The Wastes of Keldora Preview

Hey everyone! I have a brand new book available 08/10! Called The Wastes of Keldora, it is the first book in Factory of the Gods. Go ahead and read the prologue and part one below to check it out! Or you can just pick it up here!

Summary

After one too many failed inventions, Julian has hit rock bottom.

Summoned to another world where gods and monsters roam, Julian continues his streak of bad luck. Rather than touching the Godcore directly, he let his smartphone absorb it. Now, he’s got to figure out how to make the Godcore and his phone work together to help the people who summoned him survive their upcoming annihilation by the mad God of Chains.

He’s going to have to innovate his way out of his bad luck. Good thing Julian has a plan – he’s going to build a factory in a medieval world.

Read on for the Prologue and Chapter 1

Prologue

A pillar of flame rose from the ground and streaked towards the heavens. Kurli flinched from the sudden heat and stumbled in her mad dash. Behind her, a guttural voice bellowed with the thrill of the hunt.

An arrow whined as it zipped past one of her long ears, severing a few strands of her metallic silver hair. It stuck into the ground ahead, at the base of the mountain that rose sharply in front of her. The cut on her arm, red blood contrasting with dark grey skin, pulsed in time with her pounding heart, and her ankle shot a lance of pain with every step.

All in all, not one of Kurli’s best days.

She juked to the right moments before another arrow flew through the space she’d just vacated. It gave her a chance to see her attackers. Five Urkin, each taller than her and broad of shoulders, their thick muscles cording under light green skin. Their horns curled back over their heads, and one of them had an arrow sticking into the horn from where Kurli had almost hit the skull.

Time to see if she could hit the mark this time.

Kurli flipped open the pouch for her inventory belt where she kept her bow, pulling it out in a fluid motion. With her other hand, she opened a different pouch. She took a half second to leap to the side, letting another arrow whizz barely past her, and checked the interior of the flap.

Arrows: 12/64

Not much left to work with. She had to make this shot count.

The other Urkin were readying their bows. Urkin bows were twice as thick and strong as her own, and nearly as long as their holders were tall. If an arrow hit her straight on, it would drive through bone and come out the other side. Her own arrows didn’t have that kind of power.

But no one could aim like an Aelif.

Kurli steadied her hand and clicked her tongue. The sound it made wouldn’t register for the Urkin. Her antenna twitched, tasting the minute fluctuations in the air and waiting for the echo to reach her ears. All senses now attuned to her target, she let loose an arrow. It was true on its mark, streaking towards an Urkin skull. He jerked his head at the last second. He bleated in pain as it caught in his horn instead of his skull, and a jerk of his hand sent his arrow flying wildly. Kurli clicked her tongue again and dropped her aim towards his chest, where nothing would obstruct her shot if he moved.

A shield of shifting chains interposed itself between her and her target. The arrow stuck into the barrier and was snapped in half.

Kurli swore and crouched down. A sixth Urkin crested over the hill behind his fellows. He was slimmer than the others, and wore armor – a mesh of chains that covered him from neck to foot and writhed like snakes, only broken by the inventory belt around his waist and the ten-faceted Godcore embedded in his chest. It was a clear gem, the size of her fist. He wasn’t walking. He floated a full Urkin’s height off the ground, the chains trailing down to the ground and pushing him into the air.

Grem’ta. The Chained God.

“Return what you stole, Aelif!” he shouted, his voice echoing across the valley between them as the flame eruption that she’d passed before faded. “And you will have a quick death.”

Kurli didn’t bother exchanging taunts with him. Instead, she readied her bow and took aim. Grem’ta brought up a chain barrier that covered all of the Urkin. Based on the size of his Godcore, he was still Copper Tier, but he had completed the outer ring, meaning he had nine of the ten facets he needed for Bronze. Not that a normal mortal stood much of a chance against even a one facet Copper tier.

But she had to try.

Kurli reached into a different pouch in her inventory and tossed its contents ahead, then crouched lower and clicked her tongue, feeling her spring muscle click into place. With a single twitch, her legs unfurled, sending her flying into the air in a backflip that would have let her clear trees. She clicked her tongue again. Sonar and her antenna’s ability to sense air flow told her exactly where to aim, and she let loose a shot right over the barrier.

