Two muscle heads stand in the doorway, clubs out. Let’s call them Crabbe and Goyle. Were those really their names? Might as well have been.
“Hand ‘em over,” Crabbe smacks his Wood Club against his other hand like a police baton.
Now it came to me: these two had been missing from Training almost every day since the Sleep Refresh was revealed. My spidey sense went off just as they’d snuck off to steal my hard-earned ears.
Cornered, my adrenaline kicks in. Mind starts racing.
What would Harry do?
They messed with the wrong interdimensional traveler. Imma go Robert Downey Junior on these fuckers.
All the possibilities lay themselves clearly before my eyes. Knock out their knees. One running jump. A feint to the side. I’ll point behind them wide-eyed to distract –
“Wh— What happened?”
“Crabbe and Goyle knocked you out and stole your ears!”
I sit bolt upright, but already know it’s too late. Plun helps me up and we shuffle shamefaced into the Drill Sergeant’s office.
“ – and that’s the last thing I remember, Sir.”
Sarge studies me in contempt.
He’ll find the bastards. They can’t get away with this.
The silence draws out like a string of mozzarella cheese from a hot pizza.
“Let that be a lesson, boy. Out there, in the dungeons, you won’t get a second – ”
I run outside. I’m in no mood to take shit from this midget. The other boys are gone now, probably already left for Class Choice. Only Murphy left. Without me, they’d still be slaving away at 9 ears a day.
A Kobold spawns nearby. I bash its head savagely.
“I will enjoy watching you die.”
I don’t remember what that’s from, but the words flow smoothly out of my mouth. I barely notice the Kobold Scratch as I kill the pathetic little beast.
Crabbe, Goyle, I’m coming for you!
A voice pulls me out of my rage.
“Plun? What are you doing here?”
“You thought I’d abandon you, Murph? What kind of friend do you take me for?”
The word disorients me. Here, in this fantasy world, I plan to acquire plenty of Core Party Members, but …
“You asshole, Murph. You think just because I’m an army-raised orphan I don’t know how to be a friend? Listen, take half my ears. It’s only gonna take four more days if we farm these fuckers together.”
There’s times when you have no words to say, so you just hold the other person as tight as you can and cry. This was one of those times. In anime, this would be high time to cut to a montage: meeting eyes during training, singing Back to December, hunting Kobolds together, sharing stories on sleepless nights.
But this isn’t anime.
This is real life, and I’m crying my eyes out, hugging my best friend.
“Murph, you whiny little fuck. You owe me.”
I like to think I saw a tear at the edge of Plun’s eye as well. It’s the first time since I landed in this strange yet familiar world that everything feels – three-dimensional. Real.
The staff leaves Plun and I to our own devices, and we set up near the Kobold spawns to farm. I figure out that Sleep Refresh doesn’t happen lying on grass, but it does work when we lie on blankets.
We lie down on our blankets next to adjacent Kobold caves, bopping them as they spawn. It reminds me of a beach vacation, except instead of sipping martinis the two of us kill Kobolds every five minutes. Ears collect up in pile
“All those stories you tell. About horseless carts and number machines and the big lake and Murica. They’re true, aren’t they?”
“So you’re not from here – I mean this world – are you?”
We pass out under the open sky.
The second day, I have a brilliant idea. I’ve been studying Kobold Younglings in the neighboring caves. They scurry off in a random direction and disappear out of sight, and only attack if aggroed.
I tell Plun my idea after breakfast.
We raid the empty barracks and drag all the furniture – desks, chairs, mattresses, dressers. Arranging them in a simple maze, all the Kobolds only have one way to run – directly into us. It takes the whole afternoon.
Plun and I sit back and relax, bopping the Kobolds in waves of six as they run through our furniture funnel.
By mid-afternoon the third day, we make the quota of 2000 total ears.
There’s a spring in my step as we approach the gate.
The gate guard dumps the contents of our sacks into what I can only assume are magic counting bags. He waves us through.
A scarred, muscular hand stops me just as I’m leaving.
“Hey kid, we’ll miss you around here. Make sure to visit.”
Is this a sidequest?
As the dwarf wanders off, we hear a familiar melody in his gruff voice.
♫ I’d go back to December, turn around and make it all right ♫
♫ I go back to December all the time ♫
Hooded, silent priests direct us through the Class Choice building. Plun and I separate into two adjacent rooms.
Mine is completely empty.
Narrator Voice turns on in my head:
“Murphy, Level 3 Human, are you ready for Class Choice?”
I tap the Yes button that appears in the air.
“Please stand by as we calculate your designated Class.”
“No, no, no.”
“Please stand by as we calculate your designated Class.”
The pleasant feminine Narrator Voice is only a tad less grating than Dad’s GPS.
Wanna know how I survived to the age of 16 in this cruel life, where even inanimate objects are imbued with diabolical malice against me?
Normal people have five stages of grief. I’ve learned to cut it down to two by skipping straight to acceptance. The clues I should have noticed flood through me.
“You will be escorted to the Class Choice building, where your specialization will be determined.”
The strange lack of tutorials for Class Choice.
Plun’s remarkable nonchalance about Class Choice. What had he said?
“Class Choice happens in that building yonder.”
Not “we choose our Class in that building yonder.”
I should have noticed…we don’t choose our own Classes…it’s Chosen for us…
A weaker man would plead with the Gods of Fate to be selected as Mage. But I know what’s coming, and I choose to accept my fate with open arms. That choice, at least, is in my power.
Acceptance somehow fails to stem the flow of tears down my cheeks.