Recording. Ruined.

“To second chances,” Dr. Clark raised her glass of champagne.

“To second chances,” the gathered scientists raised their own glasses to the toast.

“I hope we get one,” Dr. Clark added quietly to herself before she emptied the glass in one chug. Then, she put on a smile and nodded at the group. The brightest minds on Earth gathered in a cave seven miles below the surface. The most powerful weapons they could create, two solar cannons, were pointed at the center of the cave.

Their target was a bald, broad-shouldered pale man that sat on a stone throne. His eyes were open but he hadn’t moved or even breathed in the past month. A message carved into the side of the throne informed them of the exact time the figure would wake up, 12:00p.m. It also included some helpful advice. Most notably: “Don’t be on Earth when he wakes up.” The message also told the scientists that the hairless figure was a powerful creature of the night. With nothing else to work with, Dr. Clark decided he was a vampire based solely on the tattoo atop its head. It was a large bat skull with fangs and a blood-red number 42.

His discovery raised impossible questions. Where did he get such a professional tattoo a million years ago? How did they count to 42? Who sealed him for a million years? How did they know what calendar would be in use, to predict the exact date and time? But, Dr. Clark needed to prioritize survival above all else. She only had a month and called in every favor and contact she had.

Once the group was formed they tried everything from priests to garlic to end the threat. Nothing affected the figure. They couldn’t penetrate his skin with silver bullets, much less wood. Desperation forced the scientists to conceive a way to store and fire concentrated sunlight. Unfortunately, they only managed to complete them on the day of awakening. The cannons were untested and Dr. Clark decided not risk them misfiring and destroying themselves. She hoped she could somehow reason with the figure, using the cannons for intimidation.

“Lights on,” Dr. Clark said. Immediately the dozen industrial UV lights surrounding the cave flickered on. She hoped they weakened the figure, even if they couldn’t tell. She was also banking on him being weak after a million-year hibernation. “Close the doors,” she said.

“Why are you staying?,” her assistant, Mike, said. He tilted his head towards the exit where the rest of the scientists were filing out. “Why not try talking to him from the control room?” Dr. Clark shook her head with a faint, sad smile.

“I’m in charge, I get to be selfish,” she said. “I’m not convinced those doors will slow him down, much less stop him from getting to the control room. If I can’t reason with him…,” she shrugged. “…I won’t have to deal with even a second of guilt for failing you.” Dr. Clark gave Mike a gentle shove towards the half-closed doors. “Hurry up, they’re waiting for you,” she said. Mike gave her a hug, then dashed out the door.

Dr. Clark sighed to herself and sat on a chair between the solar cannons. 10 feet in front of the seated figure. She stared at her watch for two minutes while counting down. With ten seconds left she focused on him.

Despite feeling ready for anything, Dr. Clark jumped in her seat when the cave filled with the sudden sound of the figure inhaling deeply. He exhaled with force, then loudly filled his lungs again, then, he laughed.

“I’ll tell ya, doc,” he said. His eyes focused on Dr. Clark; his chest was heaving with deep breaths. “I didn’t need to breathe… but I missed the hell out of it,” he chuckled. He leaned back on his stone throne and smiled at her while still enjoying heavy use of his lungs.

Dr. Clark was shocked he spoke English, and seemed to know who she was.

“Who are you?” she asked. She practiced a series of questions in several languages; but, English made things easier.

“Name’s Ruin,” he said with a slight forward tilt of his head. “Pleased to meet you, Doc Clark.”

“How’d you know my name?” Dr. Clark was thankful for English; that wasn’t a question she prepared.

“I didn’t need to breathe because my body was time-locked,” Ruin said. “But, my eyes, ears, and mind still worked; she made sure I could reflect on my actions. You finding me was the first light I saw in a million years. And it’s been fun watching you all scurry around trying to kill me,” he chuckled.

“Who froze you in time? Why?”

“Vanilla,” a new voice startled Dr. Clark again. She suddenly realized a young man stood next to her. She glanced at the doors but they were still closed. The new stranger wore a white suit with an orange tie. He stared down at Dr. Clark through rounded spectacles. “Her name was Vanilla,” he said, then faced Ruin.

“Do I know you?” Ruin asked the man. He shook his head.

