It’s a bright and early morning when the sound of crashing and roaring rouses me from my sleep. The noise is coming from the ground floor of the cheap inn my party chose, and it seems to rattle the foundations of the sparse structure with the volume. I leap out of bed in a rush, equipping my armor and picking up my trusty sword, but manage to catch myself before I run headlong into danger. I peek outside my door - the coast, on the second floor at least, looks to be clear.
I knock on the doors of my party mates, wondering if they were similarly roused by the commotion downstairs. Did a monster manage to sneak into the village?
[[Awaken the mage.]]
[[Awaken the healer.]]I work the night shift. I kicked the sleep habit years ago, since caffeine does the same job with half the hassle. Coffee’s a poor substitute for a personality, but the neighbors on the second floor of my crappy apartment complex know that, know better than to bug me for anything less than a dead body. So when the kid comes knocking on my door, yapping about quests and dragons, I instantly smell trouble.
The kid has issues, but she’s got a point about the noise. The couple downstairs are at each others’ throats again, and it sounds like it could get ugly. I usually try not to stick my nose in places it doesn’t belong. In my experience, it’s a good way to lose a perfectly good nose. But the kid is persistent, and I still need my coffee.
Just then my other neighbor opens his door. Now I’m sure there’s gonna be trouble.
[[Sneak out a window to get out of the house.]]
[[Send them downstairs to investigate while you go back to sleep.]]I wake to the sound of my younger sister knocking on the door. I stare into the ceiling--blank wooden planks, with some mold developing on the edges. My mind is still processing what happened last night. But I can’t tell any of my siblings what I saw.
The knocking keeps going, and she starts going on about something, like dragons and healers. I don’t mind her daydreaming, but after last night, I just don’t care enough anymore. I slowly get up, putting on my pants and shirt. I look into the mirror, and I see a man in his twenties already with greying hair. Our parents’ fighting noises have become a constant in my life since I was very young, and growing up hearing the sound of pots clashing, swearing, and occasional glass breaking, I have become nearly immune to it. My older brother never cared about the family, and my younger sister is too drawn into her daydreams. I am the only one who gives a shit about this family, and after last night, I don’t think I care anymore.
I open the door, and my young sister stands in the doorway, holding a stick and some toys.
[[Tell her to go back to her room and stay quiet.]]
[[Let her into the room and play with her.]]I’ve seen this seen this scene so many times before, it’s like I’m watching a crappy old noir film. Peering through the slats of my half-closed blinds, I watch as the dame shouts hysterically about how she wants to come in and “play”. I would feel sorry for the poor fella on the receiving end of it, who’s trying to quiet her down and send her back to her room, if it weren’t for the fact that he looks about twice her age. On top of all that, the old bird downstairs has been squawking at her husband all morning. My headache threatens to spill my brains all over the shag carpet, as I wonder how I ended up surrounded by this menagerie of freaks.
[[Go outside and rescue the dame.]]
[[Tell them both to shut it.]]
After a bit of a wait, the healer opens the door to his room. He looks a bit tired, but it’s not too unreasonable; all of us had been kept up late by monsters the night before as well. He gestures for me to enter his room, and I walk in without hesitating. He may be a bit odd at times, calling things by different names and talking about strange events, but he’s always had my best interests in mind. My mage, in contrast, has always been an every-man-for-himself kind of character.
The healer checks me over for any injuries, but he’s always been good at his job and I have a clean bill of health. I grin up at him, but then wince as an especially loud crash echoes up the stairway and into the room. I heft up my sword and point in the direction of the noise - are we fighting monsters again? I don’t mind going adventuring alone, but I find that the rewards are much better when my whole party is with me.
[[Go retrieve the rest of the party.]]
[[Try to persuade the healer to tag-team the monsters with you.]]
As always, the mage of my party has the most logical ideas - that’s why he’s the strategist, after all. In contrast, I have a perfectly reasonable, though sometimes worrying, tendency to rush into battle. Not to stereotype, but I’m the swordsman. The mage opens the window of the inn hallway, and I understand instantly. Undoubtedly, whatever is making the commotion downstairs is going to be waiting for any living being to make their entrance via the staircase, so we’re going to leave out the window and sneak back in from the front door to take the enemy by surprise. Genius!
In the meantime, my healer has left his room as well. As the mage scales the tree conveniently growing by the window, I grab the healer’s hand and pull him along. He seems to be rather hesitant about leaving through the window, but I tilt my head at him as the racket downstairs grows ever louder. He lets himself be dragged along. The mage is waiting downstairs for us, and I nimbly swing down the tree’s branches.
[[Sneak back into the inn from the front door.]]
