Mimics & Murder

Matthias, you should have realized this sooner. Much sooner! Matthias reprimanded himself as he lay with a gaping wound across his belly. The star Adventurer group known as Silver Flame was known for recruiting newbies and testing them, and sometimes they failed. Sometimes they didn’t adventure again. But those who survived the first few dungeons often went forward to become local legends. Now Matthias knew why– it wasn’t because the Silver Flame were nurturing these newbies, it was because the newbies who survived must have had incredible reflexes or other means.

The Silver Flame recruited new people so that they would enter the dungeon first. The newbies would be the ones triggering traps, finding the monsters lurking in the dark.

The Silver Flame used them as gods-damned meat shields!

Matthias had already dug through his pack trying to find supplies. The group hadn’t provided him with much, since their healer was ‘top notch’. Not such a great healer if she was leaving Matthias to die!

Matthias had fallen for a Mimic, or, rather, he had been told to open the chest that he had somewhat suspected was a mimic. He had been told they cast a spell to check, but of course they hadn’t. They wanted to save all of their MP for the more dangerous creatures.

They simply froze the Mimic with an ice potion after it gored Matthias, and they walked on without giving him another glance.

The only thing left in his pack was food. Damn. Wouldn’t do him any good without the stomach to digest it. Matthias laughed at the irony, causing a wave of agonizing pain.

For one last little joke, Matthias tossed the roasted goat haunch into the Mimic’s mouth. Maybe when it unfroze it’d enjoy the treat and not desecrate his corpse too much.

Though Matthias couldn’t recall closing his eyes, it must have happened at some point, and he felt himself brushing the space between worlds, like a wall made of cool water. He managed a small, sad smile before placing his hands on the wall, preparing to trudge through–

Pain. An agonizing bolt of pain. He tried to scream, but the noise died in his throat.

“Wha-?” He managed. Beside him was the Mimic, having somehow produced a single feather from a Phoenix. From where, he had no idea.

The feather had brought him back to life, but hadn’t healed him completely. He sat perfectly balanced on the verge between passing out again, and being in too much pain for that to happen.

The Mimic used its bizzarrely large tongue to scooch closer to Matthias. It whined, sounding almost like a dog.

“Oh. Well, thank you.” Matthias groaned, putting out his hand.

The Mimic gave it a lick, then morphed into the shape of a healing potion. Matthias laughed, as best as he was able. “I’m afraid taking the form of a potion and being a potion are two different things.”

The Mimic seemed to at least partially understand. In a moment, it had transformed into a needle and thread.

“I’m not sure anyone has ever had a monster heal them before.” Matthias said, but when he reached for the windfall friend’s ‘body’, something in him re-opened, and darkness snatched him back up in a mere heartbeat.

The Mimic grew frustrated. This was the first human that had shown it any sort of kindness. The first human who had done anything other than attack it. The food that had been placed in the Mimic’s mouth had given it the energy to recover from the ice potion, and the Mimic wasn’t sure it would’ve survived without.

The Mimic made up its mind. There was a shortcut it could use, and if it mimicked the form of a Minotaur, it would have no trouble carrying the scraggly lad with the sad smile.

Quickly, Matthias’s body was presented to the host of the lair. Her form was like silk and smoke, obsidian and ink. The Goddess Samaya, she who presided over death, time, and decay. Dethroned and somewhat diminished, but still well beyond the means of the bloodthirsty adventurers who were headed her way.

Yet, here was one of her minions with just such an adventurer, asking for help. Samaya considered it for a few moments, but upon the Mimic’s insistence that the adventurer wanted to live, she withdrew the presence of death from his body.

In exchange, of course, he would now have to slay the adventurer’s party before they reached her.

Nialghas The Necromancer Pt.III

Luise awoke to a calm, shining sun. The insane heat of the previous day had moved along, and in its place was a perfect morning from which she could begin to pack and prepare for her journey home. She took her time with a leisurely breakfast, shower, and a solid ten minutes in front of the mirror wondering if she should dye her hair brown again. The red was often used as a talking point for people looking to start conversations, and she loathed every minute of it.

As per her usual, Luise ignored her cellphone until the last possible minute. When she finally and reluctantly opened it, she expected anxious texts from Camilo, an apology from Nialghas, and a series of unimportant questions from her mother. 

There were no messages, not even from Camilo.

Luise considered that for a moment, but was confident that at the very least, Eroll and Nialghas were able to get themselves out of trouble just as readily as they always hopped into it.

She continued the almost ritualistic process of preparing for another trip home– her family, though she loved them dearly, were very predictable. She would arrive, be offered sweet tea, ushered inside the house, asked how living in the ‘godless north’ was going, they’d complain that she’d lost too much weight, ask if she had met any nice boys…then the guys would get bored of sitting still and go for a ride on their dirtbikes, and Luise would join them, and she’d get filthier than she ever did at work, but she’d have a blast.

She knew all of this would happen, but she was still somehow looking forward to it, even the 101 questions.

Luise had timed her vacation just slightly off with her grocery shopping however, and realized now that she had nothing fresh for her lunch or dinner, and nothing that could realistically be cobbled together to make a proper meal. Once again hopping in her car, she drove to the supermarket, and found the place unusually busy. Everyone seemed to be in a rush, too. Luise was not an idiot, she could feel that something was amiss. Was it a disease outbreak? Martial law? War? Luise considered the danger in front of her, shrugged, and decided she was equal to whatever danger the grocery store could throw at her.

The chaos was a little worse within, and no one was making eye contact. Some people were outright stealing and running out of the store.

“Is it the fucking Four Horsemen or what?” Luise asked an employee.

“Panic. Some reports about violence from downtown, might be gang related, not really sure of the details. Heard lots of different stuff. I think they’re all just panicking.” The woman stocking shelves said. “In a few days those cameras and the police department will track down all of our thieves.”

“Hmm.” Luise muttered before grabbing a few items- a salad mix, ground chicken, and a chocolate bar. She knew she should save her indulgences for her trip, but…just in case the world really was going to hell, she wanted one last Caramilk.

She paid, of course, before heading back to her car.

Then she saw the first one. Foaming at the mouth, skin blackened and ripe, lurching and leering at whichever person was closest. It also happened to be between her and her car.

Luise stood in shock for a moment before gritting her teeth and seething “Nialghas!” She wasn’t sure exactly what he and that book had to do with this, but it wasn’t nothing.

There had been a few moments in Luise’s life that called on her to act or die. A camping trip with the Girl Scouts that had gone wrong, a first-and-last experience in rock climbing up a real mountain, and, finally, the one time someone had tried to rob her at gunpoint. Luise had a bit of experience overcoming the deer in the headlights phenomenon. As the zombie locked eyes with her and began spastically approaching, Luise looked for anything she could keep it away with. A broken branch? No such luck. A brick, a rock, anything?!

Luise began to panic as the zombie got close. She turned and began to run, with the zombie choosing to chase her. At full speed, the zombie began to fall behind– but Luise couldn’t keep up her top speed forever, and it didn’t seem like the zombie was capable of getting tired. After a few hundred meters, Luise reached the far end of the parking lot where some construction had been going on. A dozen lengths of rebar were laying in a neat pile. “There!” Luise shouted, and lept to the other side of the pile. The zombie was gaining ground quickly, but not quickly enough. Using the rebar like a spear, Luise sunk the first length through the zombie’s stomach. It tripped and fell, and Luise added more rebar through its torso, legs, and arms, until it resembled a porcupine. She then took a quick video on her phone, and bashed its skull in. She returned to her car quickly, and locked the doors.

Then, and only then, did she allow herself to feel the panic she’d held at bay. She trembled, and punched the seat next to her, and screamed at how ridiculous it was that she’d just killed a goddamn zombie. After she’d stopped crying, she ate her chocolate bar, and sent the video to Nialghas.

Camilo had watched the original outbreak as it happened. He wasn’t in a perfect position for it, but a mass of what he guessed was thirty zombies had spilled out into the streets only a few blocks from where he was perched. It took him over two hours to connect that whatever Nial and Eroll had been up to may have been related. He had, originally, been very confident of his position atop the Library, but now he felt trapped. If he went down, there could be half a dozen of these zombie-like things waiting for him. His phone was dead. 

The first handful of people who noticed the pack of zombies didn’t make it out. Camilo covered his ears so he wouldn’t hear their screams. Police arrived eventually, as someone must have made it out, but bullets didn’t seem to do much unless it was a clean headshot, and their aim wasn’t all that good. Their perimeter wasn’t perfect either, so a few regular citizens who were more unobservant than the others ended up learning first hand that headphones and not watching where you were going was a bad combination.

Finally, around noon if Camilo’s internal clock was any kind of accurate, the police called an all-clear.

“Unbelievable.” Camilo scoffed as he descended. “I could’ve done that alone with a crowbar in half the time.”

Camilo returned to his empty home– no surprise there, his parents worked insane hours– and plugged his phone in before collapsing into his bed to try and nap. The screams still echoed in his ears, however, and no sleep came for him. He’d passed his information on to the authorities and they said they’d want a statement before long, but something in the back of Camilo’s mind told him that their idea of ‘normal life’ hadn’t been merely disrupted. It was over.

As soon as Camilo’s phone turned back on, he shot out some texts. He figured if he tried to call his phone could die again.

Luise had messaged him. Eroll had messaged him. His parents had sent him a warning about some kind of ‘gang violence’ downtown.

Nialghas was the only one who hadn’t said anything. 

Eroll, what the hell happened? Are you and Nial alright? The necromancy thing must’ve been real since a small horde of zombies kept me stuck on a freakin’ rooftop all night!

Eroll wrote back. Not sure what all I’m able to say. Nialghas is fine. Just stay indoors, especially at night.

How do we stop this? Camilo asked.

I’m not sure. Nialghas hasn’t explained thoroughly what all went on. I’ve had an idea. I’m going to use my parent’s credit card for the only thing it’s good for: setting up some security. You remember how to get to our beach house? It’s far enough out of the way that we should all be safe, I’m going to stock it full of food and the kind of weapons you can get without needing permits. Your parents should come too. I have a feeling that this isn’t over.

Camilo sent back a thumbs-up, and looked at Luise’s text.

Cam, weird shit going on. Don’t go out.

Well, not nothing new there.

Eroll wants to establish the beach house as our apocalypse bunker. Kinda crazy all those times we debated our zombie apocalypse plan and now we’re here scrambling lol

This isn’t an apocalypse, Luise replied. This is…well, I don’t know, but Nialghas probably does! Is he coming to the beach house too? I’ll get in contact with Eroll.

Camilo decided he wasn’t going to wait for Nialghas to finally answer his phone or to reach out. He had to go to his house and find him. Maybe he was in trouble.

Nialghas hadn’t moved in hours. His back ached from his improper posture, his pen was clutched so tightly in his hand that his muscles were burning, but he didn’t notice. This was the most important thing he had ever studied. He had learned just a few things so far– the Order that Eric Prospero had represented used various techniques to mimic magical ability, since magic itself would ‘stain the soul’. The Necrophos whose book Nialghas had stolen had no qualms with this, and touched magic directly. Nialghas would not need a potion for when he needed to walk in Spirit again, not with the technique he had come to understand. When he did, he could lay claim to stray souls and stuff them into corpses, to turn them into mindless laborers. He wasn’t sure he understood the ‘how’ on this one just yet. The town must have plenty of spare bodies with the zombies the Necrophos woman had unleashed, though. Had she unleashed them all? If so, the outside world would be chaos now.

