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Gatekeepers Short: A Dapper Tale

RhetoricalHypotheticalApr 21, 2018, 12:10:12 AM
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Dapper stalked his prey through the long grass, moving silently with fluid motions between the shadows cast by the trees and bushes as they were illuminated by the starry sky. He could see the group of three casters, two moving with nonchalant carefree chatter while the third nervously darted his eyes around, appearing to sense his impending demise. All of them wore no armor, instead opting for green camouflage with various gear meant both for stealth and carrying the necessary supplies to travel long distances.

“Are you sure about this, Blaze?” the antsy member asked, voice cracking slightly as he coughed to clear it of the fear that kept creeping in. He kept tightening his grip on his spear, which Dapper could practically see shaking. “I’ve heard stories about the Inverse… a lot of nasty things lurk here.”

Dapper smiled at the man’s comment. He was one of those nasty things.

The man who was Blaze, an older man with graying black hair and a stern face, responded. “Relax, Twinge. I’ve come here dozens of times. Nothing is around here; the Inverse is massive, more massive then the real world. The chances of us running into anything are practically nil.”

The other man laughed. “Even if there was… are you really that scared of a Vorpal, Twinge? With all three of us here? We have Blaze for thermal casting, me for gravity, and you for kinetic. If we cooperate, we can fell almost anything the Inverse can throw at us.”

Dapper moved closer, now within range to take one out, as Twinge answered. “You say that now, Crusher. But this is their turf. We have defenses, numbers, resources… absolutely all the advantages outside of here. But here, we are weaker, and they-”

The man’s words were cut short as Dapper leapt from the bushes, snapping his neck as he flew by, letting the man’s now lifeless body collapse to the ground. Dapper landed back in the thick grass, completely unseen by the other two casters.

Blaze and Crusher immediately froze and looked around frantically when they realized their rightfully scared friend was now dead on the ground, dark mist beginning to swirl around him. Blaze started lighting the surrounding grass on fire with jets of blue from his hands, while Crusher leapt into the sky to get a bird’s eye view. Dapper rushed through the igniting grass, eventually being forced to enter the open, where Blaze saw him as his eyes grew wide.

Dapper stood there for a moment, letting the man see the one who would end him. A fancy jacket and a long sleeve white shirt with matching black dress pants, and his favorite top hat. His sickly yellowish-tan yet smooth skin marked him clearly as a Vorpal, but even without that, his two gaping voids where a Human’s eyes would normally be removed any doubt. He gripped the brim of his hat, smiling widely with his flawless smile as he regarded Blaze. “Salutations… Blaze, was it? Only two of you remain. You likely should not have come here… that is, if you didn’t want to get folded.”

Blaze cursed as he attempted to roast Dapper. “Wreck us! A Vorpal!”

Dapper stretched and morphed between the bursts of flame, avoiding any amount of exposure that would cause him harm. He started losing ground when Crusher joined in, attempting to drop whatever boulders or lose logs he could find on top of Dapper. Growing annoyed, Dapper stretched his arms and pulled himself up and around the latest boulder being leveled at him, sling-shotting himself up towards the gravity caster. He quickly grabbed the man with one arm as his target frantically tried to manipulate gravity and push him away, but while Dapper’s arm stretched slightly his grip held firm. Dapper formed his free arm into a blackened spear ending in a sharp point, and stabbed it through the man’s chest. Both fell to the ground, only one still alive as dark fog flowed off of his arm as it quickly reformed from needle of death back to its normal state, though it was still covered in Crusher’s blood.

To Dapper’s disappointment, Blaze ran in desperation. “Tsk, tsk, Blaze. You can’t elude me… and to think, after all that grandstanding about how invading the Inverse somehow wasn’t a grave mistake...”

Dapper stopped himself from following when he heard sobbing. He looked around as he finished wiping his bloody hand on the grass, not seeing any other combatants as Blaze moved farther towards the horizon. He finally looked down, and saw a much shorter being, barely even four feet tall and standing a little over half his own height. It had a bag over its head, and was dressed in rough gray clothes made from wool, with no shoes. And strangest of all, there were shackles on its arms.

Dapper pulled the hood off the short one, revealing a young Human girl. She had straight blond hair and blue eyes that were red with tears, and now quickly filling with fear. She backed up and screamed at the sight of Dapper, falling backwards and trying to crawl away.

Dapper just watched for a moment, confused. He stretched an arm out and picked the girl up by the back of her shirt, dangling her in front of him as he looked at her. She covered her face, quivering in mortal terror. “P...Please… let me go…”

Dapper looked around. “Let you go where?”

