War Aeternus 3 Ch1

Chapter 1

 

Name: Lee

Race: Human

Class: Herald – None

Level: 26

Health: 360/360

EXP: 3001/37000

 

 Primary Stats:

Power      36 (39)

Toughness 36 (39)

Spirit 36 (39)

 

 Secondary Stats:

Charisma 25

Courage 20

Deceit 26

Intelligence 161 (177)

Honor 3

Faith 32721

Personal Faith 233

 

Skills:

Unarmed Combat Initiate Level 7

Swordplay Novice Level 8

Sneak Journeyman Level 2

Cooking Initiate Level 7

Trap Detection Initiate Level 6

Knife Combat Initiate Level 8

Mental Fortitude Initiate Level 1

Sleight of Hand Initiate Level 3

Blood Shield Initiate Level 3

Glass Smithing Initiate Level 10

 

Divine Skills:

Golem Sculpting Journeyman Level 1

Appreciative Drunk Novice Level 8

Nectar of the Gods Initiate Level 4

Spirit Smithing Initiate Level 3

Faith Healing

 

Divinity Powers:

Life in Death

 

Titles:

Cheat Code Fighter

The Great Deceiver

 

Lee couldn’t stop himself from smiling as he breathed in the fresh air and rolled over to look at the woman next to him. Callipygian. It was a word he had seen plenty of times, but it was one whose definition had never been fully appreciated until he had seen Masha’s naked figure. Callipygian and perfect.

“You look happy,” Masha crooned as her eyes opened with a flutter.

Lee let his eyes roam over every part of body her but her face. “Well, from where I’m sitting, there are at least two good reasons to be happy.”

“My eyes are up here,” Masha muttered as she caught his roaming gaze.

“I know,” Lee replied, but he didn’t stop his ogling for a second.

“Well then, I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to stop looking and put on clothes sooner or later,” Masha warned as she got out of the bed and started pulling on the dress she wore yesterday. “We’ve got brunch with my dad, and we can’t be late.”

Lee waited until her outfit was on before reminding her of the obvious. “You know you wore that yesterday, right?”

“Yeah . . .” Masha said slowly, failing to understand what Lee was hinting at. “And?”

“And your dad saw you leave in that dress to what was supposed to be your friend Olga’s house . . .” Lee explained, trying to lead her to realize the issue with a few breadcrumbs.

She looked at him confusedly in the mirror as she fastened straps and adjusted her hair. “And? He expected me to stay out, so why wouldn’t I come back in the same clothes?”

“Have you ever come back from Olga’s place in the same dress?” Lee asked patiently, then pushed again. “Or do you usually have a different one? You know . . . one that she lends you?” He had known Masha long enough to know that she always came back in a different but still-cute outfit every time she hung out with Olga. The two of them loved to play dress up whenever they got bored and ran out of movies to watch.

“Oh . . .” Masha’s milky skin seemed to pale even further as she caught on and scrutinized how she was dressed. “Oh no . . . he’s going to know right away. How will he not?”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought too.” Lee nodded knowingly as he crawled out of bed and walked over to his closet. “That’s exactly why I got you this,” he said, pulling out a beautiful dress.

“You . . . bought me a dress?” Masha took her ensemble off again, unfastening the straps and letting it drop to the floor before swaying over to Lee and taking the garment from him. “And how did you get my size right?” she asked after quickly checking the tag.

Lee grinned mischievously. “That would be Olga’s doing. She helped me out the other day and made sure I had everything ready just in case.”

“Just in case?”

“Just in case we–”

Masha’s pale skin suddenly flushed as red as a freshly-cooked lobster, and she suddenly seemed to be too embarrassed to even allude to what they had done, much less talk about it. She pulled the dress over her head and buried her face in a layer of clothes as if she were trying block out the sentence Lee had left unfinished. Then, as if sensing that he was no longer going to make reference to the night’s activities, she finally continued clothing herself after a moment.

“So, where are we meeting Olga?” Lee asked, reluctantly climbing out of bed at last. He shuffled over to the closet and began pulling on clothes of his own while Masha finished dressing. “And where are we supposed to pretend to have run into her?”

“She’ll meet us at the coffee shop next to the house, and we’ll walk together from there. She’s got a date, so it’ll take less time that way,” Masha explained.

The dress was incredibly beautiful on her, and Lee was happy that he had taken the time to get Olga to help pick it out. His mind was still stuck in the world of practicality and the competition of Heralds, so he likely would have gone with something plain and drab, but Olga had insisted on bright colors. She had encouraged him to pick out something based around one of his favorite colors, green, and then she had matched it with a beautiful floral pattern that had long leaves and hanging orchid flower prints that perfectly matched Masha’s pale-white skin tone. The dress was tight and form-fitting around the chest and torso and then flowed outward once below her waist, and it was stunning on her. It was so entrancing, in fact, that Lee nearly forgot what they had been talking about.

Lee blinked a few times, trying to collect his thoughts again. “Huh? Sorry, you were just– Wow. The dress makes some women; you make that dress.”

“Well, focus.” She waved her hand in front of his eyes, pulling his gaze back to earth. “We gotta get going, or else we’ll be late. My dad wanted to start the meal as soon as possible, so there will be plenty of time for your little ‘post-jentacular’ games of chess, whatever that is. He keeps saying he’s going to beat you this time, even though everyone knows he always goes easy on you.”

“He means after-breakfast chess games, but we’re doing brunch this time . . . and he doesn’t go easy on me,” Lee protested. “I have to work hard for those wins.”

“Of course you do, my dearest.” Masha gave him a faux-sympathetic look and patted him on the shoulder. “Of course you do.”

“Hey! Don’t start that, or I’ll have to spank you,” Lee threatened.

“Mmm . . .” Masha didn’t give a proper response. Instead, she simply winked at him before turning and swaying out of the apartment.

Lee quickly followed behind, and the two of them made their way out of his building and through town. The weather was dreary, but Lee took solace in the fact that at least the grey, overcast skies weren’t accompanied by a matching set of wind and rain and that the day was only hampered by a persistent, empty fog-like atmosphere.

“Really ominous weather . . .” Lee noted as he took off his blazer and draped it over Masha’s shoulders. He knew that the biggest downside to having a woman dress that nicely was being assured that she would need to steal his coat the second she felt a chill.

“Yeah, something definitely feels off,” Masha agreed, suddenly sidling in closer to Lee. “This is definitely the type of weather that . . . you know.”

“Proceeds an awful turn of events in any movie?” Lee asked, his mind immediately going to pop cultural references.

“What? No. This is the type of weather that calls for snuggling inside. Why would you think that? Don’t say that. You’ll jinx us.”

