There is something very important I forgot to do. It is something that is actually so important that I am practically kicking myself for not doing it.
Earlier, yesterday in the arcade, I used my [Skill Check] Destiny Card in order to check the variables around me and make sure that that old man was safe.
Of course, that old man, apparently named Old Man Jenkins, was not a threat at all it turned out, and died shortly after warning Delta and me in a way so cryptically I can hardly understand it. But if I hadn’t used that [Skill Check] card, I am convinced I would have escalated it into a duel. I highly doubt I could have earned a Destiny Point from defeating an opponent of that caliber of weakness. Even the Destiny Deck system is not that lenient.
Because of that card usage, I now have an empty slot in my hand! I have one more card I can draw, and of course because of my use of [Foresight] two days ago, I know exactly what it will be.
I’m so excited.
Now, one important question is this: which method shall I use to draw this Destiny Card? Shall I sacrifice five Destiny Points out of my current total of 52 DP? Or shall I sacrifice a randomized number of Life Points out of my current total of [12,324/15,000 LP?]
It is a tough question.
With over 12,000 LP at my disposal, I have plenty of Life Points to spare as long as enemies do not use guns against me or anything as deadly as that. However, it has become clear to me over the past few days that guns are actually quite common on Earth, or at least in this California place. Many people own them, much like any self-respecting woman or man or person would carry around a dagger for self-defense. Only, daggers can only cut and maim except with deadly precision and many strikes, while guns look to kill with a single well-aimed blow. Even a simpleton such as myself could likely kill someone with a gun.
That scares me a little bit, and makes me leery about sacrificing my Life Points quite as often as I otherwise would.
However, with 52 Destiny Points at hand, this also means I have a full TWO level-up opportunities. I cannot easily level up while in the midst of a battle, no, but as long as I survive to the end of one, I will easily be able to heal again.
Even with all that in mind… I am going to take the safe option for now: I will draw this Destiny Card with my Destiny Points, rather than risking a massive Life Points drain.
So here it goes. I open up the Destiny Deck, peer into its swirling vortex, and contribute five Destiny Points into its gaping maw.
[Total: 47 DP.]
And soon, I get my new card:
Clone: Rank 3. Make a clone for 5 minutes. Cost: 1000 LP.
Yes, there it is!
[Clone,] a brand-new card I have never used before in my life.
Of course… that 1000 LP cost is huge and ill-advisable in any circumstance that does not have extreme danger involved, but as the saying goes, with great power comes great risk. It is my responsibility to use this reward as best I can.
And I make a promise to myself, deep inside my heart, that I will only use [Clone] when there is an opportunity for a hilarious prank.
It is now written in the stone that is my very soul.
May The Goddess hear this and make sure I follow through.
Now my current Destiny Card hand looks like this:
Skill Check: Rank 1. Examine the variables around you. (There is a small chance that your next action will go exceedingly well or exceedingly poorly.) Cost: 50 LP.
Clone: Rank 3. Make a clone for 5 minutes. Cost: 1000 LP.
Inventory Slot: Rank 4. Store an item here to retrieve for future use. Current item: Satchel (Size: Extra Large).
Inventory Slot: Rank 4. Store an item here to retrieve for future use. Current item: Pistol.
Inventory Slot: Rank 4. Store an item here to retrieve for future use. Current item: Bow and arrow.
Transmigrated Spirit: Rank 3. Summon an otherworldly spirit to assist for five minutes. Cost: 444 LP.
Even though I have this new card with great untapped potential, it is also clear to me that I am still lacking in cards with great combat potential, which has been a persistent problem plaguing me from the moment I was hit by the carriage on Mystix and was reborn here on Earth. While [Blinding Rush] will be mildly useful and perhaps extremely so if I am only facing one or two foes, it stands alone here. [Transmigrated Spirit] has a decent chance of being useful in combat, but the random chance element of it means that I still do not want to waste it unless necessary.
Still… Now that I have drawn [Clone,] the entire roster of cards I was able to see with the skill [Foresight] has finally been used up. I am now once again completely in the dark about what Destiny Cards I can get next… and that’s extremely exciting! I wonder what I’ll get next? I really hope it’s something ice-related.
Okay, so… Now, where were we?
Ah, yes, breakfast with my two best friends.
Changed out of our pajamas and each of us have taken a shower and groomed in the (somewhat cramped and confusing to operate) shower room, the three of us are ready for another day of adventuring in Paso Robles.
If… that is actually what we want to do.
From the looks on the faces of my two dear companions, I am not sure that is what we will end up doing, to be truthful.
All three of us are eating extra donut sticks along with coffee (which I am still not quite enthused by, due to its strange bitter strength in combination with being a hot drink that does not mix well in my mouth). It is the same small breakfast as yesterday, but instead of being in a nice train car, we are sitting on the unmade bed of our hotel room, since there are no tables or anything of that sort.
Of the three of us, Francis is the one who looks the most happy right now, for some reason. Whatever was his problem yesterday, he seems to have gotten past it at least in part. I am glad for that.
Delta notices, too, as she says, “Looking good today, Francis.”
“Thank you,” he replies. “I’m feeling pretty excited about today.”
“Of course,” he says. “We still have a whole day left here in Paso Robles to do whatever we want. I guess there’s still some local delicacies we can look for to have Eryk try, and maybe another nice piece of nature or something?”
“Oh, Francis, are you… sure about that?” I ask. “I was certain you weren’t going to want to stay here another day. This is actually quite surprising to me. What has changed?”
“What’s changed?” he asks. “Nothing at all. We’re on an adventure to help you get as many Destiny Points as you can possibly earn in as short a time as possible, and it’d be silly to waste that with… uh, another train trip.”
“You just don’t want to pay for an expensive hotel in the next city,” Delta says.
“Not true! Well, somewhat true, but I really think Paso Robles has a lot to offer. I… I feel like I cut our adventure short yesterday, and I’m really sorry about that. We’ll make up for it today, okay?”
“You cut nothing short,” I tell him. “Actually… We were looking to escape that situation ourselves, and we were very fortunate for you to have arrived when you did.”
“…Really? Uh, can I ask why that is?”
“Oh, probably something to do with the old guy who warned us to leave the city as quickly as possible and then died at our feet,” Delta says.
“Listen,” Delta tells Francis, “that Pablo Whatever guy is really shady. Like, besides his obsessive interest in this town. There is something else going on here, and we really don’t need to come in contact with him again.”
“I wonder…” I get up from the bed and walk out to the balcony, which overlooks the front parking lot and the bus stop.
…There he is. Standing in front of his car, waiting for us.
Pablo Rosas is there.
“We probably should not go out the front door,” I suggest.
“Wait, wait. We can still get out of this,” Francis says. “If we go out the back entrance and I get us an Uber or something to meet in exactly the right spot, he’ll never notice us. We can go wherever he want, and he’ll probably never find us because the place is too big.”
“That sounds reasonable,” Delta says. “But where the hell do you want to go?”
Francis and I look at each other, then at Delta. “Hot springs!” we shout in unison.
“Oh. I see.”
“Then we can do a little wine tasting, maybe,” Francis says.
“No way,” Delta and I say, also in unison.
“No Wine Country, please,” she says. “Trust me.”
So our new plan is soon to be enacted. If we can get past Pablo Rosas, we will be in the clear to enjoy another great day on the most adventurous vacation known to man.
I merely hope that nothing goes terribly wrong. Because that would be quite unfortunate.
I knew I would still be here, but for some reason it comes as a shock nonetheless.
I regain my 360-degree vision, which is also a shock to me even if it is exactly the same thing I have experienced several times these past few nights. For this is a dream, and a dream of exactly the same variety of every dream I have had since I was reborn on Earth four nights ago.
I am still in the cave, in exactly the same place I was when Miss M left me last night. I have not moved even an inch. Though, with the way my ghostly form works, I am quite uncertain as to how exactly I appear when I am awake on Earth. Is there any evidence of my existence at all? Am I some faded wisp or marking on the ground or some shimmering static object? Or, perhaps, do I genuinely blink out of existence the moment my conscious mind returns?
I would have to ask someone who was around to pay attention so they could verify for me.
There is nobody here.
There is nothing here.
I am deep within some cavern in some mountain, perhaps. Or I am high up in the air in some floating stone structure. It is nearly impossible to tell.
I begin to move my body, or the ghostly form of it, as best as I can, as slowly as I can, to see if I can get a better view. The cave here is much lighter than those I am used to, suggesting that there may be a source of natural light somewhere around.
My body does move, but more quickly than I would like. I wish it would more directly respond to my desires, but it is not so. It is just my ability to tug or pull or push or nudge, and that is it. I tug on the body to stop, and it slowly slides into a halt.
For some reason, the very moment I thought to try and move the body, it went in the exact direction as that man-made, stone hallway in front of me. I wanted to go in reverse, towards what could be the source of natural light I am looking for.
It calls to me.
I feel like I am supposed to go to it.
But… I know Miss M wants me to stay for now. For how hard she worked, for all the sacrifices she surely made, for all the awful things she did to me, she deserves to be there with me when I go through that hallway and find out what is at the end of it.
She said she would try to be back by tonight, you know…
But she has not shown up.
Still, she said she may not be able to reach me, so I understand completely that I will need to be patient. After all, what are ghosts if not patient?
I use more effort on my body to move it slightly backwards, away from the hallway and to the other end of the cave. It isn’t much, not far enough that the entrance to the hallway disappears from my sight, but it is far enough for me to find an opening in the rocks, and to peer deeply into what exactly is creating the light.
Not the sun, that’s for sure.
It’s a glowing, shimmering… something.
Through the cracks in the rocks, I can see an opening, but even as I grow closer, it remains difficult to ascertain what exactly is on the other side, except that it is exceptionally bright.
It is only when I finally reach the cracks in the rocks up close, when I come close to phasing through the rock wall and into the outside that I finally figure out what it is.
It’s an aura.
A light magic aura that, I assume, completely surrounds the entire structure. That means this cave is encased in a thick, nearly impenetrable, nearly undetectable magical layer that will prevent all but the most seasoned magical warriors from passing through, or for even perceiving it from the outside world.