Grem’ta moved with inhuman speed, shifting on his chains, but the arrow still grazed his cheek. “Kill her!” he commanded his followers.

As soon as she hit the ground, Kurli was running, and Urkin pounded after her. Grem’ta followed them, his chain tentacles now moving like a spider’s legs to propel him after her.

“Come on,” Kurli muttered, risking a glance over her shoulder. “Work-”

There was a screech on the horizon, and Kurli allowed herself a fierce smile. The Urkin turned towards the sound, and Grem’ta bellowed in rage.

Not that bellowing would do much for him. The blood of the Hive would attract any members of the swarm for miles. These were simple soldier drones, and they were skittering ahead on all six legs, but there were a dozen of them and their mandibles clacked as they chittered their fury at the presumed death of one of their own.

“I’ll deal with this,” Grem’ta growled. “Get the Aelif!”

Exactly what she’d hoped for. The remaining five Urkin had been chasing her all day. Urkin were built more for short bursts of speed than sustained chases. They’d be much easier to deal with now that their God was distracted.

She just had to survive that burst of speed.

Kurli ran again, clicking her tongue every five steps. Her echolocation was only giving her a clear picture of what was directly ahead, and a vague sense of what was behind her, but it was enough for her to roughly know how close they were to closing in. They got within a few paces of her, enough for her to actually hear how heavily they were panting as they started to slow down.

Kurli flipped, bringing her legs up until her spring muscle clicked into place, kicking off the ground the moment she touched it. Clicking her tongue as rapidly as she could, Kurli let loose arrow after arrow as she arced forward. Two of them found Urkin skulls. No horns stopped these shots. Her targets collapsed like puppets with cut strings. One arrow missed its mark but hit the Urkin in the shoulder, causing him to collapse as he clutched at the wound and bleated in agony.

The two uninjured ones moved quickly. One stepped to the side and interposed himself between the wounded survivor and Kurli, and the other reached for his bow.

“Move and die,” Kurli said, her only remaining arrow pointed directly at the Urkin. “I have bigger problems than the two of you. Stay there and live.”

“You killed our brothers,” the one standing over the injured Urkin growled. “You hurt Crodma.”

“Crodma still lives,” Kurli said, making sure to speak slowly so they could understand. She wished she could talk to them in their language, but her mastery of Gulpish was far weaker than their mangling of her tongue. Which made what she was trying to do even more foolish, but there was no time to think about that. “You’ve lost two this day. Will you save the third?”

The two Urkin shared a look, and then glanced over their shoulders. In the distance, she could see a Hive drone being lifted into the air on two chains before being torn in twain. Its screams were only a faint buzz in the distance.

“He’ll need to find a pool of oil to clean off their blood, unless he wants the Hive to hunt him.”

“You speak truth,” said the one guarding his injured companion. He was the one who had two arrows sticking out of his horns. “You will…still pay for what you did.”

“Perhaps I will. But not today.” Keeping her arrow trained on the nearest Urkin, Kurli backed up towards the mountain until her back hit a barrier. Folding her legs under herself, she vaulted to the top of the cliff.

Only then did she dare breathe a sigh of relief. If they had called her bluff…the image of the Hive drone lifted in the air and torn in two flashed through her mind.

“It doesn’t matter now,” she said softly to herself as she continued to climb. “You’re almost there.”

The cave she was looking for was another ten minutes of climbing up. Kurli started to click her tongue as she walked in, timing the clicks with her footsteps. There was no light beneath the mountain, but she wouldn’t need any.

It was always hard to explain to races without echolocation what it was like. The best description, when she was submerged in darkness, was that it was like seeing a raised outline of everything bigger than the tip of her finger. Smaller than that and she couldn’t make out the details. Also, the outlines weren’t in any actual color. They were black lines on a black canvas but somehow she could still tell where they were.

Deep within the cave was the object she was looking for. A Calling Altar. They could only be made by Creation Godcores, and it required at least a Platinum rank Core with a single facet, as well as several rare materials. They were all guarded carefully.

