Challege: Void

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

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

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

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

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

“What is that one to you?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why did you hurt him?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good & Angry

“What the hell…” Edna awoke disoriented. She couldn’t remember falling asleep, but she felt like she was laying on something firm. She opened her eyes, sat up, and found herself in a space that resembled a jail cell. It was only one cell in a much larger warehouse. Just outside the cage, smiling at her, stood Beauregard. The world’s most helpful supervillain wore a black, tux-like costume with a long flowing gold cape. His pale skin contrasted well with the gold accents on his lapels.

“Good morning,” Beauregard said. “I apologize for the inconvenience…,” he began to apologize.

“Nuh uh, this is flat out kidnapping,” Edna interrupted. She stood from the cot and glared at him through the bars. Like most people in the world, Edna had trouble taking Beauregard seriously as a villain. “If you let me go now, I won’t press charges. If I have to wait for a hero to rescue me, I’ll be annoyed.”

“Not this time!” Beauregard laughed. He pointed at a control panel with dozens of buttons, lights, and instruments. “This time, I’m not waiting. Every good plan needs a witness,” he said. Then made a deliberate pointing gesture at Edna. “I realized, I don’t have to monologue to a hero. Anyone will do. So, here’s my plan….”

“Wait!” Edna interrupted. She felt a legitimate worry all of a sudden. “Don’t you want the heroes to watch your final victory? You can make the heroes that always mock you see you succeed.” Beauregard paused and looked at Edna. He tilted his head slightly; just enough to give Edna hope.

“They… mock me?” he asked. Despite her situation, the surprise in his voice tugged at Edna’s heart. “I thought they were more professional than that.” He shook his head.

“Whatever. Obviously I don’t mean as much to them as I thought, so no. You’ll do. This Earth is running out of resources faster and faster, not to mention climate change and all the other problems created by humans.” Beauregard paced back and forth in front of Edna’s cell while he explained his plan.

“I know I have a pretty strange streak of luck going. So far all my evil plans seem to help the world. So, this time, my plan is designed to help the world. By terminating three-quarters of the global population. Humans and animals alike.”

“Killing strangers isn’t a very good plan if you’re trying to be a hero.”

“Be a hero?” Beauregard smiled but shook his head. “Not interested in that, my plan is still supposed to be evil. But I am trying to get out in front of whatever mysterious force twists my plan into something helpful.” Beauregard began wandering toward the control panel.

“How does it work?” Edna asked.

“That’s a good question!” Beauregard replied. He grinned as he stopped in front of it; then, he reached down and pressed a red button. “Like this! No stalling.” The moment he pressed the button a low, gentle hum filled the room. Edna listened and watched. She waited for something to happen. After two minutes, the hum died down, and Beauregard sighed happily.

“I did it!” he said. “It worked!” He leaned down to check several of the instruments, then focused on the screen, and he nodded again. “It worked! Three-fourths of the population is gone!” he cheered. Edna felt uncomfortable flutters in her stomach. At 24-years-old, her life was pretty much on track. Her parents died when she was young and she was an only child. She had no family and few acquaintances. None of which would qualify as “friends”. She wasn’t worried about anyone in particular, but she felt the weight of what he did just the same. Edna leaned against the bars and hung her head while Beauregard gloated to himself.

“Who are you?” a woman’s voice made Edna look up. As far as she knew she and Beauregard were the only two people in the room. But, she found two new women standing in front Beauregard.

Both wore perfectly tailored suits. The black suit resembled a chauffeur’s uniform while the white suit looked like something a CEO would wear. Beauregard was obviously surprised. He jumped back away from them.

“Who are you?” the woman in black asked. Her voice matched the first time Edna heard the question.

“Beauregard,” he answered warily. “How’d you get in my lab?”

“The same way you sent over five billion humans to one of my Earths,” the woman in white said. “My name is Dana Sharp, and I don’t appreciate trespassing on my property.

“One of…?” Beauregard asked. “…your… Earths?”

“They’re alive?!” Edna asked loudly from her cell.

“Ah, someone worth talking to,” Dana Sharp said. She turned her attention from Beauregard and approached the cell. The woman in black got there first; she opened the cell door without a key.

