Return of runebound Professor. CHAPTER 1-4



Chapter 1: Even in death

Death, Noah Vines found, was not what he had been expecting. He’d never considered himself a particularly religious man, but he’d always thought there was something that came after.

He was pleased to discover that there was indeed something.

He was less pleased to discover that the something involved waiting in a line. A very, very long line. To make matters worse, he had absolutely no idea what he was waiting for. There hadn’t been any introduction. He even would have settled for an onboarding video.

Instead, he found himself standing behind another man, as naked as the day he was born, slowly wandering toward something. The only thing that existed was boredom. There was nothing around them but more lines of people, winding through empty space and standing on faint, translucent paths of energy. Time passed – at least, Noah felt like time was passing. He didn’t have any way to tell for sure.

Several times, he thought about talking to someone. Each time, he decided against it. It just didn’t feel right. Perhaps that came with being dead. It did give him a little time to self-reflect, though.

Unfortunately, what he reflected on didn’t make him feel particularly great. He would have loved to arrive at the afterlife – whatever it was – with a little bit more to be proud of. Thousands of successful students, or perhaps a loving wife and kids.

He hadn’t quite made it that far. Noah had a grand total of four years of teaching under his belt, along with a useless university degree that had barely gotten him the job – the same job that had forced his fellow teachers to give up their sick days so he could afford the hospital bills.

God – Gods, however many or whatever type there are, I hope those kids have a good start to their life. They deserve it.

The line inched along. Time stretched. It passed, but by how much Noah was unsure. Hundreds of years. Thousands. He wasn’t sure anymore. The only thing that really kept him company was his own voice, echoing within the silent confines of his mind.

He just stood, occasionally taking a step whenever the soul in front of him moved.

The world changed.

Noah wasn’t sure exactly when it had happened. But, one moment he was standing in line floating in infinite nothingness, and the next his feet were on solid ground. The lines all converged on a single point, where a tall woman towered above them all. Behind her was a huge lake full of glimmering silver water.

Unlike everyone else, she wore clothes. Beautiful silk hung from her body and danced around her like streamers, but nothing on or beside her could compare to the woman herself. She was perfect to such a degree that the only emotion that Noah felt was fear. Without a doubt, she was not human.

One by one, the people in the lines stepped up to her. They paused for a minute, as if in silent conversation. Then they continued, walking into the lake dipping their hands into it. They raised the silver liquid to their lips and vanished, transforming into streaks of white light.

The line continued on. Before Noah could even truly process it, he was standing before the beautiful woman. Time froze around him as they locked eyes.

“Noah Vines,” she said, as if reading from some invisible prompt. “Died at the age of twenty-six. You were an influential figure for eighty four of your pupils. Many prayers have been sent up for you. A life well lived.”

“I – are you god?” Noah asked, speaking for the first time since he’d died and instantly cursing himself for it.

“I am Renewal, one of the many goddesses of Reincarnation,” she replied, looking slightly bored at the question. “You have been chosen to be reincarnated in a higher plane. Drink from this well of the Waters of Life and, in losing the memories of your current life, continue unto your next. A suitable body will soon be born for you.”

“Wait, I won’t remember anything? Nothing at all?”

Renewal opened her mouth to respond. Then time snapped back into motion. Thousands of streaks of black light carved through the nothingness like a shower of falling stars. Noah stared up at them in awe, his mouth hanging askew.

The first star hit, falling into a line of people just a short distance away from Noah. It obliterated them and smashed through the floor, sending huge chunks of it spiraling away into nothingness.

A massive rumble shook the ground as more of the stars fell, each one tearing the serene scene into smithereens. Renewal raised her hands. A beautiful pink flower bloomed in the air before her, moments before a lance of black energy slammed into it.

It crushed the flower and narrowly missed Renewal as she spun out of the way. More of the stars continued to rain down all around Noah, but he couldn’t bring himself to move. All he could do was watch as they tore through the other souls surrounding him, ripping them to shreds or sending them plummeting into nothingness.

A deep, grating howl echoed through the air. Renewal staggered as a jagged black spear erupted from her shoulder. Cracks formed in the air around her and a gurgling mass seeped out from within it, pouring onto the ground like sludge.

Screaming faces rose up within it, as if they were straining to escape the bubbling goop. It rose up, forming into the blobby shape of a man. He ripped the spear free of Renewal.

“I finally found you, Renewal,” the man said, his whispery voice laden with a mocking tone. “My beautiful flower.”

Renewal’s face didn’t budge. She thrust a hand toward the man. A beam of brilliant energy erupted from her palm, searing into him. A thousand voices screamed in pain and he clutched his chest. Black liquid poured down his body and into the pool of silver water, tainting it.

Another falling star slammed into the ground just beside Noah, snapping him out of his reverie. There wasn’t a single other soul left that he could see. He’d been so close to Renewal and the terrifying man that he’d been spared from the destruction so far, but it didn’t take a genius to tell that sticking around for a battle between gods was a terrible idea.

His eyes latched onto the Waters of Life. He glanced up at the two, but neither of them were paying attention. Noah scrambled to his feet and threw himself forward. The man turned, and for a single instant, he locked eyes with Noah.

Then Noah plunged into the silver pool. He drank without waiting to see what would happen. It poured into his throat, sweet and syrupy. A sense of peace enveloped Noah, cradling him in its comfort.