[[Get caught by the monsters in the midst of our escape.]]
“What do you want?”
I eye the two suspiciously, shielding my eyes against the light that streams into my darkened room. Even when I’m not working as a private eye, I still consider myself a private person; I don’t get involved in other people’s business unless I’m getting paid for it, and they stay out of mine. There’s a ridiculous-looking kid wearing a plastic helmet and waving around a foam sword, and an older boy with dark bags under his eyes and a sheepish smile. Looks like they’ve got a story, probably a long one, that I don’t want to get tangled up in. “Not interested,” I say, and close the door.
“Big brother, play with us!”
I stop, hand still on the doorknob, and slowly lean my head against the door. *Give her a break. It’s been hard for all of us since Mom and Dad started fighting.*
I open the door. “Fine,” I growl, and go to sit in my chair, prop my feet up on the desk, and light up a cigarette. “I’ll take your case.”
My little sister grabs my hand and rushes to the stairs. The noise of our parents’ arguing grows louder. Nothing unusual. Right as we are about to go downstairs, the door of my older brother’s room bangs open, making a huge noise. But no one comes out.
“Hey bro, you alright there?” I call out.
“Should we go check on him?” My sister asks.
We go into the room, and--
A creature in green is slowly putting on a layer of human skin, and it looks back--the face is half-on, half off. The creature turns to us, and smiles.
I stand awkwardly in front of my healer’s doorway as he tries to tell me to go back to my room and ignore the noise. What if someone needs rescuing, and we’re not around to help? As my healer tries to close the door on me, my mage opens his own door and says a sharp word to him. Excitedly, I wave my sword around. My party’s all here now! We can go fight the monsters together!
But before I can suggest going to fight, my mage turns to tell me off as well. I wilt unhappily under his lecture, but what he’s saying makes a lot of sense. He reminds me that we were all up late fighting monsters last night as well, and that we need time to heal and recover. I’m not too sure how, exactly, we’d be able to rest with all of this racket going on, but allow him to push me back to my room.
Just as I reach my door, as if on cue, the noise stops. It’s a frightening silence, and my teammates can feel the uneasy atmosphere as much as I do. We all make eye contact, postures tense, and slowly make our way downstairs. The mage takes the lead, but cannot stop me from gasping at the sight of blood on the floor. Someone’s been hurt! As the swordsman, the cavalry, I should be able to put on a brave face and swoop in to save the day ... but fear locks me in place as I cling to my healer’s--my middle sibling’s--shirt. Sensing my distress, he picks me up and I bury my face into his shoulder.
“Don’t - don’t come any further,” the mage, our oldest brother, tells us from the next room. “The old couple here -”
“You mean, our parents?” the brother holding me asks sardonically.
I look up in time to see our oldest brother’s face twist. The room around us which was a warm, cozy pub in my head moments before, solidifies in my head as the living room to our family home. Blood and shattered porcelain leads a trail into the kitchen doorway, where our oldest brother’s body blocks the view.
“Our parents,” he agrees uncomfortably. “They’re both dead.”
Trying my hardest to convince my little sister to go back to her room has led to no result. She is still standing right in my doorway begging me to go fight monsters with her downstairs. But after what I saw last night, I can’t possibly lead her into more danger. Just as I am about to find another way to tell her to go back to her room, my older brother bursts out of his room.
“Shut the fuck up, both of you.” His dark circles have gone larger, and he reeks of alcohol and smoke.
“Good morning to you too, brother.” I respond back. I notice my little sister has taken a step back, slightly shielding herself from my older brother.
“What the fuck is happening? Can’t you keep a little quiet? I’m trying to sleep here.” He flips us off and returns back into the room.
“You okay there?” I ask my little sister.
“Yeah...I’m okay…” She seems scared, her playfulness gone.
“Why do you look so terrified?”
“Last night...I snuck into his room try to scare him...but…”
“I...I...saw him peeling off his skin.”
“What?” I ask, clearly confused.
“He was peeling off a layer of skin...and he looks a lot different underneath the skin.”
“What??? You’re saying someone is using our brother’s skin?” I kneel down and look right into her eyes. She is serious, and terrified. She can barely hold back her tears.
“What’s the issue here?” Our older brother has come back out of his room, standing inches away from us. He seems normal, then I notice something: The corner of his right eye is slightly ripped, revealing a layer of green skin underneath our brother’s skin.
As my older brother slowly opens the front door, I try to shield my sister behind me. I’m sure she’s seen a lot of things between our parents, but I still want to try my best to let her have a childhood without all the trauma that I grew up with.
The door opens, and the arguing continues. But there's no one there.
