As she spoke, she noticed the man's eyes. They were wild, seeming to almost glow in the early-morning light. She felt that this meant something, but precisely what it was evaded her.
"Yes, Miss Woods. You can."
"No. At least, I can't imagine you would, knowing my brother."
Something tickled in the back of her mind. "Oh, wait, you aren't-"
He interrupted before she could finish the thought. "James's older brother, yes. Lane Woods. I'm sorry to drop in on you like this, it's just that I found myself back in Sunset Valley with nowhere else to go."
"No, no, it's no problem. You don't have to stand out in the rain, come in."
"It must have been hard for you, for the past year, with the attacks," she said, testing her recall.
Her eyes widened reflexively. How did he know? She fought to keep her expression under control and her voice steady as she replied. "What do you mean?"
"I'm not sure how I can help, but I'll do whatever I can. Are you hungry?"
"So," she said, once she had gotten him a plate of waffles. "How did you know?"
"Mm? Know what?" He stopped eating momentarily, looking up to her as she spoke.
"About me being a witch. What gave it away?"
"Oh, that. Nothing you have to worry about, from humans at least. It's because I'm a werewolf, so I could smell it on you. All supernaturals can sense others, though it varies depending on what type you are. I worked with a fae girl once who said that her kind saw auras, when they looked at other supernaturals."
He nodded, chewing and swallowing before he replied. "Yes. That's the wolf in me."
"It actually makes a lot of sense, knowing that. I always wondered why I could feel the ghosts coming. It's because I'm a witch, obviously, so I can just sense them..." she trailed off, noticing the look on Lane's face as he put down his fork. "What?"
"It doesn't work on ghosts. Nobody can feel them coming, not ever. The first hint you get is when they make their move against you."
"No, I believe you, but that's not normal. It must be nice, though, to have a warning."
"It is. I guess I'm just lucky."
"I don't believe in luck. It's fate, has to be. You have this sense for a reason."
"What, like some benevolent god up there in the sky gave me this power to save the world or something?" A sarcastic smile twisted her lips, as Lane shook his head.
"No, that's not what I'm saying. Not anything religious like that, I'm the last person to set foot in a church. I just think that things happen for a reason. Everything's connected, and there's altogether too much order in the world for things to be ruled entirely by chance." Noting her expression, he gave a light shrug. "Agree to disagree, I guess."
"Mmhmm. So, what are you going to do now?"
"Huh? What's that about?" She didn't know much about werewolf social structures, but pack was supposed to be important.
"I wasn't born a werewolf, or bitten. I took it upon myself to seek the transformation, using alchemy. I succeeded, but it turns out that it means I'm not a real wolf, to every pack I've encountered at least. My partner was also a human, which further excluded me. They wouldn't have taken me unless I'd turned him, which I never would have done. He might have agreed if I'd asked, but it would have been wrong, and I could never have done that to him, even though it meant living on after he was gone." As he spoke, his expression turned to sadness as the memories affected him.
"It's in the past now, don't worry about it."
The breakfast table fell silent for a few long moments as Epsilon thought. And then, she had the answer.
"Safe at night?" His expression was disbelieving. "Do you have a bridge to sell me, as well?"
"I'm serious. My brother was attacked on the first night, but he managed to stay safe there. You won't be able to come and go freely unless I hack the genetic lock my father put on the door, but you'll be safe there. When you're done eating, I'll show you."
That afternoon, Epsilon received a call from work - they needed her to come in early, and meet with Mr. Olivers. She'd been hoping to finish helping Lane move into the catacombs, but she got the impression that this was definitely not an optional meeting. After arriving at the science facility and signing in at the front desk, she made her way to his office and knocked.
She entered, keeping her annoyance at having her afternoon interrupted hidden. "You wanted to see me?"
"Ah, yes, Miss Woods. Please, have a seat." He waved to the chairs in front of his desk, and she sat, watching him as he finished up what he was typing. Soon, he turned away from the computer, giving her a warm smile. "I hear you've been very productive."
"Saving the world, and all that. The day we have a working production model can't come too soon! Any progress on the...ah, technical difficulties?" He waved a hand vaguely in the air as he continued speaking. "I read your report, but I must say all of that technical stuff goes right over my head."
