In the not-too-far-away future, in a world mostly ike ours...
Oh, the promises I had to make to my parents in order to go to Avery's house. As the self-driving car service dropped me off in front of his drive-way, I couldn't help but feel like I'd gambled my soul to my parents on this one. Well, if not my soul, then my desktop and VR-rig at the least hung in the balance. It amounted to the same thing IMO. The key phrasing today was "not one bruise" when I returned.
I hoped it was worth it. I had a lot of burning questions about what really had happened during our fight in the cafeteria and I really hoped that Avery and I could figure them out. I also had concerns. The music video of our fight had been super-cool at first but somewhere around the twentieth re-watch, I'd started to realize how bad it could have gone. I'd stopped re-watching it shortly after that. The crazed expression on my face back then was starting to haunt me.
I worried that I needed help. So promises were piled to the sky and here I was--on the doorstep of the guy I normally fought with tooth-and-nail.
Putting my hands in my jeans' pockets, I whistled in appreciation as I walked up the long white driveway. I'd ridden 15 minutes--mostly through traffic and waiting for the subdivision's gates to open-- to discover that Avery's house was nothing like the cramped apartment my family lived in. It was this huge, brand-new, brick home with a double garage no less. The front lawn was big enough to be its own park and the manicured flower beds led me to believe they had more than just a lawn-service.
I climbed the clean brick steps and rang the front doorbell. I'll be honest, I half-expected a maid or butler to answer the door. Instead, I heard the clamor of someone running up steps. Then the white-and-crystal door opened, revealing my ex-nemesis, Avery. He was wearing head-to-toe black sportswear, the kind that cost $150 per shirt. Unlike me, Avery was still scrawny, but not nearly as stick-like as he had been even six months ago.
"Duuuude!" he said with a smile. "Welcome! welcome! Oh man, I have been waiting for you to come over for like a month. How's the leg? Can you fight?"
I stepped into the hardwood foyer, wondering if I should take off my shoes or something before entering such a tidy house. "Um, thanks, " I said. "yeah, my leg if fine. The doctors said three months and then rehab. But--" I stopped and looked around. This was confidential information. "Are your parents home?"
Avery made a dismissive wave of his hand. "Naw, it's the middle of the day," he said. "They're at work. Toss your shoes over in the corner and let's go downstairs to my dojo."
"Your dojo?" I echoed as I shucked out of my sneakers and followed my black-clad friend down the stairs. "You have a basement too?"
My answer was the bottom of the stairs and a door that opened into a basement the size of the ground floor. Its concrete bottom was covered in brand-new squishy carpeting and the white cinder-block walls decorated in all manner of Japanese looking art-scrolls. Most striking though was the collection of training equipment.
The room had racks of wooden swords, padded armor suits, a punching-bag, weight set, and even one of those post-like wooden dummies people practiced their forms on. Also, strangely, an open closet full of white karate uniforms. Avery quickly closed the closet and then made a grand wave of his hands.
"What do you think?" he asked proudly. "I spared no expense."
"This looks like a movie," I said. "I didn't know your folks were this rich."
"They're not," Avery said, proudly. "I've been raking it in on appearances, royalties, sparring events, speaking engagements, ad revenues from videos, and more. Our ten minutes of fame paid out awesome! I bought off the old house and got this new one. Gonna load up my parents' retirement fund next."
And now I felt chagrined. I'd been hit with the same fire-hose of offers, but I'd turned them down. It all felt like bragging to me. Bragging about how I was a pain-loving violence-junkie who had decided to have a lethal throw-down in the middle of a school. I'd even stopped doing interviews because I couldn't take my shame anymore. It sucked cause I needed the money to pay the fines, bills, and school damages. But hell if I knew how I could have made myself do what Avery was doing.
Uncomfortable with my stupidity and general worthlessness, I looked around for something to comment on. I latched onto the open closet containing dozens of white uniforms. "So why do you have all those karate gis?" I asked.
