Fresh Recruits

“You don’t have to apologize every time,” Rose giggled. “That’s why we’re practicing; try it again.” The pair of new friends sat in a diner for a Saturday brunch. They met on a crowded subway when Rose read his mind and gave him her number. When he finally called, Rose suggested the diner; she explained the mid-morning rush would help Ruben hone his control. Ruben never heard of Mundo’s, but he had to admit the food was great. Ruben closed his eyes and concentrated on keeping his thoughts to himself. The meal was still fresh in his mind.

That was the best steak and eggs I”ve ever had,” Ruben thought.

“YOU can come back any time, Melón!” A bald man with a forest green beard called out from the kitchen. Rose giggled again and shook her head.

“You’re trying too hard,” she said. Ruben leaned closer to the center of the table and lowered his voice to a whisper.

“Did he call me a melon?” Ruben asked. Rose laughed again, but this time she nodded; her pink bangs bobbed with the motion.

“One thing at a time. Get your thoughts under control, then we’ll explain the rest to you.”

“Or you can just get a tattoo,” Mundo said. The stocky bald man appeared next to their table and gave Ruben a slice of pie. “On the house for my new favorite customer,” he grinned.

“Oooh yeah, I didn’t think about that,” Rose said.

“Tattoo?” Ruben asked. He was trying to follow the conversation as best he could. He knew Rose and apparently, a notable portion of the population could hear his thoughts as if he were broadcasting them.  She seemed to know how and why it was happening, and it looked like Mundo did too. Though, he had no idea what a tattoo had to do with anything. While thinking about it; he noticed that Mundo had an Earth tattooed on his right hand with the number 37 above it. He also knew Rose had a rose tattooed on the back of her neck with the number 41 on its petals.

“You want me to take care of the kitchen so you can do the honors?” Rose asked Mundo with a friendly smile. Ruben got the impression the two were old friends.

“Rosita, I would love that,” Mundo sighed. “But, it would be selfish. I have standards to maintain. Not just anyone can cook the world’s best steak and eggs,” he patted Ruben on the shoulder and chuckled.

“You go ahead, but stick around until things calm down. We’ll get a tattoo on him.” Mundo waved and returned to the kitchen.

“Tattoo?” Ruben asked again.

“You are what’s known as a Unique Soul; Mundo and I are too. Right now, your soul is in what’s called, ‘Slumbering’ mode,” Rose added air quotes around slumbering. “Your abilities are kind of leaking out. But if we Awaken your soul, you’ll have control over them. To Awaken your soul you need to get your number on your skin; you’re number 11. El melón. I’m number 41, La Rosa, and Mundo is number 37. El Mundo.”

“Is that why I can’t read your thoughts? Because I’m not Awakened yet?” Rose shook her head.

“El melón can broadcast and read the minds of other melons, but it’s not full telepathy. You’ll also be able to thicken your skin somewhat; kind of like I can do this,” Rose said. She held up her arm and Ruben watched thick, spiky thorns sprout out of her skin.

“Whoa…,” Ruben was impressed and excited that he was special like her. The thorns receded and Rose lowered her arm.

“So… I need to get a melon tattooed on me?” Ruben said with slight concern. Rose giggled.

“You only need the number 11, but I like roses, so I added a rose to mine.”

“So there are other melons and roses and mundos out there?”

“It depends on what you mean by, ‘out there’,” Rose said. “On this Earth, no. That’s why we’re called Unique Souls, only one of us per Earth, not that every Earth gets every Unique.”

“Hold on. Other Earths?” The thing that surprised Ruben most was that he immediately accepted it as true. The moment she mentioned it, deep inside it felt like something he’d always known. “That sounds amazing! Why didn’t you mention that sooner?” Rose shrugged.

“It doesn’t mean much for you and me; we can’t leave this Earth.”

“So we know there are other Earths out there, but there’s no way to get to them?” Ruben asked. Rose shook her head.

“Getting to them is easy for Uniques that aren’t rooted to their Earth. We literally can’t leave this one, even with a portal right in front of us.” Ruben suddenly became aware of a tall old man that approached their table. He wore a forest green suit with a gold vest. His right eye drew Ruben’s attention immediately. It seemed to be a glass eye painted to look like a globe; and it rotated slowly in its socket. The number 37 was tattooed directly under it.

“That’s not strictly true,” the man interrupted their conversation with a smile. “A standard rule of life is: it all depends on who you know.”

