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We’d been at the dance for a few minutes when Zac dragged me onto the dance floor. He was forceful about it, almost too excited, but I did it for Robb. His friend wanted more friends, and I could sympathize with it. I only had Robb and Crystal, after all, and Zac wasn’t a bad person.  He was handsome, but I wasn’t attracted to him. He was too sure of himself, even worse than Robb’s cockiness. I could handle Robb. Barely, but I could—but I couldn’t handle Zac.  He was too domineering, and when he kissed me on the dance floor, I had enough. I pushed him away and stormed toward the doors without looking back. I didn’t need to deal with him any longer.  “Jess,” Crystal ran after me and latched on my arm. “What happened? I saw what Zac did—” “I just can’t, Crystal,” I said, brushing her off. I didn’t want Zac. I wanted—Shoman.  She spun me around, the decorative lights flickered over her face, neon and blinding. “Are you okay? I can talk to Zac if you want me to.” “No, no,” I said, waving her intensity away. “I’m okay. I’m just getting air.” I forced a smile. “I’ll be back.” She frowned. “Don’t be too long,” she said, and I nodded, leaving through the back doors.  The dance was in the cafeteria, so I walked across the concrete patio we ate at during lunch. The spring air was surprisingly muggy, but I didn’t care. I only wanted to get away.  My heels echoed over the thumping music, and I rushed toward the grass. I didn’t even want to remember what shoes I wore. I kicked them off and circled a group of teenagers lingering outside. They eyed me, but I passed them, heading straight for the only place I knew would be close enough to the dance but far enough for an escape.  I climbed the steep hill, and the wet grass tickled my ankles. The willow tree waved, as if welcoming me, and I sighed, rushing to the stump. I leaned my forehead against it and breathed.  My heart was racing. My body was hot. I wanted to cry.  I held my breath, dug my fingernails into the bark, and exhaled. I stopped shaking, and I opened my eyes, allowing the night to wash over my skin. If only I could transform.  I groaned and stared into the top of the tree. It fluttered, flickering to one side and then the other. The green leaves somehow retained their color in the darkness, and it swayed, swishing against other leaves. The tree, in the mist of the prom’s loud music, whispered. And I understood why Eric liked it so much.  It was serene, and it would be serene even after I died. I wouldn’t be alive, yet it would remain, and it would live.  “Jessica?” I knew that voice.  I turned around, and there he was—standing on the edge of hill. His brown hair waved like the tree, and his green eyes shimmered in the shadows. They were locked on me, but I couldn’t look away. He was dressed up, wearing long, black pants and a pressed shirt. A black coat hung over his shoulder, and a black tie hung loosely around his neck. For once, his headphones weren’t on, but I’d recognized him immediately.  “What are you doing here?” I asked, and Eric stepped forward, rubbing his chin.  “Are you okay?” he asked, and I threw my hands in the air.  His eyes widened, and I held my hands to prevent more gestures. “I’m sorry,” I said, cocking my head toward the dance. “It wasn’t going so great.” He lifted his hands and brushed the branches away as he stepped into the tree’s space. “Why not?” he asked, sitting down before he leaned his back against the tree. He was so calm.  I shrugged, sitting next to him. He leaned on his knees and looked at me. “Same boy problem?” he asked, referring to the last time I’d seen him in class. He hadn’t been there on Friday. “Maybe,” I said, wiggling my cold toes in the grass. “He isn’t here.”  “Why don’t you dance with someone else?” “I did,” I said, and Eric shifted. “But I don’t want to. Not anymore.” He nodded, but didn’t meet my eyes. “That’s understandable,” he said, rocking his head from side to side.

 

Shuumatsu nani shitemasu ka

“But you shouldn’t let him—or anyone else—ruin your night.” I fiddled with my dress. “I didn’t say he—they—ruined my night.” He smiled. “But you’re out here.” “You are, too.” This time, he chuckled and stood up. He stretched his arms over his head and breathed the night in. In seconds, he was staring at me again, but his smile had spread. “Come on, Jessica,” he said. “Get up.” He offered his hand, but I didn’t move. “What?” He rolled his green eyes, stepped forward, and grabbed my hand. Pulling me to my feet, he only bent down again to pick up my shoes. “We’re going to have fun tonight,” he said, dragging me downhill.  “What does that mean?” I asked, unable to comprehend what Eric Welborn was doing. We were walking back to the dance. “Wait, Eric. You cannot be serious.” He responded with a laugh and only stopped at the school door. “You might want to put those shoes back on,” he said. I pointed at the prom. “We are not going in there.” “What?” he asked, raising his brow. “You don’t want to be seen with me?”  “It’s not that—” “Then put on the shoes,” he said. “We, my homeroom partner, are going to dance.” My face flushed, and I turned my face away as I slipped my shoes back on. He wasn’t kidding. “Happy?” I asked, clicking them against the ground, and he nodded, opening the door.  “You are a difficult one, Jessica,” he said, and I rolled my eyes at him.  “Coming from you, that’s saying a lot.” “I know,” he said, taking my arm as the door shut behind us. Wind blew against my bare back, and I shivered, not knowing if it was from the breeze or his touch.  He placed his hand on the curve of my spine and steered me through the flickering neon lights. I closed my eyes and breathed, and then I was against his chest, and the music changed. The thumping beat from before mellowed, and Eric leaned down to whisper, “Relax, it’s just you and me.”  I swallowed my nerves and placed my hand on his chest. He swayed to the right and then to the left. I followed his lead and breathed again. I expected my hands to shake, but they didn’t. I was calm, and Eric was, too. For the first time all night, everything felt right—like the magnificent moment I’d hoped for. But it was with Eric.  He twirled me around, and my black dress flowed around my knees, swishing against his slacks when I stopped. His hand returned to my back, and my head rested on his shoulder. I hadn’t realized how much taller he was than me until now, and I was in heels. “Jessica?” His voice vibrated through my cheek. “Are you all right?” I nodded, hoping he wasn’t watching my expression. Even I could feel my smile crumble from my face. As much as I was happy with Eric, Shoman lingered. I liked him, and I still felt like I was betraying him. But hadn’t Shoman betrayed me?  Shoman wouldn’t ruin my night.  “What’s wrong?” Eric asked, slowing down, and I glanced around the dance floor.  A few couples, if not all of them, turned away as I met their gazes. They had been watching. “Is it just me or is everyone staring?” I asked, and Eric chuckled.  “They are.” “Why?” “Why do you think?” he asked, and I knew my question was already answered. Eric wasn’t exactly the type to come to school, let alone dance with another student. Seeing us dance was probably the biggest event that happened since the prom king and queen were crowned.  “This is nice,” Eric said, changing the subject, and I nodded. Thud-thump. Thud-thump. Thud-thump. My ears filled with a heartbeat unlike my own, yet my ear wasn’t pressed to Eric’s chest. It sounded so familiar—so calming and strong. I only wanted to hear it, not the music or the whispers around us.  “I’m glad I came,” I said, and I arched my neck to meet his eyes. “You weren’t going to, I’m guessing.” He chuckled. “Of course not.” I smiled. “I’m glad you came, too.” He returned my smile, but the corners twitched. “You don’t mind dancing with me with that other boy on your mind?”

Kono subarashii sekai ni shukufuku

My fingers tightened on his jacket. “Of course not,” I said, surprised by the truth. I was having fun, and it didn’t matter that Shoman existed. He wasn’t here, and Eric was. And I liked them both.  I lowered my face, hiding my blush, and forced my feelings into my gut. My stomach twisted.  “Not even a little bit?” Eric asked, and I giggled.  “Maybe a little,” I said, gesturing to the stares around us.  He laughed, too. “Understandable,” he said, placing his hands on my hips. We swayed to the music, but it felt like we were draped in a silence I didn’t want to break. But I had to. The question was lingering, and it had been since I found out, but only now could I feel it control my lips.  “Did you love her?” I asked, and his shoulders tensed.  “Hannah?” he asked, and I nodded, knowing the girl who’d been killed two years ago was his girlfriend, and, apparently, his reason for being antisocial. But he’d broken through that with me, hadn’t he? I wanted to know. He sighed, but he didn’t speak, and I opened my mouth, “I didn’t mean to offend you—” “You didn’t,” he said, shrugging his rigid shoulders. He was trying to relax. “You’re honestly the first person to ask, and I respect that,” he paused, and we turned in a circle before he continued, “I suppose I did.” My eyes shot to the floor as if my heart had fallen there. Why was I so saddened by his honesty? I couldn’t explain it, but I didn’t want him to love her—the girl he’d dated all those years back—but his feelings weren’t mine to decide. Eric’s hand moved away from my hip and met my chin. He lifted my face, and his green eyes lit up in the darkness. “Not in the way you think,” he said, and his eyes flickered over mine. “I loved her, because she was the only person who understood who I was. I loved her like a best friend, not a girlfriend.” He held his breath, and his chest rose beneath my hand. “I know that now.” I couldn’t speak. Instead, I bit my quavering lip and laid my head on his shoulder. We remained like that, barely moving, and finished the mellow song in silence. When the song ended, Eric didn’t move away, and I didn’t want him to. I didn’t want the dance to end.  He buried his face into my neck as we came to a stop on the dance floor. “You look so beautiful tonight, Jessica,” he whispered into my hair, and his grip tightened before he let me go. His body heat disappeared, and chills covered my skin.  He stepped back, and I froze. Shoman managed to break through the moment and slice his words in half. Shoman’s warmth, touch, smell, and words. Everything was flooding back to the instant when he left, and I couldn’t force the memory away, even though I was looking at Eric.  “I wish I could stay longer,” he said, shoving his hands in his pockets. “But I can’t.” He smiled, but his normally keen eyes were fogged over. He wasn’t here any more than I was. “Have a good night, Jessica,” he said, and, without another word, he walked past me.  He kept his head down, and his brown, shaggy hair covered his face. As he walked away, the entire dance floor followed his movements, watching him until he was out the doors. Then I felt their gazes on me.  I shivered, lingering in the last moment I’d seen Eric’s back, lit up beneath the golden lights as he opened the doors leading outside. I pretended he was still there, I wished he’d come back, and I wanted to believe he hadn’t left.  I felt as if I’d lost Shoman twice.  “Oh my God!” Crystal’s voice shattered my thoughts as she grasped my arm. She was by my side, but I couldn’t look at her. She pulled me off the dance floor, but her voice drifted past me until we reached our table. “Why—what—I don’t even know where to begin.” “How about how Welborn was dancing with her?” Robb suggested, kicking back his chair as he crossed his arms.  Crystal waved her hand at him as if she could swat him away. “What was that about, Jess?” she asked, but I could only focus on Robb’s darkened gaze.  “I didn’t know Welborn and you had a thing going on,” he said, and I shook my head.  “We don’t,” I said, but my entire body was hot. Did that really just happen? “Ooo,” Crystal whistled. “Defensive.” “We—” I tried to speak, but I could barely control my lips. “We don’t,” I repeated, but every piece of me was vibrating with nerves. Why was I feeling this way? “You look sick,” Robb said, but his voice sounded as if it was spoken through thick glass, foggy and contorted. I had to grip the table from falling over. “Jess?” Robb touched my shoulder, and his brown eyes were warm again. “Are you okay?” I breathed, nodding, but I didn’t have to speak. Linda ran up behind Robb and wrapped her arms around his torso. “We should ditch this dance,” she said, but Robb didn’t look away.  “Where’s Zac?” he asked, and Linda groaned.  “He just left,” she said. “He was upset about—” She stopped, and I looked up to meet her glare. She smiled and tapped Robb’s shoulders. “We’ll talk in the car. Let’s go find him.” “Okay,” Robb said, finally turning to his date. He grabbed her hand and turned toward Crystal. “Sorry, guys, but I think I should go. Can you get rides?” Crystal nodded. “Just find Zac.” “Thanks,” he said, and then they were gone, but I barely felt them leave.  Eric. His touch. It was familiar. And the way he’d spoken was too. Teresa—a girl who wasn’t related to Eric—drove him around and watched him. Like a guard would. And Hannah had died. Like Shoman’s friend had.  It couldn’t be.  “Jess?” Crystal sat in a chair, but she leaned over, trying to catch my eyes. “Are you okay?”  “I have to go,” I said, not even bothering to pick up my clutch as I turned around.  “What?” Crystal tried to follow me, but I stopped, turning her back around.  “I’m fine,” I promised. “But I have to go,” I said. “Don’t wait for me.”  My shout echoed behind me as I ran through the dance floor and out the doors—allowing the night to guide me toward the only boy I never thought I’d see again.

