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Thou Shalt Die
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Is anyone interested in me posting writing tips, even if just as a handy reference for showing friends? Here are some possible topics:

- Boosting Personal Creativity to Ridiculous Heights
- The Most Commonly Given Tournament Advice and What It's Worth
- Making Characters Feel Unique and Relatable
- The True Purpose of a Literature Tournament Audition
- Fan Fiction and the Art of Stealing the Story
- What They Actually Mean When They Say "Show, Don't Tell"

Do any of these subjects look interesting? Would something else be more useful? Furthermore, if I did post such a guide, would it be better as a journal or as a deviation?
  • Mood: Sociable
It also stands for Voice-of-Levity, a name that has joined the victory roster for Round Two. Turns out that submitting one's entry on time greatly increases chances for success. Who knew?

My opponent was Silvermokona, a fun and friendly writer whose Round Two summarizes my entire first round (of more than 10,000 words) with just two simple sentences. And having typed this, I feel moisture escaping my eyes. Excuse me while I resolve the situation.

:cries:

... must be allergies.

Anyways, my story continues! May it entertain and delight.

The Tournament: :icontheexchangeiii:
My Audition: Moving to the Nether
My Round One: Scientific Curiosity
My Round Two: Not All There
  • Mood: Zeal

Dear Lord,

You know that I've always had trouble with memory, with focus, with functioning at all. And, with your help, I thought I was improving; I really did. But it's gotten worse again. Maybe it's from being eaten by the house? I don't know. Who do I even talk to? Guilty? What do I say? "Hi there, I know we've been avoiding each other since our minds got blended together--since we learned each other's most uncomfortable secrets--but have you been feeling crazier lately?"

- from TJ's journal

~~~

My friends have joked that I'd make a great serial killer.

They said it was because no one would suspect me: I tended towards unassuming and quiet, with posture poor enough to conceal my height, but not hunched enough to seem creepy. I looked relatively weak and harmless, too scrawny to be a threat. My honest face came with a somewhat goofy smile, complete with dimples to emphasize my youthful appearance. My jokes were self-depreciating rather than mean or insulting to others. I laughed easily. I helped without thinking, eager to please. I sincerely said compliments that would sound like flattery from almost anyone else.

I was a nice guy, and everyone knew it.

They didn't know the reason I never lost my temper was because I couldn't afford to lose it.

They didn't know how easily all expression could drain out of my face, just as all emotion drained out of my feeling. How easily all thought would reduce itself to one cold calculation--determining how to utterly ruin and destroy someone. How even in the state of greatest anger, I would look and feel absolutely calm, only my widened, hardened eyes betraying extremist obsession and single-minded focus.

During times like that, I'm not supposed to be near people. Not supposed to let them see. I'm certainly not supposed to be holding a hammer, the weight just right for hitting someone over and over again. Should put the hammer down. Should leave the room right away, fast, before someone gets hurt.

Before they realize I'm not such a nice guy after all.

Instead, I gripped the hammer tighter and hit myself.

Actually, you know what? This is a terrible place to pick up the story. Too confusing. Let's try a different part, like maybe that time when...

~~~

The door opened without my touching it, practically welcoming me into my bedroom.

"Thanks," I said to my invisible helper. Or was it helpers?

Helpful ghosts--one of the benefits of living in a haunted building. Others perks included constantly feeling watched, scarcely daring to sleep, and enduring nightmares of--among other things--being eaten by the house itself. Did I say perks? Excuse me; some of Guilty's sarcasm must have rubbed off onto me. I meant sources of discomfort.

In my defense, I had every reason to be wary; the haunting had only recently turned benign.

Clapping my hands turned on the lights, though not from any paranormal poltergeist activity. Rather, it was one of the touches installed by Coroner when we were converting the mansion into a restaurant/home. For all his dislike of us, he certainly knew his electronics; everything worked smoothly from day one.

I had some reservations about his possible mad scientist nature, but my bed hadn't turned into an automated dissection table yet, so I tried not to worry.

Despite the added illumination, the room remained a blur. I waved a gloved hand to clear away the haze, and only when that had no effect did I remember that I wore glasses. Or rather, I was supposed to be wearing them. My ever-helpful hand felt no trace of my usual vision aides.

I tried to remember where I had left my glasses. Failed. Tried to remember the places I had been that day. Failed again. In fact, I couldn't remember anything at all since the past night's horrible dream about being chased by moose heads.

The bed was conveniently close, so I knelt down against it and asked for help.

"Dear Lord," I prayed, "Thanks for getting me through whatever it is I can't remember. Please grant that I didn't hurt anyone too badly today. And, if it be thy will, please help me recover my memories, especially those involving my glasses. Or maybe just give my glasses back? That would be good too. In thy son's name, amen."

I waited for a bit, but as usual, nothing immediately came of it. No divine herald or cherubic chorus arrived to point the way or present my lost article. Nothing to see but the blur that was my room. I didn't like the blurriness, felt increasingly uneasy with the no crisp, clear details to ground me, to assure me that I was awake and real.

To distract myself from the blur, I brought my hands up close, where I could see them almost clearly, could focus on the shape of my hands, could even see the tiny creases in the black fake-leather of my gloves. My fingers rubbed together with just the right amount of friction and smoothness, perfect for almost any public day-to-day activity short of handling food or operating a touch device.

Touch device. My iPod. Music. This train of thoughts became a half-realized idea, one I could act upon. My hands reached into my coat pockets, through the holes and into the lining, searching through a mass of crinkling paper.

Paper. Paper notes. Reminders. A new train of thoughts replaced the older, now forgotten idea. The papers from my coat, and everything that had been with them, quickly became a layer on my bed as I impatiently laid everything out for inspection.

"Any notes from today?" I asked aloud to no one in particular, my face mere inches away from the various hastily-scrawled messages to myself on hand-sized scraps of paper. Even at that distance, the letters were still a little fuzzy.

One of the papers floated through the air to me. It then waited patiently for me to stop imitating a statue.

"Thank you," I said upon recovering. I gingerly plucked it from invisible fingers and brought it close.

'Deliver to Cathedral of Something,' said the black letters, along with some semi-vague directions.

I didn't remember writing such a note. And then I did remember...

~~~

Details drifted into my mind and fit together like a puzzle: The dimly lit entryway of our restaurant. The contrast of white Styrofoam containers against Katie's black leather outfit. Rustling from a restaurant flier (the one taped to the topmost container) as she strode towards me. A squeak as the stack of containers was unceremoniously shoved against my chest, my arms barely wrapping around them in time before she let go. The shooing motion she made before turning to leave.

"Wait," I said. "Where are these supposed to go?"

She didn't even look back at me. "Roy!" she called out. "Roy, you big, useless leech! Handle this mess."

"Sure thing, my darling gothic flower!" The big man strolled over to us with a casual step and an easy smile.

"Trouble maker," she said accusingly.

"How could I trouble the beautiful stone princess?"

"Liar. Flatterer."

"Can't argue with that, boss lady."

She smirked and gave him a swat that staggered him as he passed her. He responded with a kiss to the air in her direction before facing me. She laughed as she left the room.

"You had a question?" he asked.

"Um, why doesn't Katie like me?"

His answer was merely a chuckle.

Getting no luck with that line of inquiry, I asked my second most important question: "Where are these supposed to go?" I raised the boxes in my arms half an inch to indicate them.

"Believe they called it the Cathedral of Something."

...of Something? I almost asked if he was serious, but then I remembered knowing the place. Or rather, it was in some of the memories I had acquired while merged into the haunted house. Wasn't used to that--memories I hadn't made myself. Weird.

I wrote down the destination along with Roy's directions, and had the containers back in my arms when a thought occurred to me.

"Wait. Can't you come with me?" I was serious. My experiences out in Death's city of Nothing--literally a city owned and run by Death--had been less than reassuring so far.

"You're asking if a vampire wants to go anywhere near a church."

"Right. Bad idea." I turned to go. Turned back. "Couldn't we let that skeleton deliver it? The one with the boat? I still have some coins-"

"TJ..."

"Or how about the Deadly Moonshine Society? They're always making deliveries to that Blind Pig place. We could ask them-"

"Goodbye, TJ."

He took me by the shoulders and swiveled me around. One of his big arms reached past me and opened the door. His other hand pushed me through...

~~~
And then the memory was over. Try as I might, I couldn't remember what came next.

"There has to be more. Perhaps another note?" I moved back to the mess of papers on my bed, ready to begin searching. I didn't have to; the next note was already floating, waiting for me.

'Katie has glasses,' said the note. But why would I write a reminder about Katie's sunglasses? It didn't make sense. Until it did. Because I remembered the note wasn't about Katie's shades at all. I remembered...

~~~

Weightlessness. Disorientation. My feet racing forward, trying to keep up and failing as I stumbled down sudden stairs. Just a few steps, not even a full flight, but enough to trip me up. To send me falling.

I fell.

And then landed. Hard.

I hissed in pain as I pushed myself up from the ground. Forced my eyed open. Looked around to take stock. Correction: tried to look. Everything was a blur.

My glasses. Where were my glasses?

"Sorry about that!" said Roy's voice from above and behind. Might have been the first time I heard a sincere sounding apology from him.

"No worries," I found myself saying. "Have you seen my glasses?" It always struck me as ironic that the people who most need glasses have the most trouble finding them.

Someone stepped within my fuzzy field of vision. Roy? No, his legs would have been wearing blue. These legs were clad in black. Katie.

She bent down and picked up something. My glasses?

"Thank you," I said, surprised by her help. Perhaps she just wanted me capable of finishing my delivery sooner.

But she wasn't done. She bent down and picked up something else. Then again. And again. That last time, I saw the glint of light off a small, clear oval. One of my lenses. She wasn't picking up my glasses. She was picking up their pieces.

My glasses were broken.

"I don't suppose you know how to fix glasses?" I asked, awkward, not expecting an answer.

Katie reached for me. It wasn't a fast movement, but it caught me off guard, even with how edgy I was around her. Her hand gripped the top of my head lightly, for just a brief moment while I froze in shock and fear. Then she was running her fingers this way and that through my hair, shaping it into what felt like a randomized, spiky mess.

Seemingly satisfied by the results, she grunted and turned away, leaving me alone.

I wondered if perhaps my neatly-parted hairstyle had offended her.

~~~
"Well, that certainly answers my question," I said, as the memory ended. I glanced back at the mess on my bed. Even with my vision blurred, it looked untidy. "Guess I better put everything away again."

But another note was floating toward me. It was a list of names, unfamiliar themselves, but written in my familiar excuse for handwriting, the blue letters as erratically written as ever. Beside each name was a short list of traits, two or three words each, clearly intended to help me remember their appearances and personalities.