The girl stopped crying slightly to answer, still shaking. “I… don’t know… those men kidnapped me. I don’t know where I am…”

Dapper set the girl down and squatted down himself so he wasn’t towering over his new conversation partner. “You are in the Inverse, little one.”

The girl looked at Dapper with horror. “D-d-does… that m-m-mean...”

“Yes, I’m a Vorpal.”

The girl turned to run, as Dapper grabbed her again. She thrashed as she tried in vain to get away. “I don’t want to die! I want to go home! Let me go, you monster! Freak!”

Dapper dropped the girl at the sting of the final insult as he watched her run. He followed for a short distance, watching her till she grew tired and collapsed, crying. He approached again, and sat down next to her. He was not feeling overly concerned for her well being, but rather curious on how a Human child had come to be in the Inverse, and why. “Tell me, how did you get here? You said you were kidnapped? Why?”

The girl refused to answer for a long while, but Dapper waited patiently, as he had lost interest in chasing down Blaze now that this new event had his attention. She finally responded, anger bleeding into her voice. “I am – was - being held for ransom. A gang in the Pyro Empire, where I’m from… they kidnap children, then hide them somewhere until the parents pay. I was walking home from school, when they…” The girl started crying again.

Dapper patted her on the back, to which she recoiled, so he stopped. “Hmm… intriguing. I know little of interactions between Humans. So you don’t all get along, then?”

The girl gave Dapper an incredulous look. “What? No- no of course they don’t! What kind of inhuman… thing are you?”

Dapper raised an eyebrow over his nonexistent eyes. “I’m a Vorpal.”

The girl sighed. “Right. Well… you are the friendliest Vorpal I’ve ever met.”

“Really? You chat with many of them?”

“No, I’m just saying… we are taught that Vorpals will always kill you if they get you.”

Dapper looked towards the starry sky. “Yeah, that’s an apt assumption to make.”

The girl’s gaze sharpened on Dapper again, horrified at his answer. “But then… why aren’t you killing me?”

Dapper tore some grass from the ground and fiddled with it. “I don’t really know… I suppose I could. Maybe I should. But I guess I just don’t really want to. I can sense you aren’t a caster, so I have nothing to gain from it.”

“You only kill casters?”

“Well, no. I primarily kill casters. Anything else… Meh. It depends.”

The girl was silent again for a long time. “My name is Alicia. Do… Vorpals have names?”

Dapper smiled, tipping his top hat towards Alicia. “My name is Dapper. Pleasure to meet you, Alicia. So, since I’m not occupied at the current moment… why don’t we see if we can’t get you home?”

* * *

Dapper and Alicia reached an unassuming cottage in the middle of nowhere, where several other Vorpals were congregated and milling about. The various forms unnerved Alicia, as they had anywhere from no eyes to several hundred, and had anatomies ranging from hulking masses bulging with muscles to scurrying pest-like bodies. Most were solid black or a faded green, but a couple shared the more unique shade sported by Dapper. Several came up to Alicia with varying levels of aggression, but Dapper chatted them up cheerfully, sometimes in some alien language, before they left without causing any harm.

Dapper led Alicia through the simple door and into the cottage, where a woman sat in a plain wooden chair, yet wore ornate bracelets and rings along her grand total of four arms. She had a single large yellow eye set square within her forehead, focused on the newcomers entering the abode. Despite those differences, her skin was human in tone, a clear light tan. She squinted at Dapper, then her eye grew wide with disbelief at the sight of Alicia. “By the rift… a Human! This deep in the Inverse, and… unfolded!? Dapper, do not taunt me any longer! The whole story, now!”

“It’s not as much of a story as you think, Oracle. I killed a couple mercenary casters, and found they had this one in chains. I conversed with her and broke her chains, but she is lost. I was planning on getting her back to her home realm.”

Oracle looked bewildered. “Why would you do that?”

Dapper shrugged. “Because she’s lost? Oh, right, and she’s not a caster. So I thought it prudent to extend a little Inverse goodwill. No reason for all of us to act like ferals, after all.”

Oracle examined Alicia, who stared at Oracle with curiosity at the strange being in front of her. “Perhaps, but we kill Humans.”

“Casters.”

“Same difference. She may become a caster in the future, and she may reenter the Inverse. Are you okay with allowing that to happen?”

