Promotion. Gratitude.

“This doesn’t feel like a promotion,” Roe sighed to himself. He took a moment to appraise the two-story, red brick building. A red neon sign flashed “Donna Chang’s” on the second story. It did not look like it needed an ounce of work on the outside. it looked rather ancient, but still in perfect condition. But, the age of the exterior gave him plenty of worries about what horrors lay within.

It was an uneasy morning so far. Roe showed up at the work-site, but the foreman pulled him aside before he got started. His first words put a damper on Roe’s whole day.

“You’re not working here anymore,” his boss said. When Roe immediately demanded to know what he did wrong, his boss laughed; that didn’t help Roe’s mood. “Kid, you’ve gone and done everything right. In six months, you’ve learned more and worked harder than guys that have been with me for years. That’s why you’re getting this promotion and they’re not.”

“Alright,” Roe nodded. He was ready to listen now that his livelihood was intact. “What’s the job?” The foreman grinned and handed Roe a red business card. It was embossed with a golden dragon, and golden text read, “Donna Chang’s” with an address, but no phone number.

“A Chinese restaurant?” Roe asked.

“That’s just where you’ll make contact with your new foreman. She owns the restaurant.”

“How is this a promotion exactly?” Roe asked. The foreman always made him feel like he could speak his mind.

“Higher-level clientele willing to pay big bucks for discretion. Not only that, there are fringe benefits you wouldn’t believe. I’m putting a lot of trust in you by putting your name up for this,” the foreman patted Roe on the back. “Trust me, you won’t regret this.”  With that final encouragement, Roe made the drive out to the restaurant.

After a few minutes of waiting in the car staring at the building, he finally opened his door. He crossed the street and entered the restaurant. A small, tinny bell jingled when he opened the door then a short, elderly woman walked out of a swinging door at the back.

“Hello, Roe,” she said as she approached. She reached him and introduced herself with an outstretched hand. “My name is Donna Chang, and I’ll be your foreman from now on. Are you ready to work today?”  She asked with a stern voice. Roe nodded.

“Yes, Ma’am. I was already at one site before they sent me here.” She giggled lightly.

“Good good. No work for you today. I just wanted to know if you were ready.” She pulled out a card-sized rectangle of glass. “This is a node. Consider it your schedule and your pay. It functions like a credit card and a cellphone, learn to use it.”

“Credit card?” Roe asked. It seemed kind of unusual that she didn’t need his bank information. After his question, he realized his previous boss, Joe, probably sent all the paperwork. To his surprise, Donna nodded.

“You’re on retainer. No work today just means no work today. Joe didn’t mention the signing bonus?” she asked.

“One million dollars, pre-loaded,” she nodded at the node. “Get your things in order, Roe. Reliable transportation, reliable tools, and so on. Many of your jobs will be short notice.” Roe stopped paying attention at ‘pre-loaded’.

“One…one million dollars?” he asked. Donna nodded.

“Joe mentioned discretion was part of the job?” she asked. Roe nodded. “You’ll be working with Fae. Fairies, pixies, werewolves, vampires, and the like. I expect that won’t be an issue?” Roe’s eyes widened; he was surprised, but not shocked. He felt like he was suddenly given permission to believe in the things he knew were real all along.

“Alright,” Roe grinned. “I’m 100% on board. So, you seem wise,” Roe added. “Any ideas how I can thank Joe for this awesome promotion?”

Forbidden Agreement

“Forbidden? Ha! What do they know?

They’re content with a simple glow.

They forget how things once worked.

They forget what started it all,” she smirked.

“Spellcasting wasn’t always the norm.

Though it’s as simple as filling out a form.

Forbidden? Ha! It’s a single signature.

Just sign the dotted line. It’s granted.

Gain magic and power beyond extol.

At the paltry price of your soul.”

Research Reasons

“Companion; but, not A.I. You see

I’m not a bot. I’m human.

Your mother is intelligent, artificially.

“Then what does that make me?”

Alex posed the question.

“You’re a soul I trapped in a PC.”

