Recording. Ruined.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who froze you in time? Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buying Restraint

“It’s a pleasure to meet you Ms. Sharp. I’m Restraint,” the tan young man in a black suit shook Ms. Sharp’s hand before gesturing at the pair of seats in front of his desk for her and her assistant. “What can I do for you?” Restraint asked. He returned to his own seat as Ms. Sharp sat down; her assistant remained standing.

“I’m here to tell you what I can do for you,” Ms. Sharp replied. “You have a decently successful business here but it can be more.” Restraint was used to fending off business ideas from people that have no clue how to run a business. Everyone was eager to tell him how to make more money off the Supers that visited his spa anywhere he was. At least Ms. Sharp had the courtesy to make an appointment.

“Alright,” Restraint nodded. He let a short sigh escape then continued. “Go ahead and tell me how I can be making more money.” Ms. Sharp smiled at him.

“I’m sure everyone in this room knows you’re not doing this for the money,” she said. Restraint was surprised. He glanced at Ms. Sharp’s dark-haired assistant and she gave him a slight nod. Every other idea he’d heard was intended to boost his profits. “As I said, I want to help you make your business into more. To reach further and help more people than you already are.”

“That takes money…,” Restraint said. He was actually hoping she meant what she said. But, he did not want to let her know how close she hit to home. The only reason he ran the spa was to help people in his own way. He had the strength to be a superhero, not to mention his ability to nullify powers. But to him, it was more important to create an island of peace than to suit up and fight villains.

His spa was in the center of town and every year its influence grew a little larger. Heroes and villains were more civilized the closer they were to Restraint’s spa and he hoped that’d cover the whole city eventually. It surprised him when Ms. Sharp shook her head in response to his comment.

“It takes resources,” she said. “Money is just the middleman, I have all the resources you’d need.”

“And you have a plan to use those resources?” Restraint asked. “I doubt you’re giving them to me just like that.” Ms. Sharp nodded.

“You’re aware that alternate universes exist?” Ms. Sharp asked. Restraint nodded and chuckled.

“Yeah, we get a few travelers through here sometimes. Why?”

“I run a multiversal corporation named Sharp Development,” she said. “While we offer a wide variety of products and services, I still need to address the Super sector. Unfortunately, my knowledge and contacts in that area are thin at the moment, which brought me to you,” she said.

“Okay, you’re here,” Restraint said. “What’s your plan?”

“Simple as can be,” Ms. Sharp replied. “We’ll start off simple by having sign-up sheets available in the locker rooms. Once we get enough interest I’ll host a presentation laying out the whole thing. I’m envisioning a service that allows clients from other universes to hire Supers.”

“You think Supers want to get hired to help with honey-do lists and bodyguarding?” Restraint asked. 

“I think that Supers would like the chance to use their abilities freely without risking their lives. I also think they’d like to travel and see other universes. If the local Supers are off in different universes they won’t have much time to cause trouble here,” Ms. Sharp said. Restraint had to admit he liked that idea the most.

“Okay,” Restraint nodded again. “I’m willing to give you a shot, what’s the next step?” He was surprised when Ms. Sharp’s assistant stepped forward with a red clipboard that she wasn’t holding a second ago. The clipboard only had one sheet.

“I just need a couple of things, first a signature,” Ms. Sharp said.

“What’s this?” Restraint asked. He was curious to see where her idea led, but he wasn’t ready to sign a formal contract.

“This is just giving us permission to distribute flyers in your business,” she smiled. “You’re not committing to anything else yet.”

“Oh, okay,” Restraint nodded then signed his name. “And the other thing?”

“This isn’t a requirement as much as it is advice,” Ms. Sharp said as she stood. Her assistant collected the clipboard. “This isn’t true for everyone, but it is for you. Get a tattoo. It will change your life,” she said. He watched her assistant wiggle her fingers at the air, then a tall black portal opened. “And make sure it has your favorite number, 42, on it,” Ms. Sharp added before she stepped into the portal and disappeared.

Sharp Restraint

“Restraint? That’s a boring hero name,” Charlie couldn’t help but comment as he shook the young man’s hand. Although, he couldn’t deny Restraint fit his name perfectly. Restraint appeared to be in his young 20s. He had a healthy tan and wore a perfectly tailored black suit with a white tie. A pair of round, red-rimmed glasses drew attention to his hazel eyes.

“I’m no hero, just the representative,” Restraint replied. “So…,” Restraint sat down in front of Charlie’s large oak desk. “…what kind of hero are you looking for, and for what purpose?” Restraint asked.