Dapper stroked his chin as he looked down at Alicia. “Good point…” Alicia looked up with pleading eyes, and Dapper felt a strange feeling. He thought it may have been called empathy, but he shook his head, dismissing it. “No, that’s not really a concern. Just as easily, she could convince less Humans to enter the Inverse. Or maybe, and yes I know this is a very sizable maybe, establish a new entrance we can use to get into the Outverse easier. We have evidence that Humans can be very inventive when they choose to.”

Oracle looked intrigued this time. “That’s… one way of thinking, I suppose. Ah well, not really my business. I assume you need…?”

“Indubitably.”

Oracle whistled, and two other Vorpals entered the dimly lit cottage. One was solid red, the other blue, and both had no nose and especially large eyes of identical colors to their skin. They were taller and thinner than Dapper, with flowing robes matching the others’ color and a hood obscuring any view of their hair. They spoke with their words perfectly synchronized. “Yes, Oracle?”

“Dapper has requested aid. Could you retrieve a map?”

The blue skinned one left while the red one remained. The red Vorpal knelt down, halving her height to look at Alicia at eye level with sudden interest. “Who are you, child?”

Alicia backed up, intimidated at the intense gaze, but answered. “I’m Alicia.”

The Vorpal squinted. “My name is Twins, pleasure to make your acquaintance. What are you, though? You don’t look like a Vorpal…”

“I’m a Human.”

Twins gasped and darted backwards, standing with back to the wall. “Dapper! Oracle! There is a Human in here!”

Dapper laughed to himself. Oracle explained. “We know. As his latest little diversion, he is going to take her back.”

Twins looked at Dapper with incredulity. “That’s suicide!”

Dapper tipped his hat. “I know, right? How could I ever pass that up?”

Twins shook her head, amazed at Dapper’s dismissal. “You have a braver soul then mine. I wish you luck. Here is what you requested…”

The blue skinned and red clothed Twins returned, holding a scroll that she promptly handed to Dapper. He took it, pulled it open and skimmed the contents, before rolling it back up and tucking it under his arm. “Looks spectacular. Alicia, let us depart…”

Oracle stood up. “One more thing, Dapper. She has no shoes, and her clothes are, to be frank, awful.”

Dapper stopped, and looked at Alicia’s feet. They were quite dirty and indeed bare as she shifted uncomfortably on them.

Oracle waved her four arms rhythmically, then snapped her fingers. A puff of smoke erupted around Alicia as she yelped, then found herself wearing a plain black robe with a hood, and woven sandals. She spun around, watching the hem of her new clothes spin outwards. “Wow… I like it. It feels so warm… Thank you.”

Dapper tipped his hat to Oracle. “Infinite thanks as always, Oracle. Farewell. Come along, Alicia.”

The Vorpal and Human left the cottage and out into the Inverse, both with a spring in their step fueled by excitement of setting out to see the unknown.

* * *

Alicia skipped alongside Dapper over the grassy fields under the star filled sky, feeling much better after having met several Vorpals. They all were so much friendlier than she had been told Vorpals were; she was taught as long as she could remember that they were all homicidal monsters. But Dapper, despite his creepy appearance, was not only great company, but her rescuer from real monsters that also just so happened to be Human.

“So, Dapper… how old are you, exactly?”

“No idea.”

Alicia stopped skipping, befuddled at his answer. “What? How can you not know?”

“How CAN you know? Do you remember everything since your first moment of existence?”

“No, my parents told me when I was born. I’m nine years old.”

Dapper took a turn looking completely shocked. “What? Nine YEARS? I thought you were a child!”

Alicia scoffed. “I am. I don’t think I’m really considered an adult until I’m about eighteen...”

“So nine MORE years? How do you humans do anything when it takes you so long to grow up!”

“You look a lot older than eighteen, though. Are you really sure you aren’t older than that?”

“Hmm… I never really thought of it like that. As I said, my age is a mystery. Well, well. Alicia, you managed to completely rend apart how I previously perceived the world. You are truly a bright and insightful mind.”

Alicia sighed, unsure how her simple question could be considered remotely insightful. “Ok… well… thanks I guess… ”

Dapper shook his head. “Goodness… now I need to think of an equally seismic quandary just to keep up… hmmmmm… Oh! I know!”

Dapper leapt in front of Alicia facing towards her, startling her slightly. “How do the casters make the keys to the Gateways?”

Alicia blinked. “Um… I don’t know.”

