SpoonusBoius t1_j22trvj wrote

"We're meant to fight for our lives out here," Pieter said to the convict next to him. "They tell us valor will win us freedom, but we all know how this is going to end. We're cannon fodder. Nothing but trash for them to toss away as their nobles steal the credit."

Maximillian - called Maxi in the cells - didn't bother to argue. No one knew about his background. Now that they were out on a battlefield, there was even less reason to explain it to anyone. If he was going to get shot, he wanted it to be in the front, not the back.

All of the chaos, however, was a sobering experience. For nobles, war was always a sport. A privilege that you earned, not a risk. Nobles were never the ones dying, and after spending three months in trenches with a penal battalion Maximillian understood that it was by design. Nobles didn't want to be the ones manning artillery or shooting rifles across No Man's Land or running through eighteen year olds with bayonets. They wanted to be the tide-turners. The backbreakers. The people who would win the war and march home to thunderous applause and adoration.

Maximillian couldn't really blame them, though. He was a noble. After spending a month in jail, two months in army training, and three months in the misery that came after, he realized that man's greatest motivation is to prevent themselves from dying as long as possible. He had never changed from his mindset as a noble, he just hadn't been aware enough in the past to understand what his thoughts actually were.

"Enough of that gibbering, Pieter," another convict, Marko, said. He was the "officer" of Maximillian's squad. A group that had started as twenty men, now reduced to eight. "The Ponties-" soldiers loved their slurs - "are going to attack our position in an hour. You'd better hope the nobles get here in time with those Mounts of theirs, or we're going to be in a world of trouble."

"I'm just stating the obvious here, Marko," Pieter said. His lack of respect existed because Marko was only a de facto leader, forced in that position after the squad's initial "handler" had his organs evicted by an artillery shell. Command still hadn't gotten around to sending a new one.

"Would both of you be quiet?" Maximillian requested. "Goddess above, if you two would stop bickering all of the time maybe we would actually be able to hear them coming before they decide to drop into our hole. Wouldn't that be a blessing?"

Pieter sighed and pulled his canteen off of his belt. He took a swig. "You know, Maxi, I've neen meaning to ask you."

Marko rolled his eyes. "Here we go again."

"What did you even get locked up for in the first place?" Pieter asked earnestly, raising an eyebrow to emphasize the question. It wasn't the first time Maxi was asked, but it was the first time Pieter voiced the inquiry.

Maximillian felt the eyes and ears of other men prick up at the question. No one knew, and everyone who forced the issue wound up getting beaten. "It's not of any import to you," the noble said. "You don't even want to know. I promise."

"That bad, huh?" Pieter said tauntingly. "What, did you touch your-"

Surprisingly, Maximillian hadn't been the one to hit Pieter. "That's enough, you idiot," Marko hissed.

"Sorry, sorry. It's just... your face. You remind me of a nobleman who lorded over the area around my town before I got convicted," Pieter confessed, still catching himself from the smack he had received. "He was such a prick I can't help myself."

Message received, Maximillian thought.

Suddenly, Marko's curiosity was piqued. "Really? Enlighten us, Pieter, since you're so eager to share."

"Constant parties. Women. Alcohol. You name it. He was known for four counties as the greatest hedonist ever, and when he passed through the city he always looked disgusted, like he stepped in shit," Pieter recounted. "Only, the interesting thing about this guy was that he was surprisingly competent. He was great at running the place. The whole time he was in charge peasant taxes were never raised."

"How'd he afford all the parties, then?" Marko asked.

"He taxed the guilds. Shame on him, though, because that got him axed. Apparently the rich bastards didn't like all of his hijinks so they assassinated him and replaced him with one of his daughters. Her name was Penelope, I think."

Marko snickered. "How'd she do?"

"I didn't stick around long enough to find out. I got caught stabbing a guy for groping a barmaid and look where I wound up," Pieter ended his tale. "No good deed goes unpunished, I'll tell you that."

"Amen," Marko said. "What do you think, Maxi? Is Pieter making this up or-"

His sentence was cut off by a bullet landing between his feet. For a moment, all eight gathered men just stared at the hole, understanding what it meant but still somehow needing to process it.

"We're under attack!" a man shouted. Maximillian didn't see who said it, but muscle memory sent him flying to cover. He heard bullets starting to fly, and artillery picked up, sending dirt and shrapnel flying overhead. The trench did its job, keeping the inhabitants sheltered from the worst of it.

