People in Your Neighbor­hood

The air was cold, and the sky was dark. A baby blue car was alone, parked so that the front would overlook Brightvale, and the lake. The lights from the city hit the fog on the car’s windows, and obscured the inside. A couple laughed, the sound muffled by glass and metal. The parking lot here was only dirt without pavement, and the trees ahead were cut so that the city could be seen through them.

There was a bright light behind them as a truck crested over the hill, the headlights on maximum brightness. The pistachio colored truck pulled up into a parking spot, with only one space between it and the car. The laughter and chatter inside the car slowed to stop.

A blue Bori sat in the driver’s seat. He had dark marks around his eyes, dark blue hair pulled into a ponytail, and a maroon suit. He put a brown paper bag over his head. The symbol of a circled star was drawn on the bag with a black marker: each stroke of the marker extended past what was necessary, which gave each point of the star a forked extension. He pulled a dark grey gun out of his glove box, then jumped out of the truck.

He walked up to the car, the gun in his right hand. He stopped at the door as condensate air billowed out from under his mask. The driver of the car, obscured by the fog on the windows, looked up.
Hey, uh… what do you need? Are you lost?
No response.
Can we uhm… help you with anything?

The first two shots were fired towards the driver. The occupant of the passenger’s seat screamed. The masked Bori smashed through the window with his gun between the two holes the bullets made, unlocked the door, then pulled it open. He looked down at the driver through the holes in the bag. A red Ixi in a brown dress suit. One bullet had gone through the victim’s head, and the other had gone into the seat. They lay motionless. He smashed the grip of the pistol into the driver’s mouth, stuffed his hand into it, and pulled out a canine tooth, which he put in his pocket.

He looked at the passenger, a blue Uni in red clothes, and they screamed again. He shot the passenger, and the bullet went through their waist. They let out a cry of pain. Despite this they managed to unlock the door, yank it open, and stumble out. The Bori slammed the driver side door in frustration, and walked around the back of the car. The passenger ran, the gravel under their shoes crunched and skidded as they went. The Bori followed, and took aim.

One shot fired, as the victim ran into the woods and out of sight. He followed them into the darkness. There was a short period of silence, broken only by the sound of the truck’s idle engine, and shards of glass as they hit the rocky ground.

Two more shots were fired in quick succession. Silence, once again.

The killer trudged back into the open, as he put another tooth into his pocket. He walked around the car, and back to the driver’s seat. From his jacket, he pulled a thick manilla envelope and opened the door, then the glove box, and shoved it in. The rough motion crumpled it on one side. He looked down at the driver. He hadn’t moved, as mist rolled over his face. The killer pulled himself out from the car, then slammed the door shut, as warm air flowed out of the hole in the window into the cold night. He turned, satisfied, and walked back to his truck. His own door closed, the gears shifted into reverse, and the truck drove off into the dark.

The early morning mist and overcast sky draped everything with a tinge of grayish blue. A dark blue truck pulled up into a parking space, and rocks crunched under its tires. The door opened, and an orange Acara hopped out, fishing pole in one hand. Her hair, jacket, jeans, and gloves were all different shades of blue as well. She picked up a rusted tacklebox (repainted bright red) with the name Jerry on it from the bed of the truck, and walked across the parking lot to a gap in the fence. Before she went down the path, and to the lake, she turned and looked to her right. There was another car on the other side of the parking lot, a baby blue pony car. She squinted to see through the mist.

The driver side window was broken.

Hm. That’s not good. she mumbled to herself and turned away from the path. She set her fishing pole and the tacklebox next to the stripped log fence, and walked towards the car. The closer she got to it, the more damaged it looked. Closer still, and she could see that someone still sat in the car despite the damage, a red Ixi.

Damn, what the hell happened here? she muttered to herself, then finished the thought in her head, Did they break into the car to sleep in it? No, that doesn’t make sense…. she shook her head. She stopped a few feet from the window. Hey, buddy. she raised her voice, What’s goin on, what’re you doin in there, you lost?

There was no response. She walked closer, careful not to step on the few shards of glass that had fallen outward. She looked in, and saw that most of the glass had shattered inward, and rested on top of the driver. Her heart started to beat faster, as she moved to see his face.

He wasn’t asleep. There was a hole in his forehead.

Voi paska…. she put her gloved hands over her mouth, as she stared wide-eyed at the driver. Ohhhhh fuck. Fuck, this… this isn’t good.

She pulled the door open, and more glass tumbled out onto the ground. She stared at him, and he didn’t move. She looked around the inside of the car. Two flat sodas in glass bottles rested in the cup holder between the seats. Next to that, in the center console was a wad of folded leather. A wallet. she blinked, then reached over him to grab it, Time to find out what your name is.

She bent over him, and brushed against him by accident. Mmh. Sorry buddy. she said as she leaned over him. Her neck was close to his mouth, and she felt a chill there, as if he’d breathed on her. She shook her head, rested her hand on the passenger seat, as she picked it up and opened it with one hand.

It was his wallet, not the passenger’s, as his face was printed on the ID card. She read his name, then his age. He was only 19. She shook her head again, then turned her head to look at him. Troy, huh…? Damn shame. Fuck. Who did this to you…?

She stared at his face. It was serene, but that only made her feel more sad and angry. Something seemed off to her, though, and she squinted. She looked closer at his nose & mouth, and held her breath. The mist that came from her mouth rose and dissipated, which left the air clear. She turned away to exhale, inhale, then looked back at him.

A small puff of warm air came from his nose. Her eyes widened.
No way.

She pressed her hand into his neck. Between his fur, and her gloves, she couldn’t feel anything. She pulled the gloves off, stuffed them into her jacket pocket, and felt again. He wasn’t warm, but not deathly cold either. She couldn’t feel his heartbeat. She tried the other side of his neck. Nothing. She put her hand up to his right temple, then held it there. As she pressed down, she could feel it. A weak, but rhythmic beat in a vein on the side of his head.

N- Oh my god. Holy shit you’re still alive.

She stumbled backward out of the car, and whipped her head around.
Phone. Oh fuck I need a phone. Where’s the closest payphone around here?? Fuck…! He’s still alive… oh god he’s still alive, if I… if I’d-had known…. she mumbled in panic to herself, as she began to run across the dirt parking lot to her car.


I have been told of your accident. Attacked in your own home, by a disgusting creature. Regrettable, of course, but you understand that this is the fate we of faith must endure. I am glad to hear that you are unharmed, and that the one who tried to hurt you was destroyed. I am also glad to hear that the group you have surrounded yourself with supports our goal, the extermination of the sinful and unclean. It reassures me to know, that after such a long period of silence from you, you have not swayed at all from our path.

However. The next time something like this happens, you will tell me about it first. I do not want to hear about this through hearsay again.

This world can destroy your possessions, but can never take away your faith. Hold tight to that faith in me, and The Highest, and nothing will touch you. I have willed it, so you shall receive an additional sum of money to repair your home. As long as the building is returned to working order, and used in service of The Highest, you may spend the money as you please. And do not worry about the judgement of your immediate elders. Your parents are very proud of you.

—The Servant of the Message
 D. M. 

Kenji drug himself forward up the sidewalk, upright, but exhausted. He looked to his left across the street, past Sechson’s affluent neighborhood which overlooked the campus. There was a quiet whine, which began to get louder and louder. He turned farther around to look behind him. He had to hold his hands up to his ears, as an ambulance screamed past him at speed and into the distance. It then turned onto a road that went farther up the hill, into the forest behind the houses. He put his arms down as the noise faded and he shook his head, now much more awake than he wanted to be.

The door was open as Kenji walked up to Sechson’s house through his driveway. It seemed intentional, since he could see people inside, so he resisted his instinct to close it behind him as he walked through. The air was just as brisk as the outside, though with no gusts of cold wind. Warren, Sechson, and someone he didn’t recognize stood there: a masculine yellow Kyrii with green eyes, a hard hat, and clipboard. Kenji looked back and forth between the three of them as they conversed.

