It started off as a typical Friday evening for Al. After swinging by Little Brutus for a cheap pizza and Sloway for his weekly six pack of 'whatever won't make me feel like a lonely weekend lush', Al gritted his teeth and went home.
"Hopefully I can get there with an actual hot pizza and still cold beer for a change," he thought.
Thirty minutes and a mild, stress induced headache later, he was chewing through two slices of barely warmer than room temperature pizza with a joyless grudge. And after washing a knot of too hastily swallowed pizza down, Al briefly looked over the label on his beer bottle. For some strange reason, the overly large moon on the blue label looked especially sinister and the bleak collection of trees below it seemed particularly eerie. To chase the tingle creeping up the back of his neck away, he quickly downed the rest of the bottle before shuffling to the fridge for a second one while thinking about which one of his overly played RPGs he was going to dedicate this weekend to.
Al started thumbing through his plastic cases as he muttered to himself, "Dragon this, dragon that... Guess I could play the third one and do the lesbian romances. Haven't done those yet."
Towards the end, a bit of bitterness crept into his voice as the thought of the top reason he believed the love of his life left him. A key that unlocked the floodgate of self-recrimination he'd thought hundreds of times before.
"Less than a week after that awkward attempt at a poorly planned out threesome, with a girl we barely knew, just gone. No note and half their stuff left behind. But lets not 'kid' ourselves here. Two years of b****ing about a job I hate. Two years of avoiding the children talk because I never knew if I was just going to rage quit one day. Two years I could have... could have done more to let..."
Choking back darker thoughts and a sob, Al's eyes landed on 'Rim of the Sky', a game he hadn't played in months and technically had never finished. His ex prompting him to get the 'Home' expansion pack being the obvious culprit. Perhaps as a form of subtle self torture or his subconscious desperately looking for a way to get closure that he could accept, even he didn't know. But that's what he chose.
Hours and six empty bottles later, somewhere along the way Al had lost sight of his home building objectives and had spent months worth of time in random fast traveling, visiting all of his favorite spots. A restroom break and some returning clarity later, he decided to check in on his little family in the boonies just to see that it had been razzed to the ground by a dragon lazily circling the place. His mouth went dry and his head started booming a death metal drum solo. Through a haze of red and background migraine, he slapped everything back together with minimal effort, complete with nearest romance-able npc and orphan, then went to kill the Boss.
Emotional pain gradually became eclipsed by physical as Al, with no real conscious thought to do so, blindly mashed buttons with one hand while he reached for a souvenir off the top of a stack of dusty boxes marked 'That b****'s s***' located an arm's distance from his chair. It was, as far as he ever took the time to try and figure out, a fancy knock-off reproduction of the Necronomicon. It was an impulse buy meant to commemorate a weekend getaway vacation to some fantasy/horror convention but he never held any memories of anyone but himself touching it. More than once he had set it on the boxes then moved it back to his bookshelf before finally set on seeing it go with the rest of the good memories turned bad.
As he pulled it to himself, intent to clutch it to his chest while the other hand hammered his controller into his knee, the smallest bit of dust shifted from the book cover to under his nose. The grandfather of all sneezes caused him to drop the controller and clutch the book in both hands between his legs instead. Before the sudden intense bout of dizziness and a strange sense of wrongness could register, the sounds of dripping brought his gaze down to the book. A weak swipe to quickly remove the offending fluid revealed the last sight before Al's eyes dimmed. Midst the wide spray of tiny clear dots was a dark red smear across the mouth of the contorted face on the cover. A few more crimson drops joined it before Al fell forward out of his chair to collapse lifeless on the floor.
As reality reconstructed itself around Al's stirring consciousness, the multitude of barely audible voices and flashes of colorful but impossible geometries faded enough for him to see he was in an unfamiliar yet vaguely recognizable place. From his kneeling position, that seemed a little too close to the floor, he saw three open books haphazardly skewed before him. Within a fog of confusion and the sensation of mild hangover mixed with the extreme pressure of a severe head-cold, habit kicked him in to motion as he collected the books, stacking them neatly before himself. As the realization that his hands were far too small and smooth to be his, registered, two of the three books vanished before his eyes but not before he recognized them.
In a childish voice that sounded nothing like his own, Al thought aloud, "My god, the patchwork skin on one and that bark-like cover with the gnarly symbol on the other. Those are, uh, were 'Changing Winds' and 'Infinite Knowledge'. And this one is 'The Mana Crystal Wars. I read somewhere that this history book can sometimes act like 'Infinite Knowledge' when read at the right time. This... I don't understand. I'm obviously not dreaming. Am I trapped in the game?..."