“I’m here in Vanilla’s place; and, I’m impressed she’s…,” the suited stranger gestured at Dr. Clark. “…still alive. You’ve been free for a whole minute.” Ruin shrugged.

“You’ll have to thank Vanilla for me. I really appreciate getting the time to think.” The stranger nodded.

“That’s enough for probation at least. Though, I’ll be keeping an eye on you. Where to?” he asked. Ruin stood from his throne and walked towards them. Dr. Clark tensed, but she tried to keep her wits about her. It sounded like he had plenty of time to kill her already if he wanted to.

“I want a nice vacation. In the woods, I miss nature,” he said. The stranger raised his hand and a pitch-black portal appeared between Ruin and Dr. Clark.

“Good luck, doc,” Ruin said. He nodded at her, then disappeared into the portal. The darkness swallowed him, then disappeared.

“Who are you?” Dr. Clark asked. “Where’d he go?”

“I’m Billy,” he added a curt bow to his introduction. “He went to another Earth.” Billy smiled, then another black portal opened next to him.

“Wait!” Dr. Clark jumped to her feet. “What’s going on? Who’s Vanilla?” Billy gave her a smile.

“She was the best,” he said. Then, Dr. Clark blinked. When she opened her eyes she was alone in the cave.

“Whoa! Where’d he go? Did we fail?” Mike’s voice over the speakers startled Dr. Clark. Once she got her bearings she started walking towards the exit hoping it would be open soon.

“I don’t know, we’ll have to check the video frame by frame.”

“What video?” Mike asked as she heard movement on the other side of the doors.

“OH MY GOD!” she shouted. “DON’T TELL ME YOU DIDN’T RECORD THAT!?

“Record what?” Mike asked. “He disappeared at 12 instead of waking up.”

“What?” Dr. Clark glanced at her watch. 12:00:31 p.m.

In the Spotlight

“Why?” A young woman with a light brown ponytail asked.

“Huh?” Kate looked up. She was surprised to see someone, anyone, standing close enough to talk to her. Kate sat on a park bench wondering just how much more of life she could take. It was a cool, sunny Friday morning. It was objectively a beautiful day but Kate was too busy lamenting her problems to notice. She also didn’t notice that she spoke aloud.

“You said you wish you were never born,” the woman said. “Why is that?” Kate sighed. She didn’t want pity; but, at the same time, she felt like she really needed it. Maybe a kind word from a stranger would help her get back on a positive track.

“Because I feel like I don’t matter,” Kate lowered her eyes to stare at the cement path. “Never have, never will…,” she whined. Kate hoped for kindness. Or at the very least, a warm smile before the young woman moved on from the sad sack on the park bench. Instead, she got a hearty laugh in exchange for opening up. Not only that, the stranger decided Kate was entertaining enough to sit down next to her.

“You don’t!” the stranger said with glee after her initial outburst died down. Then, for some reason, she extended a hand at Kate. “I’m Elsa,” she said.

“Kate,” she tentatively shook Elsa’s hand. Sure, Elsa made fun of her; but, she was also the only person that seemed interested in having a conversation with Kate in the past year. And, Kate wasn’t a stranger to abusive relationships; assuming Elsa wanted a friend at all.

“Thanks for the pep talk,” Kate added. “I feel so much better.” Elsa continued to giggle.

“No, really,” Elsa said. Her giggles died down but she maintained a broad grin and amused, sparkling eyes. “You want me to prove it?” she asked. If Kate had not already been contemplating suicide, that question might have raised an eyebrow. Instead, she felt like she had nothing to lose.

“Sure,” she shrugged. “Show me how unimportant I am.”

“You got it,” Elsa snapped her fingers. Then, Kate blinked. She found herself in a hospital room. A younger version of her father held the hand of a younger, screaming, version of Kate’s mother.

“PUSH!” her father yelled, then, everyone froze and the room went quiet.

“This is the moment of your birth,” Elsa said. Kate stared at her unmoving parents, then looked at Elsa.

“How….who or what are you?” Kate asked. She was willing to accept that she may have gone crazy at the park. Or that maybe, she accomplished what she planned to do that day and this was just some version of her life flashing before her eyes. But, Elsa was there to talk to, so she asked her.

“That’s kind of an involved answer,” Elsa said. “For now, the easy explanation is, I’m Death.”

