The following is a short story written recently for a certain AP Literature class, as a culminating Senior Project. The actual project included six people, including myself, who each wrote different stories reflecting on their lives and the people they’ve become through their own unique experiences.
Most of our group chose to write in first person, be it in the form of journals or classic narratives. While I’m no stranger to the style (this entire site is written in first person prose after all) I decided it’d be easier and more comforting if I told my story through someone else’s eyes. Taken literally, this is just another average genre-switched fantasy story with all the conventional tropes associated with it (many are outright lampshaded). The meaning behind it as a personal tale is a little deeper, albeit nothing is explained outright. There’s supposed to be meaning behind the tried and true fantasy world introduced here though, with plenty of deliberate symbolism to go around.
The scent of cooking eggs wafting through the crack in the bedroom door greeted James as he slowly blinked the morning dew from his eyes. He rolled over in the too-comfortable bed, reaching an arm out to the other side and flailing to see if there happened to still be a body there.
Damn, he thought. She beat me to it again. Rolling back over, James suddenly felt his body connect too quickly with the hardwood bedroom floor. For a moment he laid there, body half tangled in blankets and pillows, an arm still holding onto the edge of the bed frame he just took a tumble from. The bright LED display of the digital clock on his nightstand read 7:07 A.M. Gentle morning rays shone softly through the half-opened blinds into the room. It was the first time this week the sun had actually been out; December on the east coast usually meant blankets of white snow were often the morning scenery. He took a deep breath of the crisp air and once again caught the smell of cooking eggs drifting in from the kitchen.
James dressed himself and brushed up, then wandered into the kitchen to find Maylen preparing the breakfast he had intended to make for her before she woke for the day. Next time, he thought. Tomorrow for sure, I’ll be up in time.
They had been married for a little over a year. The apartment they lived in wasn’t run-down, but it was far from extravagant. He noticed a snapdragon still fluttering by the open windowsill. It was left over from their anniversary last month. They had both agreed to abstain from purchasing gifts for each other or doing anything costly because they could barely pay rent as they were. James had decided there were ways around that though, and had arranged wildflowers all around the house that morning to surprise Maylen without spending a dime.
Maylen hadn’t noticed when he came into the kitchen. He carefully tiptoed his way around her and wrapped his arms around her waist from behind. Maylen yelped in surprise, and craned her neck around to greet her husband.
“Good morning,” she kissed him. “Scrambled eggs okay?”
“Anything’s fine,” he mumbled through muffled flesh as he buried his face in his wife’s shoulder.
“You know,” Maylen murmured, “I’m going to have a tough time reaching the stove with you latching on like that.”
“Right,” he sighed as he reluctantly pulled away and seated himself at the dining table. “Will you be working late again tonight?”
Maylen didn’t look up from her cooking as she answered, “Most likely. We have a new project coming up that the director wants to push through within the next three months. I’ll be at the office late for at least that long.”
James didn’t answer as he stirred the silver spoon in the coffee cup Maylen had probably set on the table earlier. Between the two of them, Maylen commonly worked later nights. He could very well stay later at the office if he wanted to work overtime, but he always looked forward to coming home for Maylen whenever he could. She was more devoted to her work though, which he could understand but had trouble accepting. He often felt like a needy child who needed the comfort of his mother, or in this case spouse, to feel secure and fulfilled. Probably comes from being a Pisces, he thought.
She set the plate of eggs on the dining table as she came over and sat across from him. She looked up and asked, “Will you work overtime too then? It would probably do some extra good for us this month.”
James blinked as he sipped on his coffee. He didn’t usually enjoy the bitter straight-black taste, but he knew they ran out of milk and sugar yesterday. Maylen had a point – the overtime pay would help significantly with their rent this month, especially since they were just starting to pay off their second car. There wasn’t much point in coming home at regular times if she wouldn’t be home anyway, though he doubted she knew his reasoning for that.
“Sure,” he agreed, almost too whole-heartedly. “You’re right, it’ll definitely help.”
She smiled at him. “I’ll bring dinner home then, what would you like? How about that Italian place you like so much across Borders?”
“Sure,” he repeated absentmindedly. “Italian would be nice.” He was silently put off by Maylen’s behavior recently. He’d be lying to himself if he thought it wasn’t frustrating that she wasn’t as affectionate toward him as he was to her. At times, such as now, he had the feeling that she wanted him to stay out and work late. He almost felt like her offer of bringing dinner home was a reward for him to keep his distance.
Maybe this is just what happens to couples when they’re married for a while, he thought to himself.
“You should get going,” Maylen interrupted his private musing. He looked up at the clock hanging on the far end of the kitchen wall. It looked blurry to him, but he could just barely make out the time. He shook himself awake and inhaled the eggs on the plate in one breath, then ran back into the bedroom to grab his coat. As he came back out to the table and struggled to accomplish the individually trivial but surprisingly difficult double tasks of finishing off his coffee and pulling on his jacket, Maylen stood up and walked up behind him. She took his coat from him and helped him put it on and then adjusted his tie.
“See you later,” Maylen murmured as she still held onto the tie. He frowned. He was never very good at reading her emotions or thoughts, and didn’t understand why she looked so sad recently. Modesty as a husband aside, he couldn’t think of anything particular he had done wrong. They were relatively stable as a couple, so she couldn’t have been upset about the finances, could she? As a spouse and a lover he had always made it a point to make sure he was giving Maylen enough attention, though at times he sensed she wanted more time alone to recharge.
“What’s wrong, love?”
Maylen kept her eyes downcast.
James furrowed his brow. So something was definitely wrong. The urgent ticking of the clock behind him reminded him that he didn’t have time to figure things out right then and there. James gave a light sigh and pulled Maylen in close, arms around her waist again.
“See you tonight. I’ll be looking forward to that dinner.”
“Mmhhmm,” she replied, face muffled in his chest.
A brief kiss later, and he was out the door for another day.
The steady patter of rain against the window of his cubicle gave James a comfortable rhythm to work to. He liked the rain. Snow could be a bit much at times, what with the need to shovel pounds of it off his car some mornings, but the rain was soothing to him. It washed things away, made them cleaner. He often caught himself staring out into the gloom through his little window, making no effort to tear himself away.
He worked as a simple clerical manager in a small office cubicle – a regular member of the classic coffee-mug-holding, suit-and-tie office fellows that could be found milling around in almost every corporate building in town.
Gloomy weather always had the peculiar effect of making him mull and muse over all sorts of things. The current paperwork on his desk was already filed into the company’s system; there was no other work to be done. He had time until the next meeting to take a breather. A memory suddenly surfaced, probably brought about by the gloom outside. It was a massive fight with someone precious to him about how they’d end up in the future. She had called him out on being stagnant and settling for a boring office job with no advancements. He had been driven nearly to insanity at her stubborn insistence that she’d be able to make it by dropping out of school and doing odd jobs on the road.
James was happy though. He could confidently say that he was exactly where he wanted to end up. Four meager years of higher education was all it took for him to land his dream job. The days were slow, the pay unremarkable but steady. He was doing well enough here that he didn’t see a need to pump more money into earning a higher degree in school. While he had to admit that he was living anything but lavishly on his current payroll, he counted his lucky stars each night that he wasn’t breaking his back over an unsatisfying job with pennies for pay.
“Hey boss, how’s the weather out there?”
James turned, startled by the sudden voice that was much too close to his ear. He found a big toothy grin inches away from his face.
James closed his eyes and gently pushed his unwelcome visitor away. “Justin,” he muttered irritably, “The marketing department is that way.” James pointed off towards another indistinguishable mass of cubicles. For all he cared he could’ve sent Justin off to Death Mountain, as long as he never came back. The man was insufferable, though for whatever reason he always considered James one of his more amiable coworkers.
“Now don’t be like that, pal. I just caught a break before our next PR meeting with the folks downtown, how about some lunch together, yeah?”
James nearly retched his breakfast while he suppressed his urge to laugh. “No thanks,” he replied coolly, “I don’t have much of an appetite today.”
Justin kept his smile, “Sure bud, some other time then.” The man was always grinning – no, smirking – as though he always had an Ace up his sleeve. “You should really learn to be more social though, Mr. Pierce,” Justin chided. “All you ever do is sit here and have a staring contest with the rain clouds. Let loose, have some more fun! When the guys go drinking you should come too; I’ll even give you a ride. You’ve seen my car, haven’t you? Everyone’s seen it, how about we race sometime? All American muscle – new calipers and 200 horses – souped her up myself, she’s got a gorgeous roar let me tell you…”
James tried to tune him out whilst staring back out the window. The man was incessant in how much he talked. He had always disliked talking about himself because of the connotation that it made one seem immature, but it transcended simple immaturity and went straight to pretentious gloating when it came from a man like Justin.
James’ phone began to ring. As he pulled it out of his pocket, Justin leered over his shoulder. “Maylen? That’s your wife’s name right? Tell her I said hi.” James gave his coworker a cold stare charged with the clear desire for privacy, and for once Justin actually took the hint. “Take it easy pal,” Justin slapped him on the shoulder and sauntered off, calling out to another poor sap for company.
James slipped an earpiece in and accepted the call. It wasn’t often that Maylen contacted him during the day; she should’ve been working at this hour. A part of him hoped that she was only calling to hear his voice and just talk a little for the day, but in his heart he knew better.
“James?” The call connected.
