“Strayers from the Path of Echoes and Outsiders”
By Alexandra Milman
Colossal, colorful, and corrupt gods and an antisocial boy unaware of his incredible fate—this story takes place on planet Isekai where a war between two kingdoms over the power to give spirits (including the gods, themselves) a physical form is killing thousands. To calm the tension, the Aspect of Life performed a ritual to give both kingdoms’ respective gods a physical form so that they could live among the humans. However, the two powerful gods, Aeona and Florence,used this newfound ability to intensify the war rather than to calm the tension.
With the gods’ powers no longer suppressed by the laws of the physical world, devastation reigned. In order to stop the bloodshed, the Aspect of Life sacrificed herself to help the warring gods come to their senses. Aware of the harm they have done, the two gods sacrificed their immortality and lives to restore the land. About 300 years later, tensions between the different religious sects jeopardize any pursuit of peace and love within Isekai.
These tensions make way for new conflicts caused by the rise of the Ceidari, an anti-religious organization bent on achieving true peace and growth within Isekai by erasing all traces of gods and religion. To end both conflicts, a human boy from Earth named Alex is summoned into this fantastical environment, armed with nothing but his sketchbook and the title of “Outsider.” Alex initially struggles to see how he will fulfil his newfounded role since, as a human, he lacks the magical and physical abilities of the residents of Isekai. Nevertheless, he grows to care for the people of this foreign planet, and he successfully leads a religious army to achieve a better peace than what the Ceidari had imagined.
This is the premise of Anh-Dang Cheng’s story, “Strayers from the Path of Echoes and Outsiders.”
Cheng is a senior at Great Neck South High who has a knack for writing and storytelling. Originally a fanfiction writer for video games and TV shows, he later came to incorporate all of his fanfiction stories into one cohesive plot that would later create the world of Isekai.
The main takeaway Cheng wants his readers to have from his story is an appreciation for the value of friendship: no matter one’s opinions or odd mannerism, if someone appears to be alone, it never hurts to start a conversation with them. Alex, for one, had to befriend the outsiders of Isekai in order to fulfill the prophecy and end the conflict.
Cheng says that although book was originally intended to help pay for college, his motives slowly shifted to a desire to to reach out to his audience through an entertaining medium.
Cheng anticipates that his short story will be at least one hundred pages, and it will be a part of a three part series, if not more. This first book will be take place in Overworld, the world we live in. The second will be in Upperworld,” where the divine folk live. The third will be in Underworld,” where the dead reside.
Anh-Dang’s advice for other story writers is to jot down any interesting ideas as soon as they are thought of—before these stories are never able to touch the minds and hearts of their readers. He also encourages writers to have an open mind as to where inspiration may strike: It can come from anything as simple as a name or as complex as a painting.
“Strayers from the Path of Echoes and Outsiders” passage-When Alex meets Nina
By Ahn-Dang Cheng
Everywhere Alex looked, Underforest looked exactly the same as it did when he first entered it. There were the same kinds of trees with the same kind of darkness with the same kind of giant spiders watching him from everywhere. Sadly, the spider with a top hat who was guiding Alex was the most comforting aspect of the environment. It is clear why no person dared to step forth in this forest: the entire atmosphere was depressing.
Still, something illuminated in front of the spider with a top hat. There was some sort of orangish light that broke the pattern of sufficient darkness. The spider turned back toward Alex and bowed, lowering his top hat. “Sir Alex of the outer realm, it is myne great honor as guide of the Spider Clan to presenteth the Spider Queen and the Aspect of Death, Queen Nina!” The spider moved out of the way and Alex beheld a most unexpected sight. In the middle of the monotonous forest terrain was a small cabin, presumably made from the bark of the trees in the forest. As expected, the door of the cabin held the same anti-Watcher insignia, so even this cabin was protected from the gaze of the Time Watchers. On the porch of the cabin was the source of the light: a lantern sat beside a doormat in front of the cabin’s door. Within the lantern was a lit crystal that glowed a sunny orange. Something white was beneath the lantern, noticeably not a part of its design. Alex stepped onto the porch and examined the floor below. The doormat had “Welcome!” written on it with a picture of a smiling sun beneath the word. Alex pulled out the white enigma, and noticed some writing. It read:
I hope this lantern serves your mistress well. I had my High Arcanist, Hastings, design a glow crystal that is able to change brightness by simply touching the lantern and desiring a specific brightness. My Tele-Meister, Faddé, is currently occupied, so I will have my head of navy, Captain Manuel, deliver this aboard the Hrothgar. Do not worry, I can easily cover up dispatching the Hrothgar to Underforest.