“Uh, I’m Edna,” she extended her hand and Dana shook it with a polite nod.

“About four minutes ago approximately five billion, two hundred fifty million humans appeared on one of my Earths. As well as several billion new animals. All in perfect health. Can you tell me why they appeared?” Dana asked. Edna nodded.

“Supervillain over there,” she gestured at Beauregard. “… wanted to lighten humanities’ burden on the Earth.”

“Oh. Your Earth is in need of more resources? I can provide anything you need. And, now that your citizens are aware of the multiverse, I have many different Earths they can visit.” Dana Sharp turned and smiled at Beauregard.

“I’m sure you’re relieved. You accidentally found a way to save the planet, and no one was hurt.”

“RAAAWRGHG!” Beauregard raged. He slammed both fists against the control panel then fled out of the warehouse.

Sun Downer

“Wait! I love her!” Duke blurted out the only phrase that would work. Duke Fisher had the ability to see five minutes into the future. It happened constantly like watching two TVs at the same time. He’d had several years of practice with his ability, but it wasn’t always so easy to manage. What made it even more difficult was that the future was usually unwritten.

His vision of the future was usually a muddled mess of events until one future became more and more likely. It became clearer as the future came into focus and became the present. That all changed the moment he saw skeletons rain from the sky five minutes into the future. As soon as the first skeleton landed, he only had one clear future. It was either that, or no future. The words didn’t make sense, he’d only met Amber that day and not that long ago. He couldn’t possibly love her, and he didn’t. But saying it was enough to get the intruder’s attention.

“You love her?” Ballisea asked. The tall, pale woman was made taller by bone-white horns curling out of the top of her head. She appeared moments after a skeleton fell through the skylight in Duke’s office. “A Corona in love with a Zero?”

Amber wanted to protest the statement too, but her throat was being gripped by bony skeleton fingers. She did appreciate that its grip loosened slightly when Duke confessed his sudden love.

“I don’t know what that means,” Duke said. “But if you’re going to let me go,…” he paused for effect and gave a heavy shrug. “There’s no point without her.”

“You’d die for her?” Ballisea asked.

“I’d die without her,” Duke nodded. He was following his vision to the letter, not even questioning the words. The skeleton holding Amber released her; she fell to her knees gasping for air.

“You don’t know who I am,” Ballisea said to Duke. “You don’t know what you are.” Duke helped Amber get to her feet and wrapped his arm around her for show. He shook his head at Ballisea.

“I don’t,” he said. “But, I know you know what love is. You don’t have to hurt anyone.” Ballisea grinned.

“Oh, I know I don’t have to hurt anyone. But, I do,” she sighed. “because I know what love is. You think you love her? Would you give anything to protect her? You’re ready to die for her, could you defy death for her? Would you destroy universes to save her?”

“I would!” Duke said with full confidence in his lies.

“Then who are you to tell me I can’t do the same?” Ballisea asked. Duke tilted his head.

“What?” he asked. That was a question he did not see in his future. He pulled Amber closer to him and put himself between her and the skeletons. For the first time in his life, he didn’t know what was coming next.

“You’re trying to convince me I don’t have to hurt anyone, but it’s somehow okay for you to rampage for love?” Ballisea shook her head.

“I’m never going to get my husband back if I keep letting Zeros escape,” she said. Her voice had a sudden cold edge that wasn’t there before. “Don’t worry, you won’t see a thing,” It happened so fast, Duke didn’t realize Amber was gone until after it happened. She slipped through his arms and sunk into a hole in the ground faster than she could scream.

“Thank you for reminding me of what I should be doing. Now, go, and be with your loved one forever,” Ballisea said. It was the last thing Duke heard.

Short Notice

“You really can!” Amber smiled in awe. The 24-year-old journalist sat in the office of the richest man in the world. Though, almost no one knew it. Duke Fisher liked to keep low profile. Despite what he could afford, his office was a simple one-room affair. Rented in a rundown, mostly empty strip mall. A single, grimy skylight filled the office with dirty yellow-brown sunlight

During the interview, he explained he didn’t even need the office. Most of his work was done over the phone but he liked to have a ‘professional space’ to put himself in the right mindset. Constantly keeping an eye on the future wasn’t easy.