Nialghas’s mind sparked within that train of thought, and a fire was lit. An idea of how to overcome the Necrophos using her own techniques, but improved upon. Nialghas wasn’t sure he could actually do this idea, but it gave him hope.

Nialghas was in such a rapture over his studies that he barely registered when Camilo burst through his front door.

“Nial! You home?!” He shouted.

“In back.” Nialghas responded.

“Where’s your mom? We’re all gathering at the beach house.” Camilo rounded the corner just as Nialghas tucked away his book.

“I sent her away. With the scarcest of details, of course, but she’ll see on the news soon enough.”

“Oh. Why aren’t all of us just running, then? And what exactly is going on?”

“I don’t want to explain everything, it would take a very long time. The person who made the zombies is after Eroll and me. We can’t flee, because she will chase us. She needs us dead. We saw too much– or, rather, I did, and Eroll was with me, and she knows it. I have a plan. Everyone else should be fine to run, though. So you and Luise definitely should.”

“No way I’m leaving you two behind. Luise is gonna head to Eroll’s, so maybe we should too, then we can figure this out and face it together.”

Nialghas nodded after a moment’s hesitation, and the two of them took Nialghas’s mother’s car toward the beach house.

Luise was meant to meet Eroll at a hardware store so they could take as many sledgehammers, axes, and other such useful instruments as possible and return them to Eroll’s place. He had already finished the grocery run.

Eroll did not arrive in time.

Luise had been there, certainly. Her car was there, as was a pile of four zombie corpses strewn about the parking lot. Her cellphone was on the cement, crushed. Luise herself, however, was nowhere to be seen.

Eroll’s stomach had knotted up tightly. He tried his best to keep cool, but hot, angry tears still sprung to his eyes as he considered what could have happened, each alternative darker than the last.

Finally, Eroll inspected Luise’s car, and on the driver’s side door there was a message written in blood.

Come get her, little thief.

Manmade Horrors Beyond Our Comprehension

Trigger Warning: Tragedy, baby loss

Aiden stared at the clouds, thinking carefully about what it might mean.

Simulation theory. Aliens. A bizarre prank perpetrated by some billionaire tech bro.

“10M Human Lifeforms Achieved! Please upgrade your membership to continue growing your civilization.” Read the script emblazoned on the midday sky.

Aiden was not a foremost scholar in physics or philosophy or any combination thereof that might hold an answer to what he saw. In fact, he was a man of meager means, who worked himself to the bone for every scrap he got. He began this life with an ‘upbringing’ in a dank foster home, experiencing neglect in every sense of the word, and the only thing he could muster as a silver lining was his very ardent work ethic. He knew that as long as he worked hard, he could make sure he never found himself in that kind of situation again– surrounded by indifferent people, with no agency to improve his life. Through hard work, he could keep himself afloat financially, and by working hard to improve his understanding of what ‘friendship’ meant, he also eventually learned what it meant to be a ‘boyfriend’, then ‘husband’, and now, any day now, ‘father’ was his latest lesson. 

Or…was it?

Aiden’s stomach began to twist into knots. What would it mean for his baby? For his pregnant wife? 

Medicine had come a long way, so old people weren’t dying at the rate they used to.

Aiden flinched. He was wishing old people would die? Even if it was to make room for his child, what kind of warped and rusted-out kind of conscience did he have, if that was his first train of thought?

Clenching his hand until he felt his fingernails draw blood, Aiden decided to stow the topic away until more information came out. Maybe it was just a prank. Maybe he was freaking out over nothing.

In two days time, it was confirmed that he was not, in fact, freaking out over nothing.

The news anchors tried to use the gentlest phrasing possible, but there really wasn’t a way to phrase mass miscarriages in a polite way. People began protesting, demanding the government find a way to meet the ‘upgraded membership’ condition. Older people hid away from the general public, afraid of what they may be asked, afraid of what they would be accused of, afraid of what might happen to them.

Society as Aimen and Sadia knew it did not last long– and with Sadia expecting any day now, Aimen felt the hardening around his heart beginning. Not the kind that comes from eating deep-fried Oreos, either.

“Don’t even think about it.” Sadia said, cutting through Aimen’s darkened countenance. He had been staring out of the hospital window as she waited for an ultrasound, trying to ensure that the child hadn’t already been lost.

“Don’t think about what?” Aimen asked, trying to put on a brave face.

“I know how desperately you’ve wanted a family, baby. Don’t. We’ll figure something out. The entire world is trying to figure this out. We’ll come up with something.”

Aimen sighed, but not the kind of sigh that was paired with relief. Instead, it felt as though the weight in his chest grew heavier. “Yeah. Yeah, you’re right. It’s…I’m just not in a good head space. Sorry. This is probably much harder for you than it is for me.”

“Not a competition.” Sadia said. Her voice was warm, but firm, almost like she was correcting a very endearing and frustrating puppy. “It sucks for everyone. We just need to keep it together and not do anything irrational while we wait.”

“I’ve never been good at waiting. I’m just going to clear my head real quick, can I get you something?”

“Apple juice, please.” Sadia said with a very faint smile. It had been her only craving throughout the entire pregnancy.

Aimen managed a half smile back, and he stepped outside.

He hadn’t made it more than ten feet before he heard the noise. The sound of a plastic pan hitting the ground, shouting, then the first scream.

Just down the hall, there was a man with all the fury in the world behind his eyes. Aimen had a very solid guess as to why.

The man was shouting, throwing things, and as Aimen approached, he saw the reflected sunlight off of some kind of metal in the man’s left hand.

Aimen rushed in, unthinking. He had never been the type to wait.

The next minute was compressed into just two moments– when Aimen tried to grapple the man from behind, and when he felt the sharp sting across his throat.

Nurses and Doctors came quickly, Security pinned the man down. Aimen didn’t feel the pain anymore, though he was vaguely worried. He realized that he was confused…and then he felt cold. Medicine hadn’t come that far after all, he guessed.

Aiden pushed open the Simulation Casket. His memories– his real memories returned to him.

The year was 2024. He wasn’t Aimen. He was a University student. He had signed up for a study. It was supposed to be about video game design.

Immediately, he threw up on the floor. The clash of what he had lived– a life that was almost as real as his own, come and passed, in what was probably just a few hours. The love he had felt for his wife. What was her name? He–

His dizzy vision slowly cleared. “What kind of Matrix bullshit was that?”

No one answered him. He wasn’t important enough to answer, apparently.

“Michael, clean up the mess. Aiden, there’s a shower just beyond that door. Please fill out the survey when you’re done.”

As reality sunk back in for Aiden, and he wrote a very precise review in the survey, he left Simulacrum Laboratories on shaking legs, and walked back to his dorm.

His neighbor was an electrician. Aiden went and spoke with him for a moment, asking to borrow a sledge hammer. Then he went to his dorm room, opened the mini-fridge, and drank a bottle of apple juice, before returning to the street, marching right back to Simulacrum Laboratories, sledge hammer in tow.

Aimen was not the type to wait.

Nialghas The Necromancer Pt.II

Luise considered, for a brief moment, following after Nialghas. Her more rational inclinations won out over her hot temper, and she made a right-hand turn to drop off Camilo.

“Wait, I want to see what’s going on!” He objected.

“They’re playing a dumb game, Cam. Let them cause a goddamn car accident and see if it makes them wise up.”

“Well- yeah, they’re being dumb, but isn’t that what friends are for? To stop you before you make mistakes?”

Luise grimaced. “In a perfect world, sure. You’ve seen how stubborn Nialghas gets when he finds a new project to fixate on. We could chain him up in your basement for weeks and he’d find a way to slip out and chase down this so-called ‘mystery’ regardless. The sad truth is that friends often don’t get to save their friends from making mistakes, we just…help console them after.” Her tone was learned, like she’d been down that road before, and very bitter.

Camilo didn’t fight it. He let himself be dropped off, and Luise gave him a brief hug before leaving. “I’m going on vacation soon, so call me if you need anything tomorrow, or if those idiots wind up in the hospital, okay?”

Camilo nodded, and as soon as she was out of sight, he began jogging towards what passed for ‘downtown’ in their small city. By now he stood very little chance of finding where they went, but at least he could wait to see if there were sirens or something. He couldn’t just do nothing.

Camilo went to the city library, which was two stories tall and had an accessible roof. He waited there until the sun went down, and lingered for a few hours more after that, seeing nothing, frustrated that neither Eroll nor Nial responded to his texts.

Nial’s mind was racing. There was too much gravity surrounding the man who came to retrieve his book for the word Necromancer to mean nothing. He had felt it as soon as he stepped into the storefront. The man he saw– he was just a bit shy of six feet tall, with at least two day’s worth of salt and pepper stubble on his neck and cheeks. His eyes were wary and cold. He was a serious person, not some fiction fanatic. Nial had never been a religious person, per se, but on some of his ‘trips’ with Eroll he had sworn he had brushed up against another world. Felt the cold metal that kept them apart. If there was any kind of truth to the existence of magic, he had to know.

Eroll was driving, and doing a fairly decent job of it. He had kept pace with the racing car, which had certainly noticed that it was being followed by now. The driver had elected to ignore them, it seemed.

Eroll was gripping the steering wheel with his full strength, his knuckles white. “Damn sun is in my eyes.”

“We’re almost to the solstice, the days will get longer soon.” 

Finally, the driver braked to a screeching halt in front of a parking garage…to pay the fee and enter. Eroll, of course, followed closely behind.

When he had parked, Eroll parked his car lengthways behind his car so there wouldn’t be any quick escapes on his part.

“I wanna talk.” Nial said as he hopped out.

“Whatever you think you figured out, you’re wrong. Whatever you think you want, stop it.” The man looked exasperated. “No one gave me this warning, and I wish they had. Fuck off, right now, in any direction, as long as it’s away from me.”

“I deciphered part of the book. I need to know.” Nial said, heedlessly.

“Buddy, grab your friend.” The man said to Eroll. “I’m serious, get away from me!” He seemed a little alarmed now.

“No. What’s happening two days from now? What else were you hiding in the book?” Nial crossed the space between them and the man began to backpedal. Nial, like a shark smelling blood in the water, lunged forward to grab on to the man.

Nial’s hand brushed the skin on the man’s neck as he tried to take him by the shirt, and something changed.

He told his hands to move forward, and they moved backward. He tried to look left, to look at Eroll, but he looked right. He tried to look down, and he looked up.

“What the hell?!” Nial shouted, tumbling onto his ass.

“I warned you. I warned you!” The man shouted, angrily.

Eroll approached and helped Nial stand. “What did you do?”

“I didn’t do a goddamn thing, and now your buddy is my fucking responsibility and it is not a good time.

“What’s happening to me?” Nial asked, sounding disoriented.

“You’re going to see soon enough.”

Nial looked down, causing his head to move up, and began to understand. Surrounding the man across from him was some kind of shimmering mirage, like steam or clear gas fumes.

“That’s my life force you’re seeing, enhanced by– at risk of sounding like a cosplayer, a potion. I was about to go stop a goddamn zombie apocalypse by walking through the spirit realm. My Order, however, has rules. Now that you’ve touched me, the effects of my potion have shed onto you somewhat. You have to come under my wing until such a time as you can join an apprenticeship in my order, or you die under my care. Which means you’re about to get a crash course in all things supernatural.”

“Zombie? Like…like TV. Like The Walking Dead?”

“Sure, close enough. They’re actually called Ghouls but whatever.”

Eroll looked back and forth between them. “You’re screwing with us.”