Dapper stood as still as a statue for a moment, then sighed with disappointment. “Well, that was a dud… I thought for sure a scholar like you would know…”

Alicia couldn’t help staring at the gaping voids in Dapper’s head where his eyes should have been. “If you don’t mind me asking… what happened to your eyes?”

“Many Vorpals don’t need eyes. We have an inner eye that lets us see.”

“Um, all right. How does that work then?”

Dapper again stopped for a moment, looking stumped yet again. “You know… I’m not entirely sure…”

Alicia tried another question as they continued walking. “I have another one… why do Vorpals want to kill casters?”

Dapper scratched his head. “I don’t know if I could really say why… we are just supposed to.”

“But why are you supposed to?”

“We just are, just like we eat and breathe. We have to.”

“You need to eat? Like, real food?”

Dapper looked at Alicia. “Yes, but wait a spell… do you eat food too? Humans eat and drink, just like Vorpals?”

Alicia’s stomach growled, answering for her. Dapper let out a relieved sigh. “Oh, thank god. I thought I would be pressured to walk the whole way without stopping for a meal. Are you hungry as well, Alicia?”

Alicia nodded vehemently. “But… where do we get food here? There’s nothing but grasslands in all directions.”

Dapper pulled out his map, turning it upside down and sideways while he made all kinds of strained expressions. “Well, this says the city of Goliath is right around…”

As a shadow extended overhead and in front of them, a massive stone leg slammed into the ground mere feet to the right of Dapper, creating a deafening boom. Alicia yelled in surprise, while Dapper merely looked up from the map at the sudden disturbance. “Oh. Right here.”

Dapper scooped up Alicia and stretched his arm above him, pulling himself up the newly arrived giant. He repeatedly slung himself up with his stretching arm to maintain his momentum while Alicia kept her eyes tightly shut against the buffeting wind. He landed on solid ground, and set Alicia down on her feet gently. She opened her eyes slowly, and was greeted with an amazing sight.

An entire amusement park, with vendors selling sweets and rides including a ferris wheel and roller coaster that ran inside artificial tunnels and around the giant Vorpal, decorated with colorful otherworldly lights. Alicia’s dropped jaw morphed into an amazed smile, as she ran forward with Dapper close behind.

While the Vorpals populating the event were scarce, the ones around were slightly more normal looking than the ones around Oracle’s cottage, and gave Alicia intrigued looks rather than aggressive. Several wanted to walk up and shake her hand or chat, but she could not understand their language well, and Dapper inevitably shooed them away.

Dapper got two strange fruit kabob consisting of multiple colored slices that Alicia could not recognize from a vendor, and handed one to her. She eyed them skeptically, as they dripped slightly on the ground. “Are you sure these are edible for Humans?”

Dapper had already eaten half his, and choked down the fruit he had in his mouth before responding. “I didn’t know Humans needed to eat until a few minutes ago, and you expect me to know your dietary restrictions? I suspect it to be perfectly acceptable, but please feel free to try anything else that looks good to you.”

Alicia looked around. There was no shortage of options, but she was also aware that she was a guest with no money of her own. “I don’t want to impose… do you have enough money for that?”

Dapper tilted his head at her comment as he finished the last of his kabob. “Money? We don’t use that.”

“What? Everything is FREE?”

“Oh, no, no, the citizens of Goliath work very hard to provide these goods. But they don’t require anything from us. Vorpals don’t keep score, we just help each other whenever it is required. If they asked something of me, I would oblige to the best of my ability without a second thought.”

Alicia immediately ran up and got a large bundle of light green tinted cotton candy, but when she bit into it realized it was not spun from sugar. It was instead an incredibly light pasta, with sauce drizzled all throughout the precarious construct. After finishing, Dapper snatched the remaining paper stick and stretched it over to a nearby trash bin, chuckling slightly. “My, you were famished. Ready to go, though? I thought you wished to get back home.”

Alicia ran over to the rail near the edge and looked over, seeing leagues of grassy plains illuminated by the gentle nighttime starlight as the behemoth trudged along. “I do, but… the Inverse is amazing. I never thought it would have so many… incredible things.”

A hulking mass loomed next to Alicia as she looked over. A top heavy Vorpal having scarred, leathery gray skin along with thick arms and hands coupled with a bald rounded head regarded her. Face covered by a metal mask with white glowing eyes peering through the bars, it breathed heavily, expression inscrutable. Alicia turned and, trying to be polite, extended an arm to shake hands. “Hello. I’m Alicia.”

