Regular Romp is an interactive fiction activity over on our Twitch stream where I ask a regular a series of questions before turning their answers and a corruption of their username into a short story. Stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade if you’d like to participate.
There was a depth to mankind’s plans for the future that was poorly understood. Even its clues were well hidden, invisible within mundane darkness like the interior of a virtual trash can. Mankind saw fit to ditch the physical realm of its birth and transfer all intelligence to a realm of electricity and data. The most difficult part was the transition, where each human mind had to decided what to leave behind and what to rebuild.
This was called ‘character creation’: a phrase borrowed from the world of video games. It was somewhere between the process of individualizing an avatar and cleansing one’s own soul of flaws. When a person came out the other side, having shed their skin and bones like a chrysalis, they were rarely exactly the same. It was renewal. It was improvement. Mostly.
You see, there was no way to tell when the process went wrong, when a glitch or hiccup caused a personality to fracture and disappear in that trashcan darkness. Something always came out the other side claiming to be whoever went into it. Shards of people, at their most energized and vulnerable, were thrown into spaces not yet calculated, like white hot meteors of glass streaking across an empty sky. We follow one such set of shards now, into a bottomless darkness, where they bloomed on impact, created their own world, and forgot their source.
The cellar was dark, dingy, and drafty. It smelled of old barrels and rotten contents. The ritual had to be performed there, as it was the only room in the small house with no windows. Windows meant inspection, and for the two young desperate people huddled around the blood stain, death. They sat, one on each side of the red puddle, legs crossed.
There was a girl in blue work clothes. She scratched at the soles of her big boots, anxiously awaiting her partner in crime’s voice. Her name was Gillian, but she knew she was something else. Her memories told her she was born from her mother’s flesh and blood, but her instincts convinced her she’d fallen out of the sky with some of that mysterious white heat. They only needed to gather enough of those embers, without the swollen eye seeing. It never blinked and it was always on patrol, so Raidle needed to hurry.
“Have you found him yet?” she whispered, flicking away a crumbled piece of her boot.
“Just give me a second,” he hissed back. He sucked on his fat lip, which still smarted painfully from where Gillian had punched him. He touched the torn end of a tablecloth to it, but it had dried; it failed to absorb any of the pain. “You hit me too hard. I’m having trouble focusing.”
“I told you I could cut you instead,” Gillian reminded.
“I wouldn’t trust either of us with a knife. That’s why we need him… This place is too happy.” His eyes were already closed, but he squinted harder. “I have to go over there, where I hear nothing but bugs. Big things are too afraid to move there… If I can just slip by…” Gillian waited while Raidle seemed to scour the inside of his skull. They each had a talent that they knew was born from that ancient white heat. They each had something to offer. Raidle was profoundly skilled at day dreaming. He could see things so clearly that they had to be real.
That made him a seer of sorts. For weeks now they’d honed his technique and researched what to look for. Raidle day dreamed about a very specific person, the one who could save them, the one who had been nearly scrubbed from the village’s history texts. Each time they tried Raidle’s dream got a little bit closer to him. Today was the day. Gillian focused on the dark blood before her so she wouldn’t hurry him again.
It was far past flowing, yet its red edge seemed to lap. She leaned closer. For a moment she caught her reflection in the blood, but it was gone with a sudden ripple, her color rearranged into a new scene. It was a dark forest populated by segmented creatures that could easily be mistaken for branches. There was a little house nestled in the trees, where no sane person would ever build one…
“I found him!” Raidle yelped. His hands flapped in the air like a confused chicken. The process was entirely incorporeal, so the flailing was just for his peace of mind. “I’m dreaming about him… I’m dreaming… about Dredd!” The blood caught fire, the picture of the forest going up in a single seamless lick of flame then smoke. Gillian scrambled backward. Raidle couldn’t. He had to keep the day dream going until he was fully there.
The fire died down quickly, revealing the transformation of its fuel. The blood was gone; there wasn’t even discoloration left behind. In its place sat a black iron cannonball, covered in pockmarks and scratches. Gillian crawled forward just as Raidle opened one eye to see if he’d succeeded. She tapped the ball and recoiled. Despite the fire it was cold to the touch. Stranger still, they couldn’t shake the feeling that it was made from flesh rather than iron. There was an oily shine to it, a sensed pulse under the surface.
