The story so far:
The survivors of this world summoned her to be their hero. She ran away from the ceremony and fell to her death. Then she got better.
Finally, she confronts her captors. She’s ready to get some answers.
He cupped his hands into a circle and a soft, blue glow leaked through his fingers. When he opened them again a ball of light hovered steadily in front of him.
“The First Hero claimed to come from a world without magic. You might not recognize it, but nothing I’m going to do can hurt you. It’s just light,” he said as he ran his fingers through it. It parted around his skin, then folded back into a ball when he pulled them out again.
So is a laser, I worried, but held my tongue. The answers I wanted were so close, and I didn’t want to derail them.
He leaned close and blew a puff of air into the ball. Motes of light scattered around us, bursting into stars that coalesced into a spinning galaxy of bright points. I flinched as some claimed space around my head. “Like all worlds of magic, ours began as a dream. One of very, very many.”
The scene expanded, and I felt like I was falling into that pool of celestial light. What I thought were stars grew larger, and I saw that they were really millions of tiny bubbles that twinkled in and out of existence.
They grew larger until only a few dozen filled the room. Inside of each one I could see a tiny world. Images flickered across their surfaces, each telling a different story. Behind each globe perched a silhouette of a person. One yawned and stretched, catching my attention, and that bubble popped as the shadow faded away. Then a different shadow appeared, and a new bubble was born.
“Wait,” I objected, confused. “So all of this is a dream? It’s not real?” The thought was comforting. Maybe all I had to do was ride out this nightmare until I woke up in my own room. Then I could laugh and promise never to eat spicy food before bed again.
“That was true long ago. Now we are different.” He pointed at one bubble and it grew larger, dominating the middle of the library. Its silhouette yawned like all of the others had, and then it faded away. The bubble remained. “Our dreamer woke up, but we remained. Our stories kept playing out.”
He shrugged at my silent, questioning glance. “No one really knows why. But a dream needs a purpose, and we had lost ours. We became real, but hollow.”
I scoffed. “That’s not how physics works.”
“But it is how magic works.” He grinned back to show he wasn’t aiming for a fight. He opened his hand, and we passed through the bubble’s flimsy barrier. Inside, we found a thriving forest. Red and blue orbs zipped joyfully through the leaves, and an echo of laughter filled the room.
“Magic needs a purpose to survive. Without the dreamer’s guidance, an apathy gripped our world that infected everything.” On the forest floor, a cloud of soot settled, then lurched outward like a living thing. A curious fairy drew too close and its light was extinguished. The colors of the forest lost their vibrant hues. That dismal tide swept over the world as we watched, then halted before the last speck of color was swallowed up. “The people withdrew to the ancient sky cities of the …”
“Dragon ken,” the child offered.
“… yes, the dragon ken. And there, they found the Epitome of… the Tome of….”
“Tome of Heroes.” I tore my attention from the magical movie to glance between them. He seemed to be struggling with the tale, and Mir wore a softer expression than I thought she was capable of. On anyone else I might have called it concern.
We rose from the forest floor and sailed toward the mountains. On one peak we found a castle, and passed through its intimidating doors to find the same library we were in now. It was a younger building though, and full of ghostly scholars that chanted words that were still strange to me. Their torches burned brightly, and then the smoke gathered into the shape of a man.
I looked down at my own hands, and remembered being made from the smoke of the cavern. Was I really a hero, then?
“The first hero drove back the apathy and gave us a purpose. A name. He called us the People of Isekai, and he sealed the apathy away for many ages.”
The image spun away from the library, then we were falling back into the valley below. The windows of the City flew by. I planted my hands on the table to keep my dizziness at bay. We hesitated over a young woman and her family as they hung laundry to dry on an outdoor line.
“But it was only sealed, not defeated.” A tendril of smoke rose from the ground, and I didn’t want to watch what I knew was coming. A bitter sadness spread through me when they stopped suddenly and left, each walking away in a different direction. Time seemed to speed up then, and we watched the basket of soggy cloth rot where it lay.
Then Kal entered the picture to find his family dead in an overgrown lawn. Their skin looked mottled and blue. He lifted his head toward the mountain and joined a stream of refugees already on their way.
