Ranger Levin

by

Tyonis

Death, Deals, and Desperation

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War is hell.

I learned that lesson in my first gunfight. Training helped, but no amount of practice could have prepared me for the sheer sensory overload. My fellow soldiers called it 'adrenaline inoculation.' I understood it as 'paralyzing fear.'

I still recall a brother-in-arms dragging my sorry ass behind a JLTV and slapping me silly until I could finally muster enough sense of self to return fire.

Since then, I participated in - survived - at least 12 direct fire engagements with the enemy.

During World War III, that was one hell of an accomplishment. But my streak ended today. Or rather, it ended about half a minute ago when I took three rounds to the chest. I heard the frightening crack of my body armor shattering after the second bullet. The third pierced straight through my lung and I felt my whole body grow colder and colder as I laid in a puddle of my own blood. The bullet probably nicked an artery and an important nerve somewhere in my back, so I couldn’t feel any pain. It'd be over quickly. That was my only condolence.

My fellow soldiers didn't fare any better. Over 3/5ths of my unit were dead or dying around me. I didn't bother calling for a medic. In a stroke of bad luck, he was the first to go down, nailed in the throat by a sniper. After that, all hell broke loose.

Rebecca, I’m sorry. Daddy’s not coming home. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

I drifted between this strange state of extreme awareness and incomprehensible drowsiness while I bled out. At some point, I managed to peel back my ruined plate carrier and ripped off the brittle chain that kept my dog tags around my neck. They fell to the dirt and sank into the bloody puddle, forgotten and ignored like the countless bodies strewn across the field. What I truly wanted was the cheap locket that hung next to them.

I couldn't even muster the energy to open it, but imaging the picture within was enough. I held onto it with every ounce of strength I had left. The warmth of my daughter's memory was the only thing keeping me from falling into total despair as I died.

Even then, as the darkness crept over my vision, as I lost all sensation, as my mind whited out, I silently begged to see her again. Just once would be enough. Just a few minutes. Just enough to say goodbye.

Then, after an eternity of begging and bargaining, darkness finally took me.

"Arise, Joseph. Arise."

I snapped awake, but what greeted my sight was a light so bright it burned. Slowly, I let my vision adjust to my surroundings by gradually reopening my eyes. Even so, all I could see was white - the ground melded into the sky in such a perfect, unbroken fashion that it quickly induced an overwhelming sense of vertigo.

"Welcome, Joseph."

My attention was instinctively drawn to the only visual and audible anchor-point within this sea and sky of endless white. A red haired woman with lightly freckled cheeks and pale skin stood with her arms lapped neatly over her stomach. I gaped.

"Rebecca?!"

I half-cried, half-screeched then dragged her into a tight bear hug. My daughter lightly returned the embrace with an expression of lukewarm dismissiveness that I immediately found off-putting. I pulled back, physically disoriented by the environment and emotionally confused by Rebecca's non-reaction. She was never so cold. Even her skin felt strange, like rubber and plastic.

"Congratulations, you have been chosen, Joseph. Through the «Lottery of Souls»-"

"Cut the crap," I interrupted, my anger seethed. "Who are you?"

"I am the «Goddess of Balance, Seras»." She answered, her voice and cadence measured. It was like listening to an automated voicemail message. I felt angry and violated. Seras must have stolen Rebecca's image straight out of my mind.

"Seras?" I parroted. "Why do you look like that?"

"I took the form of someone closest to you. Precautions are necessary, for my true form would overwhelm you and shatter your human soul."

"What do you want from-"

"You wish to see your daughter again. I can grant you such a boon, however, breaking the wheel of fate and changing the laws of cause and effect are no small feat, even for a deity. You must perform for me, a task of equal or greater measure."

"Can you really make that happen?" I asked, my voice was delicate and laced with desperation. I was drawn in by her words and closed the distance between us.

Seras nodded.

"Wh-what do you want me to do?" I took her hands in mine and dropped my head like a street beggar. I didn't care who Seras was at this point. Even my anger evaporated. If she let me see Rebecca again, then it didn't matter if Seras was the Devil himself. I'd sell my soul to her just to say goodbye to my baby girl.

“I require you to kill one of the Demon Gods. As the Goddess of Balance, I have determined the scales too heavily favor the forces of evil and chaos, thus your summoning, Joseph. Rarely is any deity allowed to directly intervene in such a manner, however, using you to tilt the scales is barely tolerated. There is precedent, so the other deities were willing to allow it.”

I grew curious and very annoyed by the information given and the information that was obviously omitted.

“Wait, why are you restricted? What aren’t you telling me?” I tried to ask her to elaborate, but the white-washed background was replaced with one all-too-familiar: the battlefield where I died. The shift was so jarring I felt my stomach turn and had to swallow my vomit. Seeing Rebecca stand so casually over my dead body made me want to take her away, but I steeled myself. For all of her perfectly emulated appearance and even her voice, Seras was not Rebecca. The way they spoke wasn’t even remotely the same.