Except this one. One of her distant ancestors, back when this barren waste was a lush field, had built this Calling Altar and surrounded it with a pyramid of stone. Even for a crafting Godcore, it had taken decades, and the years had worn the pyramid down to the mountain everyone now knew. Parts of the ceiling had started to run with time, and looked almost like a natural cave – except for the perfectly smooth floor that surrounded the Altar.

Kurli reached into her inventory pouch. While she couldn’t read the inscription on the inside in the darkness, she didn’t need to see it to know what it would say.

Godcore Fragment – 1/64

That always had amused her. The idea that a single person could accumulate sixty-four Godcore Fragments. It had taken her a year to track down the one she found. A Creation Core could craft them once they were at least Gold three, and any Godcore of that rank was unheard of in the Wastes. Still, no one could change how much space objects took in an inventory belt. Those laws were as immutable as gravity or the tides. Maybe in some bygone era, that many Godcore Fragments had been possible.

Taking a deep breath, Kurli placed the Fragment on the Altar.

She’d memorized the sound of the ritual words. But it had been a Gulpish ritual, and she hadn’t been able to get it translated. She had Kurmoz, an Urkin from her village, teach her the phonetics of the language. This dialect of Gulpish was ancient beyond reckoning. He’d been able to tell her it was a ritual of calling, confirming what she needed to know, and knowing the exact meaning wasn’t what was important. The sounds were what was important here. A Godcore could perform Creation without any effort. Kurli had no Godcore.

Something she hoped to fix.

Kurli opened her mouth and repeated the words as she had been taught them, slowly and carefully. What she heard was gibberish. What the universe heard, however, translated perfectly.

We need your aid. The future is broken and needs repair. Come, Champion. Build a better future. Come, Champion. Release us from the shadow that engulfs us. Come, Champion. We need you. Come, Champion, and drown the world in darkness!

The Godcore Fragment burst into light. Kurli went flying back as an invisible force slammed into her chest.

It took her a moment to regain her bearings. Her lips dry, she had to wet them before she could start to click her tongue again.

Nothing. There was nothing there.

“Damnit,” Kurli muttered. It didn’t seem sufficient, but she didn’t have the energy to curse more vehemently. She couldn’t even bring herself to cry. Just punch the floor halfheartedly. She clicked her tongue one more time, making sure nothing had been summoned. No warrior, no Godcore. Nothing. It was just an empty room with an altar and the distant sound of dripping water.

Almost too weary to walk, Kurli forced herself to her feet. She’d have to make camp on the other side of the mountain to keep from the Urkin.

And then she’d figure out what to do now that her greatest efforts had failed.

There were two things she missed. One was that Echolocation, while great for detecting solid objects, did very little to reveal gaseous energy clouds that gave off no light and collected from the power unleashed by the Godcore’s destruction.

The second was, in hindsight, a translator may have been a good idea.

 

Chapter 1

Julian Sullivan didn’t follow any particular religion, but that didn’t stop him from moaning “oh God” as he tried to pry himself from the clutches of sleep. Julian’s apartment reeked of stale pizza, staler beer, and air freshener working overtime to mask the first two smells. Julian sat up, his head spinning from the night before, and sniffed. His nose was stopped up, and it complimented the itching in his eyes.

Knowing what he’d see, he pulled out his phone.

Zero missed calls. Zero text messages. No notifications on Facebook or Instagram. He’d gotten a like on his last tweet the night before, but when he clicked on the profile it belonged to a heavily photoshopped woman with a link to a cam site.

He opened up his messenger and clicked on Maggie’s name. The conversation from two days ago was still there, her last message sitting there.

I’m sorry, Julian. I didn’t want it to be like this. But it’s over. Goodbye.

His own response was sitting there. She hadn’t even opened the text. Just the “sent” notification hovering mockingly beneath the message.

Fine. Leave. That’s what everyone does anyway. 

Julian winced at the message. It had been childish. He was better than that.

Except, apparently, he wasn’t.