"In recent testing, it continues to perform perfectly in some trials, but malfunctions in others. We don't know why, but we're working on it. This sort of thing takes time, sir." It was getting extremely difficult to hide her lack of patience with this man - who thinks that managing a science corporation when you're scientifically illiterate is a good idea? - but for the sake of her work she tried her best.
"Time is, unfortunately, something we don't have." He leaned forward, lacing his fingers together. Great, now he was going to go in on the guilt trip, as if she didn't already know how many people were dying each night that she spent testing new solutions! "Maybe it's time to consider alternate approaches."
"We already have a working model! Changing our focus now would set us back months, if not years, considering we don't even know where to start!"
Of course. She knew better than to argue about that, but one thing about this puzzled her. "Why are you sending me? Wouldn't it be better to send an anthropologist or a historian? I don't know the first thing about Egyptian history or culture."
Epsilon had never traveled internationally before, but due to her corporate connections her hastily-scheduled flight went smoothly. Soon enough, she was boarding a bus from the airport to the camp she'd be staying at in Al Simhara.
"Law samahti!" she called out, trying to recall what little of the foreign language she'd managed to study from the phrasebook. As she struggled for the next words, she peeked down at where she'd written a short cheat sheet on her map. "Mabatkallemš arabi kwayyes. Betetkallem Simlish?"
"Yes, sorry. I'm looking for a woman who lives around here. Aanesa Layla, do you know her?"
"That depends. Who is asking?" Her demeanor remained pleasant, but Epsilon felt as if the woman's piercing gaze was judging her every movement as she replied.
"My name is Epsilon Woods. I'm a scientist, sent from Sunset Valley to study the local successes regarding controlling ghosts through the game of Senet."
Epsilon stammered as she responded, confused by the repeated question. "I just told you."
"No, you didn't." Layla regarded Epsilon with an inscrutable expression. "I know who sent you, but you wouldn't have agreed to it unless there was another, deeper reason."
Epsilon nodded. "You're right. I didn't want to come at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was necessary. I lost my father in the initial attack, and I even nearly lost my own life that same night. It was pure luck that saved me. I want to bring back knowledge that can help me create something to keep the people I love safe."
"I doubt you will."
Layla watched Epsilon for a long moment, her eyes taking in every detail from the way her fists had unconsciously clenched to the stubborn set of her jaw. "I understand. Very well. Meet me in the market at four past noon. In the meantime, I suggest you remain in the shade, away from the hot midday sun. It can be devastating to those who are not used to it."
Epsilon spent the first part of the afternoon under the shaded shelter at the camp. Layla had been right, the midday sun was brutal here. The long robes the native women wore seemed much more suited to the climate, and Epsilon thought that if she was staying here for longer than a few days she might have to adopt the fashion herself. As the sun moved downwards across the sky, she prepared herself for the meeting.
Layla was waiting for her, and didn't waste any time. "Good, you've arrived. Tell me, do you play the game of chess?"
"Little. But I'd enjoy a game. Come." She led the way to a corner shop, and the two women sat down on opposing sides of a stone-carved chess table.
"White moves first. Ask your questions."
"She moves quickly, sure of the game," Layla remarked, looking at the board thoughtfully. "We will see if she knows as much as she thinks she does. Yes, I do." She moved a knight in response to Epsilon's pawn - not an opening move the other woman was familiar with. The silence stretched on for several moments, until it was obvious that Layla would say nothing more.
"Well, can you explain it to me?" Epsilon tried hard to keep her exasperation from her voice, though she suspected she hadn't quite succeeded. She moved her first pawn's twin to stand next to it.
"Can the fish explain to the bird the wonders of swimming? I will try. I can only hope that I will succeed. What do you know of Senet?"
"That is incorrect."
"How can you know how the game is meant to be played if everybody who knew how has been dead for thousands of years?"
"The dead may have woken with a vengeance, but they were not always asleep. Even when the veil remained intact, some souls slipped through, apparent to those with the proper gifts. And so we learned."
"The veil? What are you talking about?" Epsilon could barely focus on the unfolding chess match as she tried to digest what Layla was saying.
