Critical Hit

It was not difficult to convince the mother to take her daughter and stay for a few days in a place that wasn’t her home.

Over the past month, what had started as a little girl’s nightmares become a mom’s nightmares, which then evolved into whispers from the walls, escalating into deep scratches on their skin while they slept. She’d tried counseling, exterminators, and dermatologists, all to no avail. And so, when a forthright young woman with impeccable posture appeared at her door and introduced herself as a witch and paranormal consultant, she was desperate enough to toss her the keys and find a hotel.

This is how Gina the teenage witch and paranormal consultant operated–with composed swagger and competent grace.

And this is how Jin always found himself at her beck and call.

Her best friend Susan, also at her beck and call, said to her, “Baby,” she said to her, “I am freezing.”

Susan’s boyfriend spoke, as he always did, economically. “The temperature is a clue.”

Jin sighed. He was never enamored of Victor to begin with, but he could tolerate his all-American masculinity. But now that he was taking magic lessons from Gina, he’d developed a crippling stating-the-obvious addiction. Jin, for one, wished he’d go back to being the Strong, Silent Type.

“Yo,” ordered Susan, “Punk Rock. It’s time for that voodoo that you do.”

Jin laughed. “Why are you calling me Punk Rock? You’ve never done that before.”

“Trying it out,” she replied. “What do you think?”

“I kind of hate it.”

“Harsh,” she admitted, “but fair.”

Gina cleared her throat. “Sobriquets aside, I believe it is time to begin this aforementioned voodoo.”

Jin didn’t wait another second before throwing himself into a bombastic tune–a soundtrack to his mood. He’d been having a bad week, both academically and socially, but when it came to situations like this, he was a star.

Because Jin had superpowers.

“That voodoo that I do–
Yes, I do the voodoo–
The music is my tool!

I see, hear, smell, and feel
The hidden that is real.
I tell you: it’s real cool!”

But not this time.

Gina studied the look on Jin’s face. “You appear disconcerted.”

“This is…” he told her. “This is really… bad.”

“Please specify.”

“In a haunted house,” he explained, “there’s always this light… haze everywhere. But here it’s a thick fog.” He squinted in concentration. “No, wait, more like smoke. No, a sandstorm! No, a whiteout!”

“That is disconcerting,” she agreed.

“Now what?” Susan asked hesitantly. She wasn’t all that into this supernatural business, but two of the people she loved most were, so here she was. Her expression made it clear she wished she wasn’t.

“Now,” Gina answered, “you will remain in this room while I instruct Victor on a simple blessing that even he, in his enthusiasm, cannot possibly misinterpret to disastrous ends, as he seems eager to do. “

Once…” Victor mumbled.

“Jin,” she continued, “will search the building for the presence that is wreaking such havoc.”

Jin tossed Susan a look of solidarity.

His first stop was the girl’s bedroom, where all this started. He wasn’t there long when he caught a glimpse of his reflection in her cute, little vanity. His reflection was all he caught.

“Oh, fuck!” he cried out. “Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck oh shit oh fuck!” he continued during his dash back to his companions. “We have to leave,” he declared, somehow without screaming.

Susan’s uneasiness snapped into panic. “What?”

“They’re gone,” he told them.

Gina understood immediately what he meant. “That’s impossible.”

Susan was only moments away from freaking out completely, which was the only rational response to the situation. “What’s gone?”

There was no time to explain to her that he could see in mirrors the inhabitants of an eternity of alien worlds–realities, dimensions, whatever. It was just something he’d been able to do since was a boy. You know, superpowers. But now, for the first time boy, these beings were absent. And what’s worse was that he had a pretty solid feeling they’d fled from the area, like fauna before a forest fire. “Me,” he said. “I’m gone.”

“But this is unprecedented!” Gina clutched his arm as he fled. “We have to investigate!”

“Nope,” he replied.

“I’m sharing that nope,” Susan agreed, “and I brought a bunch of my own.”

“Don’t you recognize the significance of this?” Gina begged.

Susan closed her eyes, and when she opened them, they were rolled so far back in her head that they were simply white. And yet, she scanned the room as if she could see just fine.

Jin had seen enough horror movies to know what possession by an evil spirit looked like.

When Susan’s mouth opened to speak, he expected a growl or an unsettling harmony–anything inhuman, really. So it came as a surprise when the only change in Susan’s voice was its newfound steadiness. “Hello, Regina.”

“Hello,” Gina replied politely. “To whom do I speak?”

Susan’s head shook. “No names.”

“You have mine.”

“Because you are careless with it,” the thing in Susan’s body replied. “Out of all the people in this room, you should know how dangerous that is, Regina de Costa, daughter of Lucio Marcos de Costa and Helena Torres, graduate of the school in the cave.”

“If you know who I am,” she stated, “then you know that I can compel you to tell me whatever I wish.”

“No, you can’t.”

The room fell silent for a moment.

“What are you doing in her body?” demanded Victor with the kind of fragile calm that has to be constructed very, very carefully.

“The door is open. Anybody can come in.”

“I don’t understand,” he confessed.

“This door has been unlocked and not properly closed.”

“I still don’t–“

Brad,” Jin whispered.

Victor frowned. “Who?”

Jin waved his hand. “Long story.”

“I want to hear it.”

“Gina used Susan to channel a ghost but she had her permission and it really, really helped people and I can’t believe nobody told you about that,” he stammered.

“Is that how this happened?” asked Susan’s voice.

“But,” Gina breathed. “I shut the door.”

“Not well enough. It’s been opened since then, more than once. If it hadn’t, I’d never be able to fit in here.”

Victor’s calm began to crumble. “Gina, what did you do?”

Instead of responding, she turned to the monster inhabiting her best friend. “What. Are. You.”

“I am not here to answer your questions.”

“You will.” Tracing a complicated symbol in the air with her fingers, she snarled, Espírito, você deve legar para–

Susan’s fist smashed into Gina’s throat. While she crumpled to the floor, gasping, Susan’s other hand whipped out and grasped Victor’s face as if it were a scrap of paper about to be wadded up.

