Short Story: Tales to Tell

Tales tell that the during the birth of the world, the all-mother and all-father gave equal parts of their vitality and strength, their burden and weakness, to the seed which would become all of creation. It was this seed, once sprouted, that became all that is, was, and ever shall be.

The sprouting, really, was the Big-Bang. The forces involved still indomitable, immutable. Mother and Father. Yin and Yang. Duality was a concept spanning not just species or time, but the Universe. It was universal.

If only those first Shaman could see us now…

He was Navajo. Native-born. Walking along a road deserted nearly a century, save to the occasional wanderer like himself. Heading East. From the place where the sun sets, seeking answers where it rises. Having found none in one, he would seek them elsewhere.

The sun gleamed off sweat-glistened skin. Deeply tanned, yet still burnt by the pounding sun. He had been in it days, looked it. Like a cactus after a particularly bad drought and a fresh sandstorm. He had survived, as all young Navajo boys learned to: off the land. He never had fears about crossing the Desert, only weariness and lack of need.

He was no fool though. His mother had raised him right after his father left: why, no-one knew–he suspected, not even his father. Like him, he now walked alone, though considerably wiser for his cautionary tale.

Kurt said it best: “See the cat? See the cradle?”

He walked on, unfazed. Desert roads were abandoned even before the fall of civilized man. What the locals had foreseen and called Teotwawki. It came and went. Out here, it was almost impossible to tell. Yet somehow, perhaps through his blood, he sensed the land’s unnatural emptiness.

Another tale tells of a Great Spirit whom came forth during a harsh drought. Prompted by the people’s offerings to bring rain upon the land so the crops might grow, it appeared to a Chieftain whom lamented his people’s dire need. Though none could corroborate him, he said it requested this:

That all people of the village come at nightfall to the grove where he then spoke. There, he proclaimed, he would come to bestow upon them the will of rain, but only on the proceeding night. All but one man went: an old warrior whose will had broken with his soul at the loss of both vitality and heart– his bodily strength, and his wife.

So the Great Spirit appeared to the Warrior, granting he alone the power of Rain.

Out here, the end of the world didn’t seem so bad. In a way, it had been the most prepared for the end of the world. Already the least surviving. The desert was a place of death, everyday survival. A perfect analogue for everything the world had suffered and seen.

Although he admitted, if only to himself, he wouldn’t have survived much else.

It was crucial to know one’s limits. As a boy, the Elders had been strict on this. It was, they said, the root of all Human downfall. His grandmother had said it more succinctly– usually slurring whiskey, “Great-Spirit blessed us with balls and brains and blood for one.”

In his heart, he knew both were saying the same thing: those whom did not proceed with caution most often suffereda final fall.

He made camp by an archway in an alcove of stone. Firelight threw shadows back in flickering riposte to reality’s light-play. They danced and grooved along striated sandstone witness to more death and decay than most of Human-kind could comprehend. It grooved right back.

He passed the night on warm sand, propped only a little uncomfortably against the alcove. Anywhere else in the world would’ve been too dangerous to do such a thing. Sleeping, randomly just off a highway: a good way to be robbed or worse.

But out here there was no-one, and it was for the best. He tended toward pacifism, if only because he had seen the damage the alternative would do. In the rest of the world, that was often interpreted as weakness. Too many predators. The last thing he’d want to do is harm someone.

Though he certainly could.

A third tale tells of a sickness that raged within the people of a village. The Shaman there could do no good. His traditional herbs and medicines had failed him. Worse, winter was growing thicker after a drought-thinned harvest. Resources through-out the village were stretched too thin. Thus, it fell upon he, as Shaman, to guide the Tribe from the brink of total-death.

Though none said it, the people of the village sought his guidance. Yet they also feared his inability to heal their ailing. He was, after all, one man and an old one at that. Though the people said none of this, he felt it all the same.

He worked tirelessly through the day and night to treat and stabilize the ill. With his medicinal stocks dwindling, he had no choice but to seek aid from a neighboring village. One which, by virtue of their adversarial history, might have easily led to his death.