Then, as if on queue to startle them, Olga appeared beside them. “Hey! I almost didn’t see you two,” she said as Lee and Masha approached her.

“Well, you know, tall white guy with red hair next to a beautiful girl like Masha in this town . . .” Lee said sarcastically. “We’re very hard to notice, right?”

“You need to stop complimenting her,” Olga warned. “You’re going to make her turn an even darker hue than that hair of yours. She’s not used to compliments.”

“Not sure why. I’m surprised that every guy who met her before me didn’t just lay on terribly-cheesy pick-up lines the second they met her,” Lee thought aloud. “I certainly don’t understand why I’m her first serious boyfriend.”

“You have met her dad, right? You do know about her family’s–” Olga stopped abruptly and looked over at Masha with an ‘I’m sorry’ expression.

“Her family’s what?” Lee asked, glancing between them.

Olga shook her head. “Nothing, nothing. Forget I said anything. It’s just the umm . . .” She paused, pressing her red lips together so hard that they started to turn white. “The fact she needs bodyguards because she’s rich. That’s all it is. Let’s just get her home.”

“Ah, the wealth. Yeah, I don’t know how that’s a bad thing. I personally like the idea that I might one day have my very own sugar momma,” Lee said, pulling Masha in closer. His mind suddenly traveled back to the other world at the mention of money, and he was momentarily preoccupied with thoughts of how hard he was having to work there just to achieve the growth he wanted in Satterfield’s burgeoning economy. He had already pushed through various efforts to help modernize the small town, such as renovating Ramon’s old tavern and installing pipes there for running water as well as insulation, but with the costs of the new installations along with food purchases, maintenance and acquiring new weapons and armor, he felt like he had sunk a literal goldmine into the town. Lee was also pretty sure that he would spend the small fortune he had received from killing the Herald of the Goddess of Ice on Satterfield, so a life of ease wasn’t anywhere on the horizon back in the game. That being the case, he was perfectly happy with the idea of a lovely, young sugar momma for his vacations to the real world

“Your very own sugar momma?” Olga giggled. “If I didn’t know you well enough, I’d think you were a gold digger.”

“If you didn’t know me well enough?” Lee said. “Why, how do you know I’m not?”

“Because, with your tricks–that thing you do with forks and the beverages you can make–you could easily be richer than even Masha’s dad if you just wanted money,” Olga clarified.

“Tricks?!” Lee feigned indignity, channeling his inner Wolfe and pretending to be offended. “Why, I never! There are no tricks at all. It’s genuine magic, I tell you!” He reached into his pocket and pulled out the loose change, holding the coins up in his open palm so that the two girls could see them before closing both hands around them.

“Here we go again,” Olga sighed. “You’ve already gotten into her pants, so why must you do that silly trick for her?”

Lee just brushed her off as he channeled his spirit into the coins and melded the handful of nickels, dimes and quarters into the image he was holding in his mind.

“Alright, show us the twelfth statue of Masha you’ve magicked up,” Olga groaned as Lee began opening his hands, but quickly gasped in surprise when he revealed his creation. The small figurine just barely fit in the palm of his hand, and rather than Masha, he had clearly depicted Ogla and her longtime boyfriend. He had dressed her in an elegant evening gown, her boyfriend in a tuxedo, and he had shown them embracing each other in what looked like a waltz, the movement of their bodies suspended perfectly in time. The tiny statue captured every detail of the dancing lovers down to the small creases in their clothing and even the subtle nuances of their facial features. Given its size, even a good machine mold wouldn’t have been able to flawlessly produce the perfect features that Lee had.

“Well . . .” Lee glanced down at the figurine and then back up at her. “I was going to give this to you today, but since I apparently can’t do magic, I suppose I’ll just have to change it back,” Lee teased as he closed his hands around it.

“Wait! No!” Olga protested. “I want it.”

“But it can’t be real. It’s just a trick. I don’t know magic,” Lee teased. “So, clearly, I didn’t just make this with magic.”

“You did!” she acquiesced quickly. “Just let me have it.”

“Yes, just let her have it,” Masha also pleaded for her friend.

Lee sighed, opening his hand and letting Olga grab the beautiful trinket. He might have had fun teasing her, but he couldn’t resist Masha’s pleading eyes.

“Alright, we have a date to keep. Shall we–” Lee was going to suggest that they get a move on, but that thought was interrupted by a cacophony of shouts. The door to the cafe that they were standing in front of slammed open, and a mob of people rushed out of it and the two adjoining buildings. Strangely, the streets began to empty at almost the same time, and the few pedestrians who had been about on business took off running as well. It was as if someone had given some unheard, universal cue to start a panic.

“What’s going on?” Masha asked, instantly wrapping herself around Lee’s arms.

“What in the hell?” Olga reached out and placed her hand on Masha’s shoulder as if to keep track of her while turning her head to take in the mass exodus of people. Lee knew that look: she wasn’t just trying to figure out what had happened, she was looking for any potential threats from the fleeing bystanders.

Whatever was going on, safety wasn’t far off. Masha’s home, while on a rather large piece of property that looked like a park, was actually located near the center of town just down the street from where they stood.

“I don’t know what’s wrong, but we need to stay calm,” Lee said quietly, turning his head from side to side as he peered around them. “Something is definitely not right.” He really wished that he had the aid of his little flying golem in times like these. The rodents’ eyes and ears were far more sensitive than his own, and Lee could use them to pick up sights and sounds that were much farther away than his own senses could ever detect. Even with just his own terribly-inept, non-magical human senses, however, he could already see what was happening: someone had laid down traffic cones and blocked off the streets. The only people not fleeing in panic were pulling masks down over their heads, and they seemed to be preparing themselves for something.

It’s not . . . Lee glanced at Alexander’s compound. It’s not the old man testing me again, is it? He remembered all too well how his first venture to her home had been met with a rather severe physical combat aptitude test. No, if he was doing another test, he’d still wait for them to reach her yard, where it wouldn’t attract attention. He wouldn’t hold a trial on this scale. That old man won’t even leave his home for a fancy meal at a restaurant on his anniversary, so there’s no way he’d pull this much attention to himself, especially this close to his own home.

Lee scanned their surroundings again, trying to figure out where the first attacker would come from and if it was safe enough to try and leave with the throng of people. He knew that the chaos wouldn’t last long, and the modicum of cover the fleeing bystanders provided would disappear with them.

“We need to get her back to the compound,” Olga said urgently. Then, in a much lower voice, she said, “Alexander will have prepared for this.”