Secret of the Stars

“OH MY GOD!” Margo jumped to her feet and stared at Jessie with wide eyes. Jessie froze mid-stretch. Her arms reached toward the ceiling while two broad, white-feathered wings stretched across the room behind her. “SINCE WHEN DO YOU HAVE WINGS!?” Jessie giggled and relaxed; she lowered her arms.

“Since always,” she said. The pink-haired girl turned around and showed her back to Margo. She could see the spot where her two angelic wings sprouted out between her shoulder blades. “But, they get in the way a lot,” Jessie replied. Margo watched Jessie raise her wings upward, then a horizontal black portal slid down to swallow them. It continued until it became a small, flat circle on Jessie’s back.

“A lot of Estrellas have them,” Jessie replied as she finished getting dressed. “Other Uniques too, but it’s most common in Estrellas.

“How common? Do all Estrellas have wings?” Margo asked. Jessie shook her head.

“More than you think, but not all of them.” Margo’s mind raced; she knew several other Estrellas.

“Andy? Mark?… Cassie!?” Margo asked excitedly. Jessie grinned, but she did not give a hint one way or another.

“You’ll have to ask them,” she said.

“Whoooooaaa,” Margo suddenly imagined her new friends all with beautiful, white-feathered wings. “Does Rana know?” she asked. Jessie nodded.

“Yeah, we go way back,” she said.

“Can you fly?” Jessie shook her head.

I can. Not every Estrella with wings can fly.” The pink-haired girl crossed her arms and stood still; then, she floated upward and hovered off the floor. Margo stared wide-eyed for a moment then Jessie shrugged and descended to the floor again.

“But, you didn’t use your wings?” Margo asked. Jessie nodded.

“Sure I did; they were just flapping in another universe.”

Fool Me Once

“This brainless fool?” The King stared down at his court jester with annoyance more than anything. Truth be told, the King was mildly amused by the thought of his jester being an assassin in any capacity. However, the captain of the guard himself not only made the accusation. He had proof of the idiot’s wavering loyalty. The king would have taken the captain at his word alone, he was a young man that worked his way up through the guard ranks. He was eager, smart, and best of all trustworthy.

The captain presented the King with jester’s kercheif, found in the queen’s chambers. The king raged at first; he flung accusations of infidelity and promising to leave her. The captain remained calm and explained what was really happening.

“This is why she sent me,” the guard explained. “She found this in her room with no idea where it came from; my Queen was fearful of this exact reaction,” he said. His calm tone helped the King relax. “However, thanks to my spies, I know what happened,” the captain bowed.

“Explain,” the King encouraged him.

“My Queen remains faithful as ever,” the guard said. “This fool was only in her chamber’s in search of a weakness. Access to you. The fool is a spy sent to assassinate you,” the guard replied.

“Hang him,” The King replied with a dismissive gesture. The captain shook his head.

“Your Highness, if I may,” he knelt and bowed his head deeper. The king nodded.

“Make an example of him. Reveal him to show everyone else how astute you are. Behead him publicly to show your strength,” he said. “Show everyone what happens when we discover a spy.” The king nodded enthusiastically at the idea.

“Tomorrow,” the King replied. The captain nodded.

“Tomorrow,” he agreed, then rose from his knees. The next day, the fool knelt before the king in shackles.

“Yes sir,” the captain of the guard stepped forward wielding a large axe. It wasn’t customary for the captain to perform executions; but, this was a special occasion. And it was all going according to plan. The fool grinned to himself when he saw the captain standing that close to the King with a weapon.

“You’d have a chance if you were the one executing me,” the jester suggested the previous night. It was a night like any other until he walked by the Queen’s room. He heard a stifled giggle inside and knew for a fact the King wasn’t in there. He checked on her, and found the Captain in a deep conversation with the Queen, discussing several things that all amounted to bad news for the King.

It was a tense night for the jester; he feared for his life for a solid hour before he could explain that he held no loyalties to the King. Only to himself. Then, they discussed a plan that ended with the captain informing the King of the jester’s assassination. It was a perfect plan. The captain would build more trust by revealing the plot, then assassinate the King. The Queen and the guardsmen would ensure he took over. The jester would get to live like a noble never having to perform again. He could hardly hide his grin as the King rose from this throne and approached.