“You need to get your shit together,” Julian said aloud, his voice raspy from a night of drinking. It was almost startling to hear his own voice. He looked around the ruined mess of his apartment and grimaced. “You at least need to shower.”

Shower. That was a simple, straightforward task. It was something anyone could do. Head still throbbing, Julian forced himself off the couch and towards the bathroom.

The problem, Julian reflected as the hot water washed over him, was that she’d been right to call things off. It would have almost been easier if she hadn’t been right. Then he could have just been angry at her, sulked for a bit, then dusted himself back off and put himself back out there. But that would just lead him back here again. He had to actually fix the problems that had led to the breakup before he could get back out there. His chronic lateness to dates, forgetting anything less important than a major holiday or her birthday, and tendency to stay up till four in the morning tinkering.

Always tinkering.

Julian had studied Engineering in school. He couldn’t say he had a “degree” in Engineering because while he had attended five years worth of classes, he’d changed his exact speciality three times between Mechanical, Chemical, and Electrical before dropping out altogether. He’d styled himself an inventor. He was going to create something that would revolutionize the world. Everyone told him it was impossible, but he was certain he could make something that would change the world.

He’d been twenty-two.

Four years and two failed Kickstarters later, all his discoveries amounted to everyone around him being right. No one could revolutionize the world without capital to invest in their creations. He’d ended up working various gigs – driving to deliver food for lazy assholes, taking surveys online, letting ads run on his phone when he wasn’t looking at it. It was enough to keep him afloat as he looked for the next big break. Or a first big break, really.

Julian turned around and leaned his head back, letting the hot water run through his hair and over his forehead.

That had been the last fight. The one that had led to him and Maggie breaking up. He’d had a new idea. It had been just that – an idea. He couldn’t even remember it now. He’d gone to her with papers he’d practically thrust into her face, babbling about this was the one, this was the way he’d make it big, he just needed to borrow a bit of money and if she could co-sign the loan…

“We had dinner plans.”

That had cut him short. Those four words had completely deflated every bit of energy, especially given how glacially cold her tone had been. He’d tried to apologize and make excuses, but it had been one too many times, one too many missed dates, and then he’d had the gall to show up and ask her to co-sign a loan without even an apology?

Hell, if he’d been her, he would have dumped his ass for that too.

The bathroom went dark. Julian swore out loud and fumbled to turn off the shower. He knew his bathroom well enough to find the towel by blindly groping for it. He tried to remember when he last paid the electric bill. He hadn’t been that far behind, had he? No, of course not. Or…maybe?

Thankfully, it was light out, so the sun coming through his curtains was enough to allow him to pull on jeans and make his way to the kitchen to sift through the accumulated pile of bills. March, April, and May’s electric bills were all unopened. He pulled out his cellphone to try and log into the website and check, only to be reminded he hadn’t paid that bill and had been using the wifi for data.

Wi-fi he didn’t have without power.

He opened May’s bill. On the very top in bright red letters: “You are 3 months past due. Make a payment by 05/21 to avoid interruption of services.”

That was yesterday.

“Okay, that’s it,” Julian said, speaking directly to the bill. “You’re the last problem. Nothing else is allowed to screw me today.”

As if summoned by his words, there was an insistent knock on his door. Taking a deep breath and half hoping it was Maggie, half hoping it wasn’t, he walked over to the door and threw it open.

Straight into the scowling face of his landlady.

“Julian. Am I interrupting something?” she said, eyeing him up and down with the lack of shame that seemed to be unique to old ladies that had run out of fucks in their forties.

That was the moment Julian realized that, post shower, he hadn’t put on a shirt. He turned red. “No, Ms. Hezel. If you give me a moment-”

“No need. Just wanted to give you this.” She thrust a piece of paper against his chest.

It was a very well worded legal document that made it clear he had until the end of the month to pay both April and May’s rent, or he’d be evicted.

“Ms. Hezel, I-”

“Nope,” she said, shaking her head. “I’ve given you an extension or a delay every month, Julian. I’ve given you a break. I’ve waived late fees. I’ve done everything I can to work with you, but this is enough. Both months’ rent by the end of the month, or you’re out the door.”