Avery picked up a wooden sword from the nearby rack. "They're not important," he replied. "I need to know how your leg is, yo. Are you in rehab or are you good?"
"It's 100% better," I confessed. "Not only did the bullet not do as much damage as expected, but I've been practicing feeling for my Ki. Doing the breathing exercises and envisioning it's circulation. All that Cloud-Transcendence stuff we had to do in-game. I healed up really fast like that." I left out how I had no idea how I was going to explain things at my physical check up next month.
Avery's eyes grew wide as I explained, then he gave me an approving nod like I'd just validated some guess of his.
"Hell yeah. I was right," he said. "Well, I've figured some stuff out too in the last several months."
Then he tossed the wooden sword to me. I caught the handle before it smacked me in the face. "What's this for?" I asked, now very concerned where this was going.
Avery took a stance with his right arm raised for a hard block. "Smash that over my arm. Hard," he said.
I nearly dropped the sword. "What?! Hell no!" I said. "One, that's gonna break your arm. Two, do you have any idea how much trouble I'll get in for doing that? If my parents hear about it, I won't be seeing anything but dish duty and the inside of my computer-less room till next year." (And I was only a month away from getting VR back too!)
That earned me a look of scorn. "Do I look like I want you to break my arm?" Avery demanded. "Don't be an idiot. Now swing and you'll see something awesome."
I stared at him as I clenched the wooden practice sword. My breath quickened and my heart started racing as Avery glared at me. As my body put the pedal-to-the-metal, I started to quiver. Damn my eternal problem. The moment shit gets even a tiny bit real, my body wigs out. A doctor called it an over-active fight-or-flight response. I called it flight-or-freak-my-shit.
I've learned the hard way that I'd better run from these situations, lest someone get hurt. Seven Realms of Steel was the only place I could be where I didn't have to worry about hurting people and going nuts. Given my history with Avery, bolting up the stairs was probably the best decision.
"DO IT!" he shouted at me suddenly. I jumped, then yelled and swung at his arm wildly.
Crack! Whenever I was like this, holding back wasn't something I could manage. The wooden sword broke in a shower of resin-covered splinters as Avery cried out in pain. He staggered away while clutching his arm. I dropped the shattered half-sword to the carpet and backed up in horror.
"Crap crap crap!" I said. "I'm sorry. I couldn't help it."
"Ow ooohh ouch," groaned Avery. "Damn you hit hard as a mo-fo. This worked fine when Gabrielle did it."
I was so screwed. Now we'd have to call an ambulance to take Avery to the hospital for a broken arm. Both sets of parents would find out and all those careful promises I'd made would just be ashes now. My new name would be "Grounded for Life".
Though, given how I'd so far handled the power of having legit muscles and whatever Seven Realms had done to me...I was pretty much ready to go back to living without the sun and eating chips all day long again. Returning to my old self might be the responsible choice.
"Hehe," Avery chuckled, straightening up. "Damn you are high-strung. No wonder you were so easy to troll before." Then he waved his arm at me-- his unbroken arm. "This stings. Get me an ice pack will ya? There's a fridge behind the stairs."
"What?" was all I could say.
Avery gave me a smug grin. "I said I'm fine."
"How?!" was my next, not-so-eloquent response.
"The Silk Becomes Steel technique," Avery said. He plucked at the long sleeve of the black compression shirt he was wearing. "The more subtle and expensive the fabric is, the better it seems to work. I tried cotton first but it sucks. Real silk is best-- I tried it on my Mom's bathrobe don't tell her. But I'm not good at finding silk clothing yet, so I bought this anti-moisture workout stuff instead. It's like 90% as good. Well, it's good as long as I'm not fighting an elephant, or you, apparently."
I wasn't screwed! Relief almost sent me to my knees. Avery grumbled as he went and got his own ice pack. We plopped down on a pair of bean bags while he wrapped the sheet-like pack around his arm.