“Have you anything to say for yourself, spy?” The King asked. The jester was shackled down with his neck on a block; he could only look up with his eyes. The captain approached and stood just behind him; he hefted the heavy axe, and winked at the jester.

“Just one thing,” the Jester grinned. He watched the captain raise the axe for momentum. “Always watch your back,” he said. His smile remained up until the moment the axeblade hit the block; after slicing through his neck. A slight frown took over as his head toppled forward and he realized the betrayal. As the world went dark around him, he almost wanted to laugh at the irony of dying like a fool.

Challege: Void

The apartment door slammed open and startled Kate. She got over it quick enough to assess the situation. A man in a black suit with a black cape stumbled into her apartment and tumbled onto the floor leaking black blood. She recognized him and bolted to help him up.

“Voidguy!!” she turned him over and gave his tan, rugged face several light slaps. His eyes fluttered under his costume.

“…didn’t know …where to go…,” he mumbled, then passed out. She checked for his wound, then gasped. He had a hole in his left arm about the size of a golf ball ; it went clean through both sides and leaked out perpetual black ichor.

“Here you are,” a woman voice distracted Kate from Voidguy. “You can’t hide from,-” Kate saw the air in her livingroom darken and become pitch black; it reminded her of Voidguy’s powers. A tall, pale woman in a flowing black dress appeared while the darkness flowed around her. A pair of bone-white twisting horns grew out of her head. “Oh. You’ve already lost,” the woman said to Voidguy’s body with a small giggle.

“Who are you?” Kate asked. She lowered Voiduy’s head gently then stood to face the intruder. Ballisea tilted her head at Kate, then smirked.

“What is that one to you?” she asked.

“He’s a friend,” Kate replied. While she kept her eyes on the tall woman, she used her cybernetics to control all the weapon turrets around her apartment for just such an occasion. Kate was her civilian name; K-T was a cyborg super hero.

“A friend?” Ballisea giggled. “Do you really think so?” Kate stood her ground. She could fire her weapons at a moment’s notice, and she’d even had enough time to seal herself in her apartment with a forcefield. The rest of her neighbors wouldn’t be bothered. K-T’s next step was to try and lock the intruder in a forcefield, but she wanted to safeguard the building first. Her ability to get things done covertly using any technology in the area was part of the reason K-T was one of the best heroes in the city. “Do friends lie?” Ballisea asked. A brief flash of doubt filled K-T’s mind. Her eyes could see biometric data; she could tell when anyone lied to her. But, something in her believed Ballisea.

“About what?” K-T asked. She tried to scan Ballisea, but the horned woman was invisible to all her sensors.

“About what’s real,” Ballisea said. K-T stepped back when the horned  woman took a step forward out of her swirling darkness. The moment her pale, bare foot touched the floor of K-T’s apartment, it disintegrated into a white powder. The white, powdery hole in her grey carpet spread out from around Ballisea’s foot like wildfire.  She watched the walls disintegrate into white powder leaving nothing behind. Voidguy’s black costume disintegrated off his body and transforming it completely. His lean, muscled superhero body was replaced with an older, middle-aged man with a bald spot and beer gut. He wore only white swim trunks and the hole in arm was clogged with chunky dark red blood.

A stranger lay there, on a smooth, glowing white floor. K-T’s apartment was on the fourth floor, but she now stood on solid, barren ground. The white floor extended as far as K-T could see but there was no one else, nothing else around. She triggered her weapons; nothing happened.

“What’s going on? Where are we?” Kate asked.

“We haven’t moved an inch, this is your reality. That one doesn’t belong here,” she said.

“He knows about this?” K-T asked. She was trying to wrap her head around everything. She still didn’t quite know where ‘here’ was. Ballisea nodded.

“Why did you hurt him?”

“He challenged me to a game; he lost,” Ballisea smiled. “Now, he dies.”

“Wait!” K-T held her hands out. She knew she probably didn’t stand a chance; but, she was a hero. She protected those that can’t protect themselves. “I want to challenge you to a game!” She had no idea about what the game might be or the rules involved.  Ballisea smiled and shook her head.

“I knew you wouldn’t understand even when I revealed the truth,” Ballisea gestured at the white plain around them.