“And it’s only five minutes at a time?” Amber asked. Rumors about his ability started her on the story. She thought it would take considerable prodding; but, Duke was happy to prove his ability as soon as the question came up.

“It’s constant. It’s happening right now. I see now and five minutes from now at the same time. Five minutes ago I watched myself tell you this,” he said with a slight smirk.

“Oh wow,” Amber said. “What does it look like? How do you know which is the present and which is the future?”

“Well, usually whichever one happened first is the present,” Duke chuckled. Then, his expression changed slightly. Amber only had a couple of years of professional experience under her belt. She noticed the change even if she couldn’t identify it. His smile remained, but it seemed emptier somehow. Amber started wondering if her question offended him somehow. “But, that’s enough about me for now. I’m curious about you. Tell me about your family. About you; are you seeing anyone?”

Amber’s awe wore off in an instant and she sat back in her seat to put more distance between them.

“Mr. Fisher, I appreciate you’re wealthy, and undeniably handsome…,” her admission surprised her, but she continued her protest. “… But I’m here to interview you for work. Nothing else. My personal life has no place in this conversation.” Duke bowed his head and nodded.

“I apologize,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to pry, I just thought it’d be a good time for you to give someone a call.”

“What?” Amber asked. She scooted forward on her seat again. He sounded sincere, and the fact that he could see into the future was not lost on her. “Why?” she asked.  Duke chuckled and shook his head with a broad grin.

“You know, I always wondered. If something big.. really big were to happen. Would five minutes be enough time to do anything about it?”

Amber jumped out of her seat with a screech when the sound of breaking glass surprised her. A pile of bones crashed through the skylight and landed next to Duke.

“Turns out, the answer is no,” he said.

Sharp Universe

Molly was terrified and awestruck at the same time. She sat in a bright white office-setting in front of God. She knew why she was there. She was probably about to be damned to Hell, but the awe-inspiring truth remained. Dana Sharp was real and sitting across from her. 

“I’m busy, and you’re a smart woman,” Dana Sharp said. “I expect you know why you’re here?” Molly nodded; her blond curls bounced with the movement.

“Earth…,” Molly said. Everyone on Mars knew that God took a dim view of anyone setting their sights on the stars. Things like orbits, meteors and eclipses; basic scientific information was allowed. Any further exploration, or a closer look at any of the planets was expressly forbidden in the Sharp bible. There had been plenty of evidence that God herself stepped in whenever anyone grew too curious. Before she woke up in Ms. Sharp’s office, Molly had serious doubts about God and religion in general. Now she was going to spend the rest of eternity in Hell for being curious. She didn’t think it was fair and she knew she’d never have the opportunity to talk to God again.

“…but why?” Molly asked. “Why can’t we know what’s out there?” Ms. Sharp smiled at Molly.

“Who said you can’t?” she asked. 

“YOU!” Molly yelled. “YOUR bible specifically says not to be curious about the other planets.” 

“Well, that didn’t stop you, did it?” Ms. Sharp asked. “It didn’t stop you from pointing your telescope at Earth every night for the past three years.” 

“You .. knew?” Molly asked. She’d only been recently brave enough to share some of her findings with a close friend that she decided not to trust any more the second she woke up. She assumed her friend was the one to turn her in; the timing was too suspicious. 

“I think you forget my position and duties in the universe,” Ms. Sharp said. “As long as you didn’t share your hobby with anyone, it wasn’t noteworthy. However, the moment you were willing to share your curiosity is why you’re here now.” Molly felt instant regret for blaming her close friend. 

“But just me, right?” She asked. “Please don’t send Allan to Hell too!” she said. 

“Do you think you’re going to Hell?” Dana asked. 

“I broke the rules…,” Molly said. “That’s why you brought me here, right?” 

“Your curiosity is why you’re here, but I’m not sending you to Hell. I’m going to give you the answers you’re looking for. Your curiosity is being rewarded.” 

“What? Why? That doesn’t make any sense,” Molly said. “If you wanted us to be curious, why didn’t you put that in the bible?” Ms. Sharp shook her head.

“I don’t want people to be curious to please me. I want people that are curious, no matter what. People willing to explore and experience the unknown. Consider it a test of sorts. You passed and I’d like you to come work for me.”