"How'd you figure it out?" I asked. "It's not like Silk Becomes Steel has a movement or vocal component for activation. It's a passive ability."
"It's actually the first, easiest, and by far most successful thing I've figured out," Avery said, smugly. "Remember how my fork attack destroyed the ceiling but not your shoulder? Yeah you do. So it looks to me like you already know Iron Body. And then there's the question of how you healed yourself. Sounds like level 1 Revitalization to me. So I'll tell ya how I know. It's because we're in the Cloud-Transcendence realm, that's why."
If I hadn't been in a large green beanbag chair, I would have been rocked off my heels by that statement. I still leaned back, eyes wide.
The Seven Realm of Steel game was named such because of it's unique, ascension-based leveling system. Most casual players never unlocked their ki, so they were stuck in the Earthly realms of Valley, Stone, and Mountain. As Avery and I were approaching the end-game, so we were both ranked within the Soaring Realms (Sky, Moon, Stars). I think we were both Sky-realm characters, specifically.
But there was a seventh realm available to players, Cloud-Transcendence. It was a transition realm between the Earthly and Soaring sections of the game. It was for warriors who were aware of their ki, but who had not achieved the breakthrough necessary to fully manipulate it.
Partial and sporadic Ki-usage like we were having would definitely fit the bill for being there. The game's campaign story actually used those as the signs' emergence as the trigger for the ascension quest line. Passive ki skills worked really well in the Cloud realm since they were unconsciously used.
Our fight in the cafeteria, my healing, his arm... It all made sense if one removed the "in real life" part of what was happening. It also made Avery's dojo make a lot more sense too.
"Woah. You're trying to break through the clouds aren't you?" I asked with a touch of awe.
Avery leaned back in his bean bag like he was a boss. "Yup," he said. "You've got it. I can feel my ki, but it's literally cloudy. I can't really see it or really touch it yet. That's why I'm down in the basement all the time. It's very still down here. No road noise or any of that. Helps me focus on those pesky inner intangibles."
My knee started to jiggle in excitement. "Dude," I said. "This means that Ki is freaking real. We've already proved a ton of techniques as well... This is incredible!"
"Don't forget simple Ki-reinforced attacks," he said, rubbing his neck. "That's how you destroyed the wall of the school."
My mind raced about with the possibilities. "What do we do? I mean, damn, this is like cheating at life," I pondered out loud. I'd never been one for athletics, but even with crap-level body-enhancement techniques I could have endurance, speed, and reflexes enough to be a top player in any sport I chose. Maybe even gold-medal some Olympic stuff. It'd be grossly unfair.
Avery gave me this what? look with a raised eyebrow. "You have to even ask? It's obvious to me," he said. "We need to break through to Sky-realm and then we freaking own this town. Anything we want is ours. Money, fame, chicks-- you name it. The question you should be asking is, 'what do you want?'"
"It can't be that easy," I said. Maybe it was for Avery, but definitely not for me. My eyes couldn't avoid the tiny white scar on his neck where I'd almost killed him. The broken sword lay on the ground to my left, another reminder of my lack of control. Was becoming more dangerous a good thing for me to do?
Avery leaned forward and put a hand on my shoulder. "Worried about flipping out on people?"
"Don't. Work for me and I'll take care of you," he said. "I'm the only person in the world who can handle you. So all you need to do is do what I say, and let me make the big decisions. You don't have to think about anything other than what I ask and I'll be the one taking the responsibility for keeping you in check. No more worries. Sound good?"
I wasn't so sure about obedience in exchange for salvation. "How so?" I asked. "Like are we going to be partners in this? Avery & Avery, Inc or something like that?"
Immediate frown. "Haha-- no," Avery said. "You're not partner material. I want you as my second. Hell, I'll even pay you a salary just so you don't waste time working at some dumb part-time job."
"Thanks," I said, sarcastically. I didn't have the highest opinion of myself, but he was still being insulting.