…That’s good to know. So… the Kyrii scratched his head, Before I go, just when was uh… the last time you all had the wiring and everything inspected?
Warren turned to look at Kenji, and gave a single nod.
He nodded back.
I dunno. Sechson shrugged at the construction worker, then smiled and waved at Kenji, Hey.
Kenji waved and smiled back at him.
The Kyrii in the hard hat continued, Because uh… these outlets aren’t up to code, at all. Bare copper wire all over the place, right up next to wood and sheetrock. Just an absolute nightmare. I’m surprised the house hadn’t caught fire sooner.
The Bori blinked, R-really?
Yes, really. And I didn’t see a single RCI in the entire house, somebody’s liable to electrocute themselves.
Warren chortled, without a smile, Somebody did.
Oh. Sorry. Did they die?
No, though it goddamn felt like it.
Right, okay. See though? Even more reason to bring this place up to code. It’s like, more than forty years out of date, older than the Wernicke house, if you know what that is.
Sechson raised their hand, Sorry, uhm… what’s an RCI?
Oh, those are the uh, the Kyrii made a rectangular shape with his hands, Residual Current Interrupters. The electrical outlets with the test and reset buttons on them. They just turn off the whole outlet if there’s a ground fault.
Sechson stared and blinked, uncomprehending.
If you uh, stick something in there you’re not supposed to. Or like… you’ve got water on ya, and you touch some exposed wire or something. It keeps you from just getting electrocuted.
Oh, okay. I… we don’t have those.
Yeah, I know.
We should get those. Maybe we could have all the outlets be those?
Well, I mean, that’s not strictly necessary, you have a fuse box for a reason, after all. Considering how many outlets there are, that would get expensive pretty quickly. I was just thinking just… kitchen, bathrooms, laundry room, just that kinda thing.
Sechson shrugged, It can’t be that much.
Mmm. Alright, kid. the Kyrii side-eye’d him, I just hope your parents are okay with this.
Of course! he smiled.
Rrrright. Well. I gotta go, though, I’m off the clock. Good luck with uh… he gestured all around with his right hand, all this.
Oh, uh, okay. Bye!

Warren leaned toward the Kyrii, to stop him from leaving, Hey. One last thing, sorry. You looked over the paper I gave you, right?
Hmm? Oh yeah, that. Not entirely, but I’ll take a closer look at it soon.
Good. It’s very important. he moved out of the way.
Alright, sure. See you kids around. he raised his eyebrows, walked past Kenji, and ducked out of the house before anyone else could stop him.

Warren stared at the door, then out the window, to watch them leave. They chuckled, Poor guy. Prolly thinks we’re trying to make a frat house or something.
Oh? Kenji turned to look too, then back to Warren.
Yeah. Probably doesn’t see college students get this involved in home maintenance otherwise. Probably thinks I'm a wacko, from the specifications I gave him.
Sechson looked concerned, What did you give him?
Just a few alterations. For safety. Don’t worry about it.
Sechson scrunched up his brow, but didn’t say anything.
Kenji spoke up, You told me to come here?
Ah, yeah. Warren nodded, You said you needed to talk discreetly, well, in here is pretty discrete.
I see. What are we here for?
Us? he pointed back and forth between himself and Sechson with his thumb, He and I were lookin this place over. Seein if it’s fit to host the club again. It kind of is. Probably get together later, though not today unfortunately. I uh, understand you wanted to ask me something?
Yes, It was… ano, something important.
Oh? Is this a private thing? Do you wanna talk about this outside?
No… well, a little, but it’s fine, since it’s ano… a club thing.
Oh, it’s that kind of private, I see. Well, go ahead then.

Hai. Kenji nodded, So… I had another dream, one of those, the other day. he raised his eyebrows as he said those, and gave Warren a meaningful look, I don’t remember most of it, though.
But what I do remember, was a certain name. I think it was… Pa‧su‧ca? No… Kya‧se‧pa? Something like that. It was about a book, on dreams, that wouldn’t be in a library, and I was supposed to ask you about it.
Warren narrowed their eyes and tilted their head. Ask me about it? Me specifically?
Right. There was another person I could ask, but I don’t remember the name.
That… does sound like… I might know what book you’re referencing.
You do?
Was the name… Quasepal?
I… think it was, yes.
Hmm. That’s interesting.
Well, it could be a coincidence, but… an author by that name wrote a treatise on dreams, years ago. And I have, uh, access to that document, as it were.
Oh, it’s uh… it means, basically a uh, an academic paper. Detailing one specific subject, that’s longer than an essay but shorter than a book. Usually. I could be wrong, or talkin outta my ass, I dunno. I’d probably have to look it up. It’s not really a common word.

Sechson raised his eyebrows, That came to you in a dream?? A real book?
It might be. Kenji nodded.
Sechson turned to Warren, Things come to him in dreams?
Sometimes. Warren nodded too, It’s one reason he joined the club, to get an explanation for the dreams he has.
Oh wow. Spooky stuff.
Mmhm. Warren turned back to Kenji, And you’re right, by the way. That book would not be in a public library, Brightvale or otherwise. You’d probably set off some serious alarm bells if you asked for it.
It… contains some information that… they looked to the side, uncomfortable, then back to Kenji, would be best… kept to a minimum, from society at large. Things that ought not be common knowledge, according to some people.
That’s… ominous. I don’t like the way you put that.
I can get it for you, though. Just… don’t let anyone else see it. Or see you reading it. Just be careful with it in general. Did the dream say why you needed it?
If it did, I don’t remember. he shook his head.
I see. Well. Yeah. I’m pretty sure I can get it for you, don’t worry about it.

What was the other reason? Sechson asked Kenji, If you don’t mind me asking.
For what?
Oh, for joining the Paranormal Club, sorry. Unless it’s private, of course.
Ahh. Well, some reasons are private, but another is uhm… he shuffled a bit and leaned against the wall, I’m a bit embarrassed to say, it’s not very useful….
Warren cleared their throat, Don’t worry about it, Kenji. You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.
Mm. Thank you, sorry.
No, no, Sechson chuckled, I’m sorry. I’m just, curious about all this stuff. It’s all new to me. I don’t want to ask about anything uncomfortable, if I can help it.
Warren looked back over to Sechson, Probably a shame those books got kinda singed, then. I’d’ve liked it if you read more of those.
What happened to ‘em?
The outsides got some soot on them. Since most of them were closed when the uh, magical fire happened, the insides weren’t damaged nearly as bad as I thought they would be. Still, Rei’s trying to clean them up as best she can, before we have to return them. We’re hoping no one notices.
She is? he started to smile again, Where is she, by the way? Is that what she’s doing now?
Yeah, at her apartment. She couldn’t come anyway.
She blew a gasket trying to reproduce that spell for school. The one that blew up your living room.
What?? Oh my God, I mean uh, goodness! Is she okay??
Yeah, yeah, probably. I tried to convince her to chill out and not use any magic today. I doubt she’s really taking my advice. She said she’d be here later today, but she’s taking the day off from school or anything else strenuous.
Do you think she’d be okay with some help with the books?
Uh… maybe? You could call her I guess.
Alright! I’m gonna make sure she’s okay.

Sechson walked around Warren, down to the stone foyer, and slipped his sandals on.
Warren blinked in surprise, Y—you’re leaving? Now?
Sure. he shrugged, Can’t call ’er, phone’s still broke.
I know, but right now??
Yeah! Why not?
We were gonna look over your house!
It’s fine. he shrugged again, It looks fine to me. I’ll be back. See y’all!

Warren and Kenji stared as he fast-walked down his driveway, and left the two of them alone in his house, the door still open.

Uhh. Well. Okay. I guess I’m looking over this place myself.
Kenji chuckled. I guess we’re in private now.
Yeah. Warren started to pace around the room, and began to pick at the walls with their fingers.
I uh… did… want to talk to you about something else, in private.
They looked back over at him, Oh?
Hai. It was also about the dreams.
Ahh. I see. Was it that dream about the moon landing again?
No… well, maybe. I’m not sure. I keep seeing a certain person in my dreams….
Warren looked at him, and waited for Kenji to keep going.
Ahh. they winced, I… see. I’m sorry.
I’m fine. I don’t… ano, remember most of my dreams, but I do remember… him, being there. I think he’s trying to talk to me, tell me something. Do you think… we could do another…?
Another séance? Hmm. Maybe. I’m not sure. A whole lot of that spirit stuff, Andy and Jared took with ‘em, when Lucine kicked everybody out. I mean, it belonged to them, but… still. Most of what I have is for ghosts, and I don’t think that would really work the same. I’ll see what I can do, though. they nodded.
Kenji smiled, Thanks. Sorry to bother you with it….
No, don’t worry about it. If it’s bothering you, it’s bothering me. I’ll see what I can do.