The terror that had been gripping him just instants ago faded away. He was safe. There was nothing to fear. All that mattered was moving on to his next life. His past didn’t –

Noah recoiled as something bitter hit his tongue. It spiked through the peace, binding around him like a thorny vine. The fraying memories of his mortal life suddenly stopped decaying and rushed back into him, packed into his body along with the disgusting taste.

And then Noah was gone, a streak of light shooting across the cosmos.

Worlds stretched past him in a blur of color across a black canvas. He streaked through the infinite black, his mind a muddled mess as he tried to comprehend the visions flashing before him. Time became a foreign concept. To Noah, existence became the dancing shapes and universes that he passed by.

But, as all things must, it came to an end. He felt a sharp jerk in the area that would have been his chest, had he had a physical form. The dull pain was the first thing that he had felt in – well, Noah wasn’t sure. A while.

Images bloomed before him, no longer of flitting worlds or stars, but of endless green fields and massive mountains. Lakes the size of an ocean and intricate cave systems deep below. Awe filled his being as he hurtled through the new world, his awareness sputtering as it tried to fully reignite.

For the briefest instant, Noah spotted two massive, reptilian eyes looking down at him from within the stars. Then he was gone, getting lower and lower to the surface of the planet. A faint drawing force pulled him down into a village and he slipped through the wooden planks of a small house.

A woman laid in bed, a newly born infant mewling in front of her. Her features were a mixture of relief and pain, but Noah didn’t get to examine them long. The force tugged at him, pulling him toward the child’s body.

He descended, brushing the crying boy’s face for an instant. Tight bands wrapped around him, sending flashes of agony throughout his body. No more than a second later, he was yanked away and sent hurtling across the planet once more.

Several more times, Noah was pulled into scenes of births, where his floating body tried and failed to merge. The tightness grew stronger, to the point where he could barely even muster the meagre thoughts that he’d managed thus far.

Noah caught a glimpse of the towering walls of an enormous castle the size of a city an instant before he shot through them. He pushed through the cracks in the stone and continued onward, hurtling past forests and great plains.

He slammed to a halt in a small clearing surrounded by charred, blackened trees. They stretched into the air around him like withered hands reaching for the heavens. To his surprise, there was no child. There wasn’t even a mother. A greasy black haired man sat beside a dying campfire beside a small lake. His features were sharp and pinched in pain. Blood trickled down his chest from a deep wound. Noah wasn’t a doctor, but he was pretty certain that it wasn’t the kind of wound that people walked away from.

The corpses of several furry creatures laid around him. They roughly resembled monkeys, but had large, jutting fangs and claws far longer than any monkey on Earth. Their fur still smoldered, and they were all riddled with holes as wide as quarters.

Drawing a labored breath, the man fumbled in his belt and pulled out a small gourd. He snapped the wax seal at the top and lifted it to his mouth with trembling hands, drinking greedily from it.

Noah tried to move, but he had no control over his body. All he could do was float and watch. The wound on the man’s stomach rippled and bubbled. Strands of flesh and organ reached out, reconnecting themselves.

The man went to take another drink. He stopped halfway through the motion, his eyes bulging as he grabbed at his throat. The bottle slipped from his hands and fell to the ground, liquid spilling from its mouth.

A sharp tug pulled on Noah’s navel. The man glanced up just as Noah was yanked downward and into his body. Ice rushed through Noah. It felt as if he’d been plunged into the freezing ocean.

A scream split through his thoughts, but only later did he realize that it hadn’t been his voice. Noah drew a ragged, desperate gasp for air – and it worked.

Noah froze. He slowly reached up to his face, pressing against skin instead of ghostly ectoplasm. He patted himself down, slowly at first, then leapt to his feet. His foot landed on a patch of bloody mud and he lost his footing, slamming onto his back with a loud crash.

Pain flashed through him, but he didn’t even register it. Noah scrambled on all fours over to the lake and peered into it. What stared back was the man’s body, but no traces of his wound remained.

“Gods above,” Noah muttered. His head throbbed and he grimaced. He ran his hands along himself again, just to make sure he could still feel. “I’m alive. I’m alive!”

Noah burst into hysterical laughter and slapped himself across the face, just because he could. He had a physical body again. Sinking down into a small ball beside the lake, Noah continued to laugh until tears streaked down his cheeks.

He was alive.

The bout passed, bringing considerably less joyous emotions with it.

“I thought I was supposed to lose all of my memories and be reborn,” Noah said, staring at one of his pale hands. The voice that emerged from his mouth wasn’t his, though it wasn’t all that different from it. “Neither of those seem to have happened.”

A shudder ran through him at the thought of the terrifying creature that had attacked Renewal. Whatever it was, he never wanted to see it again. But, possibly worse, someone had been inhabiting this body before his… arrival.

“Did I just murder someone? Or did I just watch them get murdered and take advantage of it?” Noah asked himself, swallowing nervously. He crawled over to the gourd the man had drunk from and picked it up.

A small piece of parchment was tied to its lip with tweed. To Noah’s surprise, he could read the words on it perfectly, despite knowing full well that they weren’t English.

Thanks for everything, Magus Vermil. I hope this healing potion helps you out.

Evidently, some of the man’s memories were still bouncing around in his head. That might have explained the throbbing headache. Something sharp poked into his chest. Noah reached up, pulling a small metal badge with the words Magus Vermil carved into it from a slot in his jacket. He tucked it into his pant pockets with a grimace.

Judging by the man’s expression moments before he’d died, Noah was pretty sure that this potion had done more than just heal him. From the looks of things, it actually did more to kill him.

Whoever this guy was, he had some enemies.

