Sarah . . . lowered her club.
It was the guy. The guy. The indecisive guy, the guy who got all of those people killed, and the guy who nearly got her killed but then saved her life.
He stared at her with wide eyes, little white scrapes glowing on his cheeks, covered in broken twigs and leaves and sharp little burs.
“Run!” he yelled, sprinting past her, his brown robes fluttering behind him, torn in a dozen different places.
She didn’t need a polite and formal golden-ticket invitation to register the panic in his voice and accept the command for what it was: a desperate urging to move it.
She ran after him, noting that running didn’t feel so absolutely, body-jarringly terrible. It certainly helped that she now had shoes. But this was more than cushioned soles and arch support. This was . . . her, a stronger, more able her.
The guy staggered from tree to tree, huffing and puffing, clearly pushed to his physical limits by fear or a healthy sense of self-preservation. And—gosh darn it—such things were contagious!
They ran for a few minutes before he broke through a tight cropping of trees and bushes, stumbled forward, and stopped near the edge of a cliff.
“Shit,” he swore through his teeth. “Shit shit shit.” He paced the ten or so foot section of land between the long drop and the trees, fingers digging into his black hair.
“What’s back there?” she asked in a whisper, surprised to find she wasn’t out of breath. “What are we running from?”
The guy dashed back to the trees and spread their branches, peeking through to see if they were still being followed. Sweat dripped from his chin.
“Tell me!” Sarah said in an urgent whisper. Not knowing why someone was panicking was panic-inducing in and of itself. She clenched her jaw, her body wanting to run for the first time in its life.
The guy drew in a deep, shaky breath. He released the branches and walked back to the ledge, clearly not afraid of heights.
From where they stood, the valley expanded outward, up to the very edges of the world, where it continued beyond only as sky.
An orange line curved across the land. It looked like a piece of a circle, a circle that seemed to be moving, contracting. Or maybe that was an illusion?
The sun arched to one side, coloring the clouds in a wash of light pink. It was a warning that night was approaching far quicker than she had expected.
“The . . . others,” the guy finally said between breaths. He flicked his eyes to her, then back to the expanse of land below, “they’re killing each other.”
“Shhh! They’ll hear you.”
“Why would they do that?”
“It’s obvious, ain’t it? Only so many people can be saved. They’re removing the competition so they can live forever.”
“But,” she said, trying to find the right words to convey just how terribly wrong that was, “that-that’s evil.”
“Tell that to them,” he said, using the sleeve of his robe to dry his face.
“This is heaven. You can’t be evil in heaven,” she said, but then thought of her own actions. She killed monsters—okay, that was probably fine—but she also killed her fairy, killed Apology Thirteen.
If evil couldn’t exist in heaven, why was she still running around playing Hunger Games? If evil couldn’t exist, Gameus—or a legion of angels—would drag her into hell, should it exist. Or that sea of souls place.
The guy looked at her and shrugged.
“What’s your name?” she asked, sick of always thinking of him as The Guy.
“Tod,” he said slowly, brows pinched in confusion. “I . . . can’t seem to remember my last name. What about you?”
“Really? I’m Sarah K-k-ke . . .” She trailed off, digging deep into her memories, deep into who she was. She found fragments of memories over her lifetime with small details removed.
“Amnesia?” she asked.
“It’s gotta be that place,” he said. “The Primordial Sea of Souls. We lost a piece of ourselves there before the Soul Watchers saved us.”
The mere notion of losing pieces of herself should, unequivocally, cause great distress, but it just didn’t seem that important for some reason.
Maybe it had something to do with being pursued by insane people wanting to kill them.
Yes, quite possibly, that was it.
She then had a brilliant idea concerning their current predicament. “Let’s team up,” she said with a smile. “If those maniacs are grouping up, we should form our own group and find people to join us. Safety in numbers.”
“Yeah? Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.”
Something beyond the trees thumped thumped thumped its way toward their little hidden ledge.
Tod straightened and clenched his jaw. He pointed to his lips and then searched the ground, evidently looking for a weapon: a stick, a rock.
Sarah held her bone club at the ready and tried to swallow the knot that had formed in her throat. Her pulse pounded a rhythmic beat in her ears.
Killing monsters was one thing but killing people? How could anyone expect her to hurt someone? She wasn’t a fighter or a soldier.