Another lesson Maximillian learned: Always wear your helmet.

The Ponties came like termites. For every one Maximillian killed, another popped up right behind him. They reached the trench.

Maximillian stabbed one through with his bayonet, and dodged to the side as another thrusted. A swift tackle send both flying into the mud, and he grabbed his opponent by the throat and pushed him into the mud. When the other man stopped moving, he had no idea whether he had killed someone or not.

Soon the Ponties were swarming back, another ten dead or wounded littering the trench and the space right outside it. Marko was grazed by a bullet, and another man shot dead, but the line held.

"Looks like we held it again, boys-" a man started to say. He died.

A Noble Mount wasn't a horse. It was a weapon platform meant to shield a noble from all but the most powerful, devastating weaponry. In an era where bolt-action rifles were still common, the technology necessary for creating one sould have been impossible.

Yet they existed all the same.

The Mount hopped in the trench and crushed a man's head by slamming him against the wall. Marko took one look at it and shouted, "Run!"

They ran. Pieter slipped. Foolishly, Maximillian stopped to help him. If he had kept running, he would have been fine, but somewhere in his heart the noble harbored some affection for the men he shared his filthy hole with. He picked up the fallen convict and took a shot at the Mount, which bounced harmlessly off the helmet.

"Go, go!" Maximillian cried.

A ball of plasma annihilated a wooden beam holding the trench together in front of them. Pieter and Maximillian were left isolated from their comrades with a Mount at their back.

"Done running?" the Mount said, its voice electronic and hollow.

"Goddess above," Pieter cursed.

"Have any grenades on you?" Maximillian asked.

"No. I used the last one. On the Ponties earlier."

"I hope you're ready to die, then."

"Oh, well. I already knew it was coming. I would have liked to kiss one more girl before I died, th-"

The Mount in front of them suddenly stopped. "Wait a minute, you're not supposed to be alive," it said. It took off its helmet, revealing a young woman. She couldn't have been older than sixteen. "Father?"

It wasn't her face that he remembered well. It was her voice. "Penelope?" he asked.


SpoonusBoius t1_j1h0ooq wrote

Part 2:

"She'd be proud, Milana. You're doing a damn good job," Grampa told me. He surprised me by swearing. My husband read the room and stepped out.

My teeth began to feel funny. They shouldn't have, but I realized my eyes were leaking fluid, too. "I just wanted her to see them, Grampa," I choked. "She would have loved them so much."

"More than you, even," he offered.

I laughed through the tears.

"She was gettin' old anyway," Grampa said, smiling. "I'll miss her, but I've still got a couple decades left in the tank, so long as I don't get into any terrible accidents."

"You're seventy-five, Grampa."

"Oh, maybe I'll last three decades, then." He reached out and patted me on the back. "She sees ya. You and your girls, and that husband of yours. And when I go, I'll keep watchin' ya too."

I didn't respond, but Grampa read my thoughts like a book.

"Your parents see you, too. They've been watchin' this whole time. No son of mine wouldn't be proud of his daughter, that's what I say." He turned to go. "Oh, before I forget. I was supposed to give this to you when ya turned thirty, but I reckon your spirits need a lift."

He tossed me a key. I caught it with the hand holding my daughter's tail.

"Your mama and papa left you a little something. I hid it underneath your TV stand, since you never clean underneath that thing."

Later, after the night's chill sent the girls to sleep (Grampa said humans babies are much more rowdy, even if they're a lot lighter), I used my tail to pull an old metal shoelocker out from under the TV stand. I used the key to open it up. Inside was a photo of two people I had only seen in photos. They were my parents.

Holding me.

My father held my upper half, and my mom had my tail wrapped around her arms. I was smiling. I was laughing.

And there was a note.


Dear Milana,

We're sorry we're not there to tell you this ourselves, and we're sorry that we missed all of those little days that all parents should be there for. We're sorry we missed your first day of school, and your first lost tooth, and your first date, and your high school graduation. We're sorry we were never there to coach you through your exams, or to hold you through your break ups, or to wipe away your tears when you are just hurt and need someone to be there.

We're sorry that you won't ever get to hear our voices telling you how proud of you we are. We're sorry you won't get to hear your parents tell you how much we love you.If it were an option, we'd still be there, but life and death wait for no one. We don't always get a choice.

But, in the times that we do choose, for the brief time we knew you, you were the best choice either of us ever made.