As he struggled to free himself, Susan’s voice told him, “Victor Huber, you are far more intelligent than you look. You can make an educated guess as to how much damage these well-manicured fingernails could do to your skin if you don’t stop squirming.”

Reluctantly, he did as he was told.

Jin didn’t quite had the time to grasp what was happening until that voice addressed him. “Jin Harima, I want you to look me in the eye.”

He obeyed, and it was clear that, even without pupils, the thing was watching him.

“Sing for me, phonomancer. I want you to see my face.”

“I can’t…”

“Sing.”

Trembling, Jin found a tune:

“I’ve never witnessed such violence.
I’ve never seen Victor laid low.
I’ve never seen Gina silenced.
Whatever you are, I don’t want to know.”

The thing’s real mouth and voice told him, “You don’t have a choice.”

And he was right; this was something he never wanted to know. Its expressionless features were bland and generic, like something an artist would sketch as a placeholder before filling in the details later. Yet they made him feel like a mouse in a field hearing the screech of an owl.

The face quickly faded into the wind, leaving only Susan’s, which ordered, “I want you to tell Regina de Costa what you saw, and then I want you to forget. Are you listening, Regina?”

She was still struggling to inhale, but managed with great effort to turn her head toward them.

“Gina…” Jin tried to say. “It’s… the thing… looks…”

“Never mind,” Susan’s voice told him. “The look on your face says everything.” Susan’s mouth grinned, but it wasn’t Susan’s grin. This was even scarier than anything he’d seen so far.

“I really won’t remember?” Jin squeaked.

“Nor will Victor Huber,” it replied. “You are insignificant.

“Regina de Costa, daughter of Lucio Marcos de Costa and Helena Torres, you are not. You are a clever little girl. In fact, you are, by far, the cleverest human for miles around. But you are still human.

“I entered this home twenty-eight days ago to find something, but it’s not here. After I abandon this body, I will continue to search this town until I find it. My business is not yours, and it will remain that way. Do you understand?”

Seething, she nodded.

“Now leave,” it concluded. “And so will I.”

Susan’s hand released Victor, and her eyes closed, opening again with irises where they belonged. “Sorry about that,” she said. “I must have spaced out for a second.”

Jin blinked. “Me too. Weird.”

Victor rubbed the bruises on his temples. “Huh.”

“Are we going to do this thing?” asked Jin.

“Not necessary,” coughed Gina. “The matter has been settled. It was simpler than I had anticipated.”

Susan frowned. “Wait, what?”

Advertisements

The Copernican Principle

Despite his insubstantial height, Dr. David Mortenoir dominated the classroom. Maybe it was that one of his eyes was glass, but no one knew which one. Maybe it was his wardrobe, so black it seemed to lack texture or depth. Maybe it was simply the deep gravitas of his voice.

Ultimately, the only time his students felt safe enough to relax was when he paced and lectured, expounding his love of his subject of expertise as if it were an aria.

And this is why, when he paused suddenly, mid-sentence and mid-step, every single person in that room held his or her breath.

“Would you care,” he growled, “to repeat yourself, Mr. Jenkins?”

Jenkins–if the twice-a-senior frat boy had a first name, no one knew it–replied with misplaced confidence, “Well, you were saying how a ‘being is a being that is being–‘”

“I know what I said,” Dr. Mortenoir snapped. “I want you to repeat what you said. I wanted to make sure I heard it correctly.”

“I said that I didn’t smoke enough for this.”

“So I did hear correctly,” the professor told the class. He fixed his left eye on his victim–the rest of the class took note of this. “And by smoke, Mr. Jenkins, I assume you’re referring to grass.”

Jenkins mumbled something.

“Louder, please, Mr. Jenkins.”

“Yes.”

“Hmph,” said Dr. Mortenoir. He looked away, and when he turned back, his right eye settled on him. “And whose fault is that?”

“My dealer?”

The room seemed to hiccup, as everyone, in unison, held back a giggle.

The professor snorted. “I somehow doubt that, Mr. Jenkins. You never struck me as the kind of man who knows how to pace himself.

The room hiccupped again.

Two seats over and one row back, Fred gritted his teeth and took a deep breath. This Jenkins asshole was ruining everything.

No, that wasn’t true. Fred wasn’t really pissed at Jenkins; he was pissed about what happened at work earlier. Because today was his day. And he blew it.

This morning was the first time that his crush, the geeky girl with the big, round glasses, the fitted turtlenecks, and the pleated skirts, came into the campus bookstore during his shift, a look of puzzlement on her so, so adorable face.

He’d only seen her around for a few weeks, but a combination of timing and social anxiety kept him from talking to her. The two times he’d been alone with her and had no excuse not to introduce himself, he’d choked. He could never think of a single opening.

But this time, his expertise presented him with the single best opportunity he’d ever had. It was time. His knees wobbled, but he stumbled on in her direction, allowing momentum to do all the work. His throat tightened and dried, but he swallowed to loosen and lubricate him. His brain told him he was too boring and too unattractive to get her attention, but he told it to shut up to let his crush decide what she thought of him.

And so he’d appeared at her side and told her he could help, and she’d responded by walking directly toward his coworker at the cash register. It was the kind of thing he couldn’t help but take personally.

But maybe it had nothing to do with him. Maybe she simply didn’t hear him. Maybe she didn’t know if he actually worked there. Maybe she was friends with his coworker, and he just didn’t know it.

That was then. Now, he was engaging in one of his favorite activities in the world: absorbing the knowledge of the greatest philosophy teacher since Socrates. He wasn’t going to let some substance-abusing douchebag or the memory of a flighty nerd ruin it for him.

“Now that we’ve established Mr. Jenkins’s crippling sobriety,” continued Dr. Mortenoir, “who can explain what is meant by being?”

His hand shot up at the same time as a buxom coed. The professor acknowledged her with his left eye. This made sense to Fred, given the open secret of Dr. Mortenoir’s icky weakness for a certain type of young woman; no one was perfect.

“Existing?” the coed offered.