“No.” Lee shook his head subtly but firmly. They could see the gate from where they were standing, and it was still over a block and a half away. It was too far for them to run. They’d be wide open to a flank attack that entire run. “If this were the other world, I’d try to lure them into an alley, fight them one at a time and prevent them from surrounding me. The more I limited their ability to approach from multiple directions, the more effective my shield would be,” he said quietly, forgetting to keep his thoughts silent and strategizing aloud.

Masha squeezed his hand lightly, clearly a bit stunned by what was going on, and asked,  “The other world . . . you mean that LARP-style fighting you practice?”

“Yeah, something like that,” Lee answered.

“So, you want to bust into one of the shops they’ve occupied, try to limit the amount of space we’re exposed to and control the terrain. That’s not a bad idea,” Olga responded, correctly interpreting Lee’s thoughts. “You want to go to . . .” She trailed off and signaled the cafe she had just come from with a nod of her head.

“No.” Lee shook his head yet again and then nodded to the deli behind him. The coffee shop might have been closer, but there was no realistic cover once they were inside. Contrary to most action movies, paper-thin wooden veneer and tables wouldn’t stop a serious round of bullets, and hiding behind them was almost useless. Bullets had a way of punching holes through flimsy sheets of wood, and that cafe counter was just that: flimsy plywood. On the other hand, Lee was pretty sure that he could stack up metal serving trays and craft a somewhat-bulletproof shield if they were to get behind the counter at the deli.

Olga squinted for a moment as she looked around and then nodded her agreement. “You’re right. Let’s do it,” she said softly, trying not to let anyone know that they were on to them.

Lee could already see that the people in masks were now intently focused on his small group, and if it weren’t for the fact they likely wanted to take Masha alive, they’d probably have already opened fire.

Lee grabbed Masha’s arm with one hand and slipped his other arm around her waist, hoisted her into the air and darted straight for the deli at full speed. He just didn’t trust her to be able to move quickly enough with heels on, and she would never be as fast as he was due to the increased strength and speed he had gained in the game world. Olga fell into step behind a moment later, and the race for cover began.

Doors to surrounding shops burst open as soon as he made his move to lift Masha, and he heard a chorus of loud voices from numerous men. “They’re running! They’re running! Secure the target!”

Yup, they’re here for Masha, Lee concluded as he burst into the deli. There were two men inside waiting for them, and Lee instantly dropped down and ducked to the side as soon as they were through the door. He turned away from the two men protectively, shielding Masha with his body so that she wouldn’t get hurt if they opened fire, and hoped that Olga was as accurate with a pistol as he thought she was. The bodyguard burst through the door a second later, and four loud shots rang out in succession as she shot each of them twice in the chest.

Without more than slowing down, Olga pushed farther into the building, seemingly unphased by what she had just done. The deli was now empty, save for them and the two corpses, but that didn’t stop her from stalking around every corner, weapon held at the ready, just to make sure that it was clear. Once she was satisfied, she removed two spare clips from her purse and moved them to her front pocket, presumably for easier access. “Grab one of their guns,” she instructed.

“Oh my God!” Masha squeezed onto Lee tightly before he could even move for a weapon. “Oh my God! Oh my God! They’re dead!”

“Deep breaths, Masha,” Olga ordered in a low, patient voice. She made her way back to the two bodies and quickly removed their weapons, pausing only for a moment as she rifled through their pockets. “Lee, put her down. We need to be preparing.”

Lee ignored both the weapons and Olga’s instructions as he carried Masha to the back of the deli. The young woman may as well have been weightless for all she hindered him as he leapt over the counter and landed on the other side. He set her down so that she was facing away from the building’s entrance and then grabbed a large stack of the metal trays. He slid them in behind her so that they were stacked against the counter and then began layering them on top of one another. Each time he added a new serving tray to the mix, he quickly infused it with a small dose of his spirit, effectively spot-welding it to the others so that they wouldn’t fall apart. It was a rough, crude and incredibly-quick use of his powers, but it was effective in keeping the makeshift barrier together, and he hoped that it would be enough to save her from any stray bullets that made it in her direction.

Masha remained frozen the entire time, doing little more than shivering and shaking as she hyperventilated. “Oh, God,” she muttered to herself, trying to take several more deep breaths.

“Hey,” Lee said softly, grabbing her by the shoulder. “Look at me. Look at me right now.” She took another deep breath, but she met his gaze. “It’s going to be okay. We’re going to be okay. Just close your eyes and stay right there.”

Olga tossed one of the dead men’s rifles to him over the counter and then joined him.

Two men positioned themselves outside the door, and Lee overheard their orders to ‘secure the target at all costs.’ He mentally prepared himself for what was about to happen, casting one last glance at Olga as he did so.

“The gun,” she mouthed at Lee, looking down at it pointedly. But he didn’t go for it. He had no experience with such weapons, so while the weapon was guaranteed to be deadly, he had no idea how bad his aim would be, how strong the recoil would be or what to do if it jammed. His expertise was limited to medieval weaponry, not modern-day firearms.

Lee set the gun down on the tile beside him and snatched up one of the water glasses from the cabinet drawer behind him since he couldn’t make a knife out of nothing. Without worrying about explaining what he was about to do to either girl, he quickly infused the glass with his spirit, producing three throwing daggers. “What in the world did you just do?” Olga asked as she watched the glass transform into three perfectly-balanced throwing knives. “How did you do that?”

“Bad guys, Olga,” Lee said pointedly, getting ready to stand up.

“Before more come,” Olga agreed with a nod. The bell above the door tinkled as the men entered the store, and Lee made a move. Both he and Olga popped up from behind the counter, dropping back down just as quickly. It had only been for a second, but it was enough for Olga to squeeze off two rounds into one man and for Lee to send a dagger straight into the other’s head.

“What the hell, Lee?” Olga asked, clearly in shock. Her surprise and his answer were cut short, however, as another round of men pushed inside.

Lee grabbed another water glass and quickly transformed it into three more throwing daggers. “I can only get one,” he responded in a hushed tone, completely ignoring her question. “I need more than a second for two.”

Olga risked a peak around the corner of the counter before jerking her head back. She held up four fingers, indicating the number of men, and nodded.

“Follow my lead and get yours,” he said as quietly as he could. He grabbed one of the extra trays that he hadn’t had time to set up behind Masha and then, without waiting for her reply, tossed it into the air. Shots rang out the moment it cleared his hand, and the room was filled with the loud pings of metal on metal as it was struck by a flurry of bullets, instantly making him happy for the fact that he hadn’t tried to handle these new guys the same way he had the last. The two sprang up from cover for the second time, and the throwing dagger was out of Lee’s hand and sailing toward his target before he had even fully turned around, and he heard Olga fire off two shots from beside him. Lee and the bodyguard began dropping back behind cover, and then Olga screamed out in pain as a bullet tore into her shoulder.