“Tough luck, man,” Noah muttered. “The line isn’t too bad when you get used to it, though. Hope things go better for you next time around.”

He gave it a hesitant sniff. The gourd smelled like honey and cinnamon. Noah carefully set the gourd back on the ground, making sure not to spill any of its contents on himself. Just because it didn’t seem to be affecting him anymore didn’t mean it wouldn’t work again if he got more of it on himself.

“Well, this certainly isn’t anything like monkeys on Earth,” Noah said, studying one of the dead monkeys. Now that he had an actual pair of eyes to look through, he was even more certain. The dead monkey’s eyes were bloodshot and its fur was so matted that it could have been armor. There was no word to describe it other than monster.

He pushed himself off the ground, standing on shaky legs. Strangely, Noah felt no panic or fear. He’d spent more than enough time coming to terms with his life when he was waiting in line for the afterlife.

If gods existed, it wasn’t hard to extrapolate that monsters did as well. More importantly – something had seriously injured the previous owner of Noah’s body, and he wasn’t sure if it was still around.

An image of a towering, furry mass flickered through Noah’s mind. He paused, trying to bring it back, but the memory was already gone – and it certainly wasn’t one of his.

“What the hell was that?” Noah muttered, rubbing his eyes. “Is that what gored this Vermil guy before I got around to him? I hope not. I don’t want to be anywhere near that thing.”

A shadow passed over Noah’s head. He stared down at it, as it eclipsed him, passing far into the campsite. His lips pressed thin. “Ah. Of course. It’s behind me.”

He turned around and came face to face with the fattest, ugliest monkey he’d ever seen. The monster towered nearly twice his height and had long, gangly arms that ended in disproportionately long clawed hands.

Its eyes were small and beady, and fangs jutted out of its mouth in every which direction. If someone had taken a rabid orangutang and shoved a bunch of extra teeth into its mouth before driving its face into the wall half a dozen times, then it probably would have been this thing’s mother.

“Hello there,” Noah said, lowering his gaze as he desperately tried to dig through his old memories of earth to recall what to do when one came face to face with a predator. Avoid smiling. Don’t make eye contact. Give a firm handshake and talk with confidence.

Wait, that last one might be for an interview. LinkedIn articles didn’t prepare me for this. I don’t think –

The monkey screeched. Its awful voice tore through Noah’s ears like a rusty saw. He clapped his hands over his head and spun, sprinting away as fast as his legs could carry him.

Screw the rules. Those are for bears, not the goddamn sasquatch’s hillbilly son.

Heavy thumps behind him marked the monkey as it charged after him, but Noah didn’t dare waste the time to glance back at it. He was fairly sure it was gaining on him, but the jagged trees surrounding the clearing could slow it slightly.

Out of the corner of his eye, Noah spotted a massive gangly claw hurtling toward his head, jagged claws glistening in the light of the setting sun. Panic flooded through him. His body moved of its own volition. His hands rose into the air and white lines danced in the air before him, forming a strange pattern.

A streak of wind ripped out from his palms. It bit into the monkey’s paw, carving a deep cut into it, and pulling a pained screech from the monster’s lips. Noah stumbled as energy rushed out of him. He stared at his hands in disbelief, overwhelmed for a moment.

“I just did magic. I can do–”

Four huge claws slammed into his head as the monkey swung its other hand at him, carving down through his body and cutting the rest of Noah’s sentence as short as his life.

It was his first death on this new world – but it would be far from his last.

Chapter 2&3: Civil

Screaming in agony, Noah’s soul split apart from his body. The desecrated corpse pitched to the ground, its top half cut into ribbons. He stared down at it, the pain fading now that he no longer had a body with which to feel.

“Well, shit,” Noah said. “That was fast.”

Invisible energy tugged at his chest, pulling him away from the world. Noah sighed.

Oh well. So long as there are other places to revive, I already know what’s going to happen. What’s a few thousand more years of waiting?

Something wrapped around his throat. Noah’s ghostly eyes bulged and he choked – something he hadn’t thought actually possible for a spirit. A black ribbon materialized around his neck, leading back off into the clearing.

The force pulling him away from the world vanished as the black ribbon yanked him back down to the world. Pain erupted throughout him once more and his eyes snapped open, drawing in a ragged gasp and clutching a hand to his thundering heart. He was in a body once more.

His head slammed like an entire orchestra had been trapped within it. Noah groaned in pain, unable to even move from his spot. It was several minutes before he gathered the energy to push himself upright.

There was no sign of his clothes. He was completely naked. Noah staggered upright. A heavy fog hung around his mind, even though the pain started to recede. He was in the same clearing.

The gourd of poison still sat on the ground where he’d left it. In the all too close distance, Noah could hear crunching noises from the direction of where he’d run. Swallowing heavily, Noah crept up to the pool of water and peered inside it.

The face of the man whose body he’d stolen looked back at him. He’d kept it, somehow. Unfortunately, the clothes didn’t seem to be part of the package deal.

“I came back to life?” Noah whispered to himself. He touched his face, just to make sure it was there. A roar split the forest behind Noah and he paled, launching himself into the lake. He swam down as deep as he could go and latched onto a stone at the bottom, holding onto it for dear life.

He wasn’t sure how long he waited there. Time had lost most of its meaning during his stay in the afterlife. Noah didn’t dare release the rock until his lungs burned so much that he could hardly feel them and shadows danced before his eyes.

His body barely managed to propel him back up to the surface of the lake. He gasped for air, slumping over the edge as his lungs desperately pulled oxygen in. Suppressing a groan, Noah rolled over and glanced around.

