March 16th, 2027.
I hope this message finds you well. I have a proposal for you.
It’s always the small towns where everyone knows each other - but that’s also what makes it all the more alienating to be a newcomer. He’d never been the most sociable person, but no amount of introversion could ease the discomfort of being alone and trapped in an unfamiliar place. He pulled into the parking lot of a small motel, cursing as an unseen pothole jostled his car and sapped the last of his patience. A billion possibilities for his life, snuffed out in an instant by a decision he didn’t realize he’d already made. It’s ironic, because that’s what he came here to do; the only difference was that his own life wasn’t the one he’d intended to ruin.
The only way to make this right, he believed, would be to finish what he started. A newfound yet familiar determination put a spring in his step, purposeful and thoughtful strides carrying him as he got out of his car and approached the motel.
I am aware that you are an individual of special talent.
He knocked on the landlord’s door. A wave of thoughts and the faint sound of footsteps foreshadowed their answer. She was a young woman, about his height and probably not much older than him. It was neither her striking appearance nor her immensely ominous aura that kept him stock-still, captivated, in her doorway.
About his ability.
About him being stuck here.
It was obnoxious pricks like these who thought they could butt into his business that got on his nerves the most. He had nowhere else to go, though, and he didn’t want to start off by making enemies.
“Hello. How much is it for a room here?”
From the pockets of her robes, she produced a small keychain.
“You and I both know you’ll be here for a lot longer than you’ll be able to pay for. I won’t charge.” She paused. “For now, at least. Besides, most newcomers here tend to prefer the apartments a bit deeper into the city; it’s nice to have company for once.”
He accepted the keychain. She was right about him not having enough money for more than a couple nights, but he could tell her kindness was forced. Behind her soft face was a mix of apprehension and curiosity, and she was deliberately hiding her exact thoughts. Still, he nodded and put on his best smile.
“Alright, then. Thank you! My name’s Bonzai, by the way.” Normally he would’ve offered a handshake, but he knew she wouldn’t take it anyway.
“Is that for real, or is it a nickname?” She responded, raising an eyebrow.
“It’s what everyone’s called me since high school.”
“I see. I’m Julia. If you ever need anything, I’ll be here.”
The two of them exchanged phone numbers and said their goodbyes, then Julia retreated back into her room and closed the door. Bonzai continued standing there for a little longer, fidgeting idly with the keychain she gave him. There were so many questions he wanted to ask her, and yet their interaction had been staggeringly uneventful. How did she know about his ability? Why couldn’t he leave?
He turned around to face his car, alone at the end of the parking lot. The suburbs beyond looked warm and inviting; perhaps he would take some time to explore them this evening. He twirled the keychain once, and headed towards the rest of the rooms - then stopped.
She forgot to tell him which room was his.
I need a favor - one that requires your ability. You will be rewarded accordingly.
It was sunset when Bonzai set off from the motel. Whatever motivation he had to explore was made urgent by hunger (he hadn’t eaten lunch), so now seemed a better time than ever to venture into town. Julia had texted him a list of local landmarks, and he figured he would start with those.
The first landmark was in a park at the heart of a city next to the suburbs. It was a grave consisting of two long swords, buried in a stone pedestal Caliburn-style. Two names were written below it: one, worn as though it had been engraved centuries ago; and the other, cleanly cut like it had been written very recently. Flowers, prayer cards, and other offerings lay beside the pedestal. Bonzai stood alone, intrigued by the two swords, when he sensed someone’s thoughts behind him.
“They were the guardians of the ruins beneath Mundi.”
The boy approached, no older than fourteen at the most. He had messy brown hair and wore a teal and black tracksuit.
“This place. Are you new here?” The boy responded.
Bonzai nodded. The boy sighed; he pitied Bonzai.
“This entire region is called Sigillum County. The city around us,” he began, “is Mundi. Head east and you’ll be in Solis and Luna, the two suburban districts. Solis connects to the highway, and - from the looks of things - you already know something’s up, and it’s preventing anyone from leaving. Everyone’s tried. Luna, on a much nicer note, connects to the beach. Around all of these areas is Caelum, a dense forest.”
Bonzai frowned. “So what about the ruins?”
“They don't matter. There's nothing special about them, and it's unsafe since the caverns are starting to crumble. Nobody goes down there anymore.”
The boy paused for a moment, then reached into his pocket and pulled out a small, rumpled flower. He placed it on one side of the pedestal and began walking away. Like Julia, his mind seemed to be on guard. “Be seeing you,” he said, not waiting for Bonzai to respond.
