Hylpa



The Ultimate Horror Experience

Bang.

My eyes open harshly with the gunshot. Colors start filling my sight as the void I was in takes me to a familiar place. A backyard with 3 wooden targets posted on the end and sandbags planted close to a two-story house, where I was raised in. I look around to see the surrounding nature as I remember it, big open rocky grass fields with hills blocking the horizon.



It was beautiful, my parents really knew how to pick their sceneries, though to be fair it is Iceland, it wasn’t that hard to find sights as pretty as this.



At least back then.



As beautiful as it is now, the valleys are death traps and the hills are hiding spots for threats of all kinds ranging from sniper raiders, scouts, or… them.



When is this, actually?



Two figures can be seen crouched near the sandbags, paused in time. The older one seems to be guiding the younger figure with a rifle.



Time resumes, and their voices fade in. My Dad’s and mine, along with the nature that surrounded us.



“You’re aiming a bit to the left.”

But it’s right in the center of my sight!”



My dad sighed.



I remember this… I was very frustrated. It was my fifth shot already and I only hit once. 1998. It was the first time I ever shot a rifle. I was 4 at the time, and Dad had to hold the end of his rifle because I couldn’t support it.



I told you, Hill. Focus. Breathe in, pause, shoot, then breathe out. You keep pulling the gun left at the last second because you’re not relaxed. Trigger discipline is key. C’mon, one more time.”



Breathe in.



Shoot.



Breathe out.



See? You’re not hitting your target because you didn’t pause and relax. Be patient. Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.”



“But I did all that!” Past me defies.

Hill-”



The sliding door leading inside opened. Mom came to the backyard with her “signature” hot chocolate. Nobody really believed she made the recipe herself but it tasted nice, so Dad and I never complained. And Jenn was way too young to comment on it.



If only I learned my way around the kitchen, back then. Maybe I could make my sister Mom’s hot chocolate and finally get her opinion on it.



Easy with it, Mark. Cut the lad some slack, he’s still a wee’un.”



I know, I know, Val. But he needs to learn how to protect himself.”



At 4? It’s fine, I’m sure he’ll be Mommy’s Lil killing machine when he grows up.”



Mom pinched my cheek with a smile and gave Dad his hot chocolate. He drinks fast, like one gulp fast. I never got why he did that. Seems like a waste of perfectly good hot chocolate. When I finally got mine, I drank it slowly, letting the taste get absorbed by my tongue, and letting the heat burn it.



“Hill, Mr. Chun is here. Gae upstairs when you’re ready.”

I immediately stood up and ran to my room, grabbing the sword baton Mom gave me as a gift for my fourth birthday. She even flew Mr. Chun here to teach me how to use it. He’s a martial arts instructor from Indonesia. He specialized in knives if I remember correctly, but he can use weapons of all sorts too. I wonder how he’s doing now if he’s still… living.



From the second floor, I saw Mom going inside while Dad was still tidying up his rifle. I just went to the roof garden we had, the place where I used to practice.



Morning, Hill. Shooting with Dad already?”



Yeah… Can we just get to training? I saw this really cool sword move in a movie last night!”



Right. I loved Chinese martial arts movies back then. Bruce Lee and Jackie Chen were my favorites. I would probably still watch them if I can get my hands on any DVD player. Kind of hard to do that after the Mazemasters showed up.



Really? What was the move?”



“Like… this!”

I tried doing what they did in the movie, spinning around, trying… and failing to do flips, jumping and then slashing down, and just being a danger to people around me in general.



I see. That’s cool move, but not real one.”



He said in his still broken Icelandic. I offered him to just speak in English once but he refused, doing is the best way to learn, he said.



Wait, it’s not?”



If you have to flip in battle, either something terribly wrong or you should teaching me. Now, did you practice the forms?”



I was kind of disappointed it wasn’t a real move, but to this day I can’t flip anyway, so probably a good thing I’ve never needed that move.



Yes… But they’re so boring!”



But you did anyway?”



It… feels cool but looks boring!”



Mr. Chun laughed awkwardly. Man, I was dumb.

Fighting is not about being cool, Hill. It’s about being effective. It’s about protecting and defending. Being cool is just bonus. But good if you feel cool doing it, that means you are driven, that means you are passionate. Now, let’s practice forms.”



After about an hour of practicing, Mr. Chun called it a day. I was tired already, though I would never admit it. Mom called me down to the kitchen area, saying that lunch is ready.



How did it go, toots?”



It went well. The sword move in the movie wasn’t real though.” I said with a pout.



Oh wow, really?” Dad said in a flat tone.



Really!”



That earned him an elbow from Mom. Suffice to say I didn't understand his humor back then.



Learned anything new?”



“Not really, just more form practice.”

Good. You’ll need those basics.” Dad said, this time much more genuine.



Wanna… go to the movies?”



Dad is usually away on his work and when he is home he’s usually busy training or sleeping. He almost never invited us to any family event… or any event at all. That was a welcome surprise.



What movie?” I asked excitedly.



Mooby! Mooby!” Jenn yells from the living room, Mom was clearly chasing her around to feed her. She’s always hard to calm down unless you read her a good book.



Aye, Jenn! Mooby! We’ll watch a mooby!”



... Anyway, I was reading the other day that Christian Bale is pretty good in American Psycho, maybe we should-”



Mom was already staring at Dad.



... I think your Ma has a better idea.”



“Ya know, they’re playing Toy Story on the TV tonight. Maybe we should watch that! I’ll even cook…”

Pleasebepopcorns.”



... Popcorns!”



YES!”



I quickly finished my lunch and played with Jenn, hoping the clock would go faster.



If only times are still that simple, Mom.



2003. The year the invasion began.



I was watching The Bourne Identity late at night. Dad allowed me to watch it despite Mom’s protests. Mom told me she had to be there to supervise though. The movie was cut suddenly by an emergency news broadcast. I thought it was an ad for a new horror movie, at that time.



Technically it is, I guess. The ultimate horror experience. That’s a catchy tagline.



This following emergency news contains disturbing imagery. Viewer discretion is advised.”



I filtered out the news anchor’s voice as soon as a picture of a monster was shown.

Those monsters look scary, Mom. What’s this movie?” I asked.



... Hill, stay here.”



Why?”



I have to call your Dad. Mark!”



She immediately ran upstairs, calling Dad’s name repeatedly. They both came running towards the TV, which is showing footage of a man being chased by those strange creatures now. Mom hugged me, shoving my face into her body so that my eyes were covered. Dad looked shocked, it’s not often that happens.



How did it happen?” Dad said, quickly regaining his composure.




“I dinnae ken! Did they not tell ye?!”

“No, but we need to go. Now. Val, get Jenn and her supplies ready. Hill, get our weapons. All of it. Even yours, copy? We’re leaving.”

Mom ran to Jenn’s room, I can hear her cry, being woken up so suddenly.



What’s going-”



Now, Hill.”



With that I ran to my room, grabbing my baton sword, then to Dad’s wardrobe. He keeps his weapon cases there. I couldn’t carry the rifle case yet, so I grabbed the pistol case, taking it downstairs towards the sound of our car’s engine.



Dad quickly ran back up, grabbing his rifle case and putting it in the trunk with the pistol case, while mom was in the back seat, trying to calm the still cranky Jenn.



Dad quickly drove over to Leiðarendi Cave, a tourist spot northeast of our home. I didn’t understand why at first but followed my parents anyway. Dad was leading us to an unknown part of the cave, Mom was holding Jenn’s hand, guiding her in the dark, and I was on the back of the line.