“Work… for God? Like, as an angel?” Dana Sharp shook her head. “The first thing you’re going to learn is I’m not God. I’m human, like you. I just have the technology to create my own universes like the one you came from. My company is named Sharp Development and has branch locations on several hundred Earths.”

“EARTHS!?” Molly perked up. “I can go to Earth!?” 

“I’m originally from an Earth in an alternate universe. You can visit as many Earths as you like, travel between universes will be required as part of the company.”

“Can I.. make universes too? Like you?” 

“I think you’d do well in that department,” Ms. Sharp nodded and tapped the screen of her computer. “Allow me to introduce your new boss, Sol.”  Ms. Sharp gestured to the spot next to Molly. As Molly turned around she saw a woman step out of a pitch black portal. She wore what resembled a formal coat with tails but it was crisp white. A red sun was embroidered on her left breast and it matched the red vest under her coat. 

“Hey, welcome to the team,” Sol said with a smile. 

“That’s it? No interview? No paperwork?” Molly asked. She was ready and eager to get to work, but she did not want to accidentally miss any steps. 

“You already passed the test,” Ms. Sharp said. “If you want to do the job, I know it’s in you to do it. And as far as paperwork,” Ms. Sharp smiled. “Traditionally, joining my company requires a signature. But, you’re from my universe,” she said. “I already own your soul.”

Lonely Sun

Billy relaxed after stepping through the portal and onto solid ground. Ballisea’s invitations tended to catch him by surprise; it was rare he greeted her on his feet. He stepped into a world he’d never been to but knew in his soul. Billy stood atop a violet mountain looking out over a white forest. At first glance, it appeared to be a snow-covered forest. Then he noticed black dots drifting down the crimson sky. He held his hand up and to catch an obsidian snowflake.

“How do you make it black?” Billy asked aloud to no one in particular. A soft giggle echoed in his ears.

“She didn’t figure it out this time either?” Ballisea replied. She sounded as if she stood next to him, but he spotted her sitting further up the mountain. He sighed and started up to join her.

“She was too busy doing you a favor,” Billy replied with a smirk. He didn’t have to speak very loud; she could hear him from a different universe. Normally he was too intimidated to talk back to her, but something about this occasion felt different to him. He felt an inner-playfulness flutter inside as soon as Ballisea’s portal opened for him.

“Poorly,” Ballisea’s laugh carried around his ears. “Vanilla’s gone and she didn’t even find Blueberry before she died. This is the worst one so far,” Ballisea said. The black snow grew deeper as Billy climbed to the top. His feet sank ankle-deep in black, inky slush. He reached the summit and stood behind her. A layer of black snow covered the white forest.

“I could restart it now if you want,” Billy offered. He knew she’d decline, but he knew Vanilla would have offered. He also knew Vanilla kept secrets from Ballisea. “If this one’s already off the rails we can start again. Cherry made her pick already and Peppermint has it narrowed down to a few.”

“Not without Blueberry,” Ballisea replied. The moment she said that Billy realized why Vanilla kept Blueberry hidden. It was the only way to keep Ballisea’s interest.

“So, why am I here?” Billy asked.

“You… Vanilla was the only one I could talk to. Cherry likes to stay young and Peppermint always has things to do in Hell,” Ballisea explained while they watched the dark snow together. “We used to watch the snow together.

“I think I remember,” Billy said. It explained the anticipation he felt when the portal appeared.

“I don’t expect you to be like her,” Ballisea said. “But, I hope you’ll still be there for me… next time.” Billy smiled and nodded at the black and white forest.

“Every time. On one condition,” he added playfully. He was glad to hear her laugh in return.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“No more flavors. Next time we pick a better theme, okay?”

Clouded Sun

“No thank you,” Cliff read the words going through his head as the train rolled to a stop. His full name, Cliff Robertson, was on one of the few lines on the first page. The text, ‘No thank you.” followed his name. He returned the small stack of papers to the empty seat, then shuffled his way off the train. He caught a glimpse of the second line, but he didn’t need a script to tell him what he was going to do.

