His pulse raced nonstop as he pressed his ear against the door, intently listening for any sounds resembling footsteps. Cold sweat trickled down his temples, and he pulled out his phone for the umpteenth time.
On the screen, it read:
ACTIVE SHOOTER ALERT! SUSPECT WITH WEAPON IS ON CAMPUS. ENTER NEAREST ROOM AND LOCK DOORS. AWAIT FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS FROM AUTHORITIES.
DO NOT ENGAGE SHOOTER. REPEAT. DO NOT ENGAGE SHOOTER.
He squeezed his phone tight and briefly recalled everything that led him to this point.
Brandon had joined the U.S. Air Force to write off his student loans. They deployed him in the Middle East, and during his time there, he both saw and experienced things...terrible things he’s forced deep into the dark recesses of his mind. They haunt his dreams, and he hasn’t had a good night’s sleep since.
When Brandon returned to civilian life, he continued his studies and entered graduate school, planning to do his dissertation on climate change and its effects on ecological systems.
He has always had a passion for the outdoors - hiking, camping, etc. And he thoroughly enjoys doing fieldwork as well.
However, today, Brandon subbed for his doctoral advisor who was out sick today. And so, here he was teaching an Ecology class of about 70 undergraduates, detailing the differences between various freshwater biomes.
And of course on the day he was on campus, there happened to be a huge crisis. Another youngster neglected by society, brainwashed by online extremist ideologies, and with easy access to firearms, decided to come shoot up the university. How he wished he had gotten his concealed carry license.
Brandon shoved his phone back into his pocket and quickly surveyed the room. Scared students huddled in the far corner. Others furiously texted their family and friends. A few brave souls crouched near the door along with Brandon. He gave them a nod to express his gratitude and acknowledged their courage.
An eternity passed before Brandon heard a sound causing him to catch his breath.
Pah. Pah. Pah. Pah.
Slow, methodical footsteps echoed against tile and rose in volume as they neared. Closer and closer. Time slowed to a crawl. Seconds ticked by.
The boy next to him gulped loudly.
The footsteps stopped right outside the door. Fabrics rustled.
A pregnant pause.
No matter how many times the shooter tried, the door remained locked. A few more attempts. Then silence followed.
Pah. Pah. Pah. Pah.
The sound gradually diminished.
A small part of Brandon’s soul left his body along with his breath as he exhaled. Relief filled his entire being as the threat slowly passed. But in the next instance, the worst possible sound reached his ears, and he felt dread pool in his stomach.
Vrrrrr. Vrrrrr. Vrrrrr.
Every single pair of eyes in the auditorium turned to the culprit. Earlier, Brandon repeatedly ordered all the students to silence their cell phones. Mortified, a short brunette rushed to mute the vibrating device coming from her backpack. She managed to do so after what seemed like forever. Everybody glanced back at the door with apprehension.
Dead silence. No sounds at all. Maybe the shooter had not heard a thi —
‘God-fucking-dammit,’ Brandon mentally cursed.
He tensed his muscles and waited, desperately hoping the shooter would just give up.
Deafening bullets interrupted his prayers, and glass shattered everywhere. Brandon pulled the boy next to him down to the ground. Stray bullets struck several unlucky individuals, and they dropped like flies.
Brandon cursed once more, helplessly watching his students lose their lives right in front of him.
A gloved hand reached through the now-broken door window and fumbled around for the handle.
His eyes widened, and Brandon knew that it was now or never.
The military veteran sprung to the door, grabbed the outstretched limb with his left hand, yanking it hard through the opening, while pulling his other hand back into a closed fist. When he saw the semblance of a black mask, he sucker-punched the intruder’s head without hesitation.
Winding his arm back for another swing, the dazed shooter still managed to fire off several rounds from his semi-automatic, piercing the door. A couple bullets grazed his limbs, but one struck the middle of his chest.
Brandon gasped for air, and his grip on the man weakened. It took all of his willpower to push through the feeling of being a fish on land and land his second punch, knocking the shooter to the ground.