“Not at all, and in about ten seconds your buddy and I are going to stop moving, apart from drawing breath. Guard our bodies, we’ll be back in a few hours.”

True to his word, in just a few moments both of the men slowly flopped to the ground.

Eroll, thoroughly confused at the scenario but experienced in handling people as they were tripping, fireman carried the men one at a time into the back of his car. He pulled a blanket out of the trunk, and played mellow music…though that was now for his benefit more than theirs.

Hours passed. Eroll went from confused and nervous to downright paranoid. He habitually checked to make sure both of the men were still breathing, at least once every five minutes. 

Finally, the street lamps flickered on, and Nial took a deep, irregular breath.

“Easy, Nial. Easy. Do you remember where you are?” Eroll turned around in his seat to look at Nial directly.

“I’m fine, Eroll. I’m fine.” Nialghas slowed his breathing over the course of a minute. “Um. This guy…his name was Eric Prospero. He won’t be… he won’t be returning to his body.”

“He died?!” Eroll shouted.

“Quiet!” Nialghas chastised. “It’s not like that. Not entirely. We should get out of here.”

“Well– yeah, but what do we do with him?”

“Cameras saw all of us enter and none of us leave. Hmm. Put him in the front, we’ll drive out of here with him, then dump him. Cops will only come asking if someone reports him missing, which they won’t, and even if they do, we just met him once, gave him a ride and haven’t heard from him since.”

Eroll blinked hard twice, then smacked himself across the face. “Jesus. Okay. This is way over my head, man. What do you mean we’re gonna dump him? Like this body, this guy is dead? Isn’t he still breathing?”

“Nope, he stopped when he chose not to come back. Look, this guy? His body? It isn’t real. It’s basically a fabrication. Don’t sweat it, cops won’t come looking for answers, as long as no one finds the body.”

“I’m gonna be sick.” Eroll said, now unable to stop staring at the dead man’s body.

“Keep it together. And, as soon as we dump the body, it’s probably best if both of us just forget about this. What I saw over there…it’s fucked. This isn’t, like, Skyrim magic. It’s blood sacrifices and torture and a bunch of nasty stuff. We dump this guy somewhere, and leave this whole thing behind us.”

The notion that this evening could be quickly forgotten spurred Eroll out of his shellshock. “Okay, yeah. Where do we go?”

“Bunch of lakes south of town that are too small to have fish. We get some weight, tie him to it, and let the body take care of itself. Easy.”

“Where do we get the weight?”

“Mmm, I think I have enough leftover concrete mix from when mom and I were refinishing the basement.”

It ended up taking until the early hours of the morning, when the sun once again peaked over the horizon, but the body was disposed of. Not once, in his panicked and overexcited state, did Eroll notice the new leather-bound book that was now tucked into Nialghas’s pants.

Nialghas looked back on the evening after settling in at home. His mother hadn’t noticed him sneak in– his simple trick was to use the front door instead of the back. The back door was noisy. It was cliche to use the back door, or the windows. The front door, however, had an electronic password on it that he could use to come and go seamlessly. Plus, Nialghas had never given her reason to really worry about him before. She was sound asleep.

Everything had transpired so quickly in the short time he was away– he hadn’t meant for Eric Prospero to die, but he died all the same… And it was death, as true and final as all the death everyone else had ever known. Nialghas just decided it would be easier to lie to Eroll than to panic him with the truth. He knew for certain that the police wouldn’t come to care about his body, though, since he and Eric Prospero had failed. The witch they pursued, a Necrophos who had defected from Eric’s so-called ‘Order’ had won. In that one event alone, she must have raised over two hundred zombies, and was likely already working to make more. She would find it more difficult now, however, since Nialghas had cut out one of her eyes, and stolen her book.

Nialghas opted not to sleep. Instead, he opened the witch’s grimoire, and began the much longer, much more arduous process of deciphering her nonsense notes, which would ultimately lead Nialghas to understand how to take control of her ghouls, and use them against her.

She knew his face. She knew his name. She had a growing army that she could unleash at any time, turning the city and Nialghas’s life upside down in her search. Nialghas had only one path forward and no way to turn back.

He had to become a Necrophos.

Nialghas The Necromancer Pt. I

The hot summer sun poured through thin closed windows, baking each of Madam Marjorie’s students, amplifying every discomfort and pleasing no one. The smell was bad, the glare on their new white plastic desks was somehow worse, and the heat itself came in first place as the top most miserable. Sweat was running on Camilo’s forehead, on his arms, even on the backs of his knees. Camilo was sure that no one was paying attention to the lesson, and Madam Marjorie was either oblivious or just didn’t care. 

Camilo watched as the analog clock ticked the seconds away. He wondered idly how old it was– twenty years old? Thirty? It could’ve been installed by Madam Marjorie the day she started working here, and that was a very long time ago…

Mere moments before the bell was set to release Camilo from his sweltering prison, there was a brief vibration in his pocket. It shook five times in a distinct one, two, three… four, five pattern.

Camilo grinned. He raised his hand, and the Madam looked at him. “Pardon me, but the heat is so much, I need to refill my water.” She nodded, and Camilo didn’t bother bringing his school bag, textbooks, or homework out of the room with him.

Every time Nial sent him a message, Camilo knew he would be rolling into school the next day on no sleep, four to six energy drinks, and precious little remaining attention span. There was nothing in his bag that would change or help that.

Luise, having already graduated, did not notice as Nialghas sent her a text. She was elbow-deep in soil, with her phone a forgotten complication left in the glovebox of her car. Another greenhouse was going up, and she was filling the growing beds– only, whoever had built the damn things had left one side unjoined. No screws or nails or even glue on the side that was meant to face the greenhouse’s wall, so a good portion of Luise’s soil had spilled out of the side upon filling. Luise knew whose fault it was, too. They only had two people working the carpentry side of things, and it wasn’t old Linus who had skipped this crucial step. No, it would’ve been the know-it-all son of a bitch teenage dropout who couldn’t pull his head out of his ass for one godforsaken minute-

Luise stopped herself. That was a bad energy to bring into this new project- and her vacation was just about to begin. There was no need to let someone else’s egregious incompetence at basic, simple, child’s play tasks that she could do in her freaking sleep

Luise took a deep breath. 

Two days from now she was catching a flight back home. She was overdue for family, friends, and a Florida Sunrise or six. In those two gap days, maybe she would try and catch a bit of Nial’s spare time, see if she couldn’t convince him to lend his mind to her blueprints for the vertical farm system she’d designed. It looked fine on paper, but sometimes her thoughts would just…jumble up in a fit of passion, and Nialghas had a knack for helping catch the sore-thumb errors she’d leave unchecked.

Those were the things she wanted to consider. Her coworkers…the issue could wait. Maybe she’d just leave a polite note.

Attached to the teenager’s forehead with a stapler.

Eroll was deep in thought. Each wave crashed along the beach with strength and subtlety, and in it, Eroll heard nature itself calling out to him. There were words in the breeze, lyrics to the sand, and a melody in the ocean. He wanted to capture the essence of nature and transcribe it to song, but…it wasn’t going very well today. He had lugged a violin, a guitar, and a kalimba (as a sort of budget piano option) down to the mostly-abandoned beachfront and just sort of willed the magic to happen. 

Willpower won’t always get you where you want to go. Often, but not always.

Eroll was about to figuratively wash his hands of the day when he heard the ringing of his cellphone. He pulled it out from under his leg where he’d stashed it during his pseudo-meditation, and saw Nial’s name. He answered hastily.


“I’ve got something I could use your help with, Eroll. Do you have any free time tonight?” His voice was warm, but oddly precise. Almost strict. Like he was anxious.

Eroll mused for half a moment. “Help? I know you often consult with Luise, but for what reason could you use my help? Do you need a lesson in musical theory or disappointing your parents?”

Nial chuckled from across the phone. “Mmm. Just swing by if you want a brain teaser, okay?”

“I imagine I can swipe my dad’s keys as soon as he’s home, which should be…oh, damn, I’ve been out here longer than I thought. I’ll be there in maybe an hour.”

“Ideal. See you then, Eroll.”

Eroll scrunched his face as he ended the call. He and Nial would often go to concerts together, wine tastings, or just wander their humid city in the late hours of the night, often breaching into the earliest hours of the morning, talking. Never before had Nial asked him for help, not for so much as a wingman on a double date or to cover a few hours at his mother’s bookstore. 

Eroll returned his instruments to his home, carrying the violin and guitar in one hand each, and the kalimba in his teeth. He was not a believer in making multiple trips.

The bookstore was flooded– not with water, no, the humidity was maintained at exactly fifty percent at all times, with the exception of the one time Nialghas had shaved his head into the sink, causing a clog and a subsequent burst pipe. He endured a very long lesson in ‘consequences’ that day.

The bookstore was, however, flooded with an abundance of books. They lined the shelves fully, and had, for a time, been made into somewhat charming decorative piles on the counterspace, tables, and windows. Now there were more, and the books were beginning to amass on the hardwood floors in unkempt stacks.

“It’s like a blessing.” Nial’s mother had said between labored breaths as she shifted box after box into their upstairs living quarters.

“It’s ridiculous, is what it is. And we’re meant to receive another dozen boxes by the end of the month? Even if we put on a clearout sale, we won’t have room for people to come and buy, and we won’t have room to breathe!”

“It was a great deal, Nialghas. No complaining.”

“Mm. Yes.” He had agreed. As the organization attempt continued, Nial had taken brief glimpses at each book to see if they had potential for resale. Some of them were damaged, missing pages, but mostly it was fine. The collection was rather eclectic, but generally practical. Nothing in the fiction genre at all, though there were some comic books. All Starwars, all of them focused on the stories of the Sith. The rest were biographies or textbooks like ‘Organic Chemistry for Dummies’, or ‘Nutrition Concepts and Controversies’.

Then, just that morning, Nial had come across one that wouldn’t have stood out if he hadn’t been examining them individually. The cover was plain and slightly worn, claiming to be a travel guide for all of central Europe. It was a very thick manual, and Nial barely registered what he saw when he cracked the book’s spine.

Every margin was filled with nonsensical notes. Random words were underlined, definitions were added, and every single actual itinerary was scribbled out and replaced with a custom one. None of this was particularly shocking, until he noticed that the custom itineraries were terrible. They wasted hours and hours of travel time hopping back and forth. France was to be visited, but the main attractions were ignored, including the food! They claimed to only need to go to France to visit Big Ben, which wasn’t where Big Ben was.

Nial, being some combination of confused and indignant, decided he wanted to piece together the thought process of the writer. Were they going there on business? Keeping costs low would explain why they didn’t plan to visit any notable restaurants. The organization still didn’t make sense. Was it a touring group, like a rock band? That would explain the bizarre pattern.

As Nial dug into it, nothing became apparent. Nothing made sense.

Finally, Nial caught on to different pages using the same key location twice- Big Ben. Perhaps this travel guide was being used to write a code? Like teenagers passing notes in school– but what school would offer a course on travel?

None of it made sense, so Nial perched on top of a stack of books with his nose buried for hours. His focus was intense, unyielding. His mother tried for a moment to pry him away, but the look in his eyes was familiar to her. There was nothing to be done but wait until he had satisfied his curiosity. She was out of a helper for at least a few hours.

An hour in, Nial grabbed a few spare sheets of paper and a pencil, and began sketching diagrams. Another hour in, and there was a music score. Nial had grabbed an encyclopedia and left it open on ‘N’.

