Nicole is a college freshman. She has brown hair and green eyes. She wears glasses. She wants to join Omega Sorority. They ask her to take a test of courage. They tell her spooky stories. They say that no pledge has survived in over two years. Nicole looks nervous. They take her to a special cave. She goes in. She holds a candle. She sees a glint of red eyes in the dark. She walks forward bravely. She lifts the candle. The air takes light in a gout of fire. The roof begins to glow. On a pile of bones, the creature snickers. It is long and ratlike. It has shining eyes and six sharp clawed feet. It is as large as a small dog. It leaps at her.
She only has one weapon. She meets its charge with the candle. She burns its fur, but one terrible claw hooks her side. She begins to bleed. Blood runs down her leg. It drips onto the floor. The creature skitters back two steps, then leaps forward again. She drops the candle and catches its throat in one smooth gesture, keeping its long flat teeth from her neck. Its rear legs curl upwards and rake her arm. She tries to slam it sideways into the cave wall, but her grip gives out, and it rolls sideways along the floor. It comes up to its feet.
It grins at her. It says, “You’re pretty good for a frosh. But you’re still meat. Meat shouldn’t fight.”
“I’m no ordinary freshman,” she says. She glares at it. “I’m a magical warrior empowered to help people face the doubts and uncertainties of everyday life.”
It hesitates. “I’ve eaten over one hundred pledges,” it says, “and none of them have ever said that.”
“I’m unique,” she says. “It makes me lovable.”
It snickers. “I don’t have any doubts or uncertainties,” it says. “But I bet that magical warriors taste exactly like ordinary girls.”
Nicole grins fiercely. “Yes,” she says. “That’s metaphysically sound.”
The creature skitters forward again. Nicole drops to one knee. From the pool of blood gathering around her feet, a hand rises, holding a sword. Like Arthur receiving Excalibur, she takes the blade, and in one smooth motion sweeps it through the creature’s flesh. It has no innards. Cut open, it collapses into a thin flat skin. A puff of noxious vapor pours out.
Nicole rises and casually drops the sword into her blood. Only a thin layer covers the cave floor, but the sword vanishes point-first into it as if plunging into the sea. Her wounds seal. She walks out of the cave.
“Wow!” says the sorority head. Her name is Diane. “You came back!”
Nicole adjusts her glasses. “I guess I have what it takes to be an Omega girl.”
The sorority head looks flustered. It’s been two years since anyone survived the test of courage. She doesn’t remember what comes next. “I guess so. We have a lot of empty rooms, so you can just move in!”
Nicole moves into Omega Sorority. Soon, she’s made fast friends with all the girls. One day, she’s studying with Diane. There’s a shadow in the window. Its glass shatters. A huge obsidian snake, its jaw curled open to show two sets of fangs, bursts in. It lunges for Diane’s throat.
Nicole grabs Diane and drags her aside. The creature’s fangs latch into the panelled wall behind them. It hangs there for a moment, trapped. Then fake wood splinters. Its jaw closes. It turns and coils and faces them, hissing.
“Quickly,” Nicole says. Her tone is low and urgent. “Are you suffering from unconsummated love?”
Diane is frozen. She’s looking into the snake’s eyes. She can’t move. Nicole shakes her.
“It’s important!” Nicole snaps.
“. . . Chuck,” Diane offers. Her tone is hesitant.
Nicole loses her train of thought. “Chuck? Flannel Chuck?”
“He doesn’t always wear flannel,” Diane points out.
The snake strikes. Nicole grabs a swivel chair from the floor with one hand and sweeps it up into the arc of the snake’s path. The chair’s wheels spin around and around. The blow knocks the snake to one side, but it recovers instantly, eddying along the floor towards Diane’s leg. Nicole’s hand flashes downwards. The snake’s teeth close on bare flesh.
“Ow,” says Nicole. The snake’s teeth lock onto one another through her hand. Its venom begins to pump into her veins. She lifts her hand and looks at it.
The snake’s cold ophidian eyes look innocently at her. She can read a message in them. “Oh,” those eyes say. “Was this your hand? I’m so sorry. Well, no harm, no foul. At least I get to kill someone.” Even with her hand and its head raised to shoulder height, most of the snake remains coiled on the ground.
The first wave of dizziness and nausea hits. “This,” Nicole says, “is an amfibollad.”
“Oh?” Diane says. She peers at the snake. She’s more interested and less afraid now that she knows its name.
“It manifests your doubts about Chuck,” Nicole explains. “Judging from the pattern of its scales, you’re afraid that he doesn’t like you. But here,” she says, and her free hand points at a diamond mark near its head, “the mark indicates that he does.”
The ringing of the poison fills Nicole’s ears. She sinks to her knees.
“Wow,” says Diane. “But . . . I mean, he is flannel Chuck. I mean, of course he likes me. He’s lucky! I’m out of his league, you know.”