I’m… trapped inside a magical barrier.
I do not know how ghosts may react to touching the light aura energy emenating from such a barrier, but I do not feel like I have a desire to find out.
Instead, I turn around and go back to my original location.
Miss M will be coming soon enough. Then I can get an explanation for all of this.
I just have to… wait. For… a very long time.
And… I wake up.
When my eyes flicker open and my consciousness returns, there are two things I see immediately: one is the soft daylight of early morning seeps through the blinds over the balcony window; the other is a soft hand covering my face and obscuring my view.
There are two things I hear immediately as well: one is Francis snoring loudly; the other is Delta snoring loudly.
I believe that three people sleeping in a bed of this size has turned out to be a quite large mistake, because the three of us have now jumbled up into a mess of limbs that are nearly inescapable. My bladder is begging me to get up and use the restroom, and yet… these two snoring, sleeping oafs are tangled up in a mess and I am hopelessly trapped between them.
This… this is the greatest challenge I have faced since I came to Earth.
But I will conquer it nonetheless.
With a maneuever I shall not describe for fear of its techniques leaking into the public domain and being used for evil, I wiggle out of the grasp of this man and woman duo. Without disturbing either of them, I break free of their strangleholds over me and get off of the bed.
I look back at them, their arms and legs wiggling around in desperation now that they no longer have a body to snuggle up to. I shudder.
Soon, Francis and Delta move close to one another and begin snuggling up with each other. They still snore just as loudly as ever.
I pray I never have to encounter another situation like that ever again… But I already know we have another night at this very hotel.
May The Goddess grant me the strength I need to persevere in this situation once again. That, or may The Goddess remind me to take the side position and not the middle.
Really, I don’t know what is with my current feeling, as nothing in particular has changed in these past few hours, but I am currently feeling absolutely stupendous right now.
It’s very weird feeling this good about myself when just a couple hours ago a man died in front of me after warning me to leave the city I currently reside in, but I can’t help it. I’m happy.
We are back in the hotel room, and Delta has already changed into a pair of pajamas. With a pastel heart pattern, it is the most feminine thing I have seen her wear my entire time with her, but she is still able to pull it off with enough disdain that it feels more neutral than anything else.
She currently lays on the edge of the bed closest to the window, sipping on a can of beer while flipping through the TV stations with her TV control device that can change the settings remotely. The device is like a long rectangle with many multi-colored buttons on it. I am not sure what it is actually called.
On the other side of the bed Francis lays, arms crossed, staring up at the ceiling. He hasn’t talked much since we left the arcade. I hesitate to ask why, though, because I am somewhat worried that it could be something I said or did. I am often one to foolishly exacerbate contentious situations through my inability to read the air socially, so I want to make good effort to keep my tendencies to a minimum.
Right now, I am standing by the window to the balcony, looking out at the setting sun and the nice scenic view below. For the most part, at least. I sometimes glance at the TV, because I hear something interesting or perhaps there is a flash of color. This time when I look, there is a TV show about nature, where two furry animals clash in a fit of violence. One of them bests the other makes a piercing roar. Delta pumps the fist holding her can of beer and grunts.
She and I have not yet discussed the old man as much as we should have. From the way Francis has been acting, we thought it would be best to discuss it over dinner, but he is intent on staying indoors I think. He hasn’t changed into pajamas, but he does not look to be moving anytime soon.
You know, at this point, I guess it would be wise if I were to get pajamas for myself. The more pajamas together, the better it will be, as the saying likely goes, so I want to create an entire pajama party filled with pajama pals.
I find my backpack and select the brown teddy bear design and begin stripping—
“Yo, Eryk, go to the bathroom for that,” Delta snaps.
“You’re not getting buck naked in front of us like it’s nothing,” she says. “At least feel shameful about it when you do it.”
“Let him do whatever,” Francis mutters. “Who the hell cares?”
“I…” Delta cuts herself off. “Okay. I don’t have a problem with it. I just think it’s indecent and gross is all.”
“I do not believe there is anything gross with the human body,” I say. “In fact, the human body is quite beautiful. I have found a great appreciation for a great number of bodies in my time.”
“Well… Dude bodies are kind of gross,” Delta says.
“That is your flawed opinion, then,” I say.
I strip off my clothes for the day and change into the teddy bear pajamas. Then, when I am in my new bedtime outfit, I do my ultimate move—I perform a standing backflip and land clear in the middle of the bed, sandwiching myself between Francis and Delta. I bounce against the bed and shake the whole thing, but I land on my back safely and with maximum grace.
“Now, I wish to see more of the furry creatures battling,” I say, putting my hands behind my neck and leaning my head back.
“That program is over,” Delta says. You just missed it.
“Drat. What else is on, then?”
“Uhh…. Let’s see.” Delta turns on a new TV program that is actually just a listing of all TV shows for the rest of the night. A very convenient guide, in my opinion. “Die Hard rerun, but it’s already twenty minutes in. The Real Housewives of Paso Robles. Wine & Country & Fun. The Godfather Revisited. A show called Terminal Vices… It’s about… two twin brothers unknowingly dating the same man, and that man is also an assassin. Oh.”
Delta flips to that last show immediately. Oh, Delta, what a card.
I like this life. Staying in a nice hotel room with my two dear friends, watching TV shows about assassins, and sipping on alcohol.
Speaking of that… “Delta, would you be so kind as to pass a can of beer to me?” I ask.
“You gonna pay for it?”
“Just kidding,” she says flatly. She tosses a can my way and I catch it with my right hand—
But it bounces off and plops onto Francis’s tummy. He yelps, and then shoots into an upright position immediately.
I guess he finally managed to nod off in the moments before I dropped my beer.
“Sorry about that,” I say.
“That’s okay,” he says, barely conscious. “I deserved it…” And he lays back down asleep.
By the way, I was honestly… a bit wrong about how many people could comfortably fit on this bed. I was so impressed by its large size that I overestimated it to an extent. It turns out that, yes, three people can fit on this bed, but it is a bit snug. Now, I have had plenty of experience conserving sleeping mat space with Malia in the past, but she and I were usually a lot closer than normal comrades would be for obvious reasons. This… is a bit less comfortable than I would have otherwise wanted.
That becomes especially evident when Francis’s arms spread out and immediately one of them jabs me in the side. I probably deserved that for something else in the past.
Now that Francis is asleep, though, it becomes clear to me that Delta wants to talk. I don’t know why she wanted to wait until he was asleep to do it, though…
“Eryk, did you tell him?” she asks quietly.
“About what? About the old man’s creepy cryptic warning? Not yet,” I say.
“Me neither,” she says. “He wasn’t there for any of that. But from the way he’s acting… I think he’s going to want to go back after this.”
“Go back? Like, home? To San Fransisco?”
“Maybe. He gets in these kinds of moods sometimes, but it’s hard to tell what mood it is exactly.”
“Perhaps it would be best to directly ask him,” I suggest.
Delta shakes her head and takes a swig of beer. “That’s not how relationships in the modern world work. It doesn’t matter if you’re best friends or distant relatives, it’s just not in good social ettiquite anymore to be direct about that sort of thing. You’re supposed to gently prod around the topic until you have an educated guess, and then you have to just assume your guess is correct for the rest of time until proven wrong.”
“This sounds like a definite road to painful emotions and broken friendships,” I say.
“Yeah, but we have social media now, so we don’t really think about it that much anymore.”
“Usually Earth fills me with wonder and joy, but some of its customs are so strange and peculiar… and not in a good way, either.”
“I’ll bet. Like the beer?”
“Yes. It’s very thick. Very heavy. Just the way I enjoy my alcohol.”
“You’re my kind of guy,” she says.
“And you’re my kind of girl,” I say. When she gives me a suspicious look, I add, “I mean, to be platonic friends with and nothing more. Obviously I hold no interest in you. That would mean disastrous things, not least of which because of my lingering feelings for my lost love for Malia.”
“And because of the fact I’m gay?”
“That, too. But that is less important in my eyes. Because my love is my own destiny. If I were to fall for a woman who has no eyes for men, that is not her fault. But it is a disaster nonetheless, no?”
“Yeah. I think they made a movie about that once,” she says. “Chasing Amy? I think that’s what it’s called. I… wonder if they have Netflix on this thing.” She clicks a few buttons and pulls up something called “Video on Demand.” “Oh, this is close enough. I wonder if Chasing Amy is on here. I’ve always kind of wanted to see it…”
“What exactly is this about? A star-crossed love relationship?”
“Yeah, I think so, except that the guy is straight and in love with a lesbian woman and he has a lot of painful feelings about it. I bet he goes gay or something.”
“I wish to see this as well. Can you find it?”
“It’s here, but it’s also $2.99… Is it worth it?”
With Francis asleep in bed beside us, Delta and I scoot together and stack our pillows together so we can both sit up at a more inclined angle. We begin watching the 1997 movie Chasing Amy, all about a comic book artist who falls for a lesbian woman. It’s hilarious and emotional from the first scene, with this hopeless man who is unable to break away from his feelings for this woman who simply does not like him in return, and then they…
That is certainly a way that a movie can go.
Delta and I do not exchange words after the movie is over. We do not even exchange glances. We scoot apart as far as we can from one another and go to sleep.
He is a professional video game streamer on the website Y-Cast. He has been one for almost four years, after he dropped out of university and moved back home. He started off playing obscure Japanese role-playing games, but expanded just as his audience did. He still specialized in playing single-player, story-heavy games and providing a deep, insightful, well-educated commentary on each of them, but he has recently begun to receive much more attention with his latest endeavor: Role-playing multiplayer battle arena royale games.
Royals of Foreign Lands, the latest craze in the battle arena royale genre, is his biggest hit yet. Francis plays the game almost every single night. He loves his fans. He loves the fact his yearly income has tripled in the past year and he is now making nearly as much as his parents combined. He loves playing games and winning and being known for being good.
But that doesn’t mean anything when he feels that knot in his stomach that simply won’t go away.