The professor grunted. “Existing. Brilliant. Can anyone tell me what we mean by being without consulting a thesaurus?”

Behind Fred’s raised arm sat the redhead with the green scarf, now the recipient of Dr. Mortenoir’s right eye.

“Let’s hear it,” he requested hesitantly.

“I think…” she tried; “… I think Aristotle theorized that being is defined by the ability of something to act on something else.”

“Decent start,” he replied, “but still not right. Can anybody tell Ms. Blake why she’s wrong?”

Fred flapped both of his hands in the air like he was directing traffic at a Formula One race.

“Nobody?” Dr. Mortenoir asked.

Fred flapped harder. He was on the verge of going airborne.

“Really?” Dr. Mortenoir begged. “Now this is just sad.”

Fred broke. He slammed his palms on the desk, causing everyone but Dr. Mortenoir to jump several inches. Immediately Fred turned crimson and sank down in his seat. It was okay to be frustrated, but that was kind of immature.

Dr. Mortenoir finally focused his right eye in his direction, and then cocked his head to addressed the woman behind him with his left. “If we were to settle on your definition, Miss Blake, Aristotle definitively proved that Fred exists.”

Wishing he didn’t anymore, Fred sank even further into his seat while the class chuckled.

He spent the next hour listening, and then slinked away to his off-campus apartment. As usual, his flatmate lay sprawled on the couch, staring at the television and shoving an enchilada into his face.

As he blew past, Fred muttered, “Norville.”

As usual, his flatmate didn’t even look up.

“Whatever.” Seriously, screw that guy. Fred wasn’t the most clean person on earth, but at least he–

“What the fuck!” he shouted as soon as he entered his bedroom. “Goddammit! This isn’t funny anymore!”

Actually it wasn’t even funny the first time Norville had rearranged the furniture in his bedroom. But this was… how many times? And how the hell did this asshole, who seemed to exist solely to consume sodium, saturated fats, corn syrup, and anything coming from an LED screen even get the motivation to pull this stupid, stupid prank over and over again.

“Get the fuck in here and fix this, Norville!”

When no response came, Fred kicked the wall as hard as he could, not regretting the outburst at all. He turned back to the door, only to find it occupied by a diminutive Cool Guy with frosted, spiky hair, a studded denim jacket, and an unlit cigarette behind his ear.

The Cool Guy shouted down the hallway, “He’s here!”

“Finally!” shouted back a woman from the direction of the kitchen.

“Susan,” said another woman’s voice, “I’ve advised patience on innumerable occasions.”

“That doesn’t make it suck any less,” Susan told her.

“We’ll discuss its virtues later, but first, I must converse with–“

“Oh, hell no!” Susan snapped. “Baby, you have the bedside manner of a cranky-ass textbook.”

“Textbooks are inanimate objects,” explained the one called Baby. “They cannot have a bedside manner, much less attach any emotional value to their words.”

“That was a metaphor,” Susan told her.

“My response had been sarcasm. That you didn’t recognize that is disappointing.”

“For fuck’s sake,” groaned the Cool Guy. “I’m in a band with groupies and everything. Why do I even hang out with you?”

A hand softly patted his arm.

When he saw who it belonged to, the Cool Guy moved away and said, “He’s all yours, Victor. Be gentle.”

Victor was six feet tall and wore a body consisting of broad, lean muscles just a little too large for his white, threadbare T-shirt. For some reason, a green handkerchief–which brought out his equally green eyes–draped over his shoulder, as if he had come over immediately after posing for a sexy calendar.

Usually a boy that attractive brought out a streak of jealousy in Fred, but something about Victor made him an exception. Maybe it was his sincere warmth, which made it clear he wanted to be friends. His voice was as gentle as his smile, softening the impact of the three words he spoke: “Fred, you’re dead.”

“Huh,” he thought aloud. “That actually explains a lot…”

Sweep the Leg

“Yo,” Susan concluded, “I don’t think that’s her.”

“Who else would it be?” asked Jin.

“Don’t know,” she replied. “Does that urban legend say the ghost of Abby Winston likes to stand around in a toga, carrying a torch like some deceased Statue of Liberty?”

“Toga?” he muttered. “I thought that was an old-timey nightgown.”

“I’m pretty sure old-school nightgowns had sleeves.”

Jin snorted, “So now you’re an expert in Reconstruction-era sleepwear?”

“Vic, baby,” Susan begged the blond-haired, blue-eyed Midwestern masterpiece standing next to her, “this was your idea. What do you think this is about?”

Victor grunted. While Jin and his lover had been bickering about the identity of the pale girl they’d summoned and trapped inside a circle of chalk and candles, he’d been carefully studying her. Through black, glistening hair, she’d been studying them back.

According to rumor, Abigail Winston died in 1902 of pneumonia in the library her father had bought and paid for. Over the generations and to this day, friends of friends of students at this college claimed to have seen her spirit wandering the stacks, lantern in hand.

This girl was most certainly dead. Her skin had faded to an empty gray, her flowing dress–or nightgown or toga, whatever–had taken on the green of moss, and the eye he could see was dark and sunken, shrouded in the harsh light of the flames above and below her. So there was that.

On the other hand, that wasn’t a lantern she was carrying.

“I’m inclined to agree with you,” he replied after some thought. “That don’t look like some rich girl who died before her time.”

“Then what the hell is it?” asked Jin.

Victor shrugged.

Susan glared at Jin. “You’re the one with the superpowers,” she reminded him, “you figure it out.” She then turned her attention to her boyfriend. “I think it’s totally cool that Gina’s showing you how to do hoodoo, but if you do shit like this again next time she leaves town…” She pointed up and down her torso. “… you are never seeing this again. Ya dig?”

He nodded.

Jin belted out a song.

I know not what you are,
Or whether you have traveled far.
To illuminate our humble college.
Can you gift us your knowledge?

With the shadow of her eye, the girl glared.

“I got nothing,” Jin confessed, “but a general sense of pissiness.”

“Never mind what I said, baby,” Susan told Victor. “You’re cut off, irregardless.”