Ibriz sat at a glass and metal table in front of a cafe, the second story of which being her hotel. She read a magazine, and winced as she sipped from a cup of terrible coffee. She’d brought her luggage which sat next to her, packed in a suitcase under the table. The rays of the sun evaporated the mist, as she sat alone at her table. Several other patrons were around, all people previously on the plane like her.

Two uniformed neopians walked around at the edge of her vision. She heard her name amongst their mumbles, as they spoke to a worker at the counter. Ibriz cleared her throat in anticipation for them to speak to her.

They had begun to walk in her direction, but her attention was drawn away from them as a grey Gnorbu walked up to her. He wore an orange turban & pants, a maroon shirt, and began his request with a bow.

Excuse me, sorry to bother you. You wouldn’t happen to have seen a pair of reading glasses around? They’ve fallen out of my pocket, you see.
Hm? Oh, my apologies, I don’t think I have.
Ahh, mmmh, that’s too bad.
I’ll make sure to find you if I do see them, however.
Many thanks! he chuckled and bowed his head again, then went on.
She watched him go, and he’d stopped to ask someone else the same question.

In that time, the two uniformed individuals had arrived, and waited their turn to speak to her. She turned her head to look at them. One was a red Lupe, the other, a green Bori. Both of them were masculine, and wore a blue international police uniform, complete with the white dome-shaped helmets, and black sunglasses.
She nodded her head out of politeness, Can I assist you?
Yes, hopefully. the red Lupe on the right spoke, Are you Ibriz Sa’id?
Oh? Yes, I am her.
Good. We’d like to ask you a few questions.
Mm, she nodded, ask away, then.

The two of them looked at each other, then back to her. They both pulled out their badges, which were in folded badge-wallets. The letters NCIP were emblazoned on the top half of the wallets, above their badges.

We’re here on behalf of Neopia Central. To be clear, this is not an interrogation. You have the right to refuse answer, and/or remain anonymous.
They put away their badges, According to the testimony of the plane staff, you claimed that you… felt a spell being cast, just before the incident. Is that true?
Ahh. she raised her eyebrows, Yes. I suppose you heard about that?
The two of them nodded.
She continued, That is correct. A very powerful spell.
Right. Do you believe the spell to be the cause of the malfunctions?
In my opinion?
The Lupe nodded.
I have no proof, but there is no doubt in my mind. Yes.
Can you describe it, what you felt? Try to be as objective as you can.
Massive pulse of magical energy. Lightning magic. It had a direction: she gestured from behind her, it came from the back of the plane, to the front.
I see.

The two looked at each other again, and nodded. The green Bori then spoke.
Now, from your time on the flight… did you notice any individuals that looked suspicious?
Hmm… that, I am less of a help. I’m afraid I kept mostly to myself. Did not observe the other passengers much.
I see.

There was a loud mechanical noise, which made her look away from her conversation. The bus was here. She inhaled, then set down her coffee.
Ahh. The red Lupe looked up to see the bus as well, I see you’re about to be busy. We’ll follow up later, if you’ll allow it.
Of course. she nodded again, Have a good day.

They bowed their heads and began to leave, as several people stood up at once, Ibriz included.
The grey Gnorbu looked up, distressed, Oh dear. he whispered to himself.

Not everyone who had been in the plane crash had chosen to ride the bus back to Brightvale, the closest international airport. The Gnorbu had stayed behind to look for his glasses, but many had rented cars, or called others for transportation. Another Fæ took transportation into her own hands, and had decided to fly away. To where, Ibriz couldn’t guess. She sat with her elbow against the window, as the last of the passengers and their luggage filtered to the empty seats that remained.

Someone caught her attention as they walked up into the bus: a Kyrii dressed in an expensive suit of black and gold. She recognized him as the one that fled the burning bathroom, and recalled the memory of his face and head ablaze. Once extinguished, he’d refused to be hospitalized, or even treated for his wounds, instead, he’d opted to have his charred face wrapped in the gauze from the first aid kit, and little else.

The seats in the bus were booths, a single long pad meant for two people. Every pair of booth seats faced each other, with a small table made of thin laminated wood between them. Neopia Central Airlines spared no expense for people who could potentially sue them.

The bandaged Kyrii looked around, his hands at his hips, and Ibriz looked around as well. The booth across from her was the only one open at this point, and he was the last one to have boarded. He shrugged, walked over, and sat across from her.

Greetings. Apologies for the intrusion.
Not a problem, the seat is open. she bowed her head at him.
His accent was subtle, with something strange and familiar to her about it. He moved his luggage over, and scooted it under the table with his foot. The bus driver must have assumed everyone was in their places, as the whole vehicle lurched forward. Many passengers grabbed onto the table in surprise, and so did the Kyrii across from her. The bus began to roll forward, and it bounced a bit as it went from the side of the road to the asphalt.

She’d kept her eyes on him without being aware of it, and he chuckled at her.
Oh! she blinked, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to stare. It’s the bandages; I’m just hoping that you’re alright, after what you’ve been through.
Hmhmhm. I appreciate the sentiment, truly. But you don’t have to worry, I’m quite alright.
That’s good. I’m not much for healing magic, but I would offer, if I could.
Nooo, no. he seemed uncomfortable at the suggestion, as he leaned farther back into his seat, That won’t be necessary. What is your name, by the way?
My name? I am Ibriz. Goldsmith and enchanter by trade.
I see! And enchanter? That’s interesting. Do you have any enchanted items to sell?
Very little at the moment. I sold most of my stock during the Færie Festival. Is there anything in particular you’re looking for?
Just curious, mostly. You wouldn’t happen to have anything that causes magical darkness? Something… non-violent, to blind, and defend myself with?
Mm, not darkness. However, if you’re looking for self defence, I might have something with a similar use.

She reached into her pack, and felt around. As she was distracted, something clicked for her: That’s what his accent is. He’s from Qasala, I think. Interesting. she clasped a gold encrusted gem, Ah! then pulled it from her bag, This. she held it out for him to inspect, A citrine jewel, enchanted to shine as bright as the sun, even in the darkest night. The holder cannot be blinded by it’s light, but all else will be visible to you.
Hm! he raised his eyebrows, Sounds useful. Is that real gold?
It is indeed. she nodded.
By its construction, valuable enough on its own, even before the enchantment. Is it a sort of one-and-done kind of spell?
It is, unfortunately. It shines with such brightness that it can only be used once.
Still, quite useful. How much would you want for it?
For you? 1380⃄.
Mmm, I see. I do have enough, but I think I’ll need some assistance.
Do you?
Yes, you see, I… was compelled to exchange some of my native currency to Brightvale’s, in order to buy things there.
She nodded.
But the… amounts, they’re very strange, to me. I was given several bills, with numbers such as 23, 53, and 101 on them. Is this normal?
Ah! she laughed, Yes, though only normal to them. It’s king Hagan’s doing. It makes commerce in large bills rather… unintuitive.
I… see.
The currency itself is neopoint, so it will still be accepted anywhere a Neopia Central bank is located, but I’m sure the denominations are less than convenient.
Indeed. Are you able to provide change?
Thankfully, yes, you need not worry.
Ah, wonderful. Lovely, doing business with you.
Why thank you. she pulled a small book from her pack, And what was your name, by the way?

He looked out the window for a moment, as he did some sort of mental calculation.
My name is… Qirat. he smiled with a chuckle, and a self-satisfied expression hidden by his bandages.
She recognized the name as a Qasalan one, and wrote it down in the book, the ledger of all the things she’d sold, and for what price. She narrowed her eyes at him, unsure of why he would say his own name in such a suspicious way. The words of the NCIP officer about suspicious individuals reappeared in her mind.

Mayla sat in a chair next to the hospital bed. The Ixi who lay there had his head wrapped up tight, some parts of his fur shaved off around the wound. The heart monitor was quiet, but steady, as were the sounds of the foot traffic from the other side of the curtains. The lights were low, and what little there was came either from outside the room, or from the medical equipment that surrounded him. Her stomach growled, so she looked down and put a hand to it.

A pair of black boots walked up to the curtain. It was pulled aside, which let the bright light from the rest of the intensive care unit inside. Mayla winced, and the curtains closed again, as a purple Xweetok straightened out her black coat. Once Mayla realized it wasn’t a doctor, she stood up to greet her.

The Xweetok spoke first, Hey there. How’s it going?
Ah, hello! Who are you? Mayla held out her hand.
The other shook her hand back, Hello! My name’s Yolanda, detective, on behalf of the Brightvale Police. Just came in to check on you two.
Ahh, I see!

