“I don’t need the box?” Morgan asked. She and her guildmate, Cherry, stood on a lush hilltop beneath a bright azure sky. The hill overlooked a colorful plain dotted with all kinds of flowers; including a few that Morgan had never seen. Cherry nodded to answer Morgan’s question, her white ponytail bounced with her head.
“You..,” she stressed the word by poking Morgan’s shoulder. “…don’t need the box. You’re strong enough to pull from thin air,” Cherry said. At her words, Morgan reached up and tried to pluck something out of the air; nothing happened. Cherry giggled, then shook her head.
“You still have to follow the rules though,” she said. “Unique Soul #21, La Mano. You can pull things out of other universes, as long as your hands are out of sight. So, don’t let them see your hands.” Cherry made a slow turn with outstretched arms to gesture at the meadow around them. “I brought you here to practice. There’s no one else around. After her spin, Cherry looked up and locked eyes with Morgan. “Try it,” she said.
Morgan kept her focus on Cherry’s crystalline pink eyes and concentrated. She put her hands behind her back and focused on something delicious. Once she learned about her powers, food became the easiest to find. At that moment, she wanted nothing more than a steaming hot slice of pizza.
She imagined her fingers wiggling toward a slice that was just out of reach. All she had to do was stretch a tiny bit more; she splayed her fingers trying to imagine them brushing against a warm, dusty crust. Then, she felt her fingertip bump something.
Once contact was made, she moved quickly. Morgan leaned forward while she shoved her hand back to grab it. She clenched it, yelled, then pulled it out.
“OOOOWWW!!” She threw the hot slice down on the soft grass and rapidly shook her hand to try and get the molten cheese and sauce off her fingers. Cherry noticed the back of her hand was bright red and immediately burst into giggles.
“Next time, try and pick a slice that isn’t still in the oven.”
“Perfect fit,” Archie grinned. He moved his arm up and down quickly to test the strength of the shield straps. The shield itself was useless; he dug it out of a box of scraps. The town smiths would come by in the morning to pick through the remnants of the day’s tournament. That’s why Archie was picking through the box in the middle of the night. All the lords, ladies, knights, and servants were gone from the jousting grounds.
Archie was there all day. He couldn’t get enough of the loud clanking armor and cheering crowds. He longed to compete and stand in the spotlight; to be cheered on and accepted. He spent the evening after the tournament wandering from hiding place to hiding place. Archie felt more comfortable using his human form; plus it was easier to hide in. But he knew two things for a fact. People existed that could see through that disguise, and, it could be anyone from servant to noble. He wouldn’t now until it was too late, so he kept hidden to avoid the situation entirely.
Until the last cleaner left. Archie waited for another hour to be sure, then he approached the box of scraps. During the tournament, he spotted several pieces that he hoped were damaged enough to be tossed into the box. One of them was the champion’s shield. It was not damaged so much as slightly defaced. But, it was the champion’s shield. He only ever used them once because he liked to keep his image strong and new. Archie kicked himself for not realizing the opportunity sooner.
“What the hell?” A girl’s voice broke the midnight silence. It startled Archie and he whirled around while raising the scratched shield. He was surprised to see a teenage girl and a young woman. The younger girl wore a blood-red hoodie. The hood was down revealing her bone-white ponytail. “It’s not supposed to be guarded by a dragon,” the girl said.
Archie did not know what she was talking about, but he didn’t have to. As soon as the word ‘dragon’ left her lips he threw the shield down and leaped into the air away from them. Leathery, bright blue wings sprouted out of his back and he flew as fast as he can. He noticed, too late, that a patch of sky directly in front of him was darker than the rest. He realized it the moment he flew through it and found himself hovering in front of the two girls again.
“Hey, we didn’t mean to scare you,” the white-haired girl said. The young woman was holding the shield up; offering it to Archie.
“You got here first, go ahead. We’ll wait for the next one.” the blond woman said.
Archie hesitated for a moment but allowed himself to land. If nothing else, he trusted the fact that they hadn’t called for any guards yet. And, he already learned he couldn’t get away if he wanted to. He was still wary of a trap, but they didn’t know what he could do yet. He took a step forward and accepted the shield.
“I’m Morgan, that’s Cherry,” the blonde woman introduced them to him.
“Hi. Archie,” he returned the introduction with a nod. He looked at the shield, then back at Morgan. “It’s… really okay for me to take this?” he asked. Morgan shrugged and nodded.
“That’s why it’s here,” she said, then smiled. “That shield’s useful for a lot of different quests, which one are you working on?”