“Death, huh?” Kate couldn’t not believe her; she was standing in the past at the moment of her birth. “It’s about time. I’ve been hoping you’d show up,” Kate said, she almost smiled at her own joke.

“And, I did!” Elsa laughed.

“But, I wanted to never be born,” Kate said. “Killing me at birth just feels mean to my parents,” she said.

“I’m not killing you. I’m showing you why you don’t matter,” Elsa replied. She reached forward and grasped at nothing in the air. Kate didn’t see how it happened but the moment Elsa closed her hand she held a long pitch-black scythe. Then, she walked closer to Kate’s mother and placed the flat side of it on her mother’s stomach.

After a moment, Elsa flipped the scythe over and rested the other flat end on Kate’s mom. When she was satisfied, Elsa lifted the scythe and returned to Kate’s side. The room roared to life again as Kate’s mother continued her labor.

“And there you go, you’re never born. Let’s see how this turns out,” Elsa said. A dozen questions flooded Kate’s mind but she was distracted by a sudden blink. When she opened her eyes she was in her childhood room. It looked different, but she recognized the peeling wallpaper and stained brown carpet. She was surprised to see her 8-year-old self walk into the room. The little girl dropped a pile of clothes on the floor, then dashed out of the room again.

“You said I was never born…,” Kate said.

“And you weren’t,” Elsa replied. “She was, whoever she is.”

“That’s me!” Kate said.

“Oh, damn. I might’ve done something wrong. Are you sure that’s you? Were you this messy as a child?” Elsa asked. The clothes on the floor fit in well the decor of everything else being on the floor too.

“God no, I always kept things tidy,” Kate replied. Which was true. It was why she chose to go to the park that day; she did not want to leave a mess behind in her apartment.

“Then, it’s not you,” Elsa replied.

“But she looks just like me!”

“Really?” Elsa asked. She tried to sound surprised, but Kate got the impression she was putting on a show. “Let’s check again a bit later.” Kate blinked again. This time she opened her eyes to her own wedding.

“Yeah…I guess she does kind of look like you,” Elsa said while appraising the bride in all black.

“Black wedding dress? What’s wrong with her?” Kate asked. “I can’t believe Jeff married someone that would wear a black wedding dress.”

“You mean he’s not marrying you?” Elsa asked. Her voice carried a hint of smugness, but, Kate was okay with that. She started to feel like she was understanding Elsa’s lesson.

“So…, my parents had a baby. And that baby is going to marry Jeff no matter what? Whether or not my soul is in that baby?” Kate offered her guess. Elsa smiled, then Kate blinked. They were back at the park and Elsa’s scythe was gone.

“I wouldn’t say ‘no matter what’,” Elsa said once Kate got her bearings. “But for the most part, yeah. It’s not something I go around talking about, but I think it’ll help you. Time is kind of like TV show. Before you see it, the route to the end is already planned out. If someone doesn’t show up, they get replaced.”

“So, nothing I do matters?” Kate asked.

“Not really, no. Life goes on.”

“Then, what’s the point?”

“There isn’t one,” Elsa said with a large grin. “That’s why you get to make up your own.”

“But what if-,” Kate’s question was interrupted.

“What if what?” she asked. “I just proved that nothing matters. Actually, that’s wrong too, there is one thing that matters.”

“What?” Kate asked.

“YOU are here. You’re ON THE SHOW!” Elsa said. “It’s your chance to do whatever you want to do. Whether you do it or not, it doesn’t make a difference. So, you’ve got to decide if you’re going to try to enjoy being on stage or resent not knowing the routine, that no one cares about, until you’re out of time.”

Evil gets in Line

“It wasn’t a mistake,” I cried.

“It’s initiative.” I amended my defense.

“If we could get their kid on our side,

we could adjust their moral sense.”

“What did you think would happen?

Their child at a school they didn’t attend.

Did you think that would be fine?”

“Sorry,” I hung my head in resignation.

And now, here I stand at the end

of the unemployment line.

History of Lies

“bbbzzzzz bbbzzz..I’M A FREAKING WIZARD!”

Julio tried not to stop all at once so his reaction wouldn’t be obvious. The detective slowed his pace, then turned to face the young man he just locked up. He was a 22-year-old known troublemaker. He never participated in any violent crimes. But, Aaron came through the station regularly for trespassing, misconduct, and other annoying crimes. It was the first time Julio arrested him.

