Have you ever had a secret you can’t tell anyone, no matter what?
Kris’s secret was that they hated their hometown.
Most people did, probably. Gerson Boom, the town’s most famous resident, wrote fantasy novels set somewhere long ago and far away and nowhere close to here. Even Asriel left for college as soon as he possibly could, and he loved this place.
The town loved Asriel back, and with good reason. He was at the top of his class. He was good at sports. He was handsome and funny and kind, even to people who didn’t deserve it. He sang in the church choir, and he volunteered on weekends. Any college would be lucky to have him.
Kris didn’t resent him for leaving, but things weren’t the same now that he was gone. Toriel spent an unreasonable amount of time by herself in the kitchen baking more cinnamon and butterscotch pies than anyone could possibly eat. More often than not, the pies ended up in the trash. Asgore was trying to get in touch with her again, and his flowers ended up in the trash on top of the pies.
Kris pretended not to see any of this. It was harder than it seemed. True neutrality was a talent. It was probably the only talent Kris had.
Toriel expected Kris to go to college, but they weren’t so sure about that. Their grades weren’t great. They didn’t do any extracurriculars. They’d never won an award in their life. Maybe they could get into a two-year college. Or maybe not. Toriel would have to go into debt to send Kris to school. And for what purpose? They didn’t want to go to college anyway.
But what other choice did they have? Were they supposed to stay at home their entire life?
Visitors always said the town was nice. Picturesque, even. They could say that because they didn’t have to live here. They could admire the tree-lined streets and quiet cemetery. They could sit on the grass by the lake and enjoy the local color while eating at the diner. And then they could go home, back to a place where there was more to do on the weekends than read magazines at the corner grocery.
But Kris didn’t have anywhere else to go. If they were lucky, maybe they’d get a job at ICE-E’s. They could spend their twenties dancing in front of the restaurant in a costume before being promoted to manager and passing the mascot job to some other hopeless teenager. Fun times.
Kris hated this town. They didn’t say anything, but they didn’t exactly try to hide it.
Kris had another secret.
It wasn’t the Dark World in the school supply closet. Susie knew about this, after all, and it’s not a secret if two people know about it. So what if Kris was a legendary Delta Warrior? That wasn’t anything special. Kris got the feeling that Delta Warriors were a dime a dozen.
What Kris’s SOUL became in the Dark World was another matter entirely. SOULs were weak and useless things for weak and useless humans, but Kris’s SOUL wasn’t useless in the Dark World. Nor was it weak.
Kris’s first night in the Dark World was strange and frightening. They tread carefully and took care not to hurt anyone. They were afraid of being punished if they used the weapons people kept trying to give them. After taking some time to consider the matter while dozing off in class the next day, Kris decided that they might actually like to use their sword, if they got the chance.
When that chance came, as Kris secretly hoped it would, they drew their sword with eager anticipation and took a step forward. There was obviously something wrong with the creatures confronting them. Ralsei claimed they were computer viruses. That didn’t make sense, but it didn’t matter. Kris was tired of deflecting attacks, and they were tired of being hurt. They wanted to be strong.
They raised their hand, opened their mouth, and said, “Let’s take care of them so they feel better!”
“That’s a great idea,” Ralsei replied, smiling as he adjusted his glasses. Susie shrugged and holstered her axe. “Sounds like a plan, boss.”
Kris grit their teeth in frustration. They wanted to fight. They didn’t want to spare these creatures. They transferred their sword from one hand to the other. Perhaps if they tried to fight left-handed, like the green elf boy from the video game Asriel liked, then…
“You should get some rest,” they ordered, their voice filled with confidence they didn’t feel.
“You look like garbage,” Susie agreed, nodding her head in sympathy.
“Maybe you should take the day off?” Ralsei suggested.
Kris cursed silently and sheathed their sword as the neon creature flickered back to wherever it came from. Kris resented the look of relief on its face.