The clearing was empty. His head still felt like mincemeat, but it was better to feel it than to actually become mincemeat…again. Noah pulled himself the rest of the way onto dry land and pushed himself upright.

He glanced at his hands, then held them up before him. The image of the strange pattern that had appeared before them felt etched into his mind. He tried to picture it forming before him, but the fog surrounding his head grew thicker. A spike of pain ran down his spine and Noah dropped his hands, grimacing.

A cold breeze rustled by him. He shivered and tilted his head to the side, listening as hard as he could. He couldn’t hear the monkey anymore. That didn’t mean it wasn’t still there – he hadn’t forgotten how silent it could be when it wanted to be.

Pants or not dying? Which one is more important?

Noah crept into the burnt woods. He hadn’t made it far in his previous escape attempt. He spotted the bottom half of his corpse lying in the tussled dirt between several trees. There was no sign of his upper body or the monkey.

He crept up to his former legs and quickly tugged his pants and belt off. Noah pulled them on, grimacing at the still-warm blood covering them. A small book clipped to the belt thumped against his side as he pulled it on. As soon as his legs were through the holes, Noah shuffled off into the trees, tying his belt with numbed, fumbling fingers as he walked.

Despite his best – and largely ineffective – efforts to be stealthy, Noah winced at every dry branch that cracked beneath his feet. He threw glances over his shoulders every few feet, jumping at the slightest winds.

He didn’t allow himself to calm down until he’d been walking for so long that the sky started to darken and night fell. Noah slumped against a scorched tree and slumped down.

“This is not how I saw my afterlife going,” Noah said to himself in a low whisper. He shivered as a cold wind dragged its chilly fingers across his bare chest. The fog covering his mind had only just started to peel away a few minutes ago.

Inventory. I need to take inventory. See what I have.

He dug through his pockets. They were empty.

Right. A book, a badge, and some torn up pants. That’s it. Not bad considering I didn’t even have a body yesterday.

Noah unclipped the book from his pants and flipped it open. Detailed notes drawn in tight, flowing handwriting covered many of its pages, each of which was dedicated to a single, complicated pattern similar to the one he’d drawn in the air a few hours ago.

A Rune.

The words drifted to his mind of their own volition. Noah frowned. Runes certainly felt like the right way to describe the feature, but he was quite certain the thought wasn’t his own. He’d retained a lot of his previous body’s memories, but it didn’t seem like he could access them consciously.

At least I can read.

Noah flipped through the pages, searching for the Rune he’d envisioned while fighting the monkey. His efforts were rewarded by an old page near the very back of the book. It was covered with dozens of sketches of plants and animals that he didn’t recognize, along with descriptions of each one.

“Wind Rune,” Noah read, tracing the pattern with a finger. He raised his hand from the book, picturing the Rune in his mind. A thin blade of wind leapt from his palm and carved deep into the brittle trunk of the tree in front of him. A faint blanket of weariness fell over his shoulders.

Noah scrambled to his feet, eyes darting around to see if anything had heard him. He stood still for several seconds. Nothing came. He crept over to the tree, inspecting his handiwork. The magic had carved a deep cut into the rough bark.

He envisioned the Rune again, this time pointing his palm at the ground. Another blade of wind leapt forth and bit into the earth. The weariness grew stronger, but the fog didn’t encroach on his mind again.

Okay. Brain fog comes from dying. No magic when foggy. Conclusion: don’t die.

Noah looked up at the night sky. Bright stars twinkled far above, glowing with faint golden light. Despite his situation, he let a small breath of awe slip out from between his lips. It was beautiful. Nothing like the dull, smog-muted stars that he could make out through his apartment window back on Earth.

He looked back down at his book, determination etching itself into his features.

“I need to get to civilization.”


Noah didn’t sleep that night. He just walked, trying to move in a straight line as much as possible. It was as good a direction as any, and the last thing he wanted to do was wander in circles.

The crunch of dead and burnt foliage beneath his feet was the only noise in the still night. Windy gusts slithered through the trees, but despite their stark chill, they were nearly soulless. The trees had no leaves with which to rustle.

Noah came to an abrupt halt as he stepped around a tight group of scorched trees and found himself face to face with a monkey. His breath caught in his throat and a tiny yelp slipped out of mouth before he managed to silence it. The monster’s eyes were closed in sleep. It hung upside down from a blackened branch with its hind legs.

He swallowed heavily, taking a slow step backward. This monkey was roughly the size of the ones that had been lying dead in the clearing when he’d arrived in this world, but that didn’t make its claws and teeth any less deadly.

A branch cracked beneath Noah’s heel. The monkey’s eyes snapped open, instantly catching onto him. It hooted, dropping from the tree and landing on all fours. Noah cursed, scrambling backward and thrusting a hand toward it.

Wind whipped from his fingertips, and a thin blade of white magic carved into the monkey’s chest. It screeched in pain and blood splattered across the ground from a deep wound. The monster threw itself at Noah and he threw himself to the ground.

It flew over his head, slamming into a tree behind him with enough force to crack the wood. He bolted upright and sprinted in the opposite direction of the monster as fast as he could. Loud whooping yells followed Noah, growing closer at an alarming rate.

Noah spun, raising his hands to fire another arc of wind into the monster. He had a pretty good head start on it, so he was pretty sure that there should have still been enough room to –

Its face was an inch away from his. Noah screamed, his bolt of magic cutting across the monster’s shoulder an instant before its claws dug into his throat, ripping it out. Agony seared through the wound and he choked, gasping for air that wouldn’t come.