“Yeah, I get it. My reality isn’t real; whatever. I challenge you to a game for his life.” K-T didn’t quite understand where the world went, but she knew there were more than a few villains with illusion based powers. Ballisea shook her head again.

“You don’t,” she said. “You can’t. I only have to accept challenges from other players; you don’t qualify,” she said. “Stupid, silly little Zeros. If your reality isn’t real, what makes you think you are?”

K-T tilted her head at Ballisea, then felt a burning itch on her fingertips. She simultaneously looked down at her hands and brought her left hand over to scratch her right fingers. Her digits were gone and her palms were disintegrating into white powder. She looked around frantically for help. She glanced down hoping Voidguy was awake; she saw a black portal swallow his body. She looked back at Ballisea while the itching, burning sensation made its way up her arms and legs.

“I don’t want to die!” K-T shouted in a pic. Ballisea smiled as a black portal appeared at her feet and rose upward.

“Calm yourself, little one. There’s nothing to be afraid of. You were never alive anyway.”

Playdate Postponed

“Let me in, please,” Jared said. Vannessa had trouble hearing his voice over the pouring rain, but the gun pointed at her chest clued her in. She nodded and stepped aside while pulling her robe tighter around her. She was expecting pizza, not an intruder.

Jared walked in. He entered at an angle to keep his eyes and gun on Vanessa and his back to the wall. Once he was in he waved the gun at the door and Vanessa closed it.

“What do you want?” she asked. Jared spun the gun around. In one smooth motion, he offered her the handle of the gun with his right hand while he kept his left up and in plain view.

“To talk,” he said. “I needed to get your attention.” Vanessa yanked the offered gun out of his hands and he promptly stuck his right hand in the air too. A quick inspection of the weapon revealed the safety was on and it wasn’t loaded.

“About what?” Vanessa asked.

“I came to say goodbye,” he said.

“Goodbye?” Vanessa asked. After obsessing over Jared and chasing his trail for the last decade, she felt pang of worry for her nemesis’ mental health. She held on to the gun and gestured at a recliner for him. She sat on her couch, next to the drawer that she kept her gun in.

“Yeah,” Jared replied. “It’s been fun, but real life is starting to get in the way of my leisure time, so it’s time to take a break. After ten years, I’ve gotten kind of attached to you,” he said with a chuckle. “It’s probably dumb, but I didn’t want you to worry about me, you know?”

“No matter where on Earth you hide, I’ll find you,” Vanessa said. “You can’t just hide on some beach somewhere expecting to get away with your crimes.” Jared laughed some more.

“I know, that’s why I’m here. You’d go crazy trying to find me, and I won’t even be on this Earth anymore.”

“So, what? Now you’re an alien?” Vanessa asked. Jared shook his head.

“I’m human, I just have a special soul. But, this Earth isn’t the only Earth; there are alternate realities. I’m leaving this one and going to a different one.” Vanessa was suddenly very worried about her own mental health. She took every word he said at face value, no matter how little sense it made.

“That sounds dangerous,” she said. “Is anyone going to get hurt on your way out?”

“Not at all,” Jared replied. “It’s as easy as going from one room to the next. I was planning to leave from here just to give you some proof.”  Jared pulled a glass card out of his pocket and held it up to show Vanessa.

“This is a node, it’s standard multiverse tech,” Then, he tapped at it like a smartphone. After several taps he pinched one edge of the glassy card and pulled. He produced a pitch-black card, darker than anything Vanessa had seen before, out of the transparent node.

“This is a Traverse card,” he threw the black card at the wall. It ballooned into a large black hole. “That’s a black portal,” Jared said. “There’s another universe on the other side of that.”

“It’s that easy?” Vanessa asked. Her mind raced to try and solve the torrent of questions piling up. “Why have I been chasing you for ten years?” she asked. Jared tilted his head at her.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“Why didn’t you go to a different Earth a long time ago to escape from me?” Jared chuckled.

“Who says I haven’t been?” he asked; his smile grew broader. “The only reason I come to this server is to play with you. I log out every night though,” he said. “It’s just that this time, it might be a while before I can play again.”