“It’s okay,” Victor assured them. “She can’t hurt us as long as she stays in the circle.”

Jin slapped his face in his palm. “You do realize you probably jinxed us.”

Sure enough, with the sucking sound of a foot freeing itself from thick mud–as opposed to the tile they all stood on–the girl took one step out of the chalk outline, knocking over every candle in her path.

“I got this,” Jin announced before serenading her.

Superpowers activate!
Danger I exterminate!
I’m Jin, the music master,
And you are a disaster!

She waved her torch in front of his face.

“What?” he responded. “What do you mean they’re not real? I’ve been seeing them all my life! Am I crazy? Holy shit I’m crazy!” He collapsed to his knees, eyes open wide and watering. “I saved her… from myself? Oh my God I tried to suffocate my own mom! I didn’t know! I’m sorry!”

The girl turned, pointed a finger at Susan, and whispered, “Soon.”

“Ain’t gonna happen,” Victor declared and lunged between them. What he got for his bravery was an eyeful of torch.

When he blinked away the spots, he saw his high school sweetheart, but older. Behind her scrambled a laughing boy he loved with all his heart. Through them, he saw a desert that stripped away his pride and his very name.

A voice he recognized broke through all of this, saying, “Victor, my disappointment in you is matched only by the virtuosity of your failure.”

A voice he didn’t recognize purred, “Hellooooo, gorgeous!”

A pair of hands gripped his shoulders and shook him until the visions parted like a curtain, revealing sour face of his mentor, Gina. He kind of wanted the hallucinations back. “I advised you against spellcraft in my absence for a reason, Victor.”

His head whipped around the room in a panic. “Susan!”

“Susan is unharmed,” Gina told him. “She’s assisting Jin.”

He sighed.

“Are you functional?” she asked.

He nodded.

“Then listen closely,” she said slowly and clearly. “If you had been heeding my instructions, you would have recalled that research is essential to the process. And if you had done this research, you would have discovered that Rutherford Walton, the patron of this library, bore two sons and no daughter. The haunting you sought is a complete fabrication.

“Additionally, you also would have recalled the importance of leaving no gaps in the circle, no matter how miniscule.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Your apology means little if you intend to repeat this error.”

“I won’t,” he replied.

“Splendid. Now, if you’ll wait here, I must scold your partner in romance and monumental fuck-ups.”

Victor focused on the rescuer who had arrived with Gina–a woman clad in orange and green, topped off with ludicrously bouncy black-and-silver curls. She retreated from the menace of the girl slowly marching toward her, yet she grinned and bounced like a playful puppy.

“… an amazing year, I tell you!” she’d been babbling. “I mean, a kamaitachi and melon heads–which are a lot more menacing than their name implies, I assure you–and now you!”

Who?” whispered the girl.

“Sorry,” she laughed. “Manners. I’m Rafaela. Torres. Rafaela Torres. And you are… Wow… Although I’m curious: you can look like just about any female in the world, and you pick J-horror. Don’t get me wrong: It’s a good look for you, but still, why did you choose this?”

How?

“I don’t know,” Rafaela replied. “I think it was an accident. Either way, the circle is broken. You can leave now.”

Why?

“Your mistress isn’t here anymore,” Rafaela told her. “She hasn’t been in a long time. She’s home, waiting for you to light her way.”

No.

“Are you sure you don’t want to go back?”

Yes.

“Fine,” Rafaela said, just before sidestepping, ducking into a crouch, and kicking her ankles. By the time the girl landed on her back, Rafaela had sprung to her feet, planting one on her fist, which still held tightly onto the torch.

“Holy shit!” yelped Susan.

“Huh,” agreed Victor.

“Dang,” breathed Jin.

“That was indeed impressive,” admitted Gina.

“Thanksh!” Rafaela mumbled while plucking the cap of off a dry-erase marker with her teeth. She scribbled something onto the girl’s arm, recapped the marker, and shouted to the heavens, “Hecate, recuperar o teu servo partir desta terra estranha!”

The girl gurgled for a minute before her body crumbled into wet soil, her hair and toga into algae, and her torch into ash. All of these quickly dissolved into smoke.

That settled, Rafaela clapped her hands and asked the room, “Which one of you clumsy, adorable little children summoned a lampad?”

“I thought a lampad was a fish,” Jin said.

Gina groaned.

Rafaela’s eyes widened. “She appeared to you as a fish? That’s wild! I didn’t know she could look like different things to different people! I saw a creepy, gross dead girl! How did she look to everyone else?”

Gina groaned louder. “He thinks you said lamprey.”

“Oh.” Rafaela needed a minute to let this detail soak in. “Let me rephrase that: Which one of you clumsy, adorable little children summoned an ancient Greek underworld nymph who serves the three-headed goddess of crossroads and the moon?”

Victor exchanged a glance with Susan and Jin.

Rafaela rolled her eyes. “Don’t all raise your hands at once.”

Disinformation

The arrow loosed by Alyrus the Elven Archer missed so narrowly, its wake ruffled the greasy hairs on the orc’s head. With a roar, the even-more-furious creature hefted and heaved a jagged stone mace at its attackers.

Venn the Cleric was a man of peace. He shunned battle, preferring instead to tend to the wounded. But, on this day, he saw this beast’s weapon about to crush the band of mercenaries he’d come to love, and his fate became clear. He scooped up his only armament and threw himself before the orc. A normal wooden shield would have splintered beneath the solid granite of that mace, but the Blessed Shield of Virtue took the full force of the blow without even bending.

The cleric’s actions provided just the opening needed for Jeran the Darkly Learned to step forth and bellow, “Gorvis, O God of All That Is Chaotic and Good, I summon from you a fireball with which to smite–“

“That won’t work,” declared Rjallin the Dwarven Warrior of Exceptional Skill and Moderate Physical Strength and Charisma. “You might as well be casting poetry–and dreadful poetry at that.”

Jeran the Darkly Learned, known to most as Jarrod the Computer Sciences Major, slammed his dice onto the table. “For fuck’s sake, Gina! Stop doing that!”