This wasn’t how Kris intended the encounter to proceed, but they felt like they didn’t have a choice. It had been exactly like this during their first night in the Dark World. They could dodge and parry attacks with ease. Their body was as light as a feather, and their reflexes were perfect. In fact, sometimes it seemed like they weren’t in control of their actions at all.
Kris had a secret: They had a SOUL, and they hated it.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
“For $100, you can choose your OWN flavor!!”
“That sounds fun.” Noelle turned to Kris with a bashful smile. “Right?”
Kris nodded and handed over two hundred dark dollars. The aggressive camaraderie of the Addisons was unnerving. Whenever someone was this friendly, they usually wanted something. It was clear that the Addisons wanted money, but Kris couldn’t figure out why. It’s not as though cash was in short supply. Sometimes they found money just lying on the ground. Maybe, for the Addisons, trying to sell things was their way of being friendly.
Kris was grateful when Noelle took the lead through the business district. The tall buildings and bright lights and endless alleys were overwhelming. Noelle was right – they could use some tea, probably.
The Addison disappeared into the store and returned with two tall paper cups wrapped in cardboard sleeves. “Tea for Kris and Noelle, made to order,” he said with a grin that showed far too many teeth. “It’s freshly brewed and piping hot. For the best in taste and service, a bespoke tailored 5/5 star teatime experience.”
“Um… Thanks? I guess,” Noelle stammered. Kris couldn’t be bothered to respond as they peeled off the plastic lid. The tea didn’t smell like anything. They took a tentative sip. The liquid burned their tongue, but it didn’t taste like anything either.
“I think we got ripped off,” Noelle confided in a quiet voice. “This is just hot water with food coloring. Is it really worth $100? I don’t know if that’s a lot of money here. Um, Kris? Do you mind if I try yours?”
Kris shrugged and exchanged cups with Noelle. They blew away the steam rising from Noelle’s tea, which smelled pleasantly of peppermint. It had a rich and mildly sweet taste, like a candy cane melted in hot milk.
“Kris, this is lovely!” Noelle exclaimed. “It’s nice and herbal. It takes like apples, maybe? With a touch of cinnamon. You don’t mind if I keep this, do you?”
Kris shook their head. Noelle’s tea was infinitely preferable to their own.
“I’d like to go back to the boardwalk, if you don’t mind,” Noelle said, not waiting for a response. “It will give the tea enough time to cool, and I’d like to sit down. It’s funny, we haven’t spent much time together, not since Dess…”
Noelle laughed nervously and changed the subject, which was more than all right with Kris. She chatted about school all the way to the boardwalk carnival where they’d seen Susie and Ralsei. Kris kicked over the traffic cones blocking the intersection at the entrance and found an empty bench.
The lights of the stalls twinkled against the ink-black darkness of the sky. If there was an ocean beyond the boardwalk, Kris couldn’t see or smell it. The only thing in the distance was the web of thin blue vectors stretching over the skyscrapers. The breeze smelled faintly of ozone and warm plastic. It reminded Kris of the time they tried to run an emulator on Asriel’s old computer and overheated the hard drive.
Noelle fidgeted as she drank Kris’s tea. She glanced around nervously but seemed to calm down after she realized that Susie and Ralsei had already moved on and wouldn’t be heading back this way. The tea was finally a comfortable temperature, so Kris relaxed and enjoyed it while they listened to Noelle.
“I think… I think this is a dream. It has to be,” she told Kris. “I mean, the internet. Turned into a real place? I never thought it would look like this. I imagined it would be more chaotic. Or dirtier? Or filled with, you know… Things you can’t look up on a library computer. But this is nice.
“You know, I always wanted to go to the big city with Dess. She promised to take me one day. This is exactly what I thought it would look like. Or what Dess said it would look like, anyway. But I wonder about the creatures that keep trying to fight us. Are they monsters, or animals, or…?”