Star Patron

27, 44, 30, 21…,” Elmer waved the patrons through without giving much attention to them or their IDs. Mundo’s club wasn’t the hottest spot in town; but, it had its share of regular customers that enjoyed the more subdued atmosphere. He reached the end of the short line and paused. “1973?” The young man holding up his ID didn’t look quite 21 yet. His tan skin was taught and glowed with youth.

“Hold on,” Elmer held his hand out to stop the man. Elmer stared at the number for a moment; a golden ‘1973’ hovered above the man’s dirty blonde hair. No matter how he looked at it, the number did not change; this man was definitely 1973 years old.

“Something wrong, sir?” the young man asked timidly. Elmer shook his head.

“No, Mundo just likes me to check in with any Uniques that come through. You do know you’re a Unique Soul, right?” he asked.

“Um.. I”m a what?” he asked.

“Sorry, I may have jumped the gun,” Elmer said quickly. “What’s your favorite number?”

“35,” the patron responded quickly. He looked a bit surprised that he answered, but he shook it off. “I just want to listen to some music and have a couple of drinks; what’s my favorite number have to do with anything?” Elmer grinned and nodded.

“Yep, you’re a Unique Soul. But, you didn’t know that,” Elmer looked the young man up and down again. “You don’t have a tattoo do you?” he asked. The man narrowed his eyes for a moment, then shrugged.

“I”ll go somewhere else.” He turned away but Elmer interrupted.

“I know that you’re almost 2000 years old, and my boss can explain why.” The man froze in his tracks, then slowly turned back around.

“How did you know?” he asked.

“I’m a Unique Soul too, #10, El Árbol. I can see your age floating above your head. You’re Unique Soul #35; you can travel between universes, but I don’t want to tell you too much. Mundo likes to do the explanations herself.” Elmer tilted his head at the entrance.

“Go straight to the bar, Mundo’ll be glad to see you.”

Impossible Question

Kadee stared at her time-locked boyfriend. He was as handsome as he was kind; she once thought she could stare at him for an eternity. After a day, she started to get bored and wandered away from him to give herself a chance to ponder his question.

She wandered through the mall, and out into the still city over the course of a week. It both helped and hindered that she didn’t feel hungry or thirsty while in a time-freeze. The further she got from the mall, the more Kadee realized she didn’t have an answer for him. On the surface, it seemed like such a simple question; but, no matter how she looked at it the answer wasn’t in her.

There were too many variables; and her answer affected both of them. She’d only been dating David for a year and she was still scared of the wrong choice causing a rift. Finally, a glance at her stopwatch told her it had almost been a week already; 153 hours passed since he asked the question.

“This is taking too long,” she decided aloud. With a heavy sigh, Kadee decided to decide. She did not have answer for him yet, but she began her walk back to the mall. “I’m going to say the first thing that comes out when I get there,” she said. Kadee felt more comfortable talking to herself instead of thinking during the still moments. The lack of any other sound was slightly unnerving and she wanted to fill the silence.

Kadee didn’t know how her ability worked exactly; it was still relatively new to her. It first started happening after she got a tattoo and it seemed to know when she was ready to make a decision. She had yet to try and explain it to David. She was waiting for the right time; when it wasn’t too early or too late in their relationship. She always planned to tell him about it if he wanted to make their relationship to the next stage.

She returned to him and fell in love all over again the moment she saw him. She walked up to him and she felt ready to answer his question, even though deliberating didn’t get her anywhere. Time started again at the exact moment she decided. The roar of noise filled the mall around and David smiled at her with his soft brown eyes.

“Well?” he asked. Kadee stuck to her plan and blurted out the first answer that popped into her mind.

“Chinese!” she said over the noise.

“Awesome,” he said. “Lucky Dragon or Golden Wok?” He asked; then, the mall went silent again.

Sun’s Shade

Claire was never like the other girls. Dolls and dresses didn’t interest  her at all while growing up. She was too busy hunting and fishing with her six older brothers. Her mother died while giving birth to the red-headed girl; her father and six brothers did their best to raise her.

Her teenage years were a bit rough. Looking back on them, her fondest memory was her father and six burly brothers taking her to the hospital only to learn that bleeding was normal. She never felt more loved or protected than that moment. That feeling might have been hard for any suitors to live up to over the years, but Claire didn’t have time for men.

Claire’s father passed away during her junior year in high school. It was a devastating blow, but she made it through knowing her brothers were looking out for her. It was a difficult time for her, but that was when she decided she didn’t want to rely on her brothers for protection for the rest of her life. After her high school graduation, her oldest brother took her aside and revealed her family’s secrets.

“What do you mean, ‘Dad was a necromancer?'” she asked with wide eyes. Jim nodded at her.