It’s been in there inside him for years. Since he was a teenager. Maybe even younger. Since he can remember, he’s had a feeling deep inside of him that he isn’t doing enough. That, for all the successes he has had in his life, he hasn’t found his true calling, and everything else he does is simply holding him back.
Francis Bacall is a success story in every respect. He has thousands of devoted fans, entire Discord servers filled with friends and acquaintances that love to be around him, digital or not. He earns lots of money, even if his social media numbers somehow aren’t enough to justify that one really big sponorship deal he keeps asking around for. And he does it all by being himself. Or, an extension of his real self, at least.
So if he’s a success story, then why won’t that knot go away?
Why does he feel like he is falling down when he’s moving upwards? Why in his life, his privileged time as a straight white young man in an affluent neighborhood of one of the nicest cities in the United States, has he always felt this underlying current that he’s facing a mountain of opposition at every turn?
As he stares at his phone, recording himself making a video message to all his devoted fans, he can’t shake the feeling that everything he is doing is small-time, that everyone downplaying his successes is right, and he’s just a tiny fish in a big ocean pretending to be someone.
“Hey, Bac-Nation!” he greets with as much energy as he can muster. “I’m pleased to report that I’m in the lovely city of Paso Robles for the day. It’s got a lot of olive oil, a lot of wine, and…—” he giggles before he makes his joke— “I got a real good feeling about the wine. If I make another video message tonight, just know I’m toked the hell up.”
He looks over to an arcade machine of Donkey Kong III, his favorite of the trilogy, and moves to position himself in front of it. “Here you have one of the finest arcade games of all time, the ultimate Nintendo machine. Stanley the Bug Man fights the giant gorilla trying to destroy his beehive, or, uh, whatever the plot is. The gameplay’s fast, Stanley’s got great controls, and the whole thing’s like Galaga on friggin’ crack and it’s great. You ever play a game like this, and you’re gonna cry out in pain from just how fun it is. Wanna watch me play it? Just kidding. I can’t play this with one hand, so I can’t film it for you.” He pauses, gives a sly smirk, and then adds, “But… maybe if I get enough retweets while I’m still in the arcade, I’ll do it anyway. See you later, Bac-Nation. Francis signing off.”
He breathes a sigh of relief.
He’s still got it.
Francis isn’t feeling himself as much these days. He doesn’t know how much it has to do with Eryk entering his life and changing everything in such a big way, or how much it has just been a culmination of everything up to this point.
His parents’ constant nagging at him to get a real job, their complete lack of understanding what it means to be a streamer… it’s done real wonders for his self-esteem, he knows. But he’s an adult, and he isn’t someone who is easily dissuaded by the discouragement of others, and certainly not the high level of difficulty that faces him at every turn.
But then, why does he still feel this knot in his stomach?
He stares at Donkey Kong III. It was a game that gave him such pleasure as a kid. He still loves to play it now, and is fully willing to accept the challenge of filming himself in selfie mode as he attempts to play it one-handed. But he suddenly begins to question everything about it. Is this even actually a good game, or is it nostalgia that clouds his vision? Is anything Francis thinks about himself real, or is it biased because he is unable to view himself objectively?
He makes a whole lot of money streaming based off his knowledge of obscure and unknown gaming, and off his boisterous internet persona. But couldn’t he be doing so much more with that? Surely there was something better out there than streaming that would net him even more fans, that would make better use of his natural ability to project friendliness to millions of online viewers. Maybe if he had chosen a better path, he’d be on his way to landing his first gig editing a feature film in Hollywood. Maybe he could have become a better advocate for LGBT rights online, even though he himself is perfectly straight. Maybe Royals of Foreign Lands would have hired him to do voice acting for a DLC character if he had just jumped on the bandwagon a bit sooner.
There is so much out there that he COULD do or COULD HAVE done, that it feels like he can’t think at all about the things he is actually doing. It makes him feel like an impostor.
Even if he had all these success stories, even if he basically singlehandedly revived interest in the long-running but long-obsure Dungeon Core Saga Series, is it really what he wants to accomplish in life?
That’s the real question, isn’t it?
What does Francis even want in this life?
He looks over to Eryk, who has gone away to a different part of the arcade to play a video game, one that Francis is pretty sure is Street Combat Warriors III: Parrying Edition. That game is incredibly unfriendly to new players, and he is ninety percent sure that Eryk has never played a fighting game to begin with, let alone one where defense is so much more important than offense that competitive players usually run out the clock rather than KO each other. Eryk is probably going to run out of the few quarters he probably has in his pocket if he tries a game like that, Francis thinks, even if he picks one of the easy-to-master characters like Tina the Cowgirl or Bojack Hound. But Francis won’t say anything. It’s better to learn from experience, to put your feet right in the fire.
And… maybe that’s a reflection of what Francis is doing right now by taking this guy he’s only just met and going on a legitimate, actual adventure with him. More than trying to intentionally aggravate his doting parents or trying to pull a marketing stunt to get more social media followers, Francis thinks he’s doing this just to be bold. Just to do something that might give him the purpose he has always desired. Because here with Eryk, he is accomplishing something much greater than himself.
Eryk is a great, great guy. He’s smart and perceptive, but he keeps that hidden behind a half-fake layer of ignorance and hard-headedness. He’s bold and decisive, but he doesn’t showboat. He always has a story to tell, and he’s always honest. Francis really likes that about him.
With Eryk, at least Francis has a concrete goal that’s always plainly obvious; if Eryk doesn’t grind up Destiny Points for his [Adventurer] class, he’ll eventually die. He came pretty close to dying just one night ago, when they were still in San Fransisco and escaping the Persian Mob. Eryk had been so powerful physically thanks to destiny’s own min-maxing his [Strength] and [Power] stats that every single person who faced him had gone down in just one or two shots. He knocked out Bonesaw McGee, one of the most famous underground fight club wrestlers like, ever, in like fifteen seconds! But he also nearly died, and it was a little truamatic for Francis to see someone so strong, so cool, be taken down like that after a few bullets and too much exhaustion. It made Eryk feel all too human, something that until then Francis hadn’t been able to fully reconcile.
Francis touches his cheek and continues to look at Eryk as he continue he fumbles around in his pocket trying to figure out which coin in his pocket qualifies as a quarter. This guy’s so funny. So smart. So strong… and yet completely helpless.
If Francis were more foolish, he would make some bold declaration right now that he would stay by Eryk Solbourne’s side the rest of his life, devoting himself to be the trusty sidekick to someone who will soon become Earth’s greatest hero.
He’s not that stupid, but… for some reason… it doesn’t feel like the wrong thing to do. It doesn’t make that knot in his stomach tighten to think about helping Eryk become a hero and to protect him from all the unfamiliar perils of this scary modern-day world.
If he makes hundreds of thousands of dollars a year off being a video game streamer and he still feels like a fake who isn’t good enough, what does it say about him that traveling around with Eryk and getting into mishaps and comically absurd danger makes him feel perfectly fine?
Francis isn’t sure.
He isn’t sure at all.
But he’s got to get his mind off all this, he knows. He turns around and thinks about playing Donkey Kong III for old time’s sake—but he knows that will make him think too much about his job. Instead, he goes around elsewhere in the arcade looking for a different video game to try out and play.
He sees Delta, his childhood friend, his closest companion in the whole world, texting her wife a message and smirking about something. He can tell whenever she is texting her wife because she’s always got that same look on her face. She’s so satisfied with herself, so confident in everything she does when she’s with Julie. Francis isn’t the biggest fan of Julie, but Delta is madly in love, and that makes Francis happy.
All that stuff about deciding secretly to have a child… It still makes Francis a little mad. His very best friend in the world is having issues with her wife, with the decision on whether or not to have a child when she is merely twenty-two years old, and she didn’t even think to consult with him even a little bit. She claims it’s because it would just worry him with stuff that is completely out of his control, but he doesn’t buy that excuse. He thinks there’s a much simpler explanation, and it is honestly the exact same explanation that his parents suggested to him so many days ago: Francis isn’t mature enough to help.
That’s maybe what that knot in his stomach is all about. He wants to be a grown-up who lives an adult life with adult responsibilities, and yet his career is playing video games and talking to people on the internet. Even Delta sees this, even if she can’t bring herself to admit it. Francis isn’t ready to bear the kinds of secrets that Delta needed someone to confide in, so she told his own parents over him himself.
He loves her more than anything, but he can’t agree with a decision like that… Or, maybe he can. Ugh.
He really needs to stop thinking about all this stuff. He needs to get his mind off it long enough to forget all his worries for the next… let’s say, six hours. Enough that he can lay awake at night thinking about it rather than space out in the middle of an arcade. With all these flashing lights and colorful graphics, it’s just plain stupid that he is going to stand here and do nothing while so much fun is going on around him.
So with getting his fears and worries off his mind for now as his main priority, Francis paces around the arcade looking for video games that might serve as extremely effective distraction machines. He needs something intense, something fast-paced, and something that is just so difficult it’s begging you to feed a dozen quarters a minute just to beat the first level. When he’s faced with those kinds of odds, he tends to find himself coming out on top.
And in his eyesight is the perfect example of what he’s looking for: a tall, slender, rainbow-colored machine with three human heads pasted on top of cartoon bodies making silly poses.
It’s the ultimate arcade game experience, Kero Kero Bonito: The Game.
It came out a couple years ago as part of a PR stunt to promote a new album, but the video game proved much more popular than the album it was created to give press for, and the game ended up being released at arcades across the United States.
It’s a top-down puzzle-platformer type game where you have to control the member of Kero Kero Bonito simultaneously with three separate sticks that are bunched together on the arcade cabinet just close enough together that it’s nearly impossible to play the game multiplayer without being uncomfortably close together. It’s meant to be played with only one player, and the single action button that works for all three characters at the same time only reinforces that.
The game has puzzles, and it has frantic three-controller action as you have to make sure that the enemies roaming around the action grid don’t collide with any of the heroes at all. Along with the absolutely bopping soundtrack, it’s a very acclaimed game, and one that sadly can’t be replicated on home console without fundamentally altering the experience.