In return for your hospitality towards Captain Manuel and his crew, I have a hat for you that will protect you in the event that you are in danger. The specifics of it will be written down on a note inside of the hat.
I would also like to ask your mistress if she could provide 26 Underforest spiderthistle roots for Project Socrative. The Underforest deathamid roots caught fire during the creation of the fuel. As always, I wish your mistress well.
– King Robert III of Famchouchou
Alex knocked on the door and waited for Nina to open it. He waited some more. And waited. And waited. And waited. Alex turned to the spider with a top hat. “Is she here?” he asked. All of the spiders immediately turned to the spider with a top hat. The spider turned red with embarrassment.
A bipedal spider descended from a tree with a look of disappointment. “Horace,” it said, “did you forget that the mistress planned to visit her beloved today?” It shook its head. “A guide is supposed to give his or her customer a tour of the caves before meeting the mistress in the case that the mistress is busy. Back when Evie was guide, she would always-.” A loud yawn suddenly echoed from the inside of the cabin. “The mistress has returned!”
The door opened.
From the door appeared a very familiar face. A young lady with short bluish hair and dark green eyes stood at the entrance. Those eyes were filled with tears, though her face showed no indication of being upset. She was wearing the same slightly loose, salmon-colored button down with the collars folded downward. Below it was the same slightly loose salmon-colored sweatpants and khaki shoes. The only difference in her appearance from before is that her hair looks more messy and that to the side of her head hung a white mask with 2 medium-sized, curved horns coming out of it. The eye design for the mask was basic by only being a pair of black slanted ovals, each with a pair of stretched diagonal ends. Alex was about to admire the green patterns on the mask when the sight of the mask suddenly made him shiver in fear. Fear of uncertain death, coming for him when he least expects it. It was the type of death where he would die alone and be dragged hairfirst to a purgatory where his worst memories would surface and be amplified no matter how much he tries in vain to suppress them. The mask was by far the most dangerous object he had ever seen in the entirety of Isekai. Though Alex wanted to avert his gaze, his instincts were overwhelmed by fear. Alex was trapped in a perpetual paralysis, fueled by torment.
Nina quickly recognized what was going on and wiped her tears. Her eyes glowed a brighter green for a split second and the effects of the mask wore off. Alex collapsed on the flooring and gasped for air. He was not breathing when he was looking at the mask and something was taking the air out of his lungs. “Sorry about that,” she said, “usually I don’t meet people who I have not casted protection on.” She looked at Horace with a look filled with confusion. “Don’t visitors usually get a tour of the caves if I’m away?” Once again, all of the spiders turned toward Horace. Horace turned redder than the break of dusk.
“Most resounding apologies, mistress. By mine honor, I shall see to it that this mistake does not resurface to in the near future, the nearest of futures, even the furthest of-.”
“Horace screwed up,” said the bipedal spider. A spider somewhere in the trees started laughing.
Horace glared at the bipedal spider. “Sir Prosody, I must kindly asketh of thou to shuteth the eff up.” He turned to Nina and bowed. “Mistress, King Robert has directed Sir Alex of the outer realm to your presence. It seems important.”
Nina noticed that Alex is still on the floor. “Prosody, please help the boy up and take him inside. My body is still stiff.” She turned to Horace. “Fake Robert or real Robert?”
“The real one, mistress.”
“I see. Well, good work Horace. Alright, everyone, I’ll take care of our visitor. You can go back to your stations.” The spiders started dispersing. Prosody exited the cabin and walked down the steps. “Except you, Prosody. I need an extra set of hands.” The spider walked back up the stairs and returned to the cabin interior with an inaudible sigh.