You will get to meet others with talents like yours.
The boy’s nonchalance left Bonzai with lowered expectations, but the Luna beach left him confused as to whether he was in Sigillum or in Miami. The view was easily postcard material, while the boardwalk and the neighboring streets were lively and crowded with beachgoers, partiers, and other people out for a stroll amidst the local culture. It was a pleasant surprise, but it filled him more with concern than with excitement.
How were all these people having so much fun? Surely, he couldn’t be the only one to whom this place gave chills. Was the isolation that easy to cope with?
His stressful inner monologue and tour of the boardwalk were both sidetracked by the aroma of bacon. By the time his brain had turned off autopilot, he had found himself seated at the bar in Mundi Diner - an unimaginative name, not to mention the fact that it wasn’t even in Mundi. The smells inside and a couple of sidelong glances at the other customers’ meals, however, were enough affirmation that he’d made the right choice. He just finished ordering a drink when he found a familiar presence sitting to his left.
“Here for the initiation, too? I can’t say I expected you to catch on this quickly, but you made a good choice.”
It was Julia. All her apprehension from earlier had been lost. Whatever she’d mistaken him for, it was enough to earn her trust - and with all her attention on Bonzai, she was an open book. He hadn’t braced himself, though, for what her mind would reveal. Most of it he didn’t understand, but here’s what he gleaned:
- He was one of many individuals with special abilities. Supernaturals, they were usually called, but apparently he was special.
- Tonight, at this restaurant, is the initiation party for two new members of some group called Virtue.
- There would be a lot of people here today. Two names were ones he recognized: Andy O’ Farrell, whom Bonzai came for, and Chiyo.
Julia waved a hand in front of his face. He’d spaced out.
“Can you stop that?”
“I’m sorry. I can’t help it.”
He really couldn’t. Even since he was a child, he would automatically read someone’s mind as long as they were thinking about him - whether he liked it or not. It complicated things; it’s hard to treat someone the same when you know exactly how they feel about you, and it’s the reason he’d never cared for interaction the same way everyone else did. He could always try to ignore it or tune out their thoughts, but he could never fully suppress his ability.
“I’m not here to be initiated,” he admitted, “but I heard about it from somebody and decided to check it out.” That part was a lie.
“Who?” She was genuinely curious.
“I went to one of the places you texted me about. There was this kid - brown hair, glasses, looked like he was in middle school - and he told me some things about Sigillum, and that there was something going on here tonight.” Another lie. But apparently, she knew the boy.
“You’re right on time, then,” she mused.
You will also be able to reunite with someone who has missed you.
Faint silhouettes of people approached the patterned glass doors of the restaurant. It was a group of college kids. One of them, a tall-ish girl wearing some kind of uniform, was very pretty. Another, a Hispanic-looking boy, had the build and swagger of a football player. It was the less eye-catching person in the front, though, who had Bonzai’s attention: Andy. His target. He was hoping to settle in for a day or two, but there could be no better coincidence.
“They’re the talisman users. Virtue’s elite. What’s left of them, at least. That girl behind them is the newest one, and she’s one of the recruits we’re here to celebrate.”
Bonzai turned back to Julia. Her thoughts beckoned once again, and he didn’t want to draw undue attention by staring at anyone.
“None of them are supernaturals - not on their own. Instead, they all have rare artifacts that grant them their powers.”
Things just got a lot harder. He had no idea which of them, if any, had their artifacts right now. Elite meant powerful, and powerful meant dangerous - catching Andy alone and off-guard would be Bonzai’s only chance. He had no clue if he’d even be able to do that tonight, especially if any of the other partygoers had psychic abilities like his own.
“I assume there are others coming?” Bonzai asked Julia. The restaurant was somewhat empty. It was pitifully quiet.
“Virtue is pretty large; this place will be a lot more lively soon. The elites are always the first to show up.”
As if on cue, a person walked into the restaurant, greeting Andy and the recruit girl as he found himself a seat at a table near theirs. A couple of minutes later, somebody else came in, offering similar salutations to Andy’s party. She was soon followed by another. The restaurant gradually filled up over the span of half an hour, with almost everyone seeming to be happy for the new girl. A few of them caught Bonzai’s eye. A sullen-looking pizza guy. A bodybuilder that looked vaguely familiar. Some Japanese girl who appeared as though she’d fall asleep at any minute. All of them greeted Andy and the girl, but paid no heed whatsoever to Bonzai or Julia. In fact, people seemed to be avoiding them.