And help me, they did. Pacing around the room in the present, in my mind I could see a past where...

~~~

All around me, the city was a blur, buildings smudged into one big mass on either side of the street. I was uselessly, helplessly, utterly lost.

I tried consulting the memories the haunted house had given me. Surely the inhabitants who had been in the city longer should know the place better than I did. Unfortunately, most of the memories were of little assistance, seeing as how my weak eyes couldn't make out anything resembling landmarks. One memory showed promise, though: not all of the people in Nothing were unfriendly. In fact, those with only a few chains were often pretty nice, having sinned less while alive.

So I set out, stack of boxes in hand, and searched for locals that didn't rattle too much.

I found them yelling at each other.

The raised voices were not particularly reassuring, but they did lack the clink and glint of heavy chains. I went up to the one standing tallest and most erect, authority expressed in both her posture and tone.

"Excuse me?" I tapped her shoulder from behind, trying to get her attention without standing in the middle of their spat.

Something soft but stiff and firm suddenly flooded into my face, bowling me over. My arms barely managed to hang onto the boxes as I fell down, landing on my seat and rolling onto my back.

"Ow," I said from the ground. Just in case anyone wondered if I was pain.

I looked up to see the woman I had provoked, and for a moment, all I could think was 'wings'. She had wings. Now I knew what had hit me in the face. I made a mental note not to stand right behind winged people in the future.

She was standing over me at that point, a long object raised in her hand. A weapon of some sort? A short spear, perhaps? Without my glasses, I couldn't tell. Until I noticed her other hand was pulled back in the classic archery pose. She was pointing a drawn bow at me. Not good.

Someone else grabbed me by the front of my jacket, pulling me to a sitting position.

"What do you want?" demanded Lady Grabs-A-Lot. Her free hand held in something in front of my face, something that glinted ominously.

I tried to make my mouth work. Swallowed. Tried again. The object in her hand became close enough to make out as a knife. And close enough meant within two inches of my eyes.

"Directions?" I asked. "I'm ah- I'm supposed to be making a delivery." I ever-so-slowly set the containers down before raising my open hands in supplication.

"I smell food!" proclaimed a small, white critter snuffling at my jacket, too round to be any animal I'd ever seen outside of science fiction movies. A talking tribble? One of those fur balls from Star Trek?

"Ah, yes. I'm delivering food. Salads and sandwiches, I think? Maybe a burger..." I couldn't remember everything offhand.

"Chocolate!"

"No, I don't think I have any chocolate in these boxes."

"I smell chocolate!" The critter was at that point nosing at my jacket hard enough to potentially enter one of the pockets.

"Don't bother searching him," said the crabby grabby lady, contempt in her voice as she let me go. "Nothing but holes in his pockets."

"Well, I do have holes in my pockets..." I began before a sudden thought hit me. "How did you know?"

"You accusing me of something?"

"Why would I- nevermind. But you see, these holes aren't just damage; they're a special feature. See? They give me extra storage. I just reach through them into the lining of my jacket, and... Tadah!" I brought out a granola bar with a flourish. "It's not a chocolate bar, per se, but-"

The little, white ball engulfed the granola bar, shiny wrapping and all. I jerked my hand back, felt something hard scrape against my fingers. Teeth? Why was everything threatening to eat me recently? Trolls, vampires, multi-headed dogs, alligator-headed demons, and now even cute, little balls of fur.

"More!" demanded the cute, little ball of fur.

"Please accept our apologies," said the woman whose wings had assailed me earlier, bow thankfully no longer in sight. She extended a hand and helped me onto my feet, which was nice. And then she proceeded to run a comb through my hair, which was utterly unexpected.

"Um, why-" I started to ask.

"Shh! Hold still," she said. "What have you done to your hair?" I wondered why women kept messing with my hair. I certainly didn't go around touching people's heads.

"Trust an angel to care more about hair than anything important," said the woman who had grabbed me before. At that point, as the two started shouting at each other again, I decided I needed a better way to keep track of people besides the manner in which they had attacked me. Names, perhaps.

"Um, hi there," said a fourth voice. I hadn't even realized she was there. "Sorry about all this. You okay?"

"Hi," I said to the friendly blur who I could only assume was a person. I definitely missed having glasses. Oh, right, names. "My name is TJ. I say this because I want to know your names, but it's rude not to say my name first- I mean what's yours?" Smooth, TJ. Real smooth.

She may have given me a weird look. I had no way of knowing for sure, but it seemed like that kind of situation. "Well, my name is Lori.

"Nice to meet you, Lori. My name is TJ."

"I know. You told me already."

"...So I did." Unfortunately, my jacket did not contain a paper bag or other means of hiding my face forever in shame. "And the others?"

"The cute little fur ball here is Plum. She's a-"

"Hungry!" said Plum plaintively.

"Yes, she certainly is that," said Lori with a smile in her voice. "The one over there waving a knife at the angel is Eira. Don't ask about her eye."

I nodded, making a mental note not to ask Eira about an eye peculiarity that I couldn't see. In fact, without my glasses, I couldn't make out anyone's facial features. Could barely make out that Eira had her hair divided roughly down the middle into light and dark halves. What was with that, anyway? I decided not to ask, just in case polychromatic hair was another taboo subject.

Lori then tried to give me the name of her angel friend. Emphasis on the word 'tried'. The angel's name was long and foreign, almost Biblically challenging to register. I wondered if was a scriptural requirement:

And she shall bear a name such as is beyond the ken of mortal men as will make TJ unable to remember even when repeated three times. Thus shall His hand be known. Amen.

They eventually gave up and let me call her 'Nikki'.

"You spoke earlier of asking for directions," said Nikki during a break in her eternal argument with Eira.

"Ah, yes. I need to find the Cathedral of Something. Biggest church in Nothing. You know the place?"

"I do not. It is unfortunate; a place of worship would be worth visiting."

"Actually, I do sort of know the way. It's just that I can't see anything. My glasses are gone." I smiled weakly, gesturing at my eyes.

And so I found myself giving directions to my prospective guides...

~~~

...before coming back to the present.

"Is there another?" I asked, once again in the room with the notes. By this point, it felt less like putting together a puzzle of memories and more like following a story. I couldn't wait to see what happened next. It was a familiar feeling, if one that I hadn't experienced since right before Death had kidnapped me.

But perhaps I should wait. Take a breather. After all, I finally knew where my glasses were, and I figured it wouldn't hurt to learn their current condition.

"Hey, Roy, you bumbling gorilla!" said Katie's voice through the floor.

"Yes, sunshine of my heart?"

"Have you seen my hammer? I'm trying to fix these stupid glasses."

I lunged for the door. If I could get down there in time, I might be able to save my precious-

"Never mind! Found it!"

BAM! BAM! BAM!

Nope, I didn't want to go down there after all. I turned back to the bed.

'Stay away from the Cathedral of Something,' said the next note. An empty Snickers bar wrapper dangled off the corner, stuck on with a bit of leftover melted chocolate and caramel.

Trying to remember why, I found...

~~~

Too many bodies, all around me, a blurry mass of uncountable strangers, their murmurs and shouts and other noises blending together into a confused audio soup of discontent. I wasn't too fond of crowds normally. Without my glasses, without some way to reassuringly see them as people, as individuals with whom I could identify, it was unbearably smothering.

Reflexively, I stepped back, not really thinking, just lurching away from the attack on my senses. Of course, in that crowd, there would be someone behind me. We crashed into each other, both falling to the ground. Well, partly on the ground, at least. I found myself sitting on top of something hard and lumpy, with the rough texture of burlap or canvas. A sack?

At least I hadn't been carrying the containers of food. Though I couldn't remember exactly what had happened to them. I could only hope I'd delivered them properly.

"Watch where you're going, moron!" said the voice of Knife Lady--what was her name--Eira.

"Sorry, I-"

"Where'd you even come from, anyway!"
"I really am sorry!" I managed to get the sack of whatever it was out from under me. I didn't remember her having a large sack before, so I was a little tentative when asking, "Is this yours?"

"Give me that! Of course it's mine! You accusing me of something?" She didn't wait for an answer, just snatched the bag out of my hands and disappeared into the sea of voices and bodies. Leaving me all alone with strangers on every side. I had to get out.

"Excuse me. Pardon. Whoops! Sorry about that. Could you move just a little? Thank you..." I put my voice to work along with my feet and hands, trying to politely nudge and squeeze my way to freedom. Tried not to panic from all the people that rubbed against me at times, that seemingly breathed away all my air.

As I traveled oh-so-slowly in the direction of least sound, the mix of voices grew just a little less confusing. I couldn't make out everyone's individual speech, but some speakers projected themselves more loudly and clearly than others.

"The power of belief, the power of truth itself is ours! Seize faith in Something, and make it your own! Together we shall forge our way out of this purgatory! Even if certain heretics keep steeling our relics!

Had to stop thinking about suffocating. Plenty of oxygen for everyone--needed to believe that. Besides, they couldn't be using up the oxygen anyway. After all, they were all just walking corpses, right? Somehow, the thought of being surrounded by dead people failed to reassure me.

"No, you fool! The answer is not through our own will, nor is it through petty trinkets! Only by opening our minds and hearts to the will of divinity, only then shall we rise out of Nothing! Witness among us, the presence of an angel! Surely this is a sign that she shall guide us to the great Something!

An angel? I wondered if Nikki was involved, hoped she was okay in the middle of this mess. Thinking about her potential plight didn't stop me from trying to ease my way out of the crowd, but it did give me something to think about other than my own situation. And as my situation had me accidentally touching gaping wounds in walking-dead torsos, I very much appreciated every distraction I could access.

"You're both wrong! The answer is cuteness! Behold she whose physical shape is that of the sacred white circle, as was foretold! Feed her with payers and offerings! Let her adorable fuzziness fill us all with the warmth and comfort of enlightenment!"

Wait, that description sounded awfully specific. Plum?

"Hungry! Feeeed meee!" Yup, that was Plum's voice alright. It seemed everyone was determined to dive into trouble when I wasn't looking. At least the crowd was starting to thin; I found myself able to walk between people with fewer nudges and apologies.

"You dare compare your gluttonous cotton ball with our own circular relics? Blasphemy! Your irreverence will doom us all! That thing probably ate the relics itself!" Seemed like a farfetched accusation until I remembered how she had nearly eaten my hand along with the still-wrapped granola bar. Was there anything she wouldn't eat? Not that I was eager to blame her without proof...

Suddenly I was free of the claustrophobia-inducing crowd, and with it, all need for the distracting power of introspection. After a deep breath of relief, I took a few more steps into deliciously open space before turning around to survey the obstacle I had just cleared.

The Cathedral of Something was less a building than a giant, outdoor crowd. Not that there weren't any signs of architecture: Upraised rectangular shapes suggested platforms and podiums, though they could just as easily have been small pillars or giant boxes. And on the other side of the crowd, I could barely make out tall, hollow, line-like structures reminiscent of scaffolding, along with several bulkier, moving shapes. Even over the sound of upraised voices, I could hear roars, whistles, and rumblings like those I had heard from the construction beasts and machines near Coroner's lab.

"The crowd too much for you too?" asked a quiet voice from the ground. Lori's voice. I looked down to see a blur sitting on the sidewalk. Yet again, I missed my glasses; she seemed like the kind of nice person worth being able to recognize on sight.

"I do prefer a certain amount of personal space," I said with a smile, sitting down beside her. "Where are the others?"

"I think they're all in there?" She gestured at the crowd. "I worry about Plum. The other two can take care of themselves, but she could be crushed in that mess."

The crowd did seem a bit frenzied, even to a nearsighted man like me. And Plum was pretty small; it was easy to imagine someone stepping on her without noticing. All those declarations for the power of 'belief', 'divine will', or 'cuteness'; but I had yet to hear someone proclaim 'watch your feet'. Kind of an overlooked virtue there.

No, if Plum was to be saved, it was up to us. Fortunately I had an idea.

"I have an idea," I said for Lori's benefit. "Plum likes chocolate, right? I just need to find..."

Around then would have been a fantastic time to bring out the chocolate bar Plum had previously smelled in my jacket. Unfortunately, digging around through the lining of my jacket took the better part of a minute, perhaps more. Eventually my efforts were rewarded, and I brought a Snickers bar into the light. Which was great--I was feeling hungry right about then. Opening the wrapper and taking in that first mouthful of warm chocolate, peanuts and caramel-- oh so good. I was about to take another bite when Lori spoke up.

"Um, TJ? What are you doing?" she asked.

What did she mean- Oh right. The plan. I held up my free hand, swallowed, cleared my throat, and stood up.

My biological mother used to be a herald, a hobby where she regularly made her voice heard across considerable distances, and sometimes she would invite me to help her. The trick was in gathering air into the proper places and letting my voice project from the torso rather than the throat.
"Such a delicious chocolate bar! Too bad there's nothing small and fuzzy and cute to share it with. I guess I'll have to eat it all by myself." Then I waited. Not exactly a Shakespearean performance on my part, but I was only trying to sell free chocolate to the hungriest being I'd ever met.

"I am small and fuzzy and cute," declared Plum, the aforementioned hungriest being, right at my ankles. She could sure move when motivated.

"So you are." Remembering my previous attempt at feeding her, I opened the wrapper wide and let the chocolate fall down into her open jaws. Only when she was safely munching on the candy did I reach to grab her. Lori was faster, quickly scooping up the living ball of fur before rising to her feet.

"We'd better get out of here," she said, already leading the way.

"Something wrong?"

She didn't answer, instead just walked away at a steady clip, albeit with an irregular stride. I hadn't noticed a leg or foot injury earlier, but her limp was pronounced even to my near-sighted eyes. Was that why she had been sitting earlier? I followed after, hoping we wouldn't have to run.

Behind us, the accusations of theft and heresy had become interspersed with those wordless shouts and screams I tended to associate with pain and fear. What were they doing back there? I looked back, still walking, to see the blurry mass of people grow ever more chaotic. I couldn't make out most of the details, but I did see two of them throw down a third and started kicking. Violence. They were fighting each other. I started walking faster.

"Hey! Where are you two going!" someone called out from behind us. It was a good ways back. Maybe he was talking to someone else?

"They must be the thieves! Look, they have the cute one! Get them!" shouted another. That was our cue to run.

Running made Lori's limp even worse. I tried to help, but have you ever tried to support someone's weight while running? If anything, it's even more awkward than it sounds. Meanwhile, the noise of the angry crowd was growing closer, not further away. I couldn't imagine an escape from our predicament...