“What for?” Charlie asked. He walked around his desk and sat in a high-back leather chair. “I need a bodyguard for my daughter. I thought that was the extent of your services, what else do you offer?”

“Almost anything; Supers, like people, have a variety of interests. Sharp Development can find a Super willing to help you with anything you want to accomplish. Although, we do limit clients to one Super per contract period,” Restraint said. “How long would you like your daughter protected?”

“Forever, obviously,” Charlie laughed. “Or, at least as long as I can afford it.” Restraint tilted his head at Charlie with slight interest.

“There is a way to get a Super assigned to you on a permanent basis,” he said. “And, it wouldn’t count as a timed contract, so you’d still be able to hire Supers for temporary jobs.” Charlie sat up straighter, then leaned forward over the desk.

“You can really protect her permanently?” he asked. Restraint nodded.

“Sharp Development accepts souls as currency. However, since you only have the one, it can buy you nearly anything.”

“You’re serious?” Charlie asked. The question was directed both at Restraint and himself. He couldn’t believe he was seriously considering selling his soul. “If I sell you my soul, my daughter gets a Super to protect her for the rest of her life?” Restraint gave a curt nod.

“Can I get a permanent Super and a timed contract?” Charlie asked with a grin. “It’s the only soul I’ve got,” he said.

“Sure,” Restraint nodded again. This time, a faint smirk tugged at the corner of his lips. “The maximum contract is only three years; Sharp Development will own your soul forever.”

Inviting Sun

Minerva’s heart sank with the gavel bang. The court ruled her a witch and in an instant, the gathered townsfolk rushed at her like a rabid mob.

“BURN THE WITCH!” Minerva’s own mother yelled. The young woman couldn’t blame her though; she saw the pain in her mother’s eyes. She knew she was only doing it to take the blame off herself for birthing a witch at all. Not that Minerva was actually a witch. The accusation only came because she proved herself to be stronger than any man in the village.

It was a festive day full of friendly competitions; Minerva won them all easily. The mayor’s ego was particularly bruised when Minerva bested his son in a wrestling competition.

“She has unnatural strength! It’s magic!” he shouted. That was all it took to get her on trial. A trial presided over by the Mayor himself; she never stood a chance. Then, almost as quickly as it began, the ruckus died down. A brilliant, almost warm glow entered the room. Everyone, now quiet, sat down again and turned to face the newcomer. Minerva noted the crowd seemed relaxed and guessed they felt like she did; ready to nap on a beach on a warm sunny day.

“This woman is no witch,” the stranger said. She was tall, lean, and ghostly pale.  Her hair shimmered like polished metal as did her eyes.

“And you are, Ms.?” The mayor asked. His question came in a far more polite tone than Minerva had ever heard from him in her 20 years. It only made it stranger that he was addressing a woman. The rest of the townsfolk seemed content to sit quietly and bask in her warm glow.

“You may call me Chroma,” the woman replied. She continued walking towards the witness stand at an easy pace.

“And how are you sure that she’s not a witch?” the mayor asked. Chroma smiled at him, she was now directly in front of Minerva.

“Because I am,” she replied. Minerva’s eyes went in fear for the woman. She expected the crowd to rush Chroma just as ferociously as they did her; but, no one moved. The mayor only nodded his head.

“I see,” he replied. “Though, that doesn’t necessarily exclude her from being one. Witches belong to covens. How do you explain her magical strength?” Minerva was amazed that the mayor’s argument came out so peacefully. She knew it was due to Chromas glow, and she did not doubt for a minute that the woman was definitely a witch.

“What’s to explain?” Chroma shrugged. “Your boys are just weak; they should get more exercise.”

“Hmmm,” the mayor nodded again. “I suppose they have been getting lazy.”

“It’s a beautiful day outside, why is everyone in here?” Chroma asked. Minerva felt the sudden urge to run outside, but Chroma placed a hand on her shoulder to keep her steady. Another bang of the gavel drew everyone’s attention.

“Not a witch. Case closed. Let’s get back to the festival,” the mayor said. The townsfolk all stood calmly, then filed out of the courtroom. The moment Chroma and Minerva were alone, Chroma’s golden, sunny glow dimmed and Minerva’s head felt clearer.

“Are you okay?” Chroma asked her. Minerva nodded.

“Yes, thank you. Who are you? Why is a witch helping me?” 