“Do you expect me to sit here and allow you to butcher the magic you profess to practice?” asked Gina the Dwarven Warrior of Exceptional Skill and Moderate Physical Strength and Charisma. “Alyrus is down to seven hit points and three arrows. Venn’s shield won’t take much more of this onslaught, and Sqilp is a useless Halfling with a miniscule dagger who can hardly be expected to damage a level-nine orc!”

“Hey!” yelped Alex the Halfling Thief.

“She’s right,” snickered his roommate, the Elven Archer whose name was also Alex. “That is a tiny dagger.”

“That leaves you and me,” Gina added, “and if you continue to deploy ridiculous, impossible spells, I’ll be forced to carry the weight of this entire conflict–and I can’t, with certainty, guarantee victory.”

“Gerard,” Jarrod whined, “can we just get on with it?”

“Gina,” sighed Gerard the Game Master.

“I accept your authority,” she huffed, “but under protest.”

“Actually,” said one of the Alexes, “I’m kind of intrigued.”

“I see,” Gerard noted. “What do you think, Alex?”

The other Alex took a break from gazing at Gina’s décolletage to reply, reluctantly, “Look, Jeran is leveled-up enough to cast a small fireball, so just let him.”

“Victor?” asked Gerard.

Victor the Cleric shrugged and nodded. For him, this was loquacious.

“The ayes have it,” Gerard announced.

“Who the fuck is this guy anyway?” snarled Jarrod. “First we let her play–no offense, Gina–and now we get this guy? Shouldn’t he be baling hay or something?”

For a split second, Gina was overrun with the image of Victor panting with effort, his bare torso gleaming under a Midwestern sun, his back flexing, his torn jeans straining against his taut legs… She shook this off and focused on the more pressing question–what was he doing here? He’d only recently joined the campaign, and it was clear from his performance that he hadn’t the slightest experience with tabletop gaming.

“Watch it!” Gerard snapped. “That’s my brother-in-law you’re insulting.”

Victor grinned that grin. “Let’s not be hasty.”

“That’s my sister’s boyfriend.”

This, of course, explained how Victor learned of their quest to find and destroy the Black Chalice of Stepfeun the Mad, but it did not explain why. He and Susan were normally inseparable, but she was nowhere to be found tonight.

Jarrod folded his arms and sat back in his chair. “Fine. Enlighten us, O Regina the Wise, on why a spell that has appeared consistently in the manual since the second fucking edition is ‘ridiculous’ and ‘impossible.’ We’re all dying to know. Except Alex.”

Alex muttered, “I’m actually kind of curious now.”

“Basic science,” she replied. “That’s all.”

Jarrod snorted, “What the fuck does ‘basic science’ have to do with an imaginary fantasy world?”

“Your question is ignorant, so I’ll assume it was rhetorical.”

“Fuck you!” Jarrod sputtered. “That was a perfectly legitimate question!”

“Very well then.” She held up the meticulously painted pewter figurine that represented Rjallin the Dwarven Warrior of Exceptional Skill and Moderate Physical Strength and Charisma. “Each swing of my Mighty Battle Ax Panstrogm requires force, leverage, gravity, and momentum to puncture the hide of an orc. Likewise, Alyrus’s arrows are useless without Newtonian laws of action/reaction, combined with aerodynamics, and again, momentum. If his shot fails, we can always blame operator error–unlikely in this case, though, given Alex’s experience points–or atmospheric conditions left entirely to chance, hence the die roll. When it is my turn to strike, chance will similarly determine the random environmental factors that will aid or hinder me. In conclusion, what you’re asking is to violate the natural order to which the rest of us are beholden, and to that I call bullshit.”

“Come on!” Jarrod turned to Gerard and the two Alexes for moral support, but found none, so he returned to Gina. “Your girlfriend’s boyfriend gets to use magic!”

His implication of a sexual relationship between Susan and herself wasn’t a new one; in fact, it was understandable. The level of affection displayed between the two could easily have been mistaken for romantic. That came to an end, of course, with the arrival of Victor.

“I assume you’re not referring to his healing abilities,” she said, “because the herbs, potions, and powders he uses to accelerate tissue regeneration are chemical and biological agents.”

“The Shield of Virtue is a magical artifact,” he reminded her.

“Magic is a combination of metaphor, willpower, and most importantly, science,” she replied. “The spell cast on the shield greatly strengthens the elasticity and molecular bonds of the wood–physics augmented only subtly by the supernatural.

“On the other hand, fire is a chemical reaction in which molecules are rearranged violently, releasing heat, light, and other byproducts. If your mage possesses the knowledge and focus to ignite such a chemical reaction, there is still the question of the fuel required to maintain it. In an atmosphere such as ours, he could create a small flame, but it would die quickly.

“Even if I were to grant you an oxygen-richer environment containing non-poisonous quantities of an accelerant such as methane, a fireball would not even so much as scorch the clothing our opponent wore, unless it was polyester, and that is a separate lecture altogether.”

Jarrod digested her words and grumbled, “Okay, fine. Can I at least cast lightning?”

“That would be acceptable,” she replied.

“All right, guys,” Gerard said, “time to pack it up. It’s getting late.”

“This…” Jarrod pointed at her. “This is why this fucking campaign is taking fucking forever.”

“Totally worth it,” swooned one of the Alexes.

On their way out the door, Victor tapped Gina on the shoulder. “So, um, you’re really into this whole magic thing, aren’t you?”

“I take this silly game far too seriously,” she confessed.

“It’s all real, though,” he prodded.

“Nonsense,” she replied. “As I just told you, it’s make-believe.”

“Don’t nonsense me. I seen you scare off those monsters.”

“Those were aggressive adolescent boys,” she said. “They’d been behaving as monsters, but the idea they were literally so is ludicrous.”

“They were scary, black-eyed monster children, and you stood up to them!”

“Victor,” she said calmly, “perhaps role-playing isn’t for you. You can’t seem to separate–“

“Susan told me everything.”

She grunted.

“I want to learn how to do what you do,” he told her.