“So, if you’re a wizard you can escape any time, right?” Julio asked with a curious tone. He didn’t want Aaron to know he believed him just yet. Julio expected the static buzz of made-up excuses. Instead, he heard Aaron’s reason. The young man shrugged.

“It’s a contemporary server. I can only use magic in designated areas,” Aaron said. “This isn’t one.” Julio laughed, though his mind was racing. He didn’t understand everything Aaron said, but he heard it; it had to be true. The word ‘server’ made Julio think of his son’s online games.

“And Mrs. Whittaker’s pool house is one of those places?” Julio asked. He tried to inject some snark into the sincere question. Aaron shook his head.

“I was looking for a quest item. I usually am whenever you guys pick me up,” Aaron smiled, almost proud. “I get better rewards if I can do it without magic.”

It bothered Julio that he could hear this explanation at all. His almost 20 years on the force helped Julio keep his panic and confusion under wraps. He made a decision.

“Where’s the closest place you can use magic?” Julio asked.

“The Sharp Arena,” Aaron replied with a hopeful smile.

“The one across the street?” Julio asked. Aaron nodded. “It’s right across the street, why can’t you do magic?”

“Very strict boundaries,” Aaron replied.

“Let’s take a walk,” Julio said. “If you can’t prove it, I’ll make sure you spend a lot more time with us,” he added. It was an empty threat. He knew Aaron would be out by morning; he always was.

As far as Julio’s ability could tell, Aaron was telling the truth. Julio hoped it was true. If magic was real, maybe he would have a way to reconnect with his son. The reason the word, ‘server’ only sounded kind of familiar was because he didn’t listen as much as he should have. Julio’s ability was hard on his relationships. Especially when it came to kids that lied for no reason. He was so used to ignoring his son, he started doing it even when he could hear his son’s words. If magic was real; and, it sounded like it was, maybe he could rid himself of his curse.

No one blinked as Julio walked Aaron out of the station in cuffs. Julio was well-respected and Aaron was almost a mascot of sorts. Julio was glad for Aaron’s silence as they crossed the street. He started wondering if it wasn’t too late to reconnect with his ex-wife as well as his son. They never told his son but she knew about his abilities. If he explained he could no longer hear lies, maybe they could start again. Not that she wanted to be lying all the time; but the stress of keeping nothing to herself wore on her over time.

The pair reached the sidewalk on the other side of the street and Julio stopped.

“Okay, magic time,” Julio said. Aaron chuckled.

“I said in the arena,” Aaron said. He gestured at the nearest door.

“Well, we’ve come this far,” Julio said. He was trying to play it cool until he could ask Aaron to teach him magic. Julio escorted Aaron into the building. The second they were in the door, Aaron’s cuffs fell off.

“This is good enough,” Aaron grinned. He held his palm out and produced a small fireball. Then he closed his hand around it and water flowed out of his fist. “See? Magic,” Aaron grinned. Julio’s eyes were wide as saucers while he nodded in awe.

“Magic…,” Julio said. “You’re telling the truth!” Despite his abilities, a faint doubt tugged at Julio’s mind. Magic was real. Julio’s hopes soared. He would be able to retire in a couple of years, and if he spent those two years learning magic, maybe he could have his family back.

“Can I learn?” Julio asked. “I mean, can you teach me, or point me to someone that will?” Aaron put a gentle hand on Julio’s shoulder and shook his head; he wore a somber expression.

“Sorry, man. You’re awesome and I really appreciate you being the first one to listen to me. But, I’m afraid you can’t learn it,” he said.

“What? Why? I’ve got money if that’s the problem,” Julio’s professional demeanor slipped for a moment as he pleaded. He did not have much money, but he would do anything to get his family back.

“It’s not money,” Aaron replied. “You literally cannot learn it,” he said.

“What? Why?” Julio asked.

“bbzzztttt  bbbbzzzzz bzzz,” Aaron replied.

“That’s bull and you know it,” Julio said. Aaron was genuinely surprised he was called out. “C’mon man, I’ve been a cop for 18 years.” Aaron nodded and sighed.

“The reason you can’t learn magic…,” Aaron began. Julio heard him crystal clear in the empty hallway. “…is because you’re just an NPC.”

Stellar Normalcy

“Not at all,” Roger smiled. The violet-haired woman returned the warm smile and sat down next to him.