Yet if he did not try, the village would perish.

At the rival village, he found the same sickness ravaging the people. Their Shaman, one of the eldest and wisest, had been first to fall ill. Due to his own, hidden infirmities, he succumbed. Without his guidance, the apprentice Shaman could do little save his best.

The Elder Shaman arrived, but rather than take charge of his stores as a villain might, he taught the rival Shaman all he knew. Together, the pair healed both villages and re-forged their long addled bond.

He came upon a carcass on the side of the road. Decayed to dusty, tanned-human stretched over bone. Its shape and size still identified it: Young. Human. Female. Probably escaped from a den somewhere, held against her will. Looked decades, could’ve been days.

Humans were animals: beastial. Depraved.

He would have to be more careful here. The kinds of creatures that frightened others into choosing such deaths over theirs were true evil.

An Elder had taught him once of evil, that it was a realm of malevolent Spirits seeking to control man. The other Spirits, those to which they gave praise during certain acts or events, were the Benevolent ones. He believed in neither. Not the way he knew they had believed, but in the way they were meant to be. He understood them.

A final tale tells of an old warrior, spirit bleeding and body broken. Day and night he wept in private, soul ravaged by loss of body and love. When at last the Warrior cried to the Great Spirit to ask what evil he’d wrought to have such sorrow befall him, the Spirit appeared.

There, he alone was granted the power to bring rain to his drought-stricken village with tears.

The warrior, feeling this a final slight wept greater than ever. His cries were heard from the village’s outskirts as the rains suddenly began to fall. They found him weeping, kneeling amid the falling rain. There, they came to understand.

And comforted him.

He never again cried, but they never again felt drought either.

He’d heard them in the night from far off. In the desert, sound carried forever. Distinguishable from the dead stillness like needles in the spine. The vibration of something, not far enough off, disturbing the stillness.

He did not sleep, but rose as soon as the sun began to peer over the ancient stone and sand dominating the nearby world. He started off, having seen nor met no-one and almost certainly having retained his anonymity. He remained on guard until, at last, the vibrations trickled back into nothing and he was alone again.

He had never feared them. Not really. Fear was a thing for the unprepared. He was prepared. Alert even. He had one goal, and might not live to see it, but didn’t see any reason he wouldn’t, just accepted he might not. For now, he supposed that was enough.

He walked on.

Short Story: The Worst in Us

She was fifteen; old enough to know right from wrong. What she aimed to do was wrong. Even in the withered husk of society, it was wrong. She couldn’t help it now. Not even if she’d wanted to. She’d made a deal. Maybe afterward she’d care about right and wrong again. Find herself at peace with things. Maybe not.

Allison Hartley was about to murder someone. The teenager’s time and place were decidedly amoral. It wasn’t merely a place of warped morals, but one sans them. Simultaneously, and paradoxically, they were the only thing keeping the world from going to more shit than it had. It wasn’t the whole of society preventing it though. Rather, it was the few that managed to hold themselves to a code, a set of rules. Allison had always been one. That was different now. Would be forever.

Thus her premeditated violation felt a depraved kind of original sin. Whatever the repercussions, it had to been done. No-one would’ve disagreed with that. That is, if she ever planned to tell anyone. That had been part of the deal too: do what needed to be done, keep her mouth shut, and she learned the truth.

Nora had made the deal. Since the world went to hell, Allie had been watching over her. Their parents had been at the refugee camp. They and thousands of others were bombed by “the enemy,” whoever they might’ve been. All Allison knew was she and her little sister were suddenly alone in a burning world. Allison would’ve been better prepared if they’d been honest. Love brings out the worst in us, she knew. Their parents’ lies about reality had eventually forced her into fighting fire with fire.

Three years of utter hell had taught of nothing in life as absolute. That much should’ve been made clear the day they were sent to the refugee camp. Instead, Mom and Dad were quiet. They were quiet through school closing, and the imposed curfews. Twelve-year old Allie was completely oblivious to the world. Fifteen year old Allie was still traumatized by it, daily. She’d had no idea the real extent of damage being done to the world.