“I’m not feeling too well today. I’ll be home early to take care of some things around the house and rest for a bit, okay? I just wanted to let you know, I’m sorry to rely on you like this.” Her voice sounded subdued, the same way it had been during the morning. Maybe she really just wasn’t feeling too well recently, which would account for her strange behavior. He knew she meant “rely on you like this” in the sense that he would have to work overtime to make up for her absence from work. He knew she didn’t like to acknowledge small intricacies like that, though he personally didn’t mind.
“Sure, no problem. You seemed tired this morning, I didn’t realize you were sick babe. Rest up today, I’ll bring home some medicine tonight.”
“Thanks so much, I’ll see you then. Nine tonight?”
He thought it over. Nine was some serious overtime, but it wasn’t out of the question. There was enough that needed to be done for him to justify staying that late, no matter how much the higher echelons may object. “Most likely. Call me if anything comes up, okay?”
“Okay. Bye.” She hung up briskly.
James set the earpiece on his desk and reclined in his office chair, hands clasped firmly behind his head. The usual hum of the workspace was being steadily drowned out by the patter of raindrops like bullets against the corporate walls. As he turned his attention once again to the landscape beyond the planes of glass surrounding his cubicle, he realized that it had become a torrential rainstorm outside. The skies were an endless gray, and he knew that if he placed his hand against the window, the cold seeping through from outside would chill his entire body.
Night had fallen, and the droplets from the heavens carried on, stopping for no God, king, or man. Normally James would have had headphones in to drown out the outside world whilst working this late, but the rain had grown heavy and consistent enough that it was music in and of itself. Maylen hadn’t called since she had told him about going home early, and the one time he did dial her up to check up on her, she hadn’t picked up. He contented himself by leaving a voice message and convinced himself that she was likely asleep.
The office space was all but deserted. He knew the corporate managers were in the building next door having meeting after meeting about the direction of a big corporate accounting company in the 21st century, but James was the only mook left to wade through stacks of mundane paperwork on his own. As he spared a glance at the wall clock, he saw it read 7:30 exactly. He could go until 8:30 if he wanted to, but something made him think twice about really going home at nine. Maylen was sick in bed at home and here he was working alone in a dark dreary office, without another soul in sight. He clicked his tongue in irritation and slammed the binder he was working on closed. He had enough time to pick up a bouquet and some medicine for her if he left now. If she was bad enough to warrant staying home again tomorrow, he could grab a movie or two for her too.
He finished up the last few binders sprawled out on his desk briskly, then began to gather his personal bits in preparation for departure. He began rummaging around his desk; he always took his wristwatch and bracelet off when he worked, as they felt clunky on his wrists. When he reached into his desk cubby to find them though, they weren’t there. Confused, James felt around the rest of his workspace but couldn’t find a trace. He didn’t take them off anywhere else, so it was hard to believe he could’ve misplaced them somewhere else in the office.
James suddenly realized it was far too quiet in the building. Even the patter of raindrops outside seemed subdued. The ambient noise of idle machines and running clocks disappeared. He checked the same wall clock he had checked moments before and saw that it still read 7:30. The second hand had stopped ticking. He knew the clock had its own independent battery source, so it couldn’t have stopped along with everything else in the office on account of a power outage. His own desk lamp struggled to keep its soft glow; it was the only source of light in the building now sans the moonlight that pierced the rain-streaked windows. Perplexed, he began to wander around the workspace outside his own cubicle, all the while keeping an eye out for his watch and bracelet.
He had made ten steps at most before the sudden introduction of a new youthful, insistent ticking made him turn around. The deafening silence in the office was constantly pierced every second by a steady tick-tock that no doubt came from something of a clock. James once again checked the one mounted on the main office wall. Still dead. The ticking this time was coming from his own cubicle, which he had just left. He followed the noise back, trying to pinpoint where it was coming from. As he approached his desk once again, he felt the air become perceptibly colder. The window by his cubicle was still closed. He didn’t understand the unearthly chill that gave him goosebumps, but for the moment he was still focused with all his senses on finding the source of the only noise in the building.
The sound was coming from the same desk cubby he had checked before. James hesitated before reaching in. He was absolutely sure he had combed the entire 10-square inch box when he had reached his hand in earlier; there was no way there could be anything in there now. He bent down with his ear close and confirmed that the ticking was, without a doubt, leaking softly from the dark space. He reached a hand in uncertainly, aware of the constant chill that ran up and down his spine with each tick that came from the cubby. It was then that his already dim desk lamp went out, dropping the entire room into shadow, with only the soft gray glow of the rainy skies outside leaking in through the windows. Startled, he pulled his hand out of the cubby in shock before he had a chance to check the entire container, but found that he couldn’t retract his appendage. He looked down, and realized that his limb seemed to disappear into the darkness within the cubby. He couldn’t see the hand beyond his wrist anymore, though he could still feel it perfectly well.
Someone was holding it. They had his hand clasped firmly in theirs, within the container. Suddenly terrified, he pulled as hard as he could and suddenly found his hand released. He fell backwards in his cubicle, stumbling over his chair and landing back-first on the carpeted office floor. His eyes closed for a moment from shock as James withered and struggled to get back up despite his shaking legs. The moment he looked up again, he didn’t find the familiar solace of the office ceiling as he thought he would.
Another face was inches from his, with eyes more black than the most amoral soul and features twisted as though they had been clamped and dragged around with a pair of pliers. James no longer cared to put reason to anything he was experiencing. All he knew was terror, and in the confined space of the office building there was nowhere to run from the fright, even more so when he was seemingly pinned on the ground of his own cubicle. The face above his own took up all of his vision; he couldn’t see if it had a body to go with it or not. It seemed vaguely female, complete with pale skin and long, dead black hair. He couldn’t move his body or his eyes. He didn’t have any other choice but to stare into the dead, dark eyes that paralyzed him. The steady ticking from earlier that drew him to his cubicle desk was still audible in the background. James couldn’t tell where it was coming from anymore, but it continued to steadily increase in both volume and pitch. It was no longer the deep comforting tick of time passing; it had become a rhythmic, high-pitched screech that sounded like someone screaming. He felt as though he knew the visage in front of him. Its features were so warped that James couldn’t make it out exactly, but something about the way it rested in a neutral expression called up a sense of familiarity in him. A single wet drop landed on James’ cheek; the thing had shed it from one obsidian eye. He couldn’t move away or even advert his eyes as it slowly dropped its grotesque jaw open. Moths darker than the most foreboding night came streaming out, pouring over its head and face. James’ vision went entirely black, with even the apparition’s face lost in the storm. He suddenly felt a seizing in his chest, as though someone were taking a bite out of his heart.
He felt a cold breath mutter against his ear. The high-pitched white noise of the ticking continued to shred his senses as he barely made out a soft whisper beside him:
He felt the world rushing back to him with a deep gasp. Relief washed over him when he realized that he could see again, with the warm yellow glow of his desk lamp shining down from behind him. He was also standing again, with his hand reaching into the same desk cubby in his cubicle. He felt his fingers brushing something – objects with a distinct metallic smoothness. The reflective surface of his watch and bracelet gleamed up at him when he pulled his arm back from the container. The ticking was there again, though exactly as it should’ve been – the steady ticking of a normal clock signaling the never-ending march of time. The office wall clock read 7:32.
He turned in almost a complete circle, gazing with a mixture of fear and confusion into the empty cubicles besides his. The insidious figure was gone. The clock was working again. He had his watch and bracelet, and was ready to head home and call it a day at the office.
Too many late night shifts, James thought. I must not be getting enough sleep. His breathing was still ragged from the phenomenon he just experienced, but more than that he noted how his chest still hurt. It was ebbing, but the pain he felt earlier in his heart was too vivid to be a dream, vision, hallucination, or anything else in between. He shook his head vigorously, hastily slinging his bag over his shoulder and tightening his watch around his wrist. Just as he was about to slip his bracelet on and click the desk lamp off, a curious thought occurred to him.
Why do I wear this? James looked down at the metal band in his left hand puzzlingly. He couldn’t remember when he started wearing it or why. He’d always known the comforting feeling of having weights on both wrists before, and he knew for certain the one on his left wrist was always his watch. But as he stopped to ponder the origins of the other accessory he held, he couldn’t draw up any recollection. It was simply there, unassuming and strangely enigmatic. James clicked his tongue in frustration, but decided that he didn’t have any more time to stand around pondering trivialities. The office building plunged into complete darkness as James shut the door behind him and treaded into the never-ending rain outside.
Rainy weather usually made the route home more treacherous, but James was grateful for the conspicuous lack of traffic. He could see flashes of lightning in the distance, beyond the mountain ridges that loomed to the north. He almost wished he was in the epicenter of the storm; thunder and lightning always did bring him a certain sense of tranquility.
He stopped at a local drugstore first to pick up some medicine and tea bags. It was a good night to brew warm tea and burrow under several dozen blankets. He dropped by the town florist next, with his entrance into the greenhouse-like shop announced by the jingling of the bells hanging loosely from the door handles.
The kind old lady who ran the shop knew James well. She looked up from tending a bunch of Rosemaries. Her lips curled into a smile as she stood up straight and put one hand on her hip. “Well, young man, what’s the occasion today? It isn’t quite Friday yet, or have you gotten your days mixed up falling head over heels for that doll of yours?”