Gina drummed her fingers against her thigh. Before running away from home, she’d excelled at her studies at the school in the cavern. But she was only eighteen, and hardly trained to instruct. And yet this request tickled her ego so thoroughly, and his goofy earnestness made him irresistible.

“Very well,” she sighed. “Find me tomorrow afternoon.”

He grinned that grin again.

Recency Bias

Icicles made of venom dripped out of Gina’s voice. “You invited her.”

Jin reminded her, “She’s your best friend.”

“She has a new best friend now,” Gina replied. “One with an erect penis.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, I’m right here!” moaned Susan from the other side of the booth.

“Given your perpetual state of attachment,” Gina said, “I’m surprised that Victor isn’t sitting beside you.”

“I left him in the truck,” Susan told her.

“Really.” Gina craned her neck to get a glance through the diner’s window of her rival’s trademark pickup, and what she saw made her bolt out of her seat and grab her purse. “That is … unexpected.”

Susan followed her the door. “Why the fuck are you being this way about me dating somebody?”

“I guess I’ll pay the bill then,” Jin called after them.

They came to a halt at the sight of a pair of preteen boys pounding on the side of Victor’s truck, shouting, “Let! Us! In!

“Are those the monsters we’re chasing?” Susan asked.

The monsters I’ve come to chase,” Gina corrected her.

“They don’t look like much,” she said and charged. She froze immediately when the children turned to face her. “Oh no,” she whispered, shaking her head. “Oh, no no no no no no …”

Even though she’d spent most of the afternoon on Jin’s phone, researching black-eyed children; even though she’d listened twice to the testimony of a near-victim; even though her presence in this town was due entirely to the study of this phenomenon, Gina never dreamed she’d actually have a chance to witness it.

Meters away, a perfect specimen of Midwestern ruggedness and functional muscle cowered away from two children. Closer still, a young woman who had grown up protecting her older brother from bullies and criminals, in the urban decay of the American Rust Belt sobbed an apology to her boyfriend, whom she couldn’t rescue from said children.

The researcher in Gina wished she could simply observe, but that wouldn’t do at all. She reached into her purse and took a step forward, halting when it occurred to her how much danger lay ahead. The only logical course of action would be to retrieve Susan, abandon Victor, and return to the diner. Then again, the threat was so great that it might make more sense to leave Susan behind as well. Gina wasn’t a hero; she was just a spoiled little girl who ran away from home because it was stagnant. And now she was throwing a temper tantrum because her new life wasn’t stagnant enough. Maybe it would be best if she just left.

Jin appeared at her side. “That’s them, isn’t it?”

“Jin,” Gina replied, “I believe we may be at an impasse.”

“Them?” he snorted. “I can handle them.”

“I find that unlikely,” she said.

“You’ve seen it yourself,” he told her. “I’m the phonomancer. All I need are some tunes, and we can talk our way through this like we always do.”

“I remain skeptical.”

He smirked. “I got this.”

He swooped over with a little fancy footwork, singing, “If you speak, you have my ear; just please step away from the truck. State your peace, depart from here; all I ask is—oh, fuck!” Under the scrutiny of those eyes, he began to pant uncontrollably. “Gina, we have to grab Susan and leave. Right. Now. We can hide in the diner—we’ll be safe there.”

She agreed with him wholeheartedly, but there was something that still bugged her. “Safe from what?”

“Susan!” he called out, “we have to go!”

“But Victor …” Susan replied.

“We’re no use to him if we can’t get away!” he told her.

Susan backed toward him, never taking her eyes off of her boyfriend’s pickup. “I’m so sorry …”

Jin grabbed Gina’s arm. “We have to get inside.”

“Why?” she asked. Why was it safe inside? What was it about doors that protected them from the black-eyed children? Doors, of course, housed endless metaphor, and many folkloric races were powerless against them; however, most could cross a doorway if invited. And frankly, who would invite those dreadful apparitions inside?

Actually, who wouldn’t? In every testimony she’d read, the children seemed benign, and their prey had been only moments from admitting them when the latter revealed the extent of their menace. There were no accounts of what happened if they were allowed inside. Why?

Exasperated, Jin pointed at the children, who continued to stare in their direction. “Them!”

He was right. No information existed about their potential fate, because no witnesses survived such an encounter. Their horrors were as dark and mysterious and dead as these predators’ black gaze. Everything about them existed to terrify—their eyes, their voices, the bodies of children they seemed to wear, as opposed to inhabit.

“We’re right here,” she muttered. “Why are they just standing there?”

“Do you really want to find out?” Jin begged.

No, no, no, no, absolutely not. Her curiosity, however, overrode her sense of self-preservation, as per usual. “Yes,” she forced herself to reply.

“Come on, you idiot!”

“Go,” she said.

“You heard the woman,” Jin told Susan as he bolted away.

Gina lashed out and clutched Susan’s wrist. “Not you.”

Susan said nothing, but her face spoke of fear, confusion, and a just a little bit of hope.

“We can save him,” Gina said.

“No,” she replied, “we can’t.”

“I just need to go over and speak to them.”

“Are you fucking insane?” Susan squeaked.

“I won’t be harmed.”

“Are you fucking insane?” Susan repeated.

It was a valid question. This was insane. Since childhood, Gina had been trained to identify and exploit loopholes within the laws of physics. She learned history from vampires, meditation from wraiths, and physical fitness from werewolves. No monster frightened her, except for these children. Instinctively, she understood that they would certainly be death of her.

Nine months ago, she would have abandoned this parking lot. However, she had one thing now she didn’t have before. “Correction:” Gina said; “I won’t be harmed if you are there to protect me.”

“Who’s going to protect me?”

“Why would you need protecting?” Gina asked. “You’re practically a goddess.”

Susan smiled through her tears. “All right, you got me.”

Their fingers laced together.

“Come,” Gina declared, “let us descend upon them as badasses.”

Dread, she told herself with each step, is the fiction of the timid. After an eternity, they stood face to face with the children. Looking them in the eye was the single most difficult thing Gina had ever done in her life, but the situation called for it. “Go home.”