With more love than we can possibly ever say,

Mama and Papa.


There was one more thing. A stuffed snake, sitting at the bottom of the shoelocker.A coral snake. Another note.


Our blood makes us strong.

Love, Mama.


I picked the snake up and went to my daughters' crib. I kissed both of them. Then, I went to bed, leaving the snake behind.


SpoonusBoius t1_j1h0g2c wrote

Part 1:

I had never seen Grampa more angry. He was always the calm one, asking my Gramma to calm down and not to let her feelings get in the way of thinking. Of course, they were rarely ever angry at me, but because my Grampa never yelled, it never crossed my mind that he could. I thought the one yelling would be Gramma, but she was so mad that she was crying, which happened frequently enough.

"Look, sir, I can't give the go-ahead on your granddaughter's enrollment. It could make the other children uncomfortable, make other parents worry for their children's safety, and that's not even getting into the reality that... non-humans age differently than the rest of us. By the time her peers are fully matured adults, she's still going to have the body of someone who's eleven or twelve."

"My granddaughter's mind - which is all you need to be worried about - is as sharp as any other eight year old's, and it's about damn time she meets some people her age," my Grampa yelled, spittle flying into the principal's face. "She's been lonely her entire life because all she's had are us two old geezers to teach her and keep her company. She needs friends, god damnit!"

I had never heard Grampa swear before.

"Sir, with all due respect, your granddaughter is half Lamia. And, if the registry is correct, the mother's subspecies was coral snake. Is your granddaughter venomous?"

"She's bit me plenty, and I'm perfectly alive," Grampa retorted. "Everything of hers from the waist up is just like you and me. Safety isn't the problem here, it's you and your small-minded nonsense!"

The principal looked as though his face was about to crack like a glass dropped onto the floor. "That does not change the fact that she's only half-human. This is a school established by humans, for humans."

"Does it look like I care if she's half human?" Grampa was shrieking now. I think his words were echoing down the hallway. I wanted to curl up into a ball, and, given the length of my tail, I absolutely could have. "After her parents passed, my wife and I have been doing everything in our power to keep her safe. Keep her fed. Keep her educated. Keep her happy, loved, and, for Christ's sake, more tolerant than the likes of you human-supremacist shitstains. She's different from us, but look at her!"

I started to get scared as the principal's eyes flicked to me. It was a gaze full of confusion, fear, and other things I couldn't understand. My heartbeat got faster. I felt an odd sensation in my teeth. I started to cry. My mouth gaped open, and a yellow fluid dripped out of my slightly-tipped canine teeth and started to leak out of my mouth. It was as though both halves of my body were crying in perfect unison, the Lamia half mourning its rejection and the human half broadcasting its worry.

My Grampa turned to me and scooped me up, holding my upper half in one arm and using his other arm to gently guide my tail around his arm and shoulder. I leaned into him, still crying and oozing venom and getting them both all over his dress shirt. "It's okay, Milana. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have yelled."

My Grampa turned to the principal. "We're leaving, but this isn't over. My granddaughter is a citizen of this country, and she will be enrolled here, whether you want her to or not."

At the time, I didn't realize what he meant was, "We're suing your ass into Hell and back."

And that's what my grandparents did. At first, they worried that they wouldn't be able to afford the fight, but with a number of sizable donations - the largest one being from my mother's Lamia sisterhood - and two years' worth of court dates and suffering, we won. Grimm v. Penelope County Board of Education.

I was enrolled into the 5th grade when I was ten years old. I was at least three inches shorter than most of my classmates, even though my body was technically longer than two of them put together. A lot of the other students (mostly boys, strangely) thought it was cool that I had a snake tail, but I got in trouble when I showed them that I could produce venom (it turns out Lamia fangs don't really come in until eight or nine years of age, which my grandparents couldn't possibly have known). Even my Grampa was on their side. He said I could really hurt someone if I wasn't careful.

At fourteen, in eighth grade, I had my first boyfriend. I wound up towering over him, but that was just because he was short. He had his flaws (we were middle schoolers, after all), but he taught me that I can find people who really, truly love me. I gave him my first kiss (and he gave me his), but we broke up after about nine months.

At sixteen, I got a driver's license. I didn't crash any cars, but my Gramma had to stop using manual transmission vehicles because I don't have two feet and I can't reach the clutch and the brake at the same time. The first place I drove to after getting my license was the grocery store (predictably).