We navigated in the dark for a while, before Dad pushed a loose rock, which surprisingly opened a door to a blindingly white room, some sort of bunker entrance. There were 2 doors before you could get inside, the rock-sheeted door used to camouflage the bunker and a metal door on the inside, leading to the all-purpose area.

There was a mini-fridge there and on the floor was a big mattress, enough to fit all of us and on the back was an exposed rock part. Dad said we can mine it off if we ever need a back door. The only other room is a bathroom.



We got settled pretty quickly, Dad and Mom worked great as a team, setting up the bunker. I didn’t have much to do, though. I couldn’t help carrying heavy stuff yet and I couldn’t play with Mom either, since she was busy with Jenn or the bunker.



That is before Dad asked me to help him hunt. I can’t shoot yet, but I can spot animals for him. Dad and I never hunted, but we got into a flow quickly. I searched for animals with my binoculars, pointed them out to Dad, and Dad bagged them for us to eat at the bunker. I like to think we were a pretty good team.



I will always remember the first time I fought one of them. Those freaky monsters I saw on the TV, the ones people call the Mazemasters now. Dad and I were hunting like usual. I pointed to an elk I saw in the distance, but I didn’t see the Mazemaster hiding in a tree nearby. Waiting for a hunter like us to mess up and shoot. Dad shot the elk, but the gunshot made the Mazemaster wail, calling its friends.

We instantly got up. Dad shot at a few of the Mazemasters he saw with his rifle, taking some down while the others teleported away. Seeing them approaching, Dad dropped his rifle and went for his pistol and knife instead. I tried pulling my baton sword from its sheath on my left hip, but the nerves made me drop it. Dad shot a few more with his pistol and stabbed the ones that got too close. One rushed at me though and I just got my weapon from the ground.



Seeing this, Dad shot a few rounds to its body, making it tumble but not killing it. Dad was too busy with the other Mazemasters to finish the job. It tumbled towards me fast. Way too fast. I raised my baton as it fell onto me, pushing me down with it. It thrashed around, clawing randomly. In my panicked state, I just closed my eyes and started stabbing blindly, hoping it’s not too late.



Stab.



The Mazemaster screeches.



Stab.



The thing’s face touches my hand’s skin, my sword should be through its head now, but it's not dead yet.



Stab. Stab. Stab.



I kept on stabbing, even after it stopped screeching. When my arm finally got tired, I dared to open my eyes. I’ve caved its head in.



Good. It was finally dead.



Still in shock, I just threw its body to the side and stared at the sky.



When Dad finished off the last Mazemaster with a strong stab, I stood up. Dad signaled me to follow him. We carried the elk back to the bunker quickly, not wanting any more Mazemaster to follow us.



I still reminisce about that first kill sometimes, despite the shock. The adrenaline was nothing like what I ever felt before. It was… thrilling. It was addictive, to say the least.

I know it may seem grim but you’ll understand.



Happy new year! Happy Birthday, ma Lil lass!” Mom yelled, bringing a cake with her.



I saved some of the supplies we have just for this. My signature cheesecake!”



Yay! Cake! Thanks, Mom!” Jenn quickly stopped playing with the radio, rushing towards the table.



Your… signature… cheesecake?” Dad asked.



I didn’t know you had a signature cheesecake, Mom.”



You just didnae know!”



... Okay.” Both Dad and I said.



Dad was about to grab a slice before Mom stopped him.



“Save it for the bairns, Mark. it’s not you who needs the food to grow up!”

Boys will be boys, I still need to grow up a bit,” Dad said with a smirk. Mom’s raised brow and head tilt said it all.



You need to grow up alright.” she finally snarks back, earning a laugh from Dad.



Well! Enjoy the cake! Your Pa and I need to talk.”



We did, we enjoyed it a lot. I sang Jenn her happy birthday song and she practically planted her face into the cake.



Mom and Dad weren't there, they wouldn’t return for another hour, actually. All that in the coldest of Iceland’s winter.



As the days went by, Mom and Dad disappeared more and more often, usually when they thought we already slept.

Eventually, I got curious, as any kid would. I pretended to sleep again and followed them to an opening in the cave. They got their radio and transmitter out, it was static for a while before a voice was heard.



“46. How’ve you been?”

26, How's it hanging? We’re good here, N37 is good too, found him sleeping with the K9s today. Why are you calling this late?”



Really? That must’ve been a story.” Dad chuckled at that.



”I got busy with things, and the kids.”

Right. Right. How’s 57?”



She’s here too.”



Hello!” Mom waved at the radio.



There you are! Seems like it’s all okay over there?”



No, there's something going on. It’s… it’s the Mazemasters.”



What’s with them?” the voice and Dad transitioned to a more professional tone, the one he uses whenever he trains me.



They’ve been getting closer and I don’t know why.”



“What’d ya mean they’re getting closer?”

Like… they’re zeroing in on something. They’re not rushing so I don’t think they found us out.” Mom explained.



Yeah, kinda like that. You ever seen anything like that, man?”



I see… Nah. Never seen anything like that. How many?”



Only one or two at a time, usually, looks like they’re in some sort of a patrol pattern.”



That’s definitely suspicious, but I mean your girl’s the expert on them.”



I dinnae ken either, this pattern never showed up before. Though 26 and our son had seen newer attack patterns since the invasion.”



Our researchers here concluded the same thing. We don’t have a solution other than to just adapt though, I’ve been winging it for a while now because of this. I saw one try to cover its head just the other day and one just hiding, taking cover. They’re learning and evolving. That’s all I know right now, 26. Wish I could do more.”



“Right… Thanks anyway.”

Tell me if you need help, M26.”



Thanks, I’ll try.”



Oh, and Burma’s on the fields now?”



I stuck closer to the cave walls, fearing the callout was me being exposed.



Yeah. You’d be surprised, he’s a good spotter. His sword skills can use some work but he’s decent at that too. That’s more your specialty though.”



Ha! Seems like he has the fighter blood.”



Tex…”



I know. I would never rope him in. That’s a promise, buddy.”



They continued talking but with that I sneaked back into the bunker, pretending to sleep. They came back to bed around an hour later. It didn’t take long before I actually went to sleep.



I suddenly feel a burning sensation on my face. Past me seems to be feeling it too.

That’s the first thing I remember from the day it happened. I woke up feeling like my face was being burned. It really hurt but everybody else was still sleeping, so I bit my lip to hold the scream. I looked at the clock. 2 AM. Of course, everybody was still sleeping. Dad usually woke up at this hour, but there was a big three-way fight. Us, helped by some nearby settlement’s guards, raiders, and a group of Mazemasters, a bigger group now, and closer to our bunker, too. He fought most of them while I mostly stayed in cover, poking everything that came too close. I decided I’ve had enough of laying still trying to go back to sleep. I’ve tried for the last hour, two maybe, or even three, I tend to lose count after the first 15 minutes.



I decided to take a morning breather outside, it was dry because it didn’t rain at all this week. The sky was dreary, full of grey clouds blocking the bland black sky. I couldn’t see the stars at all, only the gentle moonlight brought me some comfort.



But the gentle moonlight boldens the silhouette of shuffling rocks, along with the crunching sounds of said rocks.



Movement.

I immediately stood up. It’s too dark for me to see any target but I quietly sneaked back to wake Dad up and get my weapon.

Dad. Wake up.”



What is it?”



Movement, outside.”



That got him on his feet quickly.



Move. We need to check the perimeter.”



We ready up and scope the situation.



The footsteps are getting closer. There’s… a lot of them, more than 10.”



I close my eyes and focus on my hearing. “Those are Mazemaster footsteps.”



Dad takes out the binoculars and scans the nearby flat landscape, then the hills.



Positive IDs, I see at least 14 Mazemasters. Get your Ma and Sister, we need to bail. Copy?”



