previous: Isekai ch18
“Opponent three of four?” I asked, looking around at the sky. The image of Leo and the fake beach scene flickered. Once, then twice; it was as if something was trying to forcibly change the channel.
An electric bolt shot from above. I fell backward out of surprise, (landing on my backside) but there was no actual discomfort or pain.
My sister Emily stood in front of me. Her expressionless face was so similar to Leah. “Hi, Marcus.”
“Hi,” I said in a whisper. I assumed she was fully prepared to kill me.
She wore what appeared to be a cross between an evening gown and a suit of armor. It was actually kind of cool. She also had a sword carried in a sheathe on her back. In the light I could see it clearly; she had fully finished off the high-fashion-princess’ look with a lavender sword. “Just so you know, I’m not mad.”
“You’re not?” I knew there was a second part to her statement. Her voice was friendly, too friendly.
“I’m just disappointed.” She unsheathed her sword, spinning it around like a fidget toy.
“Oh.” I felt a moment of genuine fear. She had been kind to me, the only one to believe in my story (about us being family.) She had been the one who brought me to the castle when she could have easily allowed her sisters to kill me. In a way, this was all her fault.
Her lips parted, when her eyes went wide with a realization. “Oh, but not with you.”
“Ok.” I was more confused than comforted. “Thank you?” What did that even mean?
“I won’t fight you. I refuse.” She stood with her hands at her side. There was no fear or hesitation in her voice. She was pissed at the man who she considered her father.
“You know, that actually sounds like a great idea.” I had no interest in fighting her either. “What’s dad going to do? “I looked around awaiting an answer in the form of a lightning bolt or maybe a fireball, but there was nothing. Feeling bold I repeated my question with added sarcasm. “What can he even do, force us to live as Siamese twins?”
“I would actually love to be a disembodied head riding on your shoulder. Compared to me, you’re the size of a tree.”
“Yeah, I guess.” I forced a laugh. my eyes went to the background. ‘What in the hell?’ The screens were static, then silver, then a static of a darker hue. Would we be battling in a Mortal Kombat stage? that was the only video game I could think of with such a direct connection to heaven and hell. The land of fiery pits, rivers of acid and, pits. ‘Oh crap.’
The ground started to fall away, forming the shape of a bridge. In the world of the game, the object was to knock your opponent off causing them to fall to their death landing on large rusted spikes covered in the blood and bodies of the damned. Strangely, this place did not seem to have a pit of spikes, or a bottom floor of any kind. ‘Would I fall forever?’ The idea seemed nice; calm, peaceful even.
I took one step, and then another, the gravel cracking under my feet. it sounded like cereal being poured into a bowl; breakfast, childhood, home. ‘Yes, this was nice.’ I walked along the edge, casting pebbles into the abyss. Was there even a pit of spikes? Was there an endpoint? I had to know.
“No!” A female screamed, and then a pair of hands grabbed me.
“Emma?” I asked. I immediately felt like an idiot.
For whatever reason, I assumed this was an act of self-preservation magic from the queen of witches. I turned my head to face my sister, Emily. She looked appropriately confused.
“Who?” my sister asked, once she had me pulled to safety.
“No one,” I muttered, my voice laced with genuine fear.
Emma Rose, in a transparent ghostly form, emerged from my body. “Who are you calling a nobody?” Her long wavy hair was covering her bare breasts, while the lower part of her body was covered in a long skirt made of metallic purple scales.
If Emma rose was visible to my sister, there was no way Emily did not know what this was; I had made an alliance. It looked very, VERY bad. I expected anger, yelling but instead there was silence. The two women stood at about the same height, with similar gymnast body-types. Their features seemed to be polar opposites; Emma’s dark skin and dark hair, against Emily’s blonde braids and skin the color of frozen milk.
Emily nodded, bowing her head. “In case you haven’t figured it out, whoever wins this tournament will win the opportunity to fight King Vlad himself.”
“So, in the next round?” I asked.
“No,” Emily spoke slowly as if I was a child. “After this match there is one more.”
“Oh.” Great, that’s just fucking great.
“And I have no doubt that the final round will have you facing an opponent that will break you; mentally, emotionally, maybe even physically if they get the chance,” she looked towards my ghost companion. “Whoever advances will need to have the strength to win their freedom.”
“Win their freedom?” Was she serious? I looked around for the audience. ‘Who the fuck was this all for?” This was absolute bullshit. Why? What was the point of any of this! We’re human lives that valuable? This was such crap. Who or what was I fighting for? I was sure if I got a running start, I could throw myself off the edge before anyone could stop me. ‘Yeah, that’s what I was going to do.’ My brain told my legs to run. ‘Do it!’ I looked in front of me at the very annoyed women.