“N…e…c. Neck. Necktie? Nectarine.” He muttered.

“You sound like a crazy person again.” His mother chastised. 

He smiled wryly. “Could see it happening.”

From the diagrams and a particularly wrong hand-written blurb about Ghengis Khan, Nial had managed to find a date, which was set for two days from now. The remainder of the word was lost in the musical score he couldn’t wrap his mind around. Then there were a dozen loose ends centered around the continued reference of cafes. Green tea came up ten times in the first chapter, and then seven times in chapter ten. He was absolutely lost on where to go from there, and the gears of his mind were overheating. 

Luise could help. Might even find it fun, even if at the end all that it was was a meaningless prank or means for someone else to distract themselves.
She couldn’t help with the music, though. Eroll was big into music. Was he free, or had his parents stolen him for another excessive cruise to somewhere even warmer than their home? Eroll hated those trips, hated exuberance and luxury.

Giving him a call couldn’t hurt…and he’d shoot a text to Luise as well.

Then there were the vibes to consider. Luise and Eroll could sometimes play off one another in a negative way. Though Camilo was the youngest of them, his energy was infectious and he was exceptionally good at keeping things positive. He was, socially, a leader– or he would be when he grew into the role. 

Satisfied, Nial contacted these three of his friends, then stared at the book, stumped, waiting for them to arrive.

Luise drove carefully past the highschool that lay between her and Nial’s shop/home. School was letting out, and she still vividly recalled the day one of her friends had jumped out from in front of a parked bus and slipped under an oncoming car– they suffered a shattered ankle and foot, but escaped with their life. It could very easily have gone the other way, and Luise remained vigilant against this kind of thing ever happening again.

A few blocks past the school, there was a broad-backed teenager who was well ahead of the rest of the pack. Someone who had obviously skipped out just a little early. Luise smiled as she pulled up alongside Camilo. “Camilo! Want a ride?”

Camilo grinned when he saw Luise’s face. Without a word, he slid across the hood of her car and hopped in the passenger’s side.

“Skipping out a little early, hmm?”

“Yeah but don’t tell your mom about it. She’d tell Madam Marjorie, then I’d have to endure another suspension.”

“Ooh, Marjorie is still at the school? I thought she’d have retired by now.”

The pair chatted aimlessly until Luise made the final turn that would lead them to Nialghas’s home.

“Did he tell you what’s going on, exactly?” Camilo asked.

“He said it’d be easier to show than explain. Something about a code.”

“He didn’t say shit to me. Just to come over and help him solve a problem.”

Luise scrunched up her face while she parallel parked in front of Galway’s Used Books. The store would only be open for two or three more hours, so she was sure she was fine to park there.

Luise and Camilo let themselves in, and were greeted by Nial’s mother. She beamed at them from behind a sales counter immediately to their left. “Good afternoon, children!”

“Hello, Miss Galway.” Luise said.
“Hi, Miss G! Where’s our precocious prodigy?”

“In the back, first door on the left. He’s been absorbed in his project for hours.”

“Ah, two of my favorite people!” Nial said, rising from his stool to embrace Camilo and Luise, one after the other. “How was school?”

“Imagine waking up from a nightmare, into another nightmare. And every time you think you’ve escaped, it’s just another level of nightmare. 

“That bad?”

“No. But keep thinking about that because I don’t wanna talk about school.”

Nial chuckled. “And your greenhouse, Luise?”

“Pretty much done, but I would like to run a schematic by you before I go on vacation.” Luise made her way farther into the room, which had, in another life, been the kitchen of a restaurant that failed before the Galway’s had moved in. The industrial dish washing machine was almost all that remained, that and the distinct flooring.

“Absolutely, do you have it with you? I’ll tuck it under my problem-child of a book.”

“As a problem child, I take exception to that.” Camilo said.

Luise scooped up the defaced travel guide and began to read aloud. Nial occasionally added his notes and findings to what she read, and over the course of an hour, they finished summing up everything that seemed important…just in time for Eroll to find his way in.

“Sorry I’m late, dad was giving me a bit of a ‘talking to’.” Eroll said disdainfully.

Nial stood and greeted Eroll while Luise mostly ignored his presence and continued to study. Camilo waved hello but stayed practically perched on Luise’s shoulder.

“So Luise and Camilo just read over the gist of the problem, but there’s a part that involves musical theory that I’d like you to see. Luise, may I?” Nial asked, taking the book from her hands. Luise had nodded, and reviewed notes while Nial went over the specifics with Eroll.

It sounded like gibberish to Luise. Quartet something something, anti-harmonious staccato symphony, whatever. Luise liked music but knew next to nothing about it. Camilo was looking over a map of Central Europe while this went on for another twenty minutes, then, finally, Eroll arrived at a single letter as the grand solution. 

“So that makes it…Necr.”

“There’s only one way this puzzle leads, Nialghas. Necromancy, necromancer, something like that. Everything else here, we could solve it, but there’s no other word it could make.” Luise said.

“And the date attached to it, that’s two days from now.” Camilo reminded everyone.

“Hmm.” Nialghas groaned, unhappily. “I was hoping it would be something more… I don’t know, like a clue for a secret society or something more interesting. This is probably just a Dungeons and Dragons loremaster with too much time on their hands.”

Luise laughed. “Yeah, probably. Sorry the brainteaser wasn’t very climactic.”

“I’m sorry for wasting everyone’s time! Seems the fun part was already over.” Nial smiled wryly. 

The group shuffled out of the back of Nial’s house, following the smell of recently-delivered pizza. It was behind the sales counter where Nial’s mother was talking with a regular Nial recognized.

“Oh, yes, I believe I know the one. Nial, could I get a hand?”

Nial passed the pizza boxes over and each of the group thanked Miss Galway before heading to the makeshift back porch to devour their windfall food without distracting the active employees.

Eroll opened the first box and tore off the lid to use as a makeshift plate. “Hawaiian, Camilo?”


“You’d take a half-eaten burger out of a back alley dumpster if it was still warm, wouldn’t you?” Luise snickered.

“Since when are you a pizza purist?” Eroll asked, arcing an eyebrow. “You were fine with Hawaiian…um, before.”

Some people change, I suppose.” Luise said, looking away.

“But not all of us.” Eroll said with a thin smile.

“Ugh, screw the both of you. Can we get through one day without your Big Old Breakup ruining the night?” Camilo said without any real anger.

“I shouldn’t have brought it up.” Eroll said, looking away while passing the ‘plate’ to Camilo.

“Whatever.” Luise said, scooping up the second box for herself.

Camilo knew if he let the silence hold the event would turn sour. “So I learned something cool the other day, if you mix mustard with warm water and drink it you can make yourself throw up.”

“Camilo I’m eating!” Objected Luise.

“Yeah that’s probably why I thought of it. Anyway it only takes like forty minute, easy way to get out of a meeting or unwanted family gathering or something.”

Eroll inclined his head. “I could use that. God, could I use that.”

“Family planning another trip?” Luise asked, likely trying to show a modicum of civility.

“Ski trip this time. Switzerland. A couple weeks from now.”

“Torture.” Luise said, shaking her head with a grin. “Just torture.”

“Yeah, why do you hate all this stuff your parents do you for anyway?” Camilo asked. He had only been informally inducted into their group after a botched school play earlier that year and wasn’t quite caught up on the lore.

“It’s not– they don’t do any of it for me. And I hate it because my parents take their ill-gotten wealth and use it for the most selfish things. Do you know how my parents started their whole thing? With technicalities, loopholes, and fuckin blackmail. Then they got big, and pushed around all their competitors until they either gave in or went belly-up. Every expensive Hors d’Oeuvres they fed me with as a kid was a meal taken away from an innocent family. Every vacation was rightfully someone else’s college fund.”

Luise looked away. “You still could just pull a Batman. Take their money and use it for good.”

“Batman’s money wasn’t ill-gotten.” Camilo argued.

“Not helping, Cam.”

“Just sayin’.”

The back door creaked open, and Nialghas stepped out. “Hey friends, mom’s closing up the shop a bit early. Turns out some of the books we got we weren’t supposed to get. A storage container got cross-contaminated with boxes, sort of. Anyway, sorry for dragging you all out here, but it looks like we’ve got a ton of work to do. Eroll, do you mind giving us a hand?”

“If it’s labor you’re looking for, I’m your guy!” Camilo protested.

“No, that’s alright, Camilo. Thank you for offering. And Luise, have an awesome trip home.”

Luise nodded. “Thanks for the pizza. I’ll give you a ride home, Cam.” She spoke quickly, and was already out of her seat.

Camilo looked around, and caught on just a moment too late that there was some kind of unspoken communication going on. Camilo hated that. Why couldn’t they just be plain about it?

Camilo followed Luise to her car, and she took off.

“What did I miss?” 

“Nial wanted us out, and quickly. I could take a guess as to why, but it would be just a guess.”

“Guess away.”

“He wanted Eroll to stay, and like you said, it wasn’t for labor. What does Eroll have that you don’t?”

“Um. Money, good looks, a car, money, and money?”

“I think it’s the car. But I also have a car. So why Eroll’s car and not mine?”

Camilo thought about it. “Nialghas trusts you. But he and Eroll…sometimes they get up to stuff, don’t they? Things that aren’t quite legal.”

“Yeah. Eroll and I talked about it when we were together. Nothing too crazy, just, like, weed or magic mushrooms. I don’t care for any of it.”

“So he wants Eroll for his more flexible take on what’s right and wrong?”

“No, Eroll has a very, very clear idea of right and wrong. Almost too clear. His ideas almost always disagree with the law, however, and he is comfortable on the wrong side of it.”

“They’re going to go…do crimes?”

“I have sharp ears, Camilo. The man who was speaking to Miss Galway was asking after that book. The puzzle book.”

“No way.”

“I’m sure of it. That’s the only reason Miss Galway would’ve needed Nialghas’s help, was because she wanted to be sure he hadn’t wrecked it.”

“I don’t know, Luise. That seems…why would anyone care? In the end the only thing the book said was “necromancy”.”

“That was the only thing we could figure out. There was a lot more there, Cam. And maybe it is nothing after all, but…well, Nial will want to get to the bottom of it, one way or another.”

“It’s not like magic is real. What is Nial gonna do, chase after the guy and beat an answer out of him?”

“Mmm, no. No, that’d be crazy.”

On Luise’s left, a black Hyundai blew past her at well beyond the speed limit. The man driving looked grim, angry. Impatient.

Following just a few cars behind him, speeding just as badly, came Eroll’s car.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake.” Luise said. “Nialghas!”

Fables & Flight

“Mythos, old wives’ tales, fables…I would have thought we were beyond this.” Malcolm said, gently thumbing through the first pages of the first actual paper document he’d ever touched. He spoke dismissively, but there was an oddly tender undercurrent to his voice.

“Didn’t take you for the sentimental type.” I replied, quietly hoping I’d get to lay claim to the book next.

“I’m not.” Malcolm said just a bit too sharply. “Yet…there’s something comforting about it. Maybe it’s just an unexplored part of human DNA to want to anthologize.”

“Storytelling was such an important thing in some ancient cultures that it was a whole job. People would gather around for communal dinner and just listen to the older folks tell stories.” I replied.

“Was? Clearly still is, since I’m fool enough to buy a copy. Me and millions of others across humankind, where ever we are in the stars.” Malcolm half-grinned, and the faint cracks of light that pierced through the walls of the warehouse lit up the greys and whites of his poorly maintained beard.