“All those.. atrocities… this is just a game to you?” Vanessa asked. She didn’t quite understand everything he said, but she recognized that he sounded like a gamer. Jared shook his head, but the smile remained. He lifted his hand and swiped at his node.

“No, it’s not just a game to me,” he said.  Suddenly golden floating text appeared in Vanessa’s living room.

[Heist Server Rankings:

Most Wanted: Jared Smith

Crime Spree:  10 yrs, 3 mnths,

3 wks, 1 day, 17 hrs, 40 mins,

18 scnds]   Vanessa’s eyes widened as she read the intruding text and made sense of it. She watched the ‘scnd’ line count up as the seconds past.

“It’s just a game. Period.”

Minute to Minute

The buzzer echoed throughout the mall from every device. R.C. stopped walking and looked around at the sound. The middle-aged man caught sight of a young woman also searching the mall curiously. The moment they locked eyes R.C. smiled and took several quick steps in her direction. For her part, the brown-haired woman did the same. Also with a smile on her face.

“Hi, my name’s Becky Salinas,” she offered her hand. “What’s yours?”

“Rueben Christopher Branson,” he said as he shook her hand. “My friends call me R.C. I’m 44 years old…,” he said with a shrug. After they shook hands, R.C gestured at a nearby bench. Despite the rest of the mallgoers stopping to chat on the spot, there was still enough space for her to sit. Everyone paired or grouped off with the nearest strangers at the sound of the buzzer. “…and I think my biggest regret is: In all those years, I’ve never set foot outside this city. I thought about it a few times. But, I kept putting it off.” Becky nodded.

“It’s always the same, isn’t it?” she asked. “We regret the chances we didn’t take; the options we didn’t explore. I’ve always dreamed of making beautiful pottery with my own hands,” she giggled. “It took me twenty minutes to finally take my first class.”

“Hey, that’s awesome!” R.C. said. “Congratulations! I might be too old to learn new tricks though; I’ve been using the same regret for about 40 minutes now. I can’t even remember what it was before that.”

“Well, it doesn’t have to be 41,” Becky said with a smile. “Since I picked that up, my new biggest regret is taking so long to act. I’m going to try not to let that happen anymore, I think,” She glanced at her watch and nodded. “I’m single with no kids. My parents live in California.” Becky stood from the bench and dug her cellphone out of her purse. R.C. pulled his own phone out.

“No family, no friends,” R.C. said. “no real reason to leave town at all. But, I’ll try not to have the same regret in another minute. So, if it’s me; congratulations on your inheritance,” he said with a smile. “It was a pleasure meeting you, Becky,” he unlocked his phone and held it out on the palm of his hand as the seconds counted down from five. Becky did the same.

“You too, R.C,” she said. The timer reached zero on their phones and everyone in the mall released an audible sigh when they found they were still standing. Then, the alert came in on everyone’s phone.

“Someone in Chicago,” R.C. said as he turned off his phone and pocketed it again.  “Good luck on your pottery classes, Becky.”

“You just got yourself another month to leave town,” Becky said with a smile. “Good luck R.C.” The two former strangers nodded at each other and carried on their separate ways. As R.C. walked back to his truck he debated taking an extra long drive. He didn’t want to keep recycling that same regret; knew he’d run out of minutes eventually.

Dave gets Bummed

Stephanie froze mid step when she heard the chuckles coming from Dave’s cubicle. She closed her eyes and sighed.

“God damnit,” she grumbled to herself, then changed direction.

“Hey Dave, what’s funny? I wanna laugh,” Stephanie admitted. She really wished she could find humor in anything; even if it was a good thing at the moment. It had been a busy week since the aliens suddenly took over. During that week, she learned it wasn’t sudden at all; it was only recently their invasion reached critical mass. Stephanie managed to avoid infection, even if she didn’t know how it was happening. She triple-purified all her water, ate only sealed foods, and avoided contact with anyone. Luckily, Stephanie didn’t have a lot of friends before the invasion.

‘Hey,” Dave grinned. “Nothing special, just a cat video. But, hey. Since you’re here…,” Dave stood from his rolling chair and stepped into Stephanie’s personal space. “… have you noticed anything… weird around the office this week?” he whispered in her ear. Stephanie got her wish; she burst out into raucous laughter at the situation.