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“Rise and shine!” The shrill cackle awoke Reena from her unconscious state. “Huh?” she groaned, forcing her heavy eyelids open. The first thing she saw made her cringe—a wrinkled visage contorted with maniacal amusement. “We’re already behind schedule,” the man with scraggly white hair and crooked, yellowing teeth declared. “Wh-where am I?” Reena groaned, trying to shake the grogginess away. Only then did she realize that they were still underground, in some catacomb tucked away from the main tunnels where she had previously ventured. She glanced at the man, who furiously worked away at a computer console, then to the bizarre machinery set up around the area, until finally spotting Madison and Rackham—both locked in what appeared to be rectangular boxes made of glass. “Madison!” “You okay, rookie?” the silver haired officer asked. “I’m fine, just a little—” Reena’s eyebrows shot up. She wasn’t fine! Still coming to her senses and fighting through the mental haze, Reena discovered that she was sitting down, her wrists and ankles strapped to some makeshift chair. Like Madison, she too was trapped in a glass confinement, but larger than the others. The floor beneath her appeared to be made of metal grates, while something that looked like a large speaker hung overhead. “Uh, what’s going on?” “We found Melchor,” Madison replied, disgust in her voice. Kumo desu ga nani ka


 “Whatever you do, rookie—don’t scream.” “S-scream?” Reena stuttered. “His machine’s activated by vocalized frequency,” Rackham added. “And he needs yours to power the Resonator.” “None of this makes any sense!” Reena shook her head, confused. “Frequency? Resonator? What machine?” She craned her neck in the direction of the towering metal monolith nearby. “That machine?” “Those earthquakes—” Madison nodded, “—that was the cause.” “Enough chatter!” Melchor struck one last button on the keyboard before offering Reena an insidious smile. “You’re a very fortunate young lady. So very few get to make history—it should be considered an honor. All I need is one beautiful shriek—just one, and Pallad City will finally have gained the title it so richly deserves—the largest mass gravesite on the planet!” “If you think I’ll ever help you, mister,” Reena snapped, “you’ve got another thing coming.” “Fortunately,” Melchor grinned, “your willing compliance is less than required.” His fingers sprang to life, pounding a series of buttons on the keyboard. “I sorely lack the time or patience to extract a myriad of vocalizations from you.” Melchor gestured to the glass containment surrounding Reena. “But, with the aid of this repurposed chamber, I should have no trouble obtaining what I need.” “What’s this…chamber…going to do?” Reena asked, trying not to let her nervousness show. “The acoustic amplifier above you will emit an infrasonic resonance,” Melchor tapped a final button on the keyboard, snapping his finger back in an almost playful manner. “Its long term effects are harmless, but the correct output will certainly cause you to be more accommodating—though they may lead to some unpleasant momentary sensations…” Melchor’s twisted smile forced his chapped lips to curl. “Acoustic amplifier initiated,” the computer said. Reena shivered from a strange prickling on her skin, followed by a gentle heat emanating from the speaker above her. She struggled against the chair’s restraints, but it accomplished nothing. The heat intensified with each passing second, combining with a slight, barely audible hum. “Can you hear that?” Melchor asked. “It’s quite surprising what sound can do to the human body.” The noise grew louder and Reena could almost feel her body vibrating. She felt an odd sensation building in the hold of her chest and the roots of her teeth. 
She had never experienced anything like it before. It wasn’t pain, but a peculiar discomfort that increased with every passing second. Reena’s fingers and toes twitched first, but the spasms quickly worked their way through her body, attacking the muscles in her legs, arms and back. Her breathing intensified and, panting, she let out a slight gasp. “Resonance match at 13%,” the computer said with its detached, monotone voice. A look of frustration consumed Melchor as he pounded on the keyboard, increasing the infrasonic amplification. “Not nearly enough—we need more!” Reena tried to stifle any further cries, but she wasn’t sure how much longer she could take the effects of Melchor’s machine. A stronger blast of heat consumed her, causing sweat to trickle down her forehead. Her uniform was soaked with perspiration, which glistened down her back, arms and thighs. The vibrating continued, causing Reena’s jaw to tremble and her eyes to vibrate in unison, blurring her vision. The discomfort grew and her stomach swirled. Her only frame of reference for the bizarre sensations she was experiencing was like being on some twisted amusement park ride, repeatedly spun around until the point of nausea. “Ahhh…” “Resonance match at 21%.” “That’s it…” Melchor clapped his hands together like a giddy child. “Let’s have more!” “Aaahhh…” Reena gagged. The entire world was spinning and an intense pressure was welling up inside her head. “Resonance match at 54%.” Shit, Madison cursed to herself. Just feet in front of her glass prison, resting on a table cluttered with scrap metal and electronic parts, was her Halvok 99. If only there was some way out, her mind raced. She spotted the U3 in the far corner, nestled against unused machinery, its limbs coiled around itself while the creature’s red eye glowed in the dim lighting. The unit looked like it was conserving power, possibly having entered some form of sleep mode. If there was any time to escape, it was now. “Resonance match at 67%,” the computer said, seconds after Reena let out another short yelp. Madison activated the holographic projection display on her I.DAC. It still hadn’t found the proper encryption code to unlock the chamber. She had no choice left. Damn risky, she thought to herself, removing the I.DAC from her wrist. If this failed she’d be out of options, but it was a gambit she needed to take. She clicked a button on the communicator, activating its magnetic coating, and stuck the device against the glass door’s metallic locking mechanism. She pressed the button again, initiating a hidden feature on the I.DAC. The device let out a soft beep while a red light blinked on the wristlet’s surface. She had triggered the I.DAC’s ultimate failsafe, designed if an officer needed to prevent their communicator from falling into a criminal’s possession. After all, the I.DAC did link directly to Pallad City’s centralized GeoCore database. In the wrong hands, that information could prove extremely dangerous. “Aaaaah!” Reena howled. “Resonance match at 74%, 82%, 88%...” “Now or never,” Madison said under her breath and stepped away from her I.DAC, still magnetically affixed to the digital lock. She backed up as far as she was able, despite the restricted space in the cell. Her undivided attention was affixed on the device. She began counting to herself. 10, 9, 8… “Resonance match at 92%.” …7, 6, 5… “Resonance match at 94%.” …4, 3, 2… Madison shielded her eyes as the I.DAC exploded. The detonation wasn’t large, but precise enough that it succeeded in blasting a hole directly through the lock. She looked at the result—it had worked just as she planned. There was no way she would have been able to shatter the heavy duty glass, but the lock was unprotected—the only observable weak spot. She kicked the door and it swung open. From the corner of her eye she could see Rackham watching, his mouth hung open in surprise. Reena was oblivious to her partner’s success, her body thrown into spasms by the infrasonic onslaught. She tried her best to hold it in, but couldn’t any longer. “Aaaagggghh!” “Resonance match complete.” “Now!” Melchor shouted, nearly leaping into the air. He pressed a red button on the keyboard and an array of lights on the Harmonic Resonator began to glow. The ground shook with violent unease. Sovereign of the three realms
Madison charged out of her glass prison, snatched her Halvok off the nearby table and fired a torrent of bullets into the Resonator. The lights adorning the machine flickered, sparks lancing through the air. “M-Madison!” Reena perked up, still besieged by the infrasound. “You fool!” Melchor spun around, seething with rage. “What have you done?!” “Resonance match…” the computer sputtered out as the tremors subsided, “…lost.” Visible crackles of blue electricity discharged from the Resonator, striking nearby machines and setting them ablaze. “Overload imminent,” the computer’s last words were distorted by a screech of static feedback. Madison fired a bullet into the digital lock on Rackham’s cell, releasing the doctor. She redirected her aim at the acoustic amplifier hanging over Reena and squeezed the Halvok’s trigger. The bullet shattered the glass confining her partner and struck the speaker. Devastated pieces of the amplifier rained down harmlessly around Reena. She took in a sigh of relief as the infrasonic attack came to an abrupt stop. “U3!” Melchor ordered. “Kill them all!” At the sound of the doctor’s panicked voice, the U3 reactivated, rising upon its tentacled appendages. But, before it could advance, another charge of electricity shot forth from the Harmonic Resonator and struck the nearest machine. It exploded in a furious cyclone of smoke, flame, and metal, throwing the U3 to the ground as a blistering chain reaction consumed more equipment. The explosive force shook the tunnel and a segment of the roof caved in. Rubble smashed down onto the U3, demolishing its scarlet  cyclopean eye. Only its flailing tentacles could be seen for a brief moment before a dust cloud pushed its way across the immediate area. “No—this can’t be happening!” Melchor cried. “I was so close!” He dashed into the direction of the overloading Resonator. “Melchor!” Rackham yelled. “Don’t do it, you’ll be—” It was too late. The Resonator vanished in a brilliant white light, taking Melchor with it. Pieces of smoking metal flew through the air and crashed into the nearby walls. A deafening boom resounded through the tunnel. More of the ceiling began caving in. Madison undid Reena’s restraints and helped her unsteady partner to her feet. “You okay?” “Y-yeah,” Reena nodded. “Just a little shaky, but I’ll be all right.” “Melchor’s gone—no one could have survived that,” Rackham confirmed, staggering over to the officers.   Madison glanced over to the fiery blaze where the Harmonic Resonator had previously stood. She was convinced Rackham was right—Melchor wouldn’t be faking his demise this time. “Let’s get out of here before this whole place comes down.” *** Reena leaned back against her locker and let out a sigh of relief. She was glad to be back at headquarters, despite still being stuck in her tattered, dirt encrusted uniform. She couldn’t wait to get home and take a much deserved shower. “Here,” a familiar voice called out. Before Reena could turn her head, a blur of folded clothes flew through the air, hitting her in the chest. “New uniform,” Madison said dryly. “Can’t come in tomorrow with the rags you’re wearing now.” “Thanks!” Reena nodded, offering her partner a smile. Madison turned for the exit but stopped just short of the door, not bothering to look back at her partner. “By the way,” she said, hesitating to get the words out, “you did well today.” Reena’s smile grew. “Oh?” “But following after Rackham and me, that was pretty reckless…” She craned her neck around to make eye contact. “Any other officer would have waited for backup.” “You wouldn’t have,” Reena replied playfully. “You’d have done the exact same thing.” There was a long silence, and then Madison finally spoke. “You’re probably right.” Reena stood in awe. She could swear that, from the corner of Madison’s mouth, the slightest outline of what appeared to be a smile had formed. It was too fleeting to be absolutely certain, but she’d swear the resident ice queen of the PCPD had almost broken her frosty façade. “Anyway,” Madison continued, exiting the locker room, “I’ll see you tomorrow.