“I’m not a witch exactly. I do use magic, but it’s not witchcraft,” Chroma replied with a smile. Minerva couldn’t help but stare into her mirror-like eyes. They were polished enough that Minerva was looking into her own green eyes.

“I helped you with the hope of convincing you to help me,” Chroma replied. Minerva nodded immediately; she was beyond grateful at this point.

“Whatever it is, if I can help you, I will,” Minerva replied. Chroma smiled. A tall black portal opened next to Minerva and Chroma nodded at it.

“Welcome to the Chrome Court. You’re going to help me save the multiverse,” Chroma then stepped into the void and disappeared. Minerva heard her voice from the other side. “Come along, Calavera.”

Super & Unique

“We should leave,” Joshua said. The nurse had only been out of the room for a moment before he suggested it.

“Nonsense,” his wife replied without looking at him. Her focus rested entirely on the wiggling bundle in her lap. A fair-skinned, dark-haired baby boy giggled at her various faces. “We need to get our boy taken care of.”

“Something isn’t right, Mary,” Joshua said. “The nurse looked surprised when she gave him his first shot,” he said. “You saw how fast she excused herself.”

“It’s a doctor’s office, dear. Things come up,” Mary replied while still making the boy giggle.

She was supposed to give him more than one,” Joshua added. “What if he’s not… normal,” Joshua asked. That did get Mary’s attention. She looked at her husband with stern eyes.

“Our boy is perfect,” she said. “The nurse said she’d be back in a moment; maybe she went to get the rest of the vaccines.” The baby’s giggles died down without Mary’s attention, but they began again as soon she was locked onto his sparkling blue eyes. Joshua sighed and leaned closer to Mary’s ear.

“Honey…,” he said. “I know we’re going to love him no matter what, but you have to consider the fact that we found him in a crater in a field. Maybe something happened when she gave him the shot.”

“If something out of the ordinary happened, don’t you think she would have shown it a bit more?” Mary asked. “She didn’t even blink, she injected him, then set the needle down and excused herself.” Mary paused for a moment after that and tilted her head slightly; she looked up from the baby again.

“She didn’t dispose of it properly…,” Mary realized. Joshua stood and walked to the small cart the nurse left behind. He picked up the plunger and examined it; the needle only extended a fraction of what he expected, he held it out to his wife.

“It’s broken,” she said plainly. Then she looked down at the baby’s leg and realized the nurse left without applying a bandaid. “Maybe we should,-” Mary’s suggestion was interrupted by a knock on the door. It swung open to let in a tall, lean, aqua-haired woman in a white coat.

“Mr. and Mrs. Clark, my name is Dr. Mundo,” the woman smiled at them, then she looked down at the baby in Mary’s lap.

“Oh my, it looks like you’re going to have your hands full with this one,” she said. Mundo tilted her head slightly, as if she noticed something, then he gave Mary and Joshua a more thorough appraisal.

“Where did you find him?” she asked.

“He’s my son!” Mary said. Her voice only carried slight traces of annoyance and anger; but, they were enough to interrupt the baby’s giggles. Dr. Mundo shook her head.

“Not biologically,” she said. The Clarks stood to leave, but Dr. Mundo continued. “I’m not trying to take him away from you, but if you’re going to raise him, there’s a lot you need to know. To give you the right information, I need the right information from you,” she said.

“Why?” Joshua asked. He realized that seemed vague and clarified. “Why aren’t you trying to take him away from us?”

“The simple answer is, he’s not from this Earth,” she said. “I’m not sure how he got here. If his real parents ever come looking for him, that’s for you and them to work out. Until then, I know you’ll give him a good home.”

“What do you mean he’s not from Earth?” Mary asked. Both parents sat down again; they seemed to trust the doctor a bit more.

“Oh, he’s from Earth. Just not this one. Alternate universes exist and this little cutie seems to be from one of those.”

“How do you know… any of this? You just walked in,” Joshua asked. A broad smile took over Dr. Mundo’s face.

“I’m so glad you asked,” she said.

“I’ll get to that answer eventually. First, let’s talk about your baby, have you named him yet?”

“Constance,” both parents replied simultaneously; to their surprise. Things happened so fast, they hadn’t had any time to discuss names. They had a library of names to choose from; they often discussed children in the past. Before they gave up. However, Constance was not on any of their lists.

“It’s a beautiful name,” Dr. Mundo said. “So, let’s get started. Your son is what’s known as a ‘Unique Soul’. I mentioned alternate universes earlier; you should know that a ‘Unique Soul’ does not have a counterpart in any other universe. In all of infinity, there is only one child like your son.” Both parents smiled at that extra bit of information.