Emma Rose raised an eyebrow. “Did you really think that would work?”
“Sorry.” I got to my feet. “Worth a try.”
Emily leaned in closer. “The contract father agreed to allows for a sliver of hope. Either he walks away with the win, and all our powers, or his soul will belong to,” before she could continue, the walls shook sending a powerful blast of wind. Emily dropped to her knees; if we didn’t fight, we would both die. “That’s why I wish to bow to you.”
“Bow to me?” Did that mean what I thought it did? “You really think I’m just going to let you die?”
The world was enveloped in a seductive shade of purple and I no longer felt any wind. The air felt thick, tingly like pins and needles.
I forced myself to my feet, turning to see Queen Emma Rose wearing a long gown the color of starlight.
“I know you,” she said as she floated around my sister like a doll. “I devoured you, making us one in the same.”
My mouth fell open. ‘One in the same?’
Emily, was silent. I would have assumed she would have been confused, maybe angry. To my surprise she seemed calm, as if contemplating the nature of the ghost woman’s words. “I think I understand. Are you at least remorseful for your actions against my people?”
“I regret that I robbed you of the chance to know your family, while in the confines of enslavement within my castle walls.”
Again, her words made me want to vomit, or at the very least punch her in her smug ghostly face.
However, my sister did not appear to feel the same. “You are nothing if not honest.” Emily locked eyes with me. “I wish I knew your father. He sounds like a wonderful man. I’ll tell him you said hello.” Before I could respond she took a leap, falling backward without a sound.
My heart froze. I wanted to cry, to revert back to being a child again. But no. I had to mentally prepare for whatever round four could bring.
A figure with wings flew towards me. At first, I wasn’t sure if it was Leo. The wings were metallic silver; more industrial than ethereal. But it was Leo’s voice that spoke to me. “If the bad guys can cheat so can I.”
Leo brought me to a new area, this seemed to still be a part of the Hell dimension; just another room that would soon become a mini-arena for this three-ring circus.
I fell hard, landing on my arm. “What do you want?”
“You know you’re tethered to Emma Rose,” Leo said in a tone of voice that could not help but come off as condescending.
“Yes, I do,” I groaned. ‘Why do I still feel pain?’
“Each space is a puzzle with a way out. You need to know that.”
“So, there’s more than one winner?”
“This isn’t about winning and losing.”
“What?” And now I was more confused than ever.
“Do you know what an escape room is?”
‘An escape room? Are you fucking serious?’ I was moments away from punching him in the face. But now the idea was tattooed at the forefront of my mind. “In real life or the movies?”
In real life (on earth, at least) escape rooms were giant puzzles meant to supply a means of entertainment, but in movies and media they became glorified killing rooms.
“This is not a glorified killing room.”
“Then what is it?” The world went cold; a flush of refreshing, realization. I was more than an NPC in my own story.
“My point exactly.” Leo paused looking into my eyes.
I finally had a chance to see his pose. His forehead was pressed to mine, with his hands upon my shoulders, but his entire lower body was floating off the ground. I started to laugh and couldn’t stop. There was so much I wanted to say, but nothing was worth my time. ‘None of this bullshit was worth my time.’
“You got that right.” A second voice laughed from behind me. “It’s all a grandiose stage carved from the world’s biggest trash pile.”
My heart froze in my chest; a feeling of loss, pain and unmistakable love. The voice sounded so familiar. “Leo, who is that?”
Leo released me. “Maybe he can talk some sense in to you.”
I was faced with a man with long blonde hair. He looked like a young skater or maybe a surfer. “Hello?” I asked, comfortably taking a seat to face him. He seemed to give off a Buddhist monk vibe; the kind of person who spoke in fortune cookie quotes.
The man pulled a bag of rolled joints from the pocket of his jeans. he lit a cigarette, taking a long deep breath. The elaborate whisps and circles of smoke reminded me of something out of a fantasy novel. “Do you remember when you climbed the old rotted tree, the one near our house? You had such joy. All you could see was the world of hope and limitless possibility.”
I knew what he was referring to. “Dad?”
“You were so confident, strong.”
“Up until I fell on my ass.” I could remember when I was six, maybe seven; small enough to be a cute little dumbass who wanted to climb the tree on to our roof.
“I like to think you were chasing a bird, but in hindsight I think it was probably one of those purple rat creatures from the deep forest.”
“The deep forest?” I wanted to ask if he knew about the mass grave. Did he even care?
The man crossed his arms over his chest. “You’ve been there?”
“A few times.” This was a question I didn’t want an answer to. It didn’t matter. But it was too late. My father looked like he was about to double over in physical agony. “I’m sorry.”