Reena slumped back against her locker. Despite all the insanity of the day, including crazed scientists, earthquake-creating machines, and tentacled monstrosities, she wagered that what she had just witnessed might have been the most unbelievable of all…

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When the initial stupor had passed, I grabbed Eric’s sleeve and dragged him away from the main road. I dropped my bag on the ground and squatted, rummaging through its capacious inventory. Eric shifted his feet nearby, clueless as to what was causing the delay. Finally I found what I was looking for. I looked up at Eric and handed him one of the two vials containing Red Bear’s blood. “Take it. It’s yours now. Just a trinket to celebrate my success.” Unsure, Eric reached out and squinted at the vial, moving his lips, as he read the item's ID. Then he jerked his hand away. “Any idea how much this costs? Judging by your newb kit, it’s not as if you shit gold.” “I’ve got two gold, to be precise. The rest I had to splurge on takeaways. Jail food nearly killed my palate.” “You could sell the vial for a couple grand. Three, even. In gold.” I could see he was dying to accept the gift but his honesty was getting the better of him.

Hakushaku to yousei

My inner greedy pig, who had only a moment ago been hopping up and down celebrating my freedom and the unexpected financial windfall, squeaked and dropped senseless with shock. That was serious money. Had I known it, I’d have thought twice before giving the vial away. But claiming it back would mean a total loss of face. Besides, I liked this honest, cheerful and straightforward tower of a grunt. I grinned, “Oh, whatever. You only live once. Take it. I'll distract my inner greedy pig before he throws a fit.” Eric managed a shy smile and accepted the vial. “I’ll be damned, dude. You won’t believe how much time I’ve spent chasing after him. The bear is one hell of a mount. I'll do some work on him and he'll be slaying dragons. I owe you. Don't say anything. You're a Necro, aren't you? We'll have to check the bank. I'm sure they have something for you." "I'm actually a Death Knight," I corrected, pointing his sense of gratitude in the right direction. "I specialize in pet summoning." Overjoyed, Eric slammed my shoulder. My health bar quivered. A few guards exchanged worried looks as they passed by, tightening their grip on the weapons. “Quiet, you ox. People have been killed with a lighter touch,” I rubbed my aching shoulder. He just grinned nonsensically, pressing the vial to his chest. “Come along, then. I’ll take you to the bank, pick up the heart, then I'll go pay the alchemist a visit. My guys will freak out when they see me coming on the bear's back." "Hold your horses, will you? I'm coming along. I want me a bear, too." "Do you? Have you got another bear kit?" I gave him a wink. Eric was brimming with emotion. "Dude, you're awesome. Shame I can't refer you to our clan. You need to have combat experience to join. You haven't been in action, have you?" "I did service, sure," I hurried to explain. "Air defense. Shoot'em down, sort'em out on the ground. But I wasn't in action, no. Probably for the better." Eric nodded. "Most likely. But if we decide to start a nursery, I'll give you a reference and an invitation. You'll be a standby guy. Think you'll join?" I shrugged. "We'll see. Thanks, anyway." In the bank, everything went hunky dory. As a perma player, I was eligible for a low-rate bank account, providing my digitized status was confirmed by another perma with a solid track record. Eric fit the role fine. Among other freebies, they gave me a thirty days free texting number. All the messages arriving at the number were forwarded to my inbox. I could also use it for sending outgoing messages, but I couldn't do it myself, only through an operator. The plan was so good I signed up for automatic renewal: retaining contact with the outer world was worth the fifty gold it cost me. I tested it on the spot, sending my Mom a quick and rambling message reproaching her for sending me too much money too soon, then thanking her all the same. Then I slapped my forehead and sent her another one in all-caps: MOM! I WON'T DIE! I'VE MADE IT! YOU CAN TURN THE CAPSULE OFF NOW! I'M IN PERMA MODE!!! I felt a bit uneasy typing the last sentence, but I'd been convinced by both Eric and my failure to log out. I thought about their Internet services. It wasn't real Internet, of course—more like a paid database for perma players. You sent your search request to the operator who looked it up and sent you the most relevant search result. Twenty gold per request. A bit pricey for me at the moment, but it might come 

in handy at a later date. The Olders seemed to have made it big. They basically controlled the service market. Need someone to look after your grave in the real world? Or a lawyer to take care of your offline property? Hire a nanny or a house help for your surviving family, buy whatever you fancied, check on your wife to make sure she hadn't stranded in your absence—easy. So, for a nominal sum, you could subscribe to two news feeds: one that covered the virtual and the other the real world. The moment I heard about them, I had them both hooked up to my account. I also ordered a couple of books and subscribed to new offers from some of my favorite authors. I was shaking in anticipation of the moment when I hit my bed in the Three Little Pigs, pressing the full screen button and opening the latest bestseller sequel. Finally, they offered me a choice of ID rings for instant account access. Every ring was personal, bound on equip, with various extras to choose from. "This is our local handwork," the clerk's voice rang with pride as he handed me the silver ring with a +5 Strength modifier. Regular players received a plain copper ring with no extras. Only permas were eligible for silver ones. I tried not to think who you had to be to get a gold one. Eric didn't wear his ring in public. Either he belonged to that choice category, or simply didn't want to publicize his perma status. Problems were waiting at the bank's exit. I was still studying my new ring and only stopped when my head rammed a chainmail shirt. I raised my head. Tavor, the greedy Elf, was squinting at me. I didn't like what I read in his face. During my five days in the slammer, he'd kept leveling and was now 37. He didn't waste his time, did he? Having said that, his money and items could buy him any level he wanted. Tavor grabbed my shoulder. "So, Drow savior? Fancy seeing you here. Mind following me to the arena? I've got something you might like... not." I tried to shake his hand off but couldn't. The difference in our strength parameters was quite amazing. I should probably invest more into strength: you never knew when a perma like myself might need it. Besides, Tavor wasn't alone. Three of his fellow clan members surrounded us and pushed us away from the bank doors. Their actions were quick and smooth—they must have done it a thousand times before. No idea how it all would have ended, had Eric not come out to join us. "Hey! What's going on here? Get your hands off him, quick." He rammed through their barrier and shoved the Forest Cats aside. Tavor gave him a moody look studying his level and the Veterans' clan badge. "Sorry, dude. I'm afraid it's none of your business. The kid owes me. You don't want to interfere." I struggled myself free. "I owe you nothing. You attacked me first. Then you fucked off and now you're the man? When you've got your hoods with you? Whassup, dude? Can't you manage it on your own?" Tavor spat at my feet ignoring my challenge. The ring around me drew tighter. Eric splayed his elbows, pushing my assailants aside. "He's my friend. Enough now. Are you fucking mad, settling your accounts in town? One drop of blood and the place will be crawling with guards. Give it a rest." Tavor squinted at us, weighing up his chances, then apparently decided not to push his luck. His glance happened upon my ring. "A perma, are we? Well, well, well. You know what? You're toast." He turned away and called out to his henchmen, "Come on, guys. He's not going anywhere." Eric stared after them. "You're good at making enemies, bud. What you really need is to join a clan. A strong one. Lone permas are in for a lot of trouble." "Problem?" "You could say so," he mumbled. "Just something people say about them. All of them, not just the Cats, you understand. Keep your eyes peeled now. Watch your back. Practice some invisibility spells. I also suggest you get Crystal Vision and keep it on you at all times. It'll allow you to see stealthers. Never create resurrection points in deserted areas: they might track you down and run you through your own personal hell, a death a minute for a week. They have special guys with unlimited PK counters who do just that. By unspoken agreement, permas are supposed to be immune from this kind of treatment, but... You know what I mean. Don't flash your ring in town. Your status is nobody's business. By the way, why didn't you just call the guards? While you're in town, no one can hurt you." "Yeah. Stupid of me."