The monster grabbed Alicia with one of its massive hands, knocking the wind out of her and exerting a large amount of pressure. It spoke with a deep voice that echoed from behind the metal mask. “Human. You are in the wrong place. You shall be folded.” The hand continued to squeeze, crushing Alicia in its unbearable grip as she yelled in pain.

Dapper rushed over, punching the Vorpal in the face with a rapidly expanded fist. “Grector! No! That’s my traveling companion, no folding my traveling companions!”

Grector moved very little from the blow, but released his grip as he let Alicia go and turned his attention towards Dapper. “Dapper. You are traveling with a Human? You are Vorpal, not Human.”

“I’m aware of this, Grector. I’m taking her back to the Outverse.”

Grector groaned, again reacting little. “Dapper, I never understand your inane ramblings. She is Human, we fold humans. Kill them, crush them, stab them. Whatever we need to.”

Dapper rolled his head in place of his eyes. “I target casters. This one is not a caster.”

Grector looked back down at Alicia, who was breathing shakily as she held tight to Dapper’s leg, now watching the large Vorpal with suspicion. Grector groaned again. “You can tell if they are caster or not?”

“Yes, can you not?”

“I never cared to try. Why do you?”

“Because I don’t see the point to killing a Human just for the sake of killing.”

Grector was silent, then simply turned and stomped away without so much as a farewell. Dapper grew less tense than he had just been. “Phew… that was close. I was hoping that wouldn’t come to blows. Grector isn’t always so reasonable.”

“THAT was REASONABLE? He was going to kill me!”

Dapper looked down over the edge of the railing as he leaned on it. “It was an honest misunderstanding. He didn’t know you were traveling with me.”

“So, you’re saying that if I wasn’t walking around with you or another Vorpal with me…”

“Any given Vorpal may try to kill you, yes.”

The silence after what Dapper considered a perfectly benign statement stabbed at Alicia. She had almost forgot all the stories she heard of people who had gone missing in the Inverse. “I want to go… now.”

Dapper grabbed Alicia with one arm and held onto the railing with his other as he rappelled down the walking city of Goliath.

* * *

Alicia grew tired, starting to feel sleepy. The grasslands had at some point been replaced by rolling desert sands as far as the eye could see. She had lost the energy to keep walking a full hour ago, and now rode in a makeshift passenger seat that Dapper shapeshifted out of his back. Dapper kept talking at her, as well as jostling the seat every now and then to try keeping her awake.

“Hey! Don’t fall asleep. You may get folded if you fall asleep in the Inverse and you don’t have a strong enough will. Though, little scholar, with your considerable determination and vast knowledge, you may have nothing to worry about...”

“You keep using that word, folding. Does it mean something? I thought it just meant to die, or be killed.”

“It means to be infected by the Inverse. If you die here, or are killed directly by a Vorpal anywhere, you become a Vorpal. You body becomes bent, mutated, warped… folded.”

Alicia jerked awake. “What?”

“Most sentient Vorpals were once Humans. Like I just said, a Vorpal is someone who got folded.”

Alicia’s heart raced at this new revelation. “And… this can happen even if I just fall asleep?!”

“Yes. There is no small number of reasons we try to keep people out of the Inverse, and kill casters who wish to fool around here. This is one of them; it is for their own good. They are not supposed to be here. The Inverse is only for Vorpals, by definition.”

“How is killing someone for their own good!?”

“I don’t care to explain any further than I have, Alicia. It just is.”

Alicia began hyperventilating. “What… what if we can’t find the Gateway in time?! I can’t stay awake forever!”

Dapper stopped to check the map again. “Well, I don’t think we are very far… but this map can be hard to read. Just give me a moment to double check-”

The ground broke apart as dark purple tentacles whipped around. A deafening roar erupted nearby as the sand started sliding into a whirlpool with a sharp toothed maw at the center.

Alicia looked back in terror. “I THOUGHT VORPALS DIDN’T HURT EACH OTHER!”

Dapper stretched both arms and legs as he shambled out of the sand trap, ducking and weaving between thrashing tentacles that would kill a normal Human on impact instantly. “I DON’T RECALL SAYING THAT!!!”

The frantically fleeing Vorpal escaped the vortex and ran until he was out of range of the tentacles. He stretched his legs to take long strides until he grew tired and stood hunched over, panting heavily. After some time, he then realized why he was still having trouble breathing.

“Alicia… please let go of my neck.”