The monkey screeched in victory. It didn’t last long. A final arc of wind leapt from Noah’s numbing fingertips and caught it in the throat, severing the monster’s head from its body. A weak grin flickered across Noah’s lips, even as blood bubbled up behind them.

“Serves you right,” he muttered.

A strange feeling of warmth flooded into his body. For an instant, he felt Greater than he had before – but Noah didn’t get time to appreciate it.

Death took him for the second time that day. Noah’s soul slipped out from his body. He hovered above his corpse for an instant, but a familiar force started to pull him away within seconds.

Noah narrowed his eyes, memorizing his surroundings as best as he could. The pull grew stronger, and then he was hurtling through the forest. Noah focused, keeping track of the trees that whistled past him and taking note of anything that could be used as a marker to orient himself.

A few seconds later, reality slammed into him. Cold, wet dirt pressed into his bare back and his eyes snapped open. Heavy fog hung in his mind. His lips felt gummy and dry. Noah grimaced, pushing himself to his feet.

He was naked. Again.

The clearing was empty, at least. Noah shivered in the cold night wind. The empty gourd rested just by his feet, in the same place he’d left it. A small frown flickered across his lips as a thought pushed its way out of his muddled mind.

“Why do I keep coming back to this clearing?”

He turned in a slow circle, trying to see if there was anything that might be causing him to reform here rather than anywhere else in the world. Aside from the dead monkeys and the empty gourd on the ground by his feet, there was nothing.

The gourd.

Noah’s eyes narrowed. He picked the gourd up carefully. It sloshed faintly, a little liquid still left within it. He studied it for a moment. The gourd certainly didn’t look like anything special.

He scanned the ground until he spotted the wax seal. He picked it up and carefully pushed it back into place. Noah would have loved to have a pair of pants to hang the gourd from right about now.

“Right. You’re coming with me,” Noah muttered. He looked up at the sky, then located the direction he’d come from. Then he set off once more. There was a pair of pants waiting for him.

His second trip through the forest went quicker than the first. He hadn’t managed to memorize everything perfectly, but he’d gotten enough of his bearings to retrace his steps. It was several hours, but he spotted his body lying on the ground across from an equally dead monkey.

Noah grinned despite the bitter cold. He jogged up to his corpse and stripped it, pulling his pants back on and tucking the gourd into a loop on his belt. Whole once more, he turned in a slow circle. The fog in his mind finally peeled back, letting him think properly again.

Unfortunately, the dead forest stretched in every direction for as far as he could see. Rows on rows of scorched, dry trees stood in silent parade arrest for a general that would never come.

What the hell was this Vermil guy doing here in the first place? Did he have a death wish? He had to have some way to get out. And then there’s that feeling I got when I killed the monkey thing. What was that?

No answers came. Noah pursed his lips, then shrugged. Standing still was making the chill even worse, so he set off once more.

Noah continued for several more hours, but he quickly realized that there was a bigger problem. Even though he didn’t seem to be getting much hungrier, weariness had started to set in. It had taken longer than Noah had expected, but it was relentless in its approach.

No more than a few minutes after Noah first realized he was getting tired, he found himself barely able to drag his feet across the dry ground. He staggered up to a large tree and, after a cursory glance in the area to make sure nothing was watching right behind him, he curled up into a ball and fell into a restless sleep.

Noah wasn’t sure how long he slept. When his eyes cracked open again, the sun hung directly above him. He grimaced, blinking heavily and wiping the crust from his eyes as he slowly stood up. He was absolutely parched, and his stomach rumbled irritably.

At least nothing attacked me this time.

He reoriented himself, then strode away in search of pretty much anything other than the endless trees.

Time passed. How much Noah wasn’t exactly sure. The sun was moving overhead, but he had no idea if the days were as long on this planet as they were on Earth. The burning emptiness in Noah’s stomach grew stronger with every step, but he had no choice but to ignore it.

Trees blurred together as he passed them. Either the forest was getting more uniform, or he was just so exhausted that he couldn’t recognize the differences in it anymore. Noah was so distracted as he walked that he nearly bowled straight into a monkey hanging from a tree directly in front of him.

Noah caught himself at the last second. He’d managed to come up on the monster’s back, and it didn’t seem to have noticed him yet. He instantly raised his hands. A blade of wind shot from them, carving straight through the back of the monster’s head. It dropped from the tree before it could make a noise, dead.

A wave of energy rippled through his body, starting at his toes and rising up until it reached his head. With it came a strong feeling of refreshment. Noah’s hunger abated and his parched lips felt just a little wetter.

Noah froze, basking in the feeling for a few seconds before it faded away. He glanced around, checking to see if there were any other monkeys in the area. When he found that there weren’t, he wasn’t sure if he was relieved or disappointed.

Somehow, killing the monkeys seems to sate me. Magic, I guess. When I get out of this stupid forest, the first thing I’m going to do is sit down and figure out how all of this works.

Before he moved on, Noah’s eye caught on the monster’s long claws. He paused a moment, then knelt beside the monkey. He gingerly picked up one of its hands, holding a claw like a knife and working out one of the claws on its other hands.

It was bloody, grisly work that ended with him covering a good portion of himself and the monkey with rancid blood, but he finally managed to hack it free after several agonizing minutes of constantly glancing over his shoulders to make sure nothing was gaining on him.