She needed a nice hole to hide in, a hole away from all the crazies in this world. That would be prime option number one. But there were no holes. There were trees on one side and a jagged cliff on the other. Talk about cliché!
Tod’s eyes were bulging. He took a slow step backward, having found nothing that could be used as a weapon. He seemed more comfortable with the idea of diving off the cliff than he did at facing whoever was following them.
The thumping of footsteps had slowed just beyond the cluster of trees. Maybe they wouldn’t find this spot. Then again, maybe they were tracking footprints in the dirt. She should have swept the ground with a branch or something!
So this was what it felt like to be trapped, to be faced with a predator that crept closer and closer to inevitability. She didn’t want to fight stupid maniacs, but she didn’t want to die either.
A low humming broke the silence. It was met with another—a guttural sound—implying that there were at least two of them.
The branches shook. Sarah tensed. Her grip tightened on her bludgeoning weapon, truly hoping it would be enough to discourage any needless conflict.
More movement, then out popped three . . .
“Giant mushrooms?” she asked.
They screamed! It was such a high-pitched, glass-breaking sound that she nearly dropped her club in an attempt to cover her ears.
The unpleasant, grating, terrible-terrible sound lasted way-too-gosh-darn long and, somehow, only a few seconds.
The mushrooms—sharing similar features to the slimes—stood about two feet tall, were mostly white, and had black ink expressions on their stalks, expressions that were pinched in annoyance.
Tod sucked in a breath as if surfacing from the deep-dark-depths of the ocean, filling his lungs with the sweet taste of air.
“That was you?” she asked, incredulous, eyeing the man who had somehow trapped a banshee inside of himself.
“I’m allergic!” he yelled, taking a step back. “One touch, and I’ll puff up like a balloon.”
“Do you float?”
“I’m being serious! I don’t have my EpiPen with me. This so-called heaven has turned my nightmares into a reality. What heaven does that?”
The leading mushroom, bigger than the other two, glared at Tod. Its mouth changed into a grumbling line. It started to shake, releasing purple spores to hover below its gills.
Sarah reacted immediately. They were monsters. It didn’t matter how cute their cartoonish expressions made them out to be; monsters were monsters. Fight or die. She lunged forward and swung her bone club down.
One of the smaller mushrooms jumped out in front, taking the blow to the head. Its body slapped the ground, releasing a -4 to slip skyward. Its health and information materialized.
- Fungi Fighter · Lvl. 1
The mushroom swayed left and right, its eyes now swirling lines. The blow to its head had stunned it.
Rightfully, this demanded a swift reenactment of the assaulting attack. Sarah, not one to waste a golden opportunity, obliged. Her club clobbered the dazed monster, producing a larger, brighter -8 than the other damage number.
A critical hit?
She then kicked it—actually kicked it, instead of the ground—and it rolled a few feet before dispersing into silvery-white flakes.
This abrupt display of violence against the fungi kingdom prompted an equally abrupt, violent response. The leading Ven Toadi launched a swarm of purple spores at her, likely finding her to be the bigger threat.
Sarah swung her club through the cloud of spores in an attempt to disperse them. The club made a whoosh sound, deflecting hundreds of thousands of them, which would sound mighty impressive if there weren’t millions of the microscopic things.
They crashed into her chest, the force shoving her back two steps. A -2 in white leapt out of her, and a surge of fiery ice shot down into her legs, out to her arms, and up her neck.
She slapped at her chest and danced. Pinpricks of cold sweat tingled and itched from everywhere, releasing a slow trickle of purple -1s.
Her health bar information reappeared. It wasn’t green like before. It was now purple to match the damage numbers, displaying her total health as 48/50.
Poison. . .?
Sarah drew in an anxious breath. She had never been poisoned before. Sick, of course, but never poisoned. It held a tingling sense of similarity.
Her lungs felt scratchy. Her stomach fought against a sense of nausea. The saliva beneath her tongue turned hot, and her lips tingled.
She was going to throw up.
Of all the things she abhorred most in the world, nothing was worse than throwing up. But this was heaven! There shouldn’t be sickness. There shouldn’t be pain or fear or worry either.
The leading mushroom released another puff of purple particles to linger in the air. It was completely ignoring Tod, who had started to sneak back toward the trees, probably to find some sort of weapon to help.