Alicia unlocked her arms and fell backward into her seat rigidly, eyes open wide and hair in a jumbled mess with her hood blown back by the mad dash. She tried to push her blond hair back down into a semblance of order, largely failing. She no longer felt sleepy.

Dapper regained his composure, and readjusted his top hat that had been knocked off kilter. “Well… nice to see you too, Xid. Wasn’t exactly a friendly greeting, but he never was much for conversation.” Dapper looked around. They had reached a grassland again at some point. He pulled out the map, and continued trying to decipher it. “Oh, how splendiferous. The Gateway is just over the next hill. Fancy that.”

Dapper walked over the hill, and both travelers were greeted by a massive spherical void, with a single pale bridge leading from a cliff directly into its heart. Alicia grew frantic. “What is that! Where is the Gateway!?”

“Calm yourself, Alicia. I would wager you still had that bag over your noggin when you were brought in. The Gateway is at the end of that bridge. We are very nearly there, just wait-”

Dapper’s arm exploded in fire as he fell backwards, turning at the last moment to avoid falling on top of Alicia. He sharpely inhaled in shock at the clear pain from his injury.

Alicia frantically looked around. “Dapper! What was that? Are you-”

A hand covered her mouth as she tried to scream and kick, being picked up by Blaze holding a still smoking fireball cannon. “I can’t believe you, Dapper. I realized you had left with my hostage, and you actually returned to a Gateway, much less the one I had found myself at by pure chance. I thought I was wasting my time, thinking a Vorpal would do anything except kill indiscriminately.”

Dapper struggled back to his feet, teetering as his shoulder was all but missing. “Blaze… right? I think that was your name… Give me… Alicia… back...” Dapper fell to a knee as he struggled to cope with the pain. His shoulder dripped with oozing black liquid.

Blaze walked up to Dapper, pointing the barrel of his weapon directly at Dapper’s head as it recharged. “No. She is my next paycheck. And you… you are just another dead Vorpal, now.”

Alicia struggled, desperately kicking and screaming as Blaze began to pull the trigger. Dapper ducked to the left just in time to avoid the deadly jet of flame, showing he wasn’t quite as badly injured as originally appeared. He stretched and malformed along the ground himself until finally he stood behind his confused opponent. With rapidly shifted slicing claws, he had already slashed the flaming weapon, destroying it.

“I’m not so easy to kill, Blaze.”

Alicia found herself pulled away and set on a hill, by one of Dapper’s arms. Dapper picked up Blaze by a leg and whipped him around, slamming him into the ground multiple times as Blaze struggled to break free. Blaze burst into flames as the Vorpal finally let him go to avoid getting burned. Blaze turned to face Dapper, rage in his eyes accompanying the more physical inferno he stood in. “You are just a filthy Vorpal. A freak that can’t even die correctly. I am a class five caster, you can’t possibly best me.”

Dapper expanded a hand and grabbed Blaze’s entire body at once, smothering the flames immediately. “Hmm? I didn’t quite catch that. Something about class? I guarantee you are not a higher class than me.”

As he was about to crush his opponent, Dapper looked down to see Alicia tugging on his pants leg. “Dapper… No! You don’t need to kill him.”

Dapper stopped, and shot Alicia an angry look. “He tried to kill me. And, he is a caster. Vorpals kill casters. I swear, we have talked about this.”

“You are better than that, Dapper! You aren’t like him!”

Dapper faced Alicia with his empty eyes and grim frown for a long time. Blaze struggled, but could not break free. Dapper let Blaze fall from his grip, body thumping onto the ground as he groaned.

Alicia gave Dapper a hug just as she saw Blaze forming a large fireball aimed at both of them.

Dapper quickly grabbed Alicia as he darted off to the side. He carried Alicia with one arm as he dodged each blast of fire, until he finally split his spare arm into two and extended them towards Blaze to restrain the flame spouting arms before rapidly pulling both backwards at once, snapping bones with a sickening crack.

Blaze collapsed as he was released, coughing and wheezing as a dark fog began to emanate off his body. Dapper wasted no more time examining the scene as he set Alicia back down and began to walk away.

“Make haste, Alicia. The Gateway is nigh.”

Alicia was pulled along by her hand as she was unable to tear her eyes away from the mutating mass that had just been her captor.

The bridge flew by as Alicia walked behind Dapper, still holding his hand as she was unnerved by the sheer emptiness underfoot. She looked back, and saw the grassy plains in the distance grow more dim until the only sights remaining were the bridge and the starry sky above. Soon the starry sky was also gone, leaving only blackness and the bridge. Eventually, she saw the Gateway gradually appear in front of them; an imposing stone double door with a single circle indentation at the center and lines running symmetrically along both doors. The size of the entire construct was hard to fathom, but was several stories tall at the very least.