“Could you hand me that letter opener?” Nicole says, gesturing vaguely at the table.
“Sure,” Diane says. She passes the letter opener to Nicole.
Nicole stabs through the creature’s head and her own hand both. Its eyes widen. “Hey,” those eyes seem to say. “First, I am not a letter. Second, what did I ever do to you?”
With a final glare implying, “Women,” it dies.
“Hey,” says Diane. “Are you all right?”
“It’s a reification, not a metaphor,” Nicole says. “Its poison is pretty nasty. I’ll need a few minutes of quiet to isolate it and get it out of my system.”
“Wow,” says Diane. She opens her mouth to ask something else, then closes it. A few minutes pass.
Nicole hacks and coughs. A sphere of hardened black bile flies from her mouth and rolls across the floor. She shakes her head, twice, and rises to her feet.
“Ew,” says Diane. Then she blinks. “So, you’re okay? And Chuck likes me?”
“Listen,” Nicole says, urgently. “You must tell no one what you’ve seen here today.”
Nicole straightens her back. “I,” she says proudly, “am a magical warrior, empowered to help people face the doubts and uncertainties of everyday life. But no one must know.”
“That would not have been my guess.”
“If I were found out,” Nicole explains, “then the enemy would surely send all his forces after me; and I would be overwhelmed.”
“Who is your enemy?”
Nicole looks down. “Mr. Uncertainty,” she whispers. “Dark master and creator of the amfibollads and phoboi. No one knows who he is, or where, but I am sworn to find him and end his wicked ways.”
Diane considers. “Huh,” she says. “There’s a Dr. Uncertainty, over in the Biology Department.”
Nicole’s head snaps up. “What did you say?”
“It’s a fairly uncommon name,” Diane explains. “So I thought it was relevant.”
“To think,” Nicole says, “that he should receive a doctorate in philosophy from some accredited institution. It cheapens the title.” She spits on the ground. “I must go kill him,” she says.
“Sorority sisters have to stick together,” Diane says. “I’m coming with, okay?”
Diane and Nicole walk into Dr. Uncertainty’s office. He looks up.
“It’s not my office hours,” Dr. Uncertainty says.
“We’re here to kill you,” Diane explains.
“Ah,” says Dr. Uncertainty. He smiles. “So you must be the one killing all my little friends.”
“Actually–” Nicole starts.
“Silence!” snaps Dr. Uncertainty. Nicole is a freshman, so she shuts up. Dr. Uncertainty’s gaze focuses on Diane. “I’ll show you something for your pains.”
Diane’s body inverts. Her bones spin out to wrap around her like a cage. Her muscles lash out like monstrous ropes. Blood rises to fill her field of view. She falls. Her vision turns black.
When she wakes, she is whole again. The world all around her is red and viscous, like a strangely transparent sea of blood. She kneels on a sheaf of moist red-brown ground, like muscle. In the far distance, she can see the gleaming white of bone. Nicole sits next to her.
“Where am I?” Diane says.
Nicole looks apologetic. “I’m sorry I got you into this.”
“Where are we?”
Nicole shrugs. “In the Viscera Universe. It’s like a special magical world inside your own body and blood. It’s not so bad once you get used to it.”
Diane latches onto Nicole’s words like a lifeline. “You’ve been here before.”
“I’ve been in mine,” Nicole says. “It’s where I received my sacred mission to fight the doubts and uncertainties of everyday life and help people find love. I also gained a few special powers and a giant magical flying kitten.”
“Oh,” Diane says. “So, really, being here is good?”
“I’m not sure,” Nicole says. “See, my Viscera Universe had happy singing intestines and a magical knight named Isaac who sometimes gives me the Sword of the Spleen.”
“Mm,” Diane says. “Magical knights.”
“Yours, on the other hand, appears to contain sea monsters.”
Nicole gestures. Diane looks. In the distance, something long and slick and muscular wriggles in the sea.
“Oh,” Diane says. Even immersed in a sea of blood, her face loses some of its color.
“It’ll probably spot us soon,” Nicole says. “There are tooth sharks, too. That’s why I can’t call my sword.”
“What can we do?”
Nicole shrugs. “Your body,” she says. “Your call.”
Diane looks around. “It’s sickening,” she says. “The sliding of muscle on muscle, bone on bone.” She taps the muscle floor of the sea, and it quivers. “All the little imperfections. All the filth in it.”
Nicole looks embarrassed. “It’s not any worse than mine,” she says. “And mine’s a blood wonderland. With a magic knight!”
“No,” Diane says. “It’s worse.”
Nicole sighs and kicks off the ground, floating listlessly in the sea of Diane’s blood. “You know what my biggest problem is?” she says.
“I don’t understand Dr. Uncertainty.”
Diane frowns. “That’s your biggest problem?”
