“♪Don’t..stop, Beliieeeeving!” Garth belted out the last song of the night while stunned onlookers gawked at him. Behind Garth, the Illusory band provided the music to the ancient song. As long as no groupies jumped on stage and tried to touch them, everything was cool.
In the corner of the little bar abutting the slums, Garth had reintroduced the concept of karaoke: It didn’t go great.
Garth ducked out of the way of a wooden mug, his drunken reflexes still up to the challenge of dodging audience thrown shrapnel. Mostly.
“Hold on to that feeeeellllingg!”
“Get the fuck outta here!” a big bald man shouted, throwing a knife at Garth. He tried to bob out of the way, and the handle richocheted off his shoulder.
Garth had never been a fan of karaoke when he was alive the first time, but not giving a fuck about what people thought about him was liberating.
Garth had misunderstood the culture. Eight hundred years in the future had changed the way to get laid drastically.
Garth wasn’t sure exactly how you did it now, but going to a bar and picking up a cougar was no longer on the menu, so Garth had been stuck hopping from boring bar to boring bar, until finally he decided to take matters into his own hands with some karaoke.
Some of the people in the bar were ignoring him, some watching, some getting more and more angry, like the big bruiser front and center in front of the stage.
His wife was sitting across from him, laughing at Garth. There were half a dozen laborers sprinkled around the room, minding their own business, and in the corner was a slender woman with pure white hair, gnarled knuckles and wrinkled skin, watching with amusement.
I mean, I could go for a cougar, but that is maybe a bit too old for me.
“I know I said that was the last song, but with a crowd like this, how could I quit now? Next song’s for this guy,” Garth said, singling out the huge fellow. “He knows what I’m talking about. I feel a connection between us.”
Garth took a deep breath. “I like big butts and I cannot lie!”
“That’s it you little shit!”
“You other brothers – ack!” The guy leaped up on the stage and tackled Garth, who only had enough spare presence of mind to have the illusions run behind the curtain before they disappeared. In the meantime, the man locked his meaty hands around Garth’s throat, making it difficult to sing.
Difficult, but not impossible.
“Can’t deny, when a girl-“
Garth got picked up. Even though he had unnatural strength, he still only weighed about a hundred and forty pounds.
In the next second, Garth was tossed from the stage, ragdolling through some furniture and tumbling across the rough wooden floor. The only thing preventing a healthy amount of splinters and bruising was Bark Skin.
Spells are coming along nicely, Garth thought as he hit the bar and pulled himself to his feet. he was approximately a quarter as powerful as he’d been at his best. Enough to multitask a little.
The real question is, what are the stat limits of a phytolich? Sooner or later he’d run into the same problem as before, and his improvement would bottleneck until he proved to the gods that he deserved an upgrade.
Can’t imagine a phytolich would be any weaker than a phytomagus.
“Two more shots,” Garth said, dropping two credits on the table, the hollow golden coins the size of a quarter.
When was the last time I handled money this small? Garth thought to himself as he downed what was close to pure fiery alcohol. I wonder if I could gargle fire with these things.
The big guy tromped up to Garth from the stage, intending to take the scrap further.
“Look,” Garth said, turning to face him with his second shot. “You wanted me off the stage, I’m off the stage. That tumble through the chairs probably broke something. Why bother with me when you could go home and go balls deep?” Garth nodded at the man’s plain wife, who looked a little exasperated at her husband’s antics.
“Sometimes pieces of shit get cocky and need a lesson in manners.”
“Define irony.” Garth said, downing the second shot before kicking the man in the nuts.
The big man curled in on himself, his face going red, The veins standing out on the side of his neck and face as he fell to the ground.
“And now you’re going to spend the rest of the night with an icepack pressed to your balls. What have we learned?”
“I think you’ve had enough.” The bartender said, eyeing the man being flipped over by his wife. He seemed to be having trouble breathing.
“No, you don’t understand, my tolerance is super high. Really.” Garth said, leaning his weight on the bar. I’m generically engineered to be tough.”
“You’re just as bad as the first six bartenders.” Garth muttered.
“Hey, kid.” A rough voice called.
There was a light pat on his shoulder, and Garth turned to see the withered woman who’d been watching him from the corner.
She was wearing a red shirt, brown riding pants, along with leather boots that nearly came up to her knees. She was dressed better than everyone else in the bar with the possible exception of Garth himself.
Well, after that tumble through the chairs, I can write these clothes off.
“Sorry Ma’am, not really interested in G.I.L.F.s. No offence intended, you’re just way outside my strike zone.
“I’m not here to hit on you, kid.”
“Could you at least pretend to be? It would do wonders for my self-esteem.”
She chuckled, shaking her head.
What the heck is she here for, then?
“You made me laugh. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen an idiot like you get up on stage and belt out bad poetry with such conviction.”
“Yes, well, I consider myself something of an artist. Wrote them all myself, you know?”