Within the cabin, Alex was recovering movement as he sat on a 1-man couch. Right in front of him was a wooden table with a book titled Botany for Those Afflicted with Extreme Stupidity: Underforest Edition by Lucid Dropolette. Deep within the book was a bookmark in the form of a tree branch. Alex was surprised to find that it looked exactly like what he would expect a cabin in the woods in a fantasy world would look like, but not exactly. There was the expected wooden bookcase, though with books like How I Got Away With Committing High Treason by Lools Duke, Famously Saying “Famously” by Leon Shadduck, and The Legend of the Time-Traveling Swordsman by Jacks Faddé. There was the expected cauldron, though it was smaller and placed in the dining room. It was also decorated with glow crystals hanging on the side (each colored differently) and sat beside a book titled Cooking for Those Afflicted with Extreme Stupidity: 3rd Edition by Lucid Dropolette. There was even the expected spider web weaved at random places around his vision, but they were used to keep materials in place. One such spider web held a book titled Customs and Behaviors of the Spider Clan by Ingleis Flaherty. To top it all up, the interior was actually well lit. There was a beautiful luminescent spider web chandelier. Somehow, the web was glowing a warm golden color. The entire cabin felt natural and homely in a strangely pleasant way.
At the corner of his eye, Alex could see Nina walking towards him with Prosody in tow. She motioned for Prosody to stand by the bottom of the stairs, ready in case Nina needed something from upstairs. She looked around the room for a chair that was not elevating books, and moved the chair at the other side of the wooden table. A wave of realization was visible on her face. With a sigh, she slowly sat on the chair, using her hands to help support the descent. Her face showed obvious signs of pain and her arms were shaking like wimps trying to do pull-ups. Alex was wondering if he should help Nina take a seat, but the fact that Nina hadn’t asked Prosody for help must’ve meant that she knew she had the situation under control.
At last, Nina had finally taken a seat. She let out a long sigh of relief. “So,” she said, “do you want something to eat or drink? I have some cereal that is just lying in my cabinet.” Prosody raised his leg.
“Actually, mistress, I wouldn’t mind some cereal. I’ve always wondered what they taste like.” Nina gave a nod of approval. Prosody walked over to the kitchen. The atmosphere got awkward real fast. Alex didn’t know what to say. Nina didn’t know what to say. The 2 avoided looking at each other. Alex casted his eyes on a book titled Conversing for Those Afflicted with Extreme Stupidity: Improvisation Edition by Lucid Dropolette, hoping that the book might communicate its secrets from atop its spider web hoister. Nina, however, casted hers on the chandelier. A good hostess could go into detail to the year-long process of getting the only spider in Underforest that can create gold-colored luminescent silk to make enough silk to accommodate trial and error, but Nina wondered if people in the outer realms had even more extravagant spider web chandeliers.
Prosody returned with a box of Manuel-Ohs, the perfect cereal for a sailor’s balanced breakfast. “Mistress, I have returned with the cereal.”
“Thank you, Prosody.” She turned to Alex. “It’s Alex, right?” Alex nodded. “Do you want some Manuel-Ohs?
“Sure,” said Alex, now regained his ability to speak. Prosody poured 3 bowls of the cereal, making sure that Nina’s bowl gained slightly more cereal than the others. This cereal was pretty peculiar; there were actual bits of fruits scattered with anchor designs, fish designs, and crests of the sea master’s lineage. It was a mediocre cereal, but the amount of nutrition compensated.
There was utter silence. Just the sound of teeth crunching on cereal. This silence disturbed Prosody. “Mistress, I believe Alex came here for a reason,” he said.