He managed a meek smile. She always teased him about going overboard for Maylen by bringing her a bouquet of flowers every Friday, though she was kind enough to always give him a 50% discount because he frequented so often. She also happened to be his secret accomplice in his big penniless anniversary event last month, going out of her way and helping him pick wildflowers for the house completely free of charge. “She’s sick today,” he said. “I’ll grab a small batch this time, just to liven up the bedroom a bit since she might be stuck there for a bit.”
“Oh poor thing! It must be terrible being sick in this weather, of course. What would you like for her this time ‘round then?”
James surveyed the multiple flower beds lined up in perfect rows down the shop. Given how much he came here, he had become something of a flower connoisseur himself. A spark of purple caught his eye. “These Heliotropes look fine. Could I get them with some Ivy?”
“Of course, dear. Give me just a moment.” The lady rushed over and began preparing the bouquet he had requested. James stood by, staring out the massive glass planes of the shop at the gray clouds, pattering rain, and ever-darkening sky. He wondered if Maylen would be still be sleeping by the time he got home, as he’d be back an hour before she’d expected. A cheery voice interrupted his musings.
“All done, there you go,” the florist said as she handed the bright purple bouquet to him.
“Oh, thanks so much.” He took the flowers from her and started rummaging around for his wallet.
“Stop that hon, just take this one as a gift,” the lady said suddenly. James looked startled. “I can’t do that,” he said.
“Oh, yes you can,” she affirmed. “I’m honestly paid enough just seeing true love walk through my doors every week. You’re a strange one, you know.” She grinned at him and slapped him on the back. “Go take care of her.”
Despite the plastic wrapping around the bouquet promising to keep the ever-important flowers dry, James still rushed to his car and tried to shield the package with as much of his body as he could. It was difficult carrying an umbrella, flowers and keys to his car all at once, so he simply decided to forsake the most former. He’d be able to dry off well enough at home. As the car came to life and he carefully set the wrapped bouquet in the passenger’s seat next to him, he spared a glance at the digital time readout on his vehicle’s dash. It was barely past eight. He was glad he made the last half hour count, and could be home within the next.
As he beat on towards home, he noticed that the lightning was indeed nearing their neighborhood. He idly wondered if it would beat him to their house. He still couldn’t hear the rumblings of thunder; the only sounds coming from outside were the tranquil pitter patter of raindrops against the hard concrete roads.
Before he knew it, he had turned the last corner into the little neighborhood where their small and modest apartment stood. Each resident had designated parking spots; Maylen and he had just purchased another after they acquired a second car so he didn’t always have to bus to work. But as he absentmindedly went through the usual motions of guiding his car through the complex to his personal parking space, he found himself tapping on the break in front of a peculiar obstacle.
Parked in his usual space was a souped-up American muscle car. James was confused at first, but knew that he had seen the car before. Everyone had seen that car before. It was so heavily modified there was only room enough for one of it in town.
It was Justin’s car.
The pain he had felt in his chest from his time in the office felt like it was returning. It felt like someone was biting into his heart, gnawing away at it as though it were a meal at a holy annual feast. James opened the perpetually unlocked door to his building complex absentmindedly. Their actual apartment door was on the second floor; he had to ascend the stairs through the commonplace lobby first. As he reached their house door, he spared a glance through the lobby window. Idly, he realized that he couldn’t really call it a storm outside. From inside the building, he couldn’t hear any thunder and didn’t see any flashes even in the distance that indicated lightning. The rain was calm, steady, rhythmic, and peaceful. It brought him solace.
As he turned the key and opened the door, he realized that the patter of the rain against the roof and windows would probably cover up his entrance. He wouldn’t wake Maylen if she were sleeping. Still, he calmly and slowly set the drugstore bag down on the couch while he unslung his bag and let it drop to the floor, forming a small puddle of rainwater on the ground. James looked down at the green and purple bouquet he still held in his hands. The plastic wrap had torn somehow, likely on his way in whilst carrying so many things at once, and the Heliotrope petals were sagging and soaked. The pain in his chest grew worse. A part of him wanted to leave, and only come back when he had promised, an hour later than it were. But he had to give Maylen the flowers. He had to show her how much he cared by coming home early to take care of her.
Mechanically, he began to walk across the living room to the entryway on the other end. The patter of the rain outside grew louder, almost deafening him. He pushed open the door to the bedroom.
Maylen screamed as she immediately reached for blankets. Justin scrambled out of the bed in shock, reaching for his briefs. James stood in the doorway for a moment before walking stiffly to the closet door and taking his jacket off. Justin took advantage of the now-clear path to gather his clothes and barreled out of the room. Maylen began to sob as James hung his dripping coat in the closet. He looked over at her with blank eyes. He didn’t understand why she was crying.
He sat down on the edge of the bed. Maylen had buried her face in the blankets by now, her back heaving with each sob. “I should’ve known,” he said. “The signs were there. I chose to ignore them because I’m always blind when it comes to you.”
“James,” her voice was laden with sadness. “I’m sorry – “
“Stop,” he muttered. “You don’t get to say that.” An impulse suddenly ran through him. He had always been the kind of person to solve problems immediately whenever they occurred. He hated running from a bad situation because it usually never solved anything. Maylen had always been the opposite; she never wanted to deal with misfortune and usually hid until the mess had blown over. This time though, he found that he couldn’t stand staying in that room with his sobbing wife. He stood up and turned towards the window. There was nothing he could do about this situation now. The world as he knew it had fallen apart, and all his senses told him to run and hide until the crumbling had stopped.
He felt something brushing against his left hand. Maylen had reached out and started wrapping her fingers around his. James flicked his wrist and batted it away. He saw her flinch out of the corner of his eye and almost had to fight back the reflex to reach out and hold her. He walked towards the closet again and took out his still-wet jacket, slinging it over his arm and glancing out the bedroom window. The rain was getting heavier.
“James…” He heard her call, but chose not to reply. He couldn’t look at her anymore. With a start, he began walking back out the way he came. “James…!” He heard his wife calling after him again. As he left the bedroom doorway he felt a crunch beneath his feet, and without looking down or back he knew it was the bouquet of Heliotropes with Ivy that he had dropped the moment he opened the door.
Maylen probably didn’t realize that he wasn’t going to come home that night. He wasn’t sure if he ever wanted to return. He didn’t know where to go or what to do; the gnawing in his chest from earlier had stopped. It didn’t feel like someone was biting into his heart anymore; they had long finished their morsel and left him with a gaping hole. As he stumbled down the stairs from their suite, he found himself grateful for the cold embrace of the rain outside.
The click of the desk lamp coming to life in the otherwise dead silent office space was nearly deafening. James pulled his chair out and sank in with his head in his hands. He needed a place for solace and serious thought, and he could really spend as long as he wanted in his workspace. Maylen had tried to call him at least a dozen times already, but he had already turned his cell phone off. He didn’t have anything he wanted to say to her now.
The world was coming apart at the seams, far too quickly for him to process anything rationally. He didn’t know what he would do from here on out. Losing Maylen was losing far too much that he could afford; he had invested almost everything in the both of them together. He didn’t have anyone else he was close enough to turn to after losing the person whom was supposed to be his everything. James found himself staring off into the darkness of the office space and realized for a moment who the other man was in their house that day.
Justin. He looked over at the man’s workspace. He idly wondered how long Justin had been mocking him just a few feet away for sleeping with his wife. Strangely, he didn’t resent the man. His thoughts were less focused on who he was and what he did and more on what would happen to Maylen and himself now.
Movement in the darkness caught James’ eye. It was coming from the entrance to the office. The hallway lights were out, but he could barely make out the movement of a shadow a few feet in front of him. Could a coworker have forgotten something and come back? They all had building access keys, and as much as he hated to admit it, security here was poorly regulated. The fact that he could come back at all hours of the night and simply sit in his office was testimony to that. He kept his eyes fixed on the area where he sensed movement. No one appeared in the building doorway.
With a start, James’ posture and body suddenly became rigid. He had completely forgotten about his nightmare-like experience in the office just a few hours before. The woman’s contorted face, the moths, the hand that had briefly held his. He suddenly found the comfort of his workplace much less inviting.
The sound of an office chair sliding against the floor made him jump in his own seat. He looked back at the source of the noise. It was coming from the area around Justin’s cubicle. The same movement he had caught a glimpse of earlier at the doorway flittered across his vision again. It was like a shadow moving against the backdrop of a black wall; there wasn’t enough contrast to make anything out clearly. James stood up as he felt his heart rate rising.
“Who’s there?” He called out into the darkness. Nothing stirred in the workspace. He took a few steps forward, peering into the shadows. The sudden smell of damp flowers coming from his desk suddenly overwhelmed him.
“Wha-“ His words suddenly cut into a startled scream when he turned back to his desk and saw someone – something – sitting in the chair he had just departed. It was the same grotesque creature that he had met earlier. He could see the rest of its body now. It wore a human form, but he didn’t feel the same sense of presence that another person would’ve carried. He knew surer than ever that he was alone. The skin that he could see was bone-white. It wore a tattered and ripped black summer dress. He would’ve almost called it beautiful if it hadn’t turned its empty obsidian eyes and twisted facial features towards him. It reached a pale hand up, almost in greeting.
James found himself paralyzed, mostly with fear. He didn’t take the hand in what looked like an offer for a shake as it slowly turned over, with the palm up and facing him.