Anyone who cared about copyright infringement is dead. Actually, pretty much everything’s public domain by now.
She chuckled. “Like hell you did. I’m guessing you heard them from a vinyl record at the palace?”
Icy fingers went down the back of Garth’s spine and he sobered up in an instant.
Crap, the woman knew the freaking songs. What was the most appropriate way to play off the woman’s suggestion? Lean into it.
“You’re right, I visited the palace with my dad when I was younger,” Garth said with a chuckle. “Figured these shmucks wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.”
“Visited the palace, eh? When?” the woman asked, leaning closer, and Garth felt something closing in around him, not a physical presence, but more like an idea. it pressed against his skin and made his hair stand up.
Something about the little old lady was setting off alarm bells in Garth’s head.
“Oh, somewhere between five and ten years ago,” Garth said being as vague as possible. Surely there was a ball in that five year period. “My dad brought the family out to kiss the ring, so to speak.”
“And who is your dad?” She asked, her smile getting wider.
“You know what?” Garth said, stifling a yawn. “I’m really starting to get tired. As much as I love getting grilled for details, I should probably go home and get some sleep.”
“At least tell me your name.” she said.
“I tell you what,” Garth said, stumbling away from the bar. “You answer one question, and I’ll give you my name.”
“Shoot,” she said.
“Where can a guy get laid around here?” Garth said, angling toward the door. “I’ve been cruising the bars, and nothing.”
“Sorry, I’m new in town, so I don’t know for certain, but if I had to guess, probably the fighting pits.”
“Thanks,” Garth said, nodding. “My name’s Edward Bergstrom, have a good night.”
“Thanks for the music,” She said, waving him off. “I especially enjoyed the electric guitar. Where is the rest of your band, anyway?”
Garth’s first instinct was to excuse himself and run like hell, then a thought occurred to him.
How does she know what an electric guitar is? Or even what it sounds like? Garth glanced back at the old woman watched him with a casual smile.
What’s the worst that could happen?
Your soul gets imprisoned for all of eternity, a niggling voice warned Garth.
Let’s roll those dice.
Garth sidled back up to the bar. “Okay, I’ll bite. How do you know what an electric guitar is?”
“Been living at the palace a while,” She said with a shrug. “Worked there as a maid for forty years.”
And you just so happened to ask specifically what one instrument was, and they bothered to answer? It was unlikely, but a lot can happen in forty years. Hell, why would the royals even know?
“And your name?”
“Nice to meet you,” he said, offering his hand.
Everything went black.
Garth was sitting in the living room playing Call of Duty, his feet up on the bookshelf where the TV was stationed, barely four feet away from the grainy, boxy screen. His family hadn’t bothered to buy a flatscreen while the old TV still worked.
“Take that you fucker.” Garth growled, right before missing his shot. The sniper bullet sailed right over the other guy’s shoulder as he charged in with his submachine gun going full auto. Garth ducked back behind the corner of the hall, and when the clip ran dry, charged out and knifed the enemy in the face while he was reloading.
He heard movement behind him, and instinctively grabbed the submachine gun off the corpse and spun around, filling another two enemies with holes, leaping up from the middle of the pack to the top in a fraction of a second.
Why do I suck at sniping? Garth was much better at CQC even though he really wanted to be a sniper. They were so much cooler!
Garth was pretty sure it was because sniping was just point and shoot with accuracy while CQC was quick thinking and moving fast to outsmart the other guy, with less focus on accuracy.
Garth glanced over his shoulder as his mom stormed into the room.
“You need to feed the dog.” She said, her eyebrows furrowed together, her mouth downturned in her signature scowl.
What is she talking about? I love my dog. I freakin’ feed him every day-
An emaciated black lab with swirling black eyes limped into the room, its ribs sticking out from its gaunt frame, belly hugging its spine.
“You asked for him, but you don’t do anything with him, you don’t feed him, you don’t play with him or take him out on walks. What was the point, Garth?”
That’s not my dog. Garth’s dog didn’t have swirling black eyes, that was for damn sure. He wasn’t starved either.
This isn’t my house. Garth thought, glancing around the room. I haven’t lived here in nearly twenty years.
The dog stepped forward, its unclipped nails clicking on the wooden floor. It licked Garth’s hand, looking up at him.
“Well, are you gonna take care of it, or do I have to take him back?”
Garth stood out of his chair. This is a dream.
There’s only one person who communicates through hard to understand prophetic dreams.
“Pala, can’t you just tell me what you want?” Garth asked.
His mom frowned, an ugly, froglike expression.
The dream ended as a brilliant light poured into his eyes, singing his eyeballs and forcing him awake.
Garth tried to open his eyes, but the light was too bright, and he had to sit there for a moment with his eyes closed while they adapted.
“What’s going on?” Garth asked, peering through his watering eyes.
There was a brilliant magical light shining directly into his face, while the room around him was cast in darkness. There was a silhouette in front of him, his eyes unable to make them out through the glare.