“Right,” said Alex. He couldn’t believe that he actually forgot his mission. “King Robert sent me to ask for your help in taking down Inel. He wanted me to tell you that he has confirmed that Inel has Straf and that you would know what a ‘Straf’ is. If you could join the Sanctuary, that would be a great help. From what I’ve heard, Chad is the most powerful god out there, so his Aspect is potentially our greatest chance at disbanding the Ceidari. Besides, Inel would probably make his way to Undeforest one day to kill you. I don’t think that you and Spider Clan, alone, can win against the Ceidari. It would be better if you would join the Sanctuary so we can protect each other.”
Nina’s face darkened. It took Alex’s insight abilities to know that she was holding back anger and pain. Maybe even vengeance. “I know that Inel will not come here because he does not see me as a threat. He knows that I mostly keep to myself and that nobody else will devote themselves to the God of Death. There is no god for him to banish because Chad is already in Underworld, doesn’t plan on leaving, and is far beyond whatever power Inel can gain. There is no Aspect to kill because I will die one day. There is also no fear of me trying to stop him because I really don’t care about these people. The man doesn’t have the heart of a murderer; he just wants to direct his energy efficiently. As for Straf, Straf is an Authority. In fact, it is the shared Authority I had with my fiancée. Usually Authorities could only be used by the respective Aspect who has the authority to use them, but Straf was made differently. People know Straf as ‘the rebirth rosary’ because its wielder can return from death, completely revitalized. My fiancée had a Straf, and so did I, but his was broken during a squabble with the Aspect of Nature, Ari.”
“I thought Inel was the Aspect of Nature,” said Alex. “And he’s been Aspect for at least 20 years.” He took another spoonful of Manuel-Ohs.
“Well, that’s because Ari was the Aspect of Nature during the Ceida War. Right after the war ended, there was some sort of stupid argument over a sandwich and my fiancée is, well-.” Nina was now visibly hurt. Prosody motioned towards the cereal. Nina took a bite and her spirits lifted a little. “-he didn’t make it to our wedding. That leaves me with my Straf, which I buried with my fiancée. One day, I noticed that it was stolen, but it was stolen in a way that I can find out who stole it. I’m sure you are aware of what Inel’s Authority is capable of. Because it can steal the authority of whichever Aspect it kills, Inel can use my Straf. What I don’t understand is how he knew that my Straf existed, what it does, and where I put it.”
“What do you mean?” asked Alex.
Nina’s tone became more monotone and dreary. “Well, the only people who respect me is a king that respects everyone and a bunch of spiders. There is no in-between. People already avoided me because they think I’m in some way related to the death of their loved ones, but now they think I am an active killer after I killed Ari for killing my fiancée. I just don’t get it. People can’t accept that death is just a normal part of life. They have to scapegoat every issue they have on me. I mean, not even I am safe from death. I can use my power to prolong my body’s decay, but one day I will die.”
“What about Tear?” asked Alex. “She feeds off the energy from the World Tree, so she is pretty much immortal.”
“Being immortal means that there will be infinite chances for someone to find a way around your immortality and kill you. If it happened to gods like Aeona and Florence, then it can happen to anyone. There is no such thing as a person living forever. I think the only exception I can think of is Chad because he is pretty much the embodiment of death. He already rules Underworld, so death is a non-issue for him.”
“Mistress,” said Prosody, “I believe I have heard news of a man in Upperworld preparing to challenge the God of Death for control over Underworld. If he is so confident, then there is the possibility that there is a way for even the God of Death to be defeated.” Nina’s face grew more troubled. Though she didn’t want to believe that the possibility of someone defeating Chad exists, Upperworld was teeming with forewarnings of death as of late.”
“Oh yeah,” said Alex, “what exactly is your relation to Prosody? Is he like your advisor or intelligence gatherer? You seem pretty close to him.”
Nina snapped out of her concentration. “Oh! Prosody was once my caretaker when I arrived in Underforest. Nowadays, he is just my aide. I usually have him go around Isekai to scare people out of their books. Mostly from people who have stolen those books. The rest are people who I’m pretty sure steal books, but I have no real way of telling. If the book doesn’t look like a kinky guilty pleasure and that person is looking around while hiding the book, then chances are that person stole the book.”
“Why can’t you just go to the nearest library to get book yourself and calmly explain why the rumors about you are wrong?” asked Alex.