“Okay, Dad.”

Iran to the bunker and woke up my Mom first. She immediately got up and woke Jenn up once she knew what was going on. They grabbed the pickaxes while I watched the door.



Mom and Jenn immediately started breaking the rock wall on the back once Dad’s rifle was shot. He kept on shooting for minutes, he must have taken them all down.



Right?



Far from it, after he ran out of ammo, he ran back to the bunker with only his pistol and knife in hand. He closed the 2 doors in a rushed manner. I immediately knew what that meant and prepared my baton sword, attaching it into its spear form.



Hill, hold the door for now. I need to make a call.”



I aim my weapon at the door, shaky but ready.



Banging on the rock door was heard expectedly. What wasn’t expected was the speed of its breaking. I could feel a horde of them banging on the metal door, starting to dent it.



“M46, do you copy? I need reinforcement!”

Nothing. He repeats again and again but nothing.



Suddenly a Mazemaster’s wail can be heard from the radio.



We’re on our own,” Dad said, aiming his pistol to the door. The sound of Dad's shots, the freaks’ wails, and the rock wall getting picked filled the air. Before long, Dad ran out of pistol ammo, having to fight with only knives now. We got pushed back inch by inch, continuously losing our footing. Some even went past us, then Dad and I had to run back before they could get to Jenn and Mom.



Val! How long?”



A minute! Hold them for a minute!”



They kept pushing and pushing. For each freak that we killed 2 more appeared. All sense of logic disappears. I could do nothing other than mindlessly stabbing, biting, kicking, or whatever it took to hurt them. My fingers went numb and stabbing became punching. Punching became clawing. And it wasn’t long before clawing became simply planting my nails into their heads ineffectively.



When the rock wall finally broke down. Some Mazemasters on the back caught on and changing their approach. Before long the back door was covered too. Dad immediately jumped and watched Mom, while Jenn jumped to my side due to surprise. I picked my weapon back up but holding 2 fronts was impossible. And we knew it.

I can see dad saying something to Mom. I don’t know what he said, but she looked at defeat with acceptance on her face. With one last look at each other, Mom approached me.



Hill, I’m going to need you to run, okay? Run and don’t look back. Protect your sister, whatever it takes. Can you do that for me, my little killing machine?” She said rubbing me with a sad smile.



Okay, Mom. But what about you and Dad?”



... Promise me you’ll both be fine, please protect her, Hill.” She said, between chokes.



I… promise, Mom.”



She kneeled to kiss Jenn’s forehead then mine. We looked at each other before she finally stood up and let go.



She nodded at Dad, who instantly went for a grenade attached to his hip. With a short throw, he cleared out the back door for us. Instead of waiting for our ears to stop ringing, Dad just grabbed us and pushed, practically throwing us out. I just grabbed Jenn’s hand and ran as fast as I could through the small tunnel behind the wall, and when Jenn’s little feet couldn’t keep up, I carried her.

I looked back, despite Mom’s orders. Our parents were looking at us sadly. I’ve never been good at lip-reading, but a more hopeful part in me thinks their last words to us were “I love you.” if that was their last words at all. Everything blurred out both for me and past me.



We came back the morning after. There were a lot of dead Mazemasters. I remember hoping whatever happened they weren’t turned into one of the freaks. As I peeked through the back door, I could see their bodies on the corner where our bed used to be. They had a strangely peaceful look on their faces, even though their bodies were full of scars. But they weren’t turned, that’s the important part. I would rather see them like this than as one of them.



Jenn was still outside by this point. But I knew I had to tell her sooner rather than later. I motioned her to come, despite my heart. I still remember Jenn’s shock as she saw them. She planted her head onto me instantly, trying to get some shielding from the reality of the situation. A shield I don’t think anyone could provide.

If only I stayed.



If only I died.

Jenn’s crying brought me back to my senses. Only the promise matters now.



I stood and hugged her as she continued crying. She cried for what felt like half an hour, wetting my shirt. After she slept from exhaustion, I knew we had to escape before more came. The rest was a blur, and all I remember was walking away from the bunker, with Jenn sleeping in my arms.



I reach for my younger self’s shoulders, trying to get his… my attention, but the floor disappears and the void between sleep and dream retakes me. Probably for my own good.



Great job at repression, subconscious. I close my eyes, trying to tune back into the void, but my real eyes start to open, and the clock says 3 AM.

Intrusive Memories

My name is Burma Hylpa, and I have a younger sister called Jennifer Hylpa. Mark Alexander Hylpa and Valeria Haggan-Hylpa were my parents, but now you know what happened to them. People usually call me Hill and my sister prefers to be called Jenn or Jenny. I’m 18 now, and she’s 17.

Dad is an American from Dallas and Mom is a Scot from Edinburgh. I have Dad’s brown hair and Mom’s blue eyes, while Jenn gets Mom’s blonde hair and Dad’s brown eyes. We are both white, like our parents, though I got Dad's slightly darker skin tone.



I’m taller than Jenn, but she’s catching up. She’s my collar bone’s height now. We moved to Iceland when I was a year old, Mom told me. She wanted to move here to avoid Dad’s work, never told me any details. She used to tell me stories about Scotland, where my parents met and lived when I was born. It’s here in Iceland where I’m raised though, so this is where I call home. I lived in Grindavik, southeast of Keflavík International Airport, where my dad usually took his planes to work abroad.



We’re the Hylpa siblings, but I would prefer if you forget that.



A nightmare got to me last night, again, and I woke up with my face burning, again. Past experiences would’ve told me to stay in, but it’s been a bad week, and Jenn and I don’t have enough supplies to eat for the next few days, winter has been harsh, doesn’t help that it’s at its coldest now. I would consider not eating, but with all the hunting and fishing I’m going to be doing to catch up with my food supplies target, I have to. Not to mention Jenn’s eating more than usual, these last few years. She grows up so fast. More reason to get more food, 3 days ago was her birthday.

I spot a deer in the distance, near a surviving patch of grass. I prone and pull some snow and dirt, putting it on top of me, masking my smell and silhouette a bit more. I store some of the pebbles and rocks that came with the dirt in my back pocket.



A smaller deer approaches the mature one, asking for its attention, and memories intrude on my focus.



Not now! Not now!

I came back to the bunker after things had calmed down. Burying our parents was hard, but… I had to. I’m just glad Jenn wasn’t there to witness. I did it quickly while mostly looking away, not wanting to see them for too long. Not wanting this to be their last image burned into my mind.



I grabbed Dad’s radio and transmitter, his rifle, still laying in the rocks near our cave’s opening, and his knife, still on the bed near where he died. He fought to the end the way a true Hylpa should, Dad is many things, but he sure is a man of his word. His pistol was broken so I can’t use it even if I want to. The rifle ran out of ammo, but I figured it might come in handy if I can find some. That decision paid off in the end.

After meeting back with Jenn, I was honestly pretty lost. I didn’t know what to do or where to go, so I just consulted a map I had and started searching for nearby spots. Gardabaer was the closest city, I figured I can search for people there.



It turned out to be a big mistake. Not long after we reached the city, an old man invited us into a run-down house he probably used for shelter. Being tired after a 3-hour walk with a 9-year-old in my arms half of the way, I hesitantly accepted. Should’ve trusted my guts. He grabbed Jenn almost immediately, holding her with one arm and pointing a knife at me with the other, demanding I give him Dad’s rifle.



Not seeing much of an option, I used my right hand to drop the gun, what he didn’t know is that my left hand is already unsheathing Dad’s knife. When he let go of Jenn to grab the rifle on the floor, I immediately stepped on his fingers, producing a wet-sounding crack. The sudden action caused Jenn to run outside, hiding from the man. While he’s still screaming, I quickly stabbed the knife to his throat repeatedly, silencing him since now all he can do is gurgle and hold his neck.

