Albion – Chapter 1 – Part 2 (Litrpg & Portal Fantasy)

Zack slowed and looked around, noticing that none of the other workers would meet his eyes. It was a distinct departure from their normal boisterous interactions and over-the-top greetings. The subdued atmosphere felt out of place, and an apprehensive weight settled into place in his stomach.

He had told his sister that they had nothing to fear from the man. Now his gut was telling him those words had been a lie.

A shiny black Vortex Carriage sat silently beside the temporary building set up to house those in charge of the construction crews. It was too nice a vehicle to belong to anyone actively working on the job site.

Pausing outside the closed door of the office, he gulped in a fresh breath of air and sighed before opening it. Jane was sitting behind her desk, a severe frown spread across her kind, grandmotherly features.

“You don’t want to be here right now,” She told him in a strained whisper, slipping a hastily scrawled note towards him and then pointing back to the door. “Hurry and go,” She mouthed silently.

The voices in the closed office to the side of her grew louder as he turned and fled, clutching the paper tightly. Hot tears ran down his cheeks as he fled, ignoring the people who called out to him.

Zack let his feet carry him away from the construction, and more importantly, away from the apartment. He didn’t want to see the look in his little sisters’ eyes as he was forced to tell her she had not only been right but that he had also let her down. He never wanted to see that.

His boots felt unusually heavy as they carried him towards the edge of the city, deeper into the slums that their government-subsidized apartment building bordered. Without the promise of respectable work to support his sister and himself, he was going to have to find other ways to provide for them.

It was doubtful that any of the other legitimate companies in the area would hire him after that day. Word of this nature had a way of spreading that defied the speed of logic.

He stopped just before reaching the invisible line that separated the two zones and sighed. Zara had made him promise to never go back to working over there. The kind of work he could get over there was always morally questionable, straddling a grey line that he had become numb to. It was also the only reason they had been able to afford food, or school supplies. Those jobs were the reason they were still alive, but he had promised her.

Turning around, he walked back the way he had come. The soles of his boots scraped across the pavement as his feet dragged with each unwilling step. He needed to talk with his sister, before doing anything else.

He stopped outside of their apartment building with a final resigned grimace, his boot kicking at a stray rock as he entered the stairwell. The climb to their floor hadn’t felt that long since the early days in their apartment. The days when he was struggling to find enough work to make sure they were fed.

It was a painful reminder that he had screwed up.

He hadn’t believed they could be touched, and yet that man had found the one area that would hurt them the most. It was a grave miscalculation on Zack’s part, and not one he could hide from his sister. Whatever their next step was would need to be discussed between the two of them.

Who knew that the school, or that man at least, possessed enough influence to waste on a pair of orphans that nearly everyone had forgotten about?

His arm felt like lead as he raised it to knock on the door. Zara would not be expecting him to return after being away for a mere hour or so. His knuckles rapped out a sequence on the door and he waited for her to return the knock. It was part of the system they had established during their early days in the neighborhood. It had kept her safe more than a few times, and the heavy reinforced door and entryway made sure no one could get in other ways.

The door opened a minute later, after they had finished the process, and Zara looked up at him with sad eyes. “What happened?” She asked, already having guessed.

“You were right, kicking that pompous windbag out was not the best move I could have made.” Zack poked at the worn bear in her arms, gently pushing her back into the apartment. The various locks clicked shut automatically as the door closed behind them.

“Your job?” She asked, keeping one arm on the teddy bear, and wrapping the other around him.

He nodded dejectedly. “Someone was already there when I arrived. Jane warned me away as soon as she saw me.” Zack had mentioned the nice old secretary to his sister in the past.

“What are we going to do?”

“That’s why I came back, so we could figure that out together. I could have easily gone back to my old work, but you made me promise not to do that anymore.” He collapsed onto the couch. “So, here I am.”

“Is it something that we really need to worry about? We have a little money set aside in case something like this happened.” She clutched her bear tight. “Besides, I’m sure we’ll hear from other Traveler academies soon enough.”

Zack lay in bed that night, his mind reliving the last time he had seen the people from the military and the promises they had made. It had been just outside of a drab intake facility, one meant for orphans rescued by the military.

The commander of the unit had taken an interest in him and his sister, partly because of him having already gone through a portal. They didn’t know that Zara had, as well. With the death of the researchers, no one but the two of them knew that. It was a secret they meant to keep. The other part was just plain sympathy for the emotional, mental, and physical scars the duo now bore.

That commander had been the one who promised him they would keep in touch, that they would be there to help as needed. He had lied, not that Zack had ever believed in him, anyway. He only had one priority, and that was making sure the intake facility didn’t separate Zara and him. Something that they luckily did not even think to try after seeing how much the young girl depended on him.

He had scored high on the psych and portal compatibility assessment at the testing facility. After going in to report about being able to see his status sheet, he was forced into the test. There had been two outcomes he had hoped to happen from that visit. One was that they might find a decent place for him to work, and they could move into a better apartment. The other option and the one he believed was more likely was they would report his scores to the interested academies.

He knew his assessment would be high, possibly even off the charts. It made sense that multiple academies would want him. Not everyone who could see their status was mentally able to deal with what they would need to do after going to through a portal. There were some people who were uncomfortable or just unable to cope with what happened on the other side. That was where the psych portion of the test came in.

After that was their compatibility with the portals themselves. It was a test that Zack had never learned the meaning of, only that it had shocked the researchers when he was younger.

It was a decreasing minority, but the tests still held a fair bit of weight with the academies and the corporations.

Survival was enough for now; he didn’t mind taking it slow. Someday he would have the money and power to go after the people behind that research institute. Maybe then he would also learn why they had been shuffled through the system and forgotten. He could only assume that their situation hadn’t been any more abnormal than the other kids they had seen at the facility.

It was an assumption that felt wrong, no matter how many times he came back to it. None of those other kids had been forced through a portal or had their status page sealed away and their levels stripped. He wasn’t even sure how they had managed that. It didn’t matter because no one else there had experienced those things.

He and Zara were unique, but they had still been forgotten.

At last, he closed his eyes and drifted off to a fitful sleep. Nightmares of their time in captivity came, intruding and unbidden. The same as they did every time he entered the realm of dreams. Until when late at night Zara crawled into bed next to him. She had her own nightmares to deal with, and most nights her oldest teddy bear Zelda was up to the task of watching over her. Other nights, only the presence of the one person who had protected her back then was enough.

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