Dr. Mundo was about to say more when a sudden knock struck the door. The same nurse that tried to give Constance a vaccine peeked in but now her white uniform was covered with a growing green sludge.

“Dr., I’m sorry. Fae emergency,” she said. Dr. Mundo nodded, then turned her attention back to the Clarks.

“I’m sorry, something’s come up. But, we really should continue this. Please make an appointment on your way out,” Dr. Mundo turned to leave the room, but paused in the doorway.

“You should know that Unique Souls often attract each other. Now that he’s part of your life, you should be prepared for lots of unexpected things. If anything out of the ordinary happens before our next meeting; here’s the important stuff. Your son is Unique Soul #42, La Calavera. Even at his age right now, he’s the strongest person on this Earth. On top of that, he’s also a Super with the ability to fly.” She turned away again, leaving them semi-confused. But, to their surprise, she paused again after a step.”And, one final piece of advice until our next meeting. If you ever meet anyone named Dana Sharp; or someone claiming to be from Sharp Development. Do not trust them under any circumstances.”

Jail. Ruined.

“First or last?” The overweight guard smirked at Ruin through the bars. He was starting to be hopeful that this stranger would cause some trouble; he definitely seemed to be a smartass.

“That’s it. My name is, ‘Ruin’.” he replied with his own smirk. Unlike the over-eager guard, Ruin knew he could walk out of the station at any time. He was enjoying the novel experience of being arrested.

“You some kind of devil worshipper?” The guard asked, his eyes flitted to the skull tattoo atop Ruin’s bald head. The skull had long fangs with the number 42 in red in the center of it. Ruin shook his head.

“The list of people I worship is very small,” he said. “Satan didn’t make the cut. So, what am I in for? Having an awesome tattoo?” he asked. He grew his smile broader once he realized his good mood seemed to put the guard in a worse one.

“Nothing personal,” the guard replied. “Every stranger coming through gets a mandatory stay,” the guard rapped on one of the iron bars with his knuckle. “We’re just being hospitable.” Ruin nodded.

“So it’s not just me, you treat everyone like a criminal? That’s mighty short-sighted,” he added.

“There’s nothing wrong with wanting to keep our town safe!” the guard was quick to defend the town’s methods. Ruin shook his head; his smile remained.

“I didn’t say it was wrong. I said, short-sighted. Aren’t you afraid of rubbing the wrong person the wrong way?” The guard burst into forced, obnoxious laughter.

“Not if they’re in jail,” he said. His voice carried too much smugness for Ruin to deal with anymore. He stood from the bench. Despite being outside the cell, the guard took a cautious step back.

“Well, this town isn’t for me then. I’ll just head out of here altogether,” he took a step toward the cell door. The guard shook his head frantically.

“You’re not going anywhere until we learn some more about you,” he said. He deliberately moved his hand down and made a point of unsnapping his holster. Ruin sighed.

“Look. I don’t want to hurt anyone or destroy any property. I’m just passing through, and I don’t even have to do that. I’ll just leave the way I came and go around your town altogether.”

“Well you-,” The guard began to speak, but Ruin shook his head and interrupted.

“I’m leaving. Whether you open the door or not,” Ruin replied. The guard chuckled and drew his gun.

“Let’s see you try.”

Ruin sighed once more, then turned his back to the guard.

“That’s what I thought,” the guard laughed. Ruin took two steps back toward the bench, then continued walking. He pushed through the bench and wall as if he was moving through water. The thick stone wall crumbled out of his way as he walked. The guard managed to act and fired three shots at Ruin. He hit the escapee’s broad form all three times in the back; Ruin stopped walking.

Ruin suddenly dispersed into mist while the Guard watched. As he tried to comprehend the disappearance, Ruin suddenly appeared next to him. He yanked the guard’s gun out of his hand and threw it into the empty cell.

“I said I don’t want any trouble,” Ruin said. He grabbed the guard’s uniform and lifted him off the ground. Ruin’s eyes glowed red, and he bared his fangs at the guard. “But you’re so eager, you’ve talked me into it.”

Dungeons & Exposition

“A whole month? With you?” Dread asked Jenny. She sounded eager for a moment, then corrected her statement. “..and Astrid?” she glanced at the short girl next to them. The three girls stood on an endless amber plain underneath a dim purple sky.