He deserved it, nobody should threaten Jenn. I stab at his head one more time, making a mess of red on the floor. Half to confirm the kill and half as payback. I went out to look for Jenn immediately, fearing she ran away out of fear. Luckily she’s just around the corner, hiding on the side of the house.



Let’s go. It’s not safe here.” I tap her shoulder twice, she uncurls herself.



Where… Where is the bad man, Hill?”



He won’t be a problem anymore.”



What happened?”



It was just a minor scuffle. Let’s go.”



“Is he still up? Is he okay?”

Bad men don’t deserve to be okay, Jenn.”



What happened, then?”



Instead of answering I grabbed her arm and take her back where we came from, to the open fields.



Aren’t we going that way?”



Not anymore, apparently.”



Okay…”



“Are you okay?”

Of course I’m fine,” I said with a smile, petting her hair.



So people turned out to be pretty dangerous in an apocalyptic scenario. Learning from my mistake, I decided to head south instead. The southern part of Iceland is quieter, so we don’t have to interact with people and take risks as much. If we stick to the coast, I can even fish if I come back empty-handed from a big-game hunt. Along the way, we found a few small settlements in places that used to be empty fields. I guess since most of the major cities are full of turned Mazemasters, it’s safer out here.



I considered going to one, but settlements are still overcrowded and prone to attacks, especially then in the early years. Last thing I want is to get blocked exits if something bad happens, so I keep interactions to a minimum. But I did manage to trade with some of the survivors from various settlements and most settlers are nice enough for me to continue trading with them. At first, I traded the extra small animals I could hunt with my baton sword and knife. Eventually, I stocked enough to get some ammo for Dad’s rifle through trading, which then allowed me to trade for things like cooked meals for a portion of the animals I hunt from settlement chefs. After we reached the southern coasts of Iceland, we simply went back and forth, heading west, then east, then west again. I didn’t want to stay in one spot for too long, the cave bunker and multiple reports of settlements getting overpowered are proof that strategy won’t work. I met more looters and Mazemasters along the roads I took than I’d like, but every cloud has a silver lining, I guess, the silver lining being lead getting sprayed at me or knives getting stabbed into me enough times to teach me how to fight better. Love them or hate them, they made me pretty good at that aspect of surviving. Jenn said my cooking still needs some work, but unless she learns how to cook, she’ll keep eating burnt meat.

Speaking of Jenn, she likes to play around with devices I found, clocks, hinges, even broken sticks are sometimes enough for her to make toys and such. She’s a genius with those kinds of things. Most of her creations are hunting traps, but her most impressive contraption would probably be the sensor I have on my hip.

After hearing rumors of the Mazemasters speeding time up from The Church of Father Clockwork, she investigated the correlation between the Mazemasters and time. I didn’t allow her at first, but she agreed to let me do the testing while she stays in our shelters. She discovered that the Mazemasters affect the gears in a clock, not time itself. All I understand is that if a Mazemaster teleports, the gears inside go crazy and I feel a vibration on my hip.



She continued questioning about how the Mazemasters powers work but her device works perfectly, so I never questioned it, which irks her. Truth is I’m just not that curious anymore, I’d like to know how things work to use or fix it, but nothing more than what I need.



She does the thinking, I do the killing. And we’re very good at doing our respective jobs.



Speaking of The Church of Father Clockwork, We heard of them from the radio. There’s no more news but each settlement’s transmission acts as a replacement. It’s mostly just settlement inviting people in, asking for help, or burning down while their radio is still on. Jenn is always scared of the last possibility because she’s made some friends in a few settlements when I bring her with me for a trade. I have objections about that but I suppose it’s not better to keep a moody teenager from her social interactions. Every now and then though, a few interesting figures or groups are mentioned.

The Church of Father Clockwork. They were a cult, I remember hearing about them when news stations were still on. Now though, they’re much more established. They believe the invasion was fated, and that a godly figure called Father Clockwork will be the one to save them. Some settlements eat it up almost instantly, giving them some power over the wasteland we live in now.



Doppel. This one is pretty new. He’s some kind of local hero. Some even call him a superhero, because he can multiply himself. I don’t buy it, probably multiple people in the same costume. Still, they could be useful for protection if I can contact them.



And finally, The Ghosts. The government finally made a counterattack against the Mazemasters in the form of these Ghosts. They’re a private group, separate from the government, but right now they’re basically the official military, so they have the most power. Firepower-wise and politically, if politics still matter at all. Maybe I could join up if I ever meet them. Hopefully, they can provide more stable support for Jenn. But with dominance comes corruption, and that is the thing I’m watching for. Their operations are spread almost evenly throughout Iceland, but they never got that close to my region here in the south.

Life continues that way for several years. I kill, hunt, and loot, while Jenn fiddles with things I don’t understand. I do understand her curiosity though. I was kind of curious about the world too when I was a kid. Jenn has been raised here almost her whole life, the invasion started when she was around 7 and we’ve survived without our parents since she was around 9 and a half, maybe. I don’t know, that year was a blur. You’d think remembering the age of a girl born on the 1st of January would be easy.



She had her childhood playtime in this apocalypse when I brought her to settlements to play with other kids or the few times we’ve spent on Vik’s Black Sand Beach. I can only take her there a few times in the year though.

It takes around 3 days to get there and back, and that’s not counting the setbacks, like looters, Mazemasters, weather, and such. All in all, it could take me a whole week to get there and stay a few days to let Jenn play then come back.

She’s also made the friends I talked about in these wastelands. When I take her to settlements, sometimes she’ll ask the other kids about their radio info. I never allowed her to tell our location or give her real name, of course, but I guess friendship doesn’t take a lot of trust in these unstable times.



She radios them late at night sometimes, using the multiple radios I’ve looted over the years to hold many conversations at once. They never did anything out of line to her, so I guess I can’t tell her off.



It’s not like she would listen right now anyways. I never had my teenage years but I assume I’d be pretty rebellious. She’s going through her “not a phase” phase now, something I read about in a pre-war teenage parenting book I found. The book didn’t help at all though, especially when she was 14. When she was at her worst behavior. That was when I really wished Mom was still here to help me sort things out between us.



We found the bunker we’re staying in now close to a campground near a church. From the outside, it looks like a golden manhole cover, not a very appealing entrance other than the fact that it’s golden, but shelter is shelter. I found it when the sunlight flashed on it and caused it to light up. Jenn immediately investigated it, while I was more hesitant, but I decided to take the chance anyway.

After checking the visible sides of it and figuring that it couldn’t be too dangerous to check out, I allowed Jenn to press the button near the manhole cover. She pressed on it multiple times but nothing happened. I thought it was broken or just coded, but Jenn insisted that I try. To my surprise, it did open when I pressed the button.



Pulling Dad’s rifle out and pushing Jenn back, I descended the ladders into a hallway. In the center, I can see a table with 6 chairs and the walls have a glass pane covering running gears, it’s otherwise empty. To the sides are 6 doors, 3 on the left and 3 on the right. The signs on top of the doors on the right are labeled Bedroom 1 to 3, the doors on the left are labeled Supply Room 1 and 2, and a Bathroom, all in Icelandic. I checked out each one and… yeah, they’re as labeled. A lot of things popped into my mind when the bunker first opened, but a bathroom wasn’t one of those things.