“Can you give us a ride then?” the taller of the creatures asked.

“No.”

“But we need a ride!”

She was wrong. This would never work. They needed to retreat.

“I’m here,” whispered Susan.

Gina gritted her teeth. “The boy in the vehicle is frightened of you. The woman behind me is frightened of you. I am terrified of you. This is a bountiful harvest. You should be pleased.”

Take us with you!”

“You’ve feasted enough,” Gina told them. “Go. Home.”

The creatures relaxed, and the speaker patted its partner’s shoulder. “This is lame,” it muttered. “Let’s get out of here.”

Gina exhaled and collapsed against the closest fender. She turned to her friend to celebrate with a mutual grin of victory, but Susan wasn’t there. She had torn open the pickup, yanked her boyfriend outside, and kissed him desperately.

Gina closed her eyes. The status quo, she told herself, is the fiction of the timid.

Yes, And

As a child, Regina de Costa had never been allowed to socialize with anyone whose wealth, culture, education, or breeding fell significantly below her own. At the age of seventeen, she decided this wouldn’t do at all, and so she fled.

The United States had been her home all of her life, but the America she found outside confused, frightened, and brought her more joy and satisfaction than she ever could have anticipated.

Even now, eight months after she’d enrolled herself in a small, private college, she found something every day that begged to be sampled to the fullest. Case in point: less than a hundred meters from where she stood at this moment, a blond, lean, and glistening-in-sweat example of this slammed shut the hood of an old pickup truck and grinned in her direction. She felt safe in assuming that, whatever this boy lacked in sensual precision and tenderness, he would more than make up in youthful enthusiasm. Perhaps it was time to test her theory.

But before she could, her loyal friend and closest confidant declared, “Dibs.”

“That’s hardly necessary,” Gina told Susan.

“Why?”

“There’s no reason we can’t share.”

“Look,” Susan stuttered, “I like you and all, but…”

“Don’t worry,” she assured her. “I highly doubt either of us would be comfortable with that kind of experimentation.”

Susan exhaled. “Oh, thank God.”

“I merely meant that we could take turns.”

“I don’t feel comfortable with that either,” Susan said. “I’m a one-boy-girl.”

Gina rolled her eyes. “I understand the concept of monogamy, and I respect its legal function as a means of recording and distributing property and progeny, but the idea of limiting sexual contact to one individual strikes me as dreary.”

“You don’t strike me as the getting-around type.”

“In the short time you’ve known me,” Gina told her, “I’ve had eleven separate sexual partners.”

Susan blinked. “Wow. How?”

“Aside my wardrobe and appearance,” she explained, “a direct proposal is often the most effective method.”

“That’s it?” Susan asked. “No wining and dining?”

“That’s not particularly efficient, is it?”

“I don’t get you,” Susan told her.

“And yet, here you are.”

“Tell you what,” she said. “Why don’t you hold off on jumping him right away and let me show you how flirting done right is sexy as fuck. If I’m wrong, he’s all yours. Deal?”

Gina considered it and concluded, “I find your terms acceptable.”

They strolled over to the young man in question, and Susan nodded her head at his truck. “That a 1984?”

“Eighty-seven,” he replied, a little startled. His eyes squinted like someone who’d spent almost two decades hiding them from the sun. Gina still couldn’t quite make out the color.

“Close enough,” Susan conceded. “The mid-eighties were a golden age for American pickups.”

He shrugged. “There are some who might beg to differ.”

She raised an eyebrow. “You one of them?”

“What do you think?”

“I think,” she told him, “that this truck right here is solid, and its engine’s more piston than computerized bullshit, and it still runs.”

“That’s debatable,” he muttered.

“Besides,” she added, “it’s not one of those gigantic-ass ones that makes you have to wonder about the size of the driver’s dick.”

Gina flinched.

He took a glance at his truck, and then at the crotch of his pants, and then returned his attention to Susan. “I ain’t touching that.”

“Your call.”

He laughed. “This conversation’s getting kind of personal, don’t you think?”

“If that’s the case, then maybe I should introduce myself.” She held out her hand. “Susan.”

He shook it. “Victor.”

A cocktail of irritation and awe splashed all over Gina when it finally occurred to her that this boy had not looked once in her direction. She forced herself to accept that she would probably never have the opportunity to explore what flexed beneath that denim.

“What brings you here, Vic?” Susan asked.

“I prefer Victor.”

“I don’t.”

He shook his head and laughed again. “School,” he replied.

“Never noticed you before.”

“Been here all semester,” he told her. “Where’ve you been?”

“Around,” she said.

“And what is it you do here, Susan?”

“At the moment,” she replied, “catching leprechauns.”

Gina squeaked.

“Is that right?” he chuckled. “They show you their pot of gold?”

“Yes, they did.”

“And what, pray tell, do you plan on doing with all that treasure?”

“Something…” She smirked. “Something decadent.”

The eager confusion on Victor’s face and the smugness on hers settled over Gina, covering her with goose bumps and warmth. “Susan,” she breathed, “I have to leave.”

He finally noticed her. “I’m sorry,” he stammered, blushing. “I didn’t even see you there. I’m Victor.”

“Regina,” she coughed. His handshake was firm, but restrained. The possibilities of this kind of controlled strength rose her temperature even more. She tried to say something else, but couldn’t.

Susan leaned over and whispered in her ear, “His eyes are up there.”

She stopped staring at his chest and followed her directions. They were dark green. She forced herself to calculate the genetic pairings needed to manufacture such a hue, and this redirection of her thoughts rebooted her brain and allowed her to wrest back control over her legs.

Susan took her hand and dragged her away. “See you around, Vic?” she called out.

He patted the fender of his pickup. “You know where to find me.”

As they fled, Susan giggled, “That went well.”

“Indeed,” Gina said, more congratulatory than jealous; though, to be fair, there was plenty of the latter.

“Told you so.”

“Indeed.”

“You mad, baby?” Susan asked.

“I do loathe defeat,” Gina admitted, “but my disappointment in this case is tempered by how much I love watching you win.”

“You really are the best.”

Gina sighed.