“The window’s open for 30 days,” Jenny shook her head. The stiff black peaks that made up her hair wobbled with the motion. “But, we don’t need to stay for the whole month. Ms. Sharp wants to add dungeon matches to the tournament since she’s restarting it anyway. The dungeon server opening up has some good starter ruins to get used to the differences.”

“What kind of differences?” Astrid asked. Then, she let out a small giggle and shrugged. “Though, I haven’t played a real derby match yet either. It’s all new to me,” she shrugged. Jenny nodded.

“In a derby match, relative power levels stay consistent for the players and any monsters on the track. In a dungeon Match, every time you level up, it’s like descending a dungeon. Random monsters will start spawning instead of only player summoned ones. Then, the monsters start getting tougher as you get deeper. But they also start dropping better gear that makes the players stronger too.”

“So we get stronger too?” Dread asked. “Won’t that cancel out the stronger monsters?” Jenny shook her head.

“The other team gets stronger too, right?” Astrid asked.

“The big rule for derby is: ‘It isn’t a race.’,” Jenny replied. “Dungeon matches kind of are. If one team levels up faster they make stronger monsters and have better gear. The other team will have trouble keeping up with everything against them; we don’t want to be that team.”

“Should I have picked a faster class?” Astrid asked.

“Nah,” Jenny shook her head with a giggle. “Stop asking, you already picked Swordmage. You can’t change your class, so for the last time,” she said with mild exasperation. “It’s not about what role you fill, it’s about having fun.”

Astrid nodded, her tight black curls bounced. She caught Jenny’s mild annoyance. It bruised her feelings a bit, but Astrid knew her new friend meant well. And, she knew that she’d probably asked Jenny what class would best help the team one too many times during character creation.

“I can’t wait,” Dread said. “We going now?”

“What about the rest of the team?” Astrid asked. Jenny shrugged.

“Bailey has a ton of dungeon matches under her belt already; she doesn’t need the practice. Britt’s always working, but Dirge can probably use some dungeon time.”

“Oh, no. She’s busy,” Dread said quickly. “Uhh.. I think she wants to hang out with Vegas more. I think we should go just you and me. And Astrid,” Dread added.

“Actually, Astrid reminded me of something,” Jenny said. “It’s best to take a full team so we can talk about synergies too. We’ve got 30 days, and I’ve already reached out to some of the other guilds about practicing at the Schoolyard. We’ll try to plan it for a day when we get at least one full team together, two would be great.”

“Oh. So, what now?” Astrid asked.

“We can still do some training,” Dread said. “I mean, I have time. If you want to?” She looked at Jenny first, then she turned to Astrid. “Unless you have to leave?”

“I apologize girls,” a woman’s ethereal voice echoed around them. “Playtime’s over, this one has chores,”

“Chores?” Astrid looked up at the purple sky in confusion. Then, she sank into a black portal that appeared underneath her feet. It disappeared after swallowing her. Jenny shook her head in awe.

“You know…,” Jenny said. “I understand Ballisea can do that anytime from anywhere. But seeing it happen is going to take some getting used to. Can she hear us too?”

“Yeah,” Dread nodded with a more serious expression than she wore moments before. The truth was, she didn’t know if Ballisea could hear them across universes until the moment Astrid disappeared. But, Ballisea spoke something to her only. A faint whisper emanating from within her ear canal; a microscopic black portal that carried Ballisea’s voice.

“Little Calavera,” Ballisea giggled in Dread’s ear. “You would do well to heed my advice. If you wish to spend time alone with that one, ask her. For now, I will grant you this trivial favor of removing Astrid.”

Sharp Reset

“Your performance in your first few games was…,” Dana Sharp paused mid-pace to look at the group of five girls. Bailey, Jenny, Dirge, Dread, and Britt were seated in Dana Sharp’s office. Each one looked sullen from Dana’s lecture so far. She circled them while informing them about her decision to cancel the Pineapple Cup, and start from the beginning again. Dana searched her mind for the most gentle word she could. “…lacking. It wasn’t the only reason for my decision to scrap the first tournament; but, it was on the list of reasons. It’s not anyone’s fault, it’s not even a negative.” Dana Sharp walked to her desk and sat behind it.

“Between us in this room, I know you could have improved enough as a team during the tournament to win. However, from a business perspective, there was an opportunity here to exploit. The representatives of Earth: Pineapple respect the fact that my company is willing to take a loss to accommodate a family emergency.” Ms. Sharp took a moment to nod at Bailey. She sat in the center of the group. Her chestnut ponytail was currently covered by her green hoodie; she pulled it up early into the lecture.