Fighting down a surge of rising panic, Al stood up and made his way through the two story rustic manor. He finally found what he was looking for in a bedroom, a shield wall decoration flat and reflective enough to serve as a mirror.
While looking himself over critically, Al mumbled, " Around ten years old or so with dirty blond hair. Emphasis on the dirty. When was the last time this child took a bath, a week ago?... Aquamarine is not a real eye...Oh, it's just blue-green heterochromia. Still a bit too bright to be... Okay, I've definitely still got a few marbles loose going on about eyeballs in the face of all this f***ing impossible s***!... Well, the features are too soft and too slender boned to be an Empyrean or Northerner so I must be the other white meat, one of those magic loving Highlanders.
" All in all I guess I'd clean up nice but more importantly, if I'm stuck in the game, how would I access my menu? It's not like I have a controller. Maybe if I think really hard about inventory? Skills? Status!? Come the f*** on!"
No stylized screen popped up behind Al's tightly squeezed eyelids but something did respond to his emotional outburst. A foreign but gentle energy bubbled up from someplace, lying deep within himself yet simultaneously tied to the world around him, and connected with a more nebulous, alien and dangerous feeling energy that permeated the house like invisible miasma. As if a spark met kerosene, his mind lit on fire with bits and scraps of memory, a messy card stack of incomplete sensory input. Not much could be salvaged from the Gordian knot of memories but each and every one was both enlightening and invited even more questions and confusion.
The child's name was Orison, the same name Al had wanted to give his orphan before he found out the game didn't allow it. Through the child's perspective he witnessed people, whose features were mostly obscured by moonlight shadows, being shot down by arrows as a man whispered for him to 'hide and make your way as far east as you can' before leading their pursuers deeper into the darkness. Whatever details existed of that journey or how the child ended up in an orphanage were completely missing. From the small details Al could pick out, it seemed like the western-most mountain border between the North Lands and the Highlands. It was a place where a highly territorial and xenophobic group of nearly aboriginal Northlanders called the Forgotten lived.
The memories had a brief bit of clarity when Al's character picked him up from the orphanage but that moment was eerie and more than a little terrifying when seen from the child's perspective. It started with the child being called over by the orphanage director that started a silent staring contest with an expressionless Northlander in heavy armor that occasionally shimmered with magic energy. For some reason the child couldn't even begin to understand, he realized that the intimidating man had just adopted him and said in a rushed panic to the orphanage director, "Really!? You mean this is actually happening!?"
Dipping into a sarcastic tone while facing the director, Orison continued, "Wow, thanks for trusting me to a complete stranger."
Turning to Al's character, the boy finished in a sad and resigned voice, " I promise I won't trouble you any more than this but... could I just have a moment to get my things and say goodbye to everyone?"
Taking the stony silence as permission, Orison turned around and went to gather up his meager belongings midst hugs and tearful partings. An unintelligible mix of children's faces and emotionally meaningful interactions blurred the memories once more before a scene of the child being abducted by Al's character, blinded by a flash of light and being knocked into a short monolith with a crude wizard etched on to it, came into focus. As Al's character mumbled something about choosing the wrong 'FT landmark', Orison had just enough time to ogle the other two monoliths that shifted between real and illusionary before being blinded once again and appearing in front of his new home.
The last clear memory was of Orison's cat lady 'mother' anxiously bidding Orison to mind himself well for no more than two days. She needed to go to the nearest village for desperately needed supplies. Despite that the home was lavish and well furnished otherwise, it lacked nearly all of the most practical and basic necessities such as adequate stores of food, toiletries, tools and utensils. 'To sum it up, it is a home that was all form and little function' according to Mother Yaya.
Less than an hour after his adopted mother left, boredom prompted the surprisingly obedient child to park himself beside the bookshelf just outside of the room with alchemy equipment and a magic item workbench. Thumbing through the historical books with the best pictures by the nearby window, Orison felt a faint subconscious tugging after opening 'Magic Crystal Wars' that had him breaking his word not to go into the alchemy room. With the historical book tucked into his left arm, he reached out with his right to grab the two sinister looking books off the top shelf just inside the door.
Finding the two books surprisingly weighty, Orison fumbled his hold on all three, causing them to open awkwardly in front of him on their descent to the floor when time or perhaps space seemed to have frozen. Three lines were simultaneously spoken in the same gravelly and chilling voice, seeming to prompt Orison to make choices while two entirely different supernatural forces were playing tug-of-war with his entire being.
Absolutely terrified, Orison thought, "Have I opened books of heretical secret insights or the works of a mad mage?"