“He got into it after mom died; but, by the time he learned anything useful, it was too late. He started teaching me, but he made me promise I wouldn’t raise him,” Jim smiled. “He deserves to be with mom.”

“So, why are you telling me?” Claire asked. She didn’t doubt him for a second. As the oldest, Jim shouldered all the responsibilities once their mother died. Back then, she thought her dad was too busy mourning to deal with the day to day things; now she knew he was spending all his time studying. Although Claire knew better, an average person would assume Jim just didn’t have a sense of humor. He never made jokes or played pranks.

“Dad always wanted to teach you, but you needed to graduate high school first,” he gave a light sigh. “The only reason he taught me was to teach you. John, Jake, James, Jack, and Jasper have no idea about this. This is between you and me.”

11 years later, Claire was the most beautiful mortician in the continental united states, and still single. She did have time to date now, but never found anyone who could compare to her brothers. Despite the countless men that tried. Her years of martial arts training since high school, along with continued outdoor excursions with her brothers, kept her body lean and limber.

Then, love struck when she least expected it.

Claire was relaxing at home when it happened. Even with her millions of dollars, she preferred to stick close to the farm she grew up on. Plus the extra privacy helped with her necromancy.  She was re-reading ‘The Art of War’, like she did every year when a sudden, panicked pounding came from the front door.

The sudden noise startled her, but she was on her feet quickly. The pounding continued as she edged toward the door. She debated calling her brothers, but she didn’t want to bother them if it was something she could handle. She glanced through a curtain and saw a portly man with sagging pants on her porch. He continued banging on the door while looking at something in the distance.

I can handle him,” Claire thought. She opened the door and a heavy, sweaty fist banged against her left 40DD breast. The stranger immediately knew something was different and yanked his hand away. He turned to face Claire. The mid-30’s man was drenched in sweat and breathing heavily. His loose, faded t-shirt had sweat stains around the pits and on his doughy chest. It was love at first sight for Claire.

‘Yes?” Claire asked. She straightened her back to jut her chest a bit further out.  A small part of her died when she realized she was wearing ‘around the house’ clothes. Just a tank top and her tightest pair of jeans; something about the confinement made her feel comfortable. She took small comfort that at least she wasn’t wearing a bra.

“They’re coming!” he said. He glanced back over his shoulder again, then looked back at Claire. “Call the police! Do you have guns!?” he asked with a forced calm in his voice. He seemed to want to enter her house but did not want to force his way in. As much as she wanted to invite him inside, she still didn’t know anything about him.

“Who’s coming?” she asked. The man turned and pointed at the edge of Claire’s property.

“Skeletons! They’re falling from the sky!” he said. Claire immediately noticed a handful of skeletons shambling toward them. Her first thought was that her brothers were playing a prank; but, none of the skeletons looked familiar to her. Instead of inviting him in, Claire stepped out.

“Don’t worry, I’ll call my brothers,” she said. She walked to the edge of the porch, cupped her hands around her mouth, and yelled. “JIIIIIIIIIIM!” she shouted.

A skeletal hand shot out of the ground between Claire and the oncoming skeletons. As a skeleton began to dig its way out of Claire’s property, she yelled again.

“JOHN! JAKE! JAMES! JACK! JASPER!”

“What the hell?” the stranger asked as five more skeletons started to rise out of the land. Claire turned to the stranger.

“I’ll explain it later, but I’m on your side. I’ll keep you safe.” The sound of bones splintering against bones drew her attention away from him. Her brothers started to brawl with the invading skeletons, but the ones that weren’t fighting continued toward the main house. There were more than her brothers could handle, and even more seemed to be coming out of the field. Claire started to consider her options.

“You have talent,” a woman’s voice said next to them. She was tall, and a pair of twisting bone-white horns gave her extra height. She wore a flowing black dress and stared at Claire with an amused look.  “It’s not easy to impress me; and, you haven’t. But, unlike most people I kill, you do have talent.”

“Yeah, I’m not like most girls,” Claire said. She had been preparing spells expecting to have to fight herself. She was able to quickly raise her hand and blow a small cloud of poison at the woman. The sickly green cloud hovered around her face, but the horned-woman was unaffected.

“Maybe, maybe not. But, I’m going to kill you like one anyway. Bye now.”

Black and Bluster

“Help you?” DarkBlack asked. The villain turned away from the entrance to the police station to face General Stronguy. “With what, exactly?” The green-caped hero stood at the bottom of the steps with watery eyes.

“I’m scared… What happens to me when you go in there?” he asked.

“You’re scared?” DarkBlack took several steps down toward General Stronguy, but stopped halfway between him and the entrance. “NPCs don’t get scared unless it’s in the script. What do you think you’re scared of?”