The lights snapped out one by one, leaving the library dimly lit again. Kal’s hands fell, tired from the story they’d woven.
Everyone looked at me expectantly. I tried not to squirm under the attention. “It’s sad… but what do you think I can do about it?”
The child rolled her eyes. “That’s what we summoned a hero to figure out.”
“Yeah, I get that part. You want me to save the world, right?” She nodded doubtfully. “And you have no other options. So what have you already tried?”
“Excuse me?” she snapped back.
“Well, you said no other options. What have you done to save yourselves?”
Elwyth looked up at me with unease. “We… well, we came here.”
“To summon you,” Kal added, quick on her heels.
“So… your whole list of options was ‘kidnap a stranger and make her do it for us.’”
The old lady’s hands covered her mouth in shock. “Kidnap?!”
Kal shook his head vigorously. “No, you don’t understand…”
I laughed, and it was a sharp, ugly noise. “Okay then, tell me where I start being wrong. You all have a big problem, and instead of trying to handle it your first and last option was to summon me. Without my consent, and against my will. You stole me from my life. Explain to me how that isn’t kidnapping?”
The child’s glare felt like a blade against my throat, but the other two traded a horrified glance. “It never occurred to us that you might not want to be a hero,” Elwyth whispered, mortified. She buried her face in her hands, and her shoulders shook. It made me feel like garbage, but it had to be said.
Kal stared at us, his mouth gaping open. “You are… of course… free to do as you like. I won’t force you into helping us.”
I sighed heavily. He’d said as much before, when he didn’t know I was listening. He probably meant it. So why did I have to feel bad because they made a mistake? “Look,” I said heavily, “whatever you’re looking for – it’s not me. Can’t you just try again?”
Mir snickered. “Kidnap someone else because you can’t be bothered?”
The old woman folded her hands patiently on the table. “Kindness is not a weakness, little lost one. Don’t ignore what could be your greatest weapon.” She didn’t look up to see the scowl Mir sent her, but probably didn’t have to look to know it was there.
I shrugged. “Look, I never said I was a good person. You just assumed.”
“But you have to help,” Elwyth pleaded.
“I promise you, I don’t.”
Kal looked defeated, but only for a moment. “I have a thing,” he called over his shoulder as he disappeared into the maze of bookshelves.
“Good to know,” I hollered back, smirking at my childish wit. It was a sort of armor, I knew. If I didn’t take them seriously then maybe I wouldn’t feel bad about their strange fairy tale world.
There was an avalanche of noise, then he emerged holding a metal, football-shaped thing. He set it carefully in the center of the table.
Elwyth’s eyes lit up when she saw it. “That thing is dripping with magic,” she observed, amazed.
Kal nodded quickly, looking excited. He gestured for me to take it. “After we summoned her,” he said, flashing me another handsome smile, “it started to wake up. I could feel it poking at my magic, and found it in a rotted box. When I picked it up, it told me some of its story.”
I wanted to toss the football into the air, but I hesitated. “It told you?”
“In the ages after the First Hero left, many magicians tried to decode its mysteries. They knew it was some sort of key to defeating the apathy for good, but no one could figure it out. I feel like it might have more to say in the Hero’s hands.”
I pulled my hand back to my chest. “I already told you –“
“Heroes aren’t supposed to wish for power and fame,” he interrupted boldly. “That you don’t think you’re a hero makes me think you are one even more.” He nodded to himself, sure of his logic. “If it has nothing to tell you, then I’ll admit I made a mistake in the summoning. But if it speaks, will you join us?”
I scoffed at that, but inside I battled a growing tide of anxiety. “I’m supposed to let your magical macguffin decide for me? I don’t think so.”
“Then tell me your name.” He put his hand on the table and leaned toward me, demanding an answer. Elwyth’s lips puckered in disapproval, but she didn’t stop him.
Leaning back, I crossed my arms defensively. “I don’t owe you anything. Not my name, or my time, or–”
“You don’t know it, do you?”
“Kal,” the child barked, her low voice a warning, and the laugh it pulled out of me was savage and blunt. Was she protecting me now?
Magician or not, if I let him bully me now then he would expect it to work again later. We stared each other down and it felt like there was a chisel hovering over us, eager to chisel the boundary between us into stone.