"Alright," Epsilon centered herself, trying to focus on the game while still continuing the conversation. "So, tell me. How does this game work?"
"The exact rules are unimportant. The objective is to reach your End, while blocking your opponent from reaching their own. Traditionally, the game was seen as an important step along the path to the afterlife." Layla captured another one of Epsilon's pieces, though she hardly cared at this point; she just wanted to keep the Egyptian woman talking.
"I'm still not following how this works. I didn't have much information."
"I understand. I'm doing my best to explain. When the ghosts rise, you must challenge them. You must play the game carefully and precisely. And you must lose."
"Yes. Why wouldn't we?" Layla seemed confused by the question.
"I didn't know that ghosts were that intelligent."
"Why wouldn't they be? Death does not dull their intelligence. Now, you must play a good game, simply giving up would be no good. But, in the end, you must concede, so that your opponent may take the victory, and begin to re-trace their steps to the afterlife. Do you understand?"
"I think I might, at least the what. But I don't understand why. What's the science behind it?"
"Does there have to be science behind it?" Layla took another of Epsilon's pieces, emotionless as she knocked the stone-carved bishop from the board.
"It would be best if there was something I could take back to my boss. Look, I believe you that this works. Maybe there's not even a logical explanation. Maybe it's magic. I'll accept that. But I need something to show for my trip here."
Layla nodded slowly. "I knew there was something about you. You know there's more to the world than what science shows."
Epsilon inched back in her chair, suddenly wary of the other woman. "What do you mean, something about me?"
"The blood of the Genu flows in my veins. Not strong, for it was only a distant ancestor, but still. Sometimes, I sense things, as I sensed you."
"Um," Epsilon frowned. "The Genu? What?"
"Thank you, for your time. And the game."
"Thank you, Aanesa Epsilon. I hope it was enlightening. And now, I must return to my home before nightfall. Farewell."
Epsilon ordered dinner in the market, lost in her thoughts as she ate.
Epsilon yawned as she descended the stairs to the crypt, fighting against the jet lag that had plagued her since her arrival back in Sunset Valley.
A reply came from further inside the crypt, breaking Epsilon out of her thoughts. "In the second chamber!"
Lane dismissed that with a wave of his hand. "I made do, don't worry about it. What did you find out? Or can't you tell me?"
"I didn't sign a NDA, so I can tell you. I didn't find out much, it seemed to be much more magical than scientific, which won't go over well with my boss." She settled down on the couch - the same one that had once been in James's room - next to Lane as she spoke.
"In what way?"
"The materials. Metals?" He frowned slightly as he concentrated.
"Yes. Copper and gold. Why?"
"But even so, we've come back around to magic again."
"No, we haven't." He grinned, a wild, wolfish grin, as he continued. "Magic is just the word we use for science that we don't understand yet. So, go understand it, witch-scientist."
~ * ~
Yes, it's Lane! No, I didn't roll help for this generation. I needed him conveniently nearby for story purposes, but he's not staying in the legacy home in my game. Besides, like he said, he's an old wolf - he dies before generation 4 makes its appearance. Even with that untimely death, he still outlived the rest of generation 2 by at least two weeks, thanks to his being a werewolf.
I originally had a long conversation during the breakfast scene in which Lane insisted that there was too much order in life for life paths to be the result of pure chance, citing most of the things that are rolled for randomly in this challenge. It didn't add to the story, though, so I edited it down to what you see here. It's still an ironic conviction of his, considering the challenge in which he resides.
For those who missed the reference, Lane's bridge comment refers to this. I'm not sure how common that reference is outside of the US, so I want to make sure international readers aren't completely confused as to why Lane is apparently a bridge salesman now!
This chapter was so late because I was doing a ridiculous amount of research on Senet, the Book of the Dead, and various Egyptian burial practices, almost none of which was actually used(because Epsilon is a scientist, not a historian, haha). C'est la vie.
This chapter continued to be late(like, 3 weeks after I wrote the last excuse about it being late in the draft!) because I had a terrible case of writer's block when it came to Layla Lufti. I just could not get into her head. I originally tried to write her as something she wasn't, and she didn't like that one bit. I finally found her song, and that helped. Still can't believe I spent so long trying to figure out a one-off character. :\