They didn’t have time to comment on it, for the ball shuddered. A seam appeared across it. The ball grew and split along that seam, spewing red light and steam. The shell of the cannonball became a black cape, tossed back by its owner. From out of his shell came an old warrior with dark eyebrows, a nose like a plow blown to pieces on a battlefield, and teeth permanently gritted. He strode forward, hand on the hilt of his sheathed saber.
“Who are you?” he demanded in a voice deeper than the cellar itself.
“I am Gillian,” the girl offered, rising to her feet. She waved Raidle over. He scurried by the warrior, eyes down, and came to her side. She grabbed his shoulder to comfort him, as he was extremely meek around all others. He preferred the day dreams. “This is Raidle. You… are Dredd… yes?”
The warrior walked around the cellar, examining the barrels and walls. No, not examining. His iron stare changed them. The wood shifted and warped, becoming newer, lighter, and gaining lots of decorations. Before the two young ones realized, they were surrounded on all sides by a very different room. Its walls were covered in mounted weapons, all polished and glistening: swords, shields, spears, tridents, hammers… They came from all over the world it seemed. Raidle shied away from their gleaming.
“I am Dredd Hauser,” the warrior confirmed, “and this is the house of Dread.” He gestured to the changed walls.
“I don’t understand,” Gillian said. “Have we moved? Are we out of the village? We were just hoping to bring you in. We need your help.”
“We have not gone anywhere,” Dredd explained. “I don’t go anywhere without my house. I never know when I might need one of these.” He pointed to the weapons one by one, the finger lingering there, seeming to tell a hundred stories of battles won. “Why have you summoned me here?”
“Keep your voice down,” Raidle pleaded. “The swollen eye has ears as well. If it hears us, all is lost.”
“Nothing can be heard through my walls, which now protect us. Explain yourselves.”
“We read about you Dredd. You’re the man who is prepared for everything. You dread everything. This does feel like your house, because I feel safe in it. There are forces at play that even you might not have considered. We brought you here to tell you, to ask you for help. Come, let me show you.” She tried to move to the stairs, but they’d changed position in the house of dread. She found them on the other side. Raidle was nervous to set foot on them, but she pulled him along.
The ground floor was radically changed as well, but Dredd’s trophies were still the focal points. She wove between them, leading their guest to one of the windows looking out onto the street. The red wallpaper around the windows was warped and ripped, because the house of dread had to conform to the windows as seen from the outside. Dredd marched up and looked out onto the cobblestones without a hint of fear. Gillian tried to pull him back, but he wouldn’t budge.
“What are you so afraid of?” he asked.
“The swollen eye of the inspector,” Raidle moaned. He clawed at his cheeks, begged the warrior to step back. “We summoned you away from windows for a reason!”
“You should feel some of that characteristic dread right about now,” Gillian warned him. “As I said, there are forces at play. Our world is false. All of it. Born from the pieces of just one person in another. These things I know because I’ve meditated on it. Swam in my own guilt. That was when I realized what I was. Guilt. That’s who I am. Not Gillian. I’m someone else’s guilt: the shrapnel of an emotional explosion an age ago and a world away.”
“And I am not Raidle,” the boy said. “I’m just day dreams. That’s why I can do what I do. I’m incomplete, and I have only the one thing to focus on.”
“You’re like this too, like it or not,” Gillian went on. “We believe you are the dread of this long lost person. We seek to reunite all the pieces, forget this loose thread of a world, and go back to wholeness. First, we have to stop those who want to keep it like it is. The inspector and his wandering eye…”
“What happened here?” Dredd asked, stepping away from the glass just long enough to tap Raidle’s swollen lip. The boy recoiled, but Dredd did not apologize.
“We needed blood,” he stammered, “for the ritual. I can’t pull anything out of a day dream without it.”
“So who struck you?” the warrior asked, though he already knew.