Dave had never been the brightest employee, but he was popular among the staff for his easy-going attitude. If anyone was going to avoid being possessed by aliens on sheer dumb luck alone, it would of course be Dave. The contrast with her own high-stress week of trying to keep a low profile only made Dave’s question that much funnier.

After two solid belly laughs, Stephanie’s eyes shot wide and she clamped her hand over her mouth. It was too late. She looked around and saw several employees poking their heads over the walls of their cubicle. They were all staring at her.

“Damnit, Dave,” she hissed and grabbed his hand. “I was almost out of here, come on!” She pulled him out of the cubicle and immediately started running. Easy-going Dave shrugged and ran with her.

“Where we going?” he asked.

“Alien parasites took over the world last week,” Stephanie explained while she ran. She was glad she’d been wearing sneakers to work since then. She doubted the aliens would bother enforcing the dress code.

“Bummer. So where can we go?” he asked. Despite the outlandish explanation, she noticed that Dave picked up speed to keep up with her. “And why aren’t they chasing us?” He asked after a glance backward.

“Hivemind. It thinks it can get us ahead.” Stephanie said. She led Dave through a maze of off-white halls and into her office. ” But, it doesn’t know where we’re going.” Dave chuckled.

“Your office is the first place I’d look for you,” he said. Despite the point, he relaxed against the door jamb for a bit to catch his breath. Stephanie nodded.

“We’re not staying here, I just needed to get something.” She was at her desk and back before Dave finished recovering. She quickly grabbed his hand and led him out of the office again.

“HEY!” a security guard yelled from the end of the hall. He was obviously on his way to her office. Turning around, they spotted another guard coming from the other direction.

“Alright, screw it,” Stephanie sighed and turned around to go back into her office. Dave shut the door while she started tapping the transparent card she grabbed from her desk.

“What’s that?” Dave asked. His question was followed by the doorknob jiggling. Dave leaned against the door as the guards started pounding on it.

“Later,” Stephanie said. A black portal opened in the corner of her office and a woman with light purple hair walked out. She wore a crisp white blazer.

“Who’re you?” Dave asked while the pounding continued. He braced his large frame against the door.

“Victoria,” she answered. Dave saw gold stars flash in her eyes as she looked at him and Stephanie.

“Let’s go,” she said, then stepped aside.

“C’mon!” Stephanie grabbed Dave’s hand and pulled him into the portal. On the other side, Dave found himself standing in what appeared to be a lobby. The murmur of busy strangers and the dinging of elevators immediately filled his ears. He stood on a gleaming white floor. He spotted red in the corner of his eye and looked up to see a large sign: Sharp Development.

“Where are we?” Dave asked.

“Somewhere safe. A different Earth,” Victoria said as she walked out of the portal; an intense blue glow was dissipating from her hands.

“Okay,” Dave said, unphased. “For how long? I mean, when can I get back?”

“Dave..,” Stephanie said. “That Earth was completely taken over by aliens.”

“So… are we talking … years?” he asked. Stephanie shook her head, but Victoria answered.

“Sharp Development refuses to let aliens get a foothold on any Earth,” Victoria said. Dave chuckled.

“Kind of late on that one,” he said. Victoria nodded.

“That’s why I destroyed it behind us,” she said.

“You… what?” Dave asked. He glanced at Stephanie for confirmation. Dave wasn’t a bright man, but her expression was obvious.

“Oh…,” Dave sighed and cast his eyes downward. He’d only been at the company for a couple of years. During that time, Stephanie never saw Dave without a smile. For the first time in years, a glum expression took over Dave’s face. “Bummer. That’s where all my stuff was.” 

Waking up at Knight

“Perfect fit,” Archie grinned. He moved his arm up and down quickly to test the strength of the shield straps. The shield itself was useless; he dug it out of a box of scraps. The town smiths would come by in the morning to pick through the remnants of the day’s tournament. That’s why Archie was picking through the box in the middle of the night. All the lords, ladies, knights, and servants were gone from the jousting grounds.

