Star Struck

10-6-19

“That’s it? That was easy!” Valentine jumped out of the black portal carrying a pizza box. Emily followed her out and onto the cracked, aged walkway. Old grey and brown cement led directly to the single-story house. The yard on both sides of the path was over-grown with waist-high weeds and the house itself looked abandoned. The sun was setting in the purple sky but no lights were on inside the house.

“It’s easy, but don’t forget to reclaim it,” Emily said. The silver-haired girl put her hand into the portal. The hole began to shrink until it was a small black business card in the palm of her hand. “Kirk forgot a couple of times and we needed to call for a ride.”

“Is that why he couldn’t come with you?” Valentine asked. She wouldn’t call Emily a friend quiet yet, they’d only met a few days ago. She was surprised when Emily asked if Valentine wanted to join her for work; her usual partner couldn’t make it. She eagerly agreed when she found out Emily delivered pizza to different universes. Emily shook her head; loose strands of silver shimmered in the sunlight.

“Nah, Mundo said he needed more training with Frost and Keys,” she said. “Speaking of…,” Emily added as she started up the path to the door. “… Mundo said she offered you a spot on the team too. Are you going to join?” Valentine shrugged. They reached the door and Emily pressed the doorbell.

“I don’t know… I haven’t even picked a class yet,” she whined. “I don’t-” Valentine stopped speaking when the door opened. An older woman with stringy gray hair opened the door. She wore tattered denim overalls and her mouth dropped at the sight of the two girls.

“You ordered a pizza?” Valentine asked and held up the box.

“I’M NOT ALONE!” the woman wailed and rushed forward to hug Emily, because she did not have a pizza box to fend off the woman. The old woman began sobbing as she embraced Emily. For her part, Emily rolled her eyes at Valentine.

“It’s okay, Ma’am. You’re safe,” Emily said as she tried to gently push the woman off of her. “Are you the last person on this Earth?” she asked.

“Whoa..,” Valentine whispered to herself in surprise. She never considered the possibility of running into the last person on Earth.

“Yes.. I think so. I haven’t seen anyone else in years…” her voice cracked. Emily nodded and reached into her pocket for her node.

“Well, you brought us to the wrong place,” she told Valentine with a smile. “But it’s okay because we can help her real quick…,” Emily said while tapping at her node. “…and then get the pizza to the right place.” She turned her attention to the old woman.

“Go pack anything important to you, your ride will be here in a couple of minutes,” she said.

“R..really?” she asked with wide, tearful eyes. Emily nodded and the woman rushed back into her home.

“Are they going to be mad you need another ride?” Valentine asked, Emily shook her head.

“This isn’t work,” She tilted her head at the house. “I’ve run into the ‘the last person on Earth’…,” Emily said with air quotes. “…a few times. Enough that I wanted to be ready if it happens again. I found someone at the Star Academy that’ll take them in and get them settled on an Earth they like somewhere.” As Emily finished her explanation a tall black portal opened next to them.

A lithe, lean, tall woman walked out of the portal. She wore a tattered, faded green backpack on her back, and golden stars glowed in her eyes. Valentine’s mouth dropped when she saw the woman and she made a choking sound in the back of her throat.

“Cassiopeia….,” she whispered in awe.

“Hey Cassie!,” Emily smiled at the woman. “Sorry for the short notice, but I still have a delivery to make,” she said apologetically. Cassie nodded and smiled at the two girls.

“That’s alright, keep up the good work,” she said, then glanced at Valentine.

“Hola, Corazón,” she said. “What’s your name?”

“#27 El Corazón!” Valentine stood up straighter and nervously blurted out her number. Emily and Cassie both chuckled.

“I know,” Cassie said then pointed at her glowing eyes.

“This is Valentine,” Emily said. “I guess she’s a fan.”

“Oh?” Cassie asked. “Are you on a team?” Valentine shook her head.

“That’s a real shame,” she said. “There aren’t enough Corazóns in the league.”

“Hello!? I’m ready!” the old woman shouted from within the house, then she appeared at the door.

“Ma’am, this is Cassie. She’ll get you somewhere safe and populated,” Emily said then pulled out the black card.

“I’m on a team!” Valentine shouted once the portal was opened. “I’m on Emily’s team!” Cassie smiled at her and nodded.

“That’s good to hear,” she said.

“C’mon,” Emily said and dragged Valentine into the portal.

Sweet Surrender

10-3-19

“First match…,” Coach Haste said. His voice echoed around the mostly empty gymnasium. The small class of 25 students sat on wooden bleachers as murmurs of excitement flowed between them. It was the first chance they’d have to demonstrate their abilities to each other and the coach. “Valentine versus…”

“Not me, not me, not me,” Frost panicked in his mind. As much as the 14-year-old was looking forward to showing off, he was afraid of Valentine’s power. Mostly because he did not understand it. He’d seen dog-sized chocolates and pony-sized gummy bears moving around campus on their own. Anytime he asked about them all he got was shrugs along with the occasional, “I think they’re Valentine’s.”