Dapper turned to Alicia, bending down on one knee. “We are here, Alicia. It was even more of an adventure than I thought, but I enjoyed it. I hope you had fun, too.”

Dapper’s shoulder still smoldered as Alicia responded. “Are you mad? You’re injured! This was all terrible!”

“It will heal, Alicia. The Inverse gives Vorpals rapid regeneration, so I’m in no danger. Now…”

Dapper looked towards the Gateway. “Hmm. Well, while I can’t open it from this side, if I create enough commotion, they will open it on the other side to try to deal with whatever they think is trying to destroy or break through the Gateway. But, that means they will attempt to cleanse the bridge with complete and utterly overwhelming force. So, I’ll knock on the door and then shield you. Are you ready, Alicia?”

Alicia looked at Dapper with shock. “Are you sure that won’t kill you? Wouldn’t they have, like, really powerful casters guarding the gate?”

Dapper grinned. “Very good, little scholar. Yes, it almost certainly will kill me. I’ll just reform somewhere else in the Inverse; that’s how it works with Vorpals. But at that point, it will be goodbye. I won’t be seeing you again, nor you me. Stay safe, Alicia. And please, don’t come back to the Inverse. I won’t be able to stop anything bad from happening to you if you wander back in.”

Alicia felt very emotional suddenly, not wanting to say goodbye to her new friend. “No! You saved my life multiple times, I’m not just going to say goodbye forever! I’ll grow up, get stronger, strong enough to defend myself. Then I’ll come back to visit! We can still be friends! Maybe I can even convince other people in my world to be nice to you as long as you don’t hurt them, and you could visit me!”

Dapper tilted his head, confused. “Come back? Visit?… Be friends?”

“Yes! You are my friend!”

Dapper was silent, and stood up slowly. “Alicia… Vorpals can’t be friends with Humans.”

“Don’t say that! We are already friends, aren’t we?”

Dapper spoke slowly, with a hint of sadness to his voice. “Alicia… A Vorpal doesn’t have long term memory. For some reason we can still remember other Vorpal’s names, some details around them, and sometimes things known before we were folded, but that is the limit. Two, maybe three days from now… I won’t remember you even exist.”

Alicia backed up, now even more distraught. “...What? This is some kind of joke, right?… It can’t be…”

“I thought you knew already. I thought you guessed when I told you I can’t remember how old I am… My memory only goes back several days at the absolute max. Everything beyond is mostly a blur.”

Alicia started crying. “No… no it can’t be true! I won’t let it!”

She stomped up to Dapper with a determined expression and shouted through her tears. “We ARE friends! You have to be my friend! Promise! I won’t ever forget you, and in return, you will never forget me! And one day, I WILL find you again!”

“Alicia…”

“Promise!”

Dapper bent down, and put both arms on Alicia’s shoulders. “I can’t promise that in good conscience. I just told you that-”

Alicia stomped her foot and pouted, refusing to accept any other answer. “I said promise!”

Dapper sighed, taking off his hat briefly as he ran a hand through his short black hair before putting it back on top and adjusting it to sit perfectly straight. “Fine… I promise.”

Alicia rubbed her face free of remaining tears, finally satisfied. “Good. Now I’m ready... Open the Gateway.”

Dapper walked to the Gateway, and grew his right hand several times its normal size. He punched it into the massive monolith several times, each with a resounding crash. Nothing happened, so he grew his other hand to the same size and started punching the door with alternating over sized fists. Eventually, the door shuddered and crackled with electricity running along its lines. A crack of light formed down the center as it began to open.

Dapper spun around and covered Alicia, forming a cocoon with his warped body. Though muffled, Alicia could still hear someone yell a command. “Rolling Thunder!”

Alicia’s view of Dapper turned partially translucent as they were bathed in a sea of electricity. Dapper screamed in pain, until finally the massive electric attack ceased.

Dapper unwrapped himself from around Alicia, and collapsed backward. His body immediately turned to black ash as he hit the bridge, quickly blowing away from the gentle breeze emanating from the Gateway. Alicia looked towards the Gateway, and saw a single woman with pale blond hair cascading to her side as residual sparks danced along her. The woman stood for a moment, stunned at what she was seeing. “Oh my god… a child! In the Inverse!”