”You have to wake up,” a voice rasped in his ear. The thing’s lips didn’t move. They looked too malformed to be capable of releasing any comprehensible stream of words, but he knew for certain that the hazy and raspy language he heard in his ears came from the creature before him. The sudden smell of damp flowers that he had noticed earlier became perceptively stronger around him.
“You can’t stay here forever.” He heard the next line from behind him. He managed to shift his legs slightly and looked around. Copies of the female-looking creature had appeared; James was now surrounded. The pale yellow warmth of his desk lamp and the entire office had dropped away to oblivion. Only the twisted abominations remained standing around him, their endless, deep black eyes forcing James down to his knees in despair. The thing standing immediately in front of him knelt down in front of him as its face began to shift. The features he had noted before as pulled apart and grotesquely torn began to pull themselves back together. The skin pulled itself tight around bone and allowed its hair to fall straight and smooth, framing its face. James suddenly found himself staring at his wife, albeit with deathly pale skin and the same lifeless eyes that could drive a man to death.
“Maylen,” he breathed.
“James,” the dead lookalike smiled gently at him as it knelt and put one hand to his cheek. The rest of the copies were still standing around them, their faces pulled together too.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. Her lips were moving now and releasing the words into the damp air that still smelled like flowers. “I’m so sorry this had to happen. But you knew it was going to, because it already did, right?” His wife’s voice and posture was comforting, the way it always had been. He always felt safe when he was with her, the way a child would feel secure around its mother.
He would’ve allowed himself to fall into her arms then and there if the sockets he stared into didn’t promise unparalleled despair. He didn’t understand a word she was saying, so he couldn’t reply. She continued, “It’s time for you to go, sweetheart.”
James began to see small silhouettes fly from the edges of his vision. He turned his neck to find all the other Maylen clones standing around them dissolving into hordes of moths. Every part of them broke apart and flew away as tiny insects, except for the pupils that James feared so much. They dropped to the ground as obsidian marbles among the storm of moths, transfixed on James in their center.
“Stop…” James started.
As panic started to rise in him as he turned to witness the scene around him, he suddenly felt a sharp jab through his chest. James choked on his breath as he looked down at the new hole that had suddenly formed where his sternum was supposed to be. A pale hand stuck out, dripping scarlet. His vision immediately began to fade as fear and panic gripped the rest of his body. Before blackness closed in on the rest of his senses to wash out the pain, James heard one last soft whisper against his ear:
“I love you.”
“He’s here, he’s here!”
“Quickly everyone, I think he’s about to wake up!”
Who are these…voices? Who’s waking up? Well of course they’re probably waking up with all your shouting and screaming…
James awoke with a deep gasp as his eyes suddenly flared open and his torso shot up. The first thing he noticed was a crowd of peculiarly dressed people gathered in front of him, as their eyes locked with his. He then quickly realized the crowd wasn’t limited to merely standing in front of him; there was an entire circle of spectators gathered round.
“W-what…who…” he began uncertainly. As he twisted his still-sitting body to survey the unfamiliar faces, he heard a clink from all over his body.
Clink? What in the –
He spared a glance down towards his waist and nearly screamed in shock. No wonder his body felt heavier than usual. He was wearing some sort of armor, the classic kind that looked like it came straight out a medieval fantasy or video game. The clinking came from the soot-black metal plates around his torso hitting each other as their layered system articulated to allow him movement.
Goddammit, I’ve been had, he thought. Medieval armor has its own aesthetic, but advanced Powered Armor would’ve been so much more practical and easy to use. I’m willing to bet this thing probably doesn’t even have boot jets or forearm-mounted missiles.
He turned his attention back to the strangers around him who now seemed to be revering him in awe. Most of their mouths were agape, with a few whispering amongst themselves and making no subtle attempts to avoid pointing at him.
“Who are you people? Where am I? Why am I wearing…this?” He asked to the crowd. Nobody answered him; they all carried on talking about him as though he himself weren’t there. James clicked his tongue in frustration. He knew that much about himself – he knew his name was James Pierce. Beyond that was a mystery. The last thing he remembered was being incredibly alone and afraid. He knew things, but he didn’t know himself. He knew that he shouldn’t be in what looked to be a town straight out of 1400’s Europe. For the moment, James was almost completely convinced someone had knocked him out and played a prank on him by dressing him up and sitting him in the middle of a bunch of role-playing fanatics.
“My lord!” A voice called from within the crowd. James turned toward the sound and found a woman pushing her way through the mass of people to get to him. As she emerged, he noted her own well-crafted plate-over-leather armor. Her figure showed slim and fit, even under the protective metal plates.
“My lord, you’ve finally appeared. We’ve been expecting you,” she said.
James looked up at her, confused. “Who are you?” he asked. “My lord? What are you talking about?”
She decidedly ignored his questions. “We shouldn’t stay here, come with me. I’ll show you to your kingdom. We’ve prepared well for your return, and everything is as you left it upon departure.” The woman reached down and hoisted James up by the arm.
“Wh-What, hey!” He found his footing and stood facing the stranger. Now that he had a closer look, he found himself appreciating her visage very much. She seemed fairly young, probably only a few years younger than him. Her hair was kept in a neat ponytail tied high up – an appropriate look for a woman concerned more with practicality than style.
Shame, James mused to himself. Never cared much for ponytails.
“This way,” the woman said briskly, leading him through the middle of the crowd that had yet to dissipate after his awakening. He heard the murmurs escalate as he moved, several people calling, “Welcome back my lord!”
He caught up to the lady walking briskly ahead of him as her long ponytail swayed back and forth, almost hitting him upside the face. “Okay, uh, we can start simple if you’d like. I’d just like to know where I am and who you are?”
The woman didn’t look back at him as she replied. “Kallen,” she said. “Kallen Wyver. I’m the captain of your personal guard, Lord Galahad.”
Okay, this is progress. Looks like my first name isn’t actually My. But I guess Lord is still a thing.
“Um, Ms. Wyver? Galahad? My name’s James. James Pierce. Is this like a roleplaying town or what? Where are we?”
Kallen shot one glance over her shoulder at him and raised an eyebrow. Then she laughed lightly to herself. “Roleplaying? What’s that? James Pierce? No disrespect my liege, but did you happen to leave your sanity in space while you were among the stars? I do hope you at least brought new hope and knowledge for us here in exchange.”
James almost bit his tongue. Now she was going a bit over the top. “Wait no, seriously. No more of this roleplaying business, what’s going on? Where are we going, where am I? Please just answer seriously.”
Kallen chuckled to herself again. “I don’t know what you’re going on about, my lord, but you should be able to reorient yourself a bit better back at the castle.”
They had reached what seemed like the end of town, as the dirt road they had been travelling on suddenly gave away to fine blades of too-green grass. His gaze followed the gently swaying greenery as it extended outwards and found himself face-to-scenery with a massive hilly landscape. Massive emerald hills rose and dropped like the humps on a camel’s back, and he could make out a clear and well-worn dirt path in front of them leading up towards a massive medieval-style castle in the distance. Small fences and what looked to be settlements and other towns dotted the landscape, with a massive volcano-esque mountain looming over a good portion of the area to his right. For a moment he almost felt overwhelmed.
What…what even is this? This is too massive to be a fanatical game. This is too real.
Kallen’s eyes glinted as she turned to him and smiled mischievously. “Is it all coming back to you now?”
James couldn’t reply. He wasn’t sure if his jaw was still connected to the rest of him or if it had fallen off and rolled down the hill.
“You’ll be fine after we have you take a nice long walk through the Hall of Kings. Come on now, we don’t have all day,” she said as she started taking long, confident strides towards the path that led to the castle. James barely managed to not trip over his shock and followed briskly, his armor clinking with every step.
“His Excellency Roy Galahad, 7th Emperor to the Holy Empire of Negantia?” James read aloud the engraved plaque bolted right below a massive portrait painting. It was of a powerful man in a suit of black and gold armor standing over what looked to be an army of an entire nation. The painting featured an ornate helm for its primary subject, so he couldn’t really tell who it was. For all he knew it could just be a random painting of a warlord with an indicating name and caption slapped below. He supposed if he spent a year or two at the gym and put on some really well-crafted armor he could potentially resemble the figure in the painting. He turned to the woman who now stood behind him, who watched with satisfaction as he examined the various larger-than-life portraits that hung on the polished castle walls.
“You’re joking right? This? This?” He whirled around and pointed at the painting he had just read aloud. “This is supposed to be me? Emperor of some holy empire? Come on, you’re not even trying to be original anymore.”
Kallen frowned. “You don’t believe it, my lord? You are the 7th heir to the throne, there’s no doubt. You’ve only been gone for a little over a year and a half, how could space sickness have affected you so quickly?”
“Space sickness? I thought we were in the 1400s or whatever, what do you people know about space?” James sounded exasperated.
Kallen led him into the next room. “You really don’t remember?” she asked.
He immediately noted how the ceiling in this hall was immeasurably high. It stretched down for what looked like the length of two football fields to him. At the end of it he could barely make out two massive rectangles that he assumed were great doors.
“Welcome back to the Chronicle Hall, my liege.” Kallen placed a hand gently against a transparent square panel on the wall next to them. The gesture sent a pulse of light through the chamber, reaching all the way down to the grand doors at the end of the hall and high into the far reaches of the insurmountable ceiling. Cerulean texts that looked like they were made of light began to manifest on the wall surfaces.