Seeing the benefit of staying here, I decided that we could stay. Why search for an unknown figure or group if I can provide Jenn’s safety here? Jenn almost immediately picked her room and set up a workshop there. She made her custom crossbow her first year here, it’s a crossbow I traded from a settlement. She modified it to shoot from longer ranges. Her craftiness never ceases to amaze me. This place is perfect for us, so we have stayed here for the last 4 years.

I’ve always felt safe in it, until 4 months ago. The gears on the wall stopped turning, and Jenn couldn’t figure out why. I checked all the functionalities, doors, water taps, and whatnot, and they all worked fine, so I figured it was nothing.



My mind snaps back to the cold sensation in my skin, better get back to earth before I die of freezing. The two deers are still together. I’m sorry little buddy, but my sister needs food.



Breathe in.



Pause.



Beep! Beep!



Bang.



The sudden alarm startled me, causing me to miss. The deers are running away now, but that doesn’t matter anymore.

9years.



That’s how long it took for them to catch us by surprise again.



I have to get there before they get to Jenn.



I run through the forest, dodging roots, trees, rocks, and everything else, reloading Dad’s rifle and storing the old magazine on my vest while running.



As soon as I get out of the woods, I spot a group of armed people. No uniforms, no armors, just guns. These are probably looters since there are no nearby settlements to patrol.



They spot me too and open fire. I need to retreat to the woods.



Really not a good day for this kind of luck, Hill.



Think.



Hide and get them searching and isolated. I can’t face them head-on, they have fire superiority.



Their aim isn’t that trained. Amateur looters. Won’t take long for them to make a coordination mistake and split up.

The greenery here is thick, perfect for hiding. A couple of seconds in and they’re already searching. 5 in total. 1 with a butcher knife, 3 with a pistol, and 1 with an auto rifle. Pretty well geared. They’ve split up, a pistol guy is isolated. Perfect opportunity. Silence him first, then go for a kill. Walking from bush to bush, I gag him and drag my knife across his neck. 4. I grab his pistol and check the ammo. 3 bullets left. I hide again in a nearby tree.



The auto rifle guy is with a pistol guy and the butcher knife guy. Another pistol guy is isolated. A gasp from my left, he’s seen the body of his friend. I jump out of my cover and shoot him. 3. Check this pistol’s magazine. 4 bullets. Put the old bullets into the new magazine. The others are running towards my gunshot. I climb a nearby tree to hide and get a better view.



They’re right below a tree nearby. Need to make sure I can jump down safely if I need to first. I slide halfway down the tree I’m on. Bang. 1 shot. Bang. 2 shots. Click. 3 sh- jammed. 1. The auto rifle and pistol guys are dead, but the knife guy picked up the rifle, shooting at my general area.



I need to relocate.

I can hear a sudden tearing sound in the air.



A ricochet,I don’t know where it’s- Argh, my left shoulder! Feels like it’s skin deep, luckily. I’ll deal with it later.



I drop the pistol loudly, attracting his attention. As expected, he approaches the gun. I’m already aiming at him with the rifle a few trees away.



Bang.



That’s all of the looters down. I run again, even faster than before.



I cannot lose her.



There’s the bunker, but nobody’s outside



I kick the button that opens the door, revealing a Mazemaster.



Bang. 1 down.



I can hear wails from inside. I’ve alerted them. Good. I hope Jenn is aware enough to use my distraction.

I have to be quick.



The second one comes rushing to the hallway from the first supply room. There’s dark blood on its mouth, probably just finished eating today’s meat. The sensor vibrates. I raise my rifle to block it.



The tips of its claws still pierce my left hand’s skin. Stupid move, Hill. The pain made me drop the rifle. Judging by the sound I think I along with the claws broke it. I grab my baton sword from my left hip and tighten my grip to numb the pain.



I hit the Mazemaster’s head with my baton then quickly detach the sword. I slam the thing’s head down, making it screech. A stab to the head finishes it before it can attack again. 2 down.



I need to get to my sister.



I attach my baton sword to its spear form. “Jenn! Jennifer Hylpa! Where are you?!” I scream, attracting the attention of a third and fourth.



I throw the rock I kept in my back pocket to get one to teleport towards me. The sensor vibrates and I stab forward. It teleports right into the bladed end and dies with its head split into two. 3 down.

The sensor vibrates again. I roll forward, dodging an expected rear attack. Jenn’s scream. A few bolts flew out of her room. Looks like her custom bolts. She is definitely in there.



I have to protect her.



The sensor vibrates one more time. With a strong punch of my baton, I break the Mazemaster’s legs. It shrieks and crawls, teleporting away. It won’t stay down for long. Doesn’t matter. I have to get to my sister first.



I follow the clues and go to her room. She has already managed to hit the freak multiple times in the body with her crossbow. A bolt passes through a hole that was left from the previous shots and narrowly misses me. It stumbles back, and I stab at its head. 4 down. 1 left.



I need to keep my promise.



Before she can speak though, my sensor vibrates longer than usual. The last Mazemaster should be able to get here with only one teleport. It’s probably because its injuries hadn't healed. The last Mazemaster reappears, crawling on the floor, and Jenn kills the Mazemaster with her last bolt.

Breathe out.



Thanks, but I could’ve handled 3 Mazemasters meself!”



Even now she refuses to thank me fully, it’s an improvement though. I smile at myself. Raising a teenager decent enough to say thanks might not be a big achievement, and I’m definitely not the best role model for her, but I’ll take the little wins. 



Sure, and that’s why you pressed the emergency button AND screamed? It was 5, not 3 by the way.”



I say with a smirk.

It was… an overreaction on my part.”



It’s fine, right now we should worry ‘bout relocatin’ though, it’s not safe he-”



Another long vibration from the sensor.



A mistake. I relaxed too soon. Should've investigated the abnormal sensor vibration first.

2more Mazemasters appear, too sudden for me to react. One got its hand on my face. I can feel the corruption seeping in. I can feel my face cracking into a maze-like shape. I can’t stand up. It keeps pushing me down.



I feel a familiar burn on my face coming from its claws.



All I can do is scream in pain.



I feel my consciousness fading. Jenn manages to get her bearings and hits the Mazemaster hard in the head. it’s hurt and lets go of its grip on me, dropping me to the cold, hard floor.



The other Mazemaster throws her into a corner. I watch in horror as both Mazemaster start approaching her, and time suddenly stops.



No. It won’t end like this. I made a promise to my parents. I will not let them down again.



Move, Hill!



The sensor suddenly vibrates like never before.

A Giant, A Mask, A Doppel

Slowly, Jenn’s room gets consumed by… nothingness. The familiar void in between sleep and dream, but something is off. My face is still burning. Am I dead? The sensor vibrates uncontrollably. I couldn’t care less even if I tried. Suddenly, a loud disembodied voice can be heard everywhere in this nowhere. Surrounding me from all flanks. It sounds male. Very monotone and low.

 

“Burma Hylpa, I’ve been waiting for you, welcome to my dimension.”

 

“Show yourself!” My voice sounds… wrong.

I thrash around, trying to search for my baton sword. No luck.

 

“You will see me soon. But you must calm yourself first. It is not beneficial for either of us if you approach our coming discussion with the short temper you are currently displaying.”

 

“Where is my sister?!”

 

“She is safe, technically.”

“Do you believe in fate, Burma? Or should I call you Hill?”

 

“What do you mean technically?! Where is she?! Take me back!”

 

“Calm down, Hylpa. Answering my question is a formality I am required to-”

 

“YOU ANSWER FIRST!”

 

It pauses, allowing a subtle clicking rhythm to take over the empty space, the void I know doesn’t have sound at all, I don’t know where I am, then, but the sound is… calming, I almost feel sleepy. Almost.

 

“Time in the third dimension has stopped, relative to you. She is unharmed thanks to this abnormality in the progression of time in your dimension that fate has allowed, but still in her current predicament.” It keeps its calm voice before pausing again.

