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.”
“Sorry, pal,” the demon said. “Not interested.” The red-skinned demon in a navy blue suit waved his hand dismissively at William.
“What?! Why?” William shouted. “You buy souls and I’m ready to sell.” He’d known about the summoning ritual for years. He’d had a fairly rough life, but he swore he’d only sell his soul as a last resort. And now, it seemed it wasn’t even an option. The demon rolled his eyes, but sighed. He wasn’t in a hurry to get back to work and he could kill some extra time if he took time to explain. Plus, William looked like he needed a win.
“We do buy souls,” the demon replied. “The problem is, yours isn’t for sale.” William shot the demon a confused look.
“I’m telling you I’m ready to sell,” he said. The demon shook his head.
“Yeah, that’s not up to you,” he said. “It’s up to your soul.”
“Bull,” William said. “A good buddy of mine sold his soul a decade ago; he didn’t have any problems.” The demon nodded.
“He probably wasn’t a Unique Soul, like you.”
“What’s so special about my soul?” William asked.
“Well,.. uh..,” the demon hesitated for a moment as he looked for the right words. “Alright, I don’t want to deal with a whole lot of questions,” he said. “I’ll explain it to you, but just take everything I say as fact for now. If I have to go into every aspect, … well I don’t want to,” he said with a chuckle.
“Okay, sure,” William said. He already didn’t have anything left to lose when he summoned the demon.
“Alternate universes exist,” the demon said. William’s eyes shot wide, but he managed to hold his tongue. “Your buddy that sold his soul; he probably has a Zero-,” the demon noted a new look of confusion on William’s face.
“Zeros are his alternate universe doppelgangers,” he said. William seemed to accept that and he continued. “He probably has Zeros in other universes. Those Zeros exist because his soul is still fragmented. So, what your friend sold was only a small portion of his soul. Fragmentation is part of the whole process; your soul gets divided up and sent out into the universe to learn different lessons. Over time, as the Zeros die off, they get reconstituted into a single, Unique Soul; like you. There’s more nuance, but that’s the gist,” the demon said.
“So… why can’t you buy my soul? It seems like it would be a good thing for Hell to get a whole soul.”
“A few different reasons. The first is, as I mentioned, you don’t have the power to make that decision. Zero souls are only fragments so their body gets to call the shots. In your case, you’re a complete soul, so it’d be kind of silly to let your body decide things when you’re not even awake.”
“What do you mean?” William asked, then immediately clapped his hand over his mouth. “Sorry,” he squeaked out.” The demon nodded in understanding.
“Unique Souls have two phases. Slumbering, or Awakened. You’ll be Slumbering until you get your number, 52, etched on your skin. Tattoos are the most common. Though other things, like branding work too. Once you’re Awakened you get to unlock the full abilities of your soul.”
“Abilities? Like superpowers?” William asked. The demon shrugged.
“Some are like superpowers, like super strength or regeneration. Some are just handy abilities like talking to fish, or, in your case, talking to plants.” William burst into laughter.
“So, you’re telling me if I get a tattoo with the number 52 on it, I can talk to plants? How’d you know my favorite number?” The demon raised an eyebrow at William’s questions, but decided to answer.
“Yes, you’ll be able to talk to plants. And, your favorite number is your favorite number because that’s what your soul chose during the process. The easiest way to identify a Unique Soul is to ask them their favorite number. If they instantly answer a number between 1 and 54, without hesitation, they’re probably a Unique.”
“So I go get a tattoo and you can buy my soul?” William asked. Although, he was a bit less interested in selling it and instead started to wonder what he could do with the ability to talk to plants. The demon shook his head.
“Simply put, it’s against the rules for Hell to buy Unique Souls.”
“Oh c’mon. Hell’s following rules now? Whose?” The demon chuckled and simply pointed upward.
“I thought Hell’s whole thing was breaking rules.” The demon shrugged.