~~~

...and I couldn't remember escaping either.

I rushed to the bed, fully determined to search through the notes until I found the next part of the story, but I didn't have to.

'Return Death's keys,' said the next note that floated to me.

No. I couldn't have. But, I thought as I started pacing around the room again, it made so much sense...

~~~

Someone yipped in surprise next to me, and then suddenly I had run face first into something hard, nearly knocking me off my feet. I clutched my nose for a bit, as if I could retroactively shield it from the pain. At least it was still in its original shape.

Wait, hadn't I been running with Lori? I looked around, saw her on the ground. Had I dropped her? Yet another thing for which to reproach myself.

"What happened?" she asked. "Where were you?"

"Sorry, must have zoned out for a bit," I said, helping her up to her feet. I backed up a bit, taking my first real look at the object I had attacked with my face. Big, green, and just about the right shape to be... No. But it was. Even as I refused to acknowledge our luck, I was already opening the door to the truck.

"Hey! Find your own hiding place," said Eira from within. I ignored her, too busy helping Lori up and into the vehicle, and then too busy getting in myself. "I said get out! They'll find us with you here."

"Actually," I said, moving a large sack out of the way of the gas and break pedals, "I have something better than hiding in mind. And where did you get this stuff anyway?"

I was babbling, voice on the edge of hysteria, my face tight and hands shaking. This was a terrible idea. Even putting aside the issue of theft, dangerously impulsive and distractible people like me shouldn't be drivers. Yet I did know how to drive, had been pressured into learning.

"None of your business! It's mine now, and no one is taking it away." Spoken like a true criminal. But right then, who was I to judge?

I took a deep breath before letting it out, and as the air departed, so did my worries--all my agitation and other emotions draining away as I relaxed. I felt perfectly, utterly, absolutely calm. Intellectually, I knew this was a bad idea, knew that I shouldn't use that dissociative 'talent' if I could avoid it. But emotionally? I didn't care. Being calm meant being able to perform any action with almost no inhibition.

"Do you know how to hotwire this thing?" asked Lori. Beside me, I could hear the click of her seatbelt clicking together, reminding me to put on mine.

"No need," I said, turning the set of keys already waiting for us in the ignition.

"Who would be dumb enough to leave their truck unattended with the keys in the ignition?"

"Well..." I paused for a bit as I focused on starting the engine. It took a few tries; the machine was stubborn. "I suspect Death thought no one would dumb enough to try stealing his truck."

"Wait. What?"

"You know, Death?" The truck finally revved to life. "God-like entity? Harvests souls? Runs this entire city?" I took a moment to adjust mirrors I couldn't see properly anyway, and then we riding along at a nice, casual pace. Faster than I believed pedestrians could travel, but well within a motorized vehicle's limits.

"This can't be- Oh no, it is." I had been wondering if she had seen Death's worn-out, green truck before.

"What's he talking about?" asked Eira, perhaps feeling left out. I let Lori explain, too busy myself with trying to drive without glasses. Fortunately, the roads ahead were mostly empty no other cars or vehicles in sight. If everything worked out right, we could just drive out of sight of the mob and then walk to a more sensible hiding place.

And for a while, it seemed my plan would work, the shouts of the angry mob rapidly diminishing behind us. Until a loud mixture of roaring and rumbling took their place. It sounded familiar, like something I had heard recently.

Lori and Eira tried to tell me what it was, each talking over the other, obviously agitated. They said words like 'giant monsters' and 'huge machines' and 'getting closer', along with 'speed up' and 'we're going to die'. I took a look back through the rear window, at the fuzzy shapes in pursuit. Took me a couple of seconds of mental backtracking to remember the construction machines and demon beasts the Cathedral of Something had been using in their building project.

By the time I had solved that particular puzzle, they were nearly on top of us, so I put the gas pedal down more firmly. If the city had seemed a vague, fuzzy blur before, it was now practically indecipherable, a confusing mess of streaks, any one of which could be a person or building or worse. I tried to tell my passengers to stop screaming and shouting at me.

"It's hard enough driving without my glasses," I calmly explained. If anything, their voices grew louder.

Every now and then the car would jolt as we hit something or ran over a structure that wasn't originally part of the street. I wasn't sure how to reassure my passengers but I tried my best:

"Don't worry; most of them are already dead. Or demons, I guess. At least, that's what the ghosts tell me. Their memories, anyway. Did I tell you I was once eaten by a haunted house?"

No good. Passengers still weren't calming down.

"It's okay; Death's truck is already pretty old. I'm sure he won't mind a few extra dings and scratches. Though I have to say, it's holding up remarkably well, even if the windshield wipers could use a bit more strength. What is that stuff, by the way? I can't see it very well."

Trying to include them in the decision-making didn't help either.

"Okay, this seems to be a dead end. Does that blur look softer than the others?"

Even giving them good news failed to discernibly diminish their alarm.

"Oh hey, I recognize those gunshots. We must be close to the gangs near home. Might want to duck your heads a bit."

Meanwhile the rumbling roar behind us never fell far behind, no matter how many obstacles we zipped around or crashed through. If anything, the noise of pursuit was often heightened as the blurry shapes of buildings collapsed or lit up in pyrotechnic flashes of fire and smoke. The Cathedral fanatics might have chased us all the way across the city if I hadn't driven off us off a pier into the river.

Not that I had planned to escape that way. To be honest, I may have been a bit distracted at the time, because the first sign I saw of the river was the gate we smashed into splinters, right before we flew into the air. The flying didn't last long before it became falling. And then, with a splash, we were reduced to sinking.

"Open the door! Open the door!" said Lori. It's funny how danger can drastically increase the volume of a characteristically quiet person's voice.

"Can't! The stupid thing won't open," said Eira.

Unfortunately, we had rolled up the windows during the vehicular chase, trying to keep stray objects and fragments from flying in through the sides. Now pressure was keeping the doors shut as water closed in on us from all sides. Of course, trucks weren't typically airtight; water seeped in through the floor.

"It's okay," I said. "I read about this in a survival guide. We could break the windows to equalize the pressure so the doors can open.

"Or," I continued, "since it's not our truck, we could minimize damage by waiting until the water slowly seeps in through the truck bottom. Though of course that would take a lot longer, and in the meantime we might sink into the bottom, but at least... Are you two listening?"

"Shut up and grab something hard!" snarled Eira. I could already hear her smacking away at her window.

Someone pushed the open burlap sack into my hands. Objects spilled out, most of them incorporating white circles or spheres of some sort. My hands twitch towards a couple of similarly sized balls. It's a juggler's reflex; our first impulse whenever we see three or more objects of equal size and weight is to toss them up into the air.

Instead, I reached for a long, baseball bat-shaped object. It was in fact a baseball bat. Bringing it closer to my eyes allowed me to read 'Angels' along the side, and on one end, someone had painted a white baseball, complete with stitching. A white, circular ball. It occurred to me that I knew a place that had prized white circles.

"Eira, you didn't steal these from the Cathedral of Something, did you?"

"I said shut up!"

Figuring that further accusations of larceny could wait until we weren't about to die, I shrugged and proceeded to slam my stolen relic against the door window.

When glass broke all the way, the rush of water was sudden and overwhelming. As water flooded into the car, we poured out of the car, fighting against current and the weight of the river. I quickly lost sight of the others, lost in my own struggle.

It took all my strength just to reach the move upwards, weighted down by my clothes and boots. It didn't help that I was mostly bone and muscle, myself. Pain tore through my chest, like a spear trying to escape through my flesh. More than once, I floundered, lost, wondering if I was actually swimming in the right direction.

My artificial calm was breaking. Even with my mind's emotions forcibly amputated, I could tell panic was infecting my body.

Any moment, I would let go and try to breath.

I needed a miracle.

Dear Lord, I began to pray and then suddenly pain was wrenching my shoulders out of place as two somethings plunged into me and pulled. Even after my body left the water, the pain kept pulling me into the air.

Wincing against the pain, I looked up and saw an angel, wings and all. Nikki? The pain must have been her hands digging in under my shoulders.

Thank you, Lord. Much appreciated. In thy son's name, amen, I finished, guessing it was true what they said: God kept to his own work schedule. I just hadn't realized that sometimes that meant prayers being answered before I could finish making them.

I don't know how far we traveled before suddenly I was dropped onto wood. I opened my mouth to mention the others, but stopped when I saw other figures were already huddled on the boat. "Lori? Eira? Plum?" I asked when I could get my mouth to work.

Nikki didn't answer, instead addressing the other passengers. "What is it with you two and trying to drown yourselves?"

"Shut-up, bird brain." Eira was alive for sure, then.

I felt relief. It felt good--relief. Heh, even just feeling felt great. I laughed weakly, helplessly as emotions flooded in, all of them welcome, all of them giving me that living sensation.

Pain interrupted my laughter. Suddenly I was having trouble breathing again.

"Are you okay?" asked Lori.

I couldn't answer. Tried to move. Some part of me must still have been thinking though, because I managed to dig a flier out of my pocket. Not actually paper, the letters on it were still clear. 'The Underpass - Bar, Grill, & Inn.'

"Is this where you want to us to take you?"

~~~

Pain brought me out of my mental introspection, forced me back into the present. And then, just as suddenly, it was gone. I forced myself to breath normally, wondering whether there was a doctor in Nothing.

Or at least, if there was a doctor who wasn't Coroner. Was he even a medical doctor? Didn't really want to find out.

I rose up from where I had curled up on the floor, shoved papers out of the way, and let myself fall back onto the bed.

Sometime later, Katie walked into the room. I thought I saw something in her hand.

"Hi, Katie," I said nervously. At the same time, trying to hide my nervousness around her.

Without preamble, she grabbed my head and shoved something onto my face. Suddenly I could see again. Blurs became objects, fuzziness became blessed sharpness, and even the air itself somehow seemed to take on added clarity.  Looking at the papers was especially nice; I could actually make out words multiple feet away.

Looking at Katie's lack of facial expression was less fun, but more urgent; I couldn't afford to miss any nuances.

"Can you see now, blind little bat?" were the first words she spoke to me that day. I was tempted to say I wasn't little, but a) she still terrified me, and b) she had grown taller than me recently. Living in a bigger building seemed to have increased the troll's size; I wondered if she enjoyed it. Then I remembered she had asked me a question.

"Yes, thank you, ma'am," I hurriedly replied.

She grunted in what assumed was satisfaction, messed up my hair with her fingers again, and turned to go, passing Roy who had entered the room without my noticing. He carried a stack of Styrofoam containers.

"Guess what I got for you?" he asked smiling, a teasing tone in his voice.