He closed his eyes, blinking back tears. “I visited her grave. Their graves. I was so damn selfish.” He forced himself to continue to smoke, attempting to calm his emotions. “You deserved to know your mother, your sisters, your people. But then I thought about what my old man would have done.”
“What would grandpa have done?” I genuinely wanted to know.
“He would have told you everything, prepared you for a life of war.” He shook his head, feeling a sense of self-pity. But there was no part of me that was keen on robbing you of your joy.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. Part of me would have preferred to be raised as a soldier. At least I would have known what to expect. But that was me speaking in hindsight. What my father chose, he chose out of love. “I’m grateful.”
The man cupped his mouth in his hand. He gracefully placed the cigarette down by his feet, as he doubled over in silent pain. “As a boy I was strong, never had so much as a cough. Probably because my pa would beat it out of me.” He spoke as if proud of such a fact. “That was the way of our people, our kind. After the war, there was something wrong with my brain; my soul.”
I nodded, swallowing the lump in my throat. He blamed himself for everything. I reached for my father’s hand. “It’s okay.” That was when I realized she was still there. Emma Rose was watching.
“I was always just so damn sick.” My father crossed his arms, shivering.
“Is that why you let Emma Rose treat you?”
“Treat me like a piece of meat. She would have loved to keep me around, drugged out of my mind.”
‘Oh, I did more than that.’ Emma Rose was attempting to leave my body.
I had no idea what to do. If I got up, she would be forced to leave my father in peace, but so would I. “Did you fear her?” I asked. If not, maybe I could keep her ghost under control.
“I feared what she could do to the people I cared about,” my father replied. His strength returning ever so slightly. “In a way that gave me the courage to go on.”
I nodded. It was a sad realization; he suffered for my happiness, my safety.
“I always thought about the way I wanted to die; to be in a place of honor. We live and die in this skin, this flesh. There’s a saying about the seventh generation.”
“Seventh generation?” That seemed too far in the future to even imagine.
“I’ve heard that either the seventh generation of a family, always screws up or something like that.” He laughed out loud, reaching for the bag of cigarettes. Upon lighting a new one, the discarded one vanished from existence. “Or maybe it was something about how seven generations from now no one will even remember you.”
I was curious as to where he was going with this line of reasoning. “I think I’ve heard variations on both.”
“Then you know what I’m talking about. It’s hard to think about your great-great grandchild when you’re barely getting by.”
“Yeah, I guess so.” That did explain a lot. In my darkest hours I had no thoughts other than my own pain. That was the ‘trick’ to suicide; the ability to think that nothing will ever get better.
“I wanted so badly to die, but God kept sending me reasons to live. It was like some kind of sick joke.”
“A sick joke?” What was he referring to?
Emma Rose answered, “He’s referring to my husband, of course.” She reached her hand to his cheek, brushing away a lock of his sweaty blond hair.
“You have to find something to live for; something to fight for. Otherwise, there’s really no point. Just hit the reset option and try again.”
Emma pressed her lips to his ear. “That’s why I allowed you to have a bride.”
My father gripped his chest. Even in death she was causing him physical pain. “I didn’t mean to die. I never wanted to leave you.”
Emma stroked his face, still speaking to him from outside of his line of vision. “Not even for Prince Tomas?”
“I haven’t found him on this side.” There was a noticeable sadness in his voice. Was Emma attempting to prove a point?
I finally found the courage to speak, addressing both Emma and my father. “Did he get reincarnated?”
Emma Rose simply laughed, her form vanishing back into my body.
“You never know.” My father crossed his hand in prayer. “Some of us come back, some of us stay here. A few do both.”
He nodded, pursing his lips with a sense of resolve. “A soul can be broken into pieces”
“On purpose? Or like as a punishment?”
“I’ve seen both.”
Against my better judgement I asked the second worst possible question. “Do you know King Vlad?”
My father turned to me with a look of confusion. “What?”
“He’s someone I encountered.”
“In the dragon colony?”
“No, I kind of made a really shitty decision at the worst point in my life.”
“You ran away.” He nodded slower, a look of fear invading his once calm face.
“I’m really sorry, dad.” It was too late for that. My father, he had a plan for me, a way to keep me safe while building a life with the people I knew and trusted. But dumbass me, I just had to go and be a teenager.
“You have nothing to be sorry for. You are the protagonist of your own story, for better or for worse. Please tell me more about this ‘King Vlad’? What makes you think I would know him?”
“He has your face.”
“My face? On a King?” He smiled and then laughed. “Let me guess, he’s a tyrant a dictator?”
“Pretty much.” There was so much more I could say, but I didn’t want to. There was a chance that King Vlad was a potential alternate life my father could have had. He was also an asshole. “Can I ask you something?”
“Like something really awkward?”
My father sighed. “You want to know if I could forgive Emma Rose Amanar?”