“These are…holograms?!” He was once again rendered nearly speechless. Here they were, standing in the middle of some age-old medieval castle with nothing but bare polished stones for walls and they actually turned out to be touch-interface holographic surfaces.
Kallen strode down to a bloc of text near the middle of the wall and tapped it, expanding it. James came up behind her and began reading to himself.
“So…if I’m supposed to be ‘His Excellency Roy Galahad,’ then I’m the benevolent ruler of this land you call Negantia, and almost two years ago I personally took a vessel into space to search for a new world because we were running short of resources?”
“That’s right,” Kallen said.
“But that makes no sense,” James muttered. “Why would a king set out to explore a new world – in space no less – on his own? Why wouldn’t he just send a science and research team up instead?”
“You always liked handling things personally,” Kallen replied. “And you were very adamant about it, even though we gave you those exact points. As you are king, we are in no place to question your judgement or stop you from your will.”
He considered this new information for a moment. He’d seen technology beyond his time in a seemingly primitive era already – he was now convinced this was no mere game or simulation. He had to be very, very intoxicated to come up with something this fanatical. Too bad he didn’t drink.
“This is like something straight out of a little kid’s fantasy,” he said under his breath. “What’s more I’m a king, not the hero dressed in green who needs to save the princess.” He looked down at the armor he wore. Black and gold, though tattered and rusted, as though it hadn’t been maintained in ages. “Roy Galahad, huh…”
He turned to Kallen. “This is nice and crazy and all, but I don’t belong here. I’m not Roy Galahad. My name is James Pierce. I’m from the United States, not this Negato-place.”
Kallen blinked once and tilted her head. “What are you talking about, your highness? Are you still going on about that? Haven’t these records proven enough to you about who you are again?”
“No,” James replied. “No, whatever it says here, I know who I am. I know where I came from. I-I may not remember exactly the person I was before I landed in the middle of this – “ he gestured around the grand hall, “ – this craziness, but I know I don’t belong here. I need to get back to my world. The real world.”
Kallen regarded him with a mixture of what looked like pity and amusement. “All right, all right. If you say so, my lord. Why don’t you begin your quest to find your ‘real world’ tomorrow then? Have a good night’s sleep at the castle tonight first. We’ll have a horse packed and ready for you first thing in the morning.”
James knew by now that he was living in some urban fantasy setting that could’ve made a great premise for a hot-selling video game. He might even make use of the idea if and when he returned to his original world. Not that he remembered much of who he was in that world, but he somehow missed being able to slip on simple jeans and a t-shirt in the morning. Servants had poured into his grand bedroom at the crack of dawn to dress him in what Kallen assured him to be the latest armor developed in the kingdom. It wasn’t made up of simple sheet metal plates over chainmail. This armor was both primitive and technologically advanced at the same time. While he didn’t get his original wish of sustained flight or hidden rockets, he did feel incredibly more fit and powerful. The servants fitting him had mentioned some special organic material on the insides of the plates that would increase his physical strength, stamina, and even overall health when they made contact with his skin. He felt as though he could run for days and fight an entire army on his own.
He admired the navy blue and silver metal shell that now encased him as he stood facing a mirror. He almost choked on a glass of water when a castle servant brought in a massive longsword and shield, claiming it was for his use. He didn’t even bother asking about the weapons, how to use them, or why he even needed them when he was supposed to only be travelling locally in his own kingdom. Kallen had told him that they had avoided giving him the King’s Set for his safety. He had already indicated that he wanted to travel alone, so without any guards they had insisted on fitting him with a suit of more unrecognizable make. Apparently the ornate gold and black set was a signature of the ruling King, and every child in the land was taught to recognize its form. She also assured James that he could freely remove his helm when around his subjects. To his surprise, the people didn’t actually know his visage. Kallen had said something about it being a tradition in the lineage of Kings, for the lower classes were deemed unworthy of laying eyes upon their God-sent ruler. He had asked why the people in the town had recognized him then, and she had attributed it immediately to the armor he wore. She also mentioned something about sending in a small corps to wipe the town’s memory of that day, so no soul outside of the royal castle would be able to tell who he was now.
He had thoroughly explored the royal palace he apparently lived in the night before. For such a massive structure, it was eerily hollow. It fit the stereotypical trope of a rich man’s too-empty mansion that he owned simply because he could. He hadn’t been able to find any clues about how he got to this alternate reality or how to get back. The castle records held information, yes, but nothing he didn’t take with a pinch of salt. He had learned all about his kingdom’s history in just a few hours, of all “his” conquests and “his” rise to glory. Searching for words or information on things like “The United States” or “automobiles” yielded nothing. He knew staying there wouldn’t allow him to glean any more answers about his predicament, so he had decided for certain to explore the new world the day after, as Kallen had suggested. Before going to bed, he was absolutely certain he was either under the influence of some very powerful drugs or stuck in a surprisingly comfortable and vivid dream.
He strolled out of the massive castle gates and found a guard tending to a massive black horse outside. “She’s all ready for you, my liege,” the guard said as he patted down the beast’s mane. James sniffed. He was used to more sterile-smelling means of transportation. He had never even ridden a horse before, but he supposed it wouldn’t do him much good to ask for a car as an alternative. The guard looked at his lord expectantly. James stared back, half hoping he would get some direction on how to start his preferred mode of transportation and maybe some tips like where the gas pedal was.
Of course, he thought. He would expect his king to be able to mount a horse without his help.
He grasped the reins firmly and put his left foot on the stirrup. As he hoisted himself up and threw his right leg over the horse’s back to mount, he found himself momentarily shocked.
No way is mounting a horse actually that easy. He had felt a sense of familiarity when he stepped up next to the creature, as though he had mounted and ridden beasts just like it all his life. Before he knew it, he was secure and ready to ride even while fully armored.
“Godspeed, my liege. May your quest yield you the answers you seek.” The guard stood back and resumed his post at the castle gates.
James was still slightly amused by the over-the-top formality the people here seemed to employ in his presence here. It wasn’t bad being called “my liege” and “my lord” all the time, though admittedly it had only been a day and he was already beginning to bore of it. For a moment he suspected people like the guard were actually NPCs and he was just stuck inside a very realistic video game.
James kicked off and began to ride in the direction of the nearest town, once again marveling at his suddenly very proficient horsemanship skills.
“Is there a physicist or general scientist in town I can speak to?”
The old villager let out a roar of a laugh. “Scientist!” he exclaimed. “Lad, shouldn’t you be asking where the dragon and your princess are? I assure you they’re both in another castle.”
James frowned. “Thanks for your time,” he muttered as he moved on down the beaten dirt road. That last encounter wasn’t too dissimilar from his previous two with the villagers in town. His appearance as a young and eager knight yearning for battle and glory must have put most of the quiet townsfolk off immediately. He wasn’t even sure if finding a scientist or a physicist would be able to help him much. A part of him figured that it would be the logical place to start if he were to assume this was a case of the universe mixing up its parallel timelines. He hated to admit it, but there were also a million other possibilities that he had no leads with in his current situation.
A familiar clanking sound in front of him made him look up from his silent inspection of the dirt road while he mused. What looked to be a man in a suit of armor similar to his own had stopped in front of him and stood with sword drawn. Like James, he had his helm pulled on, hiding his face.
“Hello there,” he called. “How can I help you?”
The knight replied silently by raising his sword, point forward. James cocked his head in confusion.
What’s he – Before he could finish his thought, the man lunged like a jaguar toward its prey, fangs bared in the shape of his blade.
Holy Hell – James didn’t have time to think much else before instinct kicked in and he threw his body to the side.
“Whoa, what’s going on pal?!” He desperately tried to reason with his surprise assailant. “What do you want? Who are you?!”
Nothing but silence from within the charcoal helm. His attacker turned and rushed again, sword raised to slam James’ helm into the ground. He grimaced beneath his mouth plate and immediately slipped his own sword and shield from his back. He didn’t have time to raise his shield all the way up to block his opponent’s attack dead-on, so he swiped his left arm upwards to knock the blade away. The man stumbled back, falling into a defensive stance and readying both sword and shield once again. James felt the blood pulsing in his ears as he fell into the same stance.
I’ve never fought before, he thought. I shouldn’t know what I’m doing. Is it the armor –
James blinked sweat from his eyes for a moment and found that his assailant had suddenly vanished. Movement in the air right above him caught his eye; as he looked up he saw the fuller of his opponent’s blade spark in the sunlight. Reflexes that weren’t his kicked in. James immediately ducked low, rolling out of the blade coming far too quickly for his neck. As his boots and gauntlets scuffed the dusty road, he came back around in a full duck and roll around his opponent. He had been fast enough to get behind the man while he was still crouched with his blade against the ground where James’ body had been just a moment before. He yelled, throwing all his strength into a slash at his opponent’s open back. A satisfying grunt leaked from within the stoic helm, though he knew his blow didn’t do much damage. The man’s armor was surprisingly durable and thick. He subconsciously knew he’d have to aim for the breaks in the joints if he wanted to do any real blows.
The man turned, swinging his shield wildly in a bid to smash James in the face since he was now so close.
Keep moving, keep moving. He felt the shield rush over his head as he ducked, nearly flattening his entire body to the ground. His opponent seized the opportunity and tried to land another blow by slicing down with his blade, straight at his back. James kicked against the ground as hard as he could, adjusting his body ever so slightly so his armored shoulder rammed straight and hard into his opponent’s torso. He felt the satisfying buckle of the man’s body as it flew backwards; the sword that was inches away from James’ back earlier flew out of its owner’s grip, landing in the dirt behind both men.