The very instant they found themselves out of sight of Victor, Susan collapsed against the closest wall and fanned herself. “Holy shit,” she moaned. “Did you see that fucking smile?”

“Yes.”

“I need a cold shower,” Susan told her, “so bad.”

“As do I,” Gina agreed. “But I intend to masturbate first.”

No True Scotsman

Gina clapped delicately, displaying the maximum amount of enthusiasm her upbringing would allow. Her friend, recognizing this, curtsied awkwardly, displaying the maximum amount of grace her own upbringing would allow.

Susan,” she said, “that was exemplary!”

“Thanks,” she replied, “but you know they’ll never cast a black Mac-Scottish-Play.” She shrugged. “I’m still going to kill this audition, though. Make them feel bad about it.”

Gina shook her head and gazed out the window of her dorm room. “I, of all people, understand the value of curses, but you’ll find within the statistics no basis for the superstitions attached to…” She blinked. “Susan, I believe I’m looking at a leprechaun.”

Susan frowned. “Nobody told me it was Opposite Day,” she replied.

“I don’t understand.”

“Opposite day is when–“

“I already deduced the concept of Opposite Day,” Gina snapped. “What puzzles me is how you came to this conclusion.”

“Because if you said, ‘Susan, I don’t believe I’m looking at a leprechaun,’ I’d believe you, because not seeing a leprechaun is something that happens in real life.”

“This semester,” Gina reminded her patiently, “you channeled the ghost of your friend, whose body, in turn, was channeling the ghost of his deceased, soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend.”

“Yeah, but that was a ghost. Ghosts make sense.”

Gina held her index finger a half inch from her thumb and whispered, “Dan&#231a para mim, chama bebê,” A small flame jumped out of nowhere between them. She said, “Also, I can do this.”

“All right, I’ll give you that one.”

“Has your trust for me ever been misguided?”

“Leprechauns,” Susan moaned. “Fuck me.” She joined her at the window and let out a disappointed grunt. “That ain’t no leprechaun.”

“I already informed you,” Gina repeated, “it’s not Opposite Day.”

“I get that they’re probably not walking around in green suits and top hats and shit,” Susan asked, “but aren’t they supposed to be… smaller?”

Gina returned her attention to the abnormally average man on the other side of the glass. “You’re referring to the term Wee Folk,” she said. “That’s a linguistic misunderstanding, like cockroach or Dutch. In reality, they don’t even resemble humans. What you’re seeing is a combination of our limited perception and some glamour work.”

Susan laughed, “Baby, you’re the best.”

Gina blushed.

“So what now?” Susan asked.

“I’m going to detain him,” she replied.

“How?”

“I’m going to ask my closest friend and confidant, whose tuition is paid entirely by an athletic scholarship, to pursue and subdue him.”

“Fuck me,” Susan moaned again. “And what is your friend going to do once she catches…” She giggled. “You seriously want me to run down a fucking leprechaun.”

Gina nodded eagerly.

“Then what?”

“Demand his pot of gold,” she replied. “Naturally.”

With a grin, Susan slipped out the door, repeating, “The best.”

Gina stood, smoothed out her dress, and followed. By the time she exited the dormitory and strode across the lawn, Susan already had the man in a chokehold, his arm pinned behind his back.

What the hell are you doing?” the man shouted.

“According to basic biology,” Gina replied, “your species is instinctually driven to free itself from forced captivity by divulging the location of your treasure.”

What?” he yelped.

“Pot o’ gold, Lucky,” Susan clarified. “Cough it up.”

“You people are insane!”

She tightened her grip. “Did you just ‘you people’ me?”

Gina cleared her throat. “Enough with the subterfuge. I’m Regina de Costa, daughter of Lucio Marcos de Costa and Helena Torres, both board members of the corporation.”

“Is that supposed to…” The man’s shoulders fell. “I’m in America, aren’t I?”

“Indeed.”

“Bugger me,” he groaned.

“What corporation?” Susan asked.

The man ignored her. “Now what?”

“Tradition dictates that you lead us to your gold.”

“I don’t have any gold to lead you to,” he told them.

“I thought you were a real, live leprechaun,” Susan said.

“I am,” he replied.

“Bullshit,” she snorted. “Because a real, live leprechaun would have a real, live pot of gold.”

“He’s telling the truth,” Gina admitted. “His kind are physically incapable of lying.”

“You wouldn’t want it anyway,” he said.

Susan replied, “Yes, we would.”

“It’s not like you can just walk into a mall and spend it, and you can’t use it to shop online,” he explained. “And if you want to convert it to cash, you have to find a reputable buyer, and then you run into a lot of questions, not to mention taxes.”

Panic crossed Gina’s face for less than half a second as she said the words, “I don’t understand. Every Folk Zoology 101 textbook spells it out with no ambiguity. If you capture Wee Folk, they must give you gold.”

“Don’t you get it?” he sighed. “Gold to you represents the most valuable currency. Where I come from, the most valuable currency desire.”

“I believe I understand now,” Gina said with a nod. “And so what desire would you fulfill in exchange for your release?”

With his free hand, he pointed to a nearby parking lot.

“Oh,” Gina replied.

Without meaning to, Susan let the leprechaun go, and he took the opportunity to flee.

Neither she, nor Gina, cared. They were too busy being hypnotized by a pair of tight jeans hugging a magnificently sculpted ass, which bent over the grill of a pickup truck. The man who belonged to the jeans pulled his torso out from under the hood, his back muscles testing the limits of his white T-shirt. Sweat from a hot spring day and even hotter engine worked together with the threadbare condition of the cotton to make it nearly transparent. He pulled a handkerchief out of his back pocket–once again drawing attention to the work of art down there–and wiped his hands.

When he turned around, Gina stared, unblinking, at his chest, until curiosity drive her to his face to make sure it was as glorious as the rest of him. She couldn’t tell for sure until he brushed his thick, sandy hair out of his green eyes. He squinted at her and Susan and grinned.

Even more glorious…

Her fingers tingled, and her mouth went dry.

“Dibs,” said Susan.