“…Frost,” the coach finished. The coach was a pale, athletic man with a coppery-red mohawk striping his bald head; and, he was looking right at Frost. The teenager sighed and stood up as Valentine reached center court. Valentine had a long red ponytail that almost reached her waist. Her red hair was a different shade than the coach’s. Haste’s hair looked like bright flaming copper while Valentine’s hair color resembled a dark red wine. She wore black cargo shorts lined with dozens of pockets and a pink blouse decorated with black hearts.

Frost reached up and tightened his own light-blue ponytail when he joined the Coach and Valentine on the court. His only reached his shoulders. He was in blue jeans and a black t-shirt. Coach Haste raised his arm and showed the seated class his wrist; his watch glowed bright green.

“No nanos today, I want to see what you can do out of the AlterNet,” as he spoke the watch’s glow switched from green to red. He lowered his arm then pointed at Valentine. “Valentine is #27, El Corazón,” then he turned and pointed at Frost. “Frost is #42, La Calavera. Let’s see what they can do.” The coach walked off the court to sit with the rest of the class and Frost heard plastic rustling. He turned to see Valentine opening a bag of candy and he stepped back. Valentine reached into the bag and pulled out two gummies; she popped a long green worm in her mouth, then dropped a red bear to the floor. The one she dropped grew incredibly as soon as it left her hand; it landed on the floor as a bright red, translucent gummy cub that was still growing.

“I can’t wait for it to grow,” Frost decided. He charged at Valentine hoping to land a punch. As he covered the short distance to her, he coated his legs and fists with a layer of icy-frost. The growing cub, now slightly larger than a bulldog, attacked his legs when he was close enough. He felt a soft pressure around his leg as gummy jaws closed around it; Frost wondered if he even needed his frozen armor.

Frost cocked his fist when he was a step away. Valentine smiled at him, took in a quick breath, then spit out the gummy worm from her mouth. The shiny, slick worm ballooned to the size of boa the instant it left her mouth

Frost tried to stop but his momentum carried him right into it. The snake wrapped around his head and neck and immediately began squeezing. He stumbled forward another step before managing to stop. He could almost see through the translucent green snake, but he could not breathe.

“Relax,” Frost thought to himself. In the back of his mind, he vaguely remembered reading that constrictors squeeze more if there’s a struggle. “Think it through,” he held out hope that he could get himself out of it. The moment he relaxed, he realized his mistake. The more he relaxed the more the snake squeezed tighter. It wasn’t a real snake, it was something she was controlling. “Aw hell,” he whined to himself, then mumbled something through the snake covering his mouth. The snake moved away from his mouth, but it still held its grip around his throat.

“What was that?” Valentine asked with a broad smile. Frost sighed.

“I give up,” he said.

Heart & Sun

“God damn Corazónes,” Ballisea grumbled to herself. She glared down at the curly-haired teenage girl. “Fine,” she added. The tall, horned woman made a gesture with her hand, and the skeletons surrounding the girl sunk into black holes. The portals raining bone soldiers from the sky also closed.

“Forever,” the girl reminded Ballisea about their agreement.

“For now,” Ballisea said. She smirked at the girl.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“Libi,” the girl replied with full confidence. She saved her Earth from certain destruction using only her words and determination. She wasn’t afraid of the pale woman with bone-white horns.

“How would you like to travel and see other universes? This Earth is one out of an infinity of alternate universes. With your abilities, you could save quite a few of them.” Libi narrowed her eyes at Ballisea. She’d always had a good intuition about people lying to her, and she could tell that the offer was genuine. Even if the timing was suspect.

“You’re just trying to get me to leave,” Libi said.

“I’m giving you a chance that you would never have had, nor will again. You probably didn’t know that there are others like you,” Ballisea said. Libi flashed back to moments ago, Ballisea said something that made her think.

“A…corazón?” she asked. Ballisea nodded. “I’m a heart?”

“You’re Unique,” Ballisea said.

“Then how can there be others?” Ballisea sighed and shook her head.

“You’re unique because of who you are, not what you are. Why is that so hard for people to understand? You are Unique Soul #27, El  Corazón. That soul in…,” Ballisea gestured at the teenager. “… in that body make a Unique you that isn’t found in any other universe. So, would you like to see the multiverse and meet others like you, or do you want to stay in the small pond of your home Earth?”

“I…,” Libi paused for a moment, then nodded to herself. “… I want to travel,” she said. The moment the words left her lips, the ground disappeared under her; and, she was swallowed by a black hole. Ballisea sighed in relief.

“Finally,” she said. She immediately reopened black portals in the sky to start raining skeletons again. But, after a moment faint guilt began to burn in the back of her mind. She sighed again. “That’s going to keep bothering me,” she grumbled at the gnawing sensation. “Better deal with it now.”