But… Even though Francis knows all these things, he hasn’t actually played the game before. Weird, isn’t it? Bizarre, isn’t it? Someone knowing everything about a video game he hasn’t even played a single time. He hasn’t watched a Let’s Play for it, he hasn’t heard a friend describing it, and he hasn’t even done much more than read reviews for it back when it first came out. And yet he still knows all these facts and has all these opinions on its design.
Normal people don’t feel that way, do they?
Francis starts to— No. He won’t let himself be dragged into the pit of his stomach and be consumed by the acidic power of self-doubt. He is going to enjoy this video game all by himself and nobody in the whole wide world is ever going to stop him.
He rustles through his pocket to find a quarter, but realizes that he has no change. In a world where everyone uses credit cards and debit cards for everything, actually having cash on you is a pretty rare feat. He’s a little annoyed that he has to go get some change at the cash machine in the middle of the arcade just because the arcade owners won’t convert the machines to be able to accept card.
Francis ventures over there, and—
RING RING RING RING.
Francis’s heart sinks a little bit.
He was just seconds away from getting cash, from playing Kero Kero Bonito: The Game, from getting real life off his mind just long enough to feel a bit of anxiety be lifted from his body. All he wants is a reprieve…
And yet, when he checks his phone…
It’s ringing with exactly that special ringtone that reminds him of everything wrong with his life right now.
That’s who’s calling.
“Hello?” he asks when he clicks the green “accept call” button after a few seconds of deliberation.
“France!” a shrill voice shouts from the other end of the line. “That you?”
“Yes, Taylor, it’s me,” he says as curtly as possible. He makes a point of disseminating as little emotion as possible from his voice in this conversation. It’s something he’s trained for a really long time at. If he can be an emotional, excited video game streamer, he can be an emotionless, businesslike person as well. All it takes is practice.
Francis decides to step outside of the arcade so that he can focus on this phone call with all his attention.
If he were a smoker, right now would be the perfect time to light up a cigarette and get his tension off. However, he is not a smoker and cigarettes are gross. So he has only himself and the outside wall of the arcade to lean against.
“France, what’s this I hear about you and some new boy you’ve met?” Taylor asks.
Francis sighs as deeply as he possibly can, but makes sure to hit the mute button before he does so Taylor can’t hear any of it. “Taylor, why are you calling me?” he eventually asks.
“I heard you’re traveling right now. Is that true? With some boy you just met a couple days ago? Is he cute?”
“His name is Eryk,” he says. “Eryk Solbourne. And I can’t say whether or not he’s cute because I don’t like guys. But I’m pretty sure that girls would find him extremely attractive.”
Taylor snickers and makes no attempt to cover it up. “What’s that I hear? It sounds like a fly buzzing around my head. It keeps saying some word… What is that… ‘Dalton?’ What does ‘Dalton’ mean?”
Francis tries very, very hard to keep his emotions in check, to not react to being egged on by Taylor’s caustic conversation.
“Listen here,” Francis says. “I don’t know what Mom and Dad told you, but I’m going on an adventure with a friend because of some very important stuff that I can’t explain right now. I would appreciate not being made fun of or you bringing up shit that is completely irrelevant. Why did you even call me?”
“I just want to know what’s going on in my big brother’s life,” Taylor says. “And I didn’t hear it from Mom and Dad.”
“Then… Who did you hear it from?” Francis looks back through the tinted window of the arcade, wondering if Delta had betrayed him once again for some mysterious, unknown reason. But… Absolutely not. Delta could never stoop so low, because no human could stoop this low.
“I have my resources, France,” Taylor says. Her voice gets a little crackly all of a sudden. “Oh, going through a tunnel. Hang on a sec.”
All Francis can hear for a minute is static and broken up background music that sounds perliously like one of those T-Swift songs from her new album where it’s all about bringing judgment to the sinners and heartbreakers and casting them into divine retribution.
Taylor apparently leaves the tunnel, because her voice returns and the background music fades. “Alright, France, so you and this boy are traveling the country for some reason that has nothing to do with anything your heart is feeling. Where are ya goin’, buddy?”
“It’s not just us two, you know. Delta is here too.”
“I mean, obviously she is here, because somebody needs to babysit your silly self.”
“You are just…”
“Will you be in LA soon?” she asks. “I figure you’re traveling through California right now still, and going north is kinda boring because Portland and Seattle aren’t exactly romantic this time of year. So where are you by now, Santa Barbara?”
“Paso Robles,” he says. “Some mid-sized town in Wine Country.”
“Hmmm… Paso Robles, really? Didn’t you hear about what happened there?”
Francis looks out to the rest of scenic, historic Downtown Paso Robles. It’s quaint and brick and exactly like most other fancy acclaimed downtowns of towns that don’t exactly have a lot going for them. Francis doesn’t care for it all too much, is what he means.
He sees that there is a trail of smoke billowing out in the distance, going almost like it’s a smoke signal of some sort. Of course, he can’t undetstand smoke signals at all, so he could be completely wrong. But something about that gives him pause. He can’t quite figure out why.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Francis tells his sister.
“Didn’t you hear about that big shooting recently? It’s definitely not safe at all there,” she says. “Or was that Oakland? I forget. It’s hard to remember stuff in Cali except for LA.”
“Uh, yeah. Whatever.” His professional, calm tone has long ago disappeared, because Taylor simply knows him far too well. She is extremely good at pushing his buttons. So he decides to push back. “You know, Mom and Dad were talking about you recently. I overheard them trying to figure out a vacation to take to go see you.”
“Gosh, if that were true at all, I’d be honored,” she replies. “But you’ll see me, right? Assuming you survive?”
“France! Come on. You haven’t visited me in like a year. Don’t you want to know how Victoria is doing?”
“How is she?” he asks.
“She can finally speak in complete sentences, but now she won’t stop talking. It’s super great for the insta, if you know what I mean.”
“Come on. I bet this’ll be the first time she ever sees Uncle France and actually remembers who you are. Won’t that be hella awesome?”
Francis sighs, and this time does not take the care to mute his phone. “Okay, yeah. If we stop by LA in our trip, I’ll try to find time in my busy schedule to meet you. But it’s not going to be a big thing, alright?”
“Awwww, France, thank you!!!! You’re the best big brother God ever thought to create. Even if you’re a dopey lovestruck puppy who’s trapped in a really dangerous situation.”
“I really hope you can get something better than your current job someday. I really believe in you to do something with your life someday. I super duper love you!”
Before Francis can say anything in respond, he hears a click. The call has ended.
A headache starts to form. Gripping his temples does nothing to stop it.
All of the annoyance and self-doubt rushes back into his mind like a dam breaking and flooding the whole town because some idiotic city planners sold a bunch of housing neighborhood land right in the middle of a historical floodplain.
Francis is nothing like his perfect, amazing sister Taylor, who does everything right despite doing not a single thing for herself. She’s never worked a day in her life and she’s ended up a happy, healthy, physically fit young woman who has a blue verified checkmark on social networks and has been a guest on The View twice. In all of this, it’s positively clear that she isn’t facing the same issues he is. She’s perfectly content with herself, and it fills him with a quiet rage.
Streaming is useless if you can’t compete with someone as lucky and happy as Taylor. Even if Francis got the knot in his stomach surgically removed in some psycho-metaphysical process, he’d still be inferior to her. As much as his parents loathe what she’s done with herself, even they will admit in the quietest of confidence that they are prouder of her than him.
It all sucks. That’s all he can think of.
All this adventuring, all this traveling around to various parts of California and beyond to help Eryk out… it’s all stupid. It’s the only thing keeping Francis from mentally collapsing, though, and he’s got to preserve it the best he can.
That Pablo Rosas jerk who keeps dragging them around to various parts of town and won’t shut the hell up about this irrelevant city… Francis knows he’s got dinner plans made too. Probably something like wine tasting and going to some shitty dive bar that’s supposedly got all the best culture but it’s all a bunch of middle aged people sipping on craft beers or whatever. Craft wines? It doesn’t matter. Francis doesn’t drink much anyway. What matters is that he feels like crap and he doesn’t want to do it.
So he marches back into the arcade and decides to tell Delta and Eryk that he’s done for the day. Maybe they’ll go on without him. Actually, he hopes they will, because if they go back to the hotel with him, he’ll just feel even worse, like he’s dragging everyone down with him.
But… He goes in there.
Pablo’s here too, for some stupid reason.
And for an even stupider reason, Delta and Eryk decide to go along with him back to the hotel.
So much for having a nice evening alone to his thoughts.
One day he’ll feel better about himself, but today certainly isn’t it.
I poof my bow and arrow into my hands, purely from instinct, and turn around to see what the commotion is all about.
In the middle of this dark arcade, lit only with the flashing lights of the video games around us, I see a man.
Just one man. Not holding any weapons, not moving towards anyone or attacking or doing anything threatening.
And yet, he is screaming out in the middle of the room, and he is staring straight at me.
His skin is pale, almost deathly, and his outfit is entirely black, a robe with a hood pulled halfway over his balding head.
Delta, who is off to the side watching the display for a photo booth game, notices the man and starts to slowly approach him from behind. She knows just as well as me what situation this could develop into.
I didn’t tell them about the secret agents. I didn’t tell them about my adventures on Mystix as a ghost. This could be related to either one of those things, or it could be related to neither. But I am glad that Delta’s immediate instinct is to help me, because this man is very dangerous. Maybe.
Before he can make any move, I activate my [Skill Check] Destiny Card and use it to check the variables around me:
Skill Check: Rank 1. Examine the variables around you. (There is a small chance that your next action will go exceedingly well or exceedingly poorly.) Cost: 50 LP.
Whew, I really need a rest with how fast my Life Points have been draining the past day.
But I can’t worry about that now.
All across my HUD, variables begin popping up. I can see the percent change of danger per second in every single item around me.
The arcade machine behind me, 0.05% chance per second of electrocution.
The turned-off ceiling light above me, 1.07% chance per second of crashing down on my head.