Everything following that was a blur. Strength left his body, and Brandon fell backwards. Not too long afterwards, a student crouched over him, asked if he was okay, and freaked out when he realized Brandon was gradually losing consciousness.
The last few memories included a strange burning feeling in his lungs and a vague impression of the nearby male students subduing the downed shooter.
Seeing they neutralized the threat, Brandon smiled through the pain and closed his eyes. For good.
Brandon opened his eyes to a beautiful sight.
A green-haired woman stood with long hair like wild vines splayed across the darkness, accentuating her shapely body. Her soft facial features contrasted with her bright green gems, her eyes.
“H-hello.” He gulped and gave a small wave.
Her smile could melt a glacier.
“Salutations, Child. It seems your journey here was a smooth one.”
He cocked his head slightly, “Here?”
“Yes, here. A realm far, far away from Earth.”
She brushed a strand of hair behind her ear.
“I received you, Child. I read the signs in the stars and the strings of Fate led me to you, more specifically, your soul.”
And with that last word, she plucked a fine, golden string that appeared out of thin air, coming from the abyss. He followed the vibration with his eyes and found that the other end connected to himself and —
Brandon let out an expletive and clutched at his chest as a searing pain permeated throughout his body from deep within.
The mysterious woman held a hint of a smile in her voice, “Apologies. This was the quickest way to dismiss your doubts, and we are on a bit of a time crunch.”
Brandon scowled at her and eventually recovered.
“No hard feelings, Child.” She waved him off. “More importantly, allow me to quickly introduce myself. I am Melandru, a Goddess of Nature. Some refer to me as the Earth-Mother.”
She raised her arms up into the air. “The aspect of Nature is drawn to you; why I brought your soul over to this realm.”
A light green aura manifested above the deity, and a steady stream broke off and slid along the soul string and entered his body. Warmth. Vigor. The feeling was akin to lying on a bed of flowers under the summer sun.
So pleasant was the sensation that Brandon unconsciously closed his eyes and lost himself for a moment.
The sound of thunder interrupted his daydreaming as a rift suddenly tore through space. Out of the void, stepped an extremely handsome man. Tall, dark-haired, and with blood-red eyes, he looked around until he found Brandon, locked eyes with him, and smirked.
“Ah, you are still here! I feared I would be too late.”
Melandru gritted out, “What. Are. You. Doing. Here?”
The stranger turned to her and met the death stare with an amused expression. “Your little trick failed, Sister, but it did delay me. I’ll give you a point for that.”
Clenching her hands, she breathed loudly and muttered curses under her breath.
Her brother ignored her like he was used to this and addressed Brandon.
“Hello Little One, sorry for the tardiness. I am called Grenth, and Death is my area of expertise."
Brandon scratched his head, looking back and forth between the two supposed deities.
“I’m sorry...What is going on here?”
Grenth smiled, “It would be easier to show you.”
He opened the palm of his hand, and a grey mist spewed out. The fog coiled around Brandon’s soul string like a snake and flew into his body.
A chill ran through his limbs. He sucked in a breath. Power. A forbidden type of strength. Numbing. Dangerously addictive. His eyes glazed over, purely relishing in the sensation for a good while.
And the feeling abruptly ended.
“That’s enough,” Melandru spat out. The goddess stopped whatever was happening with only a clap.
Brandon gathered his bearings and tried to reorient himself from the two drastically different experiences.
“Back to the matter at hand.” She sent Grenth a disgusted look before continuing, “Child, this must all be very confusing. In short, you will be sent into a new world; one full of fantasy and magic and monsters, you get the picture.”
She gestures offhandedly. Brandon recalled a number of stories with a similar type of premise. I-se-kay..? That sounds off.
“However, before you are sent there, I will bestow upon you my blessing. You are already attuned to the power of Nature, so this will augment that natural talent.”
“Hahaha,” Grenth interrupted, “Not so fast, dear Sister. Death is a concept this Little One is not unfamiliar with.” He took a step towards Brandon, and his red eyes burned. “Isn’t that right?”