Cliff spent most of his life ignoring unusual, inconsequential happenings. He grew up experiencing magical things, but they happened less and less as he aged. He learned to ignore them the way he assumed other adults did. This note meant for him was just another instance of wonder to ignore. He was looking forward to going home and relaxing at the end of his long week.

Two blocks from his house, a woman popped out of an alleyway in front of him, and she fell in step next to Cliff as he passed. Her hair was purple and she wore a long white coat; he recognized her as the same woman that left the papers on the train.

“Your favorite number is 46,” the woman said. The moment the words left her lips, Cliff stopped walking. He locked eyes with her and nodded with a smile.

“It is, I don’t think I knew that,” he said. Then, he faced forward again and resumed walking. She was quick to keep up with him. “Aren’t you curious how I know that?”

“I make it a point to never be curious,” Cliff replied. As far as he was concerned, he was exchanging pleasantries with another faceless stranger. Although, he did decide he didn’t want the strange woman knowing where he lived. Instead of crossing to the next block, Cliff took a right. The woman followed him.

“But you live back that way,” she pointed at a 10-story, aging building. “Where are we going?”

“I know where I’m going,” Cliff lied with a shrug. “I don’t care where you go.” The woman sighed.

“I was trying to pique your interest with the script and theatrics. I’ve got a job offer for you,” she said while they walked. The scenery deteriorated as they got closer to his apartment complex. Now that they were walking in a different direction, the buildings were looking cleaner.

“I’ve already got a job,” he replied. It seemed like a silly thing to mention because she already knew everything else about him for some reason. But, it was the only thing that came to mind; it would be rude if he just stayed quiet.

“Yeah, a boring one,” the woman said. “Sharp Development has thousands of jobs available on any Earth you want. Live the life you want to live. Don’t waste it in some crappy apartment waiting to die.”  Cliff stopped in his tracks again.

“Different Earths?” he asked. He couldn’t explain the sensation, but somewhere deep inside him, it was like he remembered a fact he’d forgotten about. “Like alternate universes?” he asked. Even as the question left his lips, he knew it was true. The woman nodded.

“You look like an old-west guy,” she said. “You could live out your life on a frontier Earth.” Cliff thought for a moment, then resumed walking. This time, he headed back in the direction of his house. He realized the ruse was a waste since she already knew where he lived. He hoped that once he reached his door he could end the conversation.

“You can’t tell me you’re not interested,” the woman said keeping up with him. Cliff nodded.

“I can,” he said. “I like my life here. It’s not perfect, but I know how to work it. I can do without the complications of alternate Earths. Besides, I imagine I can find the same problems I have here on all the other Earths.”

They crossed to Cliff’s block in silence while the woman tried to figure out a way to convince Cliff to join.

“A tattoo!” She blurted out once the idea hit her. She looked up and realized they were almost to his building. She panicked. “Get a 46 tattooed on you, and you’ll be interested in what’s out there!” she said. Cliff smiled as he unlocked the door. He opened it, stepped in part way to block the entrance, then he turned to face her. He pulled the door closed with a shrug and an apology.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “No thank you.”

Sharp Looking Chrome

“And you forgot how to knock over the centuries?” The great mirror-polished wyvern glared at Spa worker. Their uniforms hadn’t changed much over the centuries. He wore the same white shorts and white polo shirt with red trim Chroma saw when she began her hibernation. But, it seemed the service took a noticeable dive. Chroma requested a wakeup call after about a millennia. Instead, she woke to find a man sneaking into her room unannounced.

“I know why you’re here,” she added. “I’m the one that paid for the service,” she grumbled.

“Yes, Ms. Chroma,” The nervous bellboy nodded. Then, he stood patiently, unsure of what to do next. He did not need to wait long.

“Just, Chroma,” the dragon said. Her voice only carried a minor exasperation. The bellboy nodded again, eager to please her. Chroma was one of the Spa’s original founders. Ever since Greg started his job, respect and awe for Chroma was drilled into him every day. He stood at attention waiting to fulfill her every wish. She stared at him for several quiet seconds, then sighed.

Her long, elegant neck swung gracefully around the room until her face hovered a foot in front of him. Greg could see his three-day-old stubble and slightly mussed hair reflected back in each of the mirror-like scales on her face.