“Uh..,” Archie looked down at the shield, then back at Morgan.
“Quests? Is there a reward for this? The champion throws it away after every tournament,” he said.
“Uhh..,” Morgan repeated Archie’s confusion; then she turned to Cherry and shrugged. Cherry giggled.
“Give him some time. He just woke up.”
“OOOOOHHhhh,” Morgan said. She turned back toward Archie with an even wider grin. “Congratulations!” she said. Archie tilted his head.
“For what?” he asked.
“For coming to life! Now you can do anything you want,” Morgan explained. Archie narrowed his eyes at her for a moment, then shook his head.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about or where you came from; but, life doesn’t work like that here. If it were that easy, I’d be a knight already.”
“That’s your big dream? Being a knight?” Morgan asked. She managed to use a sincere tone that told Archie she wasn’t mocking him. He nodded.
“More than anything,” he replied. Morgan looked at Cherry and they exchanged looks. After a moment, she turned back to Archie.
“Do you have any reasons to stay here?” she asked. Archie chuckled. It was the first time that night; and, the first time in decades. He had no friends to make him laugh. It was hard finding the humor in anything while worrying about whether he’d live through the day. But, Mogan’s question triggered a smart ass response that he couldn’t help but laugh at.
“Just the fact that I have nowhere else to go,” he said. It was true. He’d tried hiding all over the world, but he never stayed in any place for too long.
“Yeah you do,” Morgan said. “We could use a knight on our team,” she said.
“I’m not a knight…,” Archie said. Morgan shrugged.
“We don’t need one right now,” she giggled. “We need one when you’re ready. Come on.” Morgan tilted her head toward Cherry. Cherry was only half there, and Archie watched her other half disappear into the same pitch darkness that brought him back to them. Morgan started to follow her.
“Where?” Archie asked. Morgan’s answer echoed out of the portal as she disappeared.
Morgan sat on the floor in the front room of a small house. The bay window behind her seemed more for decoration than illumination. The house itself was built from golden-tinged translucent bricks that gave the house a warm glow. Three new friends she made that morning sat around her, but she wasn’t nervous. Something about her new friends put her instantly at ease with them; she felt like she vibed with them all. Especially Cherry, the white-haired girl in a blood-red hoodie was the first one she met. After talking for less than half an hour she invited Morgan to join a guild. She was surprised to find this small house was considered the guildhall.
“To traverse..,” Cherry explained. “…it helps to have an idea of where I want to go before I open the portal. Focus on what you want before you reach into the dark.” A black box with a hole in the side rested in front of Morgan’s crisscrossed legs; it had a thick black cloth folded on top.
“That’s it?” Morgan asked. Cherry nodded.
“Okay,” Morgan unfolded the cloth and draped it over the box and hole. She closed her eyes to concentrate. Morgan had skipped breakfast that morning, she hadn’t planned to be at the park longer than a couple of hours. She decided this would be the perfect opportunity to test her power and get something to eat. Cherry told her to aim broad; Morgan wanted something sweet. She took a deep breath, then stuck her hand into the darkness.
Morgan focused on something delicious and firm, if not crunchy. She wiggled her fingers in the darkness until her fingertips brushed something. She reached for it, grabbed, then pulled it out of the box.
“There you go,” Cherry grinned. Morgan opened her eyes as the rest of the group cheered for her. She looked down and found an iced sugar cookie in her hand. Pink letters on the white icing formed the initials S. H.
“That looks so good!” Honey, the guild leader, commented. She was only a 9-year-old girl, but she was literally the strongest person Morgan ever met.
“Taste it,” Morgan handed her the cookie; Honey accepted it without hesitation and shoved half of it in her mouth.
“ITTHDELITHUS!” she replied through her mouthful.
“I’ll get more,” Morgan said. She reached back into the covered box several more times and pulled out three more one by one. She handed one to Willow, a fairy, then Cherry, and she kept the last one to herself. After she took a bit of her own cookie, Honey spoke up.
“Two more, please!” she chirped. “J.J. and Astrid, you haven’t met them yet.” Morgan nodded and retrieved an additional pair of cookies.
“Hold on, how is this not stealing from S.H. whoever they are?” She asked. Cherry shrugged.
“There are infinite universes out there,” Cherry said. “You could have pulled out any number of cookies, but you found those. That means whatever universe they were in, that universe decided they weren’t important. The Zero they belonged to might wonder where they went; but, they weren’t important to anything. Things get shuffled between universes all the time. People lose their car keys, TV remotes, money; but, the universe usually knows what its doing.” After her explanation, Cherry giggled.