Seras motioned broadly at my corpse. A more comically morbid part of me wanted to dance on it - after all, how many people get to dance over their own graves?

“Every person in the universe I will send you to is born with one or two «Aspects». They are randomly determined by chance. It is within my power to grant you four of your choice. Pick four items from your corpse, and they shall become your «Aspects». Their combination shall also determine your «Class» and what «Skills» you can acquire.”

“«Aspects»? «Class»? Am I in an RPG?”

Seras didn’t answer, but she sounded serious.

I didn’t live under a rock - modern entertainment was dominated by video games, and Rebecca and I bonded mainly through MMORPGs since I was away from home so often. But she didn’t elaborate and just stared at me. It was only now I realized Seras never blinked.

I forced myself to focus on my corpse and knelt beside it. Out of sheer curiosity, I spared a few glances to our surroundings and watched as the battle continued to rage around us.

“My time is limited, Joseph. Hurry.”

“Shit. I wanted to see if some of my unit survived, at least.”

Seras didn’t seem to care if her silence was anything to go by, so I perused my body, trying to think of what items to pick. «Aspects» were normally randomly assigned, so it was likely most people in this ‘other world’ did not get a chance to pick their «Class». As a soldier, I was trained to tailor my gear to the mission at hand, but Seras was being painfully vague. There was combat involved - or some kind of great, worldwide imbalance. The idea of Evil and Chaos didn’t give me any hope for a peaceful resolution, so the first thing I chose was my rifle. I slung it over my shoulder and looked around for any reaction. I couldn’t shake off feeling like a thief or graverobber, even though the body was technically mine. But no one spared a single glance. Either they could not see me, or the battle was too intense to bother splitting any focus. My assumption was the former.

The body armor and plate carrier were ruined, so I didn’t bother choosing those. I had no idea what would happen if I picked a faulty or damaged object. Since I wasn’t entirely sure what my mission would exactly entail, I decided to pick more admin-related items. My next choice was my radio, which also doubled as an offline GPS, complete with a fully downloaded map of the Earth updated in real time whenever possible. I slipped it into my pocket; it was only now I realized I was still wearing my blood-soaked uniform.

“Two left,” I muttered, giving voice to my indecisiveness. In truth, there was only one choice left; the final item I would never compromise on.

I fished through my corpse's tactical belt and settled on my multitool. Seras never told me the terrain or weather conditions of wherever the hell she was sending me, so the built-in ferro rod meant the difference between life and death. The foldable knife and other miscellaneous functions would serve well in basic bushcraft.

Finally, I saved the best for last and pried my daughter's locket out of my corpse’s cold, death-grip.

That action actually elicited a reaction from Seras. For the first time since we met, her expressionless face twisted into something resembling surprise.

“I expected a higher level of pragmatism. Will you not reconsider?”

“No.”

“That «Aspect» may not provide any tangible benefit.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Your struggles may become unnecessarily difficult.”

“I’ll deal with it.”

“I suggest you set aside your emotional-”

I slugged Seras across the face with my rifle buttstock.

She recoiled, but otherwise there was no mark nor did her expression shift. I grit my teeth so hard my gums bled. Striking a woman in blind rage wasn’t my best moment, but all the physical, mental, and emotional trauma I had forcefully repressed exploded when Seras kept questioning why I wouldn’t part with the only picture of my daughter I had left. I had to take a few calming breaths or I might have struck her again out of sheer spite.

“I’m sorry, but I won’t change my mind,” I declared, my anger barely controlled.

Seras recovered. Or rather, I think she recovered. I wasn’t sure if she was even phased. That blow would have shattered a grown man's jaw.

“The damage to my «Health» was negligible. I forget you mortals do not always operate on pure logic. That innate, primal chaos is what makes mortals so weak and yet so powerful. You will need to keep that fierce fire burning through the ordeals to come. Thus, I will forgive your transgression.”

With her words, the scenery shifted back to the painful white ocean. I instinctively closed my eyes then forced myself to open them and focus entirely on Rebecca’s red hair. It stood out amidst the featureless background and provided me with some sense of depth-perception - not even shadows existed here. Seras then raised one arm at me and a translucent window with glowing, blue text appeared. The font was frilly and artsy. I would have preferred Times New Roman. The letters were foreign to me, but then I blinked and they suddenly made sense.

“The final gifts I am allowed to grant you are a «Menu» and the «Comprehend Languages Skill». The other deities will not allow anything further and I’ve already gone over my allotted time.” Seras stated after slowly lowering her arm.

“Wait, wait! That’s it?! Not even a mission brief?!”

“I wish you good fortune, Joseph Barnett.”

I screamed out more protests and no small number of colorful swears, but they either went unheard or unheeded as the white world was replaced with darkness.

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A note from Tyonis

Thank you for your time! I sincerely hope you enjoyed the prologue!

If you want to read more, please note I have a writing and posting schedule:

I write about 50 pages worth of material first, revise and edit, the finally post in rapid succession over the course of a week or two. 


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