Lee twisted around so that he could look at her wound and grimaced. It’s not serious, but . . . You know what? Never mind. Lee reached out and put a hand on her shoulder. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” he mumbled habitually, hoping this didn’t shake the good Christian woman’s faith as he used his spirit to heal the wound. It was an injury that–contrary to the ridiculous recovery speeds seen on television–should have taken at least six months to properly and fully heal, and it was stitched back together in less than three seconds. The bullet even expunged itself from the bloody hole in her shoulder as Lee pushed it out with his spirit and closed the wound behind it.

“Lee . . .” Olga reflexively grabbed onto the hand that he had healed her with and stared at him in amazement.

Masha looked just as shocked. “Lee, are you . . . What are you? What’s going on?”

“Calm down, Masha. Take a deep breath and relax. I’ll get us out of this just fine,” Lee said, taking a deep breath himself.

“I . . . I’m healed. You healed me,” Olga said slowly, her wide-eyed gaze filled with a mixture of reverence and disbelief.

“Well, put the shoulder to good use. We need to get out of here soon, or we’re going to be sitting ducks. We have no clue how many of these guys there are exactly, and those two at the entrance won’t wait long after others show up.”

“Okay, then what do you–?”

Lee held up a hand and then pressed a single finger to his lips, cutting her off and signaling for her to keep quiet. He leaned in around Masha until his lips were pressed against Olga’s ear and whispered, “Hold this up when the moment is right. This trick might not work twice, but keep it up there until it gets shot out of your hands or until a good minute passes.”

Olga nodded, and he gathered from her reverent expression that he could ask her for anything at that moment, and she would do it. Olga’s sudden blind trust and willingness to obey an order was a scary prospect, and he was afraid of what it might mean in the future. Her willingness to take action and put herself in harm’s way a little more than his word was also a stark contrast to Masha, who had her face buried in her hands.

Lee swapped the two daggers to his other hand and then crouch-walked to the far end of the counter, carefully keeping his head behind cover. He could move without making any sound thanks to Sneak, so he was able to hide his new position from the two remaining gunmen.

He nodded once at Ogla, and she instantly threw the tray up from behind the counter. Shots rang out and were just as quickly followed by the sound of metal bouncing off the serving tray for the second time, and it was then that Lee stood up and hurled the two daggers as swiftly as he could. One blade tore through the air, nailing one of the men right in the forehead and the other in his jugular. The powerful and well-aimed blows killed them both, but Lee felt like the one with the knife in the forehead got the better end of the deal, given that the other guy had to spend his last few seconds bleeding out on a cold deli floor.

“Alright,” Lee said, leaving the man to die and moving back to Masha. She was shaking like a leaf in a storm, and she hugged her knees against her chest as she rocked back and forth. “We’re going to have to move. I’m going to carry you now, but I need you to stay as quiet as you can. We don’t want the bad guys to know where we’re going. Do you think you can do that for me?” Lee knew that he sounded patronizing, like he was talking to a child, but after all that Masha had seen and gone through in the last ten minutes, he was worried that he might as well be talking to one. He couldn’t imagine exactly what it must be like for her, but he had an idea. He had been ripped from a comfortable, non-violent existence like hers and been tossed into the bloody, death-filled reality that was the other world, but that felt like it was so long ago that the recollection had lost much of its poignancy. He had no idea how he would have coped with it if he hadn’t already been desensitized by video games. As insane as it sounded, those games had helped him deal with the transition.

Masha nodded her understanding and took a big gulp of air when she opened her mouth, but she didn’t answer.

“Good.” Lee slipped an arm around her back and another under her legs. “I’m going to keep you safe,” he said reassuringly. “You don’t have to worry. Everything is going to be okay, alright? Just focus on me. Olga, you ready?”

“Yes, sir,” she answered, replacing the clip in her magazine and shifting her legs so that she could bolt quickly.

“Let’s go.” Then, as he stood up, he added to Masha, “Close your eyes now. Don’t look at anything.” The last thing he wanted was for her to see the grotesque scene that he and Olga had created as the three of them made their way to the back of the deli. Thankfully, the small shop had a rear exit that led into an alley. He popped his head around the corner, once again sorely missing his Little Ethans as he checked to make sure that the coast was clear.

At first, he was happy that there was no sign of an ambush or people waiting and no signs of enemies nearby, but that faded quickly when he realized the alley was a dead end on one side and opened into the street on the other. There was a fire escape and back doors to a couple other shops, but the doors were all locked with deadbolts fat enough to see from a distance as he passed them. No one is here because they think we’re going to be heading to the compound, or that if we leave through the back alley, we’ll be funneling into the street. That thought re-assured Lee as he checked one more time and then dragged the two girls to one of the back doors. He wanted to get to the compound, but if he went toward the street, they’d have anticipated that possibility and be waiting for him.

Okay, Lee, one more magic trick . . . Lee reached out and touched the deadbolt with one hand without setting Masha down. He used his Spirit Smithing skill to practically melt away part of the deadbolt, allowing him to easily open the door with his foot and carry Masha through. Once all three of them were inside, he fused the remainder of the bolt to the door, effectively turning it into a permanent lock, and made his way inside. He instantly recognized the small kitchen they were in since it was almost exactly the same as the one that they had left on the opposite end of the block. Apparently, the downtown of any city needed at least two or three cafes on every block.

Olga moved ahead of him then, quickly making her way into the dining room so that she could make sure it was empty of threats. She returned a moment later and nodded, indicating that it was safe for him to continue.

This place is empty, Lee noticed as he crept in as quietly as he could despite the floorboards creaking underneath him as he carried Masha through the back room to the front of the cafe.

Olga looked over at Lee like he was her boss. “Where to next?” she asked expectantly.

“Well, what’s the security like on that?” Lee asked, nodding through the window toward Masha’s home. They could now clearly see the massive stone wall that bordered the park-like home from their new vantage point through the large, plate-glass windows, and he knew that there were two entrances, one in the west and one in the east.

“It’s just a stone wall if that’s what you’re asking. It’s the fact that it’s flat and high with no footholds that makes it tough to get over. Scaling it wouldn’t be a problem if we had a ladder, and there should be guards on the other side to take over if we can make it across. They should be able to help us if someone hasn’t already seen or heard what is going on and sent some of them to check it out,” Olga explained.

“If they don’t know that Masha is the one in danger, would they send anyone?” Lee asked.

“No. They’d let everyone on this side die rather than risk not protecting the family,” Olga said flatly.

“Then why don’t we just call them? Let them know we need help?” Lee asked.

“I’ve already tried while we were running here. The number won’t go through. They’re blocking service from the cell towers at the moment in this area.”