“Do all of these people have powers, too?” He asked her. His own curiosity surprised him.
“Some, yes. The others are completely normal people. Virtue accepts anyone so long as they’re of some use to the cause.”
“Keeping the Nine Circles at bay; they’re some of the strongest and most malevolent of Sigillum’s supernaturals, as well as the reason for the barrier that prevents us all from leaving.”
That was definitely something he wanted to see.
“How dangerous are these Nine Circles, anyway?” He asked, without intending to listen to her response.
Why would he listen to her talk, anyway, when he could watch all of the scenes unfold in her head? They were beautiful, but also terrifying. Two dudes fighting: one, with power over time in his hands, and the other with powers of space. A man in a blue hood, moving beyond the speed of light. A stunning girl with catlike features and an ornate greatsword. Even Andy, who came up often in Julia’s recollection, seemed powerful as he wielded a brilliant blue lightsaber. That must have been his artifact.
Bonzai had to really pause to figure out how to put his feelings into words.
“Holy shit.” That was the best he could manage. Julia chuckled.
There was an awkward silence between them for a few moments before he spoke up again.
“You mentioned there were more recruits tonight?”
“One more. Her name is Chiyo, and she helps us spy on the Nine Circles. It seems she’s running really late; it’d be a shame if she were to miss the party.”
Just Chiyo, in the same way that he was just Bonzai. If it really was her, Bonzai wasn’t sure how he would feel.
Your task is simple. Your experience as a headhunter will make it easy.
Another hour passed. The party was still lively, and Chiyo had yet to show up. Julia was decent company, but it occurred to him that something was bothering her. Even when laughing, she never smiled, and her mind was almost always on guard. At least she made the effort to talk to him; it was helping him feel more comfortable, and he’d learned a lot.
“So anyway,” she began, “you still haven’t told me about what brought you here. Three types of people come to Sigillum. There are those who are looking for someone else, and then those who are looking for themselves.”
That was only two. She expected him to figure out the third for himself, but that wouldn’t mean anything when he already knew which one he was.
“I’m here for someone else,” he answered with confidence.
Julia nodded thoughtfully. “Same here." Before either of them could speak again, a waitress came by offering a list of desserts. Bonzai requested cheesecake. Something grabbed his attention before he could hear Julia’s order.
Andy was no longer in the room, and his friends were still at their table. This was Bonzai’s opportunity. He stood up. Many pairs of eyes went to him for a moment, but soon lost interest. That was all he needed; he caught the briefest glimpse of many thoughts, including an image of Andy walking out the front door a moment ago. “I’ll be right back,” he said to Julia, leaving the restaurant without waiting for a response.
Chances were that Andy was still in the area, but no time would be wasted trying to search for him. Bonzai coughed loudly. Hear my voice. Thoughts flitted in and out of his head as the few people nearby picked up the sound, then just as quickly returned to what they were doing before. It took a moment to sort through the information, but he knew where Andy went. Bonzai ran for his car to get something and returned to the diner.
He coughed again, summoning another small wave of thoughts from the people nearby. Andy was still on the roof, staring out at the beach and the night sky. Bonzai found the ladder behind the restaurant and scaled it quietly. Andy was completely oblivious to the handgun raised behind him. Bonzai had won.
You will kill Andrew O’ Farrell. Attached is a photo so that you may identify him.
Two gunshots: one to the shoulder, and the other straight to the head. The first brought him to his knees, and the latter left him facedown on the roof.
And then a third rang out, this one hitting Bonzai. How? There were no thoughts that revealed anyone nearby. He turned around as he collapsed. The gun that shot him belonged to the pretty girl, the one who had come to the restaurant with Andy; Bonzai couldn't sense her because she was a psychic as well. There was no need for words as pure hatred transmitted between their minds. Then she, too, dropped dead to the hard surface of the roof. Bonzai didn't see what killed her. Voices from below echoed out as people came out of the restaurant to investigate the commotion, but he could no longer hear.
The only special condition is that once you have made your decision, you may not turn back.
He was too scared to feel the pain.
His vision became blurry. He wanted to see.
He could not speak. He wanted to cry out.
Everything was so cold. He wanted to be warm.
He had regrets. He wanted to correct them.
He never got to have his cheesecake.
He never finished checking out Julia’s list of landmarks.
He never got to see Chiyo.
And then there were the things from the outside world.
Had he been wrong to come here?
Of course he had. Julia’s words returned to him.
There were three kinds of people in Sigillum.
Those who came to find someone else.
Those who came to find themselves.
And those who came to find their demise.