“Thanks,” she said. “I’m not used to a coffee shop being so crowded.” Roger chuckled. She seemed to be open to conversation; and, now that he finished writing he felt comfortable talking.

“Not from around here?” he asked. “This place is always full.” She shook her head. Her long violet strands shimmered in the sunlight pouring in through the windows.

“I do a lot of traveling for my job,” she brought her hand up between them. “My name’s Victoria.”

“Roger,” he replied as she shook her hand. “Travel, huh? That’s interesting. I bet you’ve seen some amazing places.”

“Yeh,” Victoria replied and shrugged her shoulders at the same time. “The novelty wears off after a while. This place has more customers than I’m used to;  but, sometimes it feels like all I do is visit coffee shops,” she said. “What do you do?”

“I’m a writer,” Roger said. Victoria’s eyes flitted to the open laptop, then back to him.

‘Oh no, sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt,” Victoria began to apologize but Roger shook his head. He made a point to close the laptop lid to make the point.

“You didn’t, I just finished.” Her eyes lit up.

“You finished a story? That’s so cool! What’s it about?” she leaned closer with a curious smile on her face.

“It’s about a girl that leads a normal life-,” Roger made it that far before Victoria interrupted.

“Oh, I can totally relate to that,” she said. Roger smiled and continued.

” …until she meets a strange man in a bar.”

“And then?” Victoria asked.

“And then her life gets interesting,” Roger smiled. “I don’t need to give it away.”

“Boooo…,” Victoria rolled her eyes,  but giggled to let him know she was kidding.

“I wish my life would get interesting,” she said.

“What do you do?” Roger asked. “You said you travel, but what for?”

“Unfortunately, traveling is my job,” she sighed. “The company I work for, Sharp Development, is always on the lookout for new resources, opportunities, or information. So my job is basically to travel around and report back whatever seems helpful.”

“Are you kidding?” Roger asked. “That sounds amazing!”

“Yeh,” Victoria shrugged again. “The company is amazing, but the work is starting to get old.” She smiled. “It seems like the coffee is getting worse in every shop I go to at least.”

“You visit that many coffee shops?” Roger asked. Victoria nodded.

“It’s the quickest way to meet someone and get information.”

“So you’re always chatting up strangers?” Roger asked. Victoria shook her head.

“No. Usually, I set something up with a dating app-“

“Dating app?” Roger interrupted with curiosity. Victoria giggled.

“Yeah, you don’t have any here yet. So I’m moving on tomorrow.”

“Oh,” Roger said. He debated for a moment and decided to go for it. “Well, if you’re looking for a date, my evening’s free. I’d be happy to take you out.” Victoria smiled at him.

“Technically…,” she said. “I wasn’t looking for a date anymore. I was ready to move on. But,” Roger was feeling deflated until she added the ‘but’. “It wouldn’t hurt to see more than just the coffee shop,” she said. “My evening was reserved for a date anyway, so yeah. That sounds good.”

“Besides,” she added with a wink. “Maybe you’ll make my life more interesting like the girl in your story.”  Roger chuckled.

“I doubt that,” he said. “They go off on adventures to a parallel universe,” he decided he could spoil the story for her a little bit. He regretted it when her smile dimmed just a tiny bit.

“Oh man,” she said. She playfully shoved him away. “You said it was something interesting.”

One in a Million

“What!?” MaxBlaze asked. He was surprised that anyone was still downtown, much less a junior high kid. A chorus of laughter picked up behind the kid and MaxBlaze stepped closer; he recognized the voice. Five figures, all chuckling, emerged from the rubble of a nearby coffee shop. Each of the five looked exactly alike – black spandex and masks with a large green number ‘1’ in the center of the outfit. MaxBlaze moved to put himself between the boy and the villain he was currently facing.

As the figures approached four of them shimmered, then disappeared. The villain pulled his black mask up to reveal a handsome tan face and chiseled jawline.

“He asked why you think you’re better than me,” Juan Million said. “I’m curious about the answer myself.”

“It’s dangerous here,” MaxBlaze said to the boy. “You should get to safety.”

“He’s safe until I get an answer from you. We promise, right guys?” Juan shouted. 

“RIGHT!” about 20 voices, all exactly like Juan’s, responded. MaxBlaze took a quick look around to try and spot all the clones, but he knew there were more than he could see.