Sarah clenched her jaw shut, willing the nausea away. What would she even throw up? It wasn’t like she had eaten anything since being revived.
The mushroom jumped and head-banged the air, firing off another stream of spores at her.
This time—as a person quite capable of learning from stupid, stupid mistakes—she dashed to the side instead of trying to deflect the attack. This was all well and good except for the fact that there was more than one mushroom.
As soon as she dodged the attack, the second mushroom sprang forward and crashed into her side, releasing another cloud of purple. The little -1s leaking out of her turned into little -2s.
She used her bone club like a baseball bat. The off-white weapon blurred and whistled through the air. The poisonous miniature monster—who had the audacity to use her as a springboard—quickly propelled itself backward and away.
But not fast enough.
The mushroom made a Puh! sound when its delicate face greeted the club. The force of the hit wasn’t in the ballpark of a home run, but it was enough to send the critter flying clear off the cliff, its eyes wide circles, its voice now a humming tune of surprise that quieted with distance.
Sarah turned and immediately dove to the side in an attempt to roll away from another stream of purple spores. Of course, her stupid feet—in their natural state of confusion—tangled beneath her, and she bellyflopped the hard ground.
This wasn’t the first time she had attempted to be dextrous and instead found herself in the painful position of stomach to ground. It was, however, the first time such a maneuver didn’t result in any form of pain.
Tod was standing in the corner, opening and clenching his fists, stuck in the perilous decision-making process of fight or flight, still without any visible weapon.
The mushroom launched itself forward in a flip and pounded the ground right where she was if she hadn’t rolled at the last second.
Sarah might have dodged the attack, but more of those spores burst out around her. The purple -2s changed into -3s, and her health had dropped to 27/50.
She started to push herself to her feet but felt so incredibly heavy. Her muscles shook. Her lungs rasped, closing off a little more with each breath. All she could hear was her anxious pulse pounding in an erratic effort to give her the strength to persevere.
The mushroom had bounced back to its original position. It wiggled and scrunched its stalk, its illustrated face showing determination. Then it launched itself again.
Sarah shoved her hand against the dirt and rocks. The force of it slid across the surface in lieu of pushing her back. Instinct took over, and she cradled her head, eyes pinched shut.
A high-pitched banshee’s wail cut the air.
She peeked to find that Tod had appeared behind the mushroom, catching it midair in a bear hug.
“Kill it!” he squeaked.
She—gasping for breath, sweat in her eyes, the world spinning, trails of snot down her face—willed herself off the ground with every ounce of remaining strength and slammed her bone club down on the monster’s head.
Just like the first mushroom, this one smacked the ground, eyes becoming spiraling lines. She attacked it, again and again, her arms weak, muscles burning, snot flying.
The mushroom bled a silvery white that enveloped it and dispersed into an array of shimmering light that signaled the end of the encounter.
She half expected victory music to play and the riches of loot to rain down around them. Instead, she collapsed.
The smooth, cool, somewhat snot-slimed rock against her cheek felt nice. It helped quell the storm of pain in her head. She closed her eyes because maybe slipping away like this was okay.
“Shit!” Tod screeched. He sounded different, further away. He was saying something she couldn’t quite hear, his voice wobbling in and out.
She cracked open an eyelid. Her purple health bar had drained to 13/50. Interestingly enough, Tod also had a health bar, one that revealed the same vibrant hue as hers.
He was holding something yellow. A vial?
She tried to sit up, but the world spun. She grabbed the ground, doing her best to stop it from moving. And then the worst imaginable thing happened:
No no no . . . this wasn’t vomit. At least, not any normal vomit. There were no chunks of undigested food and the sloshing of disgusting liquids carrying the taste of yuck. This vomit was a great outpouring of spores.
She was a dragon expelling a vaporous poison cloud. It escaped her gaping mouth, a torrent of purple that crashed against the ground and split off toward the sides.
Tod took a few steps back, only his bare feet visible with little nicks of silvery-white scratches.
After a few seconds, the spores were gone.
Sarah sucked in a deep breath of fresh, invigorating air. Relief flooded through her for the simple ability to breathe again. It was the tiniest of things, this ability to breathe, a thing that was often taken for granted.
All of her aches and pains and headache and everything else that had tried its darnedest to manifest misery within her was gone. She stood with ease and grinned.