"The secret of how to stop Katie from hating me?" Roy intimidated me too, being a vampire and all, but he seemed to enjoy it when I joked around with him. He started to chuckle before saying,

"Wait, you're serious? Kid, if Katie didn't like you, I don't think she'd be fixing your glasses, ruffling your hair, or keeping her mouth shut around you."

"But she always talks to you," I pointed out.

"Because she knows she can trust me to have thick skin. Don't you know anything about trolls? Can't say a word without it being insulting, or it wouldn't be true to their nature."

"Their nature?" I felt like I should know, since I was supposedly her writer.

"Yup, all part of the natural order: fish swim, birds fly, and trolls are rude, ornery bastards that eat everything and scare the stuffing out of nice folks like you and me." The vampire finished this solemn proclamation with a wink and a grin that I couldn't help sharing.

"But the real reason I came here," he continued, "is to give you these." He found a clear space on the bed and set down the stack of food take-out boxes. "You deliver these to the Cathedral of Something properly this time. No more tripping down stairs and breaking everything," he admonished with a finger wag.

"Didn't I deliver them already?"

"Where'd you get a crazy idea like that? You never left; just went back upstairs after you had your spill."

"But-"

"Roy!" called Katie from down below. "Get down here, you big, ugly ape! We've got company!"

"Duty calls," said Roy. And then he was gone, leaving me alone with a bed covered in notes, a stack of food, and those haunting words: You never left.

It was silly in retrospect. Who would expect me to make a delivery with no glasses? And certainly, a fall bad enough to break my glasses would have been equally damaging to whatever food I was carrying. Even my handwritten notes contradicted those memories of having left; after all, where was the water damage from swimming in the river? Their lying words should have been soaked and distorted beyond recognition.

Even though it had all seemed so real.

It unnerved me, the inability to differentiate recollection from imagination. I had thought I had worked my way past that. How could I have backslid so much? Was it because of the memories from Guilty and the other ghosts of the haunted mansion?

'A crazy idea', Roy had called what I had sincerely thought to be reality. Was I truly going crazy?

Actions can be soothing. I began the action, simple and easy to understand, of cleaning the bed off. Papers entered my pocket, along with my keys, a black pen, more papers, wallet, cell phone, another black pen, my keys, still more papers...

Wait. Two sets of keys? I only had one set of keys. Except when I reached into my pockets, only pulled out two key rings, and only one of them had the letter T attachment that helped to identify mine.

I looked back at the bed, at the notes still remaining. One of them still said, 'Return Death's keys.'

Huh.

An inexplicable urge made me run down the stairs. I couldn't articulate why, just felt the sensation that something important was down there.

I had no sooner made it down the steps, when Roy pushed something at me. Automatically, unthinkingly, I accepted. I looked down distractedly to see a hammer in my hand.

"Take this, will you? Don't want Katie waving this around in front of our guests."

Other than the skeleton who led them in, I had never seen those guests before--at least, not clearly--but I knew them.

There was Eira, still damp from the river, her hair divided into light and dark halves. I almost asked about the bandages covering one of her eyes, but I dimly recalled someone telling me that was a bad idea. I absently wondered if she had managed to retrieve her bag of stolen loot. She was real.

Also there, standing tall and proud in white, was the angel Nikki. I almost didn't recognize her with wings folded away, but remembered the comb she pulled out when her gaze met my messy hair. She was real too.

Even the impossible ball of fluff Plum was there, still cute and small, resting upon the third human guest's shoulder. Katie had better watch out now that something hungrier than her had entered the building. Impossibly real.

But the last, quietest guest drew my attention most firmly. Compared to others she seemed the most fragile, with none of their weapons or muscle, almost wispy in comparison. Lori the shy one, whose words had felt the most genuine, flavored with kindness rather than proud duty or aggressive avarice. The one I most wanted for a friend. She too was real.

The experience was like meeting Roy and Katie in person all over again. Seeing people I had dismissed as fantasy, mere figments of my imagination, instead just as solid and present in the physical world as myself. People--I suddenly remembered--who didn't recognize me though I knew them. Just as suddenly, I was afraid to speak.

"So what brings you fine folks to our humble establishment?" asked Roy.

"This," Nikki answered, holding up a familiar flier with the name of our establishment. "And...and..." She shook her head, as if to clear away uncharacteristic confusion and uncertainty. She didn't know, didn't remember the reason for their decision to come at all. Even though I did.

"Foooood!" demanded Plum, and suddenly everyone seemed to know what to do next. I smiled in spite of myself as Roy and Katie guided guests to seats and table. No faded fragments of memory could distract that ball of fluff from her prime directive.

The four of them didn't know me. If we talked again, it would be as strangers. Still, I could live with that. After all, my life has been full of embarrassing encounters with nice people who remembered me better than I did them. It was only fitting to be on the other side of the equation for a change.

The more I thought about it, the more previous events made sense. Like how I had always seemed to surprise even such wary people as them; I must not have always been there, must have only existed with them when I imagined I was present, suddenly appearing seemingly out of nowhere. And maybe it had something to do with why Death was collecting writers and their characters. Maybe, like it was said in the Cathedral of Something, there was real power in belief.

But the question remained: Where had the notes come from? With the hand not holding a hammer, I dug around inside my jacket, pulling out a handful of papers. One of them was the note I sought, 'Return Death's keys.' written in blue ink. Blue ink that smeared against my glove. Smeared because the ink was still fresh.

A pair of memories flashed to the forefront of my consciousness: I had placed three pens on the bed, two black and one blue. But I had only picked up two pens, both of them black. My searching hand confirmed the latter memory, found only two pens. Two black pens. Where was the blue pen?

I half-walked, half-ran up the stairs, stumbling in my haste.

Some small noise distracted me as I walked through a hallway, a sound too small to register properly, but enough to disrupt my flimsy attention span and side-track my steps to a bathroom along the way.

I found the blue pen floating near the edge of a sink, accompanied by a piece of paper floating higher in the air. As I entered the bathroom, the paper started to move away, but I'm a juggler--I have practice catching small objects. A quick lunge later, and the paper was in my hand. It was a note, blue words printed in neat handwriting that no longer pretended to be mine.

'What now?' said the note. A written question, implying someone who could read and answer.

I looked from the note to the mirror it had been facing. Confusion reigned over my thought processes, but one thought train managed to work its way through the mental static: Someone had tricked me, lied to me, interfering with my private reminders, those vital aides of mine for overcoming my handicapped memory. Someone had made me doubt my very sanity, and for what reason?

Were they watching me right now? Could they see my face, how it grew devoid of expression, empty of emotion, only the widened, hardened eyes revealing the anger I couldn't consciously feel? It was the inhuman mask I wore every time I had ever seriously hurt someone on purpose. It was the only face I hated.

I gripped the forgotten hammer tightly in my fist and swung at that face in the mirror. Watched the glass pieces of my reflection crack and fall away with every strike of my weapon.

The new hole in the broken glass revealed a nest of wires and other electronics, most of them difficult for my untrained eye to identify. The little camera which turned to follow me around the room, however, was very easily recognizable, as was the small speaker nestled alongside it. From the latter, I could hear Coroner's voice, detached and clinically distant, like a boring documentary recorder.

"...subject appears to have become destructive of its environment...possibly agitated due to an increased awareness of observation devices...further study needed to determine how..."

I swung the hammer again.


~~~

Lord, I fear that my mind isn't the only thing breaking. Please, what should I do?

- from TJ's journal

~~~

Observing unaware subjects in a naturalized environment yields unexpected dividends.

One subject demonstrates the ability to manifest a projection of self across space and possibly time. Subject further displays the ability to transport small objects.

Recommending further study of this phenomenon.

- from Coroner's report
 

EX.R2 - Not All There
Audition: fav.me/d7mk8o2
Round 1: fav.me/d7qsu2c
Round 2: You are here.
Round 3: TBA
Round 4: TBA

Not sure what to say here...

Maybe check out this lovely video of Death and his truck. It gives me such a warm and fuzzy feeling.

Guilty belongs to Ashana-Correlli
Lori, Eira, Nikki, and Plum belong to Silvermokona
Coroner,
Death, and Nothing belong to mippins
Most of the rest is from Voice-of-Levity (me!)
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Ashana-Correlli earned a much deserved victory in Round One against me with her entry, Treasure Hunt, and I encourage everyone to check it out. In particular, she did a nice job of portraying my characters.

As for me, I'll be competing in the Worm Food division from now on. Though in the future, I'll try and make shorter entries that I can actually finish on time. Seriously, what was I thinking? Over 10,000 words for a single round? You'd think I was trying to write a novel!

Anyways, my Round One entry is complete now. Here's hoping everyone enjoys my story so far.

The Tournament: :icontheexchangeiii:
My Audition: Moving to the Nether
My Round One: Scientific Curiosity
  • Mood: Zeal
How do I know Guilty so well? Personally, I blame the haunted mansion. That and Death. He's the one that took me to his city of Nothing, beginning everything.

The ride to Death's realm was...eventful. I quickly learned not to look out the windows if I wanted to keep what little was in my stomach. Instead I acquainted myself with the truck's faded green dashboard, my unreliable-looking seat belt, random notes I found in my coat-pockets, and the palms of my black gloves. Frequently those palms were put to work covering the lenses of my glasses.

Sometimes, during my bolder moments, I would glance back through the rear window at the other passengers, Roy and Katie. I didn't see much of them; just some odd shapes under a tarp. A vampire and a troll don't do well in sunlight, and they weren't taking any chances.

Death himself was surprisingly sociable, sharing frequent jokes and observations, occasionally slowing the truck so that he could point out a particularly impressive scene.

For example: "Always enjoyed this tunnel. Nifty how it spins us upside-down like a roller coaster, aint it? Don't mind the reaching hands and pillars of fire; they're normal here. And we're done. Oh wait, weren't supposed to go this way. Better head back through."

And: "Look, TJ! Check out that one over there. He died real nasty.  Just look at that mess. Amazing that he can still walk. Oops, my mistake. Amazing that they can walk. See, you can tell it's two because they still both have- Hey, don't cover your ears now."

I decided that Death was a jerk. Probably. I mean, I don't like to jump to negative conclusions about people, but he did use that spooky vision thing of his to make me relive some of my most traumatic memories. Plus he extorted Roy and Katie into running through an angry mob bathed in monster-killing daylight, seemingly for the sole purpose of having them break my door and kidnap me in the middle of a snack.

Maybe he merely lacked a solid grasp of social niceties?

Whatever the case, our ride ended with us in front of a gray warehouse, one of several gray warehouses, each only dimly lit by a sky of thick gray clouds. Did I mention it was all very gray? The effect on me was somber and depressing, especially compared to the crazy trip it had taken to get there. Which was pleasant, actually; I was relieved by the relative dullness of our destination. Then I looked around.

The nearby, partly-constructed area sported bright colors and bizarre shapes as exotic as the crew crawling over and through it: some workers with bat wings tested the man-throwing properties of giant, whirling, yellow fans; others with tortoise shells herded a writhing mass of what looked like a cross between barbed wire and a flowering vine; still more workers, these more hairball than humanoid, industriously carved away at a giant, irregular block of ice, one of their members apparently trapped inside...

I looked away, unable to imagine what it all was for, but deeply desirous to have nothing to do with any of it.

"Y'all can get out here while I find a place to park," said Death.

Death being considerate? Perhaps I had misjudged him after all.

I unbuckled my seatbelt, opened the door, and stepped down into a small puddle. Water splashed just high enough to slide down into my boots.

"Watch your step there!" Death called out. Was that laughter in his voice?

Only by lunging away did I manage to dodge the worst of the spray as he drove off. I wondered if he had made it rain earlier just for the sake of surprising me with the puddle. Dismissed the idea as paranoid.

I jumped when I heard a muffled voice behind me.

"Let's get inside," it said.

I looked back to see a tarp with four legs. Took me a second to remember Roy and Katie were in there.

"Do you really need to keep wearing that?" I asked.  "It's super cloudy right now."