“So, c’mon Max,” Juan said. “Tell us why you’re better than us.”  Max had known Juan since their school days. Villain or not, Juan was as good as his word. Max sighed and looked at the boy.

“What’s your name, kid?” Max asked.

“Eddie,” the kid replied. Max nodded.

“Alright Eddie, I’m going to answer your question. But first, I have a question for you. Why are you asking me that, and not him?” Max asked. Eddie laughed instantly and obnoxiously.

“Because he’s a villain, duh,” Eddie’s high-pitched giggle was bolstered by a chorus of laughter from a dozen Juans. “Bad guys are supposed to do bad things.”

“Okay,” Max nodded. “That answered why you didn’t ask him. But why are you asking me and not anyone else?” Eddie rolled his eyes.

“Because you’re the hero, idiot,” he replied.

“Well, who told you I was a hero?” Max asked. “Unlike Juan over there….,” Max waved his hands in the general direction of a group of clones. “…and over there…,” he added. “I don’t do any advertising.” Eddie let out a heavy, frustrated sigh.

“You said you were going to answer my question!” he said. Max nodded.

“I am. Just answer that last one. Who told you I was a hero?”

“The city says you’re a hero, so you’re a hero,” Eddie grumbled. Max locked eyes with Eddie and gave him a friendly nod.

“I don’t think I’m better than anyone,” he said. “Every day is just me trying to do whatever good I can on that day. Some days are easy, some days buildings get destroyed,” he shrugged. “The city calls me a hero because of what I do. And Juan gets called a villain because of the choices he makes.”

“Oh. Okay,” Eddie gave a half-nod. Max wasn’t sure if Eddie understood or if he gave up on the question; but, he seemed to be processing the lesson.

“Will you get somewhere safe now?” Max asked. Juan spoke up as Eddie nodded in agreement.

“Forget it,” Juan said. He was walking in the opposite direction while his clones shimmered out of existence. “I’m going home to think about stuff.”

Star-hitched

“It’s Aurora, right?” Cliff’s mother asked. The birthday boy was crowded in his living room on all sides. Multicolor balloons and red ribbons decorated his cozy home. Friends and family just watched him open gifts, but now it was time for the real reveal. His mother leaned in close with a large grin; she hoped by being closer the news would hit her first.

Cliff stared at the thin black string tied around his pinky at a complete loss. It was supposed to be red and stretched out in the direction of his soul mate. His mind should be full of information about his destined partner but the dark string gave him nothing. Instead of stretching out, a two-inch strand black strand hung off his pinky tied to nothing. He worried for a moment that it meant a life of loneliness; but, that wasn’t something to discuss at his birthday party.

“Well… it’s personal,” Cliff said.

“AUGH!” Cliff’s family filled the small room with tangible disappointment. Everyone except his mother, she continued to smile.

“Now, now,” she said to ease their disappointment. “If he wants to keep it personal, that’s his choice and we’ll respect it,” her grin grew wider. “Just like we respect Aurora’s choice not to reveal her soul mate either!”

“Hey, where is she anyway?” Cliff’s father asked over the laughter that filled the room.

“Late,” Cliff’s mother replied. “She’s picking up a special gift for the birthday boy. Because he’s probably her soul mate.” His mother was only making Cliff feel worse about not understanding the string. It helped knowing Aurora would miss his party entirely; she told him ahead of time. He hoped and expected it to be Aurora. They grew up together being the best of friends, although she turned 15 first. Her parents had the foresight to tell the partygoers ahead of time that there would be no reveal.

He hated putting his mom on the spot like that, but he knew she’d understand once he explained the situation after the party. He hoped that maybe she even had an idea about what it might mean. Mothers tend to know things; his did at any rate. Ten minutes later Cliff got a call from Aurora, as planned, to let him know that she was going to be extra late. The party didn’t last too much longer after that. Then when most of the cleanup was done, Cliff told Aurora to go ahead and come over. While he waited, he thought it was best to tell his mom that she wasn’t his soul mate.

“I didn’t want to say anything during the party…,” he opened up to her as she sat down to recover the partying and cleaning. “but, I think there’s something wrong with my string,” he said. He wiggled his right pinky at her to clarify which string he meant.

“What is it, honey?” she asked. His mother had sat back on the couch to relax, but she immediately sat up straighter and scooted forward to listen.