The claw came out with a finger length piece of bone attached to its end, which suited Noah just fine. He tested its weight in his hand, then nodded to himself. He’d handled more than a few knives in his previous life – and every single one of them was for cooking, not stabbing people. Still, the claw felt hefty and sharp enough. He set back off through the forest, leaving the corpse in his wake.


The monkey was back. Noah pressed his back to a large tree stump, struggling to control his terrified breathing. The huge, lanky monster that had killed him just seconds after his arrival in the burnt forest was somehow right in front of him, and he was pretty sure it had been looking in his direction.

Everything had been going so well.

Well, I suppose nothing at all was happening other than walking. Nothing is better than something, though. I’m going to count that as well.

It didn’t particularly matter what he counted as well. What did matter was the slow, uncomfortably heavy breathing of the massive ape as it slowly grew closer. The beast took deep, ragged breaths, as if savoring the scent of his fear.

Noah’s eyes darted around and he searched for any place to hide or trap the creature. Running wasn’t an option. He’d already gathered that much. And, worse, he’d brought the gourd with him. He’d yet to determine just how long it took to revive. If the monkey was still around when he came back…

A shudder ran down Noah’s spine. He could end up getting killed over and over again – forever. Dying now wasn’t an option.

He did a quick mental check of what he had to work with. A gourd. His book. A pair of pants. A monkey’s claw. He barely suppressed an amused snort that would have given his position away immediately.

I’d almost wish for a monkey’s paw over a claw at this point.

An excited hoot echoed through the dry forest. Noah flinched, but nothing happened. For whatever reason the monkey hadn’t done anything yet. It was close, though. He could smell the stench of its matted fur, like a mixture of sickly sweet earth and week old feces.

Noah’s grip tightened around the claw in his hand. He stilled his breathing even further.

Okay. On the count of three.



Noah sprinted out from behind the tree, bringing a blade of wind to his fingertips. The monkey jerked upright, standing just a few trees away from him. It spun in his direction, opening its mouth in a shriek.

The wind blade carved into its chest, splattering thick blood across the ground. Noah charged the monster and it reared back. In the back of his mind, Noah noted the move. It was the same one he’d been killed with.

He dove to the side, predicting the monster’s strike. Its claws ripped through the air where he’d been standing and he rolled to his feet, lunging forward and driving his makeshift knife into the monkey’s chest.

The padded fur was far harder to penetrate than he’d expected. His claw bit deep, but not deep enough. Noah cursed, trying to disengage, but he heard the next strike coming before he saw it.

He threw himself to the ground, but it was too late. Thick claws raked across his back, tearing apart flesh and snapping bone. Noah screamed in pain. He grabbed the gourd from his side, throwing it into the trees with the last of his strength.

A heavy foot crashed down on his head an instant later, tearing his body free of his soul. Noah snarled as his ghostly form was tossed into the air, ties to flesh severed. The monkey grabbed his corpse and lifted it into the air, sniffing curiously at it.

Energy gathered around Noah’s neck, tugging him into the forest. Toward the gourd. A tiny grin flickered across his lips, but it was equal parts nervous. If the revival process took any real amount of time, the monkey might just find him before he was alive again. The only way to know was to find out. He was yanked forward, hurtling past several trees before he slammed back into existence.

Noah snapped into being, stiffening to keep the pained groan from escaping his lips. Every part of his brain thumped in protest, and nausea passed over him with such strength that he nearly threw up over himself.

Instead, Noah rolled to his feet. Through squinted eyes, he could just barely see the back of the large monkey chewing on something. Noah was pretty sure it was one of his arms. He clenched his fists, trying to call on his magic.

All that responded was a deep, throbbing pain. Noah gritted his teeth and padded forward, moving as silently as he could as he approached the monster. His dagger laid at its side, discarded.

He didn’t give himself time to think. He couldn’t afford it. Noah sprinted, scooping the blade off the ground and spinning toward the monster in all his naked glory. Its eyes widened and it screeched, tossing his arm aside and lunging for him.

Another attack Noah recognized – this time, the one that had literally just killed him. He rolled backward, narrowly avoiding the massive claws as they carved through the air above him. It reared back, lifting its paws above its head.

Noah lunged, driving his knife into the open wound on its chest. He twisted the blade, then threw himself to the side just in time to avoid the monkey’s overhead slash. As soon as its hands hit the ground, he lunged forward and threw all of his weight into the dagger.

Something crunched as Noah’s shoulder slammed into the monster’s enormous ribcage. Bone gave way and the dagger punched deeper, driving into the monkey’s heart. It shuddered, and Noah locked eyes with it for an instant.

He bared his teeth in a primal snarl, fury and determination swirling in his eyes. All that met them was terror.

The monkey pitched back and crashed to the ground, blood pouring from the deep wound in its chest and flowing down its fur to pool in the ground around it. Noah took a shaky step back, his head still pounding furiously.

Energy filled his body, rushing through his limbs like a cold river – more than what he’d gained from killing the smaller monkeys. Much more. It did nothing to assuage his furious headache, unfortunately.

On autopilot, he staggered over to what remained of his corpse and pulled his pants off. He tugged them on, then trudged into the woods to retrieve his gourd. He looped it into his belt, then headed back over to the monkey.

He pulled the claw from the monster’s chest, shaking the blood from it. Noah looked down at his tormentor, his lips pressed thin. Part of him almost felt bad for it. That part was very, very small. After all the time he’d spent dead, Noah had absolutely no desire to try it again. If monkeys had an afterlife, he hoped that its wait would be extra-long.