Radio and television had become spin machines. She didn’t know it, but she learned it later. They’d turned ongoing narratives from truth into what bolstered wartime support. The family reached the camp, and a matter of hours later the illusions shattered around Allie and Nora. Though the latter was still lost then, she sensed the beginning of realities eventually forced on them. The most prevalent, of course, was Humanity’s depravity– which she was once again a victim of.

A fiery sunset had bled from a dusty horizon as Nora limped up the mound of rubble. It marked the entrance to their home and hide-out. It wasn’t much more than a corner room in a bombed-out building, but a thick, steel door made it impenetrable for anyone hoping to get in. Solid, concrete walls kept them from the elements too, only a small, barred window at its high-ceiling to vent fires for cooking or heating. Allie knew the place was a police station’s set of cells, but the rest of the world was a prison enough that it didn’t bother her.

She’d left the door open to listen to the rare, slap of rain, and keep her ears peeled for the crunch of glass or gravel on their sound-traps. The tell-tale scatter of gravel said someone was sliding down into the bombed-out building. She shouldered her ancient rifle, threw open the door, ready to kill.

Nora was lying face down in glass and gravel, back laden with a pack of supplies. At only twelve, she could already hump the weight of a soldier three times her size for twice as long. That perseverance was the only way either of them had survived.

Allie scrambled for her side, helped her up, neck whipping to eye their surroundings. She fitted Nora’s then heaved them both toward the door. She laid her sister on the makeshift bed of sleeping bags and star, then dropped the back to bolt the door.

It was hours before Nora awoke. She pled for water. Her whole body shook with fresh pain. Something had happened, but Nora’s pistol was still full, her pack too. No raider did this: their ilk struck on the roads, took what they could, then killed their victims in fear of retribution. Nora was still alive, her supplies untouched. Whatever had happened was quick, without obvious resistance.

She finally began to speak, her eyes distant. It was the same stare Allie had seen after they’d watched their parents swallowed by bomb-fire. “I’ve done it a million times. Never like this.” Her bottom lip trembled. “I… I didn’t even know he was there.”

“Who, Nora?”

She teared up with a fierce refusal. “I can’t. I can’t tell you. If I tell you’ll want to tell someone else. You have to kill him.”

Allie’s eyes sparked with sibling guardianship, “Then I will, Nora.”

She refused to speak further, sobbed. A small, dirty hand, lifted the edge of her frayed t-shirt: her dirt-covered navel glistened with “Whore” carved in drying blood by a shaking, old blade. Each letter was torn fabric, the flesh only just coagulated.

But Nora’s hands continued to her pants, slid them down. Allison’s hate-filled eyes went blank, unable to muster even fury at the senselessness inflicted. Etched across her groin, the letters more jagged than before– from Nora struggling– were the words “use me.” The letters extended across her whole groin area, the vulva beneath swollen, bloody, bruised.

The atrocity didn’t need to be named. Neither did the punishment.

She managed to coax Nora into letting her further examine her. She helped her back into her clothes, and medicated her with old, bitter pain-pills. Allie coddled her into sleep, deducing what had been left out. She’d sent Nora to a nearby settlement to procure supplies. They’d done it a million times before. On the way back, she’d been grabbed, assaulted. Again, it clearly wasn’t bandits. That left only a traveler or an inhabitant between the two places.

She scrawled a note to Nora, left quietly; I will.

Half-way to the village, it dawned on her. The small, rocky hill was a hovel: an old manlived there. He’d seemed harmless enough, if slightly insane from time’s rigors. He’d only ever interacted with the sisters once. Hardly enough to kill him over, but enough to sneak in and interrogate him over.

The small hovel glowed from a fire-pit in its center. Flames spit and nipped at the air, cast grotesque shadows across the walls. Allie sneaked into a darkened corner, able to see him across the low-light of the room. He slept like a child might after a long day of play– how they had before. Children didn’t do that anymore. Now Nora never’d sleep without the terrible memories of what someone had done. It gave her fuel to move on.