Yolanda walked over, and looked at the patient. She shook her head.
So… Mayla looked back and forth between the two of them, do you all know what happened?
Well, she turned back to look at her, not everything, not yet. That part’s my job.
Mmm. How much am I allowed to know?
Well, I mean, a reasonable amount, for a civilian.
A uh, a civilian. she looked to the side, Right.
Mmhm. We have a team at the scene, and a recording of your call.
Yolanda pulled up a notepad, But there’s still a couple more things that we need to make sure of, if you don’t mind.
Oh? Sure, I guess. Ask away.
First of all, your name?
Oh, Mayla.
Full name, for the record.
Ahh, Mayla Rademacher. Do you need my middle name?
Thank you, and no, first and last is fine. Can you spell that for me?
Which one?
Oh, alright. Mayla, m-a, y-l-a, Rademacher is uh, r-a-d, e-m-a, c-h-e-r.
Thank you. she scribbled it down on the pad, You from up north?
Ahh, yeah! Was it the accent?
Haha, yep.
Yeah, one side of my family is from here, the other is from way up there past Neopia Central.

Mm. Well, second…. Yolanda continued, Did you see anyone else around the scene, when you were there?
No. Not that I’m aware of.
No passerbys, no hitchhikers, no one driving past?
Nope. It seemed like I was the only person there.
I see. she nodded and scribbled something on her pad.

Mayla thought for a moment, then interrupted her note-taking: Do we know who the other soda belonged to?
Hm? she blinked, looked up, then tilted her head, I’m sorry? Other soda?
There were two sodas in the car. Doesn’t that mean there were two people?
She made a small noise in surprise, somewhere between a murmur and a chuckle, You… got a good look in there didn’t you?
Haha, yeah, I did.
Mmhm. Well, she glanced at the Ixi, this was only one of the victims.
Oh? her expression tensed up, What happened to the other one?
They uh… didn’t make it. I’m sorry.
She stepped back, and looked down at the floor, Oh… fuck me.
They passed on long before you got there, there’s nothing you could’ve done.
She pulled her gaze back up to the detective, …Do we know who did it?
Well, in a way, but not their real name. You’ll probably be hearing about it on the news later, if you watch that kind of thing.
She raised an eyebrow, Wait… she narrowed her eyes, you don’t mean the…?
It’s another one, yeah.

Mayla blinked, and shook her head, This was… the Ophiuchus killer?
Mm. she looked away, We’re pretty sure it is, unless it’s someone mimicking them. Found another letter by them in the glove compartment. Some gibberish written in code. You’re lucky that you found all this after whoever-they-are left.
No kidding. Gods above.

So… on the phone, did they talk to you about how you found him?
Oh, Troy? Yeah. A bunch of the bluebloods talked to me about ‘em before the ambulance got there.
You know the victim?
Him? Nah.
How do you know his name then?
Oh, I saw it in his wallet.

Yolanda scrunched up her brow, You had his wallet?
Hey, I didn’t take any money from it, if that’s what you’re worried about, I’m not that kind of person.
N— no, I mean, how did…?
Oh, right. I went into the car to look over him, everything else. Saw it in the center console. I didn’t mean to keep it, but… I had it… and once I found out he was alive, I got kinda carried away…. I realized I still had it on me when I got to the payphone at the gas station, when I reached for my wallet.
His parents’ll prolly want it. I know I don’t need it. I put it next to ‘em on the table by the bed.
But why did you pick it up in the first place?
She shrugged, I just wanted to know what his name was.
Hm. …Fair enough, I guess, but… she looked away, then back, for uh… she chuckled, for future reference, if you’re ever at any crime scenes, you uh, probably shouldn’t touch anything.
I’ll try not to be at future crime scenes in general, I’ve had enough violence in my life. she nodded, and gave a light chuckle as well, I mean, I know that, not to mess with a crime scene, I’m sorry. I don’t really know what I was thinking. It just came out of nowhere, and I’m curious by nature, I suppose.
I understand.

Mayla glanced to the side, and looked faint.
Yolanda noticed this, and leaned forward, Are you alright?
Yes, yes. It’s just…. Can we do the uh, full interview or whatever, later?
I’m just… I haven’t had any breakfast yet, and I’m starving.
Sure, sure, of course. We weren’t really doing an interview anyway.
Oh, thank goodness. I don’t know if my blood sugar could last through that. By the way… once I leave, am I… allowed to know if he gets better?
I realize he’s a stranger to me, but… I dunno, I feel bad leaving him here.
Hey, don’t worry about it. He’s safe. I can get you in contact with his family, if you want.
I d… I dunno. I don’t wanna be a hero or anything, I just wanna, you know, know if he turns out alright.
Yolanda nodded, Right. I can give you a call.
Alright…. Well…. I’m… probably gonna go get some breakfast now. This… isn’t really how I planned to spend my morning, if you— if you can imagine that.
She smirked and chuckled, Yeah, I uh, I understand. I hope the rest of your day is uh, mercifully uneventful.
She chuckled too, Heh. Thanks. See you around, hopefully in a better situation.
Yolanda smiled, then nodded.

Mayla’s mind was preoccupied with the idea of breakfast. She imagined it in vivid detail: a tube of breakfast sausage, wrapped in blueberry pancake like a corn dog. Savory, sweet, and a little spicy, all at once in each bite. The smell of coffee, though perhaps not the bitter taste, wafted over everything in her imagination. She inhaled, closed her eyes, and smiled.

She bumped up against something, and it snapped her out of her daze. She shook her head a bit, and looked around, then down. She’d run into a blue Zafara on crutches, though it hadn’t impacted him enough to knock him over.

Oh, goodness! she put her hands up to her mouth, I’m sorry about that, I wasn’t looking where I was going.
Sorry, sorry. Jared nodded, You’re good.
Do you need any help?
Nahh, nah, I got it.
Alright. Again, sorry about that. You take care now!

Jared nodded at the orange Acara as she walked off. He watched her take a long look at the cafeteria, pause for a moment, then continue to walk away.

He made it to the large glass doors at the front of the hospital, and looked out. Andy was already there. Jared grimaced. Andy was a yellow Kyrii with curly yellow hair, brown eyes, and a bright red letterman jacket. All the rest of his clothes —gloves, dress slacks, shoes, and undershirt— were bright white, save for the screen printed logo of Brightvale University on his shirt. He leaned out from the driver’s seat of a green and brown station wagon, and waved him over.

Hey man!! he honked the car horn three times, You coming?
Just a minute. Jared spoke loud, as he made his way out from the glass double doors to the sheltered drive.
Keep on steppin, slowpoke! I got people behind me, ya know! You wouldn’t wanna hold everybody up would you?
I’m in crutches, fuckass! he frowned at him, Just a minute!
Hahaha! Well, at least your head wasn’t damaged that much.

Jared made it over to the back side of the car, and opened the door. He tossed his satchel of paperwork and personal effects into the back seat, then lowered himself into the seat. He looked over at Andy as he slid back down into the driver’s seat, then pulled his crutches around him and into the floor of the car.

Jared sighed as he slammed the door shut, God, my armpits are fuckin aching.
Armpits? Why? Andy pressed on the gas, and the car revved forward.
These crutches, man, they’re hard as hell. Digs into me every time I put my weight on ‘em. Did you know how much these things hurt?
Nope. Andy shrugged.
Well, now ya do.
Sounds fascinating.

The car jostled as they went around the hospital drive, and out into traffic. The college was visible in the distance, along the side of the long road both it and the hospital were on. They drove away from the school, and towards the shops and commercial buildings.

So, Andy glanced at him through the rear-view mirror with a grin, tell me about it!
About what?
The kidnapping, the torture! his eyes and his smile was wide, What all did they do to ya?
Jared didn’t respond, and just looked at him.
What’d they look like? Was it like the movies? Do you still have all your claws?
What the fuck, dude.
God, I’m jealous.
Of what, getting kidnapped??
Yeah? What else would I be talking about?
You fuckin mental? That shit hurt like hell! I’m gonna be having nightmares about that shit for weeks! Probably.
That’s fascinating though, he gripped the steering wheel tighter as he said facinating, it’s like something from a movie or a TV show! I’d love to experience something like that. Besides, I could use it as an excuse to skip school.
You’re fuckin out of your mind, man. Could you have at least waited until we got back to the dorm?
Andy looked back at him through the mirror again, his smile gone, Why?
I don’t wanna… fuckin… talk about it right now.
Aww. Whatever then. he chuckled and looked back to the road, Did you hear about what happened to the Paranormal Club?
Jared decided —again— to say nothing.
They got attacked.
Jared looked up at him, a flash of panic on his face. He didn’t think Andy noticed, so he forced his expression to return to normal, Oh yeah?
That new place they’re at, that rich kid’s house? Somebody really messed ‘em up.
When was that?
The day you were snatched up, you missed the whole thing.
Ho… holy shit. he whispered to himself, That… must have been….
N— nothing. Don’t worry about it. Are they alright?
Pfft, what do we care?
Just because they fucked us over doesn’t mean I wanna see ‘em dead.
Eh. he shrugged, They’re fine, I think.
That’s… good.