Wortenia senki

"You've got to get savvy now. For you it's not a game anymore. Trust me, this place isn't as cute and cuddly as it may look." I nodded absent-mindedly. Then a thought crossed my mind. "Is it," I snapped my fingers, searching for the right word, "all this Wild West, is it really necessary? Even the Olders, what do they get out of this pissing contest with these thugs?" Eric walked and dragged me along, explaining as he went. "All these old-age citizens, all the crafters, bankers and pacifists—normally, they just don't want to go beyond level 10 so they can preserve their startup immunity. So not every noob is a newbie, if you know what I mean. Some of them take a different route. They pay to be power-leveled. After two months, they are level 200-plus and all done up in so much epic gear you'd need a raid party to get one up on them. I may be exaggerating a bit, but not much." We stopped by an affluent alchemy shop. Eric froze for a bit, checking the map. Then he pointed confidently, "This one. We'll go in together, I'll close the quest, you accept it right after me and close it, too." Once inside, I was instantly distracted by the shop's contents. Before, I just couldn't afford to use any of those potions so now I eagerly studied their choice and prices. They had some classics: life and mana elixirs which worked over a period of time, allowing you to use them in battle but not giving you any considerable leveling advantage. I picked up a Minor Health Potion. A tiny vial contained barely a mouthful of bright red liquid. It cost one gold piece. You squeezed it in your hand, and the stopper came out on its own. It started working thirty seconds after being swallowed, restoring up to 40 points health over a period of 10 ticks 5 seconds each, followed by a 3-minute cooldown during which you couldn't use it again. The idea was to minimize the time wasted on mana and hits regen while complicating protracted combat, allowing for easier soloing to those classes traditionally weak in solo leveling. Plus it helped relieve players of their money, no question about that. The shop also had all sorts of potions: various armor and attack speed buffs as well as those increasing strength, agility, intellect and crit probability. Plus Eye of a Cat, Fish Breath and Crystal Vision as well as tons of other things. Next to them stood a small collection of attack elixirs: poisons, acids and Molotov cocktails. Launching them was just like hurling gold at a target. An expensive exercise. Safely tucked behind the shop owner's back, a protective magic field glittered over a special display. I studied its contents and phewed. For five hundred gold, those little vials raised any basic characteristic 1 point. Cooldown: twenty-four hours. Max cap: 200 extra points. For two thousand gold, you could get yourself an extra Talent point. Cooldown: five days. Cap: fifty points. Oh well. Tough toys for tough boys, and prices to match. Then I heard a bear bellowing outside, followed by Eric's shrieks of delight. My heart shrunk and fluttered in my chest. Hummungus, sweet old Ted! I hurriedly approached the owner. "Is it true, Sir, that you're looking for some rare elixir ingredients?" The Elf owner, a picturesque type with bleak expressionless eyes, nodded gravely. "I am. I'm quite prepared to pay for any internal organs of rare beings." New quest alert! The alchemist shop owner spends a lot of time looking for new magic formulas. For that purpose, he eagerly buys body parts from monsters level 100 and beyond. Reward: Gold or Unknown Elixir. Pardon me? I did accept the quest, no question about that. But where's my Teddy? I felt a bit nervous. "Excuse me? Are you looking for something in particular?" The owner didn't play hard to get. "Sure. There are a few things I'd buy from you right now. Or if money isn't what you're after, I could offer a swap for the resulting monster." New quest alert! Bring the alchemist the heart and some blood of Red Bear, indigenous to the City of Light area. Reward: Money or a unique mount. Phew. Relieved, I dug into my bag for the quest objects. "I think I just happen to have what you're looking for." The alchemist, wonderfully impassive, only wished to know what kind of reward I preferred. For a brief moment, he disappeared into a side room. When he came out, he placed on the counter a bone whistle on a leather strap. Summoning Whistle. Binds when picked up. Summons a unique mount: Red Bear. I grabbed the precious object and brought it to my lips. The alchemist recoiled, shielding himself with his hands.

"Please don't! Not in my shop!" Oops. That was a bit stupid. I mumbled my thanks and rushed out. Once in the street, I gave the whistle an almighty blow. "WRRRGHRRRAAAAH!" "Hummungus!" Congratulations! This is your first riding mount. Would you like to rename Red Bear? Yes! A system window popped up displaying the mount's name. I deleted it and entered a new one: Hummungus!

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We’d been at the dance for a few minutes when Zac dragged me onto the dance floor. He was forceful about it, almost too excited, but I did it for Robb. His friend wanted more friends, and I could sympathize with it. I only had Robb and Crystal, after all, and Zac wasn’t a bad person.  He was handsome, but I wasn’t attracted to him. He was too sure of himself, even worse than Robb’s cockiness. I could handle Robb. Barely, but I could—but I couldn’t handle Zac.  He was too domineering, and when he kissed me on the dance floor, I had enough. I pushed him away and stormed toward the doors without looking back. I didn’t need to deal with him any longer.  “Jess,” Crystal ran after me and latched on my arm. “What happened? I saw what Zac did—” “I just can’t, Crystal,” I said, brushing her off. I didn’t want Zac. I wanted—Shoman.  She spun me around, the decorative lights flickered over her face, neon and blinding. “Are you okay? I can talk to Zac if you want me to.” “No, no,” I said, waving her intensity away. “I’m okay. I’m just getting air.” I forced a smile. “I’ll be back.” She frowned. “Don’t be too long,” she said, and I nodded, leaving through the back doors.  The dance was in the cafeteria, so I walked across the concrete patio we ate at during lunch. The spring air was surprisingly muggy, but I didn’t care. I only wanted to get away.  My heels echoed over the thumping music, and I rushed toward the grass. I didn’t even want to remember what shoes I wore. I kicked them off and circled a group of teenagers lingering outside. They eyed me, but I passed them, heading straight for the only place I knew would be close enough to the dance but far enough for an escape.  I climbed the steep hill, and the wet grass tickled my ankles. The willow tree waved, as if welcoming me, and I sighed, rushing to the stump. I leaned my forehead against it and breathed.  My heart was racing. My body was hot. I wanted to cry.  I held my breath, dug my fingernails into the bark, and exhaled. I stopped shaking, and I opened my eyes, allowing the night to wash over my skin. If only I could transform.  I groaned and stared into the top of the tree. It fluttered, flickering to one side and then the other. The green leaves somehow retained their color in the darkness, and it swayed, swishing against other leaves. The tree, in the mist of the prom’s loud music, whispered. And I understood why Eric liked it so much.  It was serene, and it would be serene even after I died. I wouldn’t be alive, yet it would remain, and it would live.  “Jessica?” I knew that voice.  I turned around, and there he was—standing on the edge of hill. His brown hair waved like the tree, and his green eyes shimmered in the shadows. They were locked on me, but I couldn’t look away. He was dressed up, wearing long, black pants and a pressed shirt. A black coat hung over his shoulder, and a black tie hung loosely around his neck. For once, his headphones weren’t on, but I’d recognized him immediately.  “What are you doing here?” I asked, and Eric stepped forward, rubbing his chin.  “Are you okay?” he asked, and I threw my hands in the air.  His eyes widened, and I held my hands to prevent more gestures. “I’m sorry,” I said, cocking my head toward the dance. “It wasn’t going so great.” He lifted his hands and brushed the branches away as he stepped into the tree’s space. “Why not?” he asked, sitting down before he leaned his back against the tree. He was so calm.  I shrugged, sitting next to him. He leaned on his knees and looked at me. “Same boy problem?” he asked, referring to the last time I’d seen him in class. He hadn’t been there on Friday. “Maybe,” I said, wiggling my cold toes in the grass. “He isn’t here.”  “Why don’t you dance with someone else?” “I did,” I said, and Eric shifted. “But I don’t want to. Not anymore.” He nodded, but didn’t meet my eyes. “That’s understandable,” he said, rocking his head from side to side.