“Religious propaganda. Hell exists to serve a purpose, and we do it well, while following the rules.” William grew comfortable with the demon answering his questions.
“So what’s the purpose?” he asked.
“That’s going to be your last question,” the demon said. A sulfury, yellow plume enveloped the demon. It began to clear immediately and the demon was gone. But, William heard his voice one more time. “Have you ever tried playing chess by yourself?”
“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.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you Ms. Sharp. I’m Restraint,” the tan young man in a black suit shook Ms. Sharp’s hand before gesturing at the pair of seats in front of his desk for her and her assistant. “What can I do for you?” Restraint asked. He returned to his own seat as Ms. Sharp sat down; her assistant remained standing.
“I’m here to tell you what I can do for you,” Ms. Sharp replied. “You have a decently successful business here but it can be more.” Restraint was used to fending off business ideas from people that have no clue how to run a business. Everyone was eager to tell him how to make more money off the Supers that visited his spa anywhere he was. At least Ms. Sharp had the courtesy to make an appointment.
“Alright,” Restraint nodded. He let a short sigh escape then continued. “Go ahead and tell me how I can be making more money.” Ms. Sharp smiled at him.
“I’m sure everyone in this room knows you’re not doing this for the money,” she said. Restraint was surprised. He glanced at Ms. Sharp’s dark-haired assistant and she gave him a slight nod. Every other idea he’d heard was intended to boost his profits. “As I said, I want to help you make your business into more. To reach further and help more people than you already are.”
“That takes money…,” Restraint said. He was actually hoping she meant what she said. But, he did not want to let her know how close she hit to home. The only reason he ran the spa was to help people in his own way. He had the strength to be a superhero, not to mention his ability to nullify powers. But to him, it was more important to create an island of peace than to suit up and fight villains.
His spa was in the center of town and every year its influence grew a little larger. Heroes and villains were more civilized the closer they were to Restraint’s spa and he hoped that’d cover the whole city eventually. It surprised him when Ms. Sharp shook her head in response to his comment.
“It takes resources,” she said. “Money is just the middleman, I have all the resources you’d need.”
“And you have a plan to use those resources?” Restraint asked. “I doubt you’re giving them to me just like that.” Ms. Sharp nodded.
“You’re aware that alternate universes exist?” Ms. Sharp asked. Restraint nodded and chuckled.
“Yeah, we get a few travelers through here sometimes. Why?”
“I run a multiversal corporation named Sharp Development,” she said. “While we offer a wide variety of products and services, I still need to address the Super sector. Unfortunately, my knowledge and contacts in that area are thin at the moment, which brought me to you,” she said.
“Okay, you’re here,” Restraint said. “What’s your plan?”
“Simple as can be,” Ms. Sharp replied. “We’ll start off simple by having sign-up sheets available in the locker rooms. Once we get enough interest I’ll host a presentation laying out the whole thing. I’m envisioning a service that allows clients from other universes to hire Supers.”
“You think Supers want to get hired to help with honey-do lists and bodyguarding?” Restraint asked.
“I think that Supers would like the chance to use their abilities freely without risking their lives. I also think they’d like to travel and see other universes. If the local Supers are off in different universes they won’t have much time to cause trouble here,” Ms. Sharp said. Restraint had to admit he liked that idea the most.
“Okay,” Restraint nodded again. “I’m willing to give you a shot, what’s the next step?” He was surprised when Ms. Sharp’s assistant stepped forward with a red clipboard that she wasn’t holding a second ago. The clipboard only had one sheet.
“I just need a couple of things, first a signature,” Ms. Sharp said.
“What’s this?” Restraint asked. He was curious to see where her idea led, but he wasn’t ready to sign a formal contract.
“This is just giving us permission to distribute flyers in your business,” she smiled. “You’re not committing to anything else yet.”
“Oh, okay,” Restraint nodded then signed his name. “And the other thing?”