“You said it resets me when you enter the police station,” General Stronguy sighed. “I know I’m conscious… I don’t want to forget. I don’t want to die.”  DarkBlack took a few more steps closer.

“You really mean that…,” he said with some surprise. “This isn’t a new quest, is it?”

“Please,” General Stronguy asked.

“Alright,” DarkBlack nodded. “I don’t know if it’ll work, but I have an idea.” DarkBlack flicked his wrist upward and a smokey, translucent pane of glass appeared between the two men. He used his hand to tap and swipe on the surface of the glass several times, then dismissed it with another quick flick.  A black portal opened next to him.

“Let’s try a different server first,” he said. “Go ahead,” he encouraged General Stronguy. Having no choice but to trust the villain, the General stepped into the portal; DarkBlack followed.

General Stronguy stepped out of the portal and found an endless amber field under a dark violet sky.

“Welcome to the AlterNet!” a woman’s voice said. General Stronguy watched as black particles coalesced from the air to form a mannequin. Its face only consisted of slight indentations to evoke eye sockets and a small bump that was meant to be a nose. The mannequin appeared to be General Stronguy’s height; but, he noticed it hovered above the ground. “Would you like to create your character?”

“Yes,” DarkBlack said from behind the General. The mannequin hovered closer and tilted its head up and down as if appraising the hero.

“Partial template recognized. NPC_Zero, Generic Superhero template; incomplete character. Would you like to resume character creation or start from the beginning?” the mannequin asked. General Stronguy faced DarkBlack with questioning eyes. DarkBlack shrugged.

“That’s all on you,” he said. General Stronguy thought for a moment. He was still afraid of dying and had no idea what starting from the beginning would entail. He did not want to risk losing any part of his current self.

“Resume,” he said. The mannequin nodded.

“Human body selected. Please select a soul,” the mannequin said.

“Uhhh..” He turned back to DarkBlack. The villain sighed.

“Do you trust me?” he asked. General Stronguy nodded after a moment.

“Great,” he walked closer to the mannequin. “Mist soul,” he said.

“Confirmed. Please select a Class.”

“Elementalist,” he answered.

“Confirmed. Please select a starting specialization.”

“Wind Jammer.”

“Confirmed. Would you like to save your changes?”

“Ye-,” DarkBlack’s answer was interrupted.

“WAIT!” General Stronguy said. “Can I change my name?” The mannequin nodded.

“Affirmative.”

“I don’t know what you did, but that Wind Jammer thing sounded kind of neat. Am I going to get wind powers now?”

“Kind of, yeah,” DarkBlack answered.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” General Stronguy said. “I want to change my name to Mr. Bluster.”

“Confirmed. Would you like to save your changes?” DarkBlack did not answer this time.

“Yes,” Mr. Bluster said.

Zero Murders

“Yeah, that’s about right,” Boone sighed to himself. He raised his drink in a mock toast at the small red logo, then he downed the liquor in one gulp. Detective Boone stopped by the new pub to celebrate his decision; he was giving up.

For almost two months he chased a conspiracy that no one else seemed to notice. One morning he showed up to work ready to continue investigating a murder that took place the day before. Not only could he not find any of his paperwork, no one else remembered the murder happening. He tried searching the database for proof but found none. He returned to the scene of the crime and discovered a new person living in the victim’s apartment.

One threatened landlord later, Boone learned the new occupant had lived there for months. Boone seriously doubted his memory at first, but the situation kept repeating. Murders seemed to be taking place more often than ever; but, no one at the station cared.

After it happened a couple of more times, Boone noticed a card at one of the crime scenes. A white business card with a red scissor logo in the center and nothing else. The scissors were slightly open and pointing in a vertical direction. Without any other markings on the card, Boone couldn’t tell which way was up or down.

Seeing the card triggered vague memories of seeing that same logo at the other crime scenes. Boone found the same logo at several more crime scenes after that; but not every murder scene.

After it kept happening it didn’t take long to see the pattern. Any time he found the red scissors, the murder and victim were forgotten; but, normal murders still happened.

Boone decided the extra stress wasn’t doing him any good. Not only that, he was afraid he might be going crazy and inventing murders that never happened. While driving home, Boone spotted a bar he hadn’t seen before. Mundo’s Pub.

He walked up to the bar and ordered from a lean, green-haired man; his nametag said: Mundo. As Boone reached for his drink a red glint caught his eye.

In the back, through a narrow, dim corridor stood a solid-looking door. A sign on it read: AlterNet Access, and a red scissor logo glowed softly above the door handle. After setting his glass down, Boone reached into his pocket.