“Well…, I don’t know who my soulmate is,” Cliff said. As he tried to explain the dark string to his mother, it suddenly filled with color. He did not pick up any new knowledge, but the string no longer hung limply. It was stretched taut in the direction of his front door and shined with a brilliant golden glow. As the string filled with color, the doorbell rang.

“Oh, it’s Aurora,” Cliff’s mother said. She hopped to her feet to answer the door. Cliff watched his mother open the door to let Aurora in. As soon as the door was open, Cliff spotted a golden glow on Aurora’s right pinky stretching towards him.

Awesome…,” Cliff mumbled to himself. He had a ton of questions, but the most important thing was that he found his soul mate.

“Happy birthday!” Aurora said as she hugged Cliff.

“Thanks!” he said. After they separated, Aurora held up a transparent, glassy card.

“I got you a special gift,” she said. “It’s called a node.”

“I’ll take that,” Cliff’s mom snatched the node out of Aurora’s hand before any of them could react. “There’s something I want to hear first,” she said. Then, she looked at Cliff expectantly. You were saying?” she asked. Cliff glanced at the golden string on his finger. Now that Aurora was close enough, he could see a whole string tying them together. He smiled and wiggled his pinky at his mom.

“It’s Aurora,” he said. His mom shook her head.

What’s Aurora?” she asked. Cliff sighed, but he did enjoy humoring his mother for this instance at least.

“Aurora is my soulmate,” he said. Despite his mom being the only one in the room that didn’t know it, Cliff felt the most embarrassed. His cheeks flushed with red and he glanced at Aurora to see her give him a shy smile. 

“That’s better,” his mom smiled at both of them, then handed the node to Cliff. “You and I are going to have a major conversation later,” she said. “nothing bad,” she added as soon as a nervous look appeared on Cliff’s face. “Now go show him how to use this,” she said to Aurora.

“Thanks, mom!” Cliff leaned forward and gave his mom a peck on the cheek.

“Thanks, Mrs. Longoria!” Aurora said. Cliff chuckled and his mother rolled her eyes.

“How many times do I have to tell you, Estrellita?” she said. “Call me, Mundo.”

Moderated Discussion

“It’s not my problem,” Gavin grumbled backward over his shoulder.  The princess sat bound and unfortunately, not gagged, in the back of his wagon. Gavin was thankful to see the city growing in the distance. They would be in the capital before dusk and he would be rich enough to celebrate a wonderful evening.

Gavin did not bother to gag her because he did not expect her to talk so incessantly over the two-day journey back from the dragon’s lair. He’d saved princesses a time or six but they usually shut up after about an hour of not being talked to. Not that they had a conversation. It was two days of her talking at him about how boring and repetitive her royal life was. She renewed her attempts to talk him out of returning her as soon as the city spires came into view.

“Of course it’s your problem!” the princess replied. “I’m just going to sit in my room bored for a day until the dragon comes and kidnaps me again. Aren’t you tired of saving me?” she asked. Gavin slowed the horses a bit, then turned around to face the princess.

“What did you say?” he asked. A smirk grew on the princess’ face.

“Aren’t you tired of saving me?” she repeated. “Or, do you just like throwing me over your shoulder?” she added.

“You…. you remember?” Gavin asked. The princess nodded.

“I’m tired of sitting in the castle and in the dragon’s lair; I feel like that’s all I’ve seen my entire life. There’s more out there,” she said. “I want to see the AlterNet.”

“WHOA!” Gavin pulled the reins hard and halted the wagon. He hopped off the cart and dashed around to the back to stare at the princess on more even footing.

“Where did you hear that word?” he asked. Slight fear filled her eyes and she pulled back slightly.

“I-..I don’t know,” she said. “I just know it.”

“Aughh,” Gavin gave a heavy sigh. “Well, at least that explains why you wouldn’t shut up,” he said. The princess noticed he was suddenly more relaxed and she felt more at ease.

“Does that mean you’ll help me?’ she asked. Gavin sighed again, then nodded.

“Yeah. Now that I know how,” he said. He reached under his cloak and pulled out a transparent card.

“That’s a node!” the princess said eagerly. She scooted closer to the edge of the cart to get a better look. Gavin kept his attention on the node, but didn’t try to hide it from her; his thumbs tapped quickly on its surface. “What are you doing?’ she asked.