“Good to know you’re sticking with the classics,” Garth said, smacking his lips. The extreme dryness in his mouth indicated he’d been slackjawed unconscious for an hour or two.
The important question was Pala’s message.
Garth ignored whatever the person in front of him was saying and delved into his rapidly fading memory of the dream. Pala said there was a dog. She said she’d given it to him, and would take it away if he dodn’t take care of it.
The dog was a metaphor, obviously, so what had she given him that Garth hadn’t been taking care of?
Unscryable, Empowered Illusion Magic, Deceitful, Shadow Affinity, Garth mentally ticked off all his blessings. The only one he hadn’t really used was Shadow Affinity. The dog had looked…shadowy.
Pretty simple message. Use the blessing I gave you or I’ll take it away.
“Are you listening to me?” The person across from him asked, his voice had an ominous edge to it.
“Not really, no.” Garth said, refocusing. It was a man, that much he could tell from the voice and the line of his jaw.
Wonder how they knocked me out. I suspect magic was involved.
“Put your hands on the scanner.”
Garth glanced down at his hands that were manacled to the table, and there was a crystal orb just within reach, about a quarter the size of a Class Imprinter.
Garth put his palms on the orb.
Light flared up inside the orb and Garth’s attributes began to scroll down the opposite side of the orb, all jumbled up and unreadable.
Garth couldn’t see the man’s expression, but he was pretty sure the man was confused.
“Anything else you needed?” Garth asked. “by the way, you got some water or something? I’ve been drinking all night, and I need some water to take the edge off the hangover I’m sure to have tomorrow. Oh, and some pretzels.”
Without a word, the shadow on the other side of the table stood and left.
“Well, damn,” Garth muttered.
Garth tried to pull mana out of the environment, but the collar seemed to interfere with his ability to weave it together, forming a kind of polar opposite and forcing individual strands of mana apart as he wove them together.
Any help here, Shadow Affinity? Garth thought.
For a couple minutes, there was nothing, then a prickling sensation crawled along Garth’s skin. The shadows around Garth’s feet began to swirl, brushing up against his ankles with a cold sensation that reminded him of Pala.
The swirling is nice, but are you going to do anything?
The shadows continued to swirl under him, doing precisely nothing.
Be nice if you gave me a briefing on how to use this blessing, Garth thought, rolling his eyes.
The door opened again and a rather thin silhouette walked in and sat down in front of him.
“Who are you?” the old woman’s voice came from the shadow.
“Who are you?” she repeated.
“Could I get some pretzels?”
“Who are you?”
“I don’t think I’m gonna answer that,” Garth said, leaning back in his chair with his arms crossed. “’Cuz I don’t think you’re a retired maid, and beyond that, I think you weren’t even interested in having sex with me.”
“Look, tell me what I want to know now, or we’re going to have to start pulling out things that don’t grow back.”
“Why don’t you just read my mind?” Garth asked with a grin.
“That doesn’t seem to work. Are you from the Inner Spheres? Are you a Royal?”
“For the last time. Tell me who you are.”
“Are you serious?”
“Yeah, that’s my name.” Garth said, then raised a brow. “Unless you have a reason to believe that’s a fake name?”
“I know it’s a fake name,” she said, leaning forward, until Garth could make out her white eyebrows, lowered as she glared at him.
“Why’s that?” Garth asked with a grin. “You read it in a book somewhere, Linda?”
She tapped her fingers on the table.
“I’m gonna find out who, or what, you are. And you’re gonna wish you had just told me.”
“Same here,” Garth said. “There’s gotta be only so many people from the twenty-first century like you wandering around.”
Linda stopped tapping the table.
“Maybe you knew what an electric guitar sounded like,” Garth said, “What it was called, and maybe you’ve heard those songs on vinyl, but how did you know to point it out specifically unless you knew it was impossible for me to use one? Guess I’ll just have to ask around for nine-hundred year old women after I escape. Can’t be too many of those.”
“No need. Since you’re not walking out of here anytime soon, I’ll fill you in. You’re looking at the leader of the Prima Regula. And you, Edward Bergstrom, have been making quite a mess here in Santo Descanso, attracting unwanted attention.”
She watched him like a hawk, weighing his reaction.
“Who are the Prima Regula?” Garth asked with a shrug.
“You’re shitting me.”
Garth shrugged again, and Linda heaved a long sigh. “Whatever enchantment you’ve got on you that makes you unreadable is a pain, so we’ll have to resort to more physical methods of getting your identity out of you. I was hoping it wouldn’t come to that, because you seem like a smart kid.”
“We’re going to strip you naked, pull out all your nails and teeth, then peel you like an onion, until you tell us the truth. You sure you wanna go through that?”
“I should be fine.”
“Alright.” She said, standing. “Be right…back.”
Garth maintained the illusion of confidence until she closed the door.
Fuck! I’m in deep shit! Garth thought, leaning over the table, his brain struggling to figure out a way to bail.