"No sense taking chances."

"Um. Okay then."

A few steps later, and I was at a door. Knocking seemed the polite thing to do, so I did. The response was almost immediate.

"Go away! I'm busy!" proclaimed a man's voice through a wall-mounted speaker grill.

I was about call out a reply when the tarp reached past me, pulled the door aside, and pushed me through.

Inside loomed a giant lab, complete with all the stereotypical equipment: clear containers of mysterious fluids, animated computer screen displays, large cases of small critters, various well-polished but hard-to-identify instruments, and a bespectacled man in a lab coat.

At a second glance, I notice more:
- Some of the mystery tubes and beakers leaked fog that drifted directly towards me before fading. Even after I moved away from the door.
- The computers were an anachronistic mix of sleek modern affairs, older boxes with print-out ribbons, and some kind of steam powered system connected to an oversized abacus.
- A few of the critters appeared entirely composed of teeth and were chomping at a spiky, shiny green plant like the one from construction.
- No less than five of the instruments came with restraining straps and shallow alcoves for human-shaped subjects, though not all were for large enough for adults.
- The man in a lab coat wasn't human.

I think it was the horns that tipped me off--a big, red, curled pair growing out of the sides of his head. Or it might have been the cloven hooves. In other words, his anatomy resembled that of a stereotypical devil.

He looked up with obvious irritation. From what I could tell, he was cutting a sandwich in half on one of the smaller operating tables.

" I'm busy!" he said again, ever so informatively.

I decided Busy was a horrible name and internally dubbed him Lab Coat Goat Man. No, too cumbersome. Professor Lab Goat. Perfect. I would introduce him to my friends as such. I would make new friends expressly for the purpose of further spreading his glorious new title.

"Now now, Coroner, that aint the way to greet a guest," said Death from too close behind me.  "TJ Pierce, this is the self-important Coroner. Coroner, say hello to TJ Pierce, our latest writer."

I decided "Coroner" was just barely cool enough to be a satisfactory name, even if it meant giving up such a deliciously horrible pun. I also decided I needed eyes on the back of my head.

"And I must continue to insist that I do not require more subjects with a background in creative fiction. If you can't observe basic scientific process, I don't see why I should bother with number 30 of-

"Coroner..." Death spoke casually, but firmly ending Coroner's tirade.

"What?" demanded Coroner. "Oh very well, this makes number 17. Every experiment and every project reported with exacting precision to an indifferent ear, and you pick now to be concerned with figures of speech. "

He spoke smoothly, no hesitation or delay in coming up with an explanation. I saw no reason to disbelieve him; Coroner seemed too blunt to lie.

"Whatever you say," said Death. "Just keep working on that problem of ours."

"What problem?" asked Roy, no longer covered by the tarp. I'd forgotten about him.

Coroner swore and disappeared, reappearing several feet away, perhaps startled by the presence of a big, muscular man standing next to him.

"The problem," said Coroner, "is that we haven't discovered how to rid ourselves of your presence yet."

"He means that we haven't yet figured a way to get you folks back to the land of the living," said Death.

"Sounds fine to me," said Roy, "Katie and I weren't planning on leaving anyway."

"Where is Katie?" I didn't like butting into the conversation, but the location of our man-eating troll was something I wanted to know as soon as possible.

"Good question," said Roy before hollering, "Katie? Where are you?"

Her reply was garbled by something in the way, but it sounded something like "Eating!" followed by a noise that might have been tearing sheet metal.

"Did she just say-" the Coroner didn't finish the thought before vanishing.

"This should be fun," said Roy as we made our way toward the sounds.

What followed next was a very heated exchange between him and our black-clad troll. He yelled demands at her; she screamed insults back at him. He activated some kind of foam sprayer; she responded by throwing the steam-powered computer at him. I winced, expecting him to be crushed, but he just did his disappearing/reappearing trick again, and the dispute resumed without pause. It was enough to convince me that he could teleport.

Death, of course, was nowhere to be seen.

"Um, Roy?" I said. "Shouldn't we stop them?" Many of the things in that lab looked volatile even when they weren't flying through the air.

"Just a minute... and... now. Mr. Coroner! Might I offer some assistance? I happen to be an expert at wrangling trolls."

"You can rid me of this wretched creature?" Coroner turned his attention to Roy.

"Why certainly! You see, the thing you have to realize is trolls are naturally ornery when they're staking out their new territory."

"Her territory?"

"Yes, sir. This lab of yours? Clearly she's claiming it for her own."

"She has the temerity to claim my lab? My Lab?!"

"No need to worry. In a situation like this, there's an easy solution. Just provide another place to stay."

"You expect me to give that creature-"

Katie chose that moment to bite into a particularly sleek and expensive looking computer. Coroner winced.

"Even assuming I could obtain ownership of another location, I need her stopped immediately. Surely you can't expect me to allow her to run amok through my lab. My equipment! My work!"

"Not a problem, Mr. Coroner. You see, a troll can't resist a good deal. Offer to have her run a few errands in the meantime in exchange for the new place. Maybe tack on a couple extra for damages previously rendered, just to be fair. I assure you, it'll work just fine."

"Fine! Anything to stop that abomination from destroying any more of my lab."

"Hey! Miss troll! Mr. Coroner says he wants to offer you a deal!"

Katie stopped. Chewed. Swallowed.

"What's he offering and what does he want?" she asked when her mouth was clear.

"I suppose I do have a few errands that require more finesse than I have time for..." Coroner reached for what looked like a neatly printed out list on a nearby desk before stopping. He took a long look at Katie.

"After further thought," he amended, "perhaps she would prefer something uniquely suited to her... qualifications." He pulled out a map and began marking locations. "A few samples from some of the more difficult to reach locations should suffice to pay for--How did you put it?--the new habitat and damages previously rendered." He held out the map to Katie

Katie belched before saying, "Don't see why I have to pay horn-head for something that didn't taste good."

Coroner pulled back the map and marked another location before handing it to her again.

Katie squinted. "Buckner Mansion? Ectoplasm? What is this rot?"

"Nothing dangerous. The house is allegedly haunted by ghosts, but in a realm where all souls are solidly corporeal, such allegations are clearly small-minded nonsense. Nonetheless, bring me a sample or proof, and I will consider your side of the bargain met in full."

"The bargain is made, all parties bound," intoned Katie, and the very air seemed to grow more firm and constraining with promise, just like it had when I bought a chicken wrap and milk shake from her and Roy. Thoughts of food made me remember my hunger.

"Coroner, sir?" I asked. "If everything's resolved, would you be willing to spare half that sandwich?"

He gave me a hard look that instilled a deep sense of regret for everything: asking for the sandwich, being hungry, being human, my lack of powers, my choice of career...

Focus, TJ. We were in the middle of a conversation about... I knew this one... So hungry... Right, the sandwich.

"If that's okay, I mean?" I said, rather hoping that he'd forget my request.

He shoved the entire sandwich, plate and all, into my hands.

"Thank you, sir!" Within my mind, an imaginary angelic chorus sang praises to God and sandwiches in pig Latin. (I didn't know real Latin.)

"You! Out!" He punctuated these commands with shoving.

"Sorry about-"

"I hold you responsible for these- these extortionists!" Still more shoving.

"I'm sorry-"

"Just go!" The door slammed shut behind the three of us.


"But how are we supposed to get the samples?"

I barely ducked out of the way as the door slid open and a metal and plastic contraption flew at my face.

Roy and took up the device with a chuckle as we started walking off. In fact, both he and Katie were sniggering.

"Works every time," he said.

"Idiots and cowards the lot of them. Can't handle the big bad troll," she said, miming claws with her fingers.

"Now to be fair to poor Mr. Coroner's intellect, I think he figured out the scam towards the end."

"Pfah! Fat lot of good it'll do him. We've got a job and a map, and soon we'll have a place of our own."

"So it was all an act?" I asked.

"I wouldn't say it was all an act," said Roy. "Katie always eats more when she doesn't have a territory. Helps keep her from shrinking. Personally, I think she looks adorable as a little tyke."

Katie punched him hard enough to make a vampire wince, but I thought I caught the slightest of smiles from her. The look she gave my sandwich, however, was anything but subtle. I wasted no more time finishing my meal.

On the whole, the sandwich wasn't bad, though I would have preferred more mustard and less white sauce. What was in white sauce anyway? Did anyone really know? In between bites, I took my first real look at the city.

It made no sense. No building matched the others around it. Old fashioned cottages shoved up against modern skyscrapers. Apartments blended into stone castles. I even caught glimpses of what looked like astronauts in a translucent hemisphere.

The people, however, were much more discomfiting. After seeing the various buildings, I expected diversity of dress and ethnicity. But more than half of them wore chains. Some of them had lots of chains, enough to almost cover the gruesome, fatal-looking wounds that afflicted most of the chain-wearers. If I needed a reminder that I was in Death's realm, they were that reminder.

It was something of a relief to see a couple--a man and a woman--with just a few small chains each and no visible death wounds. I tried smiling at them, but the man just glanced our way while talking to his companion, his body subtly moving between her and us. She, for her part, appeared to be trying to ignore his rambling. I spotted the chords of an mp3 player dangling from her ears.

I didn't know then that the man and woman were Gray and Guilty respectively, or how big an impact they would soon have on me. At the time, I was busy mentally kicking myself for not thinking of listening to my own mp3 player during the truck ride with Death.

I was searching my pockets when Katie and Roy stopped.

"This is what we want," said Roy nodding to a covered manhole. Katie nodded and lifted it up easily, tossing it to the side like a toy, albeit a toy that rang loudly as it clanged against the pavement.

"Careful, Katie, we're trying to pass for human, remember?" This made no sense to me until I realized that even among non-humans, vampires and trolls don't have the most savory reputations. One thing continued to puzzle me though.

"Why are we going underground?"

"Sunlight," said Roy. "Clouds are all good and well, but I don't trust them to stay that way forever. We'll take the sewer. Here, put this on." He tossed me the contraption Coroner had given us.

It resembled nothing so much as a backpack with hoses and wires connected to a gun. The sampling end had a vacuum nozzle, large needle, small drill, extending claw, milking cup, some kind of electric magnet, and more that I didn't recognize. Wasn't sure I wanted to recognize the rest; I felt leery enough about the milking cup.

"Come on down, time's a wasting."

As I backed down the ladder into the darkness, I randomly remembered what Coroner and Death had said about other writers. Would I get a chance to meet them? And how did they keep from being pushed around by their own characters?

Guilty's approach at the time was to simply let go and allow Gray to lead her to the lab.

"This is where Death said to go," said Gray before knocking.

"What part of 'go to the Buckner Mansion' are you degenerate imbeciles unable to comprehend?" shouted Coroner over the intercom. "Leave before I have you vivisected!"

"Such a warm welcome," remarked Guilty.

"I was certain he said to come here," said Gray with a frown. "Though it's hard to know just what that bastard wants, what with all his-"

"Okay, so, mission acquired, go to the Buckner Mansion," interrupted Guilty. "Where is that?"

"Leave that to me. Learning the lay of the land in unfamiliar, potentially hostile territory requires subtly. One time, I had to-"

"Hey! You over there! Yes you, the one with all the chains. Do you know the way to the Buckner Mansion?"

"You can't just ask for directions like a tourist!" objected Gray.

"I believe I just did."

And so, thanks to a misunderstanding, Guilty and Gray began their journey to the allegedly haunted mansion. Unfortunately for them, they didn't know that chains in that city represented sins committed in life, a piece of knowledge that would have been useful in knowing who to trust. The soul who gave them directions bore an especially great profusion of thick and damning chains.

Meanwhile, I was learning all sorts of interesting things in the sewers:

- Vampire eyes and troll eyes both shine in the dark. They are the stuff of nightmares.

- Troll eyes are super sensitive to light, so be careful turning on your high-powered, pocket flashlight or your companion may take a painful swipe at you. Shouting, "Don't eat me! You still owe me a chicken wrap!" is a useful survival method in such a case if it happens to be true.