They slowed to a stop as the traffic light above them flashed yellow. As the car stopped, Andy turned his whole body around in the seat to look at Jared. He had a muted, mischievous smile on his face, and spoke in a sing-song tone: There’s something you’re not telling meee.

The light turned red, and he continued, Nuh-uhh. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about. You know I can tell when you’re hiding something.
Just… wait until we get back to the dorm, I don’t wanna talk about it right now.
I’m not asking about the torture, Jared. I saw your reaction. This has something to do with the Paranormal Club doesn’t it.
He stared back, and didn’t answer.
That’s what I thought. You can’t slip that stuff past me. Go on, out with it.

The light turned green, but neither of them moved.
The uh, the light’s green.
Andy stared back with a placid smile.
Uh… there are people behind us.
Tell me I’m wrong then.

There was a short honk from behind them, but Andy had no reaction.
H-hey! Come on man, you’re holding up traffic!
I’m not doing anything. Don’t hide things from me.
This is…. Jared swiveled his head around to look behind him. The other cars flashed their headlights and honked with more aggression, This is fuckin embarrasing, man.
Tell me.
Alright! Fuck! Fine!! Can you just hit the gas already??

Andy eased off the brake, and the car rolled forward. He didn’t take his eyes off Jared.
It— fuckin— look at the fuckin road, man.
Tell me now.
I am! I am. It… the guy who messed me up… wanted to know where the Paranormal Club was having their meetings. That’s what he was fucking me up for.

Andy nodded, satisfied, then turned back in his seat to face the road, and accelerated. Some of the cars behind them continued to honk for a few more seconds.

That’s interesting.
Mmh. Jared sunk in his seat.
What does some psycho want with a supernatural-themed after-school club?
Why don’t you ask yourself that?
Ha! That’s a good one, I like that. No, I doubt they wanted to expand their knowledge of the Outside, what with the whole burning the club down. he looked back at Jared in the mirror again, You’re gonna have to tell me about them. Their personality, what their voice was like. You promise?
Yeah. Sure.
You’d better.

Jared huffed and looked out the window, as he leaned against the door panel, chin pressed into the upholstery. There were little dots on the window, as it started to sprinkle outside. A neon sign for The Rocket, an arcade, whizzed past. He watched as a white van with the words Superior Cleaning Products emblazoned on it pulled into the parking lot. Andy drove too fast to see much more, so his eyes went elsewhere.

The pre-noon sun filtered through the overcast sky, as sprinkles began to hit the pavement. Everything outside had become desaturated from the clouded light, which made the inside of the arcade more colorful than the outside. A green Grarrl stood at the front counter, with a white tank top, blue sweatpants, and a faux-gold chain around his neck. He tossed his hair —a brown, side-swept, and very obvious wig secured to his head— as he looked out the large windows to the parking lot. A large white van pulled up to a front row parking space, and turned off its lights. Two neopians exited the car: a large, muscled grey Lupe, and a tall, lithe orange Myncii, both in suits.

Who the….? the attendant leaned forward and squinted to get a better look at them, Who the hell are these clowns? Wait… are these the…? he backed away from the window, Oh god. Oh fuck. It’s the fuckin goverment or somethin. Ohhh god.

He lowered himself down behind the counter, and his flip-flops slipped against the tiled floor in the back as he sat down, They’re on to me. It’s fuckin over, man. I gotta get outta here. Change my name. I’m so fuckin screwed. I gotta bail outta the fuckin fire exit or somethin.

The bell attached to the door rang, as the door opened. His expression went wide-eyed as he froze in place. The head of the orange Myncii popped up over the counter.
Heh-hey buddy!!

The Grarrl screamed and pulled back, then held a hands up between himself and the Myncii in the pinstripe suit. The agent with the spiked up orange hair smiled and looked around.
What’s uh, what’s goin on down here? You havin a picnic down there or somethin buddy?
AAH! HEY HEY HEYY, UH. Uhhh, hey buddy! he put his hand down, but his eyes were still wide, Friend-o! Oh-ho god! What can uh, what can I do for ya? he said as he pulled himself up off the floor.
I’m sorry, I didn’t uh, didn’t spook ya did I?
No! I’m fine.
I gave you a big ol’ spookerino! Eheheheh. Sorry, sorry about that, didn’t mean to freak you out or nuthin. he gestured with a free hand as he leaned on the counter with one elbow, I’m just, like, naturally a master of stealth and manipulation.
Right, yeah.
I’m so fucking cool.
Yeah, cool, real cool, man, uh. So uh. What do you uh. Fine fellows need, with uh, with me?

The grey Lupe walked in through the door, her shoulders so broad as to brush against the threshold on both sides. The Grarrl’s eyes widened again in additional panic.

She‘d heard his question: Not you. she said, and shook her head, Just business.
The uh… the whole operation? Oh god. I’m uh. I’m not walkin outta this alive, am I.
Dylan pulled his head back, What?? Whoa! C’mon, dude, calm down, dude, don’t worry about it, we’re cool!
Cool? Everything is cool? You’re not…? his eyes went back to their normal size, Comin in to bust me or whatever? I gotta tell ya, I am… so fucking confused right now.
What do you think this is about? Dylan narrowed his eyes.
Uh. Well, I uh, was hoping that uh, you would uh… do the… pleasure of… informing me, of that. The charges held against me, or what have you.
I dunno what you think this is about, but were not charging you with anything. We’re here about Zelig.

His face went blank, and his eyes moved around as he thought harder, Zelig… I uh… do I know a Zelig?
Anastasia spoke, Zelig Weimann?
Wait. he looked back up at them, You talkin ‘bout Mister Weimann? The kid? Blue Bori, blue hair, up in a ponytail?
Yeah. Dylan nodded, You knew ‘em?
Oh yeah! Yeah yeah, I don’t know ‘em know ‘em, but I seen the guy. He comes in here every other day. Why, what did he do, fall down a well or somethin? Heheheh.

The Lupe and the Myncii turned to look at each other, then back to him.

Uh…. the Grarrl looked back and forth between the two of them, He uh… didn’t actually get hurt did he?
Well… that’s kind of what we need to know.
Oh man. I shouldn’t’ve joked about that. Shhhit. he massaged his brow and looked down, Well, what happened to ‘em?
He’s uh, he’s stable. Not getting worse, we think. But we’re… really not at liberty to say, specifically, exactly.
Whaddya mean?
It’s a uh… patient… doctor-patient confidentiality! Yeah. That’s what it is. Anyway, yeah. We need to know as much as possible about… everything he was up to.
Ahh. I see then. Then this is uh, not… about me. Or any uh, he raised his eyebrows, hypothetical then brought them back down, illegal activity.
Yeah, no. So long as it doesn’t involve Zelig, we couldn’t care less.
Oh thank god. he put a hand to his face, Well uh, anyway. My uh, my name’s Brutano.
Nice ta meetcha. Dylan smiled.
And uh… what was your name? Again?
Oh, I'm—

The Lupe stepped forward and interrupted Dylan, No no, I apologize. Names not necessary.
Well, Brutano frowned, you don’t need to know my name, then.
…Y— you already told us what your name was.
Wait, I did? Dammit. Why did I fuckin do that. I mean, then uh… y’all make sure that you uh… don’t remember it. Don’t write it down, you hear me?
Anastasia blinked, then looked at Dylan.
He leaned his elbow against the glass counter, Heyyyy, don’t worry about it! Don’t worry about it big guy! Here, I’ll tell you my name.
She frowned, and spoke quietly, We discussed this earlier. No names.
It’s fiiiine. Nobody gives a shit about who I am. he chuckled, in a half-whisper.
She growled at him.
Just me, then, not you. he turned back to the attendant, My name’s Dylan. Nice ta meetcha.
He held out his hand, but the Grarrl didn’t respond to it, hands firm on his hips.
Right. Dylan put his hand back into his pocket, Anyway. If you can help us with Zelig, we’d really appreciate it.