“For all you know, the universe wanted to give someone an unsolvable case of missing cookies.” Morgan and the rest of the guild burst into laughter.
“Good luck, S.H.,” Morgan giggled then took another bite.
Morgan stretched her arms upward and used the action to lift herself to a sitting position in bed. The 18-year old woman yawned and rested her back against the headboard, then finally checked her cards. It took her almost three months after her 15th birthday to get used to the fact that she woke up with an assortment of cards. She splayed the five cards in her hand and flipped them over to check the backs, then sighed. She’d woken with a wide variety of cards over the past few years, but she narrowed them down into categories sorted by the artwork on the back.
“Druid and Healer,” she mumbled. She saw three green cards with elegant linework that made her think of a dense forest, and two white cards with red crosses on them. “Boring,” Morgan rearranged them by group, then turned them over to see what they were. The druid cards on the right side sparkled with golden text on a forest-green background. Each card showed different artwork illustrating the general concept of the card.
“Spider Climb, Hawk Form, and Rat Swarm,” she read the names and glanced at the rule text on the lower half of the cards. She shrugged at the duration then looked at the two healer cards. They had no artwork and consisted of red text on a clean white background that reminded Morgan of a hospital. “Handy,” she smiled at the pair of cards. “Infinite Stamina and Revive Death, whoa!” It was the first time she’d seen the Revive Death card. Seeing the new card invigorated her. She was starting to think she had seen all the cards already. Suddenly excited about her day, Morgan hopped out of bed to get ready.
When it became clear the cards would keep appearing, Morgan assumed the cards were meant to guide her day somehow. She tried to find uses for the cards to make sure she used them all every day, but over time it became clear they were entirely random. If the Revive card appeared when she was 15 or 16, she would have been worried sick the entire day.
“I guess I’m going to the park,” she decided while showering. The park had several rock-climbing walls and a giant jogging track around it that passed some very scenic views. She’d used both Spider Climb and Infinite Stamina several times to get a good workout, but this would be the first time she got to use them together.
An hour later she arrived at the park and headed straight for the rock climbing walls. Twelve walls of varying heights lined a broad cobblestone path; six on each side. Morgan stood in front of the tallest wall and pulled the cards out of her pocket. She did not bother with being discrete, it never mattered before.
It was a sunny, cool Saturday morning and plenty of visitors milled around the park. Dozens of joggers and others simply taking a stroll walked along the path in different directions behind her.
“Infinite Stamina!” a deep, booming, male voice spoke when Morgan ‘played’ her first card. She didn’t know where the voice came from, but she knew she was the only one that could hear it. She used cards several times in front of her parents, friends, and in public, and no one ever seemed to notice the voice. When the voice spoke she felt a tingle travel down her spine, then radiate out into the rest of her body. “Spider Climb!” the voice said when she used the second card. She returned the rest of the cards to her pocket, then shook her hands and legs to loosen them up and took a step forward to start her climb.
“You’re wasting cards on a wall?” a girl asked as Morgan reached for her first grip. She pulled her arm down and turned to face the voice. A young girl in a blood-red hoodie smiled at her. “Don’t you want something more challenging?” she asked Morgan.
“Wh-what?” Morgan asked. “What are you talking about?” She knew what the girl was talking about, but she wondered what exactly the girl knew about the cards.
“It’s kind of overkill, isn’t it?” the girl in the hoodie shrugged. “I mean, unless you need infinite stamina and spider climb to get up the wall,” she gave Morgan an appraising look up and down. “I don’t think you do.”
“You..heard,-” Morgan started to ask but changed her question. The girl obviously heard the card names. “Why aren’t you surprised?” she asked. The girl shrugged.
“What’s surprising? Card Mage is pretty much the de facto class for Manos,” she said.
“Wh-what?” Morgan needed to ask again. She didn’t understand any of the words in that context.
“#21, La Mano? Your abilities fit perfectly with the Card Mage class.”
“How’d you know my favorite number? What’s a Card Mage?” The girl’s eyes widened and she giggled.
“Now that is a surprise. You don’t know what you are or where you are?” she asked. “Does ‘The AlterNet’ sound familiar?” she added when Morgan didn’t respond right away. Morgan shook her head.
“Whoa…,” the girl replied, then she stuck her hand out. “I’m Cherry,” she said. Morgan shook the girl’s hand tentatively.
“Morgan,” she introduced herself.
“How’d you like to do something more fun with your cards?” Cherry asked.