“How’s your dad doing, Bailey?” Ms. Sharp asked.

“Better,” Bailey gave the woman a firm nod. “Thank you, Ms. Sharp.”

“I get to buy you girls more time to practice, and it leaves a positive impression on my clients. This was my decision, girls.” The girls all seemed to relax when they realized Ms. Sharp wasn’t angry at them.

“Here’s what we’re going to do going forward. Jenny…,” Dana nodded at a girl with black spiky hair to Bailey’s right. “…you’re still the captain. Bailey’s father is still recovering, and I want her to be able to miss a day of practice if she needs to. Along those lines, we still need a sixth team member. The trouble is, you’ve become a team already. The window to assign you a sixth member myself has already closed.”

“Again, this is a great opportunity to learn something. Sharp Development acquired a dungeon finder app on one of our Earths called ‘Delver’. We’ve scaled it up to the AlterNet and rebranded it as ‘DRBY’. Dana Sharp waved a casual, dismissive hand at the girls.

“It’s on your nodes now, try it out and find a sixth member you all agree on. And you’re able to share the app with other players to make it easier to find practice games. Get as much training in as you can before the tournament restarts,” Dana Sharp said.

“When is it?” Bailey asked.

“You’ll know with plenty of time. When I decide,” Ms. Sharp replied.

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.

Dreadful Aura

Erin froze in his tracks the moment he focused his Sight on the teenager. He was thankful he didn’t call out to her as he approached to congratulate her on her win. She was too busy basking in the cheers of the crowd around her to notice him standing on the field staring at her.

Erin shook his head to dismiss his Sight and recollect his thoughts. He decided not to approach her right away; she was unlike anything he’d ever seen before. She was tall and athletic with spiked, white hair. And, she was now officially the strongest person on Earth.

One day, a year ago, humans spontaneously developed superhuman abilities. Luckily, the leaders of the world were able to come together quickly to develop a super-powered version of the Olympics. They set a date for a year in the future and opened training camps.

Unlike the training involved for professional athletes, anyone could be superhuman. The winner, Dread, wasn’t the only teenager in the competition, but they were all treated as equals. Her frightening strength wasn’t what gave Erin pause. Her aura was entirely different from every other human he saw; super-powered or not.

Every other person congratulating Dread had a soft purple glow around them. It was the same glow that informed Erin of his new ability. After some practice with it, he found out that seeing someone’s aura was the least useful trait of his ability. With his enhanced vision he could see sharper, clearer,  and farther than anyone. It was useful enough to use often, but not all the time. While approaching Dread, his Sight activated unintentionally. It was only the second time that had ever happened; the first was when humans first got their powers.

The moment he saw Dread’s aura, he knew why his ability turned on. It was scared of her. Her body was surrounded by a ghostly, brilliant, golden skull. It resembled a sugar skull with elegant purple, gold, and black patterns decorating it. The number 42 glowed on the skull’s forehead. When he shook his Sight away, the skull aura disappeared while Dread continued smiling and chatting with her new admirers. Something about the situation didn’t seem right, she seemed friendly enough despite her aura. Erin noticed the crowd around her thinning and decided to get closer before his approach became awkward.

He took three steps, then froze again. Erin’s Sight spontaneously activated again, now there were two horrifying auras. A flowing black cloak and obsidian scythe now stood next to Dread’s golden skull. Erin shook his Sight away again and spotted the difference. There was one more girl in the crowd that wasn’t there when Erin tried to approach a second time. She wasn’t as tall as Dread, but almost as pale, and she had long ribbon-like black curls flowing down over her shoulders.

Erin wasn’t surprised; teleportation was a known ability. The new girl with the death-like aura smiled and seemed as cheerful as Dread. Erin decided he was more curious than scared and decided to try approaching a third time. The celebratory crowd around Dread had died down to less than 20 by the time Erin was close enough to hear the conversation. It seemed to be perfect timing, because he was in earshot when Dread spoke up.

“You guys have been so awesome, but my ride’s here now,” Dread said. She gestured at the curly-haired girl next to her with her thumb. “But I have a question for all of you; what’s your favorite number?”

“35!” Erin shouted. He wanted to be heard over everyone else. Unfortunately, no one else answered. Over a dozen strangers turned to look at Erin with curious and amused expressions. He felt instant embarrassment, as well as surprise. He never gave it much thought and didn’t know he had a favorite number.

“Then, you’re who we’re here to see,” Dread said.