The silent knight now only had a shield to defend with. James took a moment to catch his breath again as he fell back into the ready position, with his own sword and shield at their familiar places by his side. He could feel his muscles ripe and ready with adrenaline, ready to react and counter his enemy’s slightest movement.
To James’ shock, the man suddenly threw his shield down on the dusty ground and proceeded to hold his arms outstretched, palms open.
Does he…want a hug…?
“Nice fight.” The first words to come out of the dusty gray helm had a youthful reverence to them. “I concede. You fight like a tyrant with the pose of a king.” The man withdrew his arms and peeled off his helm. Dirty and tattered golden shoulder-length hair framed a youthful but worn visage. The man couldn’t have been much older than James himself.
“Who are you?” James asked as he relaxed his grip on his weapons. “Why did you pick a fight with me?”
The man grinned amiably as he began to stroll past James and retrieve his blade. “New to these parts, stranger? You’ve never had a duel before?”
“Like, just a one-on-one fight in the middle of a town?”
The stranger examined his sword as he explained, “After the Spica Codes of Honor championed by Lord Galahad. Surely you’ve engaged in duels before, lest you’ve been fighting as a mercenary your whole life?”
James vaguely recalled reading about the Spica Code the night before while he was doing research on his kingdom. While the land is at peace, warriors would fight each other in duels of honor because there was no war. He had completely forgotten about the brief mention of the practice of duel initiation, where one announced a challenge by raising and pointing their sword at their opponent. He did recall a footnote about how the Spica Codes were in place both to prevent unrest among the warrior class as they sought challengers and also to ensure the kingdom would have a skilled and battle-hardened reserve force of fighters should war ever break out.
The man sheathed his sword and hoisted his shield as he came up to James with his hand extended. “How about a drink?”
James holstered his own weapons and shook the outstretched arm. “Sure, Mr…”
“Speculo. Vos Speculo,” the man said.
James grimaced a bit. Kallen Wyver was outlandish but not too unbelievable. Even his own Roy Galahad was relatively fair. But he was absolutely certain Vos Speculo’s parents must’ve put random syllables on a die and rolled for his name.
“James Pierce. A pleasure,” he said. Vos had already mentioned Galahad earlier with the all-too-familiar “Lord” prefix so he figured it wouldn’t be the wisest decision to simply throw around his alt-world name to strangers here. At worst they’d assume he was an imposter playing a joke and pretending to be their king.
Vos sniffed and turned down the road. “James, huh. Your folks sure have strange taste.”
Night had fallen on the small village as James took another hesitant sip form his cup. The drink tasted like sawdust with a slight tinge of strawberry, and looked just as though the two ingredients were thrown in a blender with a much larger concentration of the former. It came on recommendation from Vos, who greedily gulped down his second cup and whistled at the waitress for another. The man lounged casually in his seat as he talked.
“Another world? You can’t be serious.”
“I think I am. I know it sounds crazy, but do you know anyone who can help?” James had given him a general briefing of his situation, though he still hadn’t revealed his supposed identity as the king of the land.
“Well I’m not much of a scholar,” he began. “But I’ve heard some whispers around Negantia before about something similar. Something about a coming war with things from another realm. They say King Galahad traveled to space two years ago to prepare for this calamity.”
“I thought he traveled away because the land was short on resources?”
“We are, and that’s the official word from Central, but there have been whispers from people who ought to know that something bigger is coming. Something from another world, maybe like you.” Vos added the last sentence with an overdramatized lowering of his voice, indicating to James that the man was clearly taking his story with a grain of salt.
James almost wanted to offer him some sugar with the fresh cup of sawdust-juice that the waitress brought over just then. He decided to stop pursuing the subject on his personal account.
“A war?” he said. “Who are these unknowns then?”
Vos leaned forward, clearly interested in gossiping about this particular subject. “They say there are things living up there, in that broken moon.” He pointed upwards towards the roof. He was being quite literal. James had found out whilst researching at the castle that the moon around the planet had literally been partially shattered in the wake of a massive global war from eons past. The current kingdom was apparently built on the destruction that followed that calamity, with society and ideals reverting to their current medieval-like state. What he found strange, however, was that he couldn’t find much info on the war itself. The castle databanks never even mentioned who the war was against. He couldn’t figure out if a conflict of that scale was really fought between people on the planet he stood on now.
“Rumor has it that we could come under attack from the heavens any day now. Some even say they’re already among us. Everyone describes them as shapeshifters – metal things that assimilate you and turn you against your brothers if they manage to grab you.” Vos talked eagerly, as though he hadn’t had the chance to discuss this subject in-depth with anyone for a very long time.
“Were these extraterrestrial living-metal shapeshifters the things we fought in the last Great War?”
“No idea. Nobody from that era is still alive, and all the history’s been lost, don’t you know? Not even Central seems to have any information on it.”
“I see.” James assumed Vos meant the castle and central governing system of the land when he said Central, in which case he could directly corroborate his speculation to be true. “What do people know about them then? They think they’re just metal shapeshifters walking around or what?”
“They’re aliens, obviously. Kinda like you,” Vos said with a smile. James waited for him to continue.
“Some people say they’re like liquid metal that can take the form of man. There’s been a bunch of fanatics who have claimed to been under their possession before, but a few of the more scholarly-types have apparently found samples of them across the land. That’s where the rumors about them being among us come from. But more than that is the catch that they can only assimilate you through direct organic contact. Apparently they’re metal, but can’t absorb other metal or non-organic material.”
“Sounds far-fetched,” James sniffed as he gingerly took another sip of his drink.
“Just keep your armor on and you’ll be fine.” Vos suddenly grinned at him. “So it’s getting late, wanna find an inn for the night?”
“I guess, I don’t really have anywhere else,” James replied. He wasn’t about to ride back to his castle every night for sleep.
“Great. Say, if you’re just going to be going around Negantia looking for your ‘other world’ why don’t we travel together? I’m a bit of a drifter myself, and since you seem to be new to these parts I can help you out along your way. What do you say?”
“Sure, that’s fine.” James was amused by how eager the man seemed to be for a companion. Despite coming under attack from him just earlier that day, James found that he trusted him. He must’ve been traveling alone aimlessly for far too long.
The two men gathered their gear and stepped out of the tavern into the silent night outside. Rain began to fall lightly from the pitch-black skies. A single silver droplet landed discreetly on Vos Speculo’s shoulder armor, metallic and artificial where all the other raindrops were pure and clear.
James dispatched the last Bëlua by ramming his sword into its gut and watched as the creature stumbled back, coughing blood after he had kicked it off his blade. The lands between each settlement in the kingdom were untamed and filled with monsters that the locals had named “Bëluas.” They had no uniform characteristics, other than being incurably feral and foolishly hostile upon each encounter. He had gone through at least a dozen of those beasts in the last week.
“You have to train me sometime,” a voice from a few feet off called. James turned toward the sound.
Vos strolled up, wiping the blood and grime off his blade with an old rag. “I’ve been fighting my whole life and still can’t figure out how you do it. I’ve only seen warriors trained by the royal family fight the way you do.”
“I wish I could tell you, but I’m just as mystified,” James replied. “I told you I don’t think when I fight. It almost feels like someone else is guiding my body, I’m hardly aware of what’s going on.”
“A true instinct fighter, eh? Lucky.” Vos sheathed his blade at his waist. They had been traveling for almost two weeks together, riding town to town and pitching camp wherever they could. James was still on the lookout for answers, though he had grown somewhat complacent recently. He didn’t dislike this lifestyle; sometimes he felt as though he had always been here. A feeling like thorns in his side always prodded him though, reminding him that he simply couldn’t stay for the long run. Vos, however, clearly just wanted to have fun and adventure to his heart’s content. When James asked him what he was out for, the man had replied, “Honor and glory in battle.”
“Say,” Vos muttered, half to himself. “Would you mind taking a small detour before our next town stop? There’s a cavern nearby that I’ve been meaning to check out for a while.”
“A cavern?” James sounded incredulous. “Where, how far?”
“Just over there,” Vos pointed over a small hill. “There have been a million rumors going around about it being some mysterious cave with a maze and hidden treasure. Figure it’d be worth checking out real quick, if you don’t mind.”
“If there’s a rumor,” James said, “You’ll pursue it won’t you? Don’t you ever try taking these things you hear with a grain of salt?”
Vos looked confused. “Salt?
“It’s an idiom. Anyway, sure, just that way?”
“Yup. Follow me.” Vos nearly vaulted onto his horse and started off impossibly fast. James scrambled to do the same, starting off after his companion. In just a few minutes they reached a rock face with a gaping opening that looked like the maw of a beast straight out of mythological legend. The cave mouth was cut into the cliff side; only darkness seemed to lurk within.
“You never came to explore on your own, even though you knew where it was?” James asked.
Vos seemed to blush. “I never wanted to go in on my own.”
James had to stifle a chuckle.
“They say those who wander in alone never return! Or that soldiers and knights who’ve taken shelter in there have their bodies devoured and their armor worn by monsters!” he added quickly.