“Well?” She asked.

“Uh.. Well what, Ms. Chr- I mean Chroma, ma’am?” Greg stumbled over his words. He was surprised and relieved when he noticed her give an amused eyeroll.

“I need some privacy to slip into something more comfortable; if you don’t mind,”

“Oh! Sorry!” Greg spun around, then shut his eyes for good measure.

“Catch me up,” Chroma said from behind Greg.

“Your aunt continues to maintain her restaurant, Donna Chang’s. She has repaid your investment in full, with six centuries of interest.” Greg said. “Sharp Development expanded into the afterlife before failing. Dana Sharp is dead. After the company dissolved you received 30% of the sale as well as shares of Heaven and Hell. Ruby has taken over as director of the Spa in your absence. Greg bowed his head even though he faced the opposite way.

“And she’s so busy that she couldn’t come and visit her mother?” Chroma said with a playful pout in her voice.

“She’s busy…,” Greg swallowed. He worked hard to earn the right to be the one to brief Chroma. Once he earned the right, things went downhill pretty quickly. He was supposed to have nothing but good news for her, but, the universe had other plans. “The Conquistadors are free,” Greg said. He felt a small hand grab his shoulder and spin him around. He opened his eyes to see a pale woman with chrome hair and platinum eyes staring at him. She was not entirely finished dressing yet. Greg caught sight of a silver sun tattooed just under her collar bone; a red number 46 decorated the center of the sun.

“All of them?” she asked. Greg nodded.

“All of them,” he repeated. “But, Sharp Development managed to get one. La Calavera. Unfortunately, we don’t know anything about where it was kept before the company was dissolved.”

“Really?” Chroma pulled back in surprise. Then, she smiled when Greg nodded his affirmation. “Well, that’s different.” The cavern around her seemed to relax completely; Greg felt as if a great weight was lifted off his soul. The positive feeling was so sudden and intense that it bubbled up and escaped through his mouth as a light chuckle.

“Is that good? Even if we don’t know where it is?” he asked. Chroma nodded.

“Different is very good,” Chroma said. She walked past Greg toward the cavern exit with purpose. Greg smiled to himself. He felt like he did a good job; but, then a stray thought formed in the back of his head. He expected Chroma to be eccentric, but as he watched her stride away with confidence he realized he didn’t know why she was so excited.

“Different from what!?” he called out after her. She didn’t stop to answer.

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.”

Sol Caliber

“It’s beautiful,” Mary said. The young woman leaned over the counter and stared at the bullet before her. It was a small golden cylinder with a translucent, ruby-like tip. “How does it work?” Mary knew the answer; but, she visited ‘Sam the ‘Slinger’ hoping for a demonstration, if not more.

Against the advice of her friends and family, Mary decided she wanted to apprentice under Sam. She made the decision at seven years old when she heard about, ‘the most powerful soul mage’. 14 years later, she stood in his shop. She knew that he never accepted an apprentice since before she was born, but she was determined to be the first. She had to start out slow though. Play innocent until the right time, then ask him to teach her.

When she first heard about him, Sam was at the peak of his stardom. Things fell apart for him after that. Mary spent her 8th birthday crying because the council decided Sam’s methods were too different. They revoked his Wizard status and blackballed him in the magical community. Mary still knew she wanted to be his apprentice.

Mary worked hard in school to be worthy of Sam. She wanted to be able to keep up with the most powerful soul mage’. He was no longer considered a Wizard, but that was just a title. They couldn’t take away his magic, and she felt she could get him to teach her. The feeling that their destinies were intertwined kept Mary going until she graduated Top Magus of her class. Apprenticeship offers came pouring in even before graduation, but she ignored them all.

It was a bright, quiet Saturday morning, the first day after her official graduation. She made her way into the less savory part of town to visit Sam. Soul magic aged a person; Sam was a rugged, handsome man that appeared to be in his early 50s. His appearance was part of the reason for his scandal; other Wizards in his peer group appeared to be in their 80s.  Instead of a long grey beard and silver hair, Sam was clean-shaved with a long chestnut ponytail.

Mary made sure her wand was visible, and after some small talk, they got to the subject of souls. He asked if she wanted to see something special. Of course, Mary nodded.