Chapter 4: Arbitage

Noah flopped down against a tree. He couldn’t remember what time of day it was, and his head hurt too much to look up at the sky to find the answer. He squeezed his eyes shut and massaged his temples, trying to push some of the pain away while he recovered.

He wasn’t sure how much time passed as he sat there, but a distant noise reached his ears. Noah blinked, letting his eyes crack open. His head was still thundering in pain, but he could have sworn –

“…somewhere here.”

Holy shit, people.

Noah scrambled to his feet and yelled as loud as he could. “Help! Over here!”

A moment passed and he strained to hear if anyone had picked up his calls.

“Hello? Please, I’m lost! I need help!”

Two men floated into view above the trees, each standing on a long piece of ornate metal. Both wore sleek black robes with hoods that cast their faces in shadow, even from the angle he was at. Noah stared up at them, his eyes wide.

“Gods, what are you doing?” one of the men asked as they lowered, touching down in the clearing across from him. “What happened to you?”

Noah opened his mouth then froze.

I can’t tell them anything. I don’t know what Vermil was doing here. I don’t even know who he is.

“I… I’m injured,” Noah said lamely. “I got hit on the head pretty hard by some giant monkey, and my memories are all screwed up. I don’t know where I am or how I got here. All I know is that my name is Vermil.”

The men exchanged a glance as Noah pulled the small metal badge out of his pocket and held it out. One of them pulled his hood back, revealing a grizzled salt and pepper beard. He took the badge from Noah and studied it.

“He’s a teacher at Arbitage,” he said, glancing back at his partner. “Must have been quite some monkey. Was it the Hellreaver?”

“Of course it wasn’t,” the other man said with a scoff. “He’s alive and not scorched to a crisp. Was probably one of the Maulers. Do you really think he’d be walking around if he ran into that flaming demon? Let me guess. Was it a big ugly bastard, about this high?”

He held his hand up above his head. Noah frowned.

“No. It was about twice that high.”

“Slasher,” the bearded man said, grimacing. “Tough buggers. I can see how that might have done some damage. You don’t look cut up, though. Didn’t you have any healing potions?”

Noah grimaced and patted his waistband. “I don’t remember. All I’ve got is the badge on my uniform and my book. Look, can you get me back to… Arbitage, was it? I’m sure they can help me. I might collapse if I have to stand much longer, though.”

“We’ll take you. It’s not too far,” the man said with a nod. “It’s an ill omen if Slashers are getting strong enough to beat teachers. Not a good sign at all. Come stand on the back of my board. I’m Fredrick.”

“Thank you.” Noah staggered over, still barely able to believe his luck, and stepped onto the metal plate. He steadied himself on the man’s shoulders as it shimmered and lifted into the air.

“Hold on,” Fredrick said. “And at least warn me if you think you’re going to fall off. I don’t want to have to deal with explaining that one of Arbitage’s teachers leapt to his death while I was ferrying him around.”

Noah grunted his assent. Fredrick’s partner floated into the air as well, and then they were off, rocketing through the sky just above the burnt treetops. Noah clutched Frederick’s shoulders for dear life, squeezing his eyes shut to keep his already throbbing head from imploding.

His consciousness fluttered in and out, and it took everything he had to keep his hold on Frederick. Noah wasn’t sure how long they hurtled through the air, but it felt like it couldn’t have been more than a few seconds.

Someone nudged him, and he realized that the howling winds had stopped. He slowly let his eyes open, grimacing at the sudden bright light that pierced into his skull. Noah squinted, raising a hand to block out the sun.

They’d landed on the grass before a tall, ornate stone building. Large pillars rose along the sides of the buildings. Statues of monsters clung to them, as if trying to claw them apart during their climb toward the top.

The letter ‘T’ was emblazed upon each of the pillars in shimmering gold, each one roughly the size of Noah’s head. Noah squinted at it.

Actually, I don’t think that’s the literal letter T as much as the closest translation to English. Egh. This is just making my head hurt even more.

“You’ll be in good hands,” Frederick said. Noah glanced around for any sign of Frederick’s partner, but the other man had somehow vanished without him noticing.

I suppose that probably wasn’t too difficult to do in my current state.

“Where are we?” Noah asked.

“Arbitage, the Fourth Bastion,” Frederick replied. He saw the blank look on Noah’s face and patted him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry. If there’s anything that can be done, you’ll be fixed up. Any moment now–”

A pair of double doors with a chimera carved into them swung open, and a short man strode out following after Frederick’s still unnamed partner. He wore plain white robes and carried a small wooden staff in his hand, though he didn’t seem to be getting much use out of it. The two of them hurried over to Noah.

A frown passed over the short man’s features and he slowed, losing nearly all of the panic that had been originally on his face.

“Magus Vermil. You appear... injured.”

“Uh… hi. Are you a healer?” Noah asked, rubbing the back of his head to try to force the pain and fog away.

“I was informed that you suffered from a bout of memory loss,” the short man said. “Do you remember who I am?”

Noah shook his head. “I – no. Not at all. I’m sorry. Should I know you?”

“My name is Richard. I am specialized in healing Runes.”

Richard paused, studying Noah’s face. It remained blank. They stared at each other for a few moments.

“Nothing?” Richard asked.

“I’m afraid not. I don’t recognize you in the slightest.”

Richard chewed his lower lip. He stepped toward Noah and raised a hand, pressing it to his chest. "Where did you find him?"

"In Scorched Acres," Frederick replied. "I know what you're thinking, but I don't think he's been replaced. He's too... helpless."

"We shall see," Richard said. “Stay still for a spell.”