The many mouthed voice rung out their dialogues with only a bit of both being caught by the boy in the throws of fear. One confirmed the choice of secret scholarly insight while the other two confirmed knowledge granted from the path of mages. Orison had finally managed to squeeze his eyes shut, as one of the two forces pulling on him started to loosen its hold, but flew widely open in the next moment. Foreign power and knowledge began forcefully stuffing itself into his head, into the very core of his being. Upon once again viewing the books impossibly suspended in air, the gravelly voices repeated their dialogue once more as the supernatural forces resumed their merciless tug-of-war.
In fear and pain, Orison screamed, "Please, I mean no harm. Cease this mage work, I beg you!"
A second influx of power and knowledge ruptured his soul and overloaded his mind. And as the conflicting supernatural forces ripped the suddenly unresistant and tattered soul to shreds, the gravelly and chilling voice intoned the confirmation of acquiring follower friendly magic insight and knowledge from the mage path.
In the sensory deprived darkness, the dying sparks of Orison's spiritual remnants felt the presence of a weakened and defenseless soul brushing past its space, caught in the wake of the very force that had destroyed itself. Beyond conscious thought or emotion, in an instinctual bid for survival, the remnants did the only thing they could do. Lacking the strength to fight or the ability to devour, the remnants sought out the wounds and weak spots of the helpless soul and silently infiltrated, attaching to it.
Taking in the pitiful amount of leaking essence that was now available to them, the remnants trudged towards the ghostly echo of their disintegrating other parts. Following the ghastly breadcrumb trail of itself, salvaging along the way, the remnants unknowingly contaminated the parasitized soul with itself even as the remnants were stained with the leaking essence of the soul. By the time the remnants had reached the end of the trail, once again within their mortal vessel and safe from the pull of whatever otherworldly realm they barely escaped, the weary remnants were nearly indistinguishable from their host.
The rousing soul, just similar enough to not be rejected by it's new body, effortlessly subordinated and began integrating the exhausted remnants. The soul didn't mean to. It was simply the spiritual equivalent to an autonomous reaction like breathing or regulating heartbeat. And in the same vein of automatic response, the soul stretched out to deepen it's connections with the new mortal vessel, finding it a great deal more spacious than it's original spiritual seat had been. Under the prime directive of souls, it would desire to grow and fill that space but to do that, the body would need to... wake...up.
Al's eyes flew open as he greedily gulped air, his heart beating a tattoo into his chest. For an unknown amount of time he laid curled up on the bedroom floor feeling sorry for himself, for the kid, for not knowing if or how much of a difference there was between the two. He railed against his lost understanding of reality and his place within it. Most of all, he raged against and feared the unknown, the uncertainties of his new world and what other dreadful things the future might hold.
At some point, he had fallen asleep. He hadn't been that way for long. His aching body, full bladder and growling belly had made sure of that. It had been long enough, however, to see the shadows get longer. As far as he could tell there was little more than an hour or two of good daylight left and he didn't want to waste it.
A few minutes later, as he stared absentmindedly at the sullied table napkin inside the chamber pot, he thought out loud, "What skill is it and how high does it need to be for me to make toilet paper? Is there a possible spell solution for cleanliness? Looks like even with the limitless possibilities of magic it's going to be a b**** for a modern man to get used medieval fantasy bulls***."
Chomping down a slightly withered apple and a somewhat limp carrot from the cellar, Al made his way back to the alchemy room and started trying to sort out what he knew and what he most needed to know. It didn't take much reflection time to realize that Orison wasn't the only one to lose a few things with their merger.
Fighting back a new wave of anxiety, he said to himself, "If a ten year old boy can drag us back from hell or wherever despite being blown to pieces, it's not your turn to be an edge lord. Roll with what you got and try to log some survival increases before nightfall, sad-sack."
Feeling a little foolish, Al closed his eyes and said, "Alright, Orison. Your memories are scrambled worse than bootleg satellite and mine are Swiss cheese, so it's gonna take us both being tighter than skinny jeans to get through this. We're not the queen of England and I don't want to end up with multiple personality disorder so how does this sound?
"Since you got the rawest deal and it's your world, we'll be Orison. Never liked my name much anyway... And since I'm slightly more put together, I get to spin the wheel of this ship but you're a hella more driven than I was or would likely ever be on my own, so you get the subconscious engine room. If you believe in psychology, that will make you the real captain. From now on there is no 'we', there is just two slightly complicated parts of 'me'. Once again, if I put my faith psychology, that won't make me much different than anyone else.
The newly minted Orison didn't know if it was a placebo effect of the pep-talk or if something real and important happened but he suddenly didn't feel so afraid and anxious anymore. The subtle knot of bitterness that had laid in his chest for a long time had also loosened up into a slightly more positive feeling of pragmatic hope.
Unknown to himself, Orison's eyes flickered with a subdued greenish blue glow when they locked onto a magic scroll laying on the enchantment workbench as he said, "Let's do this."