Kris hadn’t actually considered the matter. They depended on Ralsei to tell them what to do, and they tried not to think too hard about anything they saw in the Dark World. Still, Noelle had asked a reasonable question. Why did the monsters who lived here insist on attacking them? Was it really because they were Delta Warriors? Or was it simply because that’s what the monsters were being ordered to do? Was someone paying them? Were they really even monsters?
Kris’s thoughts turned to the bookshelf on the second floor of the library, the one with the books about Humans. The books that Toriel had checked out multiple times. The books Kris pretended not to see.
It was a shame that there were no similar books about monsters. Kris had to learn from observation, and it had taken them years to realize that they were different. That they were heavier, somehow. That they could have a SOUL.
Whatever a SOUL was made of, it was a burden. Even though it had no physical substance, it weighed them down. And it felt like their SOUL was always watching.
Their SOUL was probably watching them now. Right at this very moment.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Kris was beginning to reconsider their decision to return to the landfill below the highway. The city above was spectacular, but this was more of what they expected from the internet. It looked like eBay had vomited its contents into a circus of garbage bins that were far too small to contain the refuse.
The ground was littered with old plastic action figures and softcore skin mags. There were piles of video games from consoles made before they were born and towers of manga with the covers torn off. Cracked CDs caught the light of the sodium-vapor lamps and refracted the glow in sad rainbows. Kris caught sight of a few old vinyl dolls that looked haunted, not to mention a disturbing number of ponies.
They’d managed to make their way out of this place with Noelle, and they had no real desire to come back. When the butler running the strange café in the Queen’s mansion mentioned the possibility of an underground arms dealer in this part of town, Susie insisted on seeing it for herself. Kris couldn’t come up with a valid reason to object, so here they were.
Kris didn’t want to deal with Spamton, the creepy Addison who lived in the landfill, but they hadn’t failed to notice the mechanical legs rising like pillars in the foyer of the Queen’s mansion. If it came down to a fight, they didn’t feel great about their chances of beating something like that. The power of friendship was nice, but it probably wouldn’t hurt to bring something with a bit more firepower to a battle against a giant robot.
Before he’d scuttled back into whatever dumpster he came from, Spamton hinted that he sold powerful weapons. Kris didn’t believe a word that came out of his mouth, but the Addisons seemed oddly concerned about him, as did the Queen’s butlers. As difficult as it was to believe, it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility that Spamton had access to something that frightened even the Queen. So here they were, back in the trash.
According to the Addisons, Spamton had set up his salvage shop in the shadows of an overpass not far from where Kris met Noelle. It wasn’t difficult to locate. Kris walked to the entrance and glanced back at Susie and Ralsei, who were rummaging through a mountain of VHS tapes. “I heard a great urban legend about this one,” Susie said, holding up a tape with a torn cardboard cover. It would undoubtedly be a long story. Kris went in alone.
Almost nothing in the Dark World had a strong odor, but the inside of Spamton’s store was rank. The walls were covered in garish black-light posters, and the bare concrete floor was slicked with dark slime congealing around discarded off-brand candy wrappers. A tangled clump of fairy lights hung from the makeshift ceiling and flashed in alternating colors. It was like a Hot Topic at an abandoned mall.
Spamton sat behind a fold-out table with a manic grin on his face. Kris swallowed their apprehension and waited for him to start talking. It didn’t take long.
KRIS! MY [Little Sponge]! I KNEW YOU’D BE BACK!! AFTER ALL, YOU WANNA BE A [Big Shot]! EAHAHAHAHAA!!
Kris grit their teeth. There was something wrong with Spamton’s voice, which was either too soft or far too loud. Nothing he said made sense.
ARE YOU HERE FOR GRATE DE4LS ON [Sharp And Stab]?!?
Kris glanced at the junk in the plastic milk crates beside the table. It was difficult to see in the shadows cast by the flashing lights, but they could make out a cheap plastic samurai sword and a frayed clip-on bowtie stained with some sort of white crust. There were several green cans of something called Surge labeled with yellow Post-it notes reading “S. POTION.”