“Hey, Mundo,” he called. He flashed his badge at the bartender. “Can I ask you a few questions?”

“Sure, whatcha wanna know?” Mundo grinned. Boone opened his wallet and dug out a small scrap of paper with the red scissors drawn on it. 

“Seen this logo before?” he asked. Mundo’s grin disappeared and was replaced by a concerned and surprised look. Boone tried to stare into Mundo’s eyes to measure his reaction; but, the bartender’s eyes roamed all over Boone as if searching for something.

“What’s your favorite number?” Mundo asked suddenly.

“Listen, pal. I just want to know about the logo. We don’t have to go downtown; but we can if you’d prefer,” Boone tried bluffing his way to the information. There was no investigation; he couldn’t take Mundo anywhere.

“Wow…,” Mundo mumbled. His eyes sparkled and his grin returned wider than before. “…I found one!” 

“What are you-,” Boone started to ask, but Mundo dashed to the side and into the narrow hall toward the door.

“Come on!” he said and encouraged Boone to follow him with a wave. Boone shrugged. His goal was to find out what was on the other side of the door anyway. He stood from his stool and followed.

By the time Boone reached the door, Mundo was already pushing it open and walking in. The room was bigger than Boone expected; it looked almost as large as the bar. A single counter stood in the center of the mostly empty room. What worried Boone was that dozens of grave-sized holes were dug in rows on the ground. He guessed they were grave-sized because several of them were occupied with sleeping people in next to nothing.

“That logo belongs to a corporation named Sharp Development,” Mundo said as he led Boone to the counter. “Sharp Development is the company that invented the AlterNet, a lifelike VR game.” Mundo gestured at a sleeping man in swim trunks. “It’s what they’re playing.”

“They’re playing a game?” Boone asked. “They look like they’re sleeping.” Mundo nodded. He divided his attention between conversing with Boone and fiddling with a computer on the counter.

“The AlterNet beams your consciousness to an alternate universe and gives you a new body to play with. Their bodies are sleeping, but their minds are, literally, in another universe.”

Up until Mundo explained that part, Boone’s mind was busy trying to fit a VR game into all the ignored murders. Hearing the phrase “alternate universe” gave Boone pause.

“You’re kidding,” he said. Mundo shook his head.

“You can live any life you want in any setting. Prehistoric to futuristic. Family-friendly or murder spree; any kind of game you want to play is out there.”

“Murder spree?” Boone asked. “You mean, I can put my mind in another universe, kill people from that universe, and come back here with no repercussions?”

“Not exactly,” Mundo said. “These are only connected to Earths known as ‘servers’. They’re game servers. The people aren’t real, they’re constructs. Scripted non-player characters and nothing more. The police will mostly ignore or forget about any trouble you cause, just like a video game.” Boone developed a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.

“What did you mean earlier? You said you ‘found one’.” Boone asked to distract himself from thinking about his co-workers ignoring the murders.

“Every now and then an NPC develops consciousness. It’s a rare event, like finding a unicorn. You know, on an Earth where unicorns don’t exist,” Mundo laughed at his own joke, then presented a small, card-sized pane of glass to Boone.

“Anyway, congratulations on waking up; you’re going to love being a real person.”

Lesson Learning

Xap held his breath. The 14-year-old orc hid in the bushes as the adventuring party passed him. They were leaving the village Xap was returning to. A small crowd of orc children booed and threw stones at the adventurers as they left. Xap took a moment to smile at his own memories of being too young to kill.

Now at 14 he was considered a Juvenile and had to hide to stay safe. As the adventurers paraded toward the sunset and out of the reach of the children’s stones, the kids all fled back to their individual houses. Xap waited a few more minutes to be sure the attackers were gone then he left the bush.

He ran through the smoking village to his home. Some children and surviving adults were doing their best to put the fires out. Xap did not see his parents or siblings helping with the fire anywhere.

“MOM! DAD!?” He ran into the hut screaming, then stopped immediately. Four orc corpses sprawled on the floor; Xap’s parents, older sister and older brother.

“Xap,” a faint voice called him from the next room to his right. Xap’s family was well regarded in the community and they had one of the larger huts in town with multiple rooms built around the main one. Xap dashed to the next room. He found his uncle laying in a pool of dark green blood; but, still stirring slightly.

“Uncle Crag!” Xap scrambled to kneel down by his uncle. “You survived!” Crag wheezed. He gripped Xap’s hand when the boy tried to console him, then Crag shook his head slightly. “You’re going to be fine,” Xap said.

