks to a fraction of what it was.

Clearly, I'm no longer meditating, but the sensations inside me are still there. God, how could I not feel that before!

It feels like... static electricity, but… on the inside of my body! That feeling of energy in my chest is... weird, but oddlyright.

I blink a few times. It got dark.

I check my clock. Five Forty-Three PM.

Huh. Was I really out of it for that long?

I turn my eyes forward, and notice three boxes in front of me.

Your "Meditation" skill has increased by 1!

Achievement Unlocked: A First Step into a Larger World
Reward: Mana Awareness Perk

[Mana Awareness]
Allows the user to feel the flow of Mana
within themselves, making it easier to
use and manipulate.

I place both hands on my chest. I can't feel anything different through them, but separately, I can feel the thrumming energy inside me. It's as if the energy is a limb unto itself.

This sensation… this is my Mana.

Okay… So how the hell do I use it?

...

It's in my torso, so… what about moving a little bit of it to my hand?

I place a hand out in front of me, cupping it as if I'm about to hold something.

Unconsciously, like moving any limb, trickles of energy slide away from the maelstrom in my chest through my body. They snake along the inside of my arm and then…

My hand starts glowing, and suddenly my room is awash in azure light.

A smile begins to form on my face.

I focus. The energy in my hand is no longer connected to my battery of Mana and the glow of my hand coalesces into a single point.

A tiny blue star floats above the palm of my hand.

Wow. I made this. I made this.

As I stare at the small glowing sun, I see it begin to contract.

Then it expands back to normal.

Then it contracts again.

And it repeats this several times, and I can feel it. In wonder, I bring the hand holding the orb of light up to my face and stare as it shifts.

It's like a tiny glowing heart.

The shifting gets faster and faster.

Listening to it carefully, I can almost hear its tiny beats.

The shifting gets even more rapid.

No… it's not beating. The noise is more like...

Suddenly it stops shifting, and expands to twice its original size.

...a beeping?

The orb in my hand explodes in a blast of light and smoke, sending me falling back!

My head hits the wall by my bed with a bang.

I blink, and then cough, a puff of smoke exiting my mouth and mingling with the smoke coming off of my face.

Ow.

A skill has been created through a special action.

Through practicing the use of unstable mana, a skill to create magic explosives, "Energy Bomb", has been created!

I sigh.

Okay, I deserved that.


AN: Hey guys. First things first, I edited Chapter 6. Gamer's Mind and Gamer's Body are now retconned as Perks to be more consistent with my own Gamer Setup.

It simply makes sense given how unique they are and how I'll treat passive boosts that aren't leveled in the future like Mana Affinity. Yay for consistency in logic.

Second, sorry for the delay guys.

Life just kept me busy: Several projects at work, Black Belt Camp, my computer failing to boot, etc.

The chapter actually has been finished for over a week, I just haven't had time, nor my betas, to really edit it in full. Given the above change was made sometime last week, I do think that holding on to it was worth it until I was ready to release.

Besides that, hopefully I can get the next chapter out sooner.

Thank you to my Betas: Hometruck, Demifailure, and Munchkinomatic. You guys help polish my chapters, and I'm very grateful for your help.

See you readers next time!