Havok Publishing

When in Roam

By J. L. Ender

Gentle, green hills rolled before me. I raced across soft grass. Ancient white statues veiled in a delicate blanket of moss adorned the pastoral landscape. Behind me howled a wild horde of giant, chittering, angry, club-wielding prairie dogs bent on my destruction.

Eleanor Thornhail, what have you gotten yourself into now?

No matter what anyone tells you, the key to successful world-hopping is cardio. And a cute, warm sweater that goes with anything.

With my cursed eyes—long story, ask me when I’m less busy—I spotted the rend. A weak spot in the fabric of reality, it floated between two marble columns. The pillars, decorated with leering animal faces like totem poles, sat at the top of a hill.

My calves burning, I finished the climb, took a deep breath, and gave the command. OPEN.

The invisible rip became a jagged gash of a portal, now visible in the normal spectrum. Waving to my would-be skull-smashers, I hopped through. The portal snapped shut behind me.

For one second, a coating of slime enveloped me. A gigantic eye the size of a star glared high above. The space between universes is icky. And terrifying. Not my preferred mode of travel.

Then I was through.

The city lights of Hiroshima briefly dazzled my eyes. Falling through the air, I landed—mostly unharmed—in a dark, wet alley on a rainy night in a place the locals called Nippon. I wiped slime from my eyes and stood. More glistening goo clung to my skirt, and tangled my hair into wet ropes.

Great. Everything from the alley pavement would stick to my sweater. At least my skull—and the rest of me—was in one piece.

Outside the alley, a police car zoomed by, flying at head height. If the officers took notice of the disheveled wanderer covered in ethereal space goo, they gave no sign.

A moment later, the goo evaporated into faintly glowing steam, fading away after a few steps. I was still wet and sticky, but only from grime.

Hiroshima. The name had popped into my head when I’d opened the tear. Another benefit of the curse—I could see all kinds of things I wasn’t supposed to. I didn’t know anything else about this new world though.

I hope they have good food. I hadn’t been able to find much on the last world, Eldara, and fleeing giant rodents will work up a girl’s appetite.

The alley gave way to a broader thoroughfare. A handful of pedestrians roamed the streets. The locals had dark hair like me, but tan skin, and no visible freckles.

I stepped by a small restaurant warmly lit with buttery yellow light despite the late hour. Akushu Cafe, the sign read—in a language I’d never seen before. Tempting, but it’s best to explore a new world carefully before settling in.

Walking past a burbling fountain, I reached a park. A ruined building with a shattered dome seemed to be part of the grounds. Curious. I followed a brick path lined with foot-tall hedges and hemmed by tall trees.

“No, please—” a pitiful voice cried from beyond the hedges.

“Give it to me!” a harsher voice grated. “I know you’ve got it.”

On a nearby green space, a man and a little boy played tug of war with a cloth satchel. The man held a knife in one hand. The boy had his back against the trunk of a tree.

I read the man’s soul, my curse slamming me with information without my bidding. Hideo Kido. He’d worked at a law firm before getting fired. Now he was a down-on-his-luck thief stealing from children. The weight of his frenzied anger, layered with frustration and self-loathing, settled over me.

My eyes darted to the boy. Shichiro Obi, a collector who’d just obtained a rare collectible card. Excitement and pride had given way to terror at having been separated from his parents by a stalker.

So I had to intervene, obviously… I’d played the aloof traveler before. It never worked. I often got into trouble—ahem, club-wielding prairie dogs?—but I liked being able to sleep at night.

How, though? A fireball? Eldaran magic could be unpredictable in strange worlds. And magic from my own world flat-out wouldn’t work here—

The boy cried out.

Move, woman.

I stepped over the hedge. “Leave him alone,” I ordered. I couldn’t put the same emphasis on it as a magical command, but I did my best.

“You can’t change the past,” I told Kido. “You can’t go backward. But you can choose what you do now. In this moment.”

The man hesitated. His eyes darted from me to the boy, then back to the satchel. He cut the bag’s shoulder strap. The boy tumbled backward, bumping against the tree. Kido hopped the shrubbery and ran away, satchel in hand.

Well, at least no one got stabbed.

I helped Shichiro up. “Sorry, kid. I’m a little out of my depth here.”

“That’s okay.” He shrugged and flashed a card with an orange dragon. “He didn’t get much anyway. Had the best card in my pocket.” He looked at me through a mop of dark hair. “You’re not from Hiroshima, are you?”

“No… No, I’m not. I’m a long way from home. A very long way…” I suddenly felt cold and small. The distance between me and home could not be measured in miles. I shook my head. “What do they have to eat around here?” And will they accept a song and dance in trade?

“You ever tried ramen?” He grinned, reverently tucking the card back into his inner coat pocket. “I’ll buy if you don’t have any yen. I’m going to be rich! We can eat while we wait for my parents to find me.”

“Ramen.” I tried out the word. “I haven’t. And um, yeah, I’ll allow you to pay. Take me to ramen.” I was still a long way from home, but Hiroshima would do for now.

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J. L. Ender is the author of the superhero series Steel Fox Investigations and mecha vs kaiju mayhem The Cold Below, as well as a number of other novels and short stories. Ender has worked as a dishwasher, a beef jerky labeler, a warehouse worker, a shelf stocker, a greeter, a traveling technician, a laser engraver, a package handler, a copywriter, a graphic designer, a librarian, an editor, a dispatcher, a phone operator, a hotel clerk, and hopefully someday soon as a novelist… He lives in Ohio with his wife and fellow writer SCE Ender.

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