Okay then, let’s play it the risky way, he thought, looking over at the wall separating him and the park. If it were just him, he had full faith he could get over that wall in record time. There was no way he could do it while carrying Masha, however, even with the extra advantage his enhanced stats gave him. If he had known he was going to try to get over, he could have made a makeshift ladder pretty quickly with the right tools, but this wasn’t a furniture shop, and there didn’t seem to be anything useful nearby he could use. In fact, the tallest object he could find was a chair.

Wait . . . Is that one of those dinky no-weight hybrids? Lee asked himself hopefully as he noticed the tiniest, cutest blue bubble-top car he had ever seen parked just outside. I’ll get arrested after this, but I’m sure any jury will understand, he argued to himself as he came up with his idea. “Okay, I need you to grab this.” Lee nudged one of the cafe’s chairs over to Olga with his toe. “Bring it with us. We’re moving quickly. We have to get over that wall before they realize we’re not in the back alleys or still in the cafe.”

“Yes sir,” Olga said, clutching the chair tightly.

Lee didn’t bother telling her when they were leaving. This time, he just slipped out the front door of the cafe and turned toward the compound. When he got to the bubble-top car, he set Masha down between that and the sedan behind it, figuring that it was the safest spot he was going to find in an otherwise open roadway. He then rushed over to the driver’s side window of the hybrid and used Glass Smithing to melt an aperture into the glass. He could easily punch his way through, but shattering glass would also likely draw attention. He then reached through the large hole he had made, unlocked the car and then hopped inside. He didn’t have the key to the vehicle, and he didn’t have a mold to work with, nor was he capable of hotwiring it, so instead he just threw it in neutral and got out.

“Olga, put down the chair and take the driver’s seat,” he ordered. It didn’t take her more than a second to be in the seat after he hopped out. “Steer it so that the car is scraping against the wall.” Without waiting for an answer, he slipped behind the vehicle, leaned against it, and heaved. Every muscle in his body tightened under the immense strain as he pushed the 3,000-pound car out of its parking spot. They only had a short distance to cover since the back alley had allowed them to traverse most of the city block without being detected, and Lee hoped that this would allow him to safely cover the rest.

The car slowly rolled forward at first but quickly gained speed, and a moment later, it crashed over the curb at the end of the road and came to a lurching halt as Olga slammed on the breaks. The rinky-dink tin can was practically rubbing up against the wall, and the sound of metal scraping against stone caused Lee to cringe as he imagined exactly how much money it would cost to repair the ruined paint job. Please forgive me, kind owner.

Lee ran back down the short stretch of street to where he had left Masha and the chair, his eyes constantly scanning the road for any sign that someone might have noticed them. He quickly scooped her up into his arms, awkwardly grabbed the chair with the tips of his fingers and hustled back to where he had left Olga and the automobile. Lee dropped the chair and then gently set Masha on her feet, taking only a brief moment to make sure that she was going to remain upright on her own. When she didn’t instantly fall over, he grabbed the chair once again, vaulted on top of the car’s hood and positioned the chair against the wall. Between the height of the car and the height of the chair, Lee hoped that it would be enough for the girls to make it over “Come on. Upsy daisy, you two,” he said, motioning up and over with his hands. “We’re short on time.”

Olga quickly climbed onto the car with Lee, but Masha took a minute to follow her up onto the hood of the vehicle.

“You go first!” Lee instructed Olga. The young woman didn’t need any more prompting. She moved as fast as her arms and legs would hold her, and she was over the top of the wall a moment later. Somehow, despite the haste with which she moved, she still managed to make her movements look delicate.

Masha tentatively started up next, but just as she made a move to climb over, one of the masked men finally made an appearance. He screamed out loudly, also relaying something into a handheld radio at the same time, and leveled a gun in Lee’s direction. Please be a bad shot! Lee looked back and forth between the gunman and Masha’s fumbling attempt to lower herself as gracefully as Olga had.

Unfortunately for Lee, his little internal prayer wasn’t answered. The man unloaded five rounds at Lee from sixty yards away and hit him twice, both times in the gut. Searing pain shot through his abdomen, and he was instantly reminded of what it felt like to be stabbed with a dagger in the other world. The wounds hurt like hell, but the pain wasn’t anything that he couldn’t stand. He had plenty of experience getting wounded at this point, and he knew that it was going to take a little bit more than that to put him on the ground. Still, he thanked his lucky stars the bullets hadn’t pierced a vital organ or something worse that could have put him out of commission.

“Go!” Lee shouted at Masha. He knew she was scared of the gunshots, but she was also just too scared in general to trust the fact that she could make her fall. She had frozen up. Wincing against the pain in his abdomen, he grabbed her hand and gave her a word of assurance. “I’ve got you. Let’s do this together.” Another blast of gunshots rang out, and he felt a searing pain as another bullet tore through his leg. Pain exploded from the wound, causing him to let go of her hand and fall down the wall where he landed hard on his side.

“Masha,” he said through gritted teeth. “Jump to me.” He did his best to fight through the pain as he struggled to stand up. He was using his magical healing ability as quickly as he could, but it didn’t seem to help him as effectively as it did other people outside of the competition world.

“I . . . I don’t . . .” Masha sucked in several quick, rapid breaths, and it sounded like she was on the verge of hyperventilating again.

“No, don’t tell me that. You can do it. They’re not going to shoot you, but they will take you if you don’t fall toward me. I’ve got you. You just have to trust me.” Lee’s assurances must have worked. After a moment’s hesitation, she finally tumbled down toward him, where he was able to catch her and soften her landing.

“There you go,” he said, shifting her in his arms so that he wouldn’t have to set her down. He just didn’t trust her not to collapse at the moment. “Didn’t I tell you you were going to be okay?”

“Yeah, but . . . you . . . You’re bleeding. You were shot.” Masha touched the bloodied spots on his stomach where the two bullets had ripped through his gut, but both were nearly healed up now.

“So was Olga. What’s your point?” Lee asked. “It’s our job to get shot so you don’t have to.” It was a lame joke, but it was the best attempt he could muster at the moment to make light of a very tense situation.

“You were shot too?” Olga asked as she looked over at Lee. His nice Oxford shirt and grey slacks had both been ruined by the bullet holes and the subsequent flow of blood that had spilled out.

“Can we talk about this after we’re safe?” Lee asked. He hoisted Masha even further in the air, shifted her up in another a princess carry, prepared to bring her the entire way to her home. However, before he even got a chance, he was interrupted by the sound of barking dogs and men approaching on all sides.

“Breach in the perimeter! We have a breach in the– Strike that, Masha has been returned to base!” one of the men said into a walkey as a dog led him closer to the trio.