 

“Did you bring me here?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Fate, Hylpa. That is the brief answer. So can you now answer my question?”

 

“... Yes and no.”

 

“Elaborate.”

 

“I think fate exists but we can change parts of it if we try hard enough.”

 

“Interesting. Would you like to see your destined dimension now? This is the only way to see me.”

 

“If that’ll free me from this… whatever this is then aye. I need to get back to my sister.”

 

“Very well.”

 

I feel myself falling again, this time though, a floor can be seen.

… This is going to hurt.

 

I land on the marble floor harshly. Luxury doesn’t feel very luxurious when you splat head first on it.

Focus, Hill, not the time for jokes. Seems like whatever that rhythm was got to my head. Situational awareness, what’s around you?

 

Golden pillars are placed to support the hexagonal structure of the room and Golden gears are running on the walls. There's a figure in the center of the room, sitting on a golden throne made of gears.

This place is a filthy rich steampunker’s dream, which this guy might be for all I know.

1 of the 6 walls has gears that aren’t moving. Does it correlate with the time stop the voice mentioned?

 

Oh yeah, the voice. The figure on the throne is a gigantic humanoid. Around 3 stories tall, I’d say. I can imagine the booming voice belonging to it. Its face is mostly covered by a headpiece that looks like a combination of a European war helmet, the ones that cover your whole face save for the eye holes, and a crown. The headpiece has an ornamented stoic face design to the front of it. I can see the ends of a very thick beard poking through the opening of the headpiece. It wears armor, medieval-looking too, but with a hood tucked to the back. Both the armor and the headpiece are golden. On its hand is a scythe almost as tall as it is. Is it some kind of medieval… Grim Reaper? Not something I expect to see. That’s for sure.

 

The figure clears its throat.

“Greetings. My name is Father Clockwork.”

 

“Father Clockwork? You’re the one The Church worships.”

Another pause. It seems I’m an expert at annoying beings that can probably kill me.

 

“Yes. Though I am no god, and I do not care for the devotion of those foolish enough to think I am one.”

 

“Then what are you?”

 

“I am a being of power, an avatar of fate.”

 

Yup, he definitely could kill me.

 

“Weird, I thought I’d be more… distressed seeing someone like you. No offense. But you’re not exactly… natural for me,”

 

It’s not exactly natural for me to be here anyway, now that I think about it.

But the rhythm of calmness overtakes my thoughts again. Is it some kind of brainwashing? Or is it there for my good?

 

“What’s with the… clicking anyway? Are you trying to brainwash me? Am I supposed to feel aware and you’re trying to suppress that?” I reflexively go for my baton sword but it’s still not there.

 

“The room is limiting your senses so that its non-euclidean geometry does not overload your brain. What you see is your perception of it, not its true form. And the gears around you produce a rhythm that brings a certain sense of order, so you can make this next decision with a clear mind. I am more natural than you might think.”

 

“Decision? But I don’t even understand the… situation I’m in now. I need to know more first.”

 

“And I thought your sister was the curious one?”

 

“If she’s here, you’ll spend forever answering her questions.”

She really would. I miss when the only thing she asked me was about the animals in the few picture books in our home. The memory brings a small smile to my face. Feels like a lifetime ago now. Father Clockwork clears his throat again before I can fully let go of those memories.

 

“I have forever if it is necessary. But that is for fate to decide.”

“We must get to business. Out of all candidates, you are the last alive. You have the will and drive to conquer challenges others will simply fail. And all of that for your sister.”

“What if I tell you that fate favors you? That fate has bigger plans for you?”

“Do you know the folktale ‘The Masked Menace’ or ‘The Mask of Cunningness’? It depends on who you ask. It’s not a commonly known tale, but some cultures still hold on to it, some for hope, some as a warning, and some to degrade me.”

 

… Is he seriously asking me about some bedtime story now? What was the first part again? Does fate favor me? Bigger plans? Was I just lucky this whole time? I wouldn’t complain, but that’s a lot to think about.

 

Ugh, focus, Hill. Don’t let the sound get to you. Forget thinking. Let’s just get this over with and get back to Jenn.

 

“No, I’m not into stories.”

 

“How unfortunate. We shall rectify that.”

 

A mechanical hand grabs a book from a panel that has opened in one of the walls. The gear on that panel should have stopped, but somehow it continues spinning in synchronization with the other gears. The giant opens a page of the book and begins reading.

“A long time ago, in an age of darkness, an age of freaks, a speck of bright light shone. A cunning woman with skills second to none dedicated her life to protecting the dimension she inhabits. Under fate’s watchful eye, she slew the freaks of nature one by one, as fate’s interest rose.

The warrior is not a fool though, she knew she would one day succumb to the inevitable. On the day she thought it all would end, Father Clockwork, under fate’s orders, took her to his domain. She was transformed into a clockwork avatar making her far more powerful than any single mortal. With her newfound powers, she slew even more of the freaks. Ripping and tearing through each like paper.

But the evil is many and she is one. The mark of the clockwork on her face scared any potential ally that came her way. So she made a mask, a mask that will inspire rebellion amongst her allies, and will instill within the freaks fear of the clockwork avatar. Her rebellion freed her people from the freaks’ clutches. But fate is not done with her.

Fate is a force of both good and evil. The balance of all things and the natural cycle of all there is. Fate must find a way to balance her presence. And so Father Chaos was ordered to spread more of the freaks throughout the dimensions.

In response, Father Clockwork was ordered to assign avatars from other dimensions to combat the evil his younger brother spread.

All led to a great battle between Father Chaos himself and the avatars. The battle was hard, and the avatars pushed their limits. Unleashing powers on an unheard scale. It cost them dearly, but the heroes pushed on.

In the end, all of the avatars either died or lost their power, but Father Chaos was made dormant for a time in his home realm. A time of peace took place for millions of years. And that cycle will continue, until the fateful day when both Fathers are destroyed, returned to The Essence of Fate, and all shall disappear.”

“And that is the tale of The Masked Menace, the first of her kind. And you will be the next to carry this mask on your dimension.”

 

Even with the room’s calming effect, I find my mind spiraling out of control.

 

I just wanted to protect my sister, I just wanted to give her a life she deserves. Why do I have to get involved with fate, a giant sitting on a throne, and all of this… mask thing?! The rhythm fights to take back control but my subconscious fights back.

 

“Man- I- I mean, Thing, Sir, Whatever, give me a minute. You told all that WAY too casually. Is the story real as it’s told?”

 

“I have anticipated this reaction. This is how almost all of the previous avatars react.”

 

“Ever consider changing the curriculum?”

 

“No.”

 

I sit on my spot in silence for an hour, two maybe, or even three, I tend to lose count after the first 15 minutes.

 

My subconscious finally yields its fight. Take it slowly, Hill. Think this through.

Never really wanted to be some kind of “chosen one” or even anybody special, I just want to live a simple life, I want to see my sister grow up, maybe see her make a family of her own if I live that long. But… Father Clockwork made it clear. There might not even be a world left if I don’t take this mask now. And there’s still the immediate threat to Jenn, two Mazemasters so close to my sister… I won’t be able to kill them fast enough to save her. There was no choice, was there?

He knew accepting the mark was my only option. The giant is an avatar of fate after all…

 

He’s a sly dog. An infinitely powerful dog at that. A cosmic con man, one I have no choice but to follow. I have to keep my promise, whatever it takes, whatever new responsibility. I will keep her safe.

 

“Do you accept the mark of the clockwork? I am sure you have processed your options.”

 

“Will it really allow me to save my sister?”