Archie was there all day. He couldn’t get enough of the loud clanking armor and cheering crowds.  He longed to compete and stand in the spotlight; to be cheered on and accepted. He spent the evening after the tournament wandering from hiding place to hiding place. Archie felt more comfortable using his human form; plus it was easier to hide in. But he knew two things for a fact. People existed that could see through that disguise, and, it could be anyone from servant to noble. He wouldn’t now until it was too late, so he kept hidden to avoid the situation entirely.

Until the last cleaner left. Archie waited for another hour to be sure, then he approached the box of scraps. During the tournament, he spotted several pieces that he hoped were damaged enough to be tossed into the box. One of them was the champion’s shield.  It was not damaged so much as slightly defaced. But, it was the champion’s shield. He only ever used them once because he liked to keep his image strong and new. Archie kicked himself for not realizing the opportunity sooner.

“What the hell?” A girl’s voice broke the midnight silence. It startled Archie and he whirled around while raising the scratched shield. He was surprised to see a teenage girl and a young woman. The younger girl wore a blood-red hoodie. The hood was down revealing her bone-white ponytail. “It’s not supposed to be guarded by a dragon,” the girl said.

Archie did not know what she was talking about, but he didn’t have to. As soon as the word ‘dragon’ left her lips he threw the shield down and leaped into the air away from them. Leathery, bright blue wings sprouted out of his back and he flew as fast as he can. He noticed, too late, that a patch of sky directly in front of him was darker than the rest. He realized it the moment he flew through it and found himself hovering in front of the two girls again.

“Hey, we didn’t mean to scare you,” the white-haired girl said. The young woman was holding the shield up; offering it to Archie.

“You got here first, go ahead. We’ll wait for the next one.” the blond woman said.

Archie hesitated for a moment but allowed himself to land. If nothing else, he trusted the fact that they hadn’t called for any guards yet. And, he already learned he couldn’t get away if he wanted to. He was still wary of a trap, but they didn’t know what he could do yet. He took a step forward and accepted the shield.

“I’m Morgan, that’s Cherry,” the blonde woman introduced them to him.

“Hi. Archie,” he returned the introduction with a nod. He looked at the shield, then back at Morgan. “It’s… really okay for me to take this?” he asked. Morgan shrugged and nodded.

“That’s why it’s here,” she said, then smiled. “That shield’s useful for a lot of different quests, which one are you working on?”

“Uh..,” Archie looked down at the shield, then back at Morgan.

“Quests? Is there a reward for this? The champion throws it away after every tournament,” he said.

“Uhh..,” Morgan repeated Archie’s confusion; then she turned to Cherry and shrugged. Cherry giggled.

“Give him some time. He just woke up.”

“OOOOOHHhhh,” Morgan said. She turned back toward Archie with an even wider grin. “Congratulations!” she said. Archie tilted his head.

“For what?” he asked.

“For coming to life! Now you can do anything you want,” Morgan explained. Archie narrowed his eyes at her for a moment, then shook his head.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about or where you came from; but, life doesn’t work like that here. If it were that easy, I’d be a knight already.”

“That’s your big dream? Being a knight?” Morgan asked. She managed to use a sincere tone that told Archie she wasn’t mocking him. He nodded.

“More than anything,” he replied. Morgan looked at Cherry and they exchanged looks. After a moment, she turned back to Archie.

“Do you have any reasons to stay here?” she asked. Archie chuckled. It was the first time that night; and, the first time in decades. He had no friends to make him laugh. It was hard finding the humor in anything while worrying about whether he’d live through the day. But, Mogan’s question triggered a smart ass response that he couldn’t help but laugh at.

“Just the fact that I have nowhere else to go,” he said. It was true. He’d tried hiding all over the world, but he never stayed in any place for too long.

“Yeah you do,” Morgan said. “We could use a knight on our team,” she said.

“I’m not a knight…,” Archie said. Morgan shrugged.

“We don’t need one right now,” she giggled. “We need one when you’re ready. Come on.” Morgan tilted her head toward Cherry. Cherry was only half there, and Archie watched her other half disappear into the same pitch darkness that brought him back to them. Morgan started to follow her.

“Where?” Archie asked. Morgan’s answer echoed out of the portal as she disappeared.

“To a better game!”