I said nothing. I knew if Malcolm and I talked too much, we would bond, and bonding was dangerous in our profession. The Emperor, President, General, or anyone with more stripes on their coat than Malcolm could call in an order and demand him dead at any moment, and I could very well be the one to pull the trigger. Colony life was exceptionally rough. Malcolm was a straight shooter, to be sure, hadn’t given any cause to displease the authorities that I knew of, but I’d seen it happen before. There was no jury, no court martial in the Emperor’s service. Just a swift execution.

Malcolm began reading, and the occasional hint of a smile touched his lips. I shifted uncomfortably on the barrel I was using as a seat and waited.

“There’s something…” Malcolm started, then stopped.

“What?” I asked, grabbing my stasis rifle.

“No, I was talking about the book. Nothing outside.”

“Oh.” I moved to relax again, but found the ridge on the barrel too much this time, for whatever reason. I stood.

“I’m gonna do rounds.” I said, and Malcolm’s eyes barely flicked up to meet mine. His skin, a rich dark brown, blended slightly in the dark of the warehouse, but I could see him well enough.


As I walked, I thought about what that book meant. Why I was suddenly feeling a bit tense. I was a soldier– well, I was really more like an enlisted security guard these days, but I had seen hard battle. Malcolm had seen more than his fair share. Stories had a way of…peeling back the layers you put around yourself, if they’re good. People like us couldn’t really afford that luxury.

Here we were, an unknown number of light years away from Earth (as the Emperor thought knowing our exact location could prove a liability), on a nearly barren rock. It was hurtling through space, attached to a massive moon which was attached to an even larger planet. We had an artificial atmosphere installed around it, and Malcolm and I were just there as an assurance. If a military vessel ran out of supplies, we were a convenient pit-stop, but most Quartermasters knew how to properly provision and that left Malcolm and I alone in our post. There were other humans a while away, hence the term ‘colony’, but Malcolm and I could only go out once a week.

Then there were the dangers. As a military resupply, we were a target. As a human colony, we were a target. As non-indigenous lifeforms, we were absolutely a target.

Despite the monotony of our lives, Malcolm and I were high strung. That book…maybe I shouldn’t read it after all.

I finished my rounds, checking every lock for the thousandth time that day. Slowly, I plodded my way back to the primary warehouse to fill out my reports.

When I returned, I heard an unusual noise. It didn’t take me long to identify it. Malcolm was crying. Not slight shuddering breaths, but deep and unsteady sobs.

I considered leaving it be for half a moment, then figured…fuck it. I’m a human, and I’m going to behave as such. I approached Malcolm, whose tears were staining the pages of the New Brothers Grimm.

“You alright, big man?” I asked.

“When’s the last time–” he managed between sobs, “I ate a goddamn fruit? Slept with both eyes closed? Talked to my daughters?”

I bit the inside of my cheek, trying to keep my layers intact.

“If I left today, within the hour, I don’t think I’d reach Earth in time to even have my own funeral. I’d be a rotten mess before I touched soil. They’d probably just toss me out the airlock and report me missing.”

“Our life in service to the Emperor.” I said bitterly.

“We’re meant to see the sun, Allan.” Malcolm said. “Grab a couple fish from the river, chat and listen to music. Dance. I’ve had vertigo nearly every day since leaving home, that was nearly forty years ago!”

“And the…the people I’ve.” Malcolm stopped himself.

“This isn’t living, Allan. It’s always dark. We eat the same nutrient brick and disinfected water every day. No one in the colony even looks at us when we visit, because we’re military. We’re scum to them. I can’t take it anymore. I miss home.”

“Guess the book was good, huh?” I asked.

“Read this passage.” Malcolm handed me the book.

I grabbed the book and began to read. It was a story about a colony wherein the local lifeforms were friendly, sentient, and generous. When the humans arrived, the locals gifted them baskets of produce, warm drinks that were reminiscent of human cider, and helped them establish shelter. The story went on in some kind of parable about biting the hand that feeds you, but Malcolm’s point was made.

“I can’t stay, Allan.”

“You said it yourself, if you leave you won’t reach Earth for another, I don’t know, twenty years I’d guess, even if it was a straight shot. The Emperor won’t sponsor you a trip back, so it’s civilian tech all the way, and theirs is much slower.”

“I know. But I can’t take another night of staring at the steel-grey of the bottom bunk with nothin’ to think about except what’s missing, because it’s a lot. I’ll find a damn way back, Allan. Even if I die before I get there.”

I nodded, but in every one of Malcolm’s words I heard three things– that he was right, that I wanted the same thing, and that the Emperor would hunt us down and kill us for abandoning our post.

Intergalactic Insurrection

Inside the cockpit, despite the perfect air conditioning, a bead of sweat rolled down Orion’s back. He knew he had just one shot at this. “Pull out of the warp maneuver in 3…2…1…NOW!” Shouted Lieutenant Lestrange. 

Orion pulled back on the lever, engaged rear thrusters, and tried to hold himself still as the extreme forces battled towards equilibrium. When he was able to open his eyes again, the sight was beyond what he could ever have hoped.

Life. Advanced life! There was what must have been a space port teeming with activity, life forms coming and going, in orbit around a lush green planet. “This isn’t going to be Earth 2.0, crew!” Orion announced to everyone on the ship. “Expect contact with alien lifeforms imminently!”

Orion was much more excited than he was scared. Perhaps he ought to have been more worried than he was, but there was no way the alien lifeforms were this advanced and still barbarically hostile, right?

Cautiously, Orion guided the ship closer to their airspace. He had his comms engineer reaching out through every method he could think of, but there wasn’t any kind of response yet. Once Orion had pulled close enough in that he could begin to make out details on the space port, a trio of small ships departed and began their approach to his ship. 

While he waited, he tried to learn what he could. The space port used the vacuum of space to initialize the launch of everyone departing, but only let out a few ships at a time, despite there being a long lineup. They would close the doors, passengers would load, the ships would engage their thrusters, and the door would open. Anything loose left in the bay would be sucked into space. Perhaps the reason there were only two or three ships departing at a time was to minimize the potential for impact, even though the bay could easily fit 10-15 of the standard ships Orion had noticed.

Orion pulled himself out of his thoughts as the trio of what appeared to be single-occupancy ships drew close. “Are we getting anything?” Orion called out to his comms engineer.

“Nothing I can make out.” He responded. “Various forms of short-wave, but I don’t even think it’s communication. Just noise.”

Eventually, the trio of ships pulled in front of Orion’s viewing window and slowly glided forward. Orion knew enough to figure out that they intended for him to follow.

“Lieutenant Lestrange, please get together with your choice of four of our crewmembers. Seems like we’re going to go on a tour soon. Bring me the multi-purpose suit as well. I’ll be coming of course.”

As the excited crew began to trade favors, argue, flip coins and engage in mostly-friendly horseplay surrounding the issue of who was to touch down first, Orion laid eyes on one of the new lifeforms for the first time. He set down in a bay that looked just like the departure bay he had been observing, and the door sealed behind them. From the small ships, out hopped one very tall, very lanky being whose personhood moreso resembled a spider than a human, though there were no facial characteristics visible. The second departed their cockpit, and they were sturdily built, and short. Orion would’ve likened them to a Tolkenien dwarf. They removed their helmet and their face was more akin to a Eewok from Starwars…if George Lucas was right about space after all this time, Orion was going to flip. He hadn’t attended ten years of studies and another five leading and training this crew to have been beaten to the punch in the freaking 1990’s!

Finally, Orion, Lieutenant Lestrange and five others (all of whom Orion would know by name, but their faces were covered by helmets) departed their ship.

They were greeted by the tall alien. As it approached, it vocalized a wide variety of tones and syllables. It was trying to establish language.

Orion responded. “Our warm and humble greetings! I am from a planet we designate as Earth from the galaxy we designate as The Milky Way–”

“Ah, humanoid.” The tall alien responded. “Mmm, Marcus, could you?”

“Aye.” Called out a distinctly human voice from the third ship.

“What in the…?” The crew began to murmur. 

“Welcome to the Intergalactic Community, Captain..?” Came the human voice again as he was released from the bottom of his cockpit, dropping to the deck. 

“Orion. Sorry, you’re human, like us? How are we not the first to make contact?”

“You are, sort of.” The man approached as he removed his helmet. Pale blonde hair and gray eyes accented his oddly perfect features. By his aesthetics alone he could have climbed to fame back on Earth. His build and looks were like if Jason Mamoa had impregnated an angel and he was the result. His accent was somewhat strange, nothing Orion had ever heard before, but he spoke with intention and clarity. “You are the first humans to reach us. As for myself and the others, we were…or, in my case, our great-grandparents were simply taken as samples from our original planet.”

Orion’s mouth went dry. “You’re kidnapping victims.”

The human, Marcus, arched an eyebrow, and a vein pulsed in his forehead. “That isn’t the terminology I would use. Perhaps from your perspective that sounds correct, but it paints us– the intergalactic community– in a certain light I wouldn’t prescribe us. Let’s take a tour and I can explain everything. But first, allow me to walk you through our decontamination cycle.”

“Y-yes, of course. How many humans are there here, Marcus?”

“Samples are maintained at a maximum of 100 per species until they are ready to join as full-fledged members of the community. We are currently at our maximum.”

“What happens if one of you has a child and the cap is broken?”

“Let’s focus on one thing at a time.”

Orion began to get a bit of a knot building in his stomach. The crew behind him was no longer quietly chattering, they stood at attention. They were subtly scanning their surroundings.

“The decontamination process can take place just over there.” Marcus pointed to the farther end of the bay, where what looked like two sets of tents were set up. 

Orion led his crew inside. “Please strip off all your things and grab a new set of clothes. You won’t need your helmets and whatnot until you depart later, if you choose to do so.” Marcus continued. He now had the short, furry alien and tall, spider-like one at his side. While the crew stripped, they spoke quietly to one another.

“You two are the ones in charge, correct?” Marcus asked of Orion and Lestrange.

“Correct.” Orion responded neutrally. 

“In the next tent, there is another set of jump suits you two should wear. It will distinguish you for our other members.”

Lestrange looked at Orion with the question in her eyes. What are we doing? Is this safe? 

It seemed as though they would give them the option to leave if they chose to. Orion ground his teeth and moved over to the next tent. Lestrange followed.

Quietly, she whispered to him as they donned their new jump suits. “I don’t like how he referred to himself as a sample. Are we heading into some kind of evil scientists rule the galaxy bullshit?”

“Let’s not draw any conclusions this early, Lestrange.” Orion looked around the tent, showing that even if Marcus couldn’t hear them, there was no way to know that they weren’t unmonitored. Lestrange nodded. “Zip me up, please, Captain.”

Orion pulled Lestrange’s long red hair out of the way of the back of her jump suit and obliged her. As soon as they were both ready, Marcus and his two partners joined them in their tent.

“As I mentioned, we do have a population cap. I’ve been conferring with my colleagues, and we believe the best course of action isn’t to take your whole crew with you for the tour. Typically, the people who stay are the people who get the tour, you see.”

Orion swallowed, trying to measure his response. “I believe, in that instance, it may be better for us all to withdraw. What are the requirements to join as full members of the community, without the population cap? Perhaps we can return once we’ve reached that requirement.”

“Mmm. No, the community wants you to join the sample group, as you are clearly the most accomplished member to ever grace us, you and the Leiutenant. Your crew, however–” Marcus’s words were cut short by the loud *clang* of the doors being closed. The same kind of doors that they used to separate the safe zones from the ones leading out to the vacuum of space.