Allie crept past the fire-pit. The old man grunted in his sleep. He rolled toward her. She dodged behind a makeshift table of half-rotten cardboard. Then, she saw it: a deluded shrine of drawings and black and white Polaroids of Nora and Allie, both clothed and nude. Allie’s face was cut or crossed out, but the old creep had managed to find or repair an old camera. He’d stalked them more than a few times, evidently following them to the nearby river where they bathed.

Her teeth clamped down, eyes took in the few valuables stolen from the girls. Presumably, he’d taken them at the river, when they weren’t watching. Allie and Nora thought they’d lost them. Evidently not.

Atop the pile of underwear, trinkets, and god-awful smelling things, was an old knife. Its cracked, dull edge still bore Nora’s dried blood. The clothing beneath it was as stained as Nora’s innocence. Allie nearly chipped teeth. Her hand clasped the knife, obscene atavism in her eyes. She sneaked toward the bastard…

She returned home to find Nora still asleep. The deal had been held to. When morning came, all that passed would see him crucified, castrated, genitals hanging from his mouth, and “rapist” carved into his groin above mangled flesh. If he wasn’t dead by then, someone would gladly spend a bullet.

Allie rinsed the last of the blood from her hands with a water-bottle, then settled into bed beside Nora. She held her tight, silent tears running down her face. Love brings out the worst in us, she knew, but that wasn’t always a bad thing.

Short Story: The Best in Us

The horizon was a war-zone post-loss. That the war had never touched it mattered less with each day it crumbled further into ruin. Despite that, it had a sort of serene beauty, as if a post-card to the ages warning of man’s follies. Charles Murray could almost see the block-lettered words of caution hanging mid-air. Murray’d been there when it all went to shit. He was a kid then. In some ways, still was. Such a designation didn’t feel particularly apt given all he’d seen and done. It was even less appropriate when considering all he might yet see or do. Even at only twenty, he’d seen war waged on such grand a scale it left the world in literal tatters.

Like the skyline, the land had been subjected to more bombs and bullets than man had a right to construct. Scenery was reformed into post-apocalyptic wasteland. Location made no difference: big cities, small towns, rural homesteads, anywhere one enemy could’ve pushed another to, struck from, or trained at, became as decimated as the next or last.

They’d called World War I the “Great War,” but even the mustard-gassed trenches hadn’t seen such depravity. Murray’d half-expected the world to implode, swallow what few remained. It hadn’t yet, and as Murray knew, the war had never even be waged here. Not the war that had been waged everywhere else, anyhow.

This one was a civil war, a conflict of internal forces that had taken up arms for one reason or another. When one side failed to compromise, the other took aim and fired. Who cared which one did what? This was the end result. Now, day in and day out, Murray was forced to comb the wreckage for scraps of living.

Presently, he was forced to dig through a mound of rubble. His sharpened stick scratched at the rubble and gravel as he fondly recalled a one-time discovery: a bunker of fallout-supplies. It was one of those things constructed at the height of the cold war, then re-purposed when bombs fell again. The people living there had died from a bad air filter before realizing their peril. He remembered breaking the main-seals, still untouched from the bombs, and his chem sniffer going mad from C-O toxicity.

The main room had been an old-style parlor of countless bookshelves and a television inlaid in one wall. They even had an old computer hooked up with multiple hard-drives and an isolated data-server routed in from a separate room. They’d been well-off before things went to hell. Too bad it didn’t keep them from being asphyxiated in their sleep.

Murray still saw them sometimes when he closed his eyes: in a room just off the main one. Two men in bed. Peaceful child mere paces away. Sometimes he wished he could’ve been that child– gone as peacefully as anyone could hope to in the piss-hole of a place the world had become. After raiding the food stores, and before leaving, he’d marked the family’s room with a white X; a new-world symbol of no entry. The X was used to warn of contamination in some way, to be avoided at all costs. Sometimes though, it was used only to keep the dead undisturbed.

Sweat dripped off his brow and face. He scraped out the last of the piled gravel. The doorway was another old place– not a bomb-shelter, but an old church cellar. The kind of place people ran to during tornadoes before basements were common-place. Judging from the collapsed building above it, Murray guessed there was no access from the inside. The place had been untouched since the National Guard laid down the sand and gravel to fortify it. With any luck, there’d still be canned goods inside. Otherwise, just more bodies… it was always more bodies.