“I don’t have anywhere to go,” Julian said. The words came out in a croak.

“I know,” Ms. Hezel said, her lips tight. “And I’m sorry. But there are limits to what I can accept. Maybe you can stay with that girlfriend of yours.”

“She dumped me.”

“Oh. I’m sorry then.” Ms Hezel sighed. “Paperwork’s already been filed. Seven days.”

Julian closed his eyes, trying to come up with some objection or argument that would convince her to give him yet another extension.

When he opened them, she was halfway down the hall.

“Fuck.” Julian said after he had closed the door. That word seemed inadequate to express the depth of the feeling in his soul, but it was the strongest one that came to mind.

Seven days. He had seven days to come up with rent money. While having no power. And no cell service. Which meant he couldn’t do work. He could go to the bank and find out what, if anything, he had in his account. Maybe there would be enough in there to…get food for the day? If that? Most likely it would be overdrawn.

The sheer lack of options was paralyzing. Everything he knew that he could do to earn money involved the internet. He could go to the library to get internet access for a bit, but the gigs he worked required him to have mobile data. Maybe it’s worth a shot. I might have some money in one of the apps I haven’t withdrawn yet. If I do, I can use that to get my cellphone back on. I get the phone back on, I can drive. If I do delivery nonstop for the next seven days and only stop to sleep, I can…he did some quick mental math. Something nagged at the back of his thoughts, some detail he was overlooking.

But the math was checking out. If the tips were good, he could get enough to cover the two months rent before his deadline was up. It was a long shot. But as long as he got just a bit lucky and pushed himself to his limit, he’d be able to pull it off. As long as-

This time Julian couldn’t even swear. It was just a wordless groan. Gasoline. He’d pulled into the parking lot on fumes yesterday. He had just enough to make it to the gas station. But if he didn’t have the money in his account, he couldn’t put anything in his tank.

“I am well and truly fucked,” Julian said, then paused to consider the words. That wasn’t quite right. “I have well and truly fucked myself.”

There. At least that way he was owning it.

Julian cast his eyes around his apartment. The Playstation…did he have enough gas to make it to the game shop and the gas station? He could probably get a hundred from that. That would give him just enough to fill his tank and make a minimum payment on his cellphone bill.

His eyes came to rest on something else, however. A box of spare electronics in the corner of the room. He dove into that to see if anything in there would be sellable before he got rid of one of his few remaining sources of entertainment.

Instead, amidst the assorted wires, random computer parts, and miscellaneous bits of plastic, he found a prototype that represented the closest he ever came to making it big. He picked it up reverently. “Hey, old friends,” he said to it in a hoarse whisper.

He held the two devices with the same reverence a priest showed the Eucharist. One was about as big as his palm, connected to an elastic headband. The other was a bulky black glove which hid wires and sensors attached to each knuckle. The case was white plastic and had sleek lines that made it resemble a smoothed arrowhead. In 2013, he’d paid a pretty penny to have the case 3D printed. It had a piece of clear plastic that he unfolded. Smiling to himself, he put the headpiece on, and slid his hand into the glove.

The current date and time appeared on the left side of his vision. With a flick of his fingers, he switched over to his text messages. Even though they were still a barren wasteland, seeing them like this took the sting out of it. He flicked again and brought up his map program. Even when the grey “Offline” box flashed in his vision, it still couldn’t stop the smile spreading across his lips.

It’d been ages since he’d last touched this. The Augmented Reality Enhanced Vision Experience, AREVE. It synced to a cell phone and gave the user access to all their phone’s features, displayed right over their vision. In theory. He’d only gotten a few things working – time, date, texts, and maps, QR Scanner, and Barcode Scanner. The last was the real triumph. It would let you use the AREVE to scan prices of items at nearby stores in real time, just by looking at the barcode.  He’d had investors interested, and had a lawyer he trusted draft paperwork to ensure he didn’t end up getting shafted out of his own company.

Then the first big AR headset by a tech company came out. Suddenly, everyone decided that no matter what, you looked stupid with something hovering in front of your eye. Investors pulled out, and no one else was interested. Even as the big companies kept working on Augmented Reality, no one was interested in taking a risk on some nobody that didn’t even have a degree.