Brutano’s expression softened a little, and he looked to the side. …Yeah alright. But you put me down as like, he pointed down at the counter, an anonymous source, alright? So whadda you spooks need to know, huh? How thorough do you want? I ain’t got a photographic memory or nuthin, ya know.
Whatever he was up to the last time you saw him, or leading up to it. Just as much as you can remember.
Alright. I do, actually, feel bad for the kid. Sorry if I seem insensitive, you just caught me at a real bad time.
Yeah, yeah, that’s understandable.

Well. I’ll try and be as detailed as possible. For his sake, not for you two. He came in, asked me for some tokens or whatever. He pulled out a uh… small wallet—
A uh, smallet? If you will? Heh, eheh, heheheheh.
The attendant stared at him with a furious, wide eyed expression, So are you uh… gonna shut up let me finish? Or what?
No! I mean uh, yes! Yeah, go ahead, yeah. You’re good. Keep talkin, you’re good.
You. he pointed at Dylan, You think you’re some kinda joker, do ya? Well, you’re not. You’re pissin me off.
I’m sorry, yeah, uh, sorry. You can keep going.
After a short, angry pause, the Grarrl continued: Right. Anyway. He gave me a coppa’, and I gave him a bunch of them funny bucks, and he fucks off to the back of the building to play his favorite game. That is, literally, the last time I seen him. He didn’t even buy a soda or nuthin. I didn’t even see when he left the store, I think I mighta left him in here. None-a these doors lock from the inside, you can just push ‘em open to get out after hours.
Anastasia tilted her head, Gave you copper?
Oh, no, sorry, Dylan piped up, that’s slang around here for a fiver. Money.
Ahh. Understood.
Yeah. the attendant looked back and forth between the two of them, He worked pretty hard for that cash. Put in more effort than I ever would for five bucks.
He tell you about that?
Nah, the other little bastards were jealous of ‘em. Told me about it like I could do somethin about it. You’d be surprised what they talk about when they run outta money, waitin’ for their parents to pick ‘em up. I ain’t got nuthin else to do around here but listen to ‘em.
I take it you don’t like working here?
No. No I do not. Got fired from the adult supercenter down the road a few months ago. Buncha fuckin nerds prancin around here, ain’t no broads come in here. No offense to your fuckbuddy or whatever they are.
Oh, heheh. he smirked, Nah, we’re not a thing.
Right. he looked at her, Single?
She frowned at him, You’re not my type either, don’t get any ideas.
Rrright. Figures. Always gotta check, ya know what I’m sayin?
The two agents didn’t respond to that.
Ehh. Whateva.

So…. Dylan squinted, What were you up to? Just curious.
Whadda-you mean?
Like, since nobody’s actually arresting anybody or anything, what were you doing that was so illegal?
Are you… are you serious?
Oh yeah, totally! I don’t give a shit. Unless it’s, like, trafficing or actively hurting people or something.
You mean like drugs or somethin?
Is it that?
No, but… this… this some kinda… he pointed back and forth between them, some kinda advanced interrogation technique or somethin? Get my guard down or whatever?
What?? Noooo, don’t worry ‘bout it.
She looked back over to Dylan and whispered, Why are you asking him this?
I’m curious! he whispered back, A guy can’t just say oh, I’m doing something super illegal and then expect me not to be curious about it.
Okay look, the Skeith interrupted, I can hear you two. You ain’t bein sneaky.
Well spill the beans then!
He sighs, Okay, fine. It’s probably somethin neither a you two would need though, considerin’ all that hair you got.
Dylan tilted his head, What?
I’m havin somethin done. I got me a product. It’s called uh, The Ulti-Max Hair Growth Solution. It’s full-a hair maximizing science chemicals, or whateva, tailored to your specific hair. Extremely illegal substances, so I’m told.
Uh, sure.
And I do mean, specifically, to your own hair. They take every hair follicle from the rest-a your body, and concentrate them onto your scalp. Using science.
Uh. Is that…? Even a thing you can do?
I had to talk to a guy, down in the Haunted Woods and have me knocked out for like, an hour. It’s a procedure. After I woke up, I got this kickass head of hair. I used to have a real mustache, but uh, that had to go. Extra volume, ya know what I mean?? This one’s fake. I think it’s a reasonable trade for a head of hair like this.
Are you sure? It just looks like a wig.
WHAT?? his eyes went wide, It does NOT look like a wig! You get the fuck outta here!!
Whoa-ho, hey, easy now.
I mean it buddy, I’m getting real tired-a your shit, joker.
Anastasia cleared her throat, Perhaps, we can… take a break. she turned to her partner, Dylan, could you look around to the… what are they called?
Arcade machines?
Yes, those. she turned back to Brutano, Do you know which machine Zelig played?
Brutano folded his arms, Yeah. It was called Alphacube, I’m pretty sure. It’s over there by the hall, before the stairs that go up to the manager’s office and the uh, emergency exit. You can go out that way, too, it’s not connected to an alarm or anything.
Dylan looked to the side, Right. Thanks. he gave a sarcastic salute to him, I’ll uh, check it out.

He stared at the cabinet. The word Alphacube was emblazoned on a lighted panel above the screen. Just from a glance, he could tell that the graphic capabilities of the machine far exceeded the level of everything around it.

Hmm. Alright. he paced around, and continued to stare at it as his voice shifted to a mumble, Well. That’s unusual, I guess, but nothing anomalous. As far as I can see anyway.

Dylan glanced down, and to his left. A pink Wocky stood there, a child no taller than his hips. They wore a pink shirt, and denim overalls, with rainbow patterned stripes on their straps and shoes.
Uh. Hey there.
Hi! the child smiled.
Hey buddy, how ya doin.
Oh yeah?
I’m sad about Zelig.
Oh! he raised his eyebrows, and turned to face them, Hey, you know him?
Mmhm. I know everything about him, all sixteen of him. they nodded.
Uh. Dylan blinked, Sure, that’s a uh… normal thing to say.
The child smiled and giggled
Do you… know that he got hurt?
Yeah. they nodded, It’s really sad. He doesn’t deserve something like that.
No kidding. Do you know what happened?
Uh-huh. A long time ago, he tried to change a fundamental aspect about himself, and he broke into pieces. Zelig was just one of them.
R… right, uh. he looked around, confused, Are we…? Talking about the same thing?
Hm? About Axel or Zelig?
Zelig. Who—
Oh, right! Yeah. Same thing, except not that long ago, and he’s only just in two pieces now, his soul and his body.
Uh. Where… is his soul, then?

The child pointed at the machine. Alphacube. Dylan looked over at it. The screen played a demo of the gameplay, a side-scrolling fighting game, as it waited to be played. The locations in the background seemed familiar, though he couldn’t put his finger on it. The child began to pull a necklace out from the front chest pocket of their overalls. They turned, and bolted away, and their shoes made no sound as they ran.

I uh, I see. Could you uh, elaborate on tha—

Dylan had turned back to look at them, but the child was gone.

Wh— what? Where the hell did they go? What was that about? he stepped back, Fuckin… weird-ass little gremlin.

He looked over at Anastasia and Brutano. They hadn’t noticed his strange encounter, and the two of them spoke about something he was too far away to hear over the noises of the machines. Neither looked like they were having a good time, he thought. He sighed, then turned to look at the machine again. The scene had changed. A short reddish Mynci faced off against a tall bluish Hissi, both wore gakurans and held katanas. They fought on the rooftop of a white concrete building, a massive stylized sun in the background with a spiral of colors: black, white, red, and yellow. He squinted. There was something familiar about the Mynci, to him. The Mynci did something with their hand, and the Hissi’s sword snapped into two pieces.

The scene changed before he could look closer. He sighed again. Fuck it, dude. Whatever. I gotta take a piss.