The door’s reveal all but confirmed his suspicions of the separation above and below. A few, concrete steps led down into a short, right-angle pit, a full-size, steel door at its terminus. Murray caught his breath on the rocky steps, then heaved himself to his feet. He grasped the door knob, shouldered the door. It failed to open– wasn’t the first time, wouldn’t be the last. He gathered up his remaining strength, took a step back, then hurled himself at the door.

It failed to give.

Too much had been done, too much energy expended, not to complete the task. He repeated the act. The door burst in off its hinges. He landed atop it in a plume of dust. It glinted in the beam of external light now shining in. A shotgun cocked. His reflexes engaged. He flipped, swept his legs, toppled the armed figure. Before he could stop himself, he laid his weight laterally against the shotgun on the throat of a white-haired, bearded man.

“No! Stop!” A young woman shouted.

Murray’s eyes widened. The room sharpened. He’d expected bodies. It was always bodies. Men. Women. Children. It didn’t matter. It was only ever bodies.

“You’re killing him!”

Murray was up. He cast the shotgun aside, stepped back in a hunched, defensive stance. His eyes flitted between the man, now propped on an elbow, and a young blonde with sapphire eyes. Murray took a step back, staggered by reality rushing in on him. The woman didn’t hesitate. She was instantly at the old man’s side, helping him up.

“Thank you,” she said backward at Murray. “Dad, are you alright?”

He grunted something Murray didn’t hear as she helped him to his feet. Murray took another half-step back. The old man approached, hand extended. “You look like hell, son. How long you been out there?”

Murray eased from his stance, his eyes on the man’s hand, “Since the beginning.”

The old man’s squinted, “That’d be, what, four years now?” Murray gave a small nod. “Well, that’s as long as we’ve been trapped here. If it weren’t for the hydroponics we rigged up from the well, we’d’ve been dead years ago. Guess we’re free now, with you to thank.”

Murray was hesitant, on-guard, “You have food?”

“As much as we can eat and more. All fresh vegetables,” the woman said.

“And shelter, here? Safety?”

“Mhmm,” the old man nodded.

“You can stay if you want,” the young woman added confidently.

They noticed Murray’s eyes begin to tear up.

The old man smiled, “C’mon, son, we’ll get ‘ya cleaned up, treat ‘ya to a meal. Hailey, show our guest to his room?”

She brightened with a nod, took a careful steps toward him before linking her arm in his. Moments later, they were standing before an open bedroom: a bed, dresser, night stand and filled bookcase were inside. Everything was pristine, a time-capsule of pre-war life only now unearthed. In a way, he guessed, it was– save the inexplicable women’s clothing peeking from a dresser drawer.

Hailey led him to the bed, sat him down, “We haven’t seen anyone in years.” She swept the room with a glance, “It’s not much, but you’re more than welcome to it.”

There was a momentary silence Murray had to break, “Wh-why?” Her brow furrowed. “Why do this for me?”

She shrugged, “I guess the world ending’s brought out the best in us.” He squinted at her; a sort of innocent naivete to her tone said she knew nothing of the world he’d come from. Paradoxically, her look said she knew its horrors all too well. She smiled, “Go ahead. Clean up. Lunch’ll be ready soon.”

Murray’s head swam: whatever he’d done to earn this, he must have forgotten. Then again, maybe the end of the world brought out the best in some people. Whatever the explanation, the fresh meat in his lunch was his biggest surprise.

Short Story: Too Real

She’d be at it near-on forty hours by the time it was over. She knew it ahead of time. Weekends like this weren’t uncommon for the chronically unemployed Sonia Rakes. She’d settle in on Friday night, greasy crap-food on one side of the desk, soda and water on the other with a bottle of Jack chilling beneath it in the mini-fridge. While her marathon choice of game booted, she rolled fat joints and blunts to pass the time, mind racing in anticipation of the glory ahead.