Especially not when a final estimate had come back for a suggested retail price of ten grand.

He noticed the power bar in the top corner just before the 1% display vanished, and the AREVE powered down. Julian sighed, feeling empty, and took them off, sliding them into his pocket. He grabbed the power cord from the box too, with the adaptor that let it plug into his phone. He’d never considered using it during his delivery, but having the maps hovering would make driving safer than having to look away from the road. Nothing in the box would be worth anything to anyone who wasn’t him. At least, not worth enough to make selling it a viable option. The Playstation would have to go.

Come, Champion. Build a better future. 

The words echoed through the wall, and Julian rolled his eyes. His neighbors were blasting whatever shitty Anime they were watching so loud he could make out dialogue. Not your problem right now. If he made it to where he could sell the Playstation, he could walk to the gas station. Buying a can of gas would cost extra, but it would let him fill the tank.

“It’s so pointless.”

Speaking to himself was a habit he was developing rapidly, but it was hard to stop with no one else to talk to. The words stopped him short. What was the point of trying? He’d sell one of the few things that gave him joy and in exchange he’d get a slight extension until the next crisis. The power being out would make everything harder. Maybe it would be better to get evicted, save the money and live in his car. He could travel south where it would be warmer in the winter.

Even that felt pointless. So what if he did? Eking out a living driving for people? Bad credit keeping him out of homes? No health insurance so when he finally did get sick, he’d get slapped with a massive hospital bill?

Come, Champion. We need you. 

Maybe that was all that was left for him. A pointless grind on a pointless hamster wheel that would keep him spinning in place until he got lucky or died a pointless death. A dark part of him wondered if that should be “or” or “and”.

When his parents had still been alive, they’d been Christian. Julian had lost that faith somewhere along the way. One too many losses, one too many punches in the gut from the universe. If there was a God, as far as Julian could tell, he was an asshole. He hadn’t prayed in years, and had barely thought about a higher power.

So he didn’t pray. He didn’t believe that it would do anything. Instead, he just entertained a momentary fantasy of what he’d do if he could find a genie. What he’d wish for. Not for Maggie back – that felt like it would subvert her free will, and that grossed him out. He wouldn’t even wish for a do-over. Even knowing what mistakes he’d make, there didn’t seem to be a point.

“No,” he said aloud. “I’d wish for a new life. Start over somewhere fresh.”

Julian didn’t believe in the supernatural. But if he did, he’d have appreciated the irony of what happened next.

He stepped into his bedroom, deciding to grab a shirt. It was pitch black in there, which surprised him. It had still been light out just a moment ago, hadn’t it? It was also colder than it had been in his bedroom. Colder and the air had a …stale quality to it. As if it hadn’t been disturbed in ages. He couldn’t smell the pizza and beer and bad air freshener, either.

Also, the floor beneath his feet wasn’t carpeted. It was hard and cool. And…it was stone. He was standing on stone.

Hand shaking, Julian bent down to feel the stone, hoping his fingers would return a different sensory input than his feet. They didn’t. There was, in fact, stone beneath his fingers. In his bedroom.

In the distance, he could hear the gentle drip of water into a pool, and air rushing past something.

“Oh,” Julian said. “I get it. I’m having a nervous breakdown.” The words were supposed to be calm and reassuring, saying something patently absurd to mitigate the absolute insanity of his surroundings. Unfortunately, they came out as a kind of panicked squeak. They also didn’t do anything to alleviate the hallucination.

“Okay. I’m in my bedroom, right? So that means that I need to take three steps and I’ll be at my bed. Then I’ll bang my shins on it.” Julian nodded in the darkness and took a step. Then another. Then a third. Sweat beaded his brow as he took a fourth. Then a fifth. Still no bed. Still nothing barring his movement.

Julian’s hands were shaking now, and his heart was beating like a machine gun. Was he in his bedroom? For all he knew he’d snapped so badly he’d ran from his apartment and was now in the street.

For all he knew, he was blind now.