 

“Fate exists but you can change parts of it if you try hard enough.”

 

I take a deep breath. “Let’s do it.”

 

He stands up, showing his full height. The gears move again opening a different panel this time and handing me a mask, a version of the woman’s mask but with a skeleton-like nose, a twisted grin, and large empty eyes. It’s spotlessly white and cold to the touch like cooled metal. There are black-tinted glasses that I can’t see through. Must be one way, I wonder how much it will block my vision. Turning around, I’m surprised to see I can see through the other side as if nothing was there.

The gears move again to give me… my baton sword? It’s decorated with a maze and gear carving on the baton now and weighs slightly heavier, probably because the shell metals look a bit thicker and stronger. The edge is sharper than I can ever sharpen it. The weight will take some getting used to though I’m sure it’s not too bad. It’s been cleaned. My marks and memories on it, the blood, sweat, and tears, be it mine or whoever’s on the pointy end are gone.

 

But I suppose that’s fine.

I’ll earn those marks back soon enough.

 

“With this mask and your favored weapon, you shall be the third dimension’s Grima, protector of your world, and an avatar of the clockwork. you will be able to use the power of the gears you see here, namely your dimension’s gears and the fourth’s, your destined dimension, to unleash abilities that are unnatural to your world. But beware, these powers work in ways you might not expect.”

“Your choice has been written in The Book of Fate, Grima, and you will not be able to take it back. Pray that you will find direction in your new life, avatar. Because it will not be easy.”

 

My vision starts turning black and the rhythm starts to fade, leaving me in the void again.

The void then disappears putting me back in Jenn’s room. Everything is in its place, the sensor’s vibrations finally calm down.

 

First things first, I need to distance those 2 freaks from her. As I think about going there, I am transported into a version of my sister’s room, a kind of twisted version, where everything is white and black and still, the matter here seems unstable, as objects are constantly jittering in place. I can move my sheathed baton sword though, so it’s not affecting everything. This must be the fourth dimension, or my perception of it, at least. Is this what Jenn theorized about the Mazemasters’ teleporting ability? Maybe they just stop time? I notice the sensor’s going crazy again.

 

I try slashing at the Mazemasters which doesn’t work, unfortunately, it passes right through. Father Clockwork did say that my powers won’t work as expected? Come to think of it, I feel quite drained, the power must have been drawing from my energy to run. The next best thing is to stand between them and Jenn. I stand ready with a defensive stance, holding my baton tight.

Why did he have to be so vague? Is it just time constraints or pure dramatic effect? I’m willing to bet it’s for dramatic effect.

 

With a single thought about time starting again, the room turns back to normal, the Mazemasters claws right at the baton, definitely startled. My sister backs further into her corner. I take the opportunity and stab at its head. One down. The other one teleports into another corner of the room, they’re like predators. It must be trying to process the situation. Jenn’s table is right behind it, maybe I could… think about throwing it at the thing?

 

And just as I thought that a line coming from my hand to the table formed, it’s like a rift mirror into the twisted world I was in before, the sensor vibrates again. I pull the line and the table is thrown towards the Mazemaster, the pull was surprisingly weightless. As it shrieks and stumbles towards me, I push it down and end its miserable life. The first 2 marks have been earned again.

I quickly look back at Jenn, but she backs away.

Feeling like I know what happened, I touch my face. The clockwork’s mark, a maze-shaped scar on my face, just like theirs, and on my left hand is a gear symbol. Imagining what my face looks like now, I can understand why the warrior in the story didn’t have allies before the mask.

“Jenn, it’s me.” But my voice still sounds wrong. It’s like I can’t get air through a damaged throat, which is probably the case, honestly. I emit a very hushed, unnatural tone. My voice causes her to stick to the wall, moving deeper into the corner.

I just stand there, unsure of what to do. Jenn is cuddling herself and shivering in place. I can hear her deep, ragged breaths. All because of me.

 

I’ve had many nightmares, but this is the worst yet.

 

I awkwardly hold my baton sword, presenting it to her. She squints her eyes, her breath tightens, but she seems willing to observe first. I spin the sword around like I usually do, making it brush around my arm and switching grips. She seems to slowly catch on as I continue playing with it.

 

“H- Hill?”

 

“Yeah. It’s me.” I try to smile but the skin around my mouth feels uncomfortable.

 

“How are you not turned?”

 

“Hey! I’m hard to kill.” I say with a wink.

She looks worried, still unsure. Yeah, maybe not the best time.

“I… Look, I don’t understand either, but I am apparently marked by fate? And I met Father Clockwork, you know, the one The Church worships?” She nods slowly, her eyes looking up trying to process it all.

“So… yeah, he gave me powers and told me I need to fix this whole mess. I honestly just got through it to get back here.”

 

“Wait, Father Clockwork is real? Is The Church is right then?”

 

An important trick I learned a long time ago. The best way to get Jenn to open up to anybody is by making her curious first and then making her think theorize, or explain.

 

“No, he says he’s not to be worshipped. He’s still big though. 3 story building kinda big, I reckon.”

 

“Oh okay. That’s… that’s a lot of information. Interesting...”

 

“That’s not even half of it… Do you know ‘The Masked Menace’?”

 

“Hmm? Oh, of course, it’s a folktale story from the Vikings, if I remember correctly. It’s been translated in some books, but mostly in demonology and poem ones. The one with the woman who’s like, a great warrior? I thought it was a myth.”

 

Pretty sure everybody but The Church of Father Clockwork thought it was a myth…

 

“Yeah, that one- Wait, demonology books?”

 

“I was just curious, I wasn’t going to do anything with it!” She said defensively.

 

“I… Okay.”

 

“Don’t judge me!”

 

“I’m not judging! I probably look like a demon right now, might as well have a sister that knows their lore.”

 

“You… Okay, I can’t lie, your face does look pretty scary right now, but continue.”

 

“Weren’t my face always scary?”

 

“More than usual this time, Hill.” She says with a concerned look.

 

”Where was I? Oh, apparently I’m a version of the woman in the story. That’s part of why we’ve always been… somewhat lucky, I think.”

”And he also gave me a mask and modified my baton sword. Maybe you should check it out, you know these things better than I do.” I say as I wear the mask.

 

“Let me see.”

 

She inspects it thoroughly for a few minutes. Pulling on it forcefully at one point. Muttering here and there about the new additions’ possible uses.

 

“Okay, so he made the locking mechanism magnetic-based instead of the slot it used to use. See the magnet ring? The magnet’s unnaturally strong and weak at the same time though, look.”

 

She attaches and detaches the baton sword multiple times easily, but when she throws it to a wall, it stays attached, instead of separating violently as one would expect. I’m kind of miffed she threw my weapon but it’s for science, I suppose.

 

“It can be explained with electromagnetics, but I dinnae ken where the electronics are. Maybe on the inside?” She finally concludes.

 

“Don't take it apart,” I say bluntly. She gives the weapon back to me, disappointed.

“Anything else you figured out?”

 

The mask normalizes my voice. That’s neat. And the edges I expected to see aren’t there, giving me a full, clear view.

 

“There are small gears on the openings of both parts, but I don’t know what it’s for. It’s not connected to anything. Oh, and the mask fixes your voice? It doesn’t sound… broken anymore.”

 

“I didn’t know it can change voices either. Pretty neat, don’t you think? Let me try the gear thing, I think I might have an idea what it’s for.”

 

I put the baton sword on the ground and extended both my hands. The gears in the opening turn, both parts flew to my preferred hands. Baton on my left, and sword on my right. I try to think about putting it into its spear form and both parts jump out of my hand and land in its new form. So these are gears from that golden room. It’s way more straightforward than I expected… Oh right, the time stop thing was not straightforward. Even trying to make sense of all of this isn’t going as I expected.