The bones raining from the sky never reached the ground, they were swallowed by black holes once she realized she needed a different tactic.

A black hole appeared in the air next to her; a mountain of a woman fell out and landed on one knee. She stood, taller than Ballisea.

“Shatter it,” Ballisea said. The red-haired giant raised her fist for momentum and brought her fist down fast. The instant before she made contact, a black hole opened under her fist to absorb the blow. Ballisea sighed.

“Nevermind,” she said and dismissed the giant with a wave of her hand; she sunk into a black hole. It happened slower and more controlled than Libi’s exit. Then, Ballisea sunk into her own exit, mumbling on the way out. “God damn Corazónes.”

Sun Shattered

“GET TO THE SCHOOL!” Cora yelled backward over her shoulder. She strained with all her effort to keep the small crowd of skeletons at bay while the civilians fled. The skeletons struggled to get by Cora without acknowledging her as a threat. It seemed they considered her little more than a tree or fence to go around. Cora guessed her ability was to thank for whatever camouflage made her invisible to them.

Over the years she learned a good amount about her abilities. It worried her that the best power she could manifest in the situation was invisibility. Cora’s power gave her the ability to survive any situation. Her first thought was to try and master the individual skills that manifested; but, that proved impossible. Eventually, she learned to focus on the core ability. She learned to manifest offensive survival skills.

She tried to activate an offensive power to fight the skeletons that began raining on the city, but she only succeeded in hiding from them. As one was about to strike her down it paused in confusion. Then, it refocused its attention elsewhere and moved on. Now she was trying to corral a small group of them.

“Well that explains it,” Cora heard a woman’s voice at the same time she noticed the skeletons weren’t wriggling to get past her anymore.  She glanced up and noticed all skulls had their eye sockets trained on her. Cora jumped back from them, then whirled around to see where the voice came from.

A tall pale woman, made taller by a pair of bone-white horns, stood in front of Cora and stared. She was flanked by skeletons on both sides; all of them stared at Cora. She was positive her ability to be invisible to them was still active.

“Who are you?” Cora asked. “Why are you attacking the city?” She felt a tingling in her chest; now her temporary ability was gone. Cora immediately filled her mind with hopeful, violent thoughts. “She’s in charge, or close to it. I can beat her. I have to beat her to survive,” She expected the woman to threaten her life very soon and wanted to be ready. The woman smiled and laughed at Cora.

“City? My name is Ballisea, little Corazón. This entire Earth is mine now. But, you may leave; what kind of Earth would you like to flee to?”

“I’m not fleeing,” Cora said. She balled her fists tight. “I’m surviving!” It was a dangerous gamble; Cora hoped her powers would activate when Ballisea tried to defend herself. Ballisea didn’t so much as flinch at Cora’s tackle; no powers were activated. Cora flew through Ballisea as if the woman wasn’t even there. She landed on the blacktop road behind Ballisea and got some scrapes for her troubles. Cora’s ability was useless for minor injuries.

“You obviously haven’t heard my name before,” Ballisea sighed as she looked down on Cora. “The only way to survive me is to run,” Ballisea grinned. “Or, if I let you go. I’ve changed my mind about that, by the way,” she said. Cora successfully picked herself up from the floor and stood ready to face Ballisea. If nothing else, she finally threatened Cora properly. “Goodbye, Corazón,” Ballisea said. A black dot appeared on Cora’s neck; then, it instantly spread into a horizontal, dinner-plate sized portal that radiated from Cora’s neck.

Cora felt a tingling sensation around her neck, then, nothing. She lost all awareness of her neck; the hole moved upward intent on swallowing Cora’s head. Ballisea’s grin disappeared when the hole disappeared but Cora’s head still remained attached. Cora suddenly became aware of her neck again.

“God damn Corazónes,” Ballisea grumbled to herself. “Just leave,” Ballisea said. A black hole opened under Cora’s feet, but she remained standing, still seemingly on firm ground. Ballisea closed her eyes and took in a deep breath. She exhaled slowly, then opened her eyes.

“I don’t even want this Earth anymore,” Ballisea said. Cora noticed the skeletons behind her walking into black portals and disappearing. She risked a glance upward and confirmed the portals were gone from the sky.

“But, I do have a reputation to maintain,” Ballisea said. A wide, horizontal portal appeared next to her; a towering, pale woman with bright red hair fell out of the portal. She landed on her feet and stood taller than Ballisea’s horns. “I can’t let it be known that I was annoyed into giving up on an Earth,” she shrugged. “Shatter it,” Ballisea said. The redhead nodded then raised her fist into the air.

Before Cora could think about acting, the woman brought her fist down on street hard. The ground started shaking immediately and Cora no longer wondered what Ballisea wanted shattered. She watched Ballisea and the tall woman disappear into portals as the earth shook and cracked around her. Cora started to wonder if she’s survive without an Earth.