 

Shuumatsu nani shitemasu ka

“But you shouldn’t let him—or anyone else—ruin your night.” I fiddled with my dress. “I didn’t say he—they—ruined my night.” He smiled. “But you’re out here.” “You are, too.” This time, he chuckled and stood up. He stretched his arms over his head and breathed the night in. In seconds, he was staring at me again, but his smile had spread. “Come on, Jessica,” he said. “Get up.” He offered his hand, but I didn’t move. “What?” He rolled his green eyes, stepped forward, and grabbed my hand. Pulling me to my feet, he only bent down again to pick up my shoes. “We’re going to have fun tonight,” he said, dragging me downhill.  “What does that mean?” I asked, unable to comprehend what Eric Welborn was doing. We were walking back to the dance. “Wait, Eric. You cannot be serious.” He responded with a laugh and only stopped at the school door. “You might want to put those shoes back on,” he said. I pointed at the prom. “We are not going in there.” “What?” he asked, raising his brow. “You don’t want to be seen with me?”  “It’s not that—” “Then put on the shoes,” he said. “We, my homeroom partner, are going to dance.” My face flushed, and I turned my face away as I slipped my shoes back on. He wasn’t kidding. “Happy?” I asked, clicking them against the ground, and he nodded, opening the door.  “You are a difficult one, Jessica,” he said, and I rolled my eyes at him.  “Coming from you, that’s saying a lot.” “I know,” he said, taking my arm as the door shut behind us. Wind blew against my bare back, and I shivered, not knowing if it was from the breeze or his touch.  He placed his hand on the curve of my spine and steered me through the flickering neon lights. I closed my eyes and breathed, and then I was against his chest, and the music changed. The thumping beat from before mellowed, and Eric leaned down to whisper, “Relax, it’s just you and me.”  I swallowed my nerves and placed my hand on his chest. He swayed to the right and then to the left. I followed his lead and breathed again. I expected my hands to shake, but they didn’t. I was calm, and Eric was, too. For the first time all night, everything felt right—like the magnificent moment I’d hoped for. But it was with Eric.  He twirled me around, and my black dress flowed around my knees, swishing against his slacks when I stopped. His hand returned to my back, and my head rested on his shoulder. I hadn’t realized how much taller he was than me until now, and I was in heels. “Jessica?” His voice vibrated through my cheek. “Are you all right?” I nodded, hoping he wasn’t watching my expression. Even I could feel my smile crumble from my face. As much as I was happy with Eric, Shoman lingered. I liked him, and I still felt like I was betraying him. But hadn’t Shoman betrayed me?  Shoman wouldn’t ruin my night.  “What’s wrong?” Eric asked, slowing down, and I glanced around the dance floor.  A few couples, if not all of them, turned away as I met their gazes. They had been watching. “Is it just me or is everyone staring?” I asked, and Eric chuckled.  “They are.” “Why?” “Why do you think?” he asked, and I knew my question was already answered. Eric wasn’t exactly the type to come to school, let alone dance with another student. Seeing us dance was probably the biggest event that happened since the prom king and queen were crowned.  “This is nice,” Eric said, changing the subject, and I nodded. Thud-thump. Thud-thump. Thud-thump. My ears filled with a heartbeat unlike my own, yet my ear wasn’t pressed to Eric’s chest. It sounded so familiar—so calming and strong. I only wanted to hear it, not the music or the whispers around us.  “I’m glad I came,” I said, and I arched my neck to meet his eyes. “You weren’t going to, I’m guessing.” He chuckled. “Of course not.” I smiled. “I’m glad you came, too.” He returned my smile, but the corners twitched. “You don’t mind dancing with me with that other boy on your mind?”

Kono subarashii sekai ni shukufuku

My fingers tightened on his jacket. “Of course not,” I said, surprised by the truth. I was having fun, and it didn’t matter that Shoman existed. He wasn’t here, and Eric was. And I liked them both.  I lowered my face, hiding my blush, and forced my feelings into my gut. My stomach twisted.  “Not even a little bit?” Eric asked, and I giggled.  “Maybe a little,” I said, gesturing to the stares around us.  He laughed, too. “Understandable,” he said, placing his hands on my hips. We swayed to the music, but it felt like we were draped in a silence I didn’t want to break. But I had to. The question was lingering, and it had been since I found out, but only now could I feel it control my lips.  “Did you love her?” I asked, and his shoulders tensed.  “Hannah?” he asked, and I nodded, knowing the girl who’d been killed two years ago was his girlfriend, and, apparently, his reason for being antisocial. But he’d broken through that with me, hadn’t he? I wanted to know. He sighed, but he didn’t speak, and I opened my mouth, “I didn’t mean to offend you—” “You didn’t,” he said, shrugging his rigid shoulders. He was trying to relax. “You’re honestly the first person to ask, and I respect that,” he paused, and we turned in a circle before he continued, “I suppose I did.” My eyes shot to the floor as if my heart had fallen there. Why was I so saddened by his honesty? I couldn’t explain it, but I didn’t want him to love her—the girl he’d dated all those years back—but his feelings weren’t mine to decide. Eric’s hand moved away from my hip and met my chin. He lifted my face, and his green eyes lit up in the darkness. “Not in the way you think,” he said, and his eyes flickered over mine. “I loved her, because she was the only person who understood who I was. I loved her like a best friend, not a girlfriend.” He held his breath, and his chest rose beneath my hand. “I know that now.” I couldn’t speak. Instead, I bit my quavering lip and laid my head on his shoulder. We remained like that, barely moving, and finished the mellow song in silence. When the song ended, Eric didn’t move away, and I didn’t want him to. I didn’t want the dance to end.  He buried his face into my neck as we came to a stop on the dance floor. “You look so beautiful tonight, Jessica,” he whispered into my hair, and his grip tightened before he let me go. His body heat disappeared, and chills covered my skin.  He stepped back, and I froze. Shoman managed to break through the moment and slice his words in half. Shoman’s warmth, touch, smell, and words. Everything was flooding back to the instant when he left, and I couldn’t force the memory away, even though I was looking at Eric.  “I wish I could stay longer,” he said, shoving his hands in his pockets. “But I can’t.” He smiled, but his normally keen eyes were fogged over. He wasn’t here any more than I was. “Have a good night, Jessica,” he said, and, without another word, he walked past me.  He kept his head down, and his brown, shaggy hair covered his face. As he walked away, the entire dance floor followed his movements, watching him until he was out the doors. Then I felt their gazes on me.  I shivered, lingering in the last moment I’d seen Eric’s back, lit up beneath the golden lights as he opened the doors leading outside. I pretended he was still there, I wished he’d come back, and I wanted to believe he hadn’t left.  I felt as if I’d lost Shoman twice.  “Oh my God!” Crystal’s voice shattered my thoughts as she grasped my arm. She was by my side, but I couldn’t look at her. She pulled me off the dance floor, but her voice drifted past me until we reached our table. “Why—what—I don’t even know where to begin.” “How about how Welborn was dancing with her?” Robb suggested, kicking back his chair as he crossed his arms.  Crystal waved her hand at him as if she could swat him away. “What was that about, Jess?” she asked, but I could only focus on Robb’s darkened gaze.  “I didn’t know Welborn and you had a thing going on,” he said, and I shook my head.  “We don’t,” I said, but my entire body was hot. Did that really just happen? “Ooo,” Crystal whistled. “Defensive.” “We—” I tried to speak, but I could barely control my lips. “We don’t,” I repeated, but every piece of me was vibrating with nerves. Why was I feeling this way? “You look sick,” Robb said, but his voice sounded as if it was spoken through thick glass, foggy and contorted. I had to grip the table from falling over. “Jess?” Robb touched my shoulder, and his brown eyes were warm again. “Are you okay?” I breathed, nodding, but I didn’t have to speak. Linda ran up behind Robb and wrapped her arms around his torso. “We should ditch this dance,” she said, but Robb didn’t look away.  “Where’s Zac?” he asked, and Linda groaned.  “He just left,” she said. “He was upset about—” She stopped, and I looked up to meet her glare. She smiled and tapped Robb’s shoulders. “We’ll talk in the car. Let’s go find him.” “Okay,” Robb said, finally turning to his date. He grabbed her hand and turned toward Crystal. “Sorry, guys, but I think I should go. Can you get rides?” Crystal nodded. “Just find Zac.” “Thanks,” he said, and then they were gone, but I barely felt them leave.  Eric. His touch. It was familiar. And the way he’d spoken was too. Teresa—a girl who wasn’t related to Eric—drove him around and watched him. Like a guard would. And Hannah had died. Like Shoman’s friend had.  It couldn’t be.  “Jess?” Crystal sat in a chair, but she leaned over, trying to catch my eyes. “Are you okay?”  “I have to go,” I said, not even bothering to pick up my clutch as I turned around.  “What?” Crystal tried to follow me, but I stopped, turning her back around.  “I’m fine,” I promised. “But I have to go,” I said. “Don’t wait for me.”  My shout echoed behind me as I ran through the dance floor and out the doors—allowing the night to guide me toward the only boy I never thought I’d see again.

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“Rise and shine!” The shrill cackle awoke Reena from her unconscious state. “Huh?” she groaned, forcing her heavy eyelids open. The first thing she saw made her cringe—a wrinkled visage contorted with maniacal amusement. “We’re already behind schedule,” the man with scraggly white hair and crooked, yellowing teeth declared. “Wh-where am I?” Reena groaned, trying to shake the grogginess away. Only then did she realize that they were still underground, in some catacomb tucked away from the main tunnels where she had previously ventured. She glanced at the man, who furiously worked away at a computer console, then to the bizarre machinery set up around the area, until finally spotting Madison and Rackham—both locked in what appeared to be rectangular boxes made of glass. “Madison!” “You okay, rookie?” the silver haired officer asked. “I’m fine, just a little—” Reena’s eyebrows shot up. She wasn’t fine! Still coming to her senses and fighting through the mental haze, Reena discovered that she was sitting down, her wrists and ankles strapped to some makeshift chair. Like Madison, she too was trapped in a glass confinement, but larger than the others. The floor beneath her appeared to be made of metal grates, while something that looked like a large speaker hung overhead. “Uh, what’s going on?” “We found Melchor,” Madison replied, disgust in her voice. Kumo desu ga nani ka