“No time…,” Crag paused; he had trouble breathing for a moment, then finally managed to gasp in enough to fill his lungs again. Xap did not understand what his uncle was getting at right away until he spoke again. “Harvest,” Crag wheezed.

His uncle was responsible for overseeing the harvest this year. It was a great honor and meant the town put a lot of trust into Crag. Even at death’s door, he did not want to let them down. The harvest was supposed to begin in three days. Xap didn’t know anything about healing, but he knew the healers in his village weren’t the best. As wounded as Crag appeared to be, Xap doubted Crag would be up and around within three days; and, he realized Crag doubted it too.

“Are you sure?” Xap asked once he understood his uncle’s request. Crag nodded.

“Love you, Uncle Crag,” Xap leaned forward and kissed his uncle’s forehead. In the same motion, Xap slid his dagger out of its sheath and slid it across Crag’s throat before his lips left his uncle’s forehead. Dark green blood rushed out of the thin line and Crag gave one last wheezing gurgle.

Xap was surprised by a loud clang filling his ears; at the same time, a shower of golden sparkles erupted around him.

[Level Up!] golden text hovered in Xap’s vision for several seconds, then dissipated.

“What the hell?” Xap wondered aloud; there was no one left to disturb in the hut.  Xap stood and remained still for several minutes hoping for something else to happen. After nothing did, Xap decided he’d had a full day. Whatever it was that happened, he was done thinking for the day. It was close enough to bed time and he did not feel hungry in the slightest. He retreated to his own room, which thankfully did not have any corpses in it, and went to sleep.

The smell of bacon cooking woke Xap the next morning. His stomach growled and he got out of bed. After his morning routine he walked into the kitchen to see his mom standing at the black iron stove.

“Good morning, sleepy head,” his mom smiled at him.

“‘Mornin’,” he grumbled as he sat at the table. “Everyone respawn okay?” he asked. She nodded as she placed a plate of bacon and eggs in front of him.

“Perfect as always,” she said, then shook her head. “I just wish someone could teach those adventurers a lesson.”

“Yeah, me too,” Xap agreed. He focused on his plate and began shoveling food into his mouth. While chewing he looked up and noticed a red exclamation mark hovering above his mom’s head. He stared at it for several moments; his mouth still full of half-chewed food. His mother puttered around the kitchen while Xap watched the red exclamation mark. Finally, he finished chewing and swallowed his bite.

“Mom, you sure you’re feeling okay?” he asked. His mother stopped what she was doing to turn and smile at him.

“Feeling good as new,” she said. “I just wish someone could teach those adventurers a lesson.”

“I’ll do it,” Xap said. The words left his mouth before he could consider them, much less the fact that his mom was repeating herself. He didn’t know why he volunteered but it felt like the right thing to say.

[Quest Accepted: Adventuring Lessons] appeared in Xap’s eye line in red.

[1. Slay 10 Humans] appeared along the right side of his vision.

“I can do it,” Xap whispered to himself. “I’ll teach them a lesson they’ll never forget.”

Space. Star.

“Ready?” Kelly asked. Anna replied with a long yawn. Both women stood in Kelly’s kitchen at 6:00 a.m. in their pajamas in front of Kelly’s custom-built cupboard. It was modeled after a full-sized wardrobe with plenty of space.

“Why six a.m.?” Anna asked. Her eyes weren’t fully open yet. Kelly didn’t know if that was because of all the lights being on or because Anna wasn’t fully awake yet. Kelly shrugged.

“This is when I normally wake up. You can go back to sleep after I show you why you spent the night.” Anna’s half-closed eyes narrowed even more.

“Did you forget you showed me your confusing organizational skills last night?” she asked. Kelly shook her head.

“That’s the point. I haven’t left your sight since last night, right?” Kelly asked. Anna shrugged.

“I dunno. I was asleep for most of it, but sure. I trust you.” Kelly shook her head.

“No, you have to believe me. I didn’t leave the room.”

“Okay,” Anna nodded. Her eyes were wide open now showing off their coffee-brown color. “I believe you. What’s the big deal?” Kelly reached for the cupboard handle and pulled it open. She looked in and immediately started searching for anything new. Both women screamed and jumped back from the cupboard; the pink head of hair that frightened them looked down at the commotion.

A woman’s head with a pink ponytail hung upside down under the middle shelf and seemed to be looking ‘up’ at something on the bottom shelf. When she saw and heard the two women, her eyes went wide for a moment, then they deflated as she released an audible sigh.