The kitchen is empty, and all the noises are coming from a speaker on the table. The arguing is pre-recorded.
As we approach the speaker, we see a letter.
“We know you saw us last night in our true forms. It was supposed to be a short mission before we can return to our home planet. But somehow, the skins of your parents felt right on us, and seeing you slowly grow up into individual humans gave us so much satisfaction. We fought with each other a lot, and we didn’t provide the best living situation for you. But somehow, raising all of you has made us feel something we could never feel before. We want to actually live out our lives as humans...as your parents. We never planned to say goodbye to you all, and never wanted to. But here this is. We hope you will live to the fullest potential, and just know that lightyears away, we will think of all of you.”
I wince in pain and swear under my breath as I pull shards of tree bark out of my hands, one by one. A drop of crimson blood rolls down my palm, and I savor the pain, let it remind me what it feels like to be alive.
For now, at least. I’m snapped out of my reverie by the sound of footsteps approaching from inside the building. This isn’t good. If we get caught out here in broad daylight, we’re up the river with pool floaties for oars. I turn to the kid as the other guy tumbles out of the tree onto the grass. “Hurry up!” I hiss through gritted teeth.
“Son? Kids? What are all of you doing out in the yard?” We’re too late. The old man standing in the doorway is clearly delusional, and that makes him dangerous. I look around wildly for an escape route, a back alley to dart into or a smoky bar that I can disappear in, but it’s nothing but suburban houses and minivans in every direction. I’m surrounded, trapped, and I wonder if this is the end for me.
“If you’re gonna kill me, just do it already,” I growl.
“...Um. That’s okay, just come inside, alright? The neighbors are watching.”
Another day, barely survived by the skin of my teeth. I don’t know how much longer I can continue testing fate. But it’s the near brushes with death that make me feel truly alive.
I’m roused from troubled sleep by a frantic pounding at my door. Grumbling, I stumble towards the sound, to find a panicked young girl waiting outside my room. “Help! Our brother just went downstairs and found blood everywhere...I’m scared!” She’s trembling, and I know this is no game.
I feel my own blood run cold. I had known this day would come, when my family’s secrets finally caught up with us. I curse the old man under my breath, knowing that his temper had finally gotten the best of him, as I grab my trench coat from the hook and the silver case from under my bed. “Go back to your room,” I tell the girl. “I’ll take care of this.”
Just as I’d suspected, the kitchen is a bloodbath, my parents’ dead bodies strewn across the white tile, resting in their own pooling blood.
“What the fuck happened here?” asks the brother hysterically.
I turn to him, trying to appear calm, but feeling my heart beating out of my chest. “I wish you hadn’t seen this,” I say, then pull the revolver from my silver case and send his body crumpling to the floor.
My family’s dirty secrets have to die with them. No one can know what happened here. I wonder to myself how much the girl had seen...
My healer pushes me behind him, as if to shield me - which is ridiculous, he’s the healer and I’m the swordsman and I should be protecting him - as we near the inn’s kitchen. I grip my sword tightly, and it falls apart in my hands. Argh! Of all times to reach the end of its durability stat! I scrabble around for a new weapon, and equip a dagger into my weapon slot. Its range is much lower than my not-so-trusty sword, but it at least looks to be more durable.
We make our way into the kitchen, and immediately, we encounter the enemy monster. It seems to already have claimed a victim, a bloody body cooling on the floor, and it looks up at us as we enter and snarls. I notice immediately that it has a human face: most likely a parasite controlling a human body, making its death toll at least two. There’s no way to save the human it’s controlling.
As thoughts race through my head, it leaps at my healer. FIGHT, my instincts scream, and I dodge around him and thrust my dagger into the monster’s side, taking it by surprise. Running solely on adrenaline and fear, I pull out the dagger and stab it again, making sure it’s a killing blow this time. It screams, a terrible, horrendous sound, but all I can feel is victory as it falls to the ground, dead.
My healer stands in the kitchen doorway, eyes wide.
I hold my dagger aloft, gaze level with his, a wide grin spreading on my face. “I won!”
I shoot a glare at our oldest brother's closed door, but go to head downstairs anyway. Our sister grabs onto my hand as we descend. The stairs creak with each step we take, but the arguing between our parents has become so loud that the noise is easily drowned out.
There’s broken plates on the ground, and the noise stems from the kitchen. My sister is about to walk towards the kitchen before I stop her. Something is different today, different from all the other times they had argued.
As usual, the remnants of shattered porcelain lie on the floor. But less usual, there is blood on the broken plates. A lot of blood.
[[Tell the sister to go back upstairs and investigate alone.]]
[[Hold the sister closer and approach kitchen together.]]