Moreover, while Delta’s friendship meter towards me is currently at a 20% rating, there is also a 20% chance if she takes another step too quickly she will trip and fall and bust open her head due to the slick, recently washed floor.
If I fire my bow right now with both hands, I have a 99.9% chance of hitting the robed man in the face and killing him instantly, assuming he is a normal human of normal ability. And it sinks only to a 92.4% chance if I fire my bow and arrow with only one hand. But the variables show that he is not normal. His strength is 40% below average. His intelligence is 96% below his normal rate due to… something. His current BPM is just… 37?!
He has a 49% chance of death per second. He needs to go to a hospital immediately. And yet he is here, screaming at me at the top of his lungs at precisely 95 decibels.
With all these variables at my disposal, I make my move.
I shout back: “Get away, you dastardly fiend!”
This startles the man. He stops screaming. His stare loses all focus and he begins to look blankly in my direction, but not directly at me. It is as if the thing he is looking at is… nothing at all.
“I mean no harm,” the man says. “I… merely come with a warning.”
Delta, seeing an opening but not able to sense the lack of danger coming from this sickly old man, now runs to my side. “Eryk,” is all she says.
“Don’t worry,” I whisper. Then I ask the man, “What is your warning?”
“You have entered Paso Robles. You must leave before it is too late,” he says.
“Paso Robles… is not a place for travelers,” he says. “Wine Country… is a lie.” He looks up and opens his mouth like he is gasping for air. “Wine country…”
He collapses on the ground.
Delta and I rush over to him as fast as we can to check on him, but as we quickly find from the moment I check his pulse… He’s already dead.
I look at Delta. I shake my head. She bites her lip in acknowledgment.
Moments later, timed almost perfectly for effect, a familiar white-suited, thinly bearded man enters the arcade and greets us. Pablo Rosas of Paso Robles.
“Oh, hello you three. How are you do—Old Man Jenkins! What happened?!”
He rushes over to the old man whose name is apparently Jenkins and grasps him in his arms. “The wisest old man in all of Paso Robles. What could have ever happened to him… Noooo….” His cries feel genuine, and yet from my still-in-effect [Skill Check] power, I can see that his words carry just a 15% honesty rating.
Delta senses it too. We both get back up and step back from him as fast as we can. He doesn’t seem to notice anything, though. He is still very concerned with all his energy on the dead man in his arms. He even starts to cry.
We look at each other. Delta begins mouthing words, and I suddenly wish to an immense degree that I had not discarded that [Super Hearing] card. But I will try to read her lips and then communicate with my own:
Delta: Do you see this?
Me: Yes, I do.
Delta: He told us not […] Paso Robles.
Me: What do we do?
Delta: I don’t know. What do you think?
Me: Wait, where is Francis?
Delta: Where is what?
Delta: Francis? Oh!
Delta: I don’t know. Wasn’t he with… you?
Me: No. I was playing video games.
Delta: You stupid […]
Delta: I said, you stupid moron. Why did you lose Francis?
Delta: What do we do with him?
Me: Him? Pablo?
Delta: Yes the […] front of us.
Me: I don’t know. Run away?
Delta: Good idea.
Me: Wait, why don’t we just use our phones for this? I have a phone now.
I pick up my phone and point to it. She sighs and presses her hand against her forehead.
All of that mouthing gone completely to waste…
I send my message, typing the best I can on this tiny keyboard:
Me: What do we do now, run away?Delta: yesDelta: lets go hurryMe: Okay. Understood. Let us find Francis and disembark posthaste.Delta: pls dont talk like that.Me: Sorry…
Okay, we get ready to leave when suddenly—
Pablo Rosas stands up and looks at us. “Where are you going?” he asks.
“Um, we’re just trying to find our friend Francis,” Delta says. “He seems to have gotten lost.”
“What? No, no, that won’t do,” he says. “Let’s go find him and we can continue our fun adventures together.” Pablo’s smile is a lot less cheery than usual.
“What about that old man? What will happen with him?”
“Well, the paramedics are on their way,” Pablo says. Even though… None of us ever called the police or anyone. “Maybe he’ll pull through after all,” he adds, even though the man is clearly dead.
Before we can do anything, Francis himself enters the arcade again and, without a hint of happiness on his face, says to us, “C’mon, let’s go. I’m not feeling too well anymore.”
“What?” Pablo seems surprised. “But Francis, you have barely explored the wonders of Paso Robles so far. Aren’t you a little curious about the rest of our fine town?”
“No, sorry, I’m a little under the weather.” He’s nearly glaring at the man right now. “Eryk, Francis, let’s go back to the hotel, okay?”
“Yeah, it’s been a long day today,” Delta says. “Better not spoil the whole trip on the first day.”
Pablo’s confusion seemingly goes away. “Oh, yes, of course. We’ll just… do some more stuff tomorrow! I’ll pick you up bright and early. Have a nice evening.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he says. “Thank you and whatever.”
We take a bus back to the hotel instead of taking a ride from Pablo. But even once we are clear and away from him, Francis still seems peculiarly upset.
“What? You can’t be—holy wow, it’s really that good,” Francis says. “I would never have expected this in my entire life.”
“Let me try, let me try,” I whine.
“Wait a damn second, Eryk,” Delta says. “Let us savor this before you start dinging out of control.”
“I don’t… it’s not ‘out of control…’”
We currently are sitting in the back of a very fancy vehicle being driven by the mysterious but seemingly very nice man named Pablo Rosas of Paso Robles. Indeed, he showed me his government-issued ID card, and it really does say “Pablo Rosas of Paso Robles” as his name. It appears he is so enthusiastic about his town that he has added his town name to his surname in an attempt to identify with it more.
The car has a very wide backseat, and the entire car is slightly extended from normal. I am told that, if extended much further, this would qualify as something called a “limousine,” but it is still a normal length like this. It just has enough space back here that it can fit a table and a small flat-screen television.
We now have the contents of our very quick take-out trip to the restaurant Rusty Flames, a Chinese-Italian fusion joint. I do not know what any of that means. Francis and Delta, on the other hand, very much do. All of it looks very delectable, but they have called first eats so that I can get way more Destiny Points way more quickly.
“I really just.. never thought something like this could possibly be tasty,” Francis says. “Szechuan beef and lotus roots and… fried pasta and tomato sauce? It’s weirdly great. I don’t even get why.”
“Yeah, it goes against most of my tastebuds, but… Yeah.” Delta says. “Julie would hate this, though. She’s got very specific tastebuds, so we usually never even try restaruants like these in the first place.”
Francis scoffs. “Very specific tastebuds? More like, a fussy eater who won’t grow up and eat adult people food.”
“I’m going to slap that egg roll out of your hand,” she snaps. “Don’t you dare insult my wife’s awful picky eating habits.”
“I forgot, only you are allowed to make fun of your wife for eating peanut butter sandwiches for every single lunch for the past five years.”
“I’m not joking, I’m going to punch you in the face if you think it’s okay to say anything about the fact that Julie and I went to a four-star restaurant and she ordered the macaroni and cheese because she thinks steaks and caviar are gross.”
“Sounds like an interesting woman, your wife,” says Pablo from the front seat. “Is she on this trip too? Are we going to have another person joining our crew and finding out the true value of Paso Robles, the greatest city on Earth?”
“Uh, no,” Delta says. “She’s back in San Fransisco. She’s a professor at San Fransisco State University, so she can’t do stuff like this. Also she hates adventures.”
“This woman grows more ominous every time I hear about her,” I say. “I feel like I am destined to do battle with her someday.”
“You probably will the moment we get back home,” Delta tells me. “I told her a bit about you, and I don’t think she got a very good first impression. I think she wants to harm you physically for convincing me to come along on this trip.”
“That is something… I do not know if I should have been told so directly,” I say, the pit of my stomach suddenly turning in anxiety. As scary as Delta sometimes is, she has seemingly taken a bit of a liking to me over these past few days. Her wife Julie, on the other hand, has developed a negative image of me without even meeting me. And her reputation, her very aura, is nerve-wracking. Even if she didn’t hate me, I would be intimidated.
I fear for the battle that will inevitably come should Eryk Solbourne and Julie Rafati come to meet one another.
Francis wipes his tomato-covered face with a napkin. “So we’ve got Szechuan spaghetti, lasagna egg rolls, ginger alfredo noodles, and… What’s this pizza-looking thing?” he asks Pablo.
“Oh, that’s a special item known as ‘pisa you bing.’ It’s based off this really hilarious pun that only a restaruant in Paso Robles would be genuis enough to come up with. See, the story is that when Marco Polo traveled to China way back in the old days, he found this food item known as ‘cong you bing,” which is a scallion pancake made with dough, spring onions, and lots of nice flavors. They say he brought that recipe back to Italy and turned it into the pizza we know today. Of course, that’s all fake and pizza was around way before Marco Polo was born, but it turns out that Rusty Flames has made their own cong you bing based on pizza, so now it’s got pepperoni and a thicker breading and cheese. It’s still filled with spring onions though, so it’s super tasty.”
“That sounds exceedingly silly,” Francis says. He tries a slice. “And it turns out it’s very good too.”
“Okay, now it’s Eryk’s turn,” Delta says. “Let the dings begin.”
“I can’t control my dings… Why can’t you just not tell anyone about the dings…”
Sure enough, I try all four of the food items—the szechuan noodles, the ginger noodles, the egg rolls, and the pizza pancake.
Francis can barely contain his giggles. Delta stares at me with a smug sense of satisfaction evident on her face.
Well, now I have 49 Destiny Points, at least. Only one more to go and I’ll have the ability to level up twice in a row.
“Say, where are we headed now, anyway?” I ask. “I forgot to ask that until this moment because of the very tasty food.”
“We’re on our way to the best example of why Paso Robles is so lovely—our famous Olive Oil Farm!” Pablo exclaims. “Here you can sample all sorts of lovely, tasty, healthy olive oil. Then you can see our olive farms and pick some for yourself.”