Barely able to keep his hands steady, Julian reached into his pocket for his phone. He tapped the screen. The sudden flash of light was blinding, and the shock merged with his trembling hands to cause his phone to tumble from his grip.

It landed at an angle, half resting on something on the floor. Julian had to blink a few times to clear his vision.

The phone was bright enough to illuminate his surroundings, which wasn’t hard given how minimal they were. He was in a cave that had been partially worked by human hands, given a smooth and level floor. If he’d taken another step, he would have banged into something – a stone slab about the height of his waist and nearly three times that long. More of a table, really. The phone’s light threw shadows from the carvings in the side of the slab, and while none of them were recognizable as anything Julian had seen before, they had a repetitive quality that tugged at his memory.

It looked like an altar.

“I’m…dead?” Julian asked nothing.

It was no surprise when the only response was the distant drip of water.

It made a kind of sense to him. He’d been so tense he’d had a stroke or heart attack. Died instantly. Ended up…here. Heaven or hell’s waiting room. It was hard to not regret a life of atheism now that he was faced with the final destination and the inarguable fact that it was not, in fact, oblivion. That after death, there was still a him to think.

And…carry a cell phone.

How’d the old saying go? “You can’t take it with you.” Julian wasn’t sure of much, but if there was an afterlife, he doubted they had changed that particular policy to make exceptions for cell phones. Or pants, for that matter, yet he was still wearing his jeans. He patted his pockets. Car keys were in there as well, and his wallet. The very definition of worldly goods. The AREVE system was in the other pocket, although Julian didn’t think that was definitive proof of being alive. Any version of heaven he could imagine featured his baby, and any version of hell would involve using it to torment him somehow. But the rest…that was easier to believe wasn’t something you could take to the afterlife.

“Okay, so not dead. I guess we’re back to – shit!”

The last swear came from the light of his cellphone dimming as it started to go into sleep mode. Julian half lunged for it, a terrified vision of being unable to find it in the inky darkness gripping his imagination. He tapped the screen before it could go dark, and the light returned to its normal levels.

Breathing a sigh of relief, he picked it up, and the stone that it had landed on came with the phone.

He turned the phone over. The stone wasn’t some ordinary rock. It looked like an uncut golden gemstone. What was the term for it again? A citrine, that was it. It was a citrine so large, it almost covered the entire back of his phone.

His heartbeat didn’t slow down, but panic was starting to change to excitement. He didn’t know the value of a citrine, but one this large had to be worth something. Enough to at least pay off his cellphone bill and put some gas in his tank, get back on the road, without selling the console.

“Except you’re insane, remember? You’re hallucinating this.”

It was harder and harder to convince himself of that, however. He was now certain he hadn’t died and gone somewhere else. He’d never heard of someone hallucinating this completely and coherently before. If it was a hallucination, it was a remarkably dull one. He expected to see a caterpillar smoking weed or bleeding eyes on the wall or spiders crawling out of his asshole or something. Not a rather boring cave with an ominous altar and a gem that was stuck to his phone.

Stuck firmly to his phone, he soon discovered. When he tried to pull it off, it didn’t move in the slightest. He started tugging as hard as he dared, but that just made his phone creak ominously. He stopped before he broke it.

“Okay, Julian. Time to start applying logic here. Use that brain of yours.”

The idea that he was hallucinating couldn’t be ignored. If that was the case, the smartest thing to do would be to sit still until someone noticed he was missing and came looking. Which would be in seven days, when he was evicted. Before the depressing reality of that thought could settle in, Julian focused himself on the more practical side effect of that – namely, that he’d have died by dehydration in that much time. So sitting still wasn’t an option. He’d have to risk walking.

“You can move,” he said after a moment’s thought. If he was in his apartment, he’d closed the door. So, as long as he made no motion to open a door, he’d be unable to leave. If he wasn’t in his apartment…well, if he wasn’t in his apartment, he had no idea if he was somewhere safe or not, so moving was as safe as not moving.

But first, there was one thing to try. He put the phone and gemstone in his pocket and cupped his hands to his mouth. “Help!”