Avery kicked my leg. "Whatever," he said. "I'm taking on a liability with you. You're all mild-mannered and shit right now, but we both know you're secretly a mad dog. The first drop of blood hits the floor and you'll be all murder-death-kill."
I sunk lower in the bean bag. The truth hurt and I couldn't dispute it. "Yeah but..."
"But nothing," he shot. "You know how lucky you are that I'm the one you fought with first? huh? If some other kid had started shit with you, they'd be a bloodstain on the floor right now. You won't get a second chance and there's no going back on Ki progression. It's you now, and being in the cloud-realm means we don't fully control its usage. What happens if your skills rust up and you lose the edge that had allowed you to spare my life? What if you hella bliff someone the next time they scare you? Ready to sing some jailbird blues from juvie?"
That drove me to my feet. "Screw you, Avery," I said. "You don't think I don't know all that? Argh. This is why we didn't get along in-game." After I'd stopped watching our fight video, I'd had nightmares instead. Dreams where people other than Avery had pissed me off and I couldn't help but watch my dream-self turn them into swiss-cheese with a broken mop.
"Doesn't make it less true," Avery said, staying seating and holding the ice pack on his arm. "You want an out? I'm offering it to you. Got anyone else who's willing and able to put up with your turbo-charged crazy? Anyone else with the guts to say they'll jump between you and yourself?"
"No," I didn't. As far as I knew, we were the only two people in the world with these powers. I didn't want to turn him down, I just hated the way he was asking me.
"Wait," I said. "If I'm such a liability, why are you bothering with me?"
He 'tsked' at me. "We're about to be the biggest winners in human history Avery," he replied. "But how the hell am I supposed to break through the cloud-realm with no one to spar against? Pure meditation and shadow-boxing only? Let's be real, that won't work. I need to control my ki. Everything awesome in life comes after that. You're literally the only person I can do this with. So I'm willing to risk taking you under my wing. Don't make me regret it. Ok?"
I hesitated, and he added, "Do you really want to be the forever-alone-guy again? Or do you want to run ahead into the total ball'n future with me?"
Despite my fears, I didn't. I didn't want to go back to being 100 pounds over-weight and talking to my feet whenever a girl entered the room. Not that the latter had changed, but I hoped that it would. I plucked at my baggy t-shirt. There was an eight-pack under there, yet I still couldn't bring myself to wear anything that showed or clung to my stomach. I'd gained so much this last year, but it had all been while I was in VR. I hadn't really caught up with myself yet.
I also didn't want to go slave away at my crap retail job all summer just so I could nick away at all the fines and debts I now owed.
Avery finally stood up and put a hand on my shoulder. "Be a winner with me, or be a loser and maybe murderer by yourself," he said. "It's not even a choice dude. Swallow your damn pride, admit you need me, and let's move on to the part where our lives are awesome."
"I'll do it," I said, hiding a tremble. There really was no way for me but forward.
Avery's face broke out into a wicked grin. "Excellent! Now that that's all done, lemme show you our crew." He pulled out his phone and started texting.
"Our crew?" I repeated. Then looked up at the ceiling as I heard the thumping of people upstairs.
The first person down the stairs was Gabrielle, a short sophomore girl I only knew because she was my ex-girlfriend's BFF. She was this strangely burly Mexican and I'd heard that she sometimes came to school with concrete dust in her hair. Other than that all I knew was that she wasn't popular and often got pushed around a lot from.
Behind her trailed three other girls who were all sophomores and juniors. I shifted nervously, suddenly very unsure about this situation. They were dressed like normal, mostly jeans and t-shirts, but just being us two guys in a rec room, no parents, and four girls was weirding me out.
To my relief, six guys emerged from the stairs behind the girls. I didn't know any of them either--what, I don't have a lot of IRL friends--but the crowd all jived in one way that I recognized. They were all scrawny, or fat, or pimpled or staring at their feet, or wringing their hands. None of them had expensive clothes, a nice phone, or wore anything fashionable. These were all the kids who ate alone on the edges of the cafeteria and who got shoved to the backs of lines every day.