“Are you okay?” Tod asked, looking a mixture of concerned and something else that tugged at his features. He no longer had a visible health bar.
“I think so,” she said, noting how her health bar had changed from purple to red, probably because it was mostly empty. It gained a health point every few seconds.
The important thing, however, was that they won! And if they won against the terrible and obnoxiously cute monsters, there should be loot—a small golden chest somewhere waiting to reveal its treasures—back from where they had come.
But . . . Wait just a gosh-darn minute. They weren’t running from mushrooms. They were running from crazy, out-of-their-minds-evil people, people that could very well still be back there.
As if on cue—as if determined to make real her every thought and worry—something crashed through the bushes. Or not a something, a young man wielding a rusty dagger.
He had short blond hair, tan skin, and angry blue eyes planted on an angry resolute face. He wasn’t dressed in the typical brown robe. He wore a white shirt and blue jeans.
Without a second’s worth of hesitation, he sprang forward and drove his dagger into Tod’s stomach.
It all happened so fast. She watched, wide-eyed and frozen. Tod grunted and shoved his assailant away. A -4 in red materialized.
“Get on outa here!” the young man yelled in a nasal voice, shaking his dagger out in front. “Won’t be lettin’ ya touch this here pretty lady again. En just so help me I—”
Out of nowhere, a most familiar-looking bone club cracked against the side of the young man’s head. Sarah, holding the handle of said bone club, jerked at her automatic, violent reaction.
Again. . . .
But! But . . . he was here to kill them!
The young man flopped backward, crashing into the branches, one eye pinched, a hand pressed against his skull, mouthing, Ow ow ow ow! He looked up, betrayal and confusion twisting his features.
A fairy woman with purple wings fluttered overhead. “You dumb dumb!” she yelled. “No deserve help. Baaad woman!”
“Oh!” Sarah grimaced. “I am so . . . I didn’t— I thought you were one of them.”
“Dem?” the young man asked. He stopped rubbing his head and stood, the pain evidently gone. “Ain’t know nuh’n bout dem. Jus’ heard a woman screamin’ is all.” He motioned to her. “En came fast as I could.”
“A woman?” she asked, then looked at Tod and made a prolonged Ohhh sound.
“I do not sound like a woman!” Tod said.
She raised an eyebrow.
“I don’t!” he repeated, voice squeaking.
The fairy pulled her knees to her chest and laughed, rocking left and right in the air. “Girly girl girl. No sound like man. Sound like girl!”
Tod balled his fists and glowered.
Sarah turned her attention to the new guy. “What’s your name?”
“Who me? I’m Virgil,” he said, hooking a thumb at his chest and grinning. “En you. . .?”
“Sarah, and that’s Tod.”
“Well now,” Virgil said, rubbing a hand on his blue jeans and ignoring Tod, “pleased to make yer acquaintance.” He held out his hand, and they shook.
He then pointed at her and whispered, “Not to cause ya any distress ma’am, but’cha got a little somethin’ on yer face.”
“I do?” she said, touching her cheek. Yes, she very will did: dry and crusty dirt-brown snot. She rubbed it off immediately.
Virgil chuckled. “Oh, don’tcha be embarrassed. I like girls with a bit of dirt on ‘em! But hey, tell me somethin’. You play ball, don’tcha?”
“Yeah, yeah. With bats en gloves en pitchers en things. Or ya play with the bigger ball.”
“Yeah, that! I knew it.”
Sarah laughed. “I don’t play softball.”
“Really? Ya gotta pro swing, ya do. Maybe ya forgot. It happens, ya know?”
“I think I’d remember that. But no, I’ve never really played sports.”
“Well that be a cryin’ shame if ya asked me.”
“No one did,” Tod said flatly. “We’ve got to get out of here. If mister aggravated assault heard us, others probably did as well.”
Virgil, with an unimpressed look on his face, considered Tod. “I reckon everyone heard’ja. En so what if they did?”
“There’s a group killing people,” Sarah said.
“Huh? Nah . . . nah, ya got that wrong. Ain’t seen anythin’ like that.”
“It-it’s a small group,” Tod said. “I don’t care if you believe me. We’re going.”
“Virgil should come with us,” Sarah said.
“Safer together, right?” she asked. “We agreed on this before. Besides, he has a weapon.”
