I screamed in agony as another jolt of electricity seared through my manacles. Third degree burns marked my bound wrists, and pain marked everything else.
“Answer the question, Null-rank!” the Exarch screamed as she flooded energy into her Lightning Whip. Sparks of raw metaphysical power crackled from its coils.
I struggled to speak through heaving breaths. “Not until you say the magic word.”
The Exarch revealed her fury with a single primal scream. She raised the whip above her head and unleashed the barest trickle of its power onto me.
The tip of the weapon slashed through my jeans halfway down my shin, leaving a skin-tearing trail of red in its wake. It hurt like hell, but I had been through worse. ‘Twas but a flesh wound. A scratch.
It wasn’t a record scratch, but it was probably the closest I was going to get on this planet.
Cue the freeze frame.
Hi. You’re probably wondering how I got here. Me, just an ordinary girl with no superpowers, being tortured for information by the tyrannical “Exarch” of this fantasyland? Well, it all started a few days ago…
The first thing I remember thinking after dying was, Oh shit, there’s an afterlife after all. The second thing I remember thinking was, Oh fuck, I’m fucking dead.
I found myself floating in an endless abyss. No sight, no sound, no feeling except for some fleeting tingly-ness in what used to be my chest. That made sense, I guessed. I was leaving all those Earthly mortal fleshy things behind me—my soul had no need for ear canals or pain receptors, after all. As the darkness grew deeper with every passing second, I braced myself for the inevitable transition to Whatever Comes Next.
And then she flipped on the lights.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” a gentle voice said. “I wasn’t expecting compan…”
Turns out I wasn’t floating in an endless abyss at all. Way to get ahead of yourself, Ash. I was standing (with my body) in the middle of what looked like… a normal living room, adorned with various furnishings and knick-knacks and fancy old paintings hung up on the walls. Normal except for the fact that the floor, ceiling, and every wall was a solid white surface that practically radiated light.
I turned around slowly, taking it all in, until I came to the source of the voice: a woman standing in the doorway between rooms, her finger still on the light switch.
She wore a white dress that looked like it was ripped straight out of the Greek goddess playbook, and her hair was a perfect platinum blonde. Her flawlessly smooth skin was about four shades darker than my own homebody pale—which just furthered my suspicion that this woman was literally Aphrodite, minus two thousand years of whitewashing.
She stared at me with an expression of bewilderment that I recognized from many an occasion during my life. It was the expression of an antisocial teacher slowly realizing they wouldn’t have their office hours to themself. “You’re not… Oh. You’re… Oh.”
Since I had already spent most of my life letting people down, it didn’t faze me in the slightest to start my death by letting down gods. Maybe the spiritualists were right after all when they said life is meant to prepare us for the next life. In any case, I figured I should probably try to make a good first impression anyway, in case Aphrodite here was in charge of deciding whether I should be sent to the Good Place or the Fun Place.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m dead, right?”
The woman snapped herself out of her whatever and met my eyes for the first time. “Oh! Um, yes. You are dead. I am very sorry for your loss.”
“Or maybe I’m only on the brink of death, and this is one of those hyper-hypnagogic hallucinations from my pineal gland going ham on my brain, and in just a few more seconds it’ll all return to nothing.” Whoops, so much for first impressions.
The woman stared at me, a different kind of bewilderment taking over—but one that I was equally familiar with. “… I have no idea what half of that means, but no, that’s not what’s happening here.”
“That’s exactly what my near-death-experience brain hallucination would tell me, though.”
The woman rubbed her temples and sighed. “Epistemologically speaking, anything that ever happens could be your near-death-experience brain hallucination and you would never know for sure. If you want to play it that way.”
“Hmm. Good point.”
“Besides, I read it in your aura. You’re 100% dead, kiddo.”
Did she just…? Okay, I’ll admit there’s a lot I don’t know about the Greek pantheon, but I’m pretty sure that none of them ever used the word kiddo. “Um, you’re not Aphrodite, are you?”
“Who?” And then she laughed. “Oh, you mean the old Earth legend! No, that’s all fake. Earth humanity’s collective psychic subconscious wasn’t well developed enough two thousand years ago to be in tune with the shape of the greater multiverse. Only the major religions from the last, let’s say, five hundred years, are even remotely close to true.”
“Uh… Earth doesn’t exactly have any major religions much newer than two thousand years old…”
The mystery goddess stared blankly at me with the same awkward smile for several uncomfortable seconds. “… Anyway! My name is Seriphen, and I am the Goddess of Reincarnation! Congratulations on your cosmic destiny!”