 

“Whoa, WHAT?!”

She jumps excitedly.

 

“Yeah, your clockwork theory seems to be right, sis. Father Clockwork must have connected me to the greater clockwork you talked about the other day or something.”

 

“I KNEW IT. Every important piece of technology we’ve found or made so far is gear-based, I knew something greater was at play!”

 

She reacted as excitedly as I hoped, pacing around the room thinking. As happy as I am seeing her this giddy again after so long, there are more pressing matters.

 

“That’s cool and all, but we still gotta go.”

 

The gears on the wall start turning again for no reason. It wasn’t my doing so maybe someone else’s? Or Father Clockwork himself?

 

I try thinking about stopping time again to check the other rooms safely, but no luck.

 

“I swear, I… stopped time before.”

 

“Yeah, I saw,” Jenn commented, rubbing her chin.

 

“Why can’t I do it now?”

 

“Because of the gears in the wall, Grima. It blocks all clockwork powers and energies.”

 

Definitely a new voice, whoever it is is coming from the room’s entrance. I ready my baton sword and Jenn aims her crossbow, using my shoulder as support.

 

“Woah, Woah, relax! Friendly! Friendly!” The man on the door says, holding his hands up and jumping to the door’s edges for cover.

 

Wait a minute… Purple cloak, blue clothing, brown belts, and that ski mask…

 

“I think I’ve heard of you on the radio… Are you Doppel?” I yell slightly, gripping my sword tighter.

 

“In the flesh! A flesh I am planning to keep, so I would really prefer if you stop pointing your weapons at me!” He yells back from his cover.

 

“What are you doing here?” My sister asks, clearly excited to meet someone ‘famous’ like him. She puts her crossbow down.

 

“Well, your… friend here is a clockwork avatar.” He says, popping his head out of cover and addressing my sister.

“Father Clockwork told me I need to go look for you when you appear. I felt your presence this morning and went looking. And here you are, exactly where I expect you to be! Fate works in funny ways, huh?”

 

“You felt my presence? Through Father Clockwork or his powers, I assume. How come I can’t feel yours? And I haven’t even gotten my powers this morning, there’s no way you detected that.”

 

“It takes some getting used to, but you’ll be able to feel the presence of clockwork beings. Well, unless that being is here while the gear is on, that is. I don’t know about your powers though. Maybe you were revealed early to give me time to come?”

 

“Okay… Still, how did you know where to find me? That part doesn’t make sense.”

 

“Well, this bunker was mine for a while. And where else to find the clockwork avatar other than the clockwork bunker?”

 

“Wait, you made the bunker?” My sister immediately ran towards Doppel. I try to stop her but apparently, a fangirl is faster than a survivor, so I just follow her cautiously.

 

I get her enthusiasm, but I’ve seen false idols before. People acting like they’re better than they are. Hypocrites, all of them. Selling their beliefs, dignity, sometimes even religion for scraps of attention and money from the people they leech from. I’ve seen preachers from The Church of Father Clockwork do it, I’ve seen famous merchants do it, I’ve seen doctors do it. Nobody would even believe how many small settlement “heroes” I’ve passed by. Feeding off of the desperation of especially weak settlers only to run off at the first sign of trouble.

 

“No, I wish I could. This place is a piece of art!” he chuckled.

“Father Clockwork just made it… appear.”

 

“And I assume Father Clockwork also turned the gears off to let the Mazemasters close and make me a… Gríma? A mask?”

 

“Grima, not the icelandic Gríma. Confusing, I know.”

“And yeah. Sounds like something he would do. Avatar of fate and all.” He says, waving jazz hands to emphasize the last sentence.

 

“And you had nothing to do with it? You didn’t turn the gears off or back on?”

 

“No, man, I don’t know how any of this works.”

 

Fair point. He doesn’t seem smart about these kinds of things. Jenn would probably figure it out years before he even gets close.

 

“Of course.” I sigh. Finally sheathing my weapon.

“Well, aren’t you a Grima too then? Why call yourself a Doppel?”

 

“I’m not a Grima. Father Clockwork gave me a clockwork power, sure, but I have my own unique power. Your powers are far more powerful than mine, he said. Apparently, I’m fated to help you, be your sidekick, and all that. And Doppel is my name, not a title.”

 

“Really? And you accept that role because…?”

 

“I just… want to help?”

 

“Thanks… I already have a sidekick though.”

I look at my sister, who’s staring at me disapprovingly. I grin behind the mask.

 

“I don’t know about powers though, I’ve only used some sort of time stop ability and a version of telekinesis.”

 

“Wow! 2 powers already?”

 

“I guess? What’s your power?”

 

“You know how fate is fluid?”

 

“Yeah? I think so, at least.”

 

“Right. Well, I can temporarily call a version of me from another fate at the same spot, basically making two of me. You know, a DOPPELganger?”

 

“Ahh, okay. That makes sense.” My sister says. It doesn’t, really. None of this makes sense to my peanut brain. But if she says so.

“Well… what now?” She asks again.

 

“Oh, right. Doppel, meet Jenny, my sister. Jenny, meet Doppel, another clockwork… being… thing, like me.”

 

“Oh, you guys are siblings, I see.”

Doppel waves at her casually. She waves much more excitedly.

 

“I’ve heard so much about you! My friends and I talk about you sometimes.”

 

“Ooh! A fan!”

 

“You could say that! Did you really kill 10 Mazemasters at once?”

 

“Well, technically each of me killed 5.”

 

“That’s still cool!”

 

That’s actually pretty average for survivors like us, but she doesn’t need to know. Well, killing 5 is average, but since he can multiply I guess 10 is his normal. He probably can do better than that if the stories are true.

 

“Okay, okay. Enough chit-chat. What do we do now?”

 

“Still remember the tale?”

 

“No… Not all of it. Is that a mandatory part of being a Grima?”

 

“Oh… I expected you to remember… I don’t remember either. I’m not into stories.”

 

“We’re the same in that way too, then.”

 

“... You guys really should read more. Okay, you’ve killed lots of Mazemasters without powers, so that’s the first step done, you’ve got powers, the second step’s done, and then-”

 

“So it’s the saving humanity part, now!”

Doppel exclaimed.

 

“Not yet, it’s the forming the rebellion part first.”

 

“Oh, right…”

“Well, Grima. Are you ready?”

 

“Yeah, as long as my sister stays with me. And we stay close to the south for as long as possible. No debate on that.”

 

“Uhh… those conditions aren’t in the tale, I think. But not against it either, so okay, I guess? Meet you guys outside!”

 

He quickly turns back, heading for the exit. Jenn was about to follow but I grab her arm first.

“Oh, I almost forgot!”

 

“What?”

 

“Happy belated 17thbirthday,” I say with a smile she couldn’t see.

“Sorry I couldn’t get any presents this year. I decided to make some sort of meat cake to make up for it but I didn’t get an animal today. I was holding off on congratulating you until I got something to give but… I don’t think that’s gonna happen anytime soon. Sorry.”

 

“It’s okay and thanks… I honestly thought you forgot anyway.” She elbows me.

 

“I would never!”

 

“And I don’t want to ever hear the word ‘meat cake’ ever again.” She says with a disgusted face.

 

“Aww, what’s wrong with meat cake?”

 

“Meat will never be cake! It’s just not meant to be.”

 

“But you’ve never even tried!”

 

“You haven’t either.”

 

“You know, I didn’t get an animal but I did get some raiders… maybe we could try…” I snicker and wink, forgetting again she can’t see my face.

 

“Ew! No!” she climbs up the bunker ladder, laughing.