“It uses a different kind of wand,’ Sam chuckled. He opened the flap of his dragon-scale duster and unholstered his weapon. He set it on the wooden counter with a heavy thunk. At first glance, Mary thought it was an oddly shaped, single piece of solid black iron. Then, she noticed how it caught the light and noticed several moving pieces. She’d heard rumors about his ‘gun’ but almost no one talked about it. Wands were foci, and technically anything could function. Wands were just stupid-easy to magically attune, and therefore mass-produce.

“But,” Mary smiled. “How does it work?” she asked again.

“Follow me outside,” Sam grinned. He collected the gun and bullet and headed toward the back of his shop. Mary followed him out the door and into a dusty field. It was a long strip of land directly behind his shop. No crops, and almost no grass with only a handful of trees. A tall stone wall served as a fence around his property.

“That one,” Sam pointed at a tall, empty pine tree. It was dead, dry, and looked like it could be ignited by a warm day. “Set it on fire,” he said. Mary didn’t hesitate. She stared at the tree and imagined a flame growing in her soul. She breathed and used her lungs as bellows to stoke the flame. “Show me what you can really do,” Sam added. A note that Mary was grateful for.

She was so eager to do what he asked, she planned to do only that. Set the tree on fire and wait for the next step. But, his advice helped her realize she had the opportunity she waited for all her life. She meant to only use enough of her soul to ignite the spark, but she knew playing it safe wouldn’t get her anywhere with Sam.  She would impress him so much he had to teach her. Mary breathed and visualized the fire glowing white hot. She gracefully lifted her wand, pointed at the tree, and released her spell all in one smooth motion. Mary’s decision to not vocalize while casting was also intended to impress Sam. Like the wands, magic words were helpful but not necessary.

A white puff of smoke erupted from the end of Mary’s wand. It seemed like nothing came out, but a second later the pine tree combusted. It took Mary a second a disappointment to realize the day was too bright to see her fireball. A loud ‘whoosh’ enveloped the tree. The fire wasn’t easily visible and it appeared that the tree spontaneously decided to disintegrate into ash. They watched the tree for several moments, then Sam nodded.

“Put it out,” he said. Mary suffocated the flame in her soul. Only about half the tree’s height and width were left smoldering.

“Your best fire spell couldn’t manage to consume an already dead tree,” Sam said. His voice was plain and straightforward with absolutely no judgement, but Mary still felt punched in the gut. He noticed it on her face and shook his head with a smile.

“You did way better than I expected,” he said. “It’s just a fact that the way the academy teaches Soul magic has its limits. Now, let me show you this,” Sam said. She watched him open a chamber in his gun and load the red-tipped bullet into one of the six holes. He closed it again, and to Mary’s surprise, he handed the big end to her.

“It’s not attuned-,” Mary tried protesting as he put the gun in her hands. It was heavy and she almost dropped it; the near-fumble interrupted her. “What do I?” She tried holding it the way she saw Sam hold it. He walked around behind her and reached forward. He grabbed her hands on either side and straightened her arms out to aim the gun forward.

“Trust me,” Sam said. His breath tickled her ear. “You’re casting the spell, not me. It’s not a wand, you don’t need to pour your soul into it.” He guided her grip with his calloused hands and gently placed her finger on the trigger. “All you need is a tiny bit of intention, and squeeeeeze.” He said, but didn’t squeeze.

Mary was so focused on him that she hadn’t realized what they were aiming at until she looked. It was a bushy, vibrant oak tree with thousands of leaves. She concentrated on using just a spark. She took a few breaths, then squeezed.

A coconut sized red-orange fireball blasted out of the barrel of the gun faster than Mary could follow. She heard a whoosh. By the time her eyes reached the tree she knew it was going to, the tree was entirely gone. A charred stump smoldered on the ground.

“Whooooa..,” Mary was awed. “How do you get your soul into them?” Sam let go of her hands, but remained behind her.

“You see, that’s the main problem with what the academy teaches,” Sam said with a chuckle. He reached up and caressed her cheek. It surprised Mary, but she didn’t mind right then and there. His hand trailed down to her neck. “It doesn’t have to be my soul. I’ll show you.”