- The sewer pipes are as convoluted and mismatched as the houses they support. For this reason, it is not wise to assume that one can recognize which pipes randomly spout sewage and other objectionable substances.

- There is at least one alligator/lion/hippo hybrid swimming in the sewer. It does not take well to being 'sampled'.

- Multiple packs of dogs, some with multiple heads, roam the sewers as well. They run fast and don't give up easily.

- One of the removable sewer grates leads to a minotaur den--recognizable by a powerful musk, loud breathing, and heavy footfalls.

- On a related note, the minotaur doesn't enjoy being 'sampled' either. Fortunately, the minotaur doesn't fit all the way through the opening. It can, however, reach pretty far in.

- Some of the sewer muck is ambulatory and fully capable of speech, even going as far as to ask for directions. Said muck is perfectly amenable to 'sampling', enjoying the process perhaps a little too well.

- Another sewer opening leads to a rather insular group of individuals with fedoras, oversized revolvers, and Tommy guns. Apparently their hideout's backdoor is supposed to be a secret. Fortunately, the sewer cover is bullet proof.

- There is something big and scaly sleeping underground. How big? The scales are taller than I am. I nearly jumped out of my skin when the sampler's drill started making loud screeching noises and the sleeping reptile stirred. We may have been responsible for a minor earthquake.

- Speaking of loud noises, I can't vouch for the presence any shrieking eels in the sewers, but there are screaming leeches. Finding one crawling up your boot is only slightly more disconcerting than seeing a troll peel it off and eat it.

- There's a skeletal figure who poles a gondola through the larger tunnels. Said figure doesn't wave back at strangers.


But don't think that the city of Nothing was completely nasty. Here's what Guilty learned during her trip:

- Flower Lane is just as fragrant and beautiful as the name implies. Visitors are encouraged to take one.

- The zoo's minotaur habitat is super cool when seen from a safe and respectable distance.

- One of the candy shop owners is half-blind and gives candy to people below a certain height. Guilty was a bit disgruntled to be one of them, but the candy was tasty enough to inspire forgiveness.

- The Deadly Moonshine Society is totally fine with people using the front door. They liked Guilty's hat.

- New inhabitants get to visit the circus for free.

- One of the older souls compulsively makes pies and shares slices with unfamiliar passerby. The pies are delicious.

- An abandoned merry-go-round just keeps turning around on its own. No one knows why, but no one complains either.

Now, I don't mean to say that everything went smoothly for Guilty and Gray during their tour of the city. Remember those directions they received earlier?  Those directions didn't lead to the haunted mansion. Instead Guilty and Gray found themselves in one of the shadier parts of the city, the riverfront.

The man who gave them directions was there, waiting for them.

"Hello there, friends," said he. "If you would kindly hand over your valuables, no one has to get hurt."

More men emerged, each heavily chained but still mobile, each holding something sharp, heavy, or both.

"True," said Gray, whipping out a pistol and pointing it at the leader. "And if you leave, no one gets hurt either."

"You think that toy scares us? News flash: we're dead! The only thing that weapons can do here is cause pain. And which do you think will hurt more? One of these?" The man lifted a large cleaver. "Or one a tiny hole from that pee shooter?"

BANG!

He fell down writhing, clutching his leg, screaming in very obvious agony.

"News flash," said Gray calmly, "A bullet is hard, blunt metal traveling faster than the eye can follow. It doesn't poke neat little holes. It tears through muscle and shatters bone. Guns hurt.

"This is a Glock 17. I like it for its reliability and for how easy it is to get one regardless of country. Some of my associates prefer sidearms from the Browning or Walther series, especially since James Bond used the Walther-

"Gray!" interjected Guilty.

"The point is, the Glock 17 has 17 bullets. I count only 5 of you. That's easily 3 shots of intense pain for each, assuming you are all foolish enough to attack. And in case you're thinking that doesn't sound too unpleasant..." He blurred for a second, and then there were two knives in his left hand. "I have alternatives. So you can attack if you feel brave enough. Or you can leave, right now, and tell everyone not to mess with Gray's people."

The ambushers left, all except the one still on the ground.

Gray clicked something on the pistol--Guilty assumed it was the safety--before holstering the pistol behind his back. He approached the last man. True to the injured man's word, the bullet hole didn't appear permanent, was already closing as they watched.

"Interesting leg you have there, friend. Guilty, take these knives, won't you?"

"Gonna make a girl do your dirty work?" sneered the man.

"Not at all. I just wanted my hands free to do this." Gray pulled up his pant leg to reveal a metal leg prosthesis. "My leg's pretty interesting too. Does many different things."

Various devices unfolded from the metal. Some of them were pointy. One of them lit up briefly, revealing itself to be a blowtorch. Most of them were too hard to identify.

"Now, friend I could demonstrate the many uses for this leg, but if you find all of this too boring, we can simply skip to the part where you tell us the real location of the Buckner Mansion."

They ended up skipping the torture part.

"And that," said Gray. "Is the correct method for obtaining information in hostile territory."

"So it's back to walking now? Couldn't we just teleport?"

"I don't recall saying I could teleport," said Gray.

Guilty thought something that meant oops. She couldn't tell him she was his writer or that she had made him up for a story. Dishonesty seemed the best policy.

"I saw you teleport away from your knives during the ambush."

"People don't usually catch on to that trick."

"Oh sure, because we all know that usually is exactly the same as always." When in doubt, Guilty fell back on sarcasm.

"... Right. Setting that aside for now, I can't teleport with someone else."

"So we walk?"

"We walk."

And walk they did.

I'm a little fuzzy on the timing, but I believe that around then is when I caught Katie chewing on an important looking pipe, under what I guessed to be a water treatment facility.

"Roy? Is she supposed to be doing that?"

Loud metal on metal noises drowned out his verbal reply. His physical reply was to pick me up and start running. Held in his arms like a princess, I couldn't quite make out the source of a sudden loud roar. It wasn't the roar of any animal; rather, it reminded me of the sound a waterfall makes.

Up ahead, I could make out the robed figure on its gondola, still poling away. Then I felt a heave as Roy threw me, and suddenly I was flying through the air before landing in a painful heap in the gondola. We skidded a bit, but didn't capsize.

The figure looked down at me and raised the pole; I expected to be forcibly knocked off. That was before the figure turned its hood and looked behind us. I had barely enough time to look back before the surging wave hit us.

As I clung desperately to the sides of the boat, the gondolier poled and poled without a word or even the whisper of a grunt. No longer did it gently push against water. Instead it put pole to use against walls that careened towards us as we squeezed through tight corners.

Lots of walls. Too many corners. I barely had time to yelp after each bump or near miss before we appeared ready to crash into the next.

Sometimes the water brought us so close to the ceiling that we had to duck or risk having our heads scraped right off.

Without warning the ceiling disappeared entirely, as did the walls, replaced with open air as we shot out of the tunnels and into the air above a river.

We missed the river.

CRASH!

I was afraid to open my eyes, certain that we were broken into pieces where we lay.

Something poked my shoulder. Repeatedly. Insistently.

I opened my eyes to see the figure standing above me. A skeletal hand opened, held palm up. I reached for it. The hand pulled away. I sat there bewildered.

Finally, the figure reached into its robes and pulled out a handful of coins: copper, gold, silver and a few other colors of metal.

"Oh! You want me to pay for the ride."

The hooded head nodded up and down.

Standing up, I searched though the pockets of my jacket and jeans.

"All I have are a few pennies, a nickel, and... these quarters with the icons for each state. Though I don't suppose you're collecting those here- Whoof!" This last came out in a whoosh as the bony figure caught me up in a sudden, tight hug.

"Guess you like those," I wheezed, too out of breath to laugh.

Our transaction complete, I helped the gondolier push the boat back into the water. This time, when I waved, the robed figure waved back.

I turned away with a smile. The smile faded just a bit when I remembered that I had no idea where Roy and Katie were. They were literally inhumanly tough though, so I wasn't too worried. But how could I find them? What were we doing before?

Oh right. We were heading to the allegedly haunted Buckner Mansion.

Looking around, I noticed a high density of buildings with signs declaring them to bars, casinos, strip joints, tattoo parlors, pawn shops, death arenas, witch doctors, lending companies, and 'Off Limits'. And if there had been lots of people with chains around, there were even fewer now without.

Figuring that people with more chains might be more familiar with local fashions and events, I picked a particularly chain-heavy individual.

"Hi there! Could you tell me where I could find the Buckner Mansion? I'm hoping to meet up with my friends there."

He turned around with a snarl and a raised cleaver. He took one look at the oversized sampler in my hands though, and suddenly he turned pale.

"Wait, you're one of Gray's people? I didn't know! Please, don't hurt me!"

"Pardon?" This was my first time hearing Gray's name. "There must be a misunderstanding. I'm not hurting anyone. I just need directions-

"I'll tell you where to go! I'll tell you where to go! Just put that thing away!"

I considered telling him that the sampler was nothing to be afraid of, but a) that wouldn't be entirely true, and b) who was I to turn down such a helpful offer? Instead I thanked him for his directions and went on my merry way.

Just like I had been told, the Buckner Mansion stood in a small clearing, effectively marking a boundary between the riverfront area and the rest of the city. Everywhere else I'd seen, disparate buildings shoved up against each other aggressively, competing for space like giant, mismatched weeds. But this place? It was if none of the other structures dared get close. Some of them were actually leaning away.

I didn't blame them. There may not have been an ominous storm cloud overhead, but the boarded-up windows, weathered walls, holey roof, and heavily-cracked steps all seemed to say, "This isn't a place for people."

My first impulse was to just wait outside, as were my second and third. But it occurred to me that Katie and Roy might already be inside. Perhaps I could just open the door and call for them. And maybe, since I had the sampler, I might as well try and collect a sample. After all, Coroner said it wasn't dangerous, couldn't be haunted.

This logic led me into the mansion.

"Roy! Katie! Are you in here?"

I took a few steps inside, letting go of the door. It slammed. I jumped. For a second I thought I heard a shushing noise, but it was too quick and too quiet to be sure.

"Sorry," I said, just in case.

As I walked, floor boards creaked, clearly audible even through the frayed rug that decorated the first room. I gripped the sampler as I would a weapon, tightly enough to hurt my hands, thrust out before me.

I began to hear music, the slightly discordant notes of an old-timey music box. But where? I followed the sound into a small bedroom, a child's old room complete with stuffed animals on the bed. A nearby nightstand held the music box.

It was open, revealing a moving figurine inside. But where I'd expect to see a little dancer spinning around, I saw a miniature of me--complete with glasses--turning this way and that, as if furtively looking for trouble.  And something dark was behind mini TJ, slowly coming closer, reaching-

I spun around. Saw nothing. Felt the gentlest brush at the back of my neck. Spun again.

No one there either. I relaxed the slightest bit, involuntarily. Until I noticed the music had stopped. The box was still there, still open, but where the little TJ figure had stood before, only his boots remained.

Nearly ran out the door right then. I forced myself to slow down, to breathe deeply and think deliberately. Panic was bad; I knew that much, even in my state of mind-blanking fear.

I hadn't been that scared before, not even in the worst of the sewers.

Katie and Roy were reckless and dangerous, but at least their adventures had a rhythm to it. I felt that I could keep pace with them, that they helped me keep up. Much as I'd have preferred something less exciting, with them danger almost felt fun.

This was different.

I was alone.

Or was I? Something moved out the corner of my eye. A child?

"Hello? Anyone there?"

Still numb inside, trying to look in every direction at once, I made my way back out of the room. If I could retrace my steps back outside...

The rooms were different, not the same ones I'd used before. Now, I have all the navigational sense of a fig newton, so it wouldn't have been strange for me to be lost, but my boots were still wet from the sewers. My steps should have left small puddles in the tattered rugs and on the dusty wood. But no such traces remained.

I looked back into the child's room. It wasn't there. Instead, I saw a small sitting room, complete with a piano.