“Miss, please, we need to get you back to Alexander and the safety of the inner compound,” one of the guards said over the still-barking dogs. Lee could tell they weren’t barking at Masha or Olga, but at him.

“There’s no need to bring her back,” Alexander said as he walked out from behind a tree. “I’m here. I can walk her myself.”

“Sir,” the guards looked over, “I recommend that–”

“I recommend that you relax. That’s an order,” Alexander said, seemingly unphased by the entire incident or the fact that there was an attack outside of his place just moments ago. “Let me walk my daughter and her two saviors back home.”

“Thank you for your help, Lee, but what’s–” Alexander’s calm facade cracked when his eyes noticed the pool of blood around Masha’s side, and his voice fell flat and then hung in his throat before he even finished his sentence. Recovering his voice, he demanded, “What happened to Masha?!”

“We were ambushed,” Lee explained and instantly moved on to covering the important bits as quickly as possible with short, precise sentences. “They had dozens of men with guns. They were waiting for us to get close to the park’s entrance. They kept shouting to secure the target.”

“That’s what they were shouting? I didn’t understand a word. It all sounded like Chechen to me,” Olga said.

Lee was a little startled by this revelation. He knew there was a good chance that they weren’t speaking English, but he was surprised to find out that they were actually speaking Chechen, even though there weren’t any prominent Chechen communities in the city. The reason Lee hadn’t been able to tell was that a residual part of the competition’s system was always with him. It had been there since he first joined the competition, and it automatically translated every language he heard into one that he could understand. In the same way he learned words he didn’t know before, like ‘jentacular,’ he also knew and understood new languages–only they sounded just like English to him.

Alexander took a deep, steadying breath. “Not that. I could tell there was a firefight. I mean the blood . . . the blood . . . Were you shot, Masha?” He examined his daughter curled up in Lee’s arms. Lee was the one who had been struck multiple times, but he held her clutched against his abdomen exactly where he had been shot. As a result, she had become covered in blood as well.

“No, Dad,” Masha said. “I’m fine. It was–”

“It was nothing, sir,” Olga answered, interrupting Masha. “The ones who were shot weren’t us.”

“How come I wasn’t notified about this? How come none of the guards called to update me on the situation before you made it over the wall?” Alexander fumed quietly as he moved forward. Lee set her down, and Alexander immediately began moving around her and pulling aside clothes as if to make sure she wasn’t even scratched. “Why didn’t you report this, Olga? We have a team to help in these situations.”

“Service was down,” Olga explained. “I couldn’t reach you. I’m assuming it was the same for the guards.”

“Fine. I’m getting you a satellite phone in case this happens again. I had better be updated immediately if anything ever happens to Masha again.” Alexander stopped searching Masha for injuries and instead opted to pull her into a tight, suffocating hug.

Olga nodded and turned to Lee. She seemed to be searching him for something, but less in the worried way Alexander was searching Masha and more in the confused way, as if she was looking at an alien from outer space that had incarnated as a man in front of her.

Yeah, this one is going to be tough to deal with. Lee restrained a frustrated sigh as he caught her befuddled, questioning expression. He had enjoyed the simple life, and he had enjoyed this world’s lack of deification versus the other, but he knew what would happen once the confusion wore away and the moment passed.

It had been the same in Satterfield. He had saved the prisoners’ lives, and while they were puzzled at first, they had started to worship him as a god over time–some even more so than Augustus. They worshipped him even if he kept preaching about Augustus. It was only natural though. They had latched onto him in faith and begun to rely on him as the pillar of their society. The more he pushed their lives forward, whether right or wrong, the more they believed in him. Consequentially, the more they fawned over him, the harder it was to not lose a little bit of his respect for them. Regardless of his miracles, he still didn’t view himself as great or special. He only viewed himself as the man who had let Amber die–the man who had failed.

“Alright,” Alexander said, breaking into Lee’s contemplations. “How about we move this inside and get you three cleaned up. We can’t have your mother worrying about you, can we?” He patted Masha on her head lovingly and extended a hand toward the house, ushering them inside. “You might have come close to death, but if she finds out what happened, she might actually die, so let’s keep this between us.”

“Mmm . . . ” Masha simply nodded as her father let go of her and she took a step back. “Shouldn’t she know?”

“No, we don’t want to worry her. Trust me, she already has enough worry to fill a whole jar. We don’t need to give her any more.” Alexander looked over at Lee, and his eyes roamed up and down Lee’s body as he took in the blood-stained mess that his clothing had become. “And as for you, I have some clothes that are about your size that you can use while we take care of that blood-soaked outfit. Let’s sneak you three in the back way, and I’ll have one of the butlers clean your clothes while we play a game of chess. I’ll see if my tailor can’t fix the holes for you.”

“No need for that. A cleaning is fine,” Lee insisted. “I’m ashamed to say that this outfit probably cost less than your tailors charge by the hour.”

Masha was still trembling just slightly enough to be visible, and Olga looked as if her whole world had been crushed, but Lee felt as relaxed as if he had just finished a round of drinking games with his friends. Things felt right for him. The violence, the fear, the worrying about whether he was going to die as he rounded corners to avoid the enemy, the busting through shops, the knocking down doors, and taking bullets in the gut–it was all natural to him. The only thing that irked him about the entire conflict was that he hadn’t had a proper chance to take the fight to them. He had needed to stay with Masha and protect her, so he hadn’t been able to hunt down the killers and eliminate them, something that he strongly wanted to do even now.

Grim musings ran through his head endlessly as he looked back on the conflict. He wasn’t bloodthirsty–that’s what he told himself at least. Rather, he knew that he simply hadn’t settled into the peaceful life yet. Even though he had spent time in this world since his abduction, he hadn’t gotten used to it. It simply didn’t feel as much like home as the other world did. Now, however, ever since he had spotted the first masked man, the only thing that occupied his thoughts was the game world. Even while worrying over Masha and Olga’s safety, he had felt a far keener sense of flow and belonging in that moment than he had in a while, and all it had taken was a reminder of a life full of danger on the brink of death.

Alexander just chuckled at Lee. “Nonsense. I have my tailor on retainer. I don’t pay her hourly. Otherwise, I’d have to explain the bill on my credit card to the wife every time my stomach expands from overeating, and I need to let out the waist on my pants. Really, it’s no problem at all. Come. Let’s get you some spare clothes to change into, and we’ll play a game of chess while she stitches up those holes. You earned much gratitude for saving my daughter, so I cannot have you dressed in rags.”

“Ah, well . . . If that’s the case, then lead the way,” Lee said. He was looking forward to his game of chess.