Before Alicia could speak, the woman ran forward and pulled Alicia through the other side, as the door slowly began to close behind them.

* * *

Alicia sat on an examination table, holding a cup of water they had given her. They had given her a new pair of clothes and a chance to take a shower after all she had been through, and a meal that she had declined. She spoke no more than necessary, traumatized at all that had happened.

The woman who had killed Dapper sat across the room from her, in a chair with a clipboard. Alicia had been told her name was Shock. “So, you said your name is Alicia?”

“Yes.”

Shock made a note with her metal pen on the faintly glowing clipboard, steel colored eyes darting around the contents. “And how did you find yourself in the Inverse?”

Alicia detailed the whole story. The kidnapping, traveling with Dapper, standing on the top of Goliath, and Dapper protecting her again from Blaze. Each sentence drew more disbelief from Shock, who stopped asking questions of clarification halfway as she simply sat their with her jaw open. After Alicia finished, both sat silently for a full minute.

“Alicia… you’ve been through a lot.”

Alicia did not respond, staring down at her cup.

“I want you to know, we will get you back to the Pyro Empire. You don’t need to worry about anything, we have already sent a message to your parents so they know you are okay. If you need anything, anything at all, let me or someone walking around here know, and we will do whatever-”

“I want to go back. I want to see Dapper again.”

Shock grimaced. “No. We will not allow that.”

Alicia through her cup of water against the wall. “He rescued me! He fought for me, he died for me! I don’t care if I end up a Vorpal, I refuse to just forget he ever existed! To have him forget me!”

Shock stood up to try to calm Alicia down. “Alicia… please control yourself. He was – is – a Vorpal. I know you think he will protect you, that he won’t kill a human who isn’t a caster… but Vorpals are erratic.Unpredictable. Volatile. Dapper didn’t even manage to bring you to the same Gateway you were taken through. They forget their promises, they forget their pasts. That’s something we already knew very well. Although…”

Alicia flipped through the digital entries on her clipboard. “…You have provided us with a lot of incredibly useful data. A giant Vorpal that lives under great expanses of sand, a Vorpal city built into another giant Vorpal… we had no idea these things existed. And this Oracle… she has maps of the Inverse? That has enormous potential. If we could acquire even just one…”

Alicia felt like she was about to cry again. “Who cares about any of that? They try to kill any casters that enter the Inverse, they- wait...”

Alicia leapt down off of the table, immediately ceasing her sniffling. “He didn’t kill Blaze right away. He stopped when I asked him to. Grector didn’t kill me, he stopped when Dapper confronted him. They can be reasoned with.”

“That’s not the same thing, Alicia. They respond to immediate commands and stimuli based on their instincts, what you think are lasting relationships are really-”

“They have those too! They are friends with each other! Somehow, if you could fix their memories, then Vorpals could live peacefully with Humans!”

“Alicia… people have studied both the Inverse and Vorpals for decades. All these things you speak of… people have tried. And many people have lost their lives when they failed.”

Alicia stood defiantly, now brimming with confidence. “I will figure it out. No matter what it takes. No matter how long it takes. I will see Dapper again.”

As Shock observed the sudden change in demeanor of the young girl, she wondered anxiously if what she had just witnessed was another life lost to the ongoing enigma of the Inverse.

Dapper sat up suddenly, feeling disoriented. He realized he must have died and just now reformed himself. By the way he felt, it must have been a real doozy, like being completely incinerated. Where was he?

He looked around. Just grasslands in all directions, without as much as a single other soul in sight. He checked his pockets, and pulled out a broken pair of shackles as well as a now crumpled map that must belong to Oracle. He cringed; Oracle would give him a hard time for handling such a valuable map so poorly. But he couldn’t stop thinking about the shackles as he returned both items to his pockets and started walking.

He was oddly familiar with waking up not remembering much, as most Vorpals took it in stride out of sheer necessity, but this time felt different. Was there another Vorpal he had been with? No, that didn’t seem right. It was something else. An energy beast of some form? No, he had been in Goliath with someone, not an animal. Or had it been New Quasar?

He struggled to piece it together. A name. There was a name he was supposed to remember, though he didn’t know why. Jackson? Theodore? No, it was a female name. His mind burned as continued to search through places he did not normally navigate in his own consciousness, unsure what exactly was driving him. Uthgerd? Rebecca? Jill? Amanda? Mary? Alicia?

It clicked. Alicia. That was the name he has striving to find. But what did it mean?

Who was Alicia?