Sharp Opportunities

“For how long?” The woman’s question froze Jared in his tracks. He took two steps back to his spot with his pocketed jewelry before she asked. She shouldn’t have asked anything, much less remained standing in place with her eyes closed. He turned around to give her a more thorough look. She smirked slightly, eyes still closed. “It’s not really a trick if my eyes are closed the whole time,” she said.

When he first approached her, he only saw a young woman with a bright pink ponytail and a small red star tattooed on her cheek. She looked like someone adventurous. He looked closer and saw a 35 in the center of her tattoo. She wore a crisp white blazer with red buttons and a red scissor logo on the left. Her smirk disappeared.

“I just got mugged didn’t I?” she asked and opened her sea-blue eyes. She smiled the moment she noticed Jared still there. “Well, what’s the trick?” she asked. Jared returned the golden bracelet to her with a concerned look on his face.

“Who are you?” he asked. She accepted the bracelet and looked it over, then she slipped it back onto her wrist.

“Lyra. Who are you?” she asked as she extended her hand in greeting. “And do I get to see a trick or not?”

“I’m Jared. You remember me?” he asked as she shook her hand. Lyra shrugged.

“You couldn’t have met me before today,” she said. Jared nodded.

“I didn’t; but, you remember me from today, just now?” he asked Lyra giggled.

“Well you kind of stand out,” she said. She gestured at his clothing. He wore colorful baggy pants with rainbow suspenders. A rainbow wig sat atop his head with a floppy unicorn horn extending from it. “Which, I guess is a good thing for street performers.” Jared shook his head.

“No, that’s not what I mean.” He looked up and the sidewalk and quickly spotted another mark. Years of standing on the street taught him who he could approach and who was likely to fall for his scam. “Watch this,” he said.

Jared stepped in front of a tall, portly man in a business suit. It wasn’t always about how they were dressed, Jared could pick out a target by the way they carried themselves.

“Excuse me, sir,” Jared said. “You look like a good-natured fellow. Could I trouble you for two seconds to practice a trick I’m working on?”

The man stopped walking and looked down at the notably shorter Jared and smiled.

“Sure, I love magic tricks,” the stranger replied.

“Great! Can I borrow your watch for a moment?” The man eagerly removed his watch and presented it to Jared. Jared accepted the watch.

“Now, close your eyes,” Jared said. The man did without question and Jared ambled back to stand next to Lyra.

“There is no trick, is there?” Lyra asked with a trace of disappointment in her voice. Jared shrugged. The stranger suddenly opened his eyes. He glanced around in a moment of confusion, his eyes passed over Jared twice, but the man shrugged to himself and resumed walking.

“I can make it so people forget me when I’m out of their sight,” Jared said. “How do you remember me?”

“Hold on a second and I’ll tell you,” Lyra said. She snatched the watch out of Jared’s hand and dashed to catch up to the stranger.

“Excuse me sir, I think you dropped this,” Jared heard Lyra explain to the man as she returned his watch. After he thanked her, Lyra walked back to Jared.

“No more stealing,” she said sternly. “I remember you because I’m a Unique Soul like you. You’ve only been using your ability on Zeros.”

“Am I supposed to know what you’re talking about?” Jared asked. Lyra sighed.

“I hoped you might because you’re already awakened; I’m not good at explaining everything. I guess that means you don’t know anyone named Mundo, do you?” Lyra asked. Jared shook his head.

“Well, you can learn the details later. Want a job?” she asked.

“Doing what?” Jared asked. He didn’t have to be a street performer. He could let people remember him and hold a normal job, but Jared never felt comfortable with ‘normal’. He actually did practice magic tricks and occasionally had true performance days where he didn’t steal anything. He enjoyed the freedom and creativity he currently had. Lyra shrugged.

“Almost anything you want. I work for a giant company and we’re always looking for Uniques to hire. Sharp Development has logistics and supply divisions, travel and transportation, banking, education, medical services and even entertainment. Anything you want to do, you can probably find a place to do it.”

“Entertainment? Like, television?” Jared asked. Lyra nodded. “Alright,” he said. “I’ll take a look, what do I have to do?”  Lyra giggled.

“Close your eyes.”

Hart of Evil

“NO!!!” Jack’s luck ran out. While running through the labyrinthine cave system he thanked his lucky stars he was furthest from the door when it opened. A minor coffee incident put him about two minutes behind the rest of the relieving guards.

The first thing he noticed as he approached his post was that the first shift was still by the door. He expected them to be making their way out of the cave; instead, both shifts were staring at the tall black door intently. Their guns were drawn and trained on the ancient discovery. Then, Jack realized the door was being pushed open from the inside. It was mostly open when he stopped in his tracks to assess the situation.

Then, one of the guards screamed. He was suddenly 15 feet in the air flailing wildly, then he slammed into the cave wall several feet away. When a second guard was lifted off the ground, the rest of the guards opened fire at nothing. Jack watched guard after guard get flung against the cave wall; when only two were left he decided to run.