“You . . .” Masha looked over at her dad. “Are you serious? You’re just going to play a game like nothing happened? Don’t we need to make sure that we’re safe? Don’t we need to do something in case they try to attack again?” Her voice quivered a bit as she levied her complaints against her father for his casual attitude despite the life-or-death experience.

“Masha . . .” Lee began. He grabbed each of her shoulders and turned her so she was looking straight at him, and her eyes automatically drifted downward before he even said anything. “Look at me. Take a deep breath, relax and know that you’re going to be fine. The problem outside is being dealt with. You’re safe. You’re secure. Nothing will happen to you. I’m with you, and you’re safe. Remember that. As long as I’m still here, you’re always safe. Okay?”

Alexander looked studiously at Lee and then gave his daughter a smile. “That’s good,” he said with a grin, “It’s good that you’ll do anything for her safety.”

“Indeed.” He didn’t know why, but he was also somewhat unnerved by the way Alexander had said that last line as he pulled Masha in for a quick hug.

“Hey, the father is still here,” Alexander said after a minute, prompting Lee to let go of her. Lee still didn’t know if she was processing any of it, and while he worried about her, it wasn’t enough for him to really feel uncomfortable or distracted. He actually felt focused and clear-headed, and he was ready for a good game of chess.

The four of them entered via the side entrance, and they all managed to change into fresh clothes before Alexander and Lee went into the study and set up a chess board. While Alexander was arranging the pieces, Lee took one of the bottles of vodka and poured the two of them a glass each.

“So, Masha seems pretty torn up about this incident,” Alexander noted as he placed the white pawns on the board.

“Yes, I’d say so,” Lee agreed. He finished pouring the second glass and adjusting the coasters. “It’s to be expected, though. She’s been through a lot today.”

“She has,” Alexander agreed, nodding. “That she has.”

“So, white or black this round?” Lee asked, sitting down at the board and placing bottle to the side of the board.

“You were there too, though, right?” Alexander asked as he put down the black pawns. “And white.”

“I was.” Lee shrugged nonchalantly and casually took a sip of vodka. “For Masha’s sake, I’m glad that I was there.”

“Just for Masha’s sake?” Alexander chuckled to himself as he finished arranging the last piece and picked up his glass as well. “I’m sure it was just for her sake.”

“Of course.” Lee frowned as he took another sip, and this time, Alexander also took a long sip with him.

“Did you have to kill anyone?” Alexander’s next question came up as he made his first move, D2 to D4.

“A few people. It was unavoidable. I should probably go to the police and report it, but given the circumstances, I think I can afford to wait and claim that I felt my life was still under duress.”

Alexander nodded. “I know people at the department. I’ll take care of that for you.”

“Thanks, it’ll save me a trip,” Lee answered without questioning why Alexander would have such pull in a police department.

“So, it really doesn’t bother you at all?” Alexander pressed.

“What doesn’t bother me?” Lee asked, casually moving his knight from G8 to F6.

“Killing. You killed a few people from what Olga told me as we walked in, yet you don’t seem to be bothered at all. You said that, given what Masha just went through, it only makes sense that she would be this shaken up. But you’re not,” Alexander, said, finally spelling out the issue that Lee knew he had danced around earlier as he moved his pawn from C2 to C4.

Lee picked up his glass and sat back in his chair so that he could study Alexander. He wasn’t sure how honest he wanted to be about his emotional state, and he wasn’t certain what he had to gain or lose from going either way, but he knew this was the type of answer that his future relationship with both Alexander and Masha might hinge upon.

Honesty, Lee finally decided. If I lose anything, I’ll do it honestly, “No, no, I’m not,” Lee said as he moved his pawn from E7 to E5.

“Because you’ve killed before.” Alexander pushed the conversation a little as he took Lee’s pawn on E5 with his pawn on D4. “More than once, given how calm you are right now.”

Lee felt glad he picked the honest approach, but he wasn’t sure how to answer this. Well, even if I say ‘yes,’ there aren’t bodies in this world to point to me. There wasn’t really a tangible risk by owning up to the bloodsoaked history in the other world that had made him so at home when surrounded by death, so he just went for it. “Yeah,” he said as he sipped his drink. Then, just to see how much it would phase Alexander, he gave out a rough estimate of the numbers. “I’ve probably killed . . . maybe a few hundred people,” he answered, leaning back and making sure to not take his eyes off of Alexander. “I stopped counting at a certain point, to be honest, somewhere after the first forty or fifty.”

Alexander’s left eye twitched, but to his credit, there was no other visible sign of agitation. The older man also took a deep breath, but he did it slowly enough to not be noticed by anyone who wasn’t watching very closely for it. “I see,” he said, looking down at the board in front of them. “And the nature of these kills?” His hand moved toward the corner of the table.

Lee wondered why he’d put his hand there. A panic button maybe? Is he worried that I’m a serial killer? Is he making sure that he has a way out if I decide to attack? That’s good, old man. Your paranoia is good. Prepare for the worst. Lee moved his knight from F6 to G4. “You could say self-defense, but that wasn’t always the case. I suppose the best way to put it is that I killed side by side with others, as if I were in the military. But I wasn’t in the military.” Lee didn’t know how to describe being an adventuring cult leader in a strange medieval competition to someone in the modern world, but that seemed to be a close proximity of what he was after.

“Like a hitman for a gang? Or the mafia?” Alexander moved his hand from where Lee had assumed the panic button might have been back to the chessboard. He even smiled as he moved his bishop from C1 to F4. “Was it a past criminal activity, or are you still a member? I wouldn’t normally pry into a man’s personal business, but you are dating my daughter, and I need to know if you’re going to be an added risk to her.”

Lee looked down at the board. Greedy, greedy, Lee thought as he watched Alexander fall into his trap. He had learned how to make sacrifices a while ago, and by giving up a pawn and pressuring the old man into trying to defend his advantage, he had begun the workings of a familiar trap. He then chuckled at the fact that, as intense as the topic and nature of this conversation was, he was more interested in the chess game. The competition world had stripped him of his ability to sweat the lilliputian details in this world, and even some of the more Brobdingnagian ones.

“You could say it was something like that and that I haven’t worked a day of that job since I’ve been in this town.” Lee shrugged and moved his knight from B8 to C6. He already knew exactly how Alexander would respond, moving his own knight from G1 to F3.

“So, you aren’t working an illicit career while dating my daughter?” Alexander pressed the question to be more specific, likely thinking he had found a way to prevent Lee from twisting his words to avoid the truth as he moved his knight in exactly the fashion Lee anticipated.