The sound echoed through the cave. He repeated the shout, over and over, until his throat was hoarse. Then he sat down on the floor and took deep breaths.

One hour. He’d give it one hour. If he was outside and somewhere dangerous, like a street, someone was already nearby and realized he was either blind or insane and trying to help him. If he was inside his apartment, the cheap walls meant one of his neighbors would have heard him and eventually called the cops to get him to shut up if for no other reason.

They’d come and take him away. He’d have to notice that, right?

All he had to do was sit for an hour. In pitch darkness.

He didn’t make it five seconds before pulling his phone back out of his pocket. It stuck when he did, the rough gem catching on the fabric, and he heard something tear when it pulled loose. He breathed a sigh of relief when the light came back on.

Darkness and silence with still air was a terrible combination. His brain had already begun to tell him he was floating in some kind of empty void, that the only real matter was the small square of rock beneath him. Seeing the walls around him, even if they were the product of a hallucination, was better than nothing.

For the first time, the idea in the back of his mind – that he was having a portal fantasy adventure, or that he’d wandered into an isekai story – pushed itself to the forefront of his mind. He pushed it right back to the back where it belonged. Real people didn’t have magical adventures in other worlds. Real people who believed that went crazy. Besides, it definitely couldn’t be an isekai, because no one had hit him with a truck.

Trying to distract himself, he looked at the phone. Even if he couldn’t get data, he had some offline games on here he could play to pass the time until the cops arrived.

No luck there. It was showing him a white screen, with only the word “Syncing” sprawled across it, and a progress bar that showed zero point three percent.

“What the hell are you syncing to?” he asked his phone. It did not respond. He tried pressing the home button, to no response. He tried swiping in various directions, also to no effect. He pressed down the power button to initialize a hard reset…and the screen didn’t even flicker.

“Damnit,” he muttered, looking more closely. Unfortunately, that didn’t give him any useful information.  Across the top was the time, which informed him it was 29:73 PAM, and the power bar, which told him he was at one thousand and twelve percent power. And the white background wasn’t completely blank. There were symbols on it, scrolling past like Matrix code, in a slightly darker shade of white, almost unnoticeable unless you were paying attention.

Symbols that almost perfectly matched the ones on the altar.

This was helpful, in that it let him know the phone wouldn’t be of any help.

He laid back on the cold floor and closed his eyes. The sensation of closed eyes and the warmth of the phone and the coolness of the gemstone in his hand helped make this feel less like he was going insane. If he’d had a shirt, he would have balled it up under his head for a pillow. As it was, he had to just rest his skull on the stone.

It was hardly comfortable. But the panic of earlier combined with the anxiety over his finances falling apart had been exhausting.

He didn’t know how long it took – his phone told him it was GA:62 APM last he checked it, and the syncing bar had progressed to a whopping one point three percent – but at some point, he lost track of the passage of time.

It wasn’t sleep. He was too frightened and uncomfortable for that to happen. But when he next looked at the phone, it took his eyes a moment to focus, and the syncing bar was up to double digits. On top of that, his everything ached enough to tell him he’d been laying on the stone for a long time. Long enough help should have arrived, and certainly long enough that if he was out on the streets he would have been noticed or run over by now.

Which meant he had to still be in his apartment, and no one had heard him.

Or…he hadn’t gone insane.

There was a certain banality to his surroundings that was helping to abate the fear. The stone walls weren’t shifting, the altar’s symbols hadn’t changed, there was nothing moving in here. The only sound was silence. Whatever had been dripping had stopped, and the wind outside had died down.

Julian stood up, his muscles protesting the motion, but it was time to stop wallowing and to start moving. Holding his phone screen outward, since he couldn’t turn the flashlight on, he turned around towards the source of the wind.

The path leading towards it was less worked than the area he was in. A natural cave. He started to walk in that direction. It had to be safe, he reasoned. There was no other way in and out of the room, and someone had come in here at some point to build that altar. He’d probably end up moonwalking or pacing in a circle or walking into a wall without moving.

He’d look like a moron, but at least he’d survive.

“And if that doesn’t sum up my life,” Julian muttered, “then I don’t know what does.”


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