Jack was a coward and was comfortable with that. He only applied for the post because it seemed easy. The government found an ancient door and wanted it guarded. He imagined shooing away press and curious civilians would be the most excitement he would face.

He glanced back over his shoulder as he ran; all the guards were dead. The hairs on his neck stood on end and he knew he was being chased by something. Jack’s panic caused him to miss the turn that would have taken him back to camp, but he took the next turn hoping it would connect.

He stumbled when his next step wasn’t as low as he expected. The gritty, dusty ground became an old wooden walkway. He collected himself and kept running.

“NO!!!” It wasn’t until Jack ran into a dead-end that he remembered a mining camp mentioned in his briefing. He turned to try and run back through the cave, but stopped. The edge of the wooden walkway splinted and cracked under something heavy.

Jack considered firing his gun, but it didn’t seem to help the other guards. He didn’t feel like suffering through ringing ears in the last moments of his life. A part of him hoped that if he didn’t attack, the invisible beast might spare him.

He sat down, wanting to die in relative comfort, and watched. The wood continued to splinter at regular intervals. By the time it reached him, Jack deduced it was a four-legged beast. He sat still staring forward, waiting to be lifted in the air at any moment. He did not expect to see the thing reveal itself.

“Holy hell…,” he mumbled to himself as he realized what he was looking at. A unicorn. Its coat was the purest white he’d ever seen, it seemed to almost glow with divine light. Its flowing mane was blood-red and a single pitch-black, the same dark black of the door, horn rose out of its head. Jack was somehow surprised again when the unicorn changed.

It reared up and shrunk at the same time. Its snout pulled inward and its hooves each sprouted five delicate fingers. In moments a slim, pale young man with flowing blood-red hair stood in front of Jack. His horn was no longer visible, but a black heart tattoo with the number ’27’ in red decorated his forehead.

“What’s your favorite number?” The strange man asked with a soft voice.

“25!” Jack shouted in fear. It surprised him that he had a favorite number and that he answered at all. The man nodded and smiled.

“You’ll do,” he said. He knelt slightly and extended a hand toward Jack. “My name is Runehart. I need someone to help me get acquainted with this version of the universe, and you’re the only one left.”

“Jack,” Jack replied. He accepted the hand and assumed it was a greeting. He was surprised to find himself pulled to his feet again with no hint of exertion on Runehart’s part. “What do you mean this version?” Jack asked. He felt safe enough for the moment to ask questions. Runehart smiled, then turned and began walking toward the way he came. Jack was quick to join him and keep up.

“Do you know how old your universe is?” he asked. Jack shrugged and tossed out the first number that came to mind; something he heard somewhere.

“15 billion years or so?” he replied. Runehart nodded.

“That seems about right,” he sighed.

“Uh… are you evil?” Jack asked. He was slightly relieved when they walked past the cave that led to the exit. Runehart chuckled.

“Like all things in life, evil is just a matter of perspective,” he said. The ancient black door came into view and Jack realized they were going back in the room. He wondered what he’d see inside what he guessed was a prison cell.

“That being said,… Yes.” Runehart grinned. “I am.”

“What… what are you going to do?” Jack asked.

“Get ready, of course.”

“For… what?” They reached the door. Jack paused to ask before stepping in. Runehart was already crossing the threshold, he paused and poked his head back out.

“If I’m free, the rest of them are too. I need to prepare for my Master’s arrival. If you’re a good boy, I’ll put in a good word to him for you.”

Dragon’s Wrath

“We’re the first ones here!” The paladin in black armor lifted his visor to peer out across the wide open meadow. The golden sun hanging in the clear, blue sky sparkled on the giant dragon’s emerald hide. “It’s huuuuuuge. That thing wouldn’t fit in a football stadium.”

“It’s worth your own server. I’d be disappointed if it was any smaller,” Buck replied. He turned to the giant, pale, red-headed woman next to him. “Go get it before someone else tags ‘im.” She nodded and walked forward. They stood at the entrance to the meadow: a rocky ledge that extended from a narrow mountain tunnel. The dragon slept several miles away. The woman stepped to the edge, but Buck stopped her. “You gotta log in, Flutter. It won’t count otherwise.” She waved a dismissive hand at him.

“When I get there,” Flutter replied. Two sets of long, transparent insect wings grew out of her back then she leaped into the air. She flew straight toward the sleeping dragon.

“I’m Buck, by the way,” he said to the paladin. “I never got your name.” The mustached paladin turned and smiled at Buck.

“I’m Fern. You Unique?” Fern asked. “I’m #52.”

“#45,” Buck nodded. The ground shook and a deafening roar filled the meadow. They turned to see the very awake dragon roaring at an armored Flutter. She wore blood red plate armor and carried two shields. One in each hand and both of them half her considerable size. The dragon’s tail whipped forward to swat her away, but it bounced harmlessly off her left shield. She did not move an inch.