“Getting someone to help,” he said.

“Thank you!” the princess replied with a bright smile. She extended her bound hands in a friendly gesture. “My name’s Princess,” she said. Despite his situation, Gavin couldn’t help but chuckle. He reached out and shook her bound wrists.

“Of course it is,” he said with a smile. After they shook hands, a disappointed look took over her face.

“Aren’t you going to untie me?” she asked.

“Hi,” a new voice made both of them jump. They turned toward the speaker and saw a chubby, curly-haired teenager wave at them.

“Mod Aury,” he said. “NPC troubles?”

“What?” Princess asked. She looked at Gavin for guidance and saw him nodding at Aury and pointing at her. “What does he mean?” the question was out before she registered he was talking about her.

“He’s going to help me get you back to your father,” Gavin replied.

“WHAT!?” Princess’ heart sank from the betrayal. She turned toward Aury hoping to make an appeal. A large grey glass hovered in front of him as his fingers moved across it.

“I don’t know you, but please, Aury. Don’t make me go back there,” she begged.

“Done,” Aury said. He tapped the glass slate one more time and it disintegrated into nothing.

“Thanks!” Gavin said. He gave Aury a friendly wave, then headed back to the front of the wagon.

“Why have we stopped?!” Princess asked. “Make haste! If we reach the city before dusk I’ll make my father give you a bonus reward!”

Unacceptable

“It’s worthless, useless, and kinda gross,”

The stranger turned up his nose.

“Don’t you have a different offer?

Something that’s not such a bother?”

Craig puzzled and tilted his head.

“Something else? You mean instead?

Just name your price to heal this ailment.”

“Your offer is faulty at its core.

Cash? Money? What do I need it for?

There is no way I can accept that as payment.”

Royal Explainer

“You want to report 30 years of people giving you things when you ask them to?” The officer behind the counter shook his head with a chuckle. “Mister, we’ve got real police work to do here,” he said. While he spoke, he reached across the counter to accept a short stack of pizza boxes from a teenager with green hair. “Why don’t you come back when you’ve got an actual crime to report?”

Philip sighed. He didn’t know what he expected, but that wasn’t it.

The urge to confess his crimes crept up on him over the last few years. He finally decided it was the right thing to do but he suddenly found himself at a loss when the officer didn’t even give him a second look. As he walked out of the police station with his head hung low, the green-haired teenager caught up to him.

“Hi,” the teen said. “I’m Mundo.” Philip glanced at the teenager but didn’t slow his pace. He was lean, pale and despite being bright green, his hair color somehow looked natural. He seemed friendly enough. Unfortunately, Philip wasn’t in the mood to make new friends.

“You want to stop talking to me and get back to work,” Philip said. After over 30 years of practice, Philip had a pretty good grasp of his ability. He injected his words with enough of his power to make the kid go away; but, Mundo smiled and kept pace with him.

“That’s not going to work on me, but I can explain it to you if you want,” he said. Philip stopped walking. He’d never met anyone that knew about his ability, much less reject it. He assumed there’d be people that could, but he never bothered to search. He preferred instead to keep a low profile.

“Why doesn’t it work on you? How do you know about what I can do?” Philip asked. Mundo grinned.

“You know how you can get people to do whatever you want just by telling them to?” he asked. Then he continued when Philip nodded. “That’s your thing. Knowing and explaining stuff is my thing.”

“Alright,” Philip looked up and down the sidewalk. They stood at the edge of the parking lot; Philip could see the clearly marked delivery car parked next to his own. It was late morning and they were alone outside. “I’ll bite. Explain something to me about my powers.”

“Your favorite number is 47,” Mundo said.

“Yeah…?” Philip agreed immediately, but he could not make a connection between that and his powers. It was weird that Mundo knew it though.

“You’re Unique Soul #47, La Corona,” Mundo added. “Your power would be much stronger if you got a tattoo.”

“How much stronger?” Philip asked. He’d always wanted a tattoo, but he never bothered to make time for it. It would be as simple as walking into a tattoo shop and telling them to do it; but, Philip was always distracted by some other want that didn’t take up as much time.

“Right now, you can get a few people to do what you say just by asking. Once you’re Awakened with a tattoo, you’ll be able to get the world to do what you say just by thinking.”