It was getting harder and harder not to panic. I scanned the walls, the floor, the ceiling. The ceiling had writing gouged into the wood, words and broken phrases all competing for space:

Help me!

Let me out of here!

It hurts! It hurts!

Mommy!

Where is my child?

Don't you touch her!

Get out!

I'll kill you!

I can't find my boy!

Can't you help me?


And more. Too many words to read, almost none in agreement with each other.

I looked back down, unable to process all the demands and instructions. The walls had writing too now. Not scratches though. Dark red letters said the same words over and over.

DIE!

"Roy! Katie! I could really use some help here!"

I wracked my brain for ideas, finding only fragments of thoughts. My feet moved, taking me to a door, any door. I had to get out. Go anywhere. Room after room met me, each with disturbing messages and objects that appeared or disappeared the moment I looked away. Some rooms, such as the trophy hall, with its mounted heads all seeming to look at me, I didn't even try to enter.
My phone rang. I'd forgotten I'd had one, had assumed that there wouldn't be a compatible cell-tower in Death's realm.

"Hello?"

Nothing but static answered.

"Hello?" I asked again, my voice quavering.

Still nothing.

And then a wall started buzzing. Not the buzz of insects; rather, the metallic buzz and whine of a machine. The tip of a circular saw poked through wood, and slowly, so very slowly, a rectangle formed low in the wall before falling forward into the room.

I pointed my sampler at the forming shape, unwilling to look away from possible danger. Maybe I could shoot sewer muck at it. It said a lot about my state of mind that I didn't immediately reject the idea.

"Are you sure it's in there?" asked a woman's voice.

"The signal leads here, yes," said a man's voice. His face peered through, examined me with green eyes. "Hello there."

I had to work at remembering how my mouth worked. "Hi."

"I rather hope you're not the owner of this place, seeing as I don't think we're supposed to be carving holes like this. Though if you are the owner, you might know the way out-"

"Do you know the way out?" interrupted the woman, still unseen.

"I was just asking that-"

"Sure, because you always get straight to the point, don't you?" She sounded irritable. I didn't blame her, not in a place like that.

"Um, guys?" I said, "Does this mean you don't know how to get out either?"

"Afraid not," said the man. "We were hoping you might."

I shook my head regretfully. Moments later, they were crawling through the hole into the room.

The man stood erect in the way that only rich people, athletes, and military types do naturally. He wore a black shirt and blue jeans. The woman also wore jeans and a black top, but she completed her ensemble with an open blue and red check shirt and a black and white pin-striped trilby hat. Both of them had small chains on their arms.

They seemed familiar to me, but I couldn't place them. Not that failing to recognize people was unusual for me.

"I don't suppose we've met? My name is TJ." I offered my hand.

"Haven't had the pleasure, no," said the man, giving my hand a firm shake. "I'm Gray and the young lady here is Guilty."

She nodded and shook my hand with a smile. It relieved me that they both seemed so friendly.

"What did you mean by signal earlier?" I was so proud of myself for remembering that; it seemed important.

Gray held up what looked like an especially fancy palm pilot. "It's a handy little device, interesting story behind it-"

"Gray," warned Guilty.

"Right, then. Even without a nearby cell tower, mobile phones are always emitting a signal. I used Guilty's signal as a reference and then checked for others nearby. Unfortunately, I can't seem to find any signals outside the mansion."

"Can't you just cut your way out, like you did here?" I asked.

"That's brilliant! Why didn't we think of that? Oh wait, we did," Guilty said in mock-revelatory tones.

Gray piped up. "What Guilty means to say is that we just finished cutting through over twenty walls in a straight line, and it still didn't get us outside. Even the windows just lead to more rooms."

"How is that even possible?"

"Your guess is as good as mine or possibly even better. Though I suppose the only way to compare guesses with any degree of certainty-"

"Gray!"

"Where do you keep a saw anyway?" I asked. They didn't seem to be carrying anything.

"In my leg, of course. Where else would I keep one?"

"..." I couldn't fault him for letting the house drive him a little mad.

"Though I suppose I might carry it around in a large contraption like the one you're wearing. What is that by the way?"

"I'm what? Oh, this. I don't know? Got it from Coroner. It collects samples."

"Really? Samples of what?"

"Oh lots of things: sewer muck, scale powder, blood, don't ask about the white stuff, and um... some kind of acidic hellhound spit, I think? Or was that the moon shine? They both smell the same. Can't remember all the rest, but I guess I could check..."

"Guys, do you see that?" asked Guilty, pointing at a wall.

Unlike the gouges and blood-writing from before, this message was neatly printed in glowing letters.

I know the way out, it said. More letters formed further along on the wall. This way!

I looked at the others. They looked at each other and me. We followed the writing.

One of the floorboards gave out under my feet. I barely leapt aside in time. Well, it was more of an ungainly tripping motion, but it did keep me from sticking my leg through the floor.

Careful, warned the glowing words. Not all of the others want you to escape.

As we followed the words, the house grew more and more hostile. Chandeliers fell. Hallway vases flew at us from their alcoves. The kitchen practically exploded with fire and flying bits of metal as we ran through. Several times Gray had to bodily yank Guilty or me out of danger. When a piano fell through the ceiling, I thought for sure we were dead, but Gray body slammed us out of the way.

I coughed on ceiling plaster dust, trying to clear the air with a waved hand. Found Guilty.

"Where's... Gray?" I asked between fits. Didn't want to imagine him still under the piano. Couldn't stop visualizing it.

"Stuck in a haunted house, I believe," he said from all the way across the room.

"How did you-?" I couldn't finish the thought, too confused for proper articulation. Though the phenomenon felt familiar somehow.

"Teleportation," volunteered Guilty.

Of course, just like the Coroner. But that meant...

"Wait. You can get us out of here?" I asked.

"Correction, I can get myself out."

"Couldn't you go and get help?"

"Who would help? Death? Coroner? I doubt either of them would even spit on a man dying of thirst in a desert. And who would look after you two while I'm gone? I swear you two wouldn't last a minute without me. Not to mention-"

"Guys! Focus!"

We made a great team: glowing words leading the way, Gray keeping us alive, me distracting Gray, Guilty keeping us focused... Okay, so maybe I felt rather useless. Still, it was comforting to be part of a group when the alternative was roaming alone in a haunted mansion.
And eventually we made it to our final destination: a small shrine, complete with an altar adorned with various, unfamiliar symbols, each glyph pulsing its own rhythm, like scattered heartbeats.

"Now what?" I'm not sure whether Guilty or I asked. Our memories start to blend together at that point.

The altar is the seal. Pour the fluid of an underworld guardian upon the symbols, and the bindings holding all of us will be released.

"Sounds like a plan... Let me just figure out which one... Or wait, I'll..." I ended up spilling a little bit of everything on the altar.

As the mixture touched each symbol, the strange lights flared and died.

"This is good, right?" Breaking things made me nervous.

"Depends what you mean by good. My teammates frequently refer to something called situational ethics, but I for one..."

"What's wrong?"

"Guilty usually interrupts me right about now."

"I'm sure she's just tired of..." But I couldn't finish. Because Guilty was gone, nowhere to be seen in all the room. "Guilty? Are you okay?" I called out, not really expecting an answer, but not certain what else to do.

Glowing words, our helpful guide from before, appeared along the wall.

Oh, I'm just fiiine. We all are.

"Guilty? Is that you?" I asked dumbly. Beside me, Gray swore.

No, it's the tooth fairy, you idiot. Of course it's me!

"It certainly has her love for sarcasm," said Gray.

"What happened to you?"

Less than a meter away and you didn't notice it take me?

"What-" I started say, stopping because I saw it, or thought I did. A gentle rippling in the dirt, slowly moving towards us.

"Run, you fool!" said Gray, grabbing my arm and taking his own advice. Startled, I stumbled a bit before shaking off his arm and sprinting out of the room after him. And then out of the next. And the next. So many, many rooms.

Behind us came a loud, unidentifiable cacophony of noises as whatever stalked us abandoned all efforts at stealth.

Along the walls, the floors, and even some of the furniture, glowing words appeared. Running for my life as I was, I still couldn't help but read some of them.

Why run? they asked over and over, Don't you want to join us? These along with phrases such as There's no escape! and Soon we'll be everywhere!

"Kind of...hard...to read...while running!" I wheezed. I had no real plan. If anything, I was frustrated to be missing so much of what she was saying.

"No problem," said Guilty's voice along with many others, from every direction, each voice just slightly out of pace with each other as they spoke in near unison.

"Thanks...I think!"

"But really, it would be so much easier if you would just let us take you."

I missed non-ghost Guilty, certain she'd have a properly sarcastic retort for a situation like this. I wished she was here. Or better yet, Roy and Katie with their strength and powers, even if I suspected the main reason they didn't eat me was that they still owed me a chicken wrap. My lungs on fire from exertion, I still managed to cough out a laugh at that.

The coughing wouldn't stop. No longer able to run, I leaned against a nearby chair. Ahead of me, Gray slowed, stopping. Not fast enough. As he skidded out of the room, into the next, the door between us slammed shut, separating us. And then he was beside me, having teleported back into the room with me.

Teleported. Chicken wrap. Guilty. Many words popped into my head, but these in particular kept flashing to the forefront of my consciousness as I tried to deal with a coughing fit. Deal with...

My coughing fit became a full-on laughing fit. Gray reached for me, obvious concern on his face, but I waved him off, still laughing. The next part was tricky. I rummaged through my pockets, pulled out a pen and a handful of small papers. One of them, a receipt, had a blank back.

I wrote two words without looking. If I was right, it was important that I didn't give myself any extra memories associated with them. Had to forget them completely and lose myself to my natural state of confused, blank-minded uselessness. Oops, wait, had to at least remember to give him the paper.

"Take it." Distractedly, I handed him the pen and receipt-note, letting the other papers drift to the floor. I stared at them dumbly. "Take it to..." I started to focus, started trying to remember before catching myself. Stop. Focus was bad. Remembering was bad. "They're not here yet. They're looking for...What's my name?"

"TJ."

"Right. They're looking for that guy."

"Where-"

"Do your thing! Tele-something or other." I gestured vaguely. "Get--you know--not here."

"You can't expect me to-"

"Just go!"

And then he was gone, leaving me all alone, though I wasn't alone for long.

I couldn't see what was coming; only what it did. Furniture flew in every direction, giant claw marks streaked across walls, floor boards burst into pieces as if they were mere dandelion fluff. A line of destruction formed with no visible source, but one clear goal: me. It was coming for me, and I just couldn't run fast enough.

I tried. Even as worked to confuse myself, to focus on everything useless, like frogs and turtles and snow and balloons and that itch along the side of my nose... Even then, my feet ran with me, worked to buy me time to forget...

What was I supposed to forget again?

Something grabbed me and then-

PAIN!

The pain was sudden, overwhelming, and prolonged. It lasted the rest of my life.

And then it was dimmed--both the pain and my life--not gone but muted. Less distracted, I felt other things: the walls, the rooms, even the furniture inside the house that made up our body. All of it, part of us the way my fingers had been part of my human body.

Us.

No longer was there just 'me' and 'I' in my mind. Because it wasn't just my mind anymore; it was ours. So many of us, all competing for control, all of us failing. Guilty's will came closest to prevailing, her life fresher than the others, her personality more passionate than mine. But none of us could overcome the malevolent sense of purpose that dictated each thought, manipulated every feeling, and overrode the very core of our values.

I'd like to say I struggled long and hard against the corruption, that I gave my captors a real fight for control. The truth is my will crumpled almost instantly under the onslaught, my resolve replaced with the house's, my only remaining motivation that of furthering the house's goals.

The first priority was undoing my plan to stop the house.

What had been my plan? It could be foiled, we figured, otherwise there would have been no need for forgetting, for obscuring it from our collective memory.