The dragon tried again to knock her away with its tail, but again Flutter stood her ground. The beast grew angry and roared at the sky. Black ash erupted from its mouth and filled the sky. It blocked out the sun and covered the meadow in darkness. The sound of footsteps behind Buck drew his and Fern’s attention. They turned and saw two women and a kid walking toward them with a large group behind them.

“You guys next?” The blonde knight asked. She wore silver chainmail armor and the paladin next to her wore thick, golden plate armor. The boy wore an elegant white and gold robe. Buck shook his head.

“There’s no ‘next’, he’s done for.”

“IS THAT FLUTTER!??” The female paladin yelled. She stepped to the edge while Buck answered the blonde’s question and saw the lone armored figure. Her armor glowed red in the darkness of the falling soot. Flutter stood still while the dragon tried everything it could to knock her away. Buck’s chest puffed out with pride and he nodded.

“That’s so cool! Totally unfair but so cool!”

“Raid disbanded,” the blonde yelled to the group behind her. “We’re not getting a shot.” A chorus of mumbles and murmurs ran through the crowd, but they turned to head back through the tunnel.

“I wanna watch!” the female paladin said. The blonde nodded.

“I know, me too.”

“Who’s Flutter?” the boy asked.

“She’s a fortress paladin that’s strong enough to solo a 20 person raid,” The blonde replied. The other three were watching the dragon assault Flutter.

“Whooaa. Can you do that, Rook?” The boy asked the female paladin. She shook her head, her dark dreadlocks wiggled on her head.

“She’s a Unique. Calavera,” she replied without taking her eyes off the action. The dragon’s swings were becoming slower, he appeared to be getting tired.

“Why’s she just standing there?” The boy asked. He approached the ledge to watch with the adults.

“Fortress paladins have a skill that lets them store up damage and dish it back out. Flutter can take a LOT of damage. Watch, I think shes’ going to use it. The dragon’s too tired already.”

In the center of the meadow, the dragon gave one final swipe with its claws then stopped. It supported itself with its front legs in order to rest a bit. The red glow on Flutter’s armor began to glow brighter.   She brought both shields in front of her and fit them together like two halves of a whole. Her glow flowed through her arms into the shield wall. A wide beam of red light fired from the towering shield and hit the dragon right in its face. The energy continued to flow until the glow left Flutter’s body entirely. Then the, now headless, dragon fell on its side.

Heart’s Desire

“Junior! Wake up!” His mom’s voice penetrated the closed door. Junior was already awake; he heard her call the first time. This was the second call, but he always waited for the third one. He loved to make his mom come in and wake him up. Junior stared at the video game console on the carpet.

“I don’t wanna go to school,” he mumbled. The chubby child rolled over on his back, shut his eyes and puffed his cheeks. He was only 9 but he learned that he could sometimes get what he wanted by shutting his eyes and holding his breath.  “I wanna go somewhere and play video games all day and never come back!” He held his breath while he made his wish. Junior heard the click of a doorknob. He sighed and opened his eyes. He heard another click the moment he realized he wasn’t in his bed anymore.

The boy watched an iron bar click into place in front of him, then he looked around. He watched white particles coalescing into long bars. The bars darkened to resemble iron and then they slotted together to build a cage around him. The boy was so entranced that he did not try to get out before it was finished. Instead, he looked around at the rest of the room.

His cage was being built in the center of what appeared to a castle’s common room. Black stone floors reflected the orange light from the fireplace. Elegant tapestries decorated the purple crystalline walls.

“Welcome to the AlterNet, Unique #27 -El Corazón,” an unseen female voice said. Junior thought it sounded like the cage speaking to him. “You do not have a registered AlterNet character, please leave this Earth. Would you like to create an AlterNet character” The voice asked.

“YES!” Junior yelled. The situation did not unnerve him at all, he was used to getting what he wanted.

“Violet Server rules require the presence of a guild officer. Please standby.” Junior saw a light come in the distance. A faint glow appeared in the crystalline wall. After several moments another, larger glow. Then an interval later, an even brighter larger glow. The boy realized he was watching the lights come on through the walls as someone came closer to his room. Finally, the next room lit up. Junior saw a faint silhouette through the wall, but could not make out any details.

The shadow walked to the entrance, then turned into the room. A young woman with shoulder-length blond hair stepped into the light. She wore plaid pajama pants and a long pink shirt with a ’32’ on it in white numbers. She saw the young boy and gave him a comforting smile.

“Hola, Estrellita,” She said. She walked to the cage and placed a flat palm on the top of it. The iron bars disintegrated into white powder, then disappeared. “I’m Grace,” she said. “You want to make a character, huh?”  Junior nodded.