It all happened in an instant. Marcus swept out Orion’s legs, and the spider-like alien lunged at the Lieutenant. The bay doors opened, and Orion’s ship, along with every member of his crew who had come along with him, were sucked into space.

 Marcus was on top of Orion before he even registered the pain from his fall. 

“Welcome to the community, brother.” He grinned, pinning Orion’s arms. Orion tried his best to resist from his disadvantaged position, but he was winded. Rage boiled deep within his chest, even as he struggled to breathe.

Lestrange, however, did not have Orion’s limitation. She wrestled free from the lanky alien’s grasp and snatched what appeared to be some kind of short blade from his belt. The furry alien barked orders into his communications device while Lestrange kept the lanky alien at bay. 

Marcus was not to be distracted. He kept his infuriatingly perfect gaze on Orion, the grin on his face very self-satisfied.

**Well, no such thing as fair in a fight…’* Orion thought, and spat into Marcus’s eye.

“What the fuck?!” Marcus roared, rearing back. Orion bucked him from his seat on Orion’s stomach, and he tore Marcus’s entire toolbelt off of his jump suit. He tossed it to the side and began pelting Marcus with vicious blows.

Finally, the furry one finished speaking, and the tent-like structure they had been in lifted. They were once again surrounded by the silver-and-steel aesthetic of the inside of the space port…and surrounded by over a dozen soldier types, all armed with rifles. 

“There is no resisting the community, Captain.” Marcus said, once again grinning, though his teeth were now stained with his own blood.

“Aah…hell. Ideas, Lieutenant?”

“Awaiting your orders, Captain.” She sounded breathless, but furious.

“I spy with my little eye…” Orion said, then held his hand open. The Lieutenant tossed him her blade, and Orion struck out at a large canister that was sealed against a nearby wall. As he had hoped, it was a fire-suppression canister, and the area filled with white foam. Orion used this to grab Lestrange’s hand and kick away a nearby grate that led into something of an air tunnel. “This air tunnel is still susceptible to the vacuum, so find somewhere to hide, and re-establish communications with our ship! If they sealed the doors after letting us off, they should all still be alive!”

“And what will you be doing?” Lestrange asked.

“Causing damage.”

“Ugh, you always take the fun jobs.”

“Finish your job early and you can join me on mine.” Orion used his best sarcastic parent-like voice.

“Asshole.” Lestrange jettisoned herself down the air tunnel.

Orion knew the aliens were drawing close on him again. He groped through the foam for Marcus’s toolkit, and sprinted towards where he thought he saw some doors. The foam was beginning to dissipate, so with a little luck–

There. A keycard was on Marcus’s belt. “God bless my lucky stars!” Orion shouted as he stepped through. All he had to do was stay hidden, stay alive, and enact a little revenge while Lestrange got back into communication with his crew.

Simple. Easy…

Orion swallowed hard again and began wondering what death was really going to be like as he sprinted down the unexplored alien hallways.

Silas and Somnus Pt.I

Setting sun and the sharpened form of the crescent moon battled each other for dominance over the sky- though the outcome was known, they shared the stage for a few contentious hours. Autumn had come, the harvest and its celebrations were over. Returned now to simple enduring, returned to letting time slip by as unnoticed as possible– winter was always like this for the twins.

They were still too young. Too young to abandon what they called “home” in search of a better life, though they had no parents to sigh from their absence.

Silas and Somnus had been raised by the Priests of the Halls of Galdr; the Church was their home and the Priest Mother and Priest Father were the only ‘authority’ they were beholden to- though even that thread had begun to fray.

“I mean- look at them, Silas.” Somnus said, repeating a tirade he had long since verbalized to death. “The look in their eyes is bovine. There’s a detached, animalistic inattentiveness about them, the way they talk, the way they move.” He brushed his sand-colored hair from his eyes as he watched the workers returning from their day. The setting sun made his wood-and-amber eyes blaze, emphasizing the indignation in them.

His anger was not abated, but he returned to his work regardless. The binding of an ancient Tome of Galdr was coming apart, so he was making it anew.

Silas knew and agreed with Somnus on his anger- though he saw it perhaps a little differently. It was true the locals were incurious, generally speaking, and they seemed to have no ambition, no purpose aside from living out their little lives in their little ways. Silas, however, wasn’t mad that that was the way they lived; he was mad because he and his brother were alone. The pair of them were multi-passionate, and the root of Somnus’s indignation, Silas believed, was that they were not being nurtured in their pursuits. The farmers here raised another generation of farmers, and nothing else. They did not inspire any growth in themselves or their children, and so the fiery and driven twins felt very much alone.

“We should calculate,” began Somnus, breaking a silence that spanned several hours, “how much longer we have to remain here. They are supposed to keep us until we are old enough to earn a man’s wages, right?”

Silas nodded. “Eighteen years old, the day of the eighteenth birthday we are allowed to leave.” He folded an ear of the book he was reading, and set it aside.

Somnus cast a funny look at Silas- not that he could see it.

“Have we never questioned that before?”

“What do you mean?” Silas asked, popping up onto his bed. He had won the prestigious position of top bunk in a wrestling match- though he had broken a table during the struggle, and earned a good lashing by the Priest Mother from it. An acceptable trade.

“This word…’allowed’. Permitted. If we choose to risk ourselves by venturing out into the world, what grants them the authority over us to say ‘yes, you can’, or ‘no, you cannot’?”

“Well, the government has their program for orphans- they pay the chapel to mind us, so I suppose if we agree to governmental rule, then we agree to the authority of the chapel.”

“Our government is a joke. It’s so feeble, people hardly know it’s there.”

“Imagine if we’d had the Magocracy come to fruition all those years ago, instead. They’d be running the country with intelligence and strength.” Silas said, echoing Somnus’s own opinion back to him. Silas knew that Somnus was impulsive enough to leave without a plan, which would be dangerous, even potentially fatal- so he hoped to change the subject.

Somnus didn’t fall for it. “True, but let’s not disassemble. I don’t think the government has the right to say when we can leave or when we can’t. I reject their notion of having that power over us.”

Silas resigned himself to following the conversation through. “Fair enough. I don’t truly recognize them as being an authority either. But- if we leave, we could easily perish upon the road. We don’t know the world out there at all, which roads are safe, where the cities are, where to find work, or even what kind of work we could get.”

Somnus thought about that in silence for a while. “If we stay here, we would become farmers. To save up enough money to travel, we would have to work for at least five good seasons, even spending minimally during the winters. We would be twenty before we even begin to see the outside world. Twenty three! Maybe more! We would become the very thing we despise. Hell, would the farmers even work with us after how we’ve ostracized ourselves from them?”

Silas imagined a future sprawling out before him of working the fields- it was entirely possible that the fields would be their only choice- unless they took a massive risk.

Silas pondered in silence. He didn’t see any good options. He pondered until, eventually, he heard snoring from the bottom bunk- Somnus had let sleep take him.

Silas did not sleep that night- he never could sleep on an undecided mind.

A few weeks passed since Silas and Somnus had had their conversation, when the energy began to shift in the town. Silas could see it in the eyes of the farmers as they went about their morning duties- they weren’t in quite as much of a sleepy daze, in fact they looked riddled with worry.

Silas went to the Priest Mother about it. The Priest Mother and Priest Father, despite the care with which they had raised the boys, had never seemed particularly attached or invested in either of them. Their attitudes seemed to be a self-satisfied tolerance- as though their sacrifice in raising the boys granted them some kind of religious clout, and perhaps it did, for all Silas knew.

He found her in the chapel’s hall, washing the wooden pews.

Silas grabbed a cloth and began to help with the washing as he peppered her with questions- as he often did.

“Something’s going on. Do you know anything about it?”

“I do.” She replied neutrally.

“What is it? Is it war? A plague? Kitsune?” He asked, fearing the worst.

“Kitsune? We haven’t seen those in nearly fifty years.” She laughed, an edge to her voice- Silas could only describe it as sardonic.

“Well, what is it?”

She sighed, as she stood slowly. Her knees popped audibly with the movement. “I think it be bandits. Word is that some of the nearby towns were struck, but we don’t know which direction they came from, nor went.”

Silas nodded solemnly. “I need to find Somnus.” He said, turning to leave.

The Priest Mother gave him a half-hearted smack on the back of the head. “Just pretending to help so you can get answers, huh? I suppose I should be used to that by now. Somnus is with the Priest Father buying supplies.”

The only resolution the twins had managed to come to, pertaining to their previous discussion, was that at the least they needed to find a Pilgrim’s Map before they attempted to leave.

With the Way of Magic constantly shifting, maps could become obsolete within a few months of their making- the leylines restructured the world around them by some unknown and haphazard design, so what was in one place yesterday may have shifted a mile away by the next- and may have disappeared over the horizon a few months hence. It was more prevalent where the leylines were powerful, which they certainly were not in Yaruna, but both Silas and Somnus agreed that to simply try to leave without any idea of where they were going would be tempting fate. They needed a recently made map if they stood any chance at surviving.

Many of the magically sensitive and adventurous types had begun to make their living by traveling and making these maps- both for the scholarly purpose of figuring out the design of the leylines, and to sell their updated maps to each of the villages they came across. Those people called themselves Pilgrims, and finding a Pilgrim’s Map seemed to be the only hope Silas and Somnus had of escaping their predicament.

However…Pilgrims did not come often enough- and even when they did, how would they pay the Pilgrim for a map?

A dangerous idea leapt into Silas’s head- the bandits would have to have a map- a new one- to be able to roam around as they did.

Did Silas dare to steal from a den of thieves?

Somnus woke before Silas- there was a slight noise, still distant- but unmistakable. A dozen horses were galloping towards the village.

Somnus was out of his bed in a heartbeat. He swiftly slapped Silas awake, then had a lethal-looking dagger grasped firmly his right hand, and was out of the door before Silas had even finished opening his eyes.

Somnus was used to this– though Silas was every bit as quick-witted as Somnus, perhaps even more so, though Somnus would only admit that to himself, and never to his brother, he was the better athlete. Somnus had faster reflexes, a sharper eye, and a stronger arm- not by too much, but by enough.

Somnus waited a few heartbeats for Silas to join him outside the house. Neither of them had changed into night clothes before bed- not that it was much of an improvement- but they would, at least, feel a little less silly trying to defend what passed for their ‘home’.

Silas had armed himself with a metal pole, longer than he was tall, and solid. “We should get behind cover.”

Somnus nodded, reluctantly. Their only goal was to protect the Church, nothing else… though a part of Somnus wanted to engage as many thieves as he could, hoping for some kind of reward for taking them down- something that might translate into freedom, perhaps.

Silas leapt behind a bush just as the first alarm bells rang- there were no walls protecting Yaruna, but the village’s governor had set up some semblance of a night watch.

Noise quickly filled the night- first came the clashing of steel, then screams. Somnus stepped behind a wide oak tree and waited for his first kill.

The thieves broke through the first line of the watch and began to run rampant through the town, utterly chaotic.

Silas was engaged first- a scraggly looking man went for the front door to the Church, and Silas pried him away with his bare hands.

*Fool!* Somnus thought. *You should have whapped him while his back was turned!* Somnus leapt from behind his tree to go help Silas as his fight went to the ground- but came nose-to-nose with an opponent of his own.

The man was both wide and tall, with a round belly and a full beard. He had a hammer on his belt– but not the kind that you would use to hammer nails. It was the other kind.

Luckily, he hadn’t taken it off of his belt yet.