We worked our way through my memories, handicapped by my distractibility. If it had been hard to fumble through memories when I was an individual, it was even harder with the memories of the others getting in the way, especially Guilty's. I will always be amazed by how hard she had worked to get so far, how hard she fought to be free even then. Unfortunately, her will was one of those sidetracked into forcing me to obey.

We hadn't made much progress when we noticed three bodies approaching the mansion. Out of habit, we unlocked our door in silent invitation. Habit would further dictate that we confuse and frighten the intruders, patiently grinding away at their minds until they could be taken. But now that the altar's bindings were broken, such patience was unnecessary. We would take the intruders the moment they entered through the doorway.

But they didn't enter our doorway, stopped short instead. One of them knocked on the door and didn't stop knocking.

What made them different? We strained our senses the way a man might squint into the distance, limited by the fact that the newcomers were outside us. They were...familiar. I felt like I should know them. Guilty, her mind sharper than mine, recognized the man knocking on our door: Gray.

Was he part of my plan? What did he have? We searched my memories: Teleportation. A cyborg leg chock-full of gadgets. Athleticism. Loyalty. A distractible nature. What else? Guilty's memories filled gaps in my own: Knives. Special training. A gun tucked into the back of his waistband.

The gun distracted me. No one keeps a gun in their waistband for any real length of time, no matter what the movies say. Too likely to shift around. He probably had one of those concealed carry holsters, the ones that let the gun handle stick out just far enough to grab. I had read about those; spies and gun enthusiasts have them sometimes. Gray was some kind of spy, right?

The rest of the house told me I was wasting time. None of this could stop the house.

We focused on the two people behind Gray, the people that Guilty didn't recognize, that I felt I in particular should know. One of them was especially big, both tall and muscular. What could he do? Cook. Smile. Drink blood. Trickery. Trickery? We resolved not to listen to anything he said.

"If y'all don't do something interesting," said the big man, "I vote we just burn down the place."

Maybe we should listen a little. At the least, we should stall for time while trying to remember my plan. Did it have something to do with the last of their party? The smaller, quieter one?

"Oh sure," we said, our voices chorusing out to him. "You'll just set us on fire and put your friends at risk doing something that won't work anyway. Best. Plan. Ever." What was the smallest intruder? Small and thin, yet heavier than flesh. A word came to mind, almost random: Troll.

"You have a better plan?" asked the big man.

"Much Better. Come inside..." We opened the door. "Or leave!" She was a troll. What was it that trolls did? Eat people. Eat everything. Break stuff. Spout curses, real ones that actually hurt. And something else.

"You won't reconsider?"

"Hmm, let's think. Give up everything when we have all the advantages? Great idea... Not!

"I wouldn't be so sure of that if I were you."

"And if we were YOU, we would be far more grateful, vermin. We could exterminate you like the pests you are." Except we couldn't. There were rules we had to follow, limits to what we could do, especially in Death's realm where no one was allowed to die again.

But maybe we could snatch them while they were still outside? We had never been able to reach outside before, but with the altar defiled, perhaps...

We diverted some of our minds to the task, parceling power down into the house's foundation and beyond, to the ground beneath their feet. Resistance met our efforts, but not the unyielding barrier of before. This resistance was softer. We could work through it, given just a little more time.

"How 'bout this then?," said the big man, Roy. "You give up the house and every soul in it, we call it a day, and everyone goes home happy."

"Oh sure, we'll get right on that..." we said, our voice still heavy with Guilty's characteristic sarcasm.

Sarcasm. I remembered now--one of the words I wrote was 'sarcasm'. The other was-

"The deal is made," began the troll. The other word was 'deal'.

"No! Nonono! We didn't mean it!" we cried in desperate denial, too late.

"All parties bound."  Even without physical bodies to call our own, we felt the truth of her words. It resonated through every floor board, wall panel, and ceiling tile of the house.

"You can't do this to us!" Lies, feeble protests, one last ghostly shriek and moan. We attacked them with our words, with winds, with every loose object and horrific illusion at our disposal. Nothing touched them; we no longer had the right.

"Now, vermin, get out of my house."

Something dug into us and tore us apart, something burning and bright. We screamed as one for the very last time before even that capacity was taken from us. Before 'we' were gone.

And I was me again.

"Welcome back, TJ," said Roy's voice.

My eyes wouldn't open. I had to wipe something sticky out of the way before I could look up at his smiling face.

"...Thanks?" I said still disoriented. More than usual, I mean. "What's this stuff on me?"

A cool finger poked me in the cheek before withdrawing. Katie's finger, I realized just in time to see her suck on it.

"Ghost goop," she said with authoritative certainty.

"You mean ectoplasm?"

"I know what I mean, booger boy. Ghost goop; no mistaking the taste." She reached for me again, perhaps for another taste test, but I pulled away.

Trolls, I decided for the umpteenth time, were gross.

Looking down at myself, I found a thin, clear layer of the stuff coating my clothing. And when I say thin, I mean it; I've had thicker gobs hit me from sneezes.

"Will this be enough for Lab Goa- Coroner?"

"Oh I'm sure we'll have enough for the esteemed Coroner," said Roy with a smile and a gesture. I turned and saw what he meant. I smiled too.

When I arrived back in front of Coroner's lab and knocked on the door, I wasn't surprised hear his reply.

"Go away! I'm busy!" shouted his wall-mounted loudspeaker.

"Mr. Coroner, sir? It's me, TJ. I'm back."

"You were not to return without the samples."

"And we got them. Whole backpack full of them right here."

The door opened. I unharnessed the sampler from my back and handed it over. Over his shoulder, I saw that he'd managed to get his lab cleaned up and reorganized.

"All of them?" he asked, taking the device.

"Every last one." I stretched and rolled my shoulders, glad to be free of the weight.

"How did you escape from the mansion?" he asked absentmindedly, still looking at the sampler. There was no overt malice or concern in his voice right then. I got the impression that he was curious from a purely scientific standpoint.

I knew then that he hadn't expected us to return. And yet he had lied to us, told us it wasn't dangerous. It made me feel significantly less guilty about what was coming next.

"We found a way to deal. Speaking of which, let me give you the ectoplasm sample."

He looked up as I stepped aside.

"Head on in everyone!" I had just enough time to see his expression before he teleported out of the way.

They poured into his lab, a veritable river of people covered in slime. Not the thin layer of ectoplasm that had daintily coated me, either. These people had been stuck in the mansion for years, some for several mortal lifetimes, and had plenty of time accrue a thick, gooey, mess of the stuff. I could hear the stuff sloshing with every one of their footsteps into his nice clean lab.

"By the way, Coroner, do you have any spare keys?" I shouted past incoming 'samples'. "A couple of my new friends still have some chains on them, and they said you sent them to the mansion to get their chains removed."

Coroner, it turns out, had an extensive, high-level vocabulary. Had I been better with languages, I might have remedied my lack of Latin knowledge right then.

"Oh! And Katie says to tell you that Death gave us permission to quote 'pressgang any of the local residents' into helping us build our new restaurant, and seeing as you live here, she figures you qualify."

Coroner teleported in front of me. I suppose I would have been much more intimidated by the demon scientist if a small gaggle of slimy children weren't clinging to him in a sort of climbing hug. One of them giggled and smeared a hand right across the lenses of his glasses.

He spluttered. I took that for a 'yes'.

It didn't take long to build the new Underpass - Bar & Grill. We had plenty of helpers, and most of the building infrastructure was already in place. After all, the former Buckner Mansion was ours now and more than big enough. In fact, Roy and Katie decided to make it a bed-and-breakfast establishment too.

Katie was especially happy about the building's large size; she can't wait to get bigger. Apparently some visiting, half-blind candy-store owner mistook her for a child. She didn't complain about the free candy though.

Many of the workers became our first clients. Some of them, I already knew as friends: the skeletal gondolier, the talking muck, Guilty, and Gray. Others, like the Deadly Moon Shine Society and the zoo's minotaur owner were quick to forgive us our trespasses in exchange for quality meals and drinks. We, in turn, forgave them in exchange for cold, hard currency. We even had a sewer access shoot for feeding a certain alligator-headed customer with a penchant for heart-themed dishes.

Still, the biggest surprise came when Coroner stopped by for take-out. He barely looked at me as I took his order. (Katie didn't like talking to relative strangers, even paying ones.) In fact, it seemed that he had forgotten me entirely as he muttered to himself while waiting.

"...thirty-one writers.  Thirty-one! If Death thinks we can hide this..." I didn't hear the rest, too busy with the next in line, but it tickled my memory, reacquainting me with one of his earlier lies.

I thought of it again when we finally closed for the day. What had happened to the other writers?

When Katie left a chicken wrap and a glass of water in my bedroom, it was yet another reminder. She had nearly eaten me earlier that day. All that had stopped her before was an unfulfilled contract: the chicken wrap that she and Roy had promised me.

A chicken wrap that she had just given me.

My hands shook as I searched the pockets of my jacket.

"Where are you, iPod? TJ needs his music."

My iPod floated into my hands, the cords helpfully untangled.

"Thank you," I said automatically. I was in no condition to think. I didn't want to think, especially not about the building still being even a little haunted. Not if I was planning on sleeping that night. My hands moved on their own, hooking the little speakers over my ears. I started the 'emergency' playlist.

Pachelbel's Canon in D major is possibly the most soothing music ever. Right then, it had to be.

At least the chicken wrap was delicious.
EX.R1 - Scientific Curiosity
Audition: fav.me/d7mk8o2
Round 1: You are here.
Round 2: fav.me/d7uak03
Round 3: TBA
Round 4: TBA

Edit: Posting the complete version of Round One now that the judging is done. Most of the new stuff begins in the middle of the haunted house scene, but I also added a few things I forgot earlier on, including a better glimpse of TJ's personality in the sandwich conversation with Coroner, and a brief explanation as to the nature of the chains where it might be contextually relevant.

A bit of trivia -- I was disproportionately proud of myself for looking up the pistols most employed by the British government. After it was too late to turn back, I realized I don't actually know for sure if Gray is British. Whoops!

Death,Coroner, and the City of Nothing belong to mippins
Guilty and Gray belong to Ashana-Correlli
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Is anyone interested in me posting writing tips, even if just as a handy reference for showing friends? Here are some possible topics:

- Boosting Personal Creativity to Ridiculous Heights
- The Most Commonly Given Tournament Advice and What It's Worth
- Making Characters Feel Unique and Relatable
- The True Purpose of a Literature Tournament Audition
- Fan Fiction and the Art of Stealing the Story
- What They Actually Mean When They Say "Show, Don't Tell"

Do any of these subjects look interesting? Would something else be more useful? Furthermore, if I did post such a guide, would it be better as a journal or as a deviation?
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:iconashana-correlli:
Ashana-Correlli Featured By Owner Jun 27, 2014
I guess we get to check your streak versus my low-esteem in the first round =D  Looking forward to going up against you!!
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:iconvoice-of-levity:
Voice-of-Levity Featured By Owner Jun 27, 2014
Likewise!
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:iconacutelatios:
acutelatios Featured By Owner Jun 25, 2014  Hobbyist Artist
Thanks for a llama~
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:iconvoice-of-levity:
Voice-of-Levity Featured By Owner Jun 25, 2014
No problem!
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:iconwolvennight:
WolvenNight Featured By Owner Jun 24, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
thanks for the llama ^^
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:iconvoice-of-levity:
Voice-of-Levity Featured By Owner Jun 25, 2014
Wanted to express my appreciation to all those who entered the tournament. Besides, they're free. :)
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:iconveroro:
veroro Featured By Owner Mar 17, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Thanks for the watch!
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:iconvoice-of-levity:
Voice-of-Levity Featured By Owner Mar 23, 2013
You noticed! :XD:
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:iconcelticdragon22:
CelticDragon22 Featured By Owner Mar 7, 2013  Student Writer
I see you llama and raise you another!
Also, thank you.
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:iconvoice-of-levity:
Voice-of-Levity Featured By Owner Mar 9, 2013
Thanks to you too!
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