Then he leaned back, and I thought he was giving up. Instead, his hand slid to the tray that my stolen sandwich had been resting on, and he held it up between us. “I don’t see a mistake. What do you see?”
I caught my reflection in its shiny surface, and froze. The face that looked back at me was completely different than the image I had in my head. “Yeah, it’s me,” I said dismissively. “That’s how mirrors work.” But I looked closer anyway. I couldn’t help it.
The voice that bounced back from the tray was a tired alto that wasn’t entirely unpleasant, though it sounded strange in my own ears. It was like something I remembered from long ago: heavier with the weight of a life already long lived. Tears blurred my view, surprising me. I wanted to be annoyed, not sad. Through the haze, I saw something move.
Her hair was bound up in a sloppy bun. Stray wisps leaked from the sides, but not in a way that looked fashionable or planned. Lines etched themselves around her mouth and creased her forehead. Dark circles crouched beneath eyes that had long since given up their youthful excitement. She wasn’t young or beautiful anymore, but hadn’t quite reached that warm, grandmotherly stage either.
A group of children lounged in the background, their eyes fixed on small boxes of light they held in their hands. Their thumbs danced across the surfaces deftly. She was trying to talk to them, but none appeared to notice. Their ears were plugged with small, silvery devices.
Were those my children? My fingers gripped the edge of the table for support. I wanted to hear them laugh. It felt like it had been a long time.
“Jack!” shouted a phantom voice. It was a summons, a demand, an emergency. Ah, but there was always an emergency, wasn’t there? What do you call a crisis once it becomes routine? Just another day, my mirror image answered as her eyes slid closed in defeat.
I blinked and wiped away tears. A part of me wished that the vision would return, and I was equally afraid of what it might show me if it did. The familiarity of the ghost voice evaporated, and I was left clinging to the one word that still danced in my memory. My name.
“What did you see?” he prodded softly, his voice slipping through my shaken defenses.
Anger and helplessness filled the holes in that memory. Pieces of it remained, but they hurt. I didn’t want them. “They didn’t want me,” I whispered. “They just wanted what I could do for them.”
The metal thing felt warm in my hands. I didn’t remember picking it up. It let out a groan, and then its hard skin cracked apart. Shards of twisted metal dripped to the floor. The sound of its thin, tinny rain pulled me back to the moment. I dropped the ruined relic onto the table like it might bite me.
Elwyth bent down to retrieve one of the shards by my feet. She turned it over in her thin fingers and gaped at Kal. “The magic … it’s gone. So much magic just … gone.” Then she turned her horror-stricken face toward me. How could you?
I knew it was only a matter of time before I let her down, but I hadn’t expected it to come so soon. It hurt to witness the moment her rejection took shape. “I told you,” I tried to explain, and my voice sounded weak and childish even to myself. “I’m not a hero. Just a …” and I recalled my middle-aged visage in the tray, “an old woman who breaks everything I touch.”
I wanted to disappear. To fold myself back into the maze of bookshelves where they would never find me. Then I noticed a shadow against the wall that might have been a staircase. “You deserve someone else,” I apologized sincerely, and I ran for it.
I ran like I had that first night in the caves and thought: if I was fast enough, maybe I could outrun all of the disappointment I always seemed to cause. The steps flew beneath me, and I glanced down onto the library’s center to find everyone in the same spot I left them. The child still lounged, mostly obscured by shelves. The other two stared dismally at the floor.
They were letting me go. Why? My hand hovered warily near the door. What was waiting on the other side? Escape, or some new terror? I gave it a weak push and it swung open to a crowded market.
Sure, I boggled. At the top of the mountain, there’s a door to the lower market. That’s the sort of thing that makes sense here. I started to step through, but I couldn’t. I looked down on the library again. So they weren’t devils after all. Except for that evil child, I amended quickly. But weren’t they just looking for a way out, too? A path back to a life that made more sense to them?
What if I don’t run away this time? I tested the thought as I leaned against the edge of the door. I might have gone back if Kel hadn’t looked up just then. His sad smile hung between us, and then he waved goodbye. It was the last thing I saw before I fled through the doorway.
You don’t know me, I thought defensively as I tried to beat back the feeling that I was making a big mistake. This is for the best.
The click of the latch behind me sounded eerily permanent.