 “Whatever you do, rookie—don’t scream.” “S-scream?” Reena stuttered. “His machine’s activated by vocalized frequency,” Rackham added. “And he needs yours to power the Resonator.” “None of this makes any sense!” Reena shook her head, confused. “Frequency? Resonator? What machine?” She craned her neck in the direction of the towering metal monolith nearby. “That machine?” “Those earthquakes—” Madison nodded, “—that was the cause.” “Enough chatter!” Melchor struck one last button on the keyboard before offering Reena an insidious smile. “You’re a very fortunate young lady. So very few get to make history—it should be considered an honor. All I need is one beautiful shriek—just one, and Pallad City will finally have gained the title it so richly deserves—the largest mass gravesite on the planet!” “If you think I’ll ever help you, mister,” Reena snapped, “you’ve got another thing coming.” “Fortunately,” Melchor grinned, “your willing compliance is less than required.” His fingers sprang to life, pounding a series of buttons on the keyboard. “I sorely lack the time or patience to extract a myriad of vocalizations from you.” Melchor gestured to the glass containment surrounding Reena. “But, with the aid of this repurposed chamber, I should have no trouble obtaining what I need.” “What’s this…chamber…going to do?” Reena asked, trying not to let her nervousness show. “The acoustic amplifier above you will emit an infrasonic resonance,” Melchor tapped a final button on the keyboard, snapping his finger back in an almost playful manner. “Its long term effects are harmless, but the correct output will certainly cause you to be more accommodating—though they may lead to some unpleasant momentary sensations…” Melchor’s twisted smile forced his chapped lips to curl. “Acoustic amplifier initiated,” the computer said. Reena shivered from a strange prickling on her skin, followed by a gentle heat emanating from the speaker above her. She struggled against the chair’s restraints, but it accomplished nothing. The heat intensified with each passing second, combining with a slight, barely audible hum. “Can you hear that?” Melchor asked. “It’s quite surprising what sound can do to the human body.” The noise grew louder and Reena could almost feel her body vibrating. She felt an odd sensation building in the hold of her chest and the roots of her teeth. 
She had never experienced anything like it before. It wasn’t pain, but a peculiar discomfort that increased with every passing second. Reena’s fingers and toes twitched first, but the spasms quickly worked their way through her body, attacking the muscles in her legs, arms and back. Her breathing intensified and, panting, she let out a slight gasp. “Resonance match at 13%,” the computer said with its detached, monotone voice. A look of frustration consumed Melchor as he pounded on the keyboard, increasing the infrasonic amplification. “Not nearly enough—we need more!” Reena tried to stifle any further cries, but she wasn’t sure how much longer she could take the effects of Melchor’s machine. A stronger blast of heat consumed her, causing sweat to trickle down her forehead. Her uniform was soaked with perspiration, which glistened down her back, arms and thighs. The vibrating continued, causing Reena’s jaw to tremble and her eyes to vibrate in unison, blurring her vision. The discomfort grew and her stomach swirled. Her only frame of reference for the bizarre sensations she was experiencing was like being on some twisted amusement park ride, repeatedly spun around until the point of nausea. “Ahhh…” “Resonance match at 21%.” “That’s it…” Melchor clapped his hands together like a giddy child. “Let’s have more!” “Aaahhh…” Reena gagged. The entire world was spinning and an intense pressure was welling up inside her head. “Resonance match at 54%.” Shit, Madison cursed to herself. Just feet in front of her glass prison, resting on a table cluttered with scrap metal and electronic parts, was her Halvok 99. If only there was some way out, her mind raced. She spotted the U3 in the far corner, nestled against unused machinery, its limbs coiled around itself while the creature’s red eye glowed in the dim lighting. The unit looked like it was conserving power, possibly having entered some form of sleep mode. If there was any time to escape, it was now. “Resonance match at 67%,” the computer said, seconds after Reena let out another short yelp. Madison activated the holographic projection display on her I.DAC. It still hadn’t found the proper encryption code to unlock the chamber. She had no choice left. Damn risky, she thought to herself, removing the I.DAC from her wrist. If this failed she’d be out of options, but it was a gambit she needed to take. She clicked a button on the communicator, activating its magnetic coating, and stuck the device against the glass door’s metallic locking mechanism. She pressed the button again, initiating a hidden feature on the I.DAC. The device let out a soft beep while a red light blinked on the wristlet’s surface. She had triggered the I.DAC’s ultimate failsafe, designed if an officer needed to prevent their communicator from falling into a criminal’s possession. After all, the I.DAC did link directly to Pallad City’s centralized GeoCore database. In the wrong hands, that information could prove extremely dangerous. “Aaaaah!” Reena howled. “Resonance match at 74%, 82%, 88%...” “Now or never,” Madison said under her breath and stepped away from her I.DAC, still magnetically affixed to the digital lock. She backed up as far as she was able, despite the restricted space in the cell. Her undivided attention was affixed on the device. She began counting to herself. 10, 9, 8… “Resonance match at 92%.” …7, 6, 5… “Resonance match at 94%.” …4, 3, 2… Madison shielded her eyes as the I.DAC exploded. The detonation wasn’t large, but precise enough that it succeeded in blasting a hole directly through the lock. She looked at the result—it had worked just as she planned. There was no way she would have been able to shatter the heavy duty glass, but the lock was unprotected—the only observable weak spot. She kicked the door and it swung open. From the corner of her eye she could see Rackham watching, his mouth hung open in surprise. Reena was oblivious to her partner’s success, her body thrown into spasms by the infrasonic onslaught. She tried her best to hold it in, but couldn’t any longer. “Aaaagggghh!” “Resonance match complete.” “Now!” Melchor shouted, nearly leaping into the air. He pressed a red button on the keyboard and an array of lights on the Harmonic Resonator began to glow. The ground shook with violent unease. Sovereign of the three realms
Madison charged out of her glass prison, snatched her Halvok off the nearby table and fired a torrent of bullets into the Resonator. The lights adorning the machine flickered, sparks lancing through the air. “M-Madison!” Reena perked up, still besieged by the infrasound. “You fool!” Melchor spun around, seething with rage. “What have you done?!” “Resonance match…” the computer sputtered out as the tremors subsided, “…lost.” Visible crackles of blue electricity discharged from the Resonator, striking nearby machines and setting them ablaze. “Overload imminent,” the computer’s last words were distorted by a screech of static feedback. Madison fired a bullet into the digital lock on Rackham’s cell, releasing the doctor. She redirected her aim at the acoustic amplifier hanging over Reena and squeezed the Halvok’s trigger. The bullet shattered the glass confining her partner and struck the speaker. Devastated pieces of the amplifier rained down harmlessly around Reena. She took in a sigh of relief as the infrasonic attack came to an abrupt stop. “U3!” Melchor ordered. “Kill them all!” At the sound of the doctor’s panicked voice, the U3 reactivated, rising upon its tentacled appendages. But, before it could advance, another charge of electricity shot forth from the Harmonic Resonator and struck the nearest machine. It exploded in a furious cyclone of smoke, flame, and metal, throwing the U3 to the ground as a blistering chain reaction consumed more equipment. The explosive force shook the tunnel and a segment of the roof caved in. Rubble smashed down onto the U3, demolishing its scarlet  cyclopean eye. Only its flailing tentacles could be seen for a brief moment before a dust cloud pushed its way across the immediate area. “No—this can’t be happening!” Melchor cried. “I was so close!” He dashed into the direction of the overloading Resonator. “Melchor!” Rackham yelled. “Don’t do it, you’ll be—” It was too late. The Resonator vanished in a brilliant white light, taking Melchor with it. Pieces of smoking metal flew through the air and crashed into the nearby walls. A deafening boom resounded through the tunnel. More of the ceiling began caving in. Madison undid Reena’s restraints and helped her unsteady partner to her feet. “You okay?” “Y-yeah,” Reena nodded. “Just a little shaky, but I’ll be all right.” “Melchor’s gone—no one could have survived that,” Rackham confirmed, staggering over to the officers.   Madison glanced over to the fiery blaze where the Harmonic Resonator had previously stood. She was convinced Rackham was right—Melchor wouldn’t be faking his demise this time. “Let’s get out of here before this whole place comes down.” *** Reena leaned back against her locker and let out a sigh of relief. She was glad to be back at headquarters, despite still being stuck in her tattered, dirt encrusted uniform. She couldn’t wait to get home and take a much deserved shower. “Here,” a familiar voice called out. Before Reena could turn her head, a blur of folded clothes flew through the air, hitting her in the chest. “New uniform,” Madison said dryly. “Can’t come in tomorrow with the rags you’re wearing now.” “Thanks!” Reena nodded, offering her partner a smile. Madison turned for the exit but stopped just short of the door, not bothering to look back at her partner. “By the way,” she said, hesitating to get the words out, “you did well today.” Reena’s smile grew. “Oh?” “But following after Rackham and me, that was pretty reckless…” She craned her neck around to make eye contact. “Any other officer would have waited for backup.” “You wouldn’t have,” Reena replied playfully. “You’d have done the exact same thing.” There was a long silence, and then Madison finally spoke. “You’re probably right.” Reena stood in awe. She could swear that, from the corner of Madison’s mouth, the slightest outline of what appeared to be a smile had formed. It was too fleeting to be absolutely certain, but she’d swear the resident ice queen of the PCPD had almost broken her frosty façade. “Anyway,” Madison continued, exiting the locker room, “I’ll see you tomorrow.

Reena slumped back against her locker. Despite all the insanity of the day, including crazed scientists, earthquake-creating machines, and tentacled monstrosities, she wagered that what she had just witnessed might have been the most unbelievable of all…

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When the initial stupor had passed, I grabbed Eric’s sleeve and dragged him away from the main road. I dropped my bag on the ground and squatted, rummaging through its capacious inventory. Eric shifted his feet nearby, clueless as to what was causing the delay. Finally I found what I was looking for. I looked up at Eric and handed him one of the two vials containing Red Bear’s blood. “Take it. It’s yours now. Just a trinket to celebrate my success.” Unsure, Eric reached out and squinted at the vial, moving his lips, as he read the item's ID. Then he jerked his hand away. “Any idea how much this costs? Judging by your newb kit, it’s not as if you shit gold.” “I’ve got two gold, to be precise. The rest I had to splurge on takeaways. Jail food nearly killed my palate.” “You could sell the vial for a couple grand. Three, even. In gold.” I could see he was dying to accept the gift but his honesty was getting the better of him.