At eighteen, I graduated high school. My grandparents were the proudest people in the universe, I think. My grades weren't stellar, but I made it. I can still remember how Grampa went around to all of his friends after with a photo of me in his wallet telling them, "This is my granddaughter. Look at her!"

At twenty, I realized I wanted to be a teacher. Elementary school in particular. In college, I majored in education and managed to get good grades this time. I graduated, at twenty-two, with flying colors.

At twenty-three, I got my first job teaching. My first class was a little scared of me at first, but once they got past the snake body they warmed up to me. Maybe a little too much, even. Agreeing to let them all sit in my lap at once was a bad idea...

At twenty-four, I got married. Honestly, he isn't anything super special. But watching him sucker punch a woman who was belittling me was great. I'm certain if someone played the footage back, they would be able to pinpoint the exact moment I fell in love with him.

At twenty-five, a series of studies between Lamia and human scientists came out that revealed that, genetically, reproduction between Lamias and humans quite literally restructures the human DNA to introduce genetic diversity while keeping every Lamia female and snake-y. As it turns out, I was never half-human after all, but I was still half of my father.

At twenty-eight, I laid eggs. Super uncomfortable, but it beats childbirth any day. I laid two. I had to stay at home for five months to keep track of them (not to mention the financial burden of getting an incubator), but once my daughters arrived I couldn't have been happier. My husband wanted boys, but if he felt that strongly about it he wouldn't have married a woman who can only produce girls.

Gramma never got to see the girls. She died one week before they hatched. All it took was one untied shoelace and bam. Her head smacked on the counter and she would never get up again. Never get emotional again. Never make me laugh or smile again. Never beat cancer through sheer willpower and absurd chemotherapy doses ever again.

At her funeral, my husband and I had one girl each tucked away in our arms, using the same hold Grampa always used for me when I was little. One hand supported the body, the other held the tail. It always helped the girls stay calm when there was something to coil up around.


SpoonusBoius t1_iydvg71 wrote

"She never told me that she..." In my hand, I held a photograph of my wife and her late sister, who had been dead for months. The photo looked recent, with the pair only looking maybe a couple years younger than they were, but what struck me was that they looked the same. They were identical twins, and I had never known before that moment.

"Ezekiel? Honey?" My wife stepped into the kitchen with a stretch and a yawn. "How's breakfast going? Do you need help?"

I stuffed the photo in my pocket and turned to face her. "It's going!" I blurted out. "I'm good. I've almost finished these eggs, so-"

"Honey, they're smoking," she said.

I turned to see the eggs blackening. "Crap!" I shouted.

She laughed. She laughed. My wife always showed concern before laughing. A subtle, but noticeable difference.

I rushed to turn off the stove and get the pan off of it, throwing the destroyed eggs into the trashcan and running cold water over the pan so I could wash it and try again. She moved toward me and kissed me on the cheek. "I can't believe I married such a klutz," she teased. That was in character.

"Neither can I," I responded with a nervous chuckle.

She left the room with a quick wave. "It's our day off, so don't mess up any more eggs. I'm trusting you, Ezekiel. We have lots to do today!"

I acknowledged her with a quick, "Yeah," and returned my attention to my second attempt at breakfast. I cracked eggs, placed them in the frying pan, and stirred them around to scramble them. This held the lion's share of my focus, but the picture in my pocket nagged at my mind. Why hadn't she told me her sister was an identical twin? People tend not to leave those sorts of things out of descriptions.

As the eggs were almost done, I placed a couple pieces of bread in our toaster, then slapped everything onto a pair of plates and walked out to the living room where she was waiting. "Finished."

"You didn't put anything on them, did you?" she asked. "I'm not in the mood for my usual cheese today."

I realized I had forgotten to put the cheese on them today. Under normal circumstances, I would get sent back into the kitchen with a half-joking groan and told to put some fiesta blend on them, but... not today. I shook my head. "I forgot."

"Lucky you."

My wife had been acting slightly off since the untimely passing of her estranged sister. She had rarely spoken of her sister even when prompted, but I had thought it was because the relationship was strained. But something was up, and she wasn't being forthwith about it.

"If you don't mind me asking, what kind of relationship did you and your sister have?" I asked.

She very nearly choked on her toast. "What brought that up?"

"Well, you never really talked about her, so I was just wondering. You never even said you were twins," I said. I produced the photo I had in my pocket. "You dropped this when you were coming home last night, so..."