Yeah, yeah. What was his name, Jeff or something?
Mm. Anastasia had her head on the counter as Brutano rambled, Sure.
Yeah, he uh. He caught me whackin it to the supermodel posters. Fuckin asshole. He should-a minded his own damn business, it ain’t hurtin nobody if I do that.
She grunted.
So I says to him, I tell ‘em that he’s pissed off the wrong guy, that I’m gonna bring down the thunda on his ass. I mean, I don’t, I just went home. But he don’t know that. He’s… heh heh heh. He’s probably lookin out the window all the time, dreadin’ the day I come back and knock him down a peg. This was, like about a month or two ago, I think. Maybe six. I dunno. I don’t really keep track of time nowadays.
Yeah. After that, I uh, got this job here. Manager’s a real fuckin weirdo. Looks like a kid, but they’re like, an adult or somethin. Little thing runnin around in overalls. They pay me, so that’s as far as my shit-giving goes. I don’t see ‘em for months, usually. Locked up in that manager’s office upstairs. They’re like a fuckin cryptid or somethin.
Is that so.
Yeah. Real fuckin weird. Anyway, I was talkin to some broad the other day, some kid’s mom, I think. She got real pissed and threatened to call the cops on me, same old same old. But she got to talkin, and like, I wasn’t really listening to what she was sayin, but like, I started to actually listen to what she was sayin, and she was talkin about uh, some other kid that also went to the hospital, kinda like Zelig, right?
Anastasia’s ears perked up, Hm?
Yeah, apparently they were playin the same game he was.
Oh? Alphacube?
Yeah, that one. We get complaints about it all the time. Well, we get compliments too, apparently it looks real good or something. I dunno, I don’t play video games, unless they got like, boobs in ‘em or somethin. They had one-a-those back at the supercenter. God I miss that thing. Ain’t no booby games over here. Fuckin shame, that’s what that is.
What complaints do you get about Alphacube?
Oh, uh. Headaches, insomnia, seizures, vomiting. Had to wheel some kid out of here on a gurney the other day. I dunno if that’s normal for video games or not. So long as they ain’t bleedin, they’ll be fine. Probably.
Can you… temporarily stop using that game?
Mm, probably? I’ll have to talk to the manager about anything permanent, but I can unplug it for the day, if that’s what you two clowns want.
That would be a good idea, I think.

Dylan rubbed his damp hands on his pants, Mmh. Well, at least the bathrooms are clean. Why they had to paint the whole damn bathroom bright pink is beyond me. Eyes fuckin hurt now.

He shuffled over through the hall, then looked up.

Someone stood there.
Dylan stopped.
They held a knife in their right hand.
He took a step back.

No… no. Hey. You don’t… I don’t wanna…. he swallowed and mumbled, Put… put the knife down. I don’t want to….

Light filtered down on him from above. His uniform was tattered, and almost unrecognizable. He was in an earthen tunnel, back pressed against the wall, as he stared into the dark. The figure held a knife. They were just as scared as he was, but they couldn’t speak english. There was a sound of distant gunfire.

Please… just… don’t come any closer. I don’t wanna use this thing. Don’t… don’t….

Yeah, apparently that cabinet is real fuckin valuable. One of a kind. The manager found it abandoned behind a building or somethin. Didn’t tell me much about it other than not to touch it, or get too close to it. Fine by me. I don’t have the patience for that kind of thing, unless it’s gonna flash me with tits at the end. They need to make more games like that, a bunch of broads with their boobas out. I don’t care what they’re doin. That’d be a badass video game right there.
Sure. Anastasia’s hand was pressed into her brow.

She heard a whimper, and desperate breaths. Her trained ears heard the sound of smooth metal, pulled out from a leather holster.
Anastasia stood up straight, eyes wide.

Excuse me. Back in a moment. she said, as she pushed away from the counter, and to the back of the arcade.
Huh? Hey!! Where you goin?? I wasn’t done talkin yet! You get back here! his furious expression melted into a grimmace, as he put his head into a hand. Damnit. I had a chance with that one, I know it. Was it something I said? Why does this shit keep happening to me.

He shook. The figure hadn’t yet made a move, as the gun was trained on them. His face was wet. He couldn’t tell if it was from sweat or tears. It could have been either.

Dakota is dead. The corporal is dead. Jerry is dead. Seighard… is…. he panted, and the gun rattled in his hands, Mayla, Tommy, who knows where the hell they are. Probably all dead. They’re never going to find me out here. There’s no way I’m leaving here alive. Please, god, put the knife down….

Anastasia cleared her throat, Dylan.
He breathed hard. Something nagged at the back of his mind.
Look. See my hand.
He glanced over. Her hand pointed at a soda machine, in the back of the tunnel.
Tell me what that is.
It’s… it’s a uh. It’s a soda machine.
Good. Do you know what time it is?
It’s… he wobbled, on the edge of hyperventilation, it’s uh.
The time is 8:44, and 7 seconds.
Dylan said nothing, and stared into the dark.
The date is 1970. The 23rd of Gathering.
He blinked, and began to breathe slower. The image of the knife-wielding figure began to fade, but the soda machine did not. He looked at it again.
You are here, at The Rocket, an arcade. What does this place look like?
It… it’s uh. Loud. Flashing lights. Fuckin… gawdy colors. Dirt floors.
Look closer Dylan.
He looked down. The carpet on the floor was a flamestitch pattern of black, white, red, and yellow. The pattern made him dizzy, and his breath slowed, It’s… it reminds me of something. But I’m not….
The van is just outside. I can take you home, if you need me to. Do you know what time it is?

He looked up. Anastasia stood in front of him, his gun at her chest. A different kind of panic filled him, and his eyes widened, Wh—?? Y—!!
Quietly, Dylan.
I… right. Right. he lowered his revolver, You… you shouldn’t… don’t stand there. It’s… why are you standing there, that’s fuckin dangerous. Why are you….
Enough, Dylan. Tell me what time it is.
It’s like… eight. Eight something.
What day is it?
She chuckled, You know what I mean. The date.
It’s… uh. Gathering. Uh. 29th?
23rd. 1970.
19… 70.
That’s right.
He began to steady his breath, and put the gun back in its holster.

Hey uh, Brutano barged in on them, What’re you two doin back here?
Dylan’s face was wet, his hair disheveled, and he stood on unsteady legs.
Damn, uh… he raised his eyebrows. what the hell happened here?
Oh, yeah, I uh. Dylan looked at the bathroom, I uh, I was washing my face. And uh. I tripped— slipped, on the floor, ‘cause I uh, got it wet, from washing my hands.
She sighed and her face changed to a sad frown, Dylan, no.
He crossed his arms, and raised an eyebrow at her, Yeah?? What? then looked back to Brutano, That’s what happened, I got my face all wet, cause, like, I hit the sink, with my head. Extremely embarrassing, very funny, eheheh. Like a slapstick cartoon in there. he grinned.
Uh… alright. he put his hands to his hips, You two uh… you two be careful over here. If you get hurt in there, you can’t sue me, alright? I just work here, I ain’t got nuthin to do with the bathrooms. We got, like some cleaning people that come here early in the mornin to do that shit, don’t look at me.
Anastasia gave him a backward glance, Thank you for your help. I will let you know if we need further assistance.
Yeah, no problem. I’ll uh, I’ll be at the front. Is uh… is he gonna be okay?
Ohhh, yeah. Dylan continued to grin, I’m super. he made an OK gesture with his hand, Don’t worry about it.
He left with a shrug.

She waited until the cashier was out of earshot, then turned back to him, Dylan.
Hm? Yeah? What is it? he leaned backwards, onto the steps up to the second level of the building.
Did you fall in the restroom?
Yeah. Sure I did.
She stared at him.
For them, random civilians, it is understandable. I am different. You do not have to save face for me.
He sighed, and looked down at the carpet between his legs.
She blinked, then looked away, Do not worry. We can speak of this later.
Later. Later is good.
She walked around, and sat next to him, Are we done for today?
I… don’t want to be done. This shit is stupid. I shouldn’t be dragging you down like this.
Enough, Dylan.

He looked up. The figure brandished a knife. His eyes adjusted. It was a poster. A Kyrii with a red headband held out a knife, wore a white shirt, and camouflage pants. Jungle scenery and painted explosions were in the background. It was an advertisement for an arcade game.

Fuck. he stared at it, A poster. It was just a fucking poster.
Enough, Dylan.
I… I think I need some air. I need to stand outside.
It is drizzling, out there. You’re going to get…. she looked him over. He was already damp. She sighed, Fine. Go ahead. If you need to go outside, I won’t stop you. If it will make you feel better, then you should do it.
Th… thanks. I’ll… I’ll just be a minute.

He stood out on the fire escape railing. She was right. His hair and fur had gotten even more soaked than it was before, as a soft drizzle came down.
He decided to think about anything, anything, that wasn’t the past five minutes.