“That sounds so very fun,” I say. “I’d like to do all of that. Cooking oils are always an interesting thing in my eyes, because they last so long when made, and you can use them with practically any food. They are an essential item for traveling [Adventurers] because of that durability and versatility; they will immediately spice up any bland vegetables or lean meat and allow you to cook a wide variety of meals no matter where your camp has been set up or what ingredients you may have. I am a big fan.”
“Good to hear! I may have to kidnap you and force you to become a Paso Roblan, because you are just adorably great about your interest in all things Paso Robles.”
I laugh, though Francis puts a hand on my shoulder in a defensive posture.
We soon arrive at a large field with a farm one central large building. This place is, of course, the Olive Oil Farm. The name is a bit of a misnomer, since one does not directly “farm” olive oil, but rather produce it through the olives that are actually farmed here. It is named that way mostly because of the marketing gimmick that goes along with its cute name.
Also, it does indeed have an olive oil tasting area, where you can try out various forms of olive oil and try to refine your own palette. Knowing that Destiny Points come from the best of foods… Wait a minute, does oil derived from vegetables and fruits count as a food? Or is it a drink, in a twisted, strange way? I… I don’t actually know the answer to this, and I’m worried that this will all end up being a waste of time.
We park and step out, and I immediately—
—get a Destiny Point thanks to witnessing this beautiful farm for the first time.
That’s pretty nice.
Well, time to try out this Olive Oil Farm!
It was all a waste of time.
Olive oil counts as a drink, so my sampling of it did not affect anything. And I tried some freshly picked olives, yes, but they weren’t particularly tasty in my opinion. Pablo insisted that olives are an amazing and delectable treat, but that maybe they need to be put in a salad, or pickled in a jar, before I can truly appreciate them. I somewhat doubt that.
Well, I got one Destiny Point for coming here, so I guess it wasn’t the biggest waste of time in the world, but I feel weirdly exhausted already, and it’s only the middle of the afternoon. I don’t like feeling that way at all…
Our next stop is one that Pablo Rosas of Paso Robles talks about so frequently that it is nearly his signature trademark—scenic, historic, landmark, glorious Downtown Paso Robles. It’s got all the greatest shops in the city, apparently, and has maintained its trademark rustic beauty since the city was founded back in pioneer times, whatever that means.
It looks fairly impressive, though not quite as distinct in its notability as I would have expected. It looks like a more technologically advanced version of a mid-sized city square I could find in Mystix, at least if I could reach the semi-arid, more mountainous coastal regions near the continent known as Forex.
“I think it’s time to let you three go for a little while,” Pablo says. “I must depart to help other new visitors who want deep inside their hearts to find the greatness of my city. You must stay here to enjoy the sights and sounds of the scenic downtown. Try as many shops and restaurants as you please. Make yourself at home. If this becomes your new home, you will be much happier, so I encourage you to try and fit in as best as you can.”
“Uhh…” Francis starts to respond, but then stops.
We step out of the white-plated car and the white-suited man drives away as quickly as he came. Now we are semi-stranded in the middle of an unfamiliar city, with naught but our trusty phones to save the day.
Or… their phones, I guess.
“What shall we do?” I ask.
“I mean, my first instinct is to get the hell out of here as fast as humanly possible,” Francis says, “but I can’t get a refund on the hotel room and I don’t wanna risk Pablo finding out we’re leaving and confronting us at the train station.”
“We could kill him,” Delta suggests.
“Or we could enjoy ourselves and leave Paso Robles when we’re ready in about forty-eight hours,” Francis says. “Plus, we can go shopping now!”
“Shopping… Like, the thing we could have done just as well yesterday in one of the biggest cities in the country?”
“Uh, yeah. Well…”
“If we are shopping, perhaps I should acquire clothes that fit me better, rather than Francis’s clothing items that are a bit oversized for my stature,” I say.
“We could do that,” Francis says. “And you still need a replacement for your sword, right?”
“Yes. I hadn’t even thought of that. But if I buy a new weapon, I’ll have to carry one of my other two on my person at all times, most likely my gun because that one is lighter.”
“Uhhhhh okay let’s not buy a replacement weapon right now,” he says. “Let’s… Oh! We can buy you a cell phone!”
I’m so shocked I can hardly speak.
A cell phone… for me?!
By The Goddess’s name, I had hardly even considered the possibility of such a thing.
“There’s a Boost Mobile across the street,” Delta says. “Might as well.”
“Yeah, then we can find each other if we ever get split up for some reason,” Francis says. “But this also prevents Eryk from getting into any cool water-based fights without breaking it…”
“Worth the cost,” Delta says. “I’m NOT dealing with the inevitability that he gets lost and separated from us for a week’s time and we’re just stuck looking for him the whole time.”
“True… Okay, Eryk, it’s decided. You’re getting a cell phone, and only the best one money can buy!”
“The very, very best one?”
“Absolutely… not. Only the kind of best one in a very affordable price range.”
And that was the day I became a proud owner of Blackberry Pie V2.
“What is this place?” I ask. “There’s so many flashing lights and moving pictures… It’s a bit overwhelming. Must we really go in here?”
“Of course,” Francis says. “It’s the, um, historic Downtown Paso Robles Arcade Game Center, the oldest video game arcade in the world.”
“No, but I need to post a video game related thing on my Twitter so people know I’m still jamming.”
He holds the camera of his phone up to himself and says, “What’s up, Bac-Nation?”
He begins rambling about all sorts of video game stuff and shows himself in front of some arcade game. I assume these are just more types of video games, but with mre experimental control options than the ones they give at home. Some of the games have guns for controllers, while others have steering wheels, and other are entire vessels you must enter to play.
I look for one with a more familiar control scheme, and find one called Street Combat Warriors III: Parrying Edition. It has one control stick and six buttons, and an inviting gameplay scenario where characters must beat each other up in hand to hand fighting. This is a lot like that game I saw at the convention all those days ago…
I insert a quarter out of the money that Francis has given me, and I start playing to the best of my ability. I choose a character named “Posey Paul,” who looks like a real funny man from the way he jiggles around. He is surely the kind of fighter who looks to be without threat but is actually a deadly warrior. And, also, he has pink hair like me.
I drop into my first battle, against a schoolgirl named Sakurako. It’s a tough bout with the two of us dueling one another, launching energy blasts at one another, and generally just going at it in an absolute rumble.
It’s very fun!
And after three rounds and a very tense match, I claim victory over my nonexistent opponent. I am the winner of my first-ever fighting video game match.
When we exit our hotel, something strange happens.
You see, before this moment, we were not involved in anything peculiar, at least that I know of. After a few minutes of setting down our things and getting our bearings, we left just fine. Delta and Francis seemed quite agitated about something having to do with the single bed in our room, but it was unclear what. Other than that, we had just a fine time.
In fact, just seconds ago, we discussed where to go to eat lunch. Francis suggested Italian, while Delta was feeling like Chinese take-out might be the more wise option in regards to time. I don’t know what an Italian or a Chinese is, of course, but I do certainly feel very hungry.
But something strange happening may prevent all of this.
Because right in front of us is a thinly bearded man in a white suit and the brightest eyes I’ve ever seen. He practically leaps over to us and flashes his smile. “You look new here!” he exclaims.
Francis and Delta exchange a glance.
“Yes, we are very new,” I say.
“Great! Awesome!” he shouts. “I’m so excited to hear that. See, I’m here specially for you, because I know you’re gonna need a lot of help to have the absolute best time you can get when you come to Paso Robles.”
Delta raises and eyebrow. “And you are…?”
He takes out three thin cards and hands them to each of us. I read it: “Paso Robles #1 Fan and Tourist Guide: Mr. Pablo Rosas is At Your Service!” There is a cartoon picture of a man closely resembling Mr. Pablo Rosas to the side of the card.
“I’m Pablo Rosas!” he greets. “Nice to meet you.”
I put the card in my pocket and give a little bit of a bow. “Hello,” I say. “My name is Eryk Solbourne. I am new to Earth and am exploring this city in an opportunity to learn the land better.” I disguise the truth which is that I am here mainly to gain Destiny Points, because what those South African secret agents warned me about has made me somewhat leery about openly discussing the Destiny Deck system with those I don’t openly trust. So for now, I will not reveal the truth to this man.
“Well, um, Eryk Solbourne,” he says, “Welcome to Earth. How about the rest of you? Have you been to Paso Robles before?”
“Listen, um, Pablo Rosas of Paso Robles,” Delta says. “We need to get somewhere quick, so… If you’ll leave us be.”
“‘Leave us be…?’” Pablo asks. “You’re new to town, right? If you are, I’m glad to help you out. I love this city. I love helping people discover new things about my favorite town in the world. And I especially love people who book more than one night in a row in my favorite chain hotel in the entire country.”
“Did you know Paso Robles is famous for having some of the best hot springs in all of California?” he asks.
My eyes light up. “Hot springs…!”
He realizes he has caught my attention, and goes into full attack mode. “Yes. And I have connections with one of the best hot springs around, the Yuletide Lounge. I can get a sweet discount.”
“But it’s June…” Delta mutters.
“Restorative natural hot springs like these are some of the best ways to reduce the drain of Life P—to alleviate all my physical pains and sores. I highly recommend we visit there if at all possible.”
“Good to know,” Francis says. “Though we have some maps from the train station, so we don’t really need—”
“I can also give you the best tour ever through the absolutely HISTORIC downtown of Paso Robles. You simply have not lived until you have visited Granny’s Candies or had the absolute please of seeing mi tía’s own embroidery shop. It’s just so quaint and nice.”
“Sounds very attractive,” I say.
“Eryk, please, for the love of God…”
“Yes! We have a future number one Paso Robles fan in the making here,” Pablo says. He puts his arm around my shoulder and beckons up into the air. “My life goal is for this town to become as big and famous as possible, while also staying exactly the same as it is right now. It is a delicate balance that can only be kept with holy warriors such as yourself joining my ranks. I hope to change that in these next days with you. Who knows; maybe you’ll like it so much you’ll stay forever!”
“Haha, that sounds nice,” I say.
Francis and Delta look absolutely horrified.
“What?” I ask.
Francis gets Pablo’s arm off me and says, “I’m sorry, but we already have some plans for today. We’re going to get lunch, and then… Um.”