“This isn’t a requirement as much as it is advice,” Ms. Sharp said as she stood. Her assistant collected the clipboard. “This isn’t true for everyone, but it is for you. Get a tattoo. It will change your life,” she said. He watched her assistant wiggle her fingers at the air, then a tall black portal opened. “And make sure it has your favorite number, 42, on it,” Ms. Sharp added before she stepped into the portal and disappeared.
“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.”
“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.”
“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!”
“Restraint? That’s a boring hero name,” Charlie couldn’t help but comment as he shook the young man’s hand. Although, he couldn’t deny Restraint fit his name perfectly. Restraint appeared to be in his young 20s. He had a healthy tan and wore a perfectly tailored black suit with a white tie. A pair of round, red-rimmed glasses drew attention to his hazel eyes.
“I’m no hero, just the representative,” Restraint replied. “So…,” Restraint sat down in front of Charlie’s large oak desk. “…what kind of hero are you looking for, and for what purpose?” Restraint asked.
“What for?” Charlie asked. He walked around his desk and sat in a high-back leather chair. “I need a bodyguard for my daughter. I thought that was the extent of your services, what else do you offer?”
“Almost anything; Supers, like people, have a variety of interests. Sharp Development can find a Super willing to help you with anything you want to accomplish. Although, we do limit clients to one Super per contract period,” Restraint said. “How long would you like your daughter protected?”
“Forever, obviously,” Charlie laughed. “Or, at least as long as I can afford it.” Restraint tilted his head at Charlie with slight interest.
“There is a way to get a Super assigned to you on a permanent basis,” he said. “And, it wouldn’t count as a timed contract, so you’d still be able to hire Supers for temporary jobs.” Charlie sat up straighter, then leaned forward over the desk.
“You can really protect her permanently?” he asked. Restraint nodded.
“Sharp Development accepts souls as currency. However, since you only have the one, it can buy you nearly anything.”
“You’re serious?” Charlie asked. The question was directed both at Restraint and himself. He couldn’t believe he was seriously considering selling his soul. “If I sell you my soul, my daughter gets a Super to protect her for the rest of her life?” Restraint gave a curt nod.
“Can I get a permanent Super and a timed contract?” Charlie asked with a grin. “It’s the only soul I’ve got,” he said.
“Sure,” Restraint nodded again. This time, a faint smirk tugged at the corner of his lips. “The maximum contract is only three years; Sharp Development will own your soul forever.”
“H. hello?” Mario froze when he spotted the violet-haired woman peeking into the window of a coffee shop. It had been close to 35 years since he’d seen another person. Not that he was lonely. Somehow it felt like all the animals on Earth knew he was the last human on Earth. He discovered early on that predators would ignore him and managed to get a lot of traveling done. Being able to camp out anywhere without fear was especially liberating; even deadly insects and reptiles minded their own business around him.
Mario had a lot of time to wonder about why the aliens seemed so wary around him. After a couple of decades though, he realized it didn’t really matter. He had an entire Earth to himself and the freedom to travel anywhere in the Americas. As comfortable as he was alone in nature, he did often return to the city to reminisce about the past. He was wandering the abandoned downtown of a city he’d never visited when he spotted her. She whirled around and Mario caught a glimpse of golden stars in her eyes for just a moment; he assumed it was a stray reflection. She gave him a friendly, broad smile as if she recognized him.
“Hey, Mundo!” She said. “What happened here?” she spread her arms out to gesture at the empty town around them. Mundo had a dozen questions running through his head, but one bothered him the most. Thinking back on his time alone, he felt completely sure he was the last person on Earth, without ever really being able to confirm it. He realized his surety disappeared moments before he turned the corner and saw her.
“Where did you come from?” he asked. She had to have come from somewhere because she wasn’t around before. He wondered if she was another alien.
“Where did I…?” She tilted her head in confusion at the question. Gold stars flashed in her eyes again and Mario knew it wasn’t a reflection. If she was alien, she was different than the ones Mario remembered. After the stars flashed, the woman smacked her forehead. “Pay attention,” she mumbled to herself. Then, she focused on Mario.