“We can do that, but not right now. My guild has some very important rules about different Earths. You’ll learn them all at some point, but the important one now is we don’t accept underage members without parent’s permission.” Grace placed a hand on Junior’s shoulder. “But I’m awake already,” she giggled and gave him an over-exaggerated shrug. “If you want to hop home and get your parents I’ll wait here.” Junior nodded and closed his eyes. He clenched his fists and puffed his cheeks, but didn’t go anywhere. After a few moments, he opened his eyes to see Grace.

“I don’t know how,” he said. The woman nodded.

“It’s okay. New Estrellas get lost all the time,” Grace said. She touched his shoulder again and applied pressure to guide him toward the room’s exit. “We don’t have any celestials in the guild, but I’m sure we can find you a ride tomorrow.” Junior did not want to wait until ‘tomorrow’.  He wanted to make his character now. He clenched his eyes shut, held his breath and stood his ground.

“#27-El Corazón requires inhibitor to interface with nanos. Estimated build time: 27 hours.” The disembodied voice said. A swarm of white nanos gathered around Junior’s wrist. They orbited his plump wrist like rings around a planet.

“What?” Grace asked. “Violet, identify Uniques in the common room.”

“Grace. #32-El Músico, Awakened. Unknown. #27-El Corazón, Slumbering,” the mystery voice said.

“Holy hell, kid,” Grace stared the boy with wide eyes. “You’re something else,” she shook her head. “I don’t know how you got here, but we can’t get you home without making your character. Might as well do that tonight.” Junior nodded.

“Might as well,” he agreed with a confident smile. He knew he’d get what he wanted.

Chomping Games

“She’s way O.P.,” Rook complained. She walked into the common room with Thumper and Grace; the rest of the 20-person raid broke up to do other things. “Ms. Sharp should make the nanos lock her out or something.” She tapped her golden breastplate to dismiss it, then plopped on one of the brown leather recliners. Her armor disintegrated into white powder that disappeared before she landed.

“Telling Flutter ‘No’ about something seems like a really bad idea,” Grace said. The Knight dismissed her own chainmail armor as she sat on a large sofa made from the same brown leather. “We did just watch her solo a 20-person raid.”

“Yeaaah,” Rook smiled broadly. “I’m the same spec as her, I’m gonna be that strong some day.” Rook shuffled in the chair. She grimaced as she struggled to get comfortable. After a moment she stood and looked at the other brown leather chair. “Is that one as lumpy as this one?” Grace shook her head, then brushed a blond bang out of her eyes; it settled there after the short movement.

“No, that one’s way more comfortable. No one likes that one,” Grace pointed at the uncomfortable seat.

“Heeey. That’s-” Thumper whined with hurt feelings, but Grace interrupted the boy.

“Hey! Where’s Chomper?” She asked.

“Who’s Chomper?” Rook asked. When the tall woman turned her attention to Grace the brown leather chair gave a slight quiver.

“He’s that-” Thumper turned to point at something by Rook, but Grace grabbed the nine-year-old’s hand.

“It’s okay, Thumper, we’ll find him. Don’t worry,” Grace pulled the boy close for a tight hug. She took the opportunity to whisper in his ear. “Rook’s new, remember? She hasn’t found Chomper yet.” The boy nodded and grinned. Then, he turned to face rook.

“Where’s Chomper?” he repeated. Again the chair trembled with excitement. “Please help me find him! Chomper’s the best pet in the whole world!” Rook’s bright yellow eyes rolled upward, but she shrugged.

“Okay, what am I looking for? Cat? Dog? Bird? Unicorn?” She began searching the room looking for any movement.

“He’s uhhh, kind of hard to describe,” Grace said. “He can change shape, but he’s easy to find. He likes playing games, so you have to walk around like you want to play a game. Say, ‘Where’s Chomper?’ and you’ll see him kind wiggle like he’s excited to play.” The brown leather chair jumped slightly behind Rook. She did not notice.  “Let’s each take part of the room, why don’t you start over there?” Grace pointed to the furthest corner in the room.

“‘Kay,” Rook nodded and walked to the dim corner. “Where’s Chomper?” she asked a bookshelf. Then she turned to a potted plant. “Where’s Chomper?” she asked. Grace and Thumper each giggled to themselves in their own corner. Rook was so distracted by her question that she did not notice Grace and Thumper were not asking for Chomper. They timed their pace to reach the center of the room at the same time as Rook.

“Any luck?” Grace asked. She looked eyes with Rook to keep her distracted. Rook shook her head, then she looked down at Thumper.

“Sorry kid, I’m done looking for now. Maybe I’ll help you later if he hasn’t shown up yet. I asked everything over there…,” she gestured at the far corner. “…’where’s Chomper?’ but nothing moved. She let herself fall on the lumpy recliner. The moment she touched it jagged ivory teeth sprouted out on each side of her and clamped shut to trap her.

“YOU FOUND CHOMPER!” Grace and Thumper shouted together. The recliner spit the woman out and rushed to Thumper. By the time the mimic reached him, it changed from a leather recliner to a small silver and gold treasure chest. The box bounced around Thumper while he petted it.