The white-suited man’s smile turns from enthusiastic to outright sly. “And where are you planning on eating, if I may ask?”
“Well, um… We were thinking… take-out.”
“Oh, so you can get to your destinations faster. I see. Very economical with your time. Gotta take in lots of sights and sounds in your exceedingly short time here. You gotta make that power-tour through all our exhibits. Like the world-famous Olive Oil Farm. I’m sure you have a whole day set aside for wine tastings as well. Gotta get all that in while you can. And it’s just not enough time to visit our golf course if you have to eat in, eh?”
“It’s a good thing then that I know exactly the take-out restaruant for you!” Pablo exclaims. “Come in my car and I will drive you to the Rusty Flames, an Italian-Chinese fusion diner that excels in drive-thru and take-out cuisine. We can get some lovely egg roll lasagna on the way to the Olive Oil Farm, eh?”
“I have to ask,” Delta says, “are we being detained?”
“If fun is detainment, then that answer’s gotta be yes,” Pablo says.
Delta turns to Francis. “Either we make a run for it, or we get in his car. What do you think?”
“The choice is up to you,” Pablo says. “I just want to make sure you have the best time possible in my favorite town on the planet.”
“I think we should go,” I say. “This man seems very wise and knowledgeable about the local customs and traditions.”
“I like the sound of that, Mister Eryk!”
Francis shrugs defeatedly.
We get in Pablo Rosas’s white-plated car, so shiny the sun makes it nearly blinding. The windows are tinted, so you can’t see out of them. That seems perfectly alright with me.
Hopefully the town is as nice as this man makes it out to be. I want to experience a lot of fun things!
“Let’s experience a lot of fun things!” Pablo exclaims.
And finally, in the end, comes to a complete stop.
Delta, still glancing at me in annoyance every now and then for reasons I am beginning to suspect I will never be able to understand. Francis, on the other hand, is absolutely absorbed in his phone, and whispering various witty comments. I think he’s doing more video game streaming.
I look over to his phone, and yes, he is indeed playing Royals of Foreign Lands Mobile, currently engaged in some sort of large-scale battle while protecting a certain area. He is very good at these video games!
“Now stopping at Paso Robles,” an announcer says in a loud voice to the entire train car. I have noticed that this phenomenon happens often; people are able to project their voice across rooms, buildings, or even entire city squares through, I assume, the magical power of electricity.
I like it very much.
The train cars open on their own, and we pick up our bags from the storage area. I have a backpack filled with clothes and toiletries, while Delta and Francis have one small suitcase each. One thing I am particularly impressed by is the fact that both of these suitcases are not being held up by hooks or straps, but rather they have miniature wheels and are being dragged around in that way. It allows them to spare their phyiscal strength by putting all of the force into the wheels, rather than into their arms. Wow, what genius design! I wish I had a suitcase now, all of a sudden.
I walk through the door and onto the train platform, and then the other two follow, seemingly paying no attention to their surroundings. I, on the other hand, am intensely absorbed in doing so. This station, this landing platform… It feels quite similar to the one from San Fransisco, being clean and well-paved, but much smaller. It is as if we have been transported from a vast metropolis to a small town on the edge of nowhere without making even a small effort on our part. In only six hours, we have completely changed our locale.
As far as I am aware, though, Paso Robles is still in California, and still near the coastline, just much further south than San Fransisco. The temperature still feels extremely hot though, that’s for sure. Sweat almost immediately forms at my forehead when I step into the arid, sunny weather of this new town.
For some reason, there are fences blocking the train platform off from the rest of the town, which looks to be quite sunny and vibrant. I assume this is to keep children and animals away from the dangers that come with a giant moving vehicle passing through, and that other people are meant to clear the fence with a test of their skill. I find that to be a bit rude and demeaning towards those who, say, have a physical disability or otherwise do not possess the abilities required to easily climb over (such as Francis, most likely), but I decide to test this out.
I jump clear over the fence and land on the other side with a graceful squat and touch of my fingers against the dirt.
I look back at my friends. Delta’s stares have grown even more disapproving. Francis still hasn’t taken his eyes off his game.
So much for adventure…
Okay, it turns out that I was supposed to go through an automated ticketing system for accounting purposes, and that I was violating some sort of laws by jumping over the fence without depositing my ticket. I am starting to learn that trusting my assumptions about the way Earth works has lead to and will continue to lead to some awkward and even outright idiotic situations. Sadly, I do myself no favors when I jump to conclusions, but I doubt I will be able to stop it anytime soon. My mind was simply not designed to think in terms of rationality and caution.
Once all of that is sorted out, though, the three of us are good to go on figuring out what to do next. As usual, Francis and Delta have already made a plan and have simply declined to inform me of exactly what that is.
“Let’s check into the hotel first,” Delta says. “Then we can find a map or something.”
“Does this city have a bus service?” Francis asks. “I really don’t wanna do Ubers all day if we don’t have to. Not that… I’m stingy with my money or anything. I just like getting good value.”
“Francis, there’s a bus stop literally right there behind you.”
“I like buses,” I say. “I feel that they are not as nice as trains, but their wheeled capability allows them to travel wherever they want to go, rather than trains which must stay on the railing to which they are attached. It makes the entire situation much easier. If only there were some sort of hybrid train-bus that had road-driving capabilities but also pulls a large amount of passengers at once…”
Delta turns to Francis. “Should we… show him Disneyland later?”
“I don’t want to get a cease & desist, so probably not,” Francis says.
We wait for the bus and take a ride to our hotel, our temporary place of residence for two nights only. It is a wonderfully interesting place, consisting of dozens of rooms on thirteen floors. I have stayed many a night in hotels and taverns and other temporary residences in my time as an [Adventurer,] but they have never been as much fun to me as camping out in the wilderness with my close allies. However, this particular hotel is extremely inviting, intensely interesting from the outside. I can tell that this is going to be a very, very nice place. There certainly is a reason they call it the Quality Inn, after all.
In fact, with how pretty this small town is, and how aesthetically appealing the hotel’s outside is, I can almost feel something inside me, like….
…Not actually a ding.
I want a Destiny Point for it, but I guess my system requires a more clear-cut example of discovery and wonder before it will award me a point. From my time on Mystix, it was extremely rare when I ever earned a Destiny Point for anything related to exploration and discovery, but I found that the best instance for this was to stand on a high point overlooking a wide swath of the world, and to take that view in.
Now I am slightly upset that I received nothing back in my dream when Miss M showed me a view of the entire Vast Continent up on that mountain peak. I guess even places like that have been long explored in a place like this.
We receive our “key cards,” which are slips of plastic that will apparently open our hotel room when we find it on the tenth floor. I am incredulous about this except that the wonder of electricity does not seem like it will ever cease to surprise me. Perhaps even something like this plastic will somehow lock and unlock a door automatically.
“I wish I could master electricity with my system,” I say mostly to myself.
“Why’s that?” Francis asks.
“Because of all the wonderful things you can do with electricity,” I answer. “It’s far better than anything normal magic on Mystix can accomplish. Sure, we can generate fire or ice, conjure up spirits, capture souls in gems, draw mystical cards linked to our destinies… but we can’t send messages across space. We can’t look up any kind of information we come across in a mere instant. We can’t create moving images that will be seen by other decades in the future. We can’t cool an entire building through strangely shaped boxes and ventilation systems. Electricity is something fearsome. If I had control of it and brought it to Mystix, it would simply destroy the way of life as we know it there, and replace it with something far superior. Earth is a utopia and I would very much like to figure out why.”
“Hell if we’re a utopia, but I really never thought of it that way,” Francis says. “Maybe we do have it pretty good somehow.”
And, just as I predicted, the key cards work exactly in an magical way. One tap of the card against the door, a beep later, and the door is automatically unlocked.
We enter the hotel room and an unfamiliar smell hits my nose. It is an odor that smells clean, and yet dirty at once. It is the odor left behind by a thousand previous guests combined into one, but after sanitization, after cleansing and cleaning by housekeepers. It’s inviting and yet safe all at once. I have never smelled anything like it before.
And I get a look at the room itself. It is small and cozy. There is a TV on one side, a full-sized window that opens to a balcony outside, and… Wow!
“Francis…” Delta groans.
“Please, please tell me you didn’t do this on purpose,” she says.
“I swear it was an accident,” he says. “I swear.”
“You swear you’re just an idiot?”
“I don’t know what you’re discussing,” I say, “but look at this thing here! It is the biggest bed I have ever seen in my life!”
Right against the wall opposite the TV is one gigantic bed, one so big that surely four, even five people could sleep on it at once and feel at least mildly comfortable. Perhaps that is a bit of an exaggeration, but it fills my heart with glee just seeing it. Sure, I prefer a firm sleeping place, often even the floor, but the sheer novelty of this situation is enough to make me very happy.
Instinctively, I begin jumping up and down on the bed. Woo-hoo!
“What are we gonna do?” Francis asks.
“Deal with it,” Delta says. “Awkward situations are what happen when people book hotels while also being morons.”
“Like me, the moron…”
I get down from the bed and examine the balcony. Being ten floors up, it is clear to me that I could get my best chance at a good view now. So I step outside and gaze at the city:
[Total: 45 DP.]
The rest of the day is going to be very fun, I can already tell.
However, my dreams of relieving myself will have to come later, because the restroom is also occupied by two other people—a tall, pasty, stocky man, and a short, swart, plump woman. Both are wearing dark suits and even darker sunglasses.
They are not holding weapons up to me, and are not doing much of anything to me in the way of threatening me, but their presence alone is doing that by itself. I feel the tension emenating from them. If I attempt to run, things are not going to work out for me. If I try to fight, things will go even more badly.
And so when they asked to chat, I was, um, happy to oblige. I do not feel that declining a conversation with this duo would end up with my life as fulfilled as it would otherwise be…
It’s extremely cramped in here. The restroom was designed for one person, and was very cozy even then. With three people jammed in together, it was far from optimal. I very much hope these two have a good reason for pulling me aside, because if this is something silly, it would aggravate me to a significant degree.