“Sorry, you’re still Slumbering,” she smiled. Then, she shook her head. “You don’t know what that means either. But, that’s okay.” She seemed intent on saying more, but Mario shook his head.
“Where did you come from?” he asked again.
“An alternate universe,” she replied. “What happened on this Earth?”
“Aliens,” Mario replied. Her reply could have been a joke or a flat-out lie. But, Mario had over 30 years to deal with the existence of aliens. If they were real, anything could be. He did not doubt her for a moment and was more worried about whether she would believe him. She seemed to come to the same conclusion about him.
“Whoa, really!?” she asked. “They didn’t invade?” Mario shook his head.
“Nah, they just took everyone,” then, he shrugged. “Everyone but me. Talk about rejection, right?” he added with a chuckle. She took a step back and her eyes lit up with golden stars again; this time she had a slightly concerned look on her face. Her head moved up and down as she actively scanned him.
“They didn’t even touch you?” she asked. Her head continued to move up and down as she studied him intently. “How old were you?” she asked. She relaxed finally and the stars disappeared again.
“No. They seemed afraid of me. I was 12 when they took my parents away. My dad was a big guy, a boxer. He tackled them, but they took him down easily. Forcefully. I tried to jump in and help, but they just avoided me until one of them put me in a forcefield that kept me in place. I watched them take everyone in my neighborhood. Then, they just left and the forefield disappeared.”
“Whooooooaaaa…” the violet-haired woman said with awe. “…they know too…,” she whispered to herself. “…they have to.” She quickly reached into her pocket and pulled out a transparent glass rectangle.
“What?” Mario tilted his head at her. “You look like you figured something out.” She nodded vigorously but kept her attention on the glass. Her thumbs flew over its surface and Mario guessed she was typing something he couldn’t see.
“Is it why they left me here alone?” Mario asked with a chuckle. “‘Cause that bothered me for years.”
“One sec..,” she nodded. Mario was surprised. He stood patiently for a moment until she finally gave him her attention again. She looked up at him with a smile.
“You remember what they look like, right?” she asked. Mario nodded.
“Yeah, they were humanoid. Actually, a lot like elves,” he said.
“Interesting,” a new voice said. It startled Mario when he noted two new women standing next to the purple-haired one. He was focused on her and suddenly they were in his peripheral vision. “Thank you, Victoria,” The woman in a white suit said with a nod at the purple-haired one.
“You’re welcome, Ms. Sharp,” Victoria bowed her head slightly. Then, she stepped back into a black hole that wasn’t there a second ago. It closed and disappeared taking her with it.
“As for you, Mundo, I am very curious about why the aliens left you alone. Why don’t you tell me about it?” she asked. Mario burst into laughter.
“My name’s Mario, and I was just telling Victoria that I have no idea why. It bugged me for years, then I just quit worrying about it.”
“Of course you do,” Ms. Sharp replied. “You just don’t know that you know. Melody, jog his memory,” Ms. Sharp said. The woman in the black suit stepped forward and gently took Mario’s hand between both of hers. Then, he noticed a bright blue light glowing in her palms.
“What are you-OWWWWWW!” Mario yanked his hand away to shake off the sudden burning sensation. “What the hell!?” he shouted. He checked his hand to see a ’37’ scarred on it. Then, it was like a dense fog was lifted from his brain.
He suddenly remembered everything. Not only could he recall his childhood with perfect clarity; he could recall all his childhoods. He could feel every animal and plant on Earth. He knew why his name was Mundo. He remembered the rules; at last, he knew why he was left behind.
“They want to meet peacefully. No Uniques on either side.” Of the two women, only Melody showed any reaction. Her eyes went wide with shock. But, Ms. Sharp responded casually.
“Then, they have Unique Souls too?” she asked. Mundo grinned at her.
“Of course. It’s only fair if every side gets soldiers.”