“Yeah, Toad,” Virgil said, “I’ve got a weapon. What’cha got? Maybe ya scream at all dem monsters. Show dem who’s boss.” He grinned and caught Sarah’s eye, then faltered. “Eh, sorry. Screamin’ can be useful, eh?”
“Fine,” Tod said, spitting the word out. “And it’s Tod unless you want me to call you Virgin.”
“Ain’t gonna bother me, Toad.”
“Guys,” Sarah said, shaking her head.
“Ha! We’re jus’ havin’ a little fun. Ain’t we Toady? Anyways, I was lookin’ for resources when I heard you two . . . err, fightin’ en all. My helper say there are chests all over here.”
“Yes yes!” the fairy said, clearly excited to be included. “Fancy big chests. I show. You find goodies. You prepare! Nighttime scary, need resources!”
Virgil shoved up against a comb of springy branches, opening the way. “Guess I might could party up with ya. More the merrier. En the day ain’t lastin’ long if ya seein’ what I’m seein’.”
“No last, no!” the fairy said.
Sarah pushed through the opening, cautiously watching for anyone that might be eager to jump out from behind a tree. “Does your fairy know where the chests are?”
“Of course!” the fairy shouted. “I show, I show.” She zipped off into a new direction, leaving a trail of shimmering dust to follow.
Virgil stepped through and released the branches, which snapped back in place.
“Ouch!” Tod screeched. He shoved through the thicket and glared at Virgil. “You don’t seem like a team player, Virgin.”
“Ah, my bad! Totes ma goats, forgot you were with us. Best behavior from here on out. Pinky swear if you’d like?”
“I’m not pinky swearing with you.”
Virgil shrugged. “Best way to keep someone honest, honestly.”
“No, the best way is to have them sign a contract.”
“Ha! I pegged you good: sissy boy lawyer. Alright, alrighty right. Present your fancy-schmancy paper, and I’ll give you my autograph.”
“I don’t have a contract!”
“Then pinky promise?”
Tod glared for three solid seconds, mumbled something about verbal agreements, then held out his pinky.
“Ya dumber than rocks!” Virgil yelled and laughed. “I ain’t swearing nothin’. Most fun I’ve had in days.”
Sarah rolled her eyes and followed the fairy.
Virgil caught up and asked, “So where’s yer winged helper, Sarah? And yers, Toady McToadstool?”
She looked to Tod and his total lack of a fairy. It hadn’t even occurred to her that he was even missing one, not with her missing hers.
“My fairy?” Tod asked. “He . . . uh . . . abandoned me.”
“No no no!” Virgil’s fairy said, zipping back into conversational range. “Fairy no abandon Chosen. Abandon Chosen en lose. No fairy want to lose.”
“What can I say? This one did.”
The fairy watched him for a moment, suspicion narrowing her eyes. She then turned in the air and regarded Sarah.
“Mine?” she asked, swallowing the sudden pang of guilt that was trying to crawl up her throat. She glanced between the three of them and bit her lip. Telling the truth might alienate her from her new allies. But she was a terrible liar. . . .
“Mine,” she said again, “died.” She then quickly added, “It was an accident! I . . . didn’t mean to hit her so hard.”
And there it was, out in the open for all to know: she had killed her fairy; she was a murderous, evil, no-good person, just like those who were trying to kill the other contestants.
“Ho! Wowzers,” Virgil said, “you killed yer own fairy? Why on earth would ya go en do somethin’ like that?”
“She was throwing monsters at me! And when I barely survived, I . . . I . . . reacted. I didn’t mean to.”
“Ha! Dumb fairy,” the fairy said. “Who, who?”
“Dumb. . .? She was Apology Thirteen.”
“Hahaha! Me, Apology Twelve. She be friend. Best friend! You killed best friend!”
“I’m so, so sorry, I—”
“She dumb to die to human! So dumb!”
“How can say that? She died!”
“Died, yes. So sad.” She shrugged. “Come back later, yes.”
“Yes yes! Have divinity. Death not death. Death only break. She be back. I tease her. Thanks!”
Sarah felt a surge of relief. But then there was the unsaid truth lingering between the fairy’s words, a truth that had started to feel all too real:
This amazing, magical world was careless about death and danger. It was all a game to them because they had a divinity; they could come back to life. But she . . . couldn’t.