Hakushaku to yousei

My inner greedy pig, who had only a moment ago been hopping up and down celebrating my freedom and the unexpected financial windfall, squeaked and dropped senseless with shock. That was serious money. Had I known it, I’d have thought twice before giving the vial away. But claiming it back would mean a total loss of face. Besides, I liked this honest, cheerful and straightforward tower of a grunt. I grinned, “Oh, whatever. You only live once. Take it. I'll distract my inner greedy pig before he throws a fit.” Eric managed a shy smile and accepted the vial. “I’ll be damned, dude. You won’t believe how much time I’ve spent chasing after him. The bear is one hell of a mount. I'll do some work on him and he'll be slaying dragons. I owe you. Don't say anything. You're a Necro, aren't you? We'll have to check the bank. I'm sure they have something for you." "I'm actually a Death Knight," I corrected, pointing his sense of gratitude in the right direction. "I specialize in pet summoning." Overjoyed, Eric slammed my shoulder. My health bar quivered. A few guards exchanged worried looks as they passed by, tightening their grip on the weapons. “Quiet, you ox. People have been killed with a lighter touch,” I rubbed my aching shoulder. He just grinned nonsensically, pressing the vial to his chest. “Come along, then. I’ll take you to the bank, pick up the heart, then I'll go pay the alchemist a visit. My guys will freak out when they see me coming on the bear's back." "Hold your horses, will you? I'm coming along. I want me a bear, too." "Do you? Have you got another bear kit?" I gave him a wink. Eric was brimming with emotion. "Dude, you're awesome. Shame I can't refer you to our clan. You need to have combat experience to join. You haven't been in action, have you?" "I did service, sure," I hurried to explain. "Air defense. Shoot'em down, sort'em out on the ground. But I wasn't in action, no. Probably for the better." Eric nodded. "Most likely. But if we decide to start a nursery, I'll give you a reference and an invitation. You'll be a standby guy. Think you'll join?" I shrugged. "We'll see. Thanks, anyway." In the bank, everything went hunky dory. As a perma player, I was eligible for a low-rate bank account, providing my digitized status was confirmed by another perma with a solid track record. Eric fit the role fine. Among other freebies, they gave me a thirty days free texting number. All the messages arriving at the number were forwarded to my inbox. I could also use it for sending outgoing messages, but I couldn't do it myself, only through an operator. The plan was so good I signed up for automatic renewal: retaining contact with the outer world was worth the fifty gold it cost me. I tested it on the spot, sending my Mom a quick and rambling message reproaching her for sending me too much money too soon, then thanking her all the same. Then I slapped my forehead and sent her another one in all-caps: MOM! I WON'T DIE! I'VE MADE IT! YOU CAN TURN THE CAPSULE OFF NOW! I'M IN PERMA MODE!!! I felt a bit uneasy typing the last sentence, but I'd been convinced by both Eric and my failure to log out. I thought about their Internet services. It wasn't real Internet, of course—more like a paid database for perma players. You sent your search request to the operator who looked it up and sent you the most relevant search result. Twenty gold per request. A bit pricey for me at the moment, but it might come 

in handy at a later date. The Olders seemed to have made it big. They basically controlled the service market. Need someone to look after your grave in the real world? Or a lawyer to take care of your offline property? Hire a nanny or a house help for your surviving family, buy whatever you fancied, check on your wife to make sure she hadn't stranded in your absence—easy. So, for a nominal sum, you could subscribe to two news feeds: one that covered the virtual and the other the real world. The moment I heard about them, I had them both hooked up to my account. I also ordered a couple of books and subscribed to new offers from some of my favorite authors. I was shaking in anticipation of the moment when I hit my bed in the Three Little Pigs, pressing the full screen button and opening the latest bestseller sequel. Finally, they offered me a choice of ID rings for instant account access. Every ring was personal, bound on equip, with various extras to choose from. "This is our local handwork," the clerk's voice rang with pride as he handed me the silver ring with a +5 Strength modifier. Regular players received a plain copper ring with no extras. Only permas were eligible for silver ones. I tried not to think who you had to be to get a gold one. Eric didn't wear his ring in public. Either he belonged to that choice category, or simply didn't want to publicize his perma status. Problems were waiting at the bank's exit. I was still studying my new ring and only stopped when my head rammed a chainmail shirt. I raised my head. Tavor, the greedy Elf, was squinting at me. I didn't like what I read in his face. During my five days in the slammer, he'd kept leveling and was now 37. He didn't waste his time, did he? Having said that, his money and items could buy him any level he wanted. Tavor grabbed my shoulder. "So, Drow savior? Fancy seeing you here. Mind following me to the arena? I've got something you might like... not." I tried to shake his hand off but couldn't. The difference in our strength parameters was quite amazing. I should probably invest more into strength: you never knew when a perma like myself might need it. Besides, Tavor wasn't alone. Three of his fellow clan members surrounded us and pushed us away from the bank doors. Their actions were quick and smooth—they must have done it a thousand times before. No idea how it all would have ended, had Eric not come out to join us. "Hey! What's going on here? Get your hands off him, quick." He rammed through their barrier and shoved the Forest Cats aside. Tavor gave him a moody look studying his level and the Veterans' clan badge. "Sorry, dude. I'm afraid it's none of your business. The kid owes me. You don't want to interfere." I struggled myself free. "I owe you nothing. You attacked me first. Then you fucked off and now you're the man? When you've got your hoods with you? Whassup, dude? Can't you manage it on your own?" Tavor spat at my feet ignoring my challenge. The ring around me drew tighter. Eric splayed his elbows, pushing my assailants aside. "He's my friend. Enough now. Are you fucking mad, settling your accounts in town? One drop of blood and the place will be crawling with guards. Give it a rest." Tavor squinted at us, weighing up his chances, then apparently decided not to push his luck. His glance happened upon my ring. "A perma, are we? Well, well, well. You know what? You're toast." He turned away and called out to his henchmen, "Come on, guys. He's not going anywhere." Eric stared after them. "You're good at making enemies, bud. What you really need is to join a clan. A strong one. Lone permas are in for a lot of trouble." "Problem?" "You could say so," he mumbled. "Just something people say about them. All of them, not just the Cats, you understand. Keep your eyes peeled now. Watch your back. Practice some invisibility spells. I also suggest you get Crystal Vision and keep it on you at all times. It'll allow you to see stealthers. Never create resurrection points in deserted areas: they might track you down and run you through your own personal hell, a death a minute for a week. They have special guys with unlimited PK counters who do just that. By unspoken agreement, permas are supposed to be immune from this kind of treatment, but... You know what I mean. Don't flash your ring in town. Your status is nobody's business. By the way, why didn't you just call the guards? While you're in town, no one can hurt you." "Yeah. Stupid of me."

Wortenia senki

"You've got to get savvy now. For you it's not a game anymore. Trust me, this place isn't as cute and cuddly as it may look." I nodded absent-mindedly. Then a thought crossed my mind. "Is it," I snapped my fingers, searching for the right word, "all this Wild West, is it really necessary? Even the Olders, what do they get out of this pissing contest with these thugs?" Eric walked and dragged me along, explaining as he went. "All these old-age citizens, all the crafters, bankers and pacifists—normally, they just don't want to go beyond level 10 so they can preserve their startup immunity. So not every noob is a newbie, if you know what I mean. Some of them take a different route. They pay to be power-leveled. After two months, they are level 200-plus and all done up in so much epic gear you'd need a raid party to get one up on them. I may be exaggerating a bit, but not much." We stopped by an affluent alchemy shop. Eric froze for a bit, checking the map. Then he pointed confidently, "This one. We'll go in together, I'll close the quest, you accept it right after me and close it, too." Once inside, I was instantly distracted by the shop's contents. Before, I just couldn't afford to use any of those potions so now I eagerly studied their choice and prices. They had some classics: life and mana elixirs which worked over a period of time, allowing you to use them in battle but not giving you any considerable leveling advantage. I picked up a Minor Health Potion. A tiny vial contained barely a mouthful of bright red liquid. It cost one gold piece. You squeezed it in your hand, and the stopper came out on its own. It started working thirty seconds after being swallowed, restoring up to 40 points health over a period of 10 ticks 5 seconds each, followed by a 3-minute cooldown during which you couldn't use it again. The idea was to minimize the time wasted on mana and hits regen while complicating protracted combat, allowing for easier soloing to those classes traditionally weak in solo leveling. Plus it helped relieve players of their money, no question about that. The shop also had all sorts of potions: various armor and attack speed buffs as well as those increasing strength, agility, intellect and crit probability. Plus Eye of a Cat, Fish Breath and Crystal Vision as well as tons of other things. Next to them stood a small collection of attack elixirs: poisons, acids and Molotov cocktails. Launching them was just like hurling gold at a target. An expensive exercise. Safely tucked behind the shop owner's back, a protective magic field glittered over a special display. I studied its contents and phewed. For five hundred gold, those little vials raised any basic characteristic 1 point. Cooldown: twenty-four hours. Max cap: 200 extra points. For two thousand gold, you could get yourself an extra Talent point. Cooldown: five days. Cap: fifty points. Oh well. Tough toys for tough boys, and prices to match. Then I heard a bear bellowing outside, followed by Eric's shrieks of delight. My heart shrunk and fluttered in my chest. Hummungus, sweet old Ted! I hurriedly approached the owner. "Is it true, Sir, that you're looking for some rare elixir ingredients?" The Elf owner, a picturesque type with bleak expressionless eyes, nodded gravely. "I am. I'm quite prepared to pay for any internal organs of rare beings." New quest alert! The alchemist shop owner spends a lot of time looking for new magic formulas. For that purpose, he eagerly buys body parts from monsters level 100 and beyond. Reward: Gold or Unknown Elixir. Pardon me? I did accept the quest, no question about that. But where's my Teddy? I felt a bit nervous. "Excuse me? Are you looking for something in particular?" The owner didn't play hard to get. "Sure. There are a few things I'd buy from you right now. Or if money isn't what you're after, I could offer a swap for the resulting monster." New quest alert! Bring the alchemist the heart and some blood of Red Bear, indigenous to the City of Light area. Reward: Money or a unique mount. Phew. Relieved, I dug into my bag for the quest objects. "I think I just happen to have what you're looking for." The alchemist, wonderfully impassive, only wished to know what kind of reward I preferred. For a brief moment, he disappeared into a side room. When he came out, he placed on the counter a bone whistle on a leather strap. Summoning Whistle. Binds when picked up. Summons a unique mount: Red Bear. I grabbed the precious object and brought it to my lips. The alchemist recoiled, shielding himself with his hands.

"Please don't! Not in my shop!" Oops. That was a bit stupid. I mumbled my thanks and rushed out. Once in the street, I gave the whistle an almighty blow. "WRRRGHRRRAAAAH!" "Hummungus!" Congratulations! This is your first riding mount. Would you like to rename Red Bear? Yes! A system window popped up displaying the mount's name. I deleted it and entered a new one: Hummungus!