To say she was a burn-out would require ignoring the intense passion she wrangled out of herself for each and every imaginary world she eventually conquered. Sure, she was a little overweight, but the chair-sized ass she sat on made her all the more comfortable during the marathon sessions. Even if her pudge spilled over her waist-line, stuck out nearly as far as her free-bagging double-Ds, that just meant there was more of her to love. Besides, she’d long ago abandoned the realm of such social pressures in favor of the confined, fantastical ones she occupied for days at a time.

She sparked up a blunt, took a deep hit, and swigged down some cola home-run style. The cola was swallowed away to allow a plume of smoke emerging from her nose and mouth. Her lungs re-inflated with fresh air and the high trickled in through the back of her brain. The slow immersion of brain into cannabis relaxed her shoulders and chest. She sank into her gaming chair with a deflation that would’ve made “truth” ads jealous.

But this was no ordinary immobilization of inebriated limbs. In fact, it was just the beginning of what had always been the ultimate in relaxation and comfort. Contrary to some opinions, that were no longer popular, getting high only enhanced most things. One of them, at least for Sonia, was the imagination. Gaming was nothing if not stimulating for the imagination.

She booted up, set the blunt aside for a minute, and made the momentary keyboard clacks to put her in-game. With the blunt hanging from a corner of her mouth, she plunged into the post-apocalyptic world of her now-favorite title.

Her avatar was made to look like her; long brown hair, big boobs, and slightly pudgy with green eyes. Most of that pudge had been lost during gameplay by the game’s now-famous strength building system. Many of the game’s mechanics were touted as revolutionary. For an RPG, they were somewhat ahead of their time, even if most had been explored before. Everything had a modifier to it, and every modifier affected a stat; every stat, in turn, gained XP each time it’s level changed, and those experience points then went into an overall character level.

Once leveled, a player could immediately boost stats instead of working them up, and gain new perks that allowed them to take on new challenges or better overcome older ones. It was, for all intents and purposes, a game with refined mechanics that flowed beautifully, to say nothing of its atmosphere, characters, or narrative.

But what set it apart, Sonia knew, was its Artificial Intelligence. She’d barely seen a third of the game, but her awe of the AI was unsurpassed. Whomever programmed the game certainly had the chops to pull off the best work she’d ever seen. Most games’ characters were like cardboard cutouts; at a distance they appeared real, their “lives” full, but the closer you got, the more you noticed they merely wandered along set routes, repeated a few lines of dialogue, and were otherwise one-dimensional.

This game was different, and she’d only begun to scratch the surface of how. Her inebriated mind wandered, wanting to immerse itself deeper in the game’s world before fully committing to a quest that might forward any progress and inch her nearer its conclusion.

She found herself in the center of a small town. It was hardly a town by any standard, really, merely a few buildings forming a three-sided rectangle around a large well. Small shacks and lean-tos kissed the horizon around it, built scatter-shot across fields of mutated corn, tomatoes, and wheat. She aimed for the old-style saloon in the center of the open rectangle.

The whole place was an anachronism, a sort of wild-west area built up along a bombed-out, rural highway neglected into disrepair since the bombs. She liked it for that alone. It was rare to find such attention to detail that even the Non-playable characters’ cultures differed from settlement to settlement.

With that in mind, she sauntered up to the saloon’s swinging doors, but hesitated. An NPC down the wrap-around porch mentioned something about needing to “head ‘cross the wastes for Ban’oover.” Something about his twang intrigued her. He had that friendly sort of sound that put her at ease, made him seem either an easy target, or possibly, a new companion, if she found him to her liking. It was an instantaneous decision to follow him.

She whirled to follow the NPC’s ratty flannel and cowboy boots, gave him a good head-start, then passed by the other NPC he’d been speaking to. It uttered a “howdy” with a slight head tilt as she crouched at the edge of a corn-field, and began to track the NPC. Her stealth skills were only high enough to keep him unaware of her at larger distances, but she could easily keep to the cover of cornfields and rocky, desert roads that would lead to Banhoover.