Somnus swiped at him, first with his open hand as a distraction, then with his knife. The trick worked, and he drew his blade across the man’s belly. It was too shallow, but it would certainly be painful enough to give Somnus an edge.

With a grunt of surprise, the man’s massive arm furiously launched towards Somnus, catching him with a powerful backhand.

Somnus spun a little, his head swimming from the sudden shock and pain, but he kept his feet.

Trying again, Somnus went for the brigand’s eyes. This time, the man’s experience saved him. He simply caught the weapon hand, and pulled Somnus in for another vicious strike.

Somnus knew now that he was in trouble. He must’ve come across one of their leaders for him to be so experienced, and to handle the pain of his wound so easily.

Somnus collapsed into the dirt, pretending to be spent from the man’s hit– then tossed a handful of soil towards his eyes, and scrambled to run away.

The man laughed scornfully, the dirt having no effect, but he did not give chase as Somnus managed to flee.

‘Damn–what about Silas?’ Somnus thought, and he circled around the church, hoping that the bigger brigand hadn’t begun to interfere with their fight.

Silas had the man on the ground, the opponent’s head caved in by Silas’s metal staff. Silas looked like he was going to throw up.

“Hey, well done.” Somnus clapped him on the back with his own unsteady hand. “You did better than me.”

“Bleh.” Silas responded. “I thought I’d handle it better.”

“Probably takes some getting used to.” Somnus said. “Maybe we should move inside the church for now.” The sounds of struggle were rising up from all around the town, and Somnus was suddenly very aware that their backs were exposed.

“Did you get your guy?” Silas asked.

Somnus tsk’d. “No. He was a big bastard, and fast for his size. Had to run away.”

“At least you survived.”

The twins sat still within the church for a short while, undisturbed. There was no sign of the Priest Mother or Priest Father– perhaps they’d holed up somewhere safer.

The sounds of the struggle carried on, but no one else threatened the church during the next hour or so. Somnus patrolled within, and Silas stayed near the main doors.

“Perhaps we should look for the priests.” Silas suggested.

“Mmm. I don’t like our chances out there very much.”

“If we stick together– I mean, hell, they’re brigands. Can’t be that smart.”

Somnus grinned a little. “Yeah, all right. Let’s make sure our caregivers are cared for.”

As soon as the twins stepped out of the church, they laid eyes on pure horror. Towards the center of the town, all of the farmers were being tied up and thrown onto large stacks of wood– wood that was soaked in oil.

“T-this isn’t normal brigand shit.” Silas said, sounding sick again.

“No. This is something else. They have nothing to gain from this.” Somnus agreed. “But we definitely can’t do anything about it now. They’ve won. We should…we should go.”

Silas hesitated for a moment. “We still need a map.”

“Either we chance the roads, or we die for sure.” Somnus insisted.

“Bring us the child! The sand-haired kid!” Bellowed a powerful voice from the center of the town, where the would-be bonfire was.

“Oh, hell.” Somnus said, recognizing the man who was shouting. It was his former opponent. Perhaps he wanted revenge for the cut.

“Okay. Either we run and they die, or I die for all of them.” Somnus weighed it for a moment. “Let’s go.”

Silas was too stunned to think– not that Somnus’s choice was particularly shocking, he had never had much love for the Yarunians, but the absurdity of their situation was beginning to weigh on him.

“Uh, yeah. We could probably snag the weapons off the city watch?” Silas managed.

As the two began to sneak out of the town, they tried to ignore the revulsion they felt as they went through the pockets of each of the fallen they found.

After just a few minutes of that, they both had swords, some coins in their pockets, and rations that might last them three days or so. They escaped to the town’s outskirts, and before them lay the open road.

Then they heard the now too familiar sound of horses shaking the earth.

“There’s a second wave of them.” Somnus warned.

“I can hear that! Where do we go?!” Silas sounded panicked.

They were out in the open. They were armed properly now, at least, but they were completely exposed aside from a small group of bushes that couldn’t house both of them.

Somnus took a quick breath. “Go to those bushes. I’ll be right behind you.”

Luckily, it was dark enough that the brigands didn’t see, and Silas was shellshocked enough that he didn’t object.

Somnus watched as Silas dipped behind the bushes, then he lit a torch he’d scavenged and ran back into the village.

Silas realized, a moment too late, what Somnus was doing. He may have been willing to let the villagers die for him– but he wasn’t willing to let his twin do the same.

“NO!” Silas shouted, chasing after the brigands, his feet pounding as quickly as he could manage down the dusty road– but the speed and cacophony of their horses left him unnoticed. As he chased them into the town, he was suddenly yanked off of the path by the Priest Mother, and held down.

“We watched what happened. Somnus is done for, but you can still live!” The Priest Father said sternly as he held Silas in place.

“Let me go!” Silas objected, thrashing against their grip.

The Priest Mother opened herself to the small storehouse of magic she possessed and made Silas go limp.

“At least…let me see.” Silas tried to growl, as anxiety and tears began to threaten to clog his throat.

“Are you sure?” The Priest Father asked.

“I’ll never sleep again if I don’t. I need to know who kills him.”

“For revenge, I’m sure. Don’t waste the chance we’re giving you to live.” The Father scolded, but he brought Silas into a barn where the priests had presumably been hiding, and helped him up the stairs. From this vantage point, the three were quite hidden, and they had a view of the center of town.

Somnus was already being spoken to by the brigand’s leader. He was wearing a blood-stained shirt, and had a wound across his belly. There was a massive steel hammer in his hand.

Somnus did not grovel. He did not beg. He had locked eyes with the brigand, and seemed to be goading him. Silas couldn’t hear exactly what was being said.

Finally, the brigand seemed to make up his mind about something, and he simply wound up his fist and knocked Somnus off his feet.

Somnus was loaded into a horse-drawn cart, unconscious.

“They aren’t killing him. They’re going to take him!” Silas whispered urgently.

The villagers weren’t freed, but neither were they set on fire. The brigands finished looting the town over the next hour or so, then left. Silas was still unable to move, and his heart felt twisted with emotion– but Somnus still lived. A glimmer of hope remained.

“I am going to get him back. If it’s the last gods-damned thing I get to do, I will get him out.” Silas said through gritted teeth. “Just hang on.”

Just Another Isekai Pt.I

“Isn’t it crazy,” I said, hunkering over the low-quality plastic lunch table, “that no one ever considers an IRL meta?”

“What are you on about?” Isaac asked, squinting at me.

“Don’t encourage him.” Lilac said, reaching over to clamp my mouth shut.

“No, really, think about it.” I said, gently batting away Lilac’s hand. “Between Isaac and I, we’ve probably maxed out thirty characters across seven different MMO’s, plus dozens of other games we’ve gotten all the achievements for. We could write entire game guides on meta builds- but we’ve never looked at real life through that kind of lens.”

Isaac sighed. “And the answer to ‘why’ is simple. We weren’t born with equal starting stats to everyone else. We don’t get the same opportunities, and there is no such thing as an IRL grind for XP that applies across the board.”

“I feel like all of those roadblocks could be overcome.”

“For the sake of making this conversation end faster, tell us your theory. How would you do it?” Lilac promptly zoned out and started scrolling through Instagram after asking, but I knew that Isaac was listening, at least.

“Well- I only came up with this thought last night, but the first stat to max would be willpower. If you can dedicate yourself to hard work all the time, you’d be virtually unstoppable.”

“I don’t know if it’s that simple.” Isaac objected. “Willpower isn’t something that you just master. Especially for you and I, with our ADHD.”

“Right. We would probably have to be on meds to reach 100, if we even can…but it doesn’t stop there.”

“Go on.” Isaac prompted.

“Charisma. If you don’t think Willpower is a practicable skill, charisma definitely has to be.”

“Do you really think so? Look at Bradley.” Isaac gestured subtly with his chin at another table at the other end of the lunch hall. “He was born with genetics that predisposed him to wide shoulders, big muscles. He has a strong jawline. Those few centimeters of bone probably give him a permanent plus 4 to his charisma that you and I can’t just make up for.”

“Plastic surgery is a thing. I bet there’s a surgery to make your jawline better.”

“Sure, at the cost of millions of dollars that we’ll never have- because we don’t have willpower or charisma enough to get the kind of jobs that pay that kind of money.” Isaac stood up. “There’s a reason video games sell so well, Tyler. It’s because they offer escapism. Escapism from our bad genetics, escapism from the mediocre lives we’re going to be forced to live.” With that, he began to walk away.

“Is it over?” Lilac asked. 

“Do you mean lunch, or our conversation?” I asked.

“Either, really.”

“You’re a bitch, Lil.” I replied, rolling my eyes. Lilac laughed.

The bell went off, signaling the end of lunch. I still hadn’t dug into mine- but it was a boring-ass ham sandwich that I didn’t really want to choke down anyway.

“Catch ya later, Tyler.” Lil said, all of her belongings already neatly packed away inside her backpack.

“Yeah, sure.”

I felt a little discouraged that Lilac and Isaac weren’t willing to listen. I’d put hours of thought into my theory- that maybe, after all, there was a meta to real life.

How would I research my idea more? Biographies from successful people? Interviewing psychologists? Where would one even find a psychologist to interview? Would I have to pretend to be going in for therapy?

The main problem was that there was no way to have a control group. In science class, we were taught that to test a theory you had to have a control group- the people in the study who just lived life like normal, so you could contrast data.

Well- Isaac sounded like he was resigned to a life of eating whatever shit soup life fed him. Maybe he could be my ‘control’- for a study this informal, it was close enough.

I had a spare period next- so I decided to head to the library and see what I could dig up. Maybe there’d be a biography that would be of use or something.

As soon as I opened the door, a big grin broke out on my face. Kris was working today.

“How’re the books?” I asked as I came through the door. “All alphabetised?”

“If they were, I’d have gone home early.” Kris responded dryly. Kris was what would happen if you took half of a weeb and half of a functional adult and smashed them together. He also possessed the patience of a genuine Saint- which was why I loved giving him the gears. “What’s going on, bud?”

“I have something I want to research.”

“Really? You haven’t struck me as the academic type.”

“Maybe you can help. You play video games, right?”

“Sure.” He responded. “What, thinking of becoming a game dev? It’s not as great of an industry as it sounds.”

“No. I want to make a rough draft of ‘human meta’.”

“Like, a meta strategy for humans?” Kris thought about it for a moment. “Kind of a messy idea. Success means different things for different people. There is no ‘main quest’ in real life.”

“What could we use as the ‘main quest’, then?”

“Money is an option.” Kris ran his fingers through his patchy, dark beard. “Happiness, perhaps, but it is hard to quantify.”

I thought about it for a while.

“What if there was a meta to all life goals?”

Kris looked over to me, arching an eyebrow.

“Like, regardless of what your life goals are, this meta will get you there.”

“I have no idea what that would look like.” Kris admitted after a moment.

“Well, like I was saying earlier to Lil and Isaac- willpower would be the first stat to grind. If you can always be putting yourself to work, then you’re going to have a higher success rate than people who only work on their goal 20% of the time.”

“Okay. I guess in videogames that’s already accounted for, since you’re the person playing, and time doesn’t usually flow unless you’re actively doing stuff.”

“Right. So how does one train willpower?” I asked.

“Um. Might want to look into neuroplasticity to start?” Kris suggested.

Kris and I spent the remainder of my spare period going back and forth on my idea, discussing and refining. Eventually, he left to use the washroom.

I continued my research, completely lost in thought- until Kris tapped me on the shoulder.

