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.