A battlefield. Bodies. Everywhere. Some barely breathing, others missing limbs. And some were still. Have been for a while. Not just men, but women and children as well. Blood on the bodies. On his hands.
He blinked, took a deep breath, and returned to the present.
Grenth half-bowed, “I apologize Little One, but you understand my point, no? Death is a part of you now and has intertwined itself with your soul. Rejecting Death would have serious consequences in your next life. Surely you can feel it from within.”
He understood, and he could. His intuition confirmed Grenth’s words. Brandon breathed in and out a few more times and silently nodded.
“It is good that you understand. Accept the touch of Death. Let yourself become the vehicle, the vessel of Death.” He raised two fingers and pointed towards Brandon, “May your soul burn bright even after the blood stills, the heart stops, and the breath leaves —”
A green orb exploded and dissipated the black ball slowly forming on Grenth’s fingertips. “That was quite rude.”
“Well excuse ME. What was rude was you, beloved Brother, shoving your blessing down his throat without his consent!”
“What are you talking about? He clearly nodded, and his soul even opened itself up to Death.”
“His soul does not need more Death. What he needs is Life, the power that only Nature can give.” She said to Brandon, “If you follow the path of Death, you will become a hollow shell, empty inside. You and I both know how strong your passion for Life is; to surround yourself with it, to study it. It is also a huge part of who you are.”
Brandon softly smiled, recalling fond memories of his childhood spent running through fields of flowers and tending a small garden. His fieldwork as an adult took him to several places, but he always enjoyed studying it all: the exotic birds, the strange amphibians, and even the common insects.
Melandru reflected the gentle smile on her own face, “Child, see? Your soul is willing. Accept my blessing. You will be far happier. Just like how after the barren winter, spring brings with it new life, forget the evil powers of Death and allow Nature to make you whole again.”
“Dear Sister. You seem to be forgetting something.” It was Grenth’s turn to be angry. “Death is not inherently evil. All life returns to the eternal sleep. Death is stronger as it claims all. Without Death, life is meaningless. There is no progress. It becomes stale, stagnant.”
“You. Take. That. Back. Brother.”
“Make. Me. Sister.”
All of a sudden, the air became heavy. Green and black auras bursted out of and surrounded their respective gods. Over time, the colors grew in intensity, and the pressure increased manifold.
Brandon struggled to breathe, but eventually managed to let out a half-cough, half-wheeze.
The two gods, who had forgotten about the mortal in their deadlock, returned their attention to Brandon. Subsequently, the air reverted back to normal.
The God of Death cleared his throat, “Excuse our rude behavior. I promise we are not normally like this. You are a very special case, Little One. Very few souls have affinity in more than one aspect, let alone two polar ones.”
“My brother is correct. I do not recall a soul ever coming to our realm with tendencies towards both Death and Nature. It is an anomaly.” She rubbed her chin.
Grenth looked at his wrist, even though it was bare. “Strange as it may be, we have wasted enough time arguing over a single soul. Let me propose a simple solution to this, Sister.”
“Which is…?” Her eyes narrowed.
“Let the Little One decide whether he wants my blessing or yours. It shall be his life, and he will have to live with the consequences either way.”
She chewed on the idea, “You have a point, Brother,” then turned to Brandon. “So, Child, what will your choice be? Nature or Death? Choose wisely.”
Brandon felt his throat becoming dry. He knew this was an important decision, and he could not fuck it up.
They each had their advantages. He felt the forces stirring within earlier. Nature lent itself to growth and adaptation, however, Death was ‘stronger’, more destructive. He might need that strength in what sounds like a very dangerous fantasy world.
Nature healed and recovered. Death weakened and crippled.
The gods were right about the forces being complete opposites.
Brandon stood at a crossroads. Two different destinies lie before him, and he could already envision what they might look like.
Which path should he take? Which path does he want to take?
Before him lies a choice that will forever change himself and his future.