The woman pricks the skin of my arm with a needle. Ouch. It actually hurts enough to remove -2 LP from me.
The man steps in front of me (well, “steps” is generous considering how tightly packed we are right now), and introduces himself. “Name’s Agent Y, don’t you think?” His accent is very much unlike those of the people I have met so far in San Fransisco and beyond, and resembles something closer to my own. However, the syntax is clearly not something a North Spiran would ever use.
“Agent Y, it is nice to meet you,” I say, “but I do not understand why we are here in this situation. Might I suggest we have a more comfortable conversation elsewhere?”
“No can do, don’t you think?”
“No, I don’t think that at all…”
“Don’t mind him,” the woman says. “He’s got a tic. Always says ‘don’t you think’ at the end of his statements. A little bonkers, if you ask me.”
“And might I have the pleasure of meeting you?” I ask.
“Agent Z,” she says. “The competent one.”
“A little rude, don’t you think?”
“I might say it’s rude,” I say. “But I think there are things of a higher rudeness level right now than that. Such as, why aren’t you explaining anything to me?”
“No time, don’t you think?”
“We need to leave very soon. Else we’ll alert the Americans,” Agent Z says.
“You’re not from America. That’s the land San Fransisco and California are in, right?”
“You’re an alien for sure, don’t you think?” Agent Y asks.
“We saw you a few times,” Agent Z says. “Monitoring police scanners and such. San Fran PD’s too busy to keep track. We’re not.”
“And, um, who are you?”
“South African Secret Service, don’t you think?” Agent Y tips his sunglasses down, revealing red-green irises. He smirks. “Americans got too many problems, so we do all the paranormal research, don’t you think?”
“Blood test in,” Agent Y says. “He’s got glucose levels off the charts. Not a human, that’s for sure. Gonna be a treasure trove back at the lab. Where are you from, sir?”
“My name is Eryk Solbourne,” I say. “I am from the land of Mystix, but I have come to Earth to train to become the first S-Rank hero with the Destiny Deck system in a milennium.”
“Gullibility level high, check,” Agent Z says. “Will get himself captured and killed, that’s a fact.”
“Should we bring him in, don’t you think?”
“Not yet. He knows we’re here. That’ll knock some sense in him before he gets the Feds on his tail.”
“Continue monitoring, check, don’t you think?”
“I… shouldn’t tell people the truth about my origin?”
“Your hair’s a dead giveaway you’re a freak, don’t you think? Doesn’t take much more to know you’re above the pay grade of most common folk, don’t you think?”
“Your verbal tic makes your verbal statements a bit hard to parse, Agent Y…”
“I keep telling him that, but he thinks it’s quirky,” Agent Z says. “He’s a bit of a moron.”
“Go screw off, don’t you think?”
“We can do that back at the house,” she tells him. “For now… Eryk Solbourne, don’t be dof. Don’t get caught.”
“Have a nice day, don’t you think?” Agent Y waves and the two leave the restroom.
I finally relieve myself, and wait a few minutes before I return. For a moment I expect to be accosted once again, but there is not a soul waiting for me when I get out.
When I return to my seat next to Francis and Delta, the two of them hardly pay me any mind; they are simply using their phones with earbuds in.
I decide not to tell them about the South African secret agents. That’s two secrets I’m keeping, now.
Hour three of our six hour train trip to our first destination.
Apparently, our final destination is a great and large metropolis known primarily as Los Angeles. In our trip right now, though, we will be stopping about halfway to our final destination, at a place called Paso Robles.
“I’ve never been there myself,” Francis tells me, “but my parents love it. They went there for their damn honeymoon.”
“Honey… moon? Is there more than just the one?”
He ignores my question. “I don’t really know what’s there, but we got a cheap hotel and I’m sure it’s super beautiful.”
“I don’t know,” I say. “It’s already quite beautiful as it is in here.”
I look out the window to my train and see what can only be described as a visual beauty.
From the window is the ocean itself, with sandy beaches lining almost the entire way. There are few people, few animals, even, but one of the most fantastic views I have ever laid my eyes on.
I have not gained any Destiny Points for it, possibly because of the fact we are moving too quickly for my system to register any of it as a new adventurous discovery. But my own memories are just as important as any real level-gaining discoveries.
Speaking of, because of how long this trip has been, my Life Points are draining slowly, but just as surely as ever:
When there is a long passage of time and absolutely no progress, it can feel like the life is practically draining out of you. In my case, that is not simply a feeling—it is quite literal.
The palm trees are magnificent. The occassional beach homes dotting in the distance are lovely. The ocean is an inviting shade of azure. The State of California is clearly something special, and I am glad to have reincarnated in such a pretty part of the planet.
Francis, however, seems pretty antsy about everything going on.
“I just wish it wasn’t taking so damn long…” he mutters.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, we were supposed to have a really fast bullet train by now and we’d be in LA by lunchtime. But Governor Newsom gimped the project and all the special interests kept sabotaging it, and it won’t be ready for like, fifteen more years. It’s pretty despicable to me.”
“Francis, don’t worry about that stuff,” Delta says. “Eryk is going to level up plenty before we even get to LA.”
“Yeah, I’m going to level up plenty before we get to LA,” I say. “…What’s LA again?”
“I mean, Paso Robles is a cool place, I’m sure, but…” Francis sighs instead of finishing his sentence. “Well, I should stop worrying all the time. I’m going to go to the little boy’s room. The coffee’s finally getting to me.”
“How did you hold out this long…”
Francis gets up and goes to the nearest bathroom unit, which is at the opposite end of the train car.
Delta and I are alone, left to watch the beautiful scenery by ourselves.
But the moment Francis is out of earshot, Delta kicks herself into motion. “Listen, Eryk,” she says. “You’re a nice guy. An idiot, but a nice guy. But I am going to lay down the law right now.”
“What do you mean?” I ask. “Are you a member of the police?”
“Francis and I are helping you out a lot lately, because we are your friends or whatever. But it is very, very obvious to me that Francis considers you more than just a friend. He’s got one out for you. I can’t even begin to imagine why, but that’s probably because I’m a dyke who’s never even held hands with a guy before. I find all of you a little bit repulsive. No offense.”
“None taken! I do not know if repulsion is the most accurate term, but many members of my family were quite dismissive of the entire female sex.”
“Uh, okay.” Delta clears her thoughts before continuing. “Tell me, do you have anyone in your life? A sweetheart or anything?”
“A… sweetheart?” I ask. “While at this point I am fairly confident this term is not literal and is instead referring to something metaphorically, I cannot quite figure out what it means… I apologize.”
Delta groans. “Why do I ever talk to you… Um, what I mean is, do you have a boyfriend or whatever?”
“Well, Francis is a boy friend, I would guess. Though I am not quite sure he is as much a boy as he is a man. But he certainly is a friend, that much is sure.”
She growls, then groans. “I mean, a lover. Do you have some romance with someone that we don’t know about yet?”
“Ohhhhhhhh…. I finally understand everything. So ‘sweetheart’ means someone who you are emotionally sweet to and you hold dear into your heart, and ‘boyfriend’ is a euphemism for someone who is more than merely a friend?”
“Yes…….. Please tell me……”
“To that I have to say, I am unsure,” I say.
“Unsure…? You’re not one of those incel creeps with obsessive unrequited crushes, are you?”
“I am unsure because, well, I am no longer on Mystix. And a lot of time has passed since our last encounter…” In fact, because of Miss M’s pocketing of my very ghostly form and refusing to tell me exactly how long it had been between each instance, I actually do not know exactly how much time passed on Mystix in my last journey there. I suspect it will end up having been significantly longer than I expect, because my life is nothing if not a series of unfortunate tragedies…
“So you had a lover on Mystix. But since you died, you’ll never see him again, right?”
“Her,” I correct. “Her name is—was Malia. And I know not what the future holds.”
“So you think she might get hit by a carriage and reincarnate on Earth too? So you’re holding out some stupid hope for that, or what?”
“Um…” I don’t wish to divulge the contents of my dreams, so I say merely, “No, but I cannot confirm anything. What Malia and I had is over, for sure. I will never lay my lips on her again.”
“Okay, but see, when you say that, you are obviously lying through your teeth,” Delta says. “I can tell a relationship liar because I’ve been in a lot of crap. And I know you haven’t fallen out of love with this magical fantasy pixie girl.”
“She was an elf, not a pixie.”
“I don’t care.” She clears her throat and begins a spiel: “I want you to know that you better not play with Francis’s heart. I’ve warned you before, but this is the most serious one I’ll ever make for you. Do not let Francis follow you around like a lovesick puppy dog if you’re not going to entertain the thought of reciprocating his obvious crush on you. Besides Julie, Francis is the most important person in my entire life. Making him unhappy makes me unhappy, too. I know you mean well, and you’re just an oblivious idiot, but if you want this adventure not to end in heartbreak and unwanted tears, you have to make things explicit now. If you are interested, whatever. If you are not interested, tell him how you feel. Now. Today. Don’t leave things hanging for three weeks then leave my best friend in the dust like I’m pretty sure you will do regardless of what I say.”
“Tell him how I feel…?” I’m having a little bit of trouble following what she means with ‘crush’ and all of that, but I understand one thing: I need to make my feelings towards Francis explicit, and immediately.
So as soon as he returns from the bathroom, I stand up and bow slightly.
“Uhhhh….” He looks very confused.
“You are a very dear friend to me,” I tell him. “Thank you for always being there for me, Francis Bacall. I wish for you to be my comrade in arms throughout my entire journey here on Earth. Because that is what friendship is for.” I look over to Delta, trying to see if she approves of my statement. She is looking as far away from me as possible.
“Uh, okay,” Francis says. “I am not suspicious at all…”
“Good!” I exclaim. “Now, let me use the lavatory as well. I must relieve myself.”
Considering my expression-of-feelings job to be well tidied up and done, I march on over to the restroom, ready to—
A hand on my shoulder.
My entire body tenses up.
A man and a woman wearing dark sunglasses and black suits appear in front of me suddenly. “Let’s chat,” the man says.