“Terrifying,” James remarked. The two men dismounted from their horses and pulled on their gauntlets and helms. James pulled an oil lantern from his pack and stood a few steps into the cave. “I’ll lead then, to make sure no monster knights come charging out at us.”
He noted the oil level in his lantern before they descended into darkness. It was still mostly full; it could probably light their way for several hours if need be, but he was sure they wouldn’t be down there for that long. He could hear the soft clinking of Vos’ armor as his comrade walked close. It amused James that he appeared so frightened and on edge in the dark, even with the lantern lighting the way.
The cavern turned out to be a wide and long tunnel that seemed to descend deep into the earth. The walls were too smooth to be natural; James was sure it was a man-made passageway they were traversing. It didn’t appear to be a mine though, unless it had been stripped clear already. He didn’t see the telltale glow of minerals lining the walls, though if it really were a stripped mine it meant it could be structurally compromised. He didn’t particularly feel like dying buried alive tonight.
Maybe someone really did leave a treasure at the end of this thing for the bountiful of courage, James thought to himself. As the two men continued on in silence, he noted that the tunnel seemed to be growing narrower with each step. Vos spoke up first.
“James…aren’t you feeling a bit claustrophobic?”
James didn’t break stride. “Come on, Vos. How do you expect to reach that great treasure if you can’t even handle walking down a narrow strip of tunnel? Unless you really want to turn back now, we can.”
“No, I’m fine…” Vos sounded meek.
James stopped abruptly. His companion nearly bumped into him from behind. The tunnel had narrowed to the point where they could only walk single-file, so Vos had to poke his helmed head over James’ shoulder to see around. “What’s wrong, did we hit a wall?”
The single narrow rock passage suddenly opened up into a small circular clearing, with two different branching passages. They edged slowly toward the center of the clearing. There was barely enough space for the two men to stand shoulder to shoulder next to each other.
“Should we split up?” James asked half-jokingly.
“Well we are pretty deep in the earth right now right? We should probably stay together in case one of us gets into trouble or gets lost, y’know?” Vos replied.
“Of course.” James took a moment to play a quick game of eeny, meeny, miny, moe in his head and settled on the left tunnel. He started toward it, with Vos voicing no objections to his arbitrary decision-making.
As they trod through the new passageway in silence, James found himself lost in his own thoughts.
I need to get back. I could get used to living in this world, I really could. But I shouldn’t. I can’t. I know I was something before this. There’s something I need to do when I get back. I’m too lost here, it feels like I’m just wasting so much time…
He suddenly caught himself. It had grown too quiet in the tunnel. He only heard the clink of his own armor as he moved. Where was Vos –
James turned in the narrow space and shined the lantern behind him. His friend was gone.
“Vos?” He called. “Hey, where’d you go?”
Silence answered him.
James started walking briskly back toward the way they came, calling out for his companion all the while. “Vos! Come on, if you’re hiding this isn’t funny.”
He hadn’t reached the diverging tunnel hub from earlier before his lantern suddenly flickered and gave out. James froze in his tracks. He had made a point of checking the oil levels before entering the cavern, there was no way he could’ve run out of fuel now.
He whirled about in the narrow confines of the underground passage, suddenly at a complete loss for direction.
Crap, how the hell could this happen –
Suddenly in a panic, he began to run. He wasn’t sure which direction he was headed, but all he hoped for was a light source that he could reach eventually if he kept moving. As he sped down the tunnel, James suddenly tripped over what felt like a massive lump. The thing moved as he nearly fell over it, and he heard the familiar clink of armor plates that had been missing all this time.
Vos! It must be him!
James bent down next to the thing in the darkness and said softly, “Vos? Is that you? It’s me, James. What happened to you?”
No answer. James reached forward with his arm and touched what felt like chest armor. A gauntleted hand suddenly reached out and clasped his.
He must be too scared or shocked to speak, James reasoned to himself. He pulled the arm up and felt the body rise to stand next to his. He could hear the comforting sound of another suit of armor in the tunnel again.
“Alright, let’s get out of here,” James said quickly. He held onto his friend’s hand as they ran through the darkness. After what felt like an eternity he finally saw a faint glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.
“We’re almost there!” James called back. Vos still hadn’t spoken a word. James couldn’t even hear the sound of the man breathing as he ran, but he could still feel the weight of his comrade as he practically dragged them towards the inviting luminescence.
James burst out of the pitch-black passage as though he were running a marathon and could settle for nothing less than first place. As he spared a moment to catch his breath, he heard a voice call out in front of him.
“James! Where have you been?! When did you get lost in there?!”
It was Vos’ voice. He looked up to see his friend walking towards him, their horses restless in the background. But then –
As James whirled around, the hand he held in his grip suddenly slipped away. He didn’t see anyone behind him; only the pitch-black entrance to the underground tunnel he had just burst out of stared back.
“James? Hey, what’s the matter with you?” Vos’ voice rang with a mixture of annoyance and concern.
What the hell was that. James had his eyes affixed to the cave entrance. He could see nothing but shadows within; there were no signs of anyone else around them. He felt a deadly cold shiver run up his spine. He peeled off his helm turned quickly to his companion.
“What happened to you? When did you get out of the tunnels?”
“Me?!” Vos cried. “You disappeared after we went into the right tunnel at the fork! It led right out here and the moment I looked back, you were gone!”
James felt his body freeze. “Vos…we went left at the fork. And I was leading, with the lantern.”
Vos tilted his head, confused. “No, I’m pretty sure we went right. I remember deciding on it and you didn’t say anything about it, so I went ahead!”
James felt his blood run cold. The sky was darkening as the sun receded behind the hillside. He took a moment to compose himself.
“Okay,” James said, voice nearly trembling. “It’s getting dark. How close is the next town?”
“We’d reach it by nightfall,” Vos replied. “But wait, tell me what happened back there, what did you see?”
“Nothing important,” James replied as he started packing his mount. He wasn’t in the right mind to try deducing what could’ve possibly happened back there. He much preferred to just forget about the experience. There was no way he was visiting any more dark scary holes in the earth with Vos again.
Vos looked perturbed, but didn’t continue prying. James finished tying his gear to his horse. “Let’s go, I’m in the mood for a drink.”
“Hey, do you see that?” James called back towards his companion.
The two men were nearing the town of Novissima on horseback. Night had fallen, which made the deathly orange glow that came from the village all the more alarming.
“What do you think happened?” Vos called out into the night.
“I’m willing to bet a wild gang of Bëlua. But that level of destruction is unprecedented,” James replied. They could see villagers pouring out in fear and panic as the ember flames grew stronger. James nearly leaped off his horse as they approached the village gates. Vos followed closely behind as the two men stood facing the tiny doomed town.
“I’ll go into the houses and buildings and clear out the stragglers. You guide them towards the exit and watch my back. Bëlua could still be prowling around,” James said quickly as he surveyed the situation. Vos nodded silently through his helm.
Both men ran headfirst into the village that was now little more than a crumbling inferno. James idly wondered if it was his position as these people’s king that made him rush headfirst into danger for them without thinking rationally.
Thankfully their homes are simple, he thought. There were maybe two buildings max in town that had more than one story; if he were to be doing this in a big city with floors upon floors of skyscrapers to clear he was sure he would’ve given up before even attempting to play the hero. He had burst into several structures already with no signs of life. Silently, he praised the townspeople for evacuating so quickly. He didn’t want to think about the alternative that the ones missing from their homes had possibly never made it to the gates.
As James kicked down a hard wooden door expecting to find yet another deserted dwelling among the blaze, he stopped short in his tracks and reached for his sword and shield on instinct.
A Bëlua stood within the home, one foot planted firmly on the lifeless body of a man with a small wooden sword still clutched in his grip.
Hell, I was right. James scanned the rest of the room but found no other casualties or signs of life. The Bëlua was a particularly vile breed – it looked like a skeleton with its muscles pulled on in nonhuman ways. He could see bones jutting out of its gray, pitted skin and what looked to be a knight’s armor – likely stolen off one such valiant warrior – from its abdomen down. It turned its grotesque face towards him, seeming to acknowledge its visitor for the first time. Its ears were sharp and elven, with three white dots where each eye socket should’ve been on a human. James found himself most chilled by the thing’s Glasgow grin – it looked as though its lower jaw had been pulled until its cheeks began to split, lending to what appeared to a permanent sneer cut into its already repulsive face.
The creature pulled its leg off the corpse it was standing on. It didn’t appear to be armed, which was unusual for a standard Bëlua. They usually had crude weapons in the forms of maces or machetes. James would’ve pegged this one for relying upon brute strength alone, but he had noticed the man’s body on the ground featured puncture wounds.
I have to be ready, he thought as he raised his shield in preparation for an attack. It might have daggers behind its back or something. Just then, a shrill, metallic hum pierced his ears.
It sounded like a thousand metal beads thrown with a whistle blow. The sound was unbearably high-pitched and almost other-worldly. James’ concentration lapsed for just a moment. It was all the Bëlua needed.
”What the hell?!” James screamed through his helm as the creature’s arm morphed into what looked like crystallized metal. It shot straight at James’ upraised shield, throwing him out of the weak building walls and out into the burning streets. He groaned, recovering quickly and getting to his feet before another attack. The Bëlua stepped through the wreckage, still resonating that otherworldly screech.