“Yeah. How did you know?” That was an answer King Vlad would never have had the courage to entertain.
“That would be the ultimate question, perhaps even the reason why I’m stuck in this state of limbo. Can I forgive the sadist bitch who ruined my life, fed on my fear?” he paused to breathe, the labored sound was a cross between laughter and tears. “I guess so.”
“You guess so?
I could have had the courage to leave at any time. First, I stayed with Prince Tomas, then your mother. After Emma Rose took our first child, I could have run. Anyplace would have been a better situation. And you would have been born free.”
“You stayed for Prince Tomas.” That was the only logical reason.
“He was my weakness,” he said with a nod while taking another long drag.
The way he spoke was strange; almost as if Tomas was not the love of his life. “Was she hurting him?”
“Her very existence hurt him. He was trapped in that marriage. Any path other than devoting his life to her servitude would have resulted in his execution. Perhaps on some level I felt the need to stay so that he had at least one friend in this otherwise cruel life.”
“That makes a lot of sense.”
“I guess, in a way, it was an honor and proof that my loyalty was not misplaced.” He took another drag, closing his eyes in deep contemplation. “He finally gained the courage to meet his fate, in an effort to save my soul.”
“We’re you in love?”
“I did love him.”
“Have you met any of my sisters?”
“Emily, Noelle and Leah?”
“How did you know their names?
“That’s what your mother and I would have named them.”
The idea brought an involuntary smile to my face. “That’s kind of cool.”
“Emily was the name of your mother’s older sister but she spelled it E-m-i-l-i-l-e-i-g-h. Noelle, I think that was just a name we discovered around the holidays.”
I could barely remember Christmas, or ‘winter solstice’ as Emma Rose called it. No one on her land was allowed to worship a non-wiccan deity. “And Leah?”
“That was a name I gave to her only in my mind.”
“You already knew she was going to be taken from you.”
“Your mother wasn’t even allowed to hold her. It was only by chance I saw her face.” His eyes looked empty, lost. Then he turned to me. “I’m surprised you didn’t ask about your name.”
“Is there a story behind my name?”
“The name Marcus evolved from the name Mars.
“The Roman God of war.”
“Your grandfather told us, your uncles and I, stories of Gods and heroes; Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology. I always admired the idea of a ‘God of War,’ how would that even work?” He took a moment to chuckle to himself. “You pray to a god of fertility you get children, maybe crops. What do you get when you pray to a God of war? Certainly not a guaranteed victory.”
“Why would you say that?”
“It would imply that there was a pantheon of champions waiting to engage in combat on behalf of hundreds of different soldiers fighting thousands of wars.”
“I can see that.”
“No, son.” He patted my arm, his touch so warm and peaceful I found myself choking back tears. “We need to fight our own battles, and just hope that today will be a good day.” My father stood up, walking towards a bright light. Waiting for him was a crowd of people, among them my mother. I had only seen her image in paintings (since apparently photography did not exist in this universe.) I knew what she looked like, but I was not prepared for her true radiance.
“Mom?” The word caught in my throat like a chicken bone, threatening to cut off all air.
The woman wore a blue dress, something simple that could be mistaken for a bedsheet. She lifted her hand, reaching for me, but her range of motion was stopped by an invisible wall. With a look of sadness, she mouthed a single silent word, ‘Love.’ My mother bowed her head, perhaps knowing this was as close as we would ever come to finally meeting.
“I love you too, Mom.”
And then there was my eldest sister. Emily, now wearing a normal white dress (instead of armor,) shook my father’s hand. Her smile was filled with innocence and joy as he touched her cheek. He seemed to be in awe of her beauty; this was one child he never knew in his lifetime; his eldest, the one that should have been his little girl.
Emily, perhaps on instinct, attempted to kneel before him, but he reached for her hand. He spoke words I could not hear. Seeing her smile, her tears, I wanted to be there.
My heart wanted so badly to follow, to rush after them, into the light. ‘No, you idiot, you’re probably going to just hit your head on an invisible wall.’ After everything that had happened, I already knew that would be a pointless exercise. It wasn’t my time and that (heavenly light) was not my place.
A figure stepped forward, pushed from the crowd like a bag of garbage. Was this my opponent, or just another damned soul in need of help? I looked around for Leo. Something had grabbed him, pulling his body towards the sky. ‘Shit.’ Once again, this was all on me.
The figure who had been casually dumped at my feet struggled to stand. They were clearly injured. I reached for their hand. “Jay?” It had to be.
He seemed to be trapped in shadows, unable to move under the weight of a thick blanket of dark magic. “Marcus? Is that you?”
A voice echoed like thunder, “Champion Round: Fight!”
next: Isekai ch20