Unfortunately for Alexander, he had left plenty of room for Lee to tailor his answer so that he didn’t have to be honest. The other world, the competition world, was in a completely different dimension, so its events didn’t overlap at any point when he was in this world. “I’m not,” Lee answered, maneuvering his bishop from F8 to B4. “I just want a quiet life while I’m here, one where I can enjoy good food with good friends. And, if it’s not rude of me to say, given our relationship, to spend quality time with a beautiful lady. I want to relax and avoid stress.”

“Hmm . . .” Alexander scratched his chin and then moved his knight from B1 to D2 as he blocked the check. “You must have been very good at what you did: either a real survivor or a real killer.”

Lee shrugged as he moved his queen from D8 to E7. It put Alexander in a situation where there were more pieces threatening his pawn on E5 than he had to defend it. Lee did this to make Alexander think his whole strategy revolved around restoring the piece advantage and to force him to try and apply pressure elsewhere–something he knew the old man would do. Alexander was usually reliable in that regard. “I’m sure there are many others who were and are better than I am in that world,” Lee said. The word ‘world’ for him was literal. He was referring to another world altogether, but he knew that Alexander would take it as a reference to the underground society.

Alexander did exactly what Lee thought he would, moving his pawn from A2 to A3 and threatening Lee’s bishop on B4. “I don’t know if I’ve ever heard of those numbers from someone before in these parts of the States,” Alexander said, “nor have I ever heard of you before. But, I’ve been around enough to know a liar, and I can tell you’re not lying either.”

“Who knows?” Lee didn’t bother saying more to convince Alexander one way or the other as he used his knight on G4 to take the pawn on E5.

“I know,” Alexander responded matter-of-factly as he fell into the final part of Lee’s trap. He used his pawn from A3 to take Lee’s bishop on B4. “It honestly explains all the languages you speak that your friends don’t know about, the way you carry yourself and how meek and small you keep your presence around your coworkers. My guess is that you’re used to covering up your presence and hiding who you are, making yourself seem like you’re not a threat.”

Is that what you believe? Given the information Alexander had, this was a very logical conclusion. So, to him, I’m the most elite hitman from some random mafia organization. Lee chuckled at the thought and decided to try and de-escalate the conversation as he stared at the board. The outcome of the match was already certain to Lee, but he didn’t feel like making his next move just yet. “Maybe.”

“And if that’s the case, then are you actually happy right now?” Alexander asked. “Of all of the men I’ve . . . heard of in your previous line of work, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of one retiring.”

Lee sighed. Am I? No. Not really. How could I be? Even when I’m with one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever met, my thoughts are stuck bouncing between what I want to do in the other world, what I’ve lost in the other world and what I’ve done in the other world. They’re rarely ever here. A frown fell across his face. The worst part about the situation was that this event, which should have shaken him and infuriated him for breaking his vacation from violence, had just left him hungrier for more.

“Alexander,” Lee began, restoring his smile as he picked up his knight on E5 and held it in his hand a moment, “sometimes, the lifestyle we want is not the one we should pursue. It’s just as you taught me: If we want to achieve our goals, then we must always focus on the end result and not get caught up chasing temporary wins.” When he finished speaking, he placed the knight down on D3.

Alexander was the one to frown this time as he looked down at the board. It was checkmate. He had gone for the quick wins, the pawn advantage and the bishop capture, and he had inevitably lost the entire match. His moves mirrored how he had gone for information in this conversation, but he had only given up knowledge about himself in the process. Even if Lee wasn’t being helped at the moment by his impressive Intelligence stat, he could have seen the pattern in the older man’s words. Alexander had, in trying to learn something from Lee, given away much more than he was comfortable with.

“So,” Alexander said, picking up his glass, “you are taking the uncomfortable route now to ensure the better later. I can respect that. I can respect that a lot, but it won’t be easy.” He took a healthy swallow of his drink. “That type of choice is never easy.”

“A good life was never meant to be easy,” Lee said, pushing himself up from his set. “Shall we go have some brunch? I’m sure the girls are waiting on us.”

“Indeed.” Alexander also stood up, and the two men moved locations. Their match hadn’t lasted that long, but it had given them both something to think about. Lee suspected that Alexander was now trying to figure out what to do about the checkered past he imagined Lee had, while Lee was thinking about a hunger the meal he was about to eat would never fill.

No one had likely said anything to Masha’s mother, but Lee could tell something was off. .  The entire brunch the devoted matriarch just smiled on and continued to play the part of a good host, serving them delicious omelets stuffed with vegetables and ham, but something struck Lee as odd about her demeanor. It was as if her behavior was that of a robot repeating an action rather than a person as she went about mechanically following the list of actions and dialogue prompts that were expected of her, but without the random expressions of honest emotion that usually shone through her polished exterior.

Lee was tempted to stay behind and play another game of chess with Alexander after the meal, but the way Masha looked at him told him that she needed some attention, someone to comfort her after what happened, and so the two of them left early.

Alexander was naturally reluctant to let Masha out of his sight after what happened, but he quickly crumbled when she gave him puppy-dog eyes. Masha might have thought it was just her skills at begging, but Lee suspected that it could have also been because of their conversation earlier. Perhaps Alexander felt much more comfortable with Masha in his hands than before.

Lee and Masha spent the rest of the day in his apartment snuggled up and watching silly shows while eating popcorn, drinking beer, and talking about which character they liked or hated on the television show. It was everything bland and boring that Lee had come to expect from life in this reality, and it only made the call from Augustus as he was about to go to sleep that much more of a relief.

“You’re about ready to head back, aren’t you?” Augustus asked from the other end. Based on the depth and timbre of his voice, Lee knew that Augustus was in the shape of a giant bear at the moment. It was hard for Lee to take the drunken god seriously as he imagined the giant grizzly form Augustus seemed to favor holding the tiny smartphone Lee had given him.

“Yeah, I think–” Lee was about to agree and head over to the other world when he caught Masha wagging her tail seductively at him while giving him a come-hither look from the other room. “I think I might need to wait until the next morning,” he finished his sentence, deciding that, as boring as this world was, there was at least one thing he loved in it.

He had been worried about Masha’s mental state after all she had gone through, but since she was waving that beautiful callipygian backside at him, he didn’t feel it would be right to pass it up.

“Tomorrow morning, then? Should I set everything up to send you back tomorrow morning?”

“Yeah, but after I’ve had brunch,” Lee agreed, closing his phone and going to enjoy one more night on Earth as he tried to put off several thoughts that were creeping through his head, namely: why exactly did Alexander let Masha come home with him after what he had revealed?

Then, there was the other thought that crept back up into his mind, one he couldn’t put out: how was Alexander already at the wall when Lee crossed over? It didn’t make sense given the size of the compound and how long the whole event took, and as he thought about it, he kept remembering the smile Alexander had on his face when he mentioned how good it was that Lee would do anything for Masha.