Unknown Comforts

“Cora?” A disenchanted barista called the name while holding up a cup.

“Right here,” Cora replied with a half-raised hand. The young woman stepped forward with a smile. The barista, “Frankie”, looked at Cora with suspicion, even though he was the one that took her order. She was used to it and handed him the receipt in exchange for the coffee. Confusion clouded his eyes when he noticed his name on the receipt, then he turned around. Cora left the coffee shop then around the corner to another shop in the strip mall.

“Good morning, can I help you?” an older woman with long salt and pepper hair smiled at Cora from behind the glass counter. Handmade jewelry and other knickknacks decorated the interior of the display case. Cora shook her head.

“Sorry, this might sound odd… Do you want this coffee?” Cora placed the cup on the counter. “I got an extra one for free but one’s my limit. If I don’t give it away it’s going to go to waste. Honestly, you’re my last chance to keep it out of the trash,” she gave a practiced shrug. “No one seems to like it black with a shot of peppermint.”

“Oh my goodness, are you sure? I adore black with peppermint,” the woman replied. Her hand inched toward the cup on the counter.  “And I haven’t had my morning cup yet.”

“Then it’s yours!” Cora smiled at the woman and pushed the cup closer to her hand. “Thanks for taking it off my hands.”

“Cora? That’s a beautiful name, “the older woman said as she eyed the cup. Then, she picked it up off the counter. “You know, it’s always nice to meet another peppermint fan.” Cora smiled as she moved toward the exit.

“Yeah, it is. My mother taught me how delicious it was, especially in coffee.” She stepped through the door and gave her mother a melancholy wave as she left. Cora walked to her car, got in, then wondered what to do next.

Normally she dropped off an “extra” breakfast plate for her dad, but he was out of town for a conference. She did not have a job, but she never wanted for money. She had a regular, rotating set of victims that she mugged every week to get by whenever she needed cash.

“Breakfast it is,” she decided to get something for herself. She reached for her phone and dialed her favorite restaurant. She learned long ago that trying to eat in a restaurant resulted in her never even getting to order. She placed her order, left her name, then took the scenic route to the restaurant. Cora left her car and walked to the entrance, but she was stopped by a hand on her shoulder.

“Cora? It IS you.” A woman with a high-pitched voice hugged Cora and kissed her cheek. “How’re you doing?” Cora fought the urge to shove the woman off her to avoid appearing rude, but she took a step back. The woman let her arms fall away and gave Cora a curious look. “You don’t remember me?” She sounded offended, but then she slapped her own forehead. “Of course you don’t remember me. You were so young, and you’ve grown a lot since then.”

Cora looked the stranger over. She was a tall, wispy woman with short red hair. She was dressed in a black tank top and a long, green flowing skirt. Cora did not think she recognized the woman, but a name popped in her head as soon as she saw the thin lady.

“Mundo?” The woman smiled and nodded.

“You do remember!” Mundo grabbed Cora’s arm and pulled her into the restaurant. “I hope you’re not in a hurry, we’ve got some catching up to do.”

“Wait!” Cora planted her feet and pulled her arm out of Mundo’s hands. “You remember me?” she asked. Mundo gave her a curious look.

“Of course, dear. You used to come over and play with my nieces every day after school. Then one day you stopped coming but no one would tell me why.” Mundo shrugged with sad eyes. “Any time I asked about you, the girls ignored the question.” Cora nodded. She forgot most of her school days. The only vivid memory she had was the first day everyone forgot her. Her friends wanted to play hide and seek on the way home, but no one ever looked for her.

“How do you remember me though?” Cora asked. “No one remembers me.” Mundo laughed in disbelief at first, but then she caught herself.

“Are you serious?”

“Yes,” Cora nodded.

“Oh dear,” Mundo stepped forward and hugged Cora again. This time the hug seemed more consoling. Cora did not mind it as much. “I’m so sorry, Cora. I should have talked to you a long time ago.”

“You know what I can do?” Cora asked with wide eyes. Mundo nodded, but then she paused and shook her head.

“It’s complicated. I don’t know what you can do exactly, but I knew you were special,” Mundo looked Cora over as if she was looking for something.  “You don’t have a tattoo, do you?”

“No, why?”

“The short version is, if you get a tattoo with the number 27 on it, people should start remembering you again,” Mundo said. Then, she tilted her head toward the restaurant’s interior. “Let’s go sit down and I’ll explain everything.” Cora nodded and took a step forward, but then she paused again.

“But,… I don’t have to, right? I mean, I don’t have to get the tattoo?”

“Well, no. I suppose you don’t have to. You want to keep living with no one remembering you?” Cora shrugged but nodded.

“Maybe? It’s not so bad once you get the hang of it.”

“What about your family?”

“I think after 15 years, the guilt might be too much for them. And I still remember them even if they don’t remember me. They’re happy and I have a good life. Why disturb it?”