Noah obliged, and what felt like a cold spotlight filled his insides. It traveled throughout his entire body, starting at his stomach and running up his spine and into his head before slowly dispersing throughout the rest of him.

The small cuts that remained on his body from the fight with the monkey sealed over and faded away. His headache didn’t abate in the slightest, though. If anything, Noah was pretty sure the fog in his mind got even thicker.

“He's indeed human. But... strange. I don’t see anything physically wrong with you beyond some minor injuries, but it’s quite clear that your memories are not intact.”

“Really? How can you tell?” Noah asked.

And, more importantly, can you tell that the old Magus Vermil is dead and gone?

Richard snorted, which Noah felt was quite the odd thing to do in the face of such a question.

“No reason in particular, Magus Vermil. You may simply need to spend some time resting, but there is nothing a healer can do for you. Your mind and body are as intact as they have ever been. If anything, better.”


“Never mind that,” Richard said, shaking his head and failing to suppress a small smile. That only served to confuse Noah even more, but he wasn’t about to press his luck. The less people questioned his supposed memory loss, the better.

“I see,” Noah said. “That’s… unfortunate.”

“Quite,” Richard said dispassionately. “Frederick, thank you for delivering the good Magus. We’ll ensure that your efforts are properly rewarded.”

Frederick touched the edge of his cowl. “Any good man would have done the same. Best of luck, Magus.”

He hopped back onto his board and shot into the air. Noah watched them for as long as his throbbing eyes would allow, then turned back to Richard. He raised a hand to block the sun from poking needles into his sore eyes.

“I’m afraid I have absolutely no idea what I’m supposed to do,” Noah said. “I really can’t remember anything.”

“That’s quite all right. I’ll let the headmaster know you were injured. I can lead you to your room for the time being, so you can get some rest,” Richard offered.

“That would be great. Thank you.”

Richard just nodded in response. He headed back toward the ornate building, and Noah followed after him.

The halls were a vague blur to him, and Noah wasn’t exactly sure where in the building they went. He recalled walking up several stairwells and traveling through halls lit only by the light outside, but everything melded together in his addled mind.

They finally came to a stop before a plain stone door with a keyhole in its center. A metal plaque to its side read Magus Vermil. Richard sent Noah an expectant look.

“Key?” Richard asked.

Noah stared blankly at him. Richard sighed.

“Override it is, then.” He pressed his hand to the door and thin lines of white energy stretched out along it, illuminating a pattern hidden within the rock. The door clicked and swung open smoothly.

“I’ll have someone sent to check on you soon,” Richard promised. “I suggest you remain here until then. Perhaps some of your memories will be jogged.”

Noah nodded absentmindedly and stepped inside. A small frown flickered across his lips. The room was a complete mess. Piles of papers covered a large wooden desk and had fallen to the floor around it. A metal key sat on top of the desk beside an unlit candle.

This is probably for the door. Why did Vermil leave it behind?

The bed was messy and unmade, and the window behind it was covered with grime and dust. A small door in the side of the room led into a bathroom, which wasn’t in much better shape.

There was a soft thud as Richard wordlessly closed the door behind Noah. He glanced over his shoulder.

Something tells me he doesn’t like me much.

Noah pushed the haze and pain to the side. He walked up to the desk and leafed through the papers, trying to see if there was anything that could be of any use.

“Skinwalker group spotted in the area. Be wary of colleagues or students that you recognize that speak or move in an odd manner, especially those that have been missing for more than three weeks,” Noah read aloud. He tossed the paper to the side.

He leafed through a few more, then paused as something caught his eye.

“What the hell is this?” Noah asked, picking one of the papers up. It had been a while since he’d seen something of its like, but he’d filled out more than enough of them in the past to recognize the key features. It was an extension request for some sort of assignment.

A signature had been scribbled across the bottom, along with an extra line. Noah’s mouth dropped open in disgust as he read it.

Meet me in my room an hour after class if you want the extension. Wear something cute.

Magus Vermil

Noah looked back over the note, desperately hoping he’d misread something, and this was meant for the man’s lover. There was no such luck. Without a doubt, this note had been submitted by a student. It even had their year number beside their name.

“Shit. The last bloke in this body was a creep. No wonder someone killed him.” Disgust washed over Noah’s face. He leafed through more of the papers and some of the blood drained from his face. “Wait. He was a teacher. Am I supposed to teach people magic? I don’t even know how to use it myself.”

Noah ruffled through the rest of the papers, desperately trying to find out if there was any semblance of order to them. Unfortunately, Vermil must have taken some degree of pride in the complete mess that was his room.

Half of the papers were ruined by water stains – at least, Noah hoped it was water – and the others were either outdated, worthless, or just made absolutely no sense. He did his best to organize them, filtering out the most useless papers of the lot and stacking them by the door.

Before he realized it, nearly two hours had passed. His headache finally receded somewhat, though some of the fog remained. The fruits of Noah’s work was a fairly clean wooden desk and somewhat dusted floor. Noah sat down in the chair across from the desk and chewed his thumb.

“Okay,” Noah said to himself, rocking back slightly in his chair. “I can work with this. I’m good at teaching. It’s not like I ever had all that much time to prepare myself on subjects back on Earth. There’s got to be some sort of reference packet, right?”

The back of his hand brushed against the book hanging from his belt. He unhooked the book and flipped it open. His head throbbed again and Noah pressed his hand to his temple. He lowered into his chair, studying the pages.

Maybe, if he could make some real sense of its contents, he could pass his memory loss off and avoid detection.

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