“Here. This’ll help if you want to keep exploring your ideas.” He said, handing me a book.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“You’ll see.” He said as he trudged off again.

“…Alright.” I replied to the empty room. The book had no cover art, or even an author name on the spine. I opened it, and found the pages were empty. “Huh?”

I thought about it for a moment- Oh. Duh. It’s a journal. It’s so I can keep track of my train of thought. Probably good for an ADHD person like me.

I scrawled a quick note- ‘The Human Meta: What is Willpower?’

I snapped the book closed, and stood up.

Then I immediately got dizzy, and fell back down, feeling my head bounce against the hard wood floor.


There was a cold breeze against my face- the kind of breeze that came when winter was giving its last kick, before turning control over to a warm spring. The warmth of the sun quickly scared away the wind’s chill, and I breathed a deep, full breath.

“Good morning, Tyran.” The voice was rich and deep, with an accent I couldn’t place. “Is this a new kind of meditation?” There was a gentle rebuke in his voice.

My eyes shot open, only to be met with the full burning visage of the midday sun.

“Oh, damn! Ow.” I complained, covering my eyes with my hand.

“Let me help.” The rich voice replied, and a shadow fell over me.

More carefully, I cracked open a single eye. A man stood in front of me- his white beard was long and full, his face kind. He looked like Santa, if Santa was on steroids, and was seven feet tall.

“Hello?” I asked.

“Tyran. You are late to your service.” Something about the voice, the slightly tangy scent in the air- it tugged on my mind, opening me up to something alien, but somehow familiar, too-

A series of foreign memories flooded my mind, pouring in dozens of pieces of information all at once.

I was in a northern mountain retreat, learning from the Estuan Monks. My name was Tyran. My family sent me here, hoping I would become somebody.

“Forgive me, Morrquis. I am…out of sorts.”

“Was it a dream?” He asked, sinking into a restful squat beside my bed.

“You could say that. It was… an experience I cannot compare to anything I’ve felt in my life.” I said.

“Well, we will need to shake it off, so that you may start your day! Stand with me.” Morrquis helped me up from my cot on the floor. “First, deep and invigorating breaths!”

Morrquis breathed through his nose sharply, and out of his mouth. “Follow my pattern!”

Together, we took a dozen breaths- quickly in through the nose, and slowly out through the mouth. “This will balance your energy, and get you back to your center!”

“Thank you, Morrquis.” I felt more…balanced. I actually felt like I was focused on the living moment.

“Now, you’ve missed breakfast, so exercise will be a much bigger challenge today- but class will start soon! Go pay the price for your bad sleep habit, and I’ll be sure you get a good lunch.”

“Yessir!” I said, snapping into a silly mock salute. Morrquis chuckled as I sprinted off toward class.

As I ran, I noticed a green bar at the top left of my vision- it was a goddamn stamina bar! I knew something was weird!

I let my run come to a halt. This was an Isekai. I was living in a freakin’ Isekai!

I took a few more breaths, like Morrquis showed me. Okay. The book I was given must have had something to do with this.

I took stock of my surroundings for a moment. I was surrounded by beautiful sandy-colored stone pathways that had clearly been carved out of the mountains. The windows outside showed a sprawling, lush landscape. Far in the distance, I could make out what appeared to be a vineyard- were they growing grapes for wine?

My surroundings had a certain Mediterranean feel to them- or, perhaps that wasn’t quite right. Something akin to northern Italy? Not that I had ever been- it was only my best guess.

“Focus, Ty…” I told myself, and patted down my beige robes. There was a sling hung around my waste, and the book was within it. 

The first page still had my writing within it- ‘The Human Meta: What is Willpower?’ It read. Below it was a series of tables and short blurbs- the first thing my eyes settled on was my stats.


Strength: 02

Endurance: 02
Willpower: 01

Intelligence: 05

Speed: 02

Agility: 01

Charisma: 03

Luck: 07

Well- shit. That didn’t look good- but at the same time, I knew I still had human-standard strength. Approximately normal for my age. Perhaps it wasn’t that I was weak, it was that I- along with everyone else- had enormous potential for growth.

I wondered what it looked like- meeting someone who had 100 in each category.

I grit my teeth and turned my eyes to the billowy clouds and beautiful azure sky above- if I was given the opportunity to be in an RPG-esque Isekai, I was going to make the damn most of it! I was shooting for 100- and I was going to do it exactly how I said! First goal: Perfect Willpower!

With those thoughts, and the determination mingling with my inspiration, I hustled towards my first class, as quickly as my 02 Speed legs would carry me.

Badassery & Bloodshed Redux Pt.I

The Ever-Pervading Darkness, the Goddess who turns blood to ice, the monster under every child’s bed.

Lame,’ I thought. ‘These were the titles they had crafted for me?’

I was fine with having a cult in my honor- pretty much deserved one after all the shit I had pulled off during my mortal and, later, my immortal life- but is this truly what remained of my legacy of badassery and bloodshed?


It had been a decade since I’d seen action, or interacted with my followers- maybe it was time they were all reminded of who I really was. They thought I was some stone statue, with a cruel face and a hard-on for gratuitous violence… that last part may have been true, but I was not something that demanded child sacrifices or weird sex rituals. Gods, they had gone so far off-base. Idiots.

One of the few joys I had left in my “church” was my youngest worshiper- he actually got me. Every week, people brought me gold, jewels- shit I couldn’t use- but Tiny Timothy, he brought me a PB&J that was loaded with his religious fervor. What a sweet, deranged little child.

Speaking of Tiny Timothy, isn’t it time for “service”?’ I wondered, and I pulled my mind from the Cosmos, to peer down at my “church”.

‘I really gotta start listening when people pray.‘ I grumbled, seeing my church mostly on fire and definitely, fully in chaos.

Police were outside, but no attempt was being made to put out the fire. My cultists were in chains- and a police captain was eating MY GODS-DAMNED PB&J SANDWICH?!

That was beyond the pale. I strapped on my ass-kicking boots, cargo pants, and a black muscle shirt. Oh, yeah- a bra- couldn’t go on a murderous rampage with the girls flying about left and right.

Descending to the Earth- or Ascending, depending on which way one prescribed to The Truth, I formed in a cloud of mist.

In this body, I was roughly eight feet tall, my skin made of ink and obsidian- and my eyes shone with bloodlust. Enough to make any sane man paralyzed with fear.

I looked around briefly, and spotted the police captain. “You filth!” I screamed, slapping the PB&J out of the police captain’s hand. I curled my leg up against my chest, and launched a reverse roundhouse kick with the explosive power of a small bomb.

What followed next was an eminently satisfying massacre- there were bullets, screaming, one of them even tried to flee, which was hilarious… though I could have done with some background music. Rob Zombie, perhaps?

After all was said and done, I began to free my slav-… servants.

“Goddess! Oh, thank you!” They shouted.

“Gross.” I replied, then went and knelt next to Tiny Timothy. “I like your sandwiches, little man. Keep ’em coming.” My dark hair mostly covered my face and eyes- but I could see his adorable, bucktooth grin.

I looked to my High Priest, who had been knocked unconscious at some point. I loosed some of my Obsidian Smoke, and brought him around. “Hey, dork. Who sent the cops?” I asked.

“My…lady…Intelma….” He croaked, reaching toward me with a trembling hand.

I slapped it away. “Don’t try and cop a feel just ‘cuz you got your ass kicked.”

The High Priest smirked. “Was I that obvious?” His voice wasn’t weakened at all.

“As the rising sun, yes. Who. Sent. The godsdamnmotherfucking cops?”

He scowled. “Darius, I bet. He’s the Chief of Police, and he serves the Ashen Queen.”

I rolled my eyes. “She’s been immortal for, what, thirty years? She’s practically a baby, and she’s trying to pick a fight with me?” I stood. “Here’s what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna hit back, hard, and make her forget her plans to be a pain in my perfectly-sculpted ass. But direct warfare amongst the Gods is forbidden, so looks like you’re going to lead the charge.”

Opening a portal to my private storehouse, I summoned a ride. “Here, have a weapon for your warfare, Idiot Priest. Bring it back with a full tank…and be safe.” I said, handing him my keys.

“Your will, my lady.” He said, turning his attention to the decked-out hearse she had gifted him.

Though this was actually his third time meeting the Goddess, he doubted she knew his name. He was one High Priest from one of the many chapters of her cult- but today, he was going to ensure she learned his name, and never forgot it.

She had given him a hearse to drive in for a reason, he was sure.

Gathering up the faithful who had balls enough, the High Priest loaded them all into their make-shift vehicle of war, and he sped across the city towards the Chief of Police’s hidden sanctuary; the Temple of Ash.

It was deep in the city’s downtown, blending itself in with the rampant crime- the drug-dealing, the prostitution, this was where the allegedly moral rival goddess was laying down her roots.

She had done it in an attempt to uproot the ‘evil’- but, ironically, all it had done is led some of her followers astray.

Darius, the Chief of Police, had been digging his greedy fingers into the illegal cash flow that took place just outside of the Temple of Ash- through intimidation and blackmail, he coerced money from the criminals, offering “protection” from his own police force in exchange for a percentage of their cut.

It was true that he used his ill-gotten gains to fund his Goddess’s temple- but how laughable that their idea of ‘morality’ involved supporting crime on their own doorstep!

The High Priest loved squashing hypocrisy. His philosophy had always been ‘If you aren’t capable of truly being good, then accept your lot in life, and don’t pretend otherwise.’ He had know since his early teenage years that he was made to be criminal, and he embraced it wholeheartedly.

Stepping out of the hearse, he realized himself and his crew made for quite the odd picture. Dressed in black robes, moving in a silent group, they pounded on the doors of the Temple of Ash.

The door opened hesitantly. A greying man stood behind it. “Can I help you?” He asked.

The High Priest smiled maliciously as I drove two firm fingers into his windpipe, preventing him from shouting. He doubled over, and brought his knee to his chest for a savage kick that sent him tumbling backwards.

Waltzing down the hall, the High Priest noted the extremely orderly aesthetic- and that the Ashen Queen must have been fond of paintings.

As he walked past, followed by his entourage, he slashed his blade through each painting, laughing sardonically as he did.

Walking unchallenged through the remainder of the temple, they reached the back of the room- where, traditionally, most temples would leave two things; the Throne for their God or Goddess, and their Crown Jewel.

Feeling that he was likely being watched by the rival Goddess, and, perhaps, his own Goddess, the High Priest laid eyes on the Crown Jewel- which, in this case, was a semi-transparent pearl, the size of his own fist, which rested on a mantle piece above a fire place. Putting on a pair of leather gloves, the High Priest took it in his hands, and smashed it upon the ground. “Erich Vanhouser!” He cried. Hopefully, the goddess would remember his name, now.

He then toppled over the Ashen Queen’s throne, and, upon exiting, announced to the assorted bums and criminals in the street “Shop’s open for business, and everything’s free.” He and his group left, thinking the mission accomplished.

I, Goddess Intelma had been watching- halfheartedly, though. In truth I was probably more absorbed in my episode of Adventure Time than the raid- However, when Erich (and yes, I already knew his name. Needy sentimental softy.) fell for the decoy Crown Jewel and failed to take at least five lives in the raid, I knew we were now on for an all-out war.

He was soft. Afraid to lose those who he cared about… I couldn’t really blame him, but that was why I specified for him to really cause damage, Gods damn it!

This was going to grow.

I began sending my traditional signs to every sect, temple, and church under my domain- arm yourselves; we’re going to war.