“Aw damnit,” she mumbled. She stared at the two women holding each other side by side upside down. “Don’t freak out; I’ll be right there to explain everything. Also, sorry.”  The upside-down head disappeared into the bottom of the middle shelf.

“Hi, I’m Lyra.” Anna and Kelly jumped again when Lyra spoke from the kitchen entrance. They both turned to see the same pink ponytail attached to a full woman. She wore a crisp white blazer with red buttons and a red scissor logo on the left. Now that the shock of finding a head in her cupboard wore off, Kelly noticed a small red star tattoo on her cheek.

“Kelly,” Kelly introduced herself as she tried to process the situation. She had been dealing with odd happenings for a few weeks already. Finding a head was initially grisly, but Lyra seemed to be walking and talking okay. She didn’t bother wondering how Lyra got into her house; she was already in the cupboard.

“Anna,” Anna gave a half wave, then started another yawn.

“I can do this,” Lyra said. She raised her hand to chest level and wiggled her fingers at the air. A small, saucer-sized black hole appeared in the air. Lyra slid her right hand into the hole, then used her left hand to point at the still open cupboard. Anna and Kelly turned to see a hand waving at them from the shelf. “And this,” she added.

The hand retreated and was replaced by Lyra’s head in the cupboard again. Kelly looked at Lyra in her kitchen and saw her body standing there with a black hole at her neck. Then, the hole disappeared and her head was attached again.

“A few weeks ago I lost access to my normal stashing spot, so I picked a new one at random,” she shrugged. “I didn’t know it was owned. I’m sure you’ve noticed some weird things. I’m sorry. My stuff’ll be gone in a couple of hours.”

“You didn’t know it was owned?” Kelly asked. “But my stuff was in there too…,” Her voice faded at the end; she was afraid of sounding accusatory. It was a genuine curiosity. Lyra smiled and nodded.

“There’s a difference between occupied and owned. I thought I wasn’t the only one using it was all; it’s handy to stash things when traveling between universes. As long as I didn’t touch anyone else’s things and no one touched mine, there’s lots of room.” 

“Did you say, ‘traveling between universes’?” Anna asked. Lyra nodded.

“For work, yeah.”

“Between universes!?” Kelly asked. “Like, alternate universes?” Again, Lyra nodded, then she smiled broadly.

“How about a tour, to make it up to you for invading your space?” Lyra asked.

“Really?” Anna asked.

“To another universe?” Kelly asked.

“How about to lunch in another universe? I know the best Chinese place ever.”

“Chinese?” Kelly asked and she glanced at the clock on her stove. “It’s not even 6:10 yet.” Lyra shrugged.

“It’s lunch where we’re going. Lesson one of the multiverse: Each Earth is its own time zone. So…,” Lyra gestured at the pair of women. “…you’ll need to change out of the jammies.”

Neutral Boredom

“It’s a neutral zone!” A sudden ruckus from the corner drew Grant’s attention. He placed a drink down moments before the sound of chairs scraping across the floor reached his ears. He turned to see a group of three men standing in front of a table. The largest man had his gun drawn and aimed at a still seated woman in a long blue robe; the two men to his side reminded him about the rules in place.

It was an early Tuesday evening and only a handful of patrons were in the bar at the moment. It was a quaint, dim building with tight seating. Dozens of empty tables and chairs waited for the dinner rush. All heads in the bar turned toward the commotion. The tall gunman looked around the bar and took note of the less than a dozen folks; then, he grinned.

“No one here’s gonna miss this cheatin’ witch,” he said and raised his gun. Grant’s first impulse was to interrupt. As the bar owner, it was his job to protect all his patrons. He let the urge wash over him and remained still; he decided to let it happen for two reasons.

Neutral zones aside, Grant hated all magic users. He was always polite and business-like with them as much as he needed to, but no one would ever accuse him of having mage friends. Even in his youth, he considered magic unnatural. A magical accident that took his family away only solidified that hate. Grant couldn’t speak for anyone else in the bar; but, he definitely wouldn’t mourn the loss of another wizard.

The second reason was minor curiosity. The truce upheld in restaurants and bars seemed too good to be true. It didn’t make sense that the situation playing out in Grant’s bar right now didn’t happen everywhere all the time. This was Grant’s chance to see what happened to those who broke the truce and learn why it was so effective.

The bar went quiet. The woman in blue remained seated. A hood covered most of her face, but Grant thought he saw a slight smirk. Suddenly, a loud, empty click filled the room. The tall stranger glanced at his gun, the pulled the trigger again. Another empty click.

“I didn’t cheat; you’re just not good at the game,” the woman said suddenly. She rose from her seat gracefully, like a ghost hovering upward. “And, it’s a neutral zone; no aggressive acts allowed. You can’t hurt me in here,” she smiled under her hood.