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As the sun began to fade from the sky—dark scarlet mixed with blue that seemed to envelop the universe—Thor walked with Reece, O’Connor, and Elden down the trail that led into the forest of the Wilds. Thor had never been so on edge in his life. Now it was just the four of them, Erec having remained behind at camp, and despite their bickering, Thor sensed they now needed each other more than ever. They had to bond on their own, without Erec. Before they’d parted, Erec had told them not to worry, that he would stay at base and hear their calls, and would be there if they needed him. That gave Thor little assurance now. As the woods narrowed in on them, Thor looked around at this exotic place, the forest floor lined with thorns and strange fruits. The branches of the many trees were gnarled and ancient, nearly touching each other, so close Thor often needed to duck. They had thorns instead of leaves and they protruded everywhere.

Atelier tanaka

Yellow vines hung down in places, and Thor had made the mistake of reaching up to push a vine from his face only to realize it was a snake. He had yelled and jumped out of the way just in time. He had expected the others to laugh at him, but they, too, were humbled with fear. All around them were the foreign noises of exotic animals. Some were low and guttural, some high-pitched and shrieking. Some echoed from far off; others seemed impossibly close. Twilight came on too fast as they all headed deeper into the forest. Thor felt certain that at any moment they could be ambushed. As the sky grew darker, it was getting harder to even see the faces of his compatriots. He gripped his sword hilt so tightly his knuckles whitened, while his other hand clutched his slingshot. The others gripped their weapons, too. Thor willed himself to be strong, confident, and courageous as a good knight should. As Erec had instructed him. It was better for him to face death now than to always live in fear of it. He tried to lift his chin and walk boldly forward, even increasing his pace and going a few feet in front of the others. His heart was pounding, but he felt as if he were facing his fears. “What are we patrolling for exactly?” Thor asked. As soon as he said it, he realized it might be a dumb question, and he expected Elden to make fun of him. But to his surprise, there was only silence in return. Thor looked over and saw the whites of Elden’s eyes, and realized he was even more afraid. This, at least, gave Thor some confidence. Thor was younger and smaller than him, and he was not giving in to his fear. “The enemy, I guess,” Reece finally said. “And who is that?” Thor asked. “What does he look like?” “There are all sorts of enemies out here,” Reece said. “We are in the Wilds now. There are nations of savages, and all manner and races of evil creatures.” “But what is the point of our patrol?” O’Connor asked. “What difference can we possibly make by doing this? Even if we kill one or two, is that going to stop the million behind it?” “We are not here to make a dent,” Reece answered. “We are here to make our presence known, on behalf of our King. To let them know not to come too close to the Canyon.” “I think it would make more sense to wait till they try to cross it and deal with them then,” O’Connor said. “No,” Reece said. “It is better to deter them from even approaching. That is the reason for these patrols. At least, that is what my older brother says.” Thor’s heart pounded as they continued deeper into the forest. “How far are we supposed to go?” Elden asked, speaking up for the first time, his voice quivering. “Don’t you remember what Kolk said? We have to retrieve the red banner and bring it back,” Reece said. “That is our proof that we’ve gone far enough for our patrol.” “I have not seen a banner anywhere,” O’Connor said. “In fact, I can barely see a thing. How are we supposed to get back?” No one answered. Thor was thinking the same thing. How could they possibly find a banner in the black of night? He started to wonder if this was all a trick, an exercise, another one of the psychological games the Legion played on the boys. He thought again of Erec’s words, of his many enemies at court. He had a sinking feeling about this patrol. Were they being set up?

Suddenly there came a horrific screeching noise, followed by movement inside the branches—and something large ran across their path. Thor pulled his sword, and the others did, too. The sound of swords leaving scabbards, of metal on metal, filled the air as they all stood in place, holding their swords out in front of them, looking nervously in every direction. “What was that?” Elden cried out, his voice cracking with fear. The animal once again crossed their path, racing from one side of the forest to the other, and this time they got a good look at it. Thor’s shoulders relaxed as he recognized it. “Just a deer,” he said, greatly relieved. “The strangest-looking deer I’ve seen—but a deer nonetheless.” Reece laughed, a reassuring noise, a laugh too mature for his age. As Thor heard it, he realized it was the laugh of a future King. He felt better having his friend at his side. And then he laughed, too. All that fear, all for nothing. “I never knew your voice cracked when you caved in to fear,” Reece mocked Elden, laughing again. “If I could see you, I would pummel you,” Elden said. “I can see you fine,” Reece said. “Come try it.” Elden glared back at him, but didn’t dare make a move. Instead, he put his sword back in his scabbard, as did the others. Thor admired Reece for giving Elden a hard time; Elden mocked everybody else—he deserved to get some back himself. He admired Reece’s fearlessness in doing so because after all, Elden was still twice their size. Thor finally felt some of the tension leaving his body. They’d had their first encounter, the ice was broken, and they were still alive. He leaned back and laughed, too, happy to be alive. “Keep laughing, stranger boy,” Elden said. “We’ll see who has the last laugh.” I’m not laughing at you, as Reece is, Thor thought. I’m just relieved to be alive. But he didn’t bother saying it; he knew that nothing he could say would change Elden’s hatred for him. “Look!” O’Connor yelled. “There!” Thor squinted but could barely see what he was pointing at in the thickening night. Then he saw it: the banner of the Legion, hanging from one of the branches. They all began to run for it. Elden ran past the others, brushing them aside roughly. “That flag is mine!” he yelled. “I saw it first!” O’Connor yelled. “But I will get it first, and I will be the one to bring it back!” Elden yelled. Thor fumed; he could barely believe Elden’s actions. He recalled what Kolk had said—that whoever got the banner would be rewarded—and realized why Elden sprinted. But that did not excuse him. They were supposed to be a team, a group—not every man for himself. Elden’s true colors were coming out—none of the others ran for it, tried to outdo the others. It made Thor hate Elden even more. Elden sprinted past after elbowing O’Connor, and before the others could react, he gained several feet on them and snatched the banner. As he did, a huge net appeared out of nowhere, rising from the ground, springing up into the air, entrapping Elden and hoisting him up high. He swung back and forth before their eyes, just feet away, like an animal caught in a trap. “Help me! Help me!” he screamed, terrified. They all slowed as they walked up close to him; Reece began to laugh. “Well, who is the coward now?” Reece yelled out, amused. “Why you little crap!” he yelled. “I will kill you when I get down from this!” “Oh really?” Reece retorted. “And when will that be?” “Set me down!” Elden yelled, turning and spinning in the net. “I command you!” “Oh, you command us, do you?” Reece said, bursting into laughter again. Reece turned and looked at Thor. “What do you think?” Reece asked. “I think that he owes all of us an apology,” O’Connor said. “Especially Thor.” “I agree,” Reece said. “I’ll tell you what,” he said to Elden. “Apologize—and make it sincere—and I will consider cutting you down.” “Apologize?” Elden echoed, horrified. “Not in one million suns.” Reece turned to Thor.

Ancient godly monarch

Thor smiled wide. “I think that’s a fine idea,” O’Connor said. “Wait!” Elden shrieked. O’Connor reached up and snatched the banner from Elden’s dangling finger. “Guess you didn’t beat us to the banner after all,” O’Connor said. The three of them turned and began to walk away. “No, wait!” Elden cried. “You can’t leave me here! You wouldn’t!” The three of them continued to walk away. “I’m sorry!” Elden began to sob. “Please! I’m sorry!” Thor stopped, but Reece and O’Connor continued to walk. Finally, Reece turned. “What are you doing?” Reece asked Thor. “We can’t leave him here,” Thor said. As much as Thor disliked Elden, he didn’t think it right to leave him there. “Why not?” Reece asked. “He brought it on himself.” “If the tables were turned,” O’Connor said, “you know he would gladly leave you there. Why should you care?” “I understand,” Thor said. “But that doesn’t mean we should act like him.” Reece put his hands on his hips and sighed deeply as he leaned in and whispered to Thor. “I wasn’t going to leave him there all night. Maybe just half the night. But you do have a point. He’s not cut out for this. He’d probably piss himself and have a heart attack. You’re too kind. That’s a problem,” Reece said as he put a hand on Thor’s shoulder. “But that’s why I chose you for a friend.” “And I,” O’Connor said, putting his hand on Thor’s other shoulder. Thor turned, marched toward the net, reached out, and cut it down. Elden landed with a thud. He scrambled to his feet, threw the net off, and frantically searched the ground. “My sword!” he yelled. “Where is it?” Thor looked down at the ground, but it was too dark to see. “It must have flown into the trees when you were hoisted up,” Thor answered. “Wherever it is, it’s gone now,” Reece said. “You’ll never find it.” “But you don’t understand,” Elden pleaded. “The Legion. There is just one rule. Never leave your weapon behind. I can’t return without it. I would be ousted!” Thor turned and searched the ground again, searched the trees, looking everywhere. But he could see absolutely no sign of Elden’s sword. Reece and O’Connor just stood there, not bothering to look. “I’m sorry,” Thor said, “I don’t see it.” Elden scrambled everywhere, then finally gave up. “It’s your fault,” he said, pointing at Thor. “You got us into this mess!” “No I didn’t,” Thor replied. “You did! You ran for the flag. You pushed us all out of the way. You have no one to blame but yourself.” “I hate you!” Elden screamed. He charged Thor, grabbing him by the shirt and knocking him down to the ground. The weight of him caught Thor off guard. Thor managed to spin around, but Elden spun again and pinned Thor down. Elden was just too big and strong, and it was too hard to hold him back. Suddenly, though, Elden let go and rolled off. Thor heard the sound of a sword being extracted from his scabbard, and looked up and saw Reece standing over Elden, holding the tip of his sword at his throat. O’Connor reached over and gave Thor a hand, and pulled him quickly to his feet. Thor stood with his two friends, looking down on Elden, who remained on the ground, Reece’s sword at his throat. “You touch my friend again,” Reece, deadly serious, said slowly to Elden, “and I assure you, I will kill you. 



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