She kept him at the extreme edge of her visual field, then knowing his intended target, fell back to bask in the world around her. Through the haze of caffeine, liquor, and weed, the hot sun kissed her skin while arid winds carried dust across her path.

A sudden screeching shattered her serenity. She froze, terrified. Her big, anaconda revolver was out, sweeping the horizon for threats. She crouched low to steady her aim, circled in place. The screech sounded again; metal nails on a chalkboard. Her teeth rattled, nerves stabbed by the sound. Something small staggered and swayed onto the road ahead. It weaved left, then right, fell forward. Her weapon sank at the pitiful sight of a massive crow with a bloody puncture in its torso. She swallowed her fears and approached carefully. The screeching sounds came louder, faster with each step.

She crouched again by the bird, examined it carefully. It was easily the size of her torso, and given the wound, near death. Her med-skills weren’t great, but might be enough to help. These types of random events weren’t uncommon. She’d yet to see one in this game, but so much of it was unexplored such an event didn’t surprise her.

The way she saw it, there were two options; try to heal the bird, or put it out of its misery. She’d gotten lucky a few hours into the game, and had been healed by a passerby on a similar road to this. Like the bird, she’d been bleeding out, the world phasing in and out of blackness. She saw no reason not to try and repay the debt to the collective gaming Gods.

With a few hotkeys and clicks, she’d drugged the bird with painkillers, and did her best to patch the wound. A quick flicker of XP, and the sound of a leveled stat told her the action succeeded. The bird hopped up, swayed a little, then examined her with a few tilts of its head. With a running start, it took flight and soared off into the distance. She chuckled, continued along the road.

It wasn’t long before she found the NPC she’d been tailing. More accurately, he found her. He’d hidden in the bushes a mile or so down from the bird. Five minutes of walking were interrupted by him leaping from the bushes. He held a big revolver like hers, trained for her head. A flicker of her HUD said he had a head-shot trained on her.

His shouts affirmed it with the addition of a demand, “Gimme all yer guns, clothes, and cash.” She remained silent, wondering how best to play it. He started shouting again, demanding, “Quit wastin’ time, there ain’t no other way out!”

A shiver shot along her spine as he cocked the hammer on his revolver. It was too real.

“Yeh, you best be shakin’,” he shouted from the beyond the revolver’s business end.

The revolver barked. A bullet whizzed past her ear. She felt it slice the air, buzz in her head. Her stomach dropped. Hairs on her neck stood on end. It was too real.

“I ain’t gonna ask again.” She hit the hotkey to drop her gun. He took a few steps forward, both hands on his gun. “Good. Now the rest.”

Her inventory menu appeared, and emptied at the “drop all” command. A moment later she was standing stark-naked in the middle of a desert road. He approached, licked his lips, chuckled to himself, then knelt to collect the gear in an arm. It disappeared into his hidden inventory as he stepped back again.

“Thank ye, kindly,” he said with a roaring laugh.

Something black flashed past, left him stunned. He growled, swirled around. She stepped back, terrified. Another flicker of black. Then again. More now. A shroud of black encircled him as he swatted at it. The revolver barked until it was empty. The NPC began to scream, flee. Sonia stood, petrified and dumbfounded.

It took a moment for her mind to comprehend the Murder of Crows attacking the NPC. It was almost a full minute before she could move again. By then, they’d brought the NPC down, had him in pieces on the ground. He let out a blood-curdling scream that upturned her stomach, then went silent, still.

A lone crow hopped over, its abdomen recently bandaged. It dropped something on the ground. She picked up a note that read; The crows will remember your kindness. She shivered.

Out of game her breath trembled, “Jesus christ, this is too real.” She stared at the crow, muttered, “Thank you.”

In-game the crow squawked. Sonia’s eyes bulged. It immediately took flight. The Murder followed in sync.

Whatever the hell had just happened, she was certain that bird had spoken to her. More importantly, even if she couldn’t understand how, it heard her. How? She collected her clothes and swallowed the ill feeling in her gut. She redressed, began to follow the road aimlessly, hoping to make sense of what the hell’d just happened.