“Then we’ll just have to wait until you’re not in here,” the gunman said. He holstered his useless equipment, but he and his two lackeys surrounded the woman and stepped closer to her. She shrugged.

“Okay,” she raised her hand at chest height, then pulled upward with her wrist. A smokey, translucent pane of glass appeared in the air under her hand. She touched its surface and began swiping across it like turning pages in a book. Grant couldn’t see anything  but grey glass; but, he assumed her magic somehow let her see something.

“No magic!” The bully yelled and tried to drive his fist through the pane. His hand went through it as if it weren’t there and he cracked the wooden table; he sent cards and colorful chips flying everywhere.

“This server’s boring,” the woman said. “I’m going to find something more exciting. She touched the slate one last time, then dismissed it with a flick of her wrist. The slate disappeared and a black portal appeared behind her. The two men that were still crowding her stepped back while the largest one rubbed his aching hand. She waved at the bully.

“I’m leaving. If you’re still planning to give me trouble…,” she pulled her hood back to reveal long, pointed-tipped elf ears and short, curly, vibrant blue hair. “…good luck finding me.” She hopped into the portal and it disappeared.

Rooted Star

“I hope you’re willing to give me more than that,” Vinny winked at Cael as they hugged. He arrived to pick her up for their first official date as a couple and she greeted him with a quick peck on the lips.

“A ton more,” Cael replied with another quick peck. “But first, now that we’re official I need to confess some things to you.” A blur of white caught Vinny’s attention and he checked the space above Cael’s mocha curls. The number 7 hovered above her head followed by the word, ‘billion’. It surprised him so much he needed to take a step back.

“Vin?” Cael was suddenly concerned.

“What.. uh.. what kind of things?” Vinny asked. He racked his brain trying to decide what it meant. He’d been able to see numbers above people’s heads for years. It was never really more than a minor curiosity for him. He did not know what the numbers meant, but he never saw a number above a five over someone’s head before; now his girlfriend displayed 7 billion. If there was ever a time to figure out what it meant, it was now.

“Sit down,” she led him to her red loveseat and coaxed him into sitting down next to her. However, he leaned closer to the other end of the couch than to her. “No matter what I tell you, I’m still me. Nothing about me has changed. The truth is I have some powers that I don’t want to keep secret from you in our relationship.” Cael sighed and looked into Vinny’s dark eyes.

He watched golden stars begin to glow in the center of her light-brown eyes.

“Powers like yours,” she said. The glow faded from her eyes. “Not exactly like yours,” she added. “You can see stats and stuff; I see what someone is.”

“You know what I can do!?” Vinny asked with wide eyes. “Since when?” Cael grinned; gold stars flashed in her eyes again.

“Since we met,” she said.

“Do you know what it means!?” Vinny closed the distance between them; he took her hands in his to beg for the answer.

“What what means?” Cael asked.

“The numbers!”

“Oh,” Cael shrugged. “No. That’s kind of up to you. You can see pretty much any statistic you want so whatever the numbers mean is going to vary. Now that you know, try it on me,” she said. Vinny stared above Cael’s head, but no number appeared.

“There’s nothing there,” he said.

“Think of a statistic. I know! Wonder how many donuts I’ve had today.” Vinny nodded and focused.

I wonder how many donuts she’s eaten today,” Vinny wondered the question as deliberately as he could. ’03’ appeared above Cael’s head.

“You’ve had three donuts?” he asked. Cael nodded.

“Wow, this is… you’re amazing!” Vinny leaned forward and kissed Cael on the lips.

“That’s not everything yet,” Cael said. She wiggled her fingers at the air and a plate-sized portal opened to hover in the air next to her head. “I’m actually from a different universe. There are many, many alternate universes out there and I have the ability to travel between them at will.”

Vinny had been seeing numbers above people’s heads for years. He was open to the unexpected and mysterious. Rather than waste time doubting Cael, Vinny used his newly mastered abilities instead.

How many Earths has she visited?” Vinny wondered and glanced up.

“93” hovered above her head in white numbers.

“Okay, wow,” Vinny said. “I think we’re in for an interesting relationship.” Cael agreed and leaned forward to kiss his lips. “You’d better keep those coming,” he said. “I’m going to need a lot more.”

Fluttering white numbers caught Vinny’s attention as Cael leaned in for another peck. He looked up, ‘7 billion’ floated above Cael’s head.

I can live with that,” Vinny thought. Now that he knew the number meant he wrapped his arms around Cael and pulled her closer.