In other words, they were like me-- the misfits and outcasts of Creek High. They all assembled themselves standing in two lines in the middle of the room and waited. They didn't say a word while they stood there watching Avery. Damn it was creepy.
"What the hell dude?" I said, looking at Avery once 'the crew' had filed into the room. "When did all of you get here?" I hadn't heard them come in and the house had been empty when I'd arrived. Or so I thought.
Avery stood up, looking proud. "They were upstairs being quiet and waiting orders, when you came in. I didn't want to overload you with too much at once, but this operation isn't just you and me. We're gonna be a force to be reckoned with. I dream big yo."
"Lemme introduce you," Avery said, walking over to Gabrielle. "This is Stone Lotus--" I opened my mouth to correct him but he cut me off. "--We don't use real names here. The shit we're doing is top-secret so I'm the only person who knows everyone's real names. I'll teach you the hand-signs we've come up with for when in public later."
Ok, that was even creepier. What was this? A cult? How'd he get this many of our classmates to stand quietly for longer than fifteen seconds?
"Anyway," he continued with introductions. The other girls all had flower-fighter names similar to Gabri-- I mean Stone Lotus.
"I've been working with the girls longer as they were first to join and are going to be my bodyguards," Avery said with a smirk that made me really uncomfortable. "Who needs groupies right?" he whispered with a wink.
He moved on to the guys next. "This lot are all fresh recruits so they're the Valley Squad. Aka the grunts. They haven't earned names yet and their everything sucks. So they're 'hey you' until they reach the Stone realm rank."
Avery nodded like he loved the gazes of the dozen classmates staring at him silently. "Alright everyone, today is the day we've been looking forward to. I'm sure you all know who this is standing next to me. Well, now he's my right-hand ass-kicker. He may seem like Clark Kent, but you've all seen what he can do in the video. He's basically a berserker. So don't piss him off. If you step out of line, he's probably gonna bite your head off and I'll have to save you from him. We don't want that do we?"
This earned him nods and me a collection of terrified glances. I winced. I know I have a problem but what was I now? The mad-dog on Avery's leash? His boogie-man? I tried to save it by waving and smiling.
"Hi everyone," I said, "I'm Avery. Pleased to meet ya." Two people cringed in fear of me and four hunched their shoulders even more.
"No real names," Avery snapped. "We both have the same name so it'll be confusing anyway. I decree that you'll be known as The Iron Bastard. I'm Soaring Dragon by-the-way."
I rolled my eyes hard at his name and mine. Bastard- how original! As my full name was Avery Bassard, I might...just might...have endured a lot of "bastard" jokes over the years.
"Don't look like that," Avery said. "How about Captain Iron Bastard? Sounds fearsome and respectable."
"Fine..." I said, through clenched teeth.
"Great!" Avery said. "Well, we've burned enough time today. let's get to training everyone. Captain Bastard, you're in charge of Valley Squad. I'll take the lovely bodyguards. Let's break a sweat, people."
Everyone bowed and thanked--eye roll--'Supreme Leader, Soaring Dragon' and then the closet was opened and the white uniforms donned. After that, I got to help as "the Society of the Seven Realms" conducted its regular training.
I left for home at five. The 'proud' owner of Avery's secret files on training regimens and "coded public communication methods for members" to memorize. Also, a thrice-weekly requirement to come back for more of everything at his house for the rest of the summer. At least I also had my first 'paycheck' in my pocket to show my parents. Not that they'd know I was working for Avery.
As the self-driving car took me away, I turned around to watch the community's gates closing behind me. There was a hot lump of fear and regret forming in my stomach. All female body-guards, nameless grunts, gang signs, and me as the attack-dog second. I already felt like an evil henchman or something.
What the hell had I just gotten myself into? Should I even go back? Or should I go to the police instead? I wondered about my fate if I did either...
The End (for now)
If you like my short fiction, please check out my book Forever Fantasy Online.