She took it, for some reason looking annoyed. "I never talked about her, huh?" She spaced out for a moment. "Of course I didn't. Our relationship wasn't all rosepetals and bath bombs."

My wife had always had a habit of coming up with eccentric idioms, and that was definitely something she would say. Perhaps I was worrying over nothing.

"It's best if you don't worry about it, Ezekiel. She's gone now, so it's not even a consideration."

"That's cold of you," I said, concerned. "She was your sister."

She frowned. I could see frustration building on her face, but I hoped I could tread the line and prevent her from breaking entirely, like I usually did. "Estranged sister. We didn't like each other anyway."

"You seem happy enough in the photo."

"That was years ago. Things were different."

"I mean, you must miss her," I said. "What changed?"

"She changed, not me!" she snapped. Immediately, she slapped a hand over her mouth. Slowly, however, after considering her words, she pulled it away and continued. "I... mean... after we got married, she started acting differently. Just... cold to me. And after she seemed so excited about you, too."

I suddenly felt guilty about pushing it. "I'm sorry to bring it up," I said. "I didn't mean to bring up something painful, I just-"

"You were curious. It's okay."

We finished up breakfast and I placed the dishes back in the kitchen. I started to make my way back to the living room, but I stopped as I was about to round the corner. She was listening to a voicemail message on her phone.

"Parker, if you're receiving this message, I am dead, and I need you to do something for me. My husband, Ezekiel, is dangerous. Not in deed or personality, or in any way he can control; he wouldn't hurt a fly, the sweetroll he is," the voicemail said. "But there's something no one except for me knows about him, not even himself: If he experiences any loss, any trauma, he will destroy this Earth. I can't explain to you why, and I can't tell you how, but it will happen. I need you to become me. The arrangements to fake your death have already been made. Step into my place, be Ezekiel's wife. You know I would never lie to you, so I need you to do this one last thing. If you're even a fraction as lucky as I was, you will fall in love with him just like I did. And one last thing- I'm sorry, Parker, for leaving you behind. Ezekiel took my whole attention, for both his sake and the world's. After being married to him for a few weeks, you'll understand. I promise. Goodbye."

I stepped into the room. She hid away her phone. "Elizabeth?" I asked.

"Yes, honey?"

"Who are you?"

The ground started to shake.


SpoonusBoius t1_iy70a7h wrote

"How's the thing with your girl going?"

I looked at Philip with the most annoyed look I could muster. Did he really need to ask? One moment she's the terror of my existence, an absolute mastermind of torment that makes me dread going to class every day, and the next she's my girlfriend. For my own part, I tried to reject her, but I couldn't bring myself to.

"She's attached," I answered.

He raised an eyebrow quizzically. "And you aren't?"

"She's been my bully for over a year. I didn't even know college kids could get bullied, much less by girls." I bent down and grabbed a grape soda out of the cooler we were sharing. "How could I be attached to someone who's been so cruel?"

Philip pondered this for a moment. "You've known her since elementary school, haven't you?"

"Yeah, but we were never close. I never talked to her."

"You're one cold motherfucker, Alan."

I popped the tab from my soda and took a sip. "Shut up."

My thoughts wandered back to Adelaide, trying to make sense of everything that had happened in the past month. I remembered all of the pain she had put me through before vividly, and for a long time I had hated her for it. But things changed after I snapped.

"Why don't you just leave me alone?" I had begged her. "Can't you see that I absolitely despise you? You do nothing but hurt me all the time. You seek me out, memorize my schedule, all for what? To make me suffer? What did I do to deserve that?"

She had been speechless. "Alan, I-"

"If you don't have an answer, then just go. Please."

Then came the letter. Slid underneath me and Philip's door, asking me to go to the humanities building and wait for her on the rooftop. I figured she had awful planned, so, in hindsight, I'm not really sure why I went. Perhaps I was hopeful I'd finally be able to see things through? Or maybe it was her handwriting. Adelaide was always energetic, loud, and popular, but she had never seemed graceful to me. When I saw the neat, ordered rows of letters scrawled in blue ink on cheap paper (probably pulled from the communal printer), a part of me, I think, had a revelation that maybe there was more to her than just a mean girl.

She wanted me to meet her at six thirty, a half hour after she finished her evening class. It was November, so the sun had started setting around five, but I knew she didn't care. When I arrived, the temperature was below freezing, and I had a coat bundled around me to keep the blood from freezing in my veins. She had a coat on too, but she had a blanket and a large stuffed frog with her too, sprawled out on the concrete floor like she had intended to camp out for a long time.