He decided to inspect the fire escape as a distraction. It was a strange structure. Instead of the metal staircase winding down the side of the building like a normal fire escape, it was perpendicular to the wall, and went straight down into the parking lot behind the arcade. On both sides were rounded rectangles of lighter colored raised concrete, which divided the parking area into large puzzle pieces. Each rounded rectangle had four lamp-posts. He chuckled to himself, Heh. They look like bed-posts. What I wouldn’t give for a warm bed right now.

There was graffiti on one of the beds, a stylized face of a clown painted in purple. Despite being a clown, the expression was menacing and angry. Dylan chuckled at it.
Farther away, and in a straight line from the fire escape, was one larger raised platform of concrete. The shape of a cross was pressed into it, symmetrical both vertically and horizontally, circumscribed within a circle.

Hmm. he stared at it. Something about it gave him an ominous feeling, but nothing he could articulate. He turned to leave, and opened the emergency exit back into the arcade.

He took one final glance out. He spotted a taxi as it drove past, with a tall metal ladder strapped to the top. He smirked at it, shook his head, and went back inside.

Rei sat on a yellow barstool, at her small island countertop. There were two stacks of books on the table, one group covered in soot, and another with much less. In front of her was a large white plastic bowl, a dishcloth, paper towels, and a book in the process of being cleaned. She wetted the dishcloth with the soapy water from the bowl, then used it to dampen the soot-covered cover of the book with the dish towel. It was slow, but black soot came off of it. She blotted it dry with the paper towel before the water could soak any deeper into it, and soot came off there as well.

She heard some kind of knock, from the front of her house. It was metallic, its repetition uncoordinated, and seemed to be farther away than her door. The strangeness of the sound distracted her from her boring task, and she got up to investigate.

She went up to her door and waited. She heard it again, but it didn’t come from the door. She walked around, and looked out her window, onto the porch. There were two metal planks, the same shape as wood boards, and they knocked against the handrail of the porch again and again. She scrunched up her face, opened her door, and stepped out.

The sky was overcast, and a light rain came down, but it had begun to slow down. She put her hand up above hair, and leaned over the rail, to look down from her porch. Sechson was there, and he held a tall metal ladder against the railing.

W— Sechson? What are you doing?
Hey! he smiled and waved from down below, I uh, I heard you can’t use magic right now, so I brought a ladder for you!
Oh for— oh for goodness sake. she smiled, and put a hand up to her face, You didn’t have to do this, you know, I can fly just fine.
Are you having to clean all those books?
Ahh, yeah. Warren told you that?
Are… are you just giving me a giant ladder?
Well, sure! Why not?
How did you get here?
I had it strapped to the top of a car, a taxi.
But the road is all the… did you carry it the rest of the way here?? L… look, you’re standin out in the rain, come in, I don’t want you to get hyperthermia.
Okay! I’ll uh… I’ll be a second.

He stared at the ladder. The thought that he would have to scale up it, wet, and in the rain, had somehow not occurred to him, despite going to all the trouble to get it here. He put his hands and one foot onto the ladder, and shook it to make sure it was stable. He looked at it, still worried.

Are you sure you don’t want me to lift you up? I can!
Nooo, no, it’s okay! I mean, I uh, dragged this thing all the way out here, I might as well use it.
O— okay! Just be careful!

Patches of blue began to split the clouds, as the rain slowed further. Unsteady, he went to pull himself up. His eyes widened in panic as he wobbled. Rei grabbed the top two planks of metal that rested on the handrail to steady it from her end.

The yellow interior lights in the bus had all dimmed; the energy source had been switched to a second, less powerful battery for the night. The only light outside the bus was a single lamppost in the rest stop parking lot. A mist had risen from the asphalt, been illuminated by the single cyan-white colored lamp, and floated into the dense forest beyond the lot by the slow current of the air.

The one with the bandaged face had remained awake.

He pretended to sleep among the other passengers in perfect stillness, but lay there with a restless mind. As quiet as he could, with as little movement as he could manage, he pulled a small gold trinket from his suit’s pocket. He flicked it open with his thumb.

The time was .

He inhaled deep, then let out a sigh, cut off by a quiet chuckle. He’d lain in the booth seat to sleep like everyone else, and as such, had been as stiff as a corpse in order to remain on the cushion. He grabbed the table, pulled, and rotated himself to sit up in the seat. He leaned back and pushed against the table, and several joints in his back popped as it curved around the backrest. He relaxed for a moment, then scooted himself toward the center of the bus and out of his seat.

As he stood, he stretched his back once more, for good measure, then cleared his throat. Ibriz chuckled.

He turned his head, to see her watch him. Her smile was placid, and her eyes were only three quarters of the way open.
I feel the same way. Quite an uncomfortable place to be sleeping.
Aah. he said, You are awake.
Mmmh. she nodded slow, I am, my apologies. I think you, getting up, woke me.
Mhmhm. he chuckled, I see.
She frowns a bit, and shuffles a little in her seat, Goodness. I think I must have sat on a nerve.
Oh? What makes you say that?
Mm. she nodded at him, My legs must have fallen asleep.
He stared at her for a moment, smiled, then let out a single loud breathy chuckle, Oh dear.

She tried to move her legs, but couldn’t tell if she succeeded. Both her legs and her right arm felt like they had ceased to exist. She huffed in frustration.

I… the bandaged Kyrii looked away, into the parking lot and forest past the bus’s windows, have a bit of a confession to make, ma’am.
Hm? Oh, do you? she stopped the low-energy struggle against her own limbs for a moment to look at him.
Indeed. I’ve been so very hungry. Drained, from all this excitement. You see… it was my intention— initially —to kill and eat all of you. Truly grim and barbaric, I must say.

She blinked, and stared at him. She let out a stifled laugh.

Ohh, no no! he smiled as well, You think I jest! Unfortunately… it is no jest.
Her smile began to fade.
It was flattering, really. Several kind individuals caring deeply for the well-being of a complete stranger, he began to pull the wrappings from his face, it melted my old, cruel heart. A little. A small amount.

His face was charred, down past the skin, and white dry bone shone through dark grey of burnt and decayed muscle. She began to struggle again.
So instead? I feel generous. No one dies by my hand, not today at least. he turned back to her, I even briefly considered… letting you go free entirely, because of your hospitality and generosity. he inhaled, then looked away, But, unfortunately… your light magic is too much of a liability, for such an irrational mercy.

Ibriz wrenched her head up. From the height of the seat and down, the entire bus full of people had been crystallized. Anchored to the floor, or to their seats. Most were still asleep, but some had been crystallized with their eyes open. He turned and walked away, to the front of the bus. He held onto a rail, and turned one last time to speak.

Do try to get some rest. The hours are quite long.

She struggled harder. She slammed her side against the back of the seat as he opened, then closed the door to the bus.

The night air was cold, but Tariq did not shiver. From another jacket pocket, he pulled a long, heavy stick of red chalk, and a metal rod. He walked farther from the bus, as he pulled the rod apart. It was a telescopic pole, with a metal clamp at one end, and a grip at the other. He fitted the chalk into the clamp, and set down his suitcase.

He drew with the chalk on the pavement, and he walked in a large circle around the bus. He drew lines & symbols, which pointed inward & around the outside of it. He walked back over to the front of the bus, and stood outside the circle.

He bent down, and opened up his suitcase. Inside were several modern suits, Qasalan garb, and arcane instruments, all of which shone in the light from the lamp. He pulled one arcane instrument from inside: a large lead goblet, fitted with gems and inlaid with complex geometric shapes. He produced another gem from his suit jacket’s pockets, a different one than Ibriz had given him, a small red stone.

He placed the gem in the goblet, then put the goblet on the ground. He bent even further down, and whispered into it.

The circle he’d drawn in the asphalt began to glow red. The lines of chalk on the ground shifted, and the rough uneven circles and symbols he’d drawn smoothed out into perfect mathematical curves and lines. The lights inside the bus glowed bright, then brighter, then were snuffed out into blackness, as everyone inside the bus was fully crystallized. Maroon liquid that shone with its own interior light rose up from the gem, and filled the goblet.

The chalk lines and the arcane light all vanished, as the night returned to silence. Tariq picked up the goblet, and rose back onto his feet. He stood for a moment, then turned to walk away, into the dark forest beyond the lot. Greetings, my emperor. he spoke into the goblet.