“I did,” Gillian said defensively, stepping forward. “It had to be done and he’s too shy about conflict to do it himself. Don’t worry; I’m already torturing myself over hurting him. She looked deep into her friend’s eyes and used the glisten in her own to apologize. “If we can just… Huh!” The girl stumbled away from the windows, having just glanced at them. A giant pupil stared back from within a blue iris that seemed to burn at the edges, just under its wet surface.
The eyeball pushed against the glass, bent it, shattered it. The shards did nothing to its wet rubbery surface as it squeezed itself through the window frame. The door flew open next to it, and a man marched inside. He wore a white uniform and gloves that squealed as he rubbed his hands together. This man had a stern face, but there was a piece missing. His right eye was gone. Its lid hung open like a sack after all the apples had tumbled out. Tiny bolts of electricity jumped around inside the empty socket. It was the magic of his honed identity, just like Raidle’s day dreams, that turned his eye into a monster and let it roam free.
“Finally, I have you in my sights,” the inspector declared. “I was just walking along, doing the rounds, and I peer in to see an interior never sanctioned in my village.” The giant eye turned in Dredd’s direction. He drew his saber; the pupil adjusted slightly, focusing on the blade. “Who is this?”
“I am Dredd Hauser,” he introduced, offering neither bow or handshake. “You are an intruder in my home. Leave now or die.”
“Bhahahahaha!” the inspector chortled. “This is not your home. I am the inspector and I own everything that I see. And I see you.” The eye bumped into Dredd, forcing him back a step. Without warning he thrust his saber against its surface, but its barely bent. “My gaze is impenetrable. Have these two told you their little theory? That we’re all just grains of salt from an overturned shaker? That we should go back to some sort of obscure harmony?”
“They did mention that, yes,” Dredd growled.
“True or not, I won’t be giving up my spoils. If I am a piece of a person, then I am introspection. As the other pieces, you are all meant to be under my watch. Even you, Mr. Hausr.”
“This is the house of dread,” he replied. “Fear belongs to guests here, and I won’t store it in the closet for you.”
“Subjugation then,” the inspector proposed. “Let us begin!” His giant detached eye flew into the warrior, throwing him back into the stairwell. He disappeared down its darkness, but they heard him tumbling. With no time left to plan, Gillian threw herself into an attack. Her nails grew out into long blue claws that dripped sadness. She was guilt and she could get her claws into anything. That was what she hoped when she charged the inspector’s body and swung at him.
He stepped back to avoid her and bounced his eye off the wall. It knocked her into a hanging ax, which sliced open her shoulder. Raidle ran to her side. There was plenty of blood now, but he couldn’t focus on any of the flitting day dreams. They fluttered about his head like butterflies avoiding a swelling flame.
“This is the house of dread!” Dredd’s voice boomed from the darkness of the stairwell. He emerged once more, ignoring the bruise on his forehead. The inspector’s eye followed him as he walked along the wall, pointing to his weapons. “This is the sword of Adra Zangoon. I bested her in battle atop a collapsing mountain. She dreaded the fall. I did not.” He moved to the next one, a whip with seventeen ends that each had seventeen ends. “And this the whip of Gloomox. We fought to the death in a graveyard as the ghosts rose and pawed at us. He dreaded the dark end. I did not.”
“Do you have a point?” the inspector asked. “I can’t see it anywhere.” His eye rolled sarcastically, spinning across the room ten times.
“My point is that these children were mistaken in their assessment of me. They thought I was dread. Simple nerves and precautions. That is not who I am. I am what is dreaded. The stimulus for the emotion. This is the house of dread, and you will dread me.” He grabbed two weapons from the wall and threw them at the eye, so powerfully that they whistled through the air.
“All that exists is within my sight!” the inspector crowed. “I can blink these things out of existence!” The pupil of his swollen eye expanded, snuffing out the blue iris. Gillian’s hair whipped about in a sudden wind. The pupil created some kind of powerful suction; every loose scrap of paper in the house of dread was pulled in. They disappeared into the bottomless pupil, as did the weapons hurled by Dredd himself.