I shut the door behind me, and I noticed she briefly let a smile slip before she suppressed it. Normally, her smiling made me nervous, but this time was different. Heartfelt. "I'm here. What do you want?" I asked. It was freezing, and I wanted to leave.

"I need to confess something." I realized she wasn't making eye contact.

"I'm already aware that you're terrible. Just get on with it."

Her next words caught me off guard, smacking me across the face and rendering me completely paralyzed in shock. "I'm in love with you."

Emotionally, I was cornered. I couldn't respond cohesively at all. I didn't even have the composure to let out my confusion with a, "Huh?" I just stared at her, and this gave her the courage she needed to keep going.

"I know we've... had problems. Maybe that's an understatement. But I want to make it up to you. I didn't realize how much I was hurting you. I'll do anything, Alan, so..."

Another thing: Adelaide was (and still is) a very, very, beautiful girl. Her hair was brown, but her eyes were pale gray. Her nose was slightly upturned, and her lips seemed constantly poised to widen into a bright, winning smile at a moment's notice. In the cold, with the only light coming from distant streetlamps, I think I lost my sense for a moment.

"Please don't hate me." She said the words so softly, so painfully, that my heart, which had frozen over to her a long time ago, thawed.

I remained firmly rooted in my place as she stood and slowly stepped toward me. I felt a flash of heat in my cheeks as she got close enough for me to see her breath in the cold. She grabbed my hand, which was an odd gesture, considering she was at least four inches taller than me. Since she had been sitting, I had forgotten for a moment. "If you want to try it out, I'll be your girlfriend."

To this day, I had no idea what I was thinking. I was lost in her expression of guilt, I suppose. It made me think that the woman who had made my life hell was someone worthwhile, after all. "Sure."

Snap back to the present, with me standing on the balcony with Philip, drinking grape soda. It was almost Christmas, and I was actually concerned about getting her a present. I knew she would get me something; she had been spoiling me since the day after we became a couple.

"I'll repeat my question, Alan, for all the idiots on the balcony. You're attached, aren't you? You see the way she looks at you and think back to the brief, little bits of interaction you had with her in middle school. High school." He sipped from a can of soda of his own. "You've been realizing that she's looked at you the same way this whole time, right? She looked at you with that love and loyalty when you were thirteen, coincidentally getting paired up and working on a project about the Romans together. She looked at you that way when you helped her get to her car on your senior prom night when your dates abandoned you both and left you alone, only for her to roll her ankle when her high heel snapped."

"How do you know about that?" I said, incredulous.

"Would you put your brain cells together for just two seconds, Alan?" Philip said, rolling his eyes. "She was just as popular in high school as she is now. She didn't have the best grades, but she realized where you were going and she landed eighth in the class so she could follow you."

"Answer my question."

"She's been begging me to teach her how to get you to like her, you dense bastard!" he yelled. "I know your relationship with her is complicated. She's a bitch. I get it. But she's been trying. She understands how she's been treating you, and she wants to do better. The reason you said yes, Alan? It's because deep down, you know that. So stop being a dick, go back in that dorm room, and apologize to her for using me as an excuse to ignore her call."

I stared at Philip, dumbfounded, and sighed. I didn't really understand how I was the bad guy here, but him putting it like that made me feel it at the very least. I opened the glass sliding door to the dorm and pulled my phone from my bed.

I had her number on speed dial. How long had it been there, anyway?

The phone only had enough time to ring once. "Hello?" the voice on the other side said.

"Hey, Adelaide."

"I thought you weren't going to pick up."

"Fooled you."

She took a moment before replying. "I'm sorry for calling so late, I didn't mean to-"

"Don't worry about it. You're not bothering me."

"Alright, then."

"What did you call about?"

"I just... I didn't get a chance to see you today, and I wanted to ask how your day went."

I didn't respond at first, not realizing that the statement was also a question.

"So?" she prompted. "How did it go?"

"Oh. It was okay. How was yours?"

I swear to God, her tone changed so dramatically it was like night and day. I'd never heard someone seem so happy before. "Better, now that I'm talking to you," she replied.

Before I knew it, the sun was rising.


SpoonusBoius t1_ixpae75 wrote

"I was never one for microtransactions," I muttered. "No, thanks."