My what? “My what?”
“Your name is Ashleigh Kyriakides, is it not?”
“It is, but my friends call me Ash.”
Seriphen held out her arm and materialized a clipboard out of thin air. Then a pair of reading glasses materialized on her face as she read from the paper. “Ashleigh Kyriakides, daughter of Jonathan Kyriakides and Alessandra Sabin-Kyriakides. Twenty-two years old. Software Engineer at Ubliquo International, whatever that means. Died of—”
“Okay, I get it, you know everything about me. Can we move on?”
Seriphen let go of the clipboard and it faded away into a thousand motes of light. “Anyway, the point I was leading up to is, you may have died on Earth, but your soul’s journey isn’t over yet. Unlike the vast majority of people who just cease to exist when they die, you are one of the lucky few who have been granted a second chance—a chance to be reborn!”
“Oh, wow. I mean, I kinda got that already—I know what ‘reincarnation’ means—but still, wow. Really?” Never in my life had I been able to hold back my master-class snark-tongue, and it looked like that wasn’t going to change in my death, either. I was trying, though. Give me credit for that, at least.
Thankfully, Seriphen didn’t seem to mind. “Really,” she intoned proudly.
“So I’m just going to wake up back on Earth and somehow make a full recovery from… what just happened?” And thus also be able to write off this entire experience as my near-death pineal hypnagogia after all…
“Oh, no,” Seriphen said. “You can’t go back to Earth. Your body is dead there, no way around it. You can only be reborn in a different world.”
“Whoa.” I suddenly remembered Seriphen’s earlier allusion to “Earth humanity,” the implication being that there were humans on other planets. Wait, not just other planets—she said “reborn in,” as opposed to “reborn on.” She was using ‘world’ as a synonym for ‘universe.’
And then I realized she had casually stated that humanity has a collective psychic subconscious, and people have auras that can be read, and clearly people also have souls, because holy shit, there’s an afterlife after all, and I was suddenly starting to realize just how deep into the rabbit hole I already was. It was overwhelming in the best way possible.
“I have so many questions,” I said.
“Naturally,” Seriphen replied. “But it is not my role to grant you knowledge beyond your position.”
“Oh. I guess that’s fair.” A disappointing yet wholly reasonable answer, the likes of which I should have expected from every book I’ve ever read and every movie I’ve ever seen. The gods of narratology prepared me well for this moment. But the next time I had a couple hours to think, I was going to go crazy trying to figure out the cosmology of the ‘greater multiverse.’ “So, where am I going to be reincarnated? Am I going to be reborn as a baby and not remember my life as Ash Kyriakides?”
Seriphen waved her arm and images of fantastical landscapes appeared floating in the air between us. A floating mountain range covered in blue vegetation. An entire city built on top of a platform suspended in the crater of a giant volcano. “There are many worlds in existence, each with an entirely unique System. The Drifting Plains and their Glasswalker System, Nazahar and its Phoenix Wheel… It would take far too long to describe them all. But for you… I think I know the perfect world. Its System will challenge you in ways befitting of your… ahem, inquisitive personality. And no, you won’t be reborn as a baby. You’ll be sent forth as you are now, minus any damage your body incurred from its recent demise.”
“Okay… Cool.” As rad as being reborn might be, I probably would have turned it down if it meant forgetting my current—uh, my former life. Contrary to popular belief, I quite liked being me, and I didn’t want to lose that. “So how does this work? Do you have a magic button you can press to send my soul or my aura or whatever to wherever you chose?”
Seriphen chuckled. “No matter what world you’re from, humans are always so physical. Yes, I can do it with a button, if you’d like.” She materialized a palm-sized metal box with a big red circular button into her hand. It may as well have been the Platonic ideal of “magic button.” Then she pressed it with an audible click. “In 15 seconds, you’ll find yourself in a world unlike any you’ve ever imagined.”
Wow, this was really happening. In just a matter of seconds I was going to be reincarnated in a world with a System that would uniquely challenge me.
“Seriphen, one more question before I go. What’s a System?”
“Huh? You’re joking, right?”
“… Wait, Earth is the one without a System, isn’t it…”
“Which means your aura won’t be compatible with…”
Seriphen’s face went almost as pale as mine. She looked at the button in her hand, then back to me, then back to the button. “Shit shit SHIT OH FU—”
And then it all returned to nothing.