Kris frowned. They should have known better. What a waste of time. This was all junk.
MY [Commemorative Ring] IS HIGHLY RECOMMENDED! FOR YOUR SPECIL [1000th Customer] IN THE WHITE [Cungadero]!!
Spamton appeared to have registered Kris’s disappointment. He produced a silver ring from an inside pocket of his blazer and slid it across the pockmarked surface of the table. The metal had a strange sheen that made Kris vaguely uncomfortable.
The ring did seem like something Noelle could use. Not that Kris would be able to convince her to use it. They remembered their frustration with Noelle’s phobia of the rats that ran through the city gutters. Kris wanted to tell her to freeze them, but they couldn’t. It was like something was preventing their mouth from forming the words. It had been the same when they fought Berdly, who wasn’t shy about using magic to attack them. Noelle could have frozen everything in their path, but she claimed that she didn’t want to use her magic on living things. Nor did Kris’s SOUL, apparently.
In any case, Noelle wasn’t here. They didn’t need any of this garbage. Kris looked over their shoulder, wondering what Susie and Ralsei were doing. It was time to go.
NOT SO FAST!! I SEE YOU HAVE AN EYE FOR QUALITY! IF YOU WANT THE REAL [Workout-Ready Body], YOU HAVE TO GO TO THE [Luxurious Basement Apartment] IN THE QUEEN’S MANSION! THE DOOR IS LOCKED, BUT THIS [KeyGen] WILL GET YOU [Like and Subscribe]!!!!
Spamton placed a small flash drive on the table. It was covered with indentations that looked suspiciously like bite marks.
SO WHAT DO YOU SAY? NOT TO WORRY [Alone On A Late Night], IT WILL [Auto Install]!!
Now that Kris thought about it, Swatch had said something about some sort of machine in the basement. An underground room that could only be accessed with a pirate program didn’t seem promising to Kris. Their fight with Jevil was still fresh in their mind, and the last thing they wanted was another impossible confrontation. They thought they were going to die, and they’d never felt the influence of their SOUL so keenly. They probably would have been killed without it.
But that was what the Dark World was, wasn’t it? A series of games. It was just like when Asriel and Dess were still around. Their hometown was so boring that they had to come up with diversions to stay sane. Kris supposed they should have been grateful for the escape from their mundane life, but instead they felt used. Did the entire Dark World exist for no other purpose than to amuse their stupid Human SOUL?
Spamton nudged the drive forward with his thin, pale fingers.
“Aren’t you tired of having your strings pulled?”
His voice was oddly quiet. Kris looked up in surprise, but they couldn’t see his eyes behind the colored lenses of his glasses. They hesitated. This was a horrible idea. They took the drive anyway.
Kris’s adventures in the Dark World were fun, to be sure, but they felt as though they were gliding along rails. Gather weapons, fight minions, confront the boss, and seal the Dark Fountain. It was just like a video game. But was their life in the real world any different? Everything was laid out for them. If they kept their mouth shut, they’d eventually graduate from high school. They’d limp along in Asriel’s footsteps and go to college, where they’d continue sitting through one class after another until they graduated. Then they’d return to their hometown and get a job, probably one with a boss no different than the creep behind the table who was grinning at them expectantly.
Kris pulled a wad of dark dollars from the pouch on their belt and dropped the bills in front of Spamton. They didn’t bother to count how much they’d given him. It didn’t matter.
Using the KeyGen would lead to nothing but trouble. Kris knew that, just as they knew that breaking into the basement of the Queen’s mansion would almost certainly land them in some sort of awful battle. That was exactly what they wanted. They hadn’t managed to attack anything so far, but maybe this time would be different. If not this time, then the next. Or the next. They would keep fighting until they were finally able to make a choice that mattered.
As they pocketed the flash drive and turned to leave, Kris wondered if their SOUL knew what they were thinking. They wondered if it was watching them. They wondered if it knew their secret.
Kris hated their SOUL, and they would destroy it if it were the last thing they did.