“My teacher,” Nicole says, “Slade. She was a white blood cell. She always said, you can’t fight someone unless you understand him. I thought she was wrong. I figured, I’d cut my hand open, draw my sword, and lop off his head. But somehow it’s all gone wrong and I’m trapped inside a hostile Viscera Universe. I don’t know what he’s after. I don’t know where his powers come from. I don’t know why I’m here. And that’s why I’m going to lose.”
Diane laughs. “That’s dorky,” she says. “He wants to make people’s doubts and fears more powerful. Otherwise, he wouldn’t make them into amfibollads and phoboi. His powers come from those doubts and fears, plus the biology lab. He knows the source of your powers, and the source of his own. So we’re here because he wanted to turn your connection to your body against you and plunge you into a dark Viscera Universe. We’re in my body instead because he got the two of us confused. What else could it be?”
Nicole blinks. “That’s reasonable.” She looks around. “So this is a dark Viscera Universe? It’s not the real thing?”
“It’s real,” Diane says, sadly. “I mean, I just have to look. This is me. I don’t know. Maybe if I’d gotten in the right way, I’d have singing intestines and magical knights, but this is honest too. My internal anatomy is something only a medical student could love.”
“Oh,” says Nicole. She sounds disappointed. Then she shouts, “Incoming!”
Sinuous, dark, and shining, a muscle beast lunges at Diane. Its fangs gape wide. Its length wraps around her. As it rears back to bite her, she screams.
The bite does not come. Nicole has grappled its head. The pressure of the creature around Diane’s sides intensifies. She winces. She feels her ribcage begin to give. In the distance, she hears a great cracking like crumbling towers.
“Nice muscle,” she whispers. “Good muscle. You want to let go of me. You’re my muscle, remember?”
Dizziness washes through her. “Nicole,” she says, plaintively. “What do I do?”
Nicole curses and interposes her own arm in the way of the muscle’s teeth. Her blood is curiously dark and visible amidst the sea. It swirls around her. She reaches into it and pulls forth her blade. She hacks at the monster. It releases its grip. It swims away. Diane relaxes.
“We have ten seconds,” Nicole says grimly. “Then the tooth sharks come.”
From the distance, slick and white, they swim. They are hard enamel. Their little black eyes have nothing human in them. Each tooth shark ends in four jagged fin-blades. In another context, these might attach to Diane’s gums.
Diane’s eyes go white. She looks at them in horror.
“Make yourself one with the enemy,” Nicole whispers. “Make yourself one, and merge your movements with them. That’s how to fight. Try to kill eight. I’ll take the other twenty.”
“I never pulled my wisdom teeth,” Diane says, in a tone of sick horror.
“Try to kill ten,” Nicole amends.
The incisor sharks are first to reach them. Looking at them, Diane knows what will happen. The teeth will tear and rend. Their flesh will spread in chunks into the sea. She will die. The Viscera Universe will end. Nicole will be free, perhaps, or perhaps caught forever in a Corpse World.
“Shake it off,” Nicole hisses.
Diane’s vision snaps into focus. She watches an incisor shark. She tries to know its movements. She tries to make herself one with it. She begins the dance of hunter and prey, warrior and monster, shark and human. Dimly, she sees Nicole slicing a tooth shark open, crown to base.
“We are one,” Diane whispers, and suddenly, it’s true. She clenches her teeth. The sharks stop moving. Her heart races and currents rush through the great blood sea.
“Nicole,” she says. Her tone is full of wonder.
Nicole backs slowly away from the tooth shark she was fighting. She looks suspiciously at Diane. “You can’t control it,” she says. “It’s a whole universe.”
“It’s horrid and sick,” Diane says. “But there’s a wonder, in that it’s mine.” She moves her arm. In the distance, great ropes of muscle twist and writhe. The bone-tree of her arm shifts in its socket. She blinks. There’s a squelching and squirming, somewhere far above, as eyelids caress the great Viscera Universe eyes. “I claim it,” she says, and points; and in the blood sea, a gateway opens. Through it, blood cascades in an infinite waterfall into the office of Dr. Uncertainty, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Biology. He turns to look at the gate and the tidal wave of blood. His mouth gapes in horror.
“KIAI!” shouts Nicole, and shoves half the severed tooth shark under her feet, and surfs out through the gaping hole between the worlds. Her sword takes Dr. Uncertainty under the chin and comes out through the back of his head. Diane follows her. As Diane passes through the gate, it closes, and the flow of blood ends.
A long silence follows. Blood leaks under the door and into the halls of the Biology Department.
“Is it over?” Diane asks.
“It’s never over,” Nicole says. “Not as long as people face the doubts and uncertainties of everyday life. But I do not think that Dr. Uncertainty shall be a threat again.”
“Omega girls forever!” Diane says, and salutes Nicole.