That was not normal. I don’t care how logic-defying this world is, I’ve never seen or even read about anything that crazy before. James watched the creature carefully, trying to block out the noise that cost him his earlier distraction. The thing spread both arms out, and he could only watch horrified as the limbs turned into sharp metal spikes. The humming noise kept getting stronger.
Wait. Is this –
He wasn’t allowed to finish the thought before the crystalline metal appendages came rushing at him. James parried one and ducked in time to slice off the other. The severed metal spike collapsed into a puddle of crystalline shards as it hit the ground. He had just enough time to note how they vibrated lightly with the frequency of the humming he kept hearing before they fell still. The Bëlua screeched as it retracted its still-intact appendage and started charging at James. He readied himself to bash the beast upside the head with his shield and run it through the chest with his blade, but was caught completely unawares when its neck suddenly turned to the same metallic metal, sending its head rushing towards him. A crystalline silver spike protruded from its open screeching mouth, nearly impaling James straight through his gut. He managed to throw himself out of the way just in time, though the sudden point had still managed to take a chink out of the armor at his side.
James didn’t know how to fight anymore. This creature was beyond anything he’d experienced in the last two weeks, and beyond anything he could ever imagine encountering. He always thought fighting would be a fairly straightforward affair – you had a weapon, your enemy had a weapon. Random extending limbs and morphing metal body parts wasn’t playing fair.
James broke into another charge at his enemy. He was ready for another sudden head-attack, but the creature opted to use its remaining arm as a spike instead. It clearly had a fondness for piercing. He readied his shield and bashed the extending metal limb aside, then leaped above his opponent, positioning his blade and performing a summersault over the creature’s head, slicing it clean in half. He turned to inspect his work after landing, fully expecting the thing to slump forward with a bisected cranium, but it did not. James felt a chill run up his spine as he saw nothing but the same metallic shards where blood and tissue should’ve been.
These must be those things, he thought frantically. Those aliens Vos was talking about. They assimilate organic matter; the original Bëlua is long dead.
The metal that hung off each end of the split head began to vibrate visibly, until James watched in horror as they entwined on each other and became whole again. There was a shrill grating sound as the Bëlua turned its neck back in place and shrieked at James again.
This is so not fair. I’m not playing anymore if these guys aren’t nerfed. He readied his weapons again, idly wondering what would happen to him if he died in this world. Maybe that was the only way back to his original time.
“James!” A voice came from the inferno that still burned around him. It was Vos. The man running towards him from a few houses down, but he could hear his voice carry, “I’ve combed most of the village, it looks like all the survivors made it out in time! This place is getting way too hot for my tastes, we have to get out of here – ”
“Vos, stay back!” James’ warning came too late. His comrade hadn’t seen the Bëlua through the flames yet. Before he could do anything else, it suddenly shattered into a silvery puddle of metallic shards. It moved across the burning terrain like water in a stream, faster than James could chase it for. It happened so fast that he could only watch as Vos’ shoulder suddenly burst with a dozen of the same metal creatures. The streaming pile of metal knew his armor had been compromised, and thus sent itself hurtling in droves at the man who probably barely knew what was happening to him.
“James?! What the hell is this – “
James ran forward, desperately hacking at the tail of the river of metal streaming into his friend’s body. He saw the man’s eyes flare with terror through his helm as he quickly realized what was assailing him.
“Help – “ His last words were cut off, suddenly replaced by that same shrill metallic hum he had heard before when he first encountered the Bëlua.
James couldn’t even muster the words to scream for his friend. He immediately flew into a blind rage, sword raised at the thing which now took the shape of one of his only companions he had in the new world. Vos’ body moved with a metallic crunch now, as though it were constantly wading through a sea of metal shards. A part of him knew that the Vos Speculo he knew was already dead, but another flame within held onto the hope that he could free his friend from the alien possession that took him.
James leaped for a strike down at his friend’s torso. The creature was ready though, and promptly smashed him aside with its shield. He caught himself in time before he went hurtling through another building, though as he struggled to regain his balance the assimilated creature was already on him. Vos’ body pummeled James against a half-burning stone wall before it kicked him through, landing him in the middle of another infernal street. The fire around them was growing stronger by the minute; he wasn’t sure how much longer he could stand and fight in amidst the flames and smoke.
The creature walked through the wall it had kicked him through and lifted the blade it carried for the finishing blow. Just as it came, James rolled aside and performed a bladed uppercut across his opponent’s back. He saw his friend’s original armor split open up the spine, but there nothing more than a silvery metallic sheen within. The thing seemed unfazed by the blow as it casually turned and kicked James across the helm, sending his body buckling as he hurled down the road again.
I’d be long dead without this armor, he thought as he rested among the rubble. Gotta hand it to Kallen, it really is the most advanced in the kingdom. He saw Vos striding toward him through the flames. James groaned and got to his feet. Vos had always admired his fighting skills, even if he didn’t know where they came from himself. He couldn’t disappoint his late friend by getting beaten down so easily now.
He fell into the familiar ready position with his sword and shield. Vos came charging up, blade glinting against the fire that surrounded them. James was fast enough to parry most of his opponent’s blows, but unexpectedly stumbled as he countered a shield bash. The creature still hummed the same metallic noise, but wasn’t using any of its metal-bending and flexing properties. It was fighting him as Vos would, with traditional swordplay. He was perplexed and constantly on guard in case it suddenly decided to revert its fighting style, but partially hopeful. He liked to think Vos was still alive somewhere inside, giving him one last one-on-one duel.
James managed to get a few cuts in occasionally, but it didn’t boost his morale to see the wounds immediately thread themselves back together. His own body was fatiguing under the pain from the beating he had taken so far.
Vos came in for an overhand swing. James raised his own blade in an attempt to parry the attack away, but underestimated the strength behind the blow. The two swords locked, with James struggling to push his opponent’s deadly edge away. He could feel the creature increasing its power as it felt James buckle. His boots slipped back on the gravel road, forcing him down to one knee while constantly struggling to push Vos’ blade back. He heard a distinct chink noise right in front of him.
James watched helplessly as his sword’s blade shattered at the fuller, metal bits flying apart in front of his helm. Vos’ sword came down hard and fast, ripping a gash from his right shoulder down through his torso. He had managed to reposition himself just as the attack fell so his head wasn’t split in two, but the slice through his body wasn’t shallow either. He felt his legs buckle as his body fell backwards. Scarlet poured from his chest, staining his armor and dying the pure silver crimson.
He struggled for breath as Vos stood over him, blade still dripping. James felt his grip on his broken sword loosen. He searched Vos’ helmed visage for any sign of his friend that could still be alive inside. Blackness from behind the cold metal stared back. The monster that wore his comrade’s form suddenly dropped its sword and shield. It kneeled beside James, as though to comfort him while his life bled out.
James heard another distinct shlink sound, as though the creature were rearranging its metal form once again. It pulled its arm back – now a thick metallic pike – and brought it into his view.
You better not miss my heart, you bastard.
He felt the chill of the cold metal running through his body. As darkness closed on his vision while he lay still on his back the last thing he saw was the broken and shattered moon, framed in the night sky by the flames that consumed the world around him.
James awoke with a deep gasp as his eyes suddenly flared open and his torso shot up. The first thing to register with his senses was how unbearably bright it was. He heard birdsong outside.
What the…what the hell…? He looked around. It seemed to be an ordinary apartment bedroom. There were two nightstands to either side of the bed and a single large wooden dresser in the corner with a body-length mirror on its doors. He was lying in a bed with all-white sheets and blankets. The brightness in the room probably came partially from what looked to be the morning sunshine shining off the too-white sheets.
Where am I? What is this? He flung his legs off the side of the bed and sat up. Memories flashed through his mind. James cradled his head in his hands as visions of rain, dark nights, metallic monsters, fire, and pain assaulted his brain.
Were they…dreams? They felt too vivid to be dreams. He clutched his chest. There was still a dull ache there, as though it were a freshly healed wound. He felt as though he had just lived a thousand lives, with enough experience to make him wiser than the worldliest priest.
James set his bare feet on the hardwood bedroom floor and walked over to the dresser with the mirror. His breath caught in his throat as he stood staring into the reflective panel. The visage staring back at him wasn’t his. It wasn’t supposed to be his. James raised a hand to touch his cheek and run it through his hair. His features didn’t feel completely alien, though they were unmistakably new and fresh.
What the hell happened to me? In that moment, he had all but forgotten about the visions and memories from a moment ago. He found himself strangely satisfied with his new visage, and decided not to think any more of it.
This is me, he thought as he reached out and touched the image in the mirror. He turned toward the window – he didn’t know where he was or what he was doing before. He knew it was something important, and probably something deeply frightening and saddening. For a moment he tried reaching into his memory again to call up those recollections, but found that he couldn’t.
They’re gone, he thought idly. He thought he should’ve felt some remorse or sentiment for losing what he knew was supposed to be an important part of himself. He had a feeling that whatever he had forgotten was crucial to landing him where he was now. But strangely, he didn’t mind, nor did he try to push himself harder to remember. What mattered was what resulted from the pain, not the pain itself.
James folded his arms on the windowsill and leaned out, appreciative of the cool breeze outside. The crisp air he drank in felt fresh enough that he was convinced he had a new set of lungs.
This is my reset. I can start over now, he thought.
A sharp pain suddenly pierced the back of his head. James nearly doubled over in pain as he felt a small, soft voice carry a single thought through his head.
But even if you try to forget, just because something doesn’t last forever, doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth your while, right?