That didn’t stop the warrior. He moved, step by step, along the wall. The suction pulled on his cape, made him falter, but he didn’t give in. He grabbed weapon after weapon and hurled them with the same force. The inspector laughed, widening the pupil and increasing the suction. The weapons vanished as if thrown down a well, lost somewhere in the eye’s personal darkness.
Wider and wider the pupil went, until it was the size that could only be attained by seeing things you shouldn’t. Gone was perspective. Gone was the sense of detail. The inspector didn’t notice when Dredd reached into his pocket, pulled out several splinters of bloody wood, and threw them into the black vortex. They disappeared with the rest.
“Summon me!” Dredd shouted over the swirling winds. Raidle looked up. Even in the midst of the world’s strangest staring contest, Dredd looked to the boy. “Summon me!” He roared a second time. Raidle closed his eyes. First he had to imagine a better place, a calmer one. He saw the grass, the flowers, and the bugs that didn’t know they were just thoughts spun off from a broken mind. He whispered under his breath, which was like running through the field. To the other side. To that dark forest where he’d first seen the house of dread.
The warrior vanished. The inspector finally stopped laughing. His monstrous pupil shrank back down, dropping much of the room’s debris. He whirled around, his giant eye doing the same. Where was he? Where was that strange hotheaded…
“Aauuaagh!” the inspector screamed, throwing his hands up to his temples. He dropped to his knees. The eye fell out of the air and bounced across the floor, picking up dust and splinters. It shuddered as its owner’s screaming intensified. “Get it out! I have something in my eye!”
The eye’s shape stretched as something pushed from inside. The tip of the extrusion sharpened and ripped, pouring blood and transparent ocular fluid. The inspector stopped mid-scream and fell over, suddenly empty of breath and thought. Dredd Hauser emerged from the giant eye like a sea turtle crawling out of its leathery eggshell. He rose to his feet and swung his saber, tossing a rope of yellowish fluid onto the wall. The wall absorbed it before going about reclaiming its weapons.
The two who had summoned him were stunned. They stood, but had to avoid the various blades as they lifted off the ground and hovered back to their mounts. Dredd disappeared down a corridor and returned a moment later, wheeling out a deck cannon.
“What happened?” Gillian asked, attempting to rub the concussion out of her head with one palm. Raidle, too shocked to be disgusted, reached into the wet husk of the inspector’s deflated eye. He pulled out a bloody splinter.
“When he fell down the stairs,” the boy said, “he sliced some wood from the floor. Put some blood on it.” Dredd rolled back a sleeve, showing them the gash from falling down the stairs. “He knew I could pull him to wherever the blood was. It was our ritual, just faster. The splinters went inside the eye… and then he burst out of them. The inspector’s dead.”
“You can do with his corpse what you wish,” Dredd told them as he aligned the cannon with the broken window. “Stand there.” He pointed behind the cannon. The young partners rushed over. He grabbed Raidle’s hands and pressed them against the cold metal. “Keep those there.” He circled around to the barrel.
“Wait, now that he’s gone we have so many plans!” Gillian cried out. She wanted to stand in front of him, as she felt he was about to leave, but her hands felt glued to Raidle’s sides. “We’re going to unite everyone. We’ll be a whole being again. Join us!”
“I would never,” Dredd Hauser said coldly. “There is no greater satisfaction than conflict, no being more whole than those at war. Rage is enlightenment. A target is purpose. I will not give that up. Now. Young man, use your dreams. Aim me somewhere with strife.”
Raidle closed his eyes, as he didn’t dare disobey Dredd. This was a man who could burst out of your innards if he felt like it. He would pull his way out of any body, regardless of the blood it spilled or the harm it did. The boy searched his day dreams for the clash of swords, nodding when he had one in focus.
Gillian cried guilty tears for the person who would never exist again while Dredd Hauser curled his cape around him. In one swift motion he transformed back into a cannonball and fell down the barrel. The weapon fired on its own, sending him off into the horizon.
The house of dread slowly turned back into their miserable little shack. Their fight was over, their plan was ruined, and they had nothing left but drafty walls and a shard of a companion.