That, as it turned out, was a mistake. See, I was born and raised a cheapskate; my parents were great, lovely people, but they were always thrifty. My clothes were more often from Goodwill than anywhere else, and if they had to shop at five different stores on the same shopping trip to get the cheapest prices, that is what they would do. Naturally, that behavior rubbed off onto their children. Even though I was definitely the most liberal with my spending - I had a frequent habit of online gaming - I never, ever purchased any subscription, and I never purchased any microtransactions. That was always a recipe for disaster.

I didn't know what the cost even was, but I was too quick to shut it down to even consider hearing out the strange popup. Not worth it, I thought. I was already dead. What harm could it possibly do?

The popup changed its letters immediately, responding to my refusal. Are you sure you do not want to purchase the subscription?

"I'm certain. I don't do recurring payments-"

Rejection noted. Assigning random post-demo beta limbo universe. If at any point you wish to purchase the Afterlife Expansion Package, simply vocalize your change of heart. Until then, have fun with the free-to-play content!

The popup changed one last time. Assigned beta limbo serial number is one-two-three-five-eight. Loading...

"Loading? This isn't some video game-"

Rendering complete. Prepare to be dropped in beta limbo.

I somehow felt the floor give out from under me, even though I distinctly felt the lack of a body. My physical form, however, was returned to me quickly. I found myself on the floor of a fortress, completely surrounded by people in plate armor wielding spears and shields. I groaned as I rose, and the people pointed their spears at me in lock-step. I wasn't sure if I could die again, but I wasn't going to take any chances. I put my hands in the air.

A person - this one easily two feet taller than the rest - pushed their way through the crowd and stared me down. Their plate was shined to the point that I could see my own reflection in it, but most of it was covered with a white tabard adorned with sigils of weapons. They spoke, and amazingly a woman's voice came out of the hulking figure. "A new transfer? What world are you from?"

"I- Well-" I stumbled over my words in shock.

"The name of your planet. Come on. No judgment here. Even if you're from Hectea we won't make fun of you. Death is the great equalizer, is it not?" she said. I think she would have been smirking if I could have seen her face.

"Earth," I supplied after another moment of stammering.

"Earth, huh? I haven't heard of a newcomer from that world in a long time. They're usually all crazy zealots who are more than willing to sell themselves into the Afterlife..." She took her helmet off, revealing an incredibly plain-looking woman with a terrible tan line around her eyes. "Well, it hardly matters. We're all here now. Come on. I'll show you around." She took two steps before shouting at everyone else, "Back to your posts, everyone! The fort won't defend itself."

The other knights filed away, all of them mumbling to themselves. "You'll have to forgive them all," the tall knight said. "They're excited for a newcomer. It's been a while since we've had a fresh face."

"I felt very welcomed when they all pointed spears at me," I replied sarcastically.

"It's a precaution. If you were an enemy, you would have burst into flame the moment they leveled their spears at you."

"An enemy? I'm not sure I understand-"

"Welcome to the club, newbie." She smiled at me. "All of us here don't really understand why we're here, or how this place exists. We just fight."


She didn't answer. Instead, she led me up a flight of stairs on top of the fortress walls. On the horizon, a huge camp was assembled with hundreds, if not thousands, of tents pitched across an expanse I could not possibly have estimated the size of. Enough black smoke poured from the top of it that I almost thought the whole thing was on fire.

"All of us either couldn't accept the afterlife subscription right away or refused to," she said. "Oh, by the way, my name is Teresa. I'm in charge, but only because no one else wants to be. Anyway, what we do here is hold the fort. In front of us is an army that never stops, but it only attacks once every two weeks. Behind us is an entire country full of innocent people trying to live their lives. We're all that's stopping those guys from destroying it."

"Okay... And?" I asked, expecting more.

"And? What do you mean?"

"Why do you protect it?"

"Because that's what this world is, newbie. That is how things work here. The reborn fight the battle so that those still living through their demo have a chance to make their choice when they die. We cannot die twice." She pointed to the opposite side of the fortress. "Every single person back there hasn't even died once yet. That is what limbo is. Locked in a state between life and death. We are denied the peace of dying and the freedom of living. Our purpose is defined for us. Now, yours is as well. And that purpose is to fight."

"I... am not sure how to respond to that," I said, perplexed.

"You don't need to respond. When the time comes, all you have to do..." she stepped toward me, and for the first time I realized the sky above us was a dark, crimson red. Her eyes changed from a dull brown to a terrifying scarlet. "...Is kill."