“If I were to go out of my way to explain that it all started over a sandwich dispute, nobody is going to believe me and will try to send their loved ones to safety. Nobody wants to know the truth because they believe that they do know it. And I can’t just die yet because I promised Chad that I will find a new volunteer to be his Aspect of Death.”
“Wait, you actually volunteered to be bound to the death god?” asked Alex. “Why would you do that?” His bowl was midway done.
“I had to. My mother was the previous Aspect of Death. She lived for quite some time before she met my father. She, too, could prolong her death, but the same couldn’t be said for my father. He died trying to convince one of the kingdoms to leave my mother alone, and I knew that it broke my mother’s heart to the core. I remember seeing his bloody face before my vision got too blurry from crying too much. Before he went, he told me that I have to live no matter what. I felt terrible losing one of the only people who loved me, but I felt even worse knowing that the only reason why my mother didn’t accelerate her body’s decay was because she loved me. She knew that I would have to choose between growing up alone or killing myself to join my family. Neither of those options seemed reasonable to her. That is why she stroke a deal with Chad. He would protect me and guide me to Underforest where I can find shelter with the Spider Clan and, in return, I would become the Aspect of Death. I would also have to find another candidate to be the next Aspect of Death. I wanted my mother to be happy, so I agreed to participate in the deal, so my mother can rest easily with my father. Luckily, the spiders here are greatly misunderstood. Before she passed away, Queen Nerubia was very kind to me. I know that this kindness was genuine because she didn’t know about the deal the entire time. She just saw me as a lost child, and she didn’t even have to ask her spiders to watch over me. When I killed Ari, people feared me so much that nobody would dare set foot on Underforest, so the Spider Clan was free to roam these grounds without fear of being killed. For this service, Queen Nerubia named me the next queen of the Spider Clan, even though I was not a spider. Though I let the spiders deal with their daily spider duties, I am usually responsible for giving general directives when needed and providing protection with just my presence. Still, I don’t think I will ever find Chad a successor before I can no longer prolong my death.” Her face was marked by a stone cold expression. Alex can tell the subject has been on her mind for a very long time.
“By the way,” said Nina, “I am curious about something from our first meeting. You know, when you first arrived in Isekai. I sensed a foreign death looming over you, but you were not dead. Why is that?”
Alex felt strange. He felt as if there was neither need to subtly change the topic of the conversation nor to pretend that the question is a joke or that he is content. For the first time, he felt comfortable with what he was about to say. “For a while now, I wanted to die. That’s probably why you sensed death on me.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Did you lose somebody important?” There were no more Manuel-Ohs.
“Not really. I never felt like I had an important person to lose. Deep down, I know that I loved my family just as much as any other person would. However, if I were to die, I just, well, I am going to be a scumbag to say this but their reaction is not what I want to have. Where I’m from, I go to a school filled with people around my age. Every day, I see people laugh and talk to each other and choose them for partnership, and sit with each other and give each other random hugs and let them have each other lie their heads on their shoulders or laps, but I am excluded from all this. And I just don’t know why that is the case. I am not some sort of violent criminal or drug abuser or watcher of the girls’ skirts and chests. I try my best to be a stand-up guy by being nice and respectful and understanding, but nobody cares. There’s something about me that’s different, but I do not know what. I do not know why. I’m just forced to go through this every single day and be disappointed that people don’t treat me like they do to their friends. I mean, what is a ‘friend?’ Sure, nobody hates me. Heck, some people even smile back when I say ‘hello’ to them. But, I know that if I’m ever forced to partner up with somebody, that person will be disappointed that they have to partner up with me instead of one of their friends in class. I hear people talk to each other about meeting after school or the weekend and wishing each other a happy birthday, but I don’t receive the same treatment even though I am not a bad person. When I ask people if they want to spend time with me outside of school, they always say that they have already made plans with a friends, so I tell them to let me know when they are free and they always smile back and say ‘sure.’ And guess what? They never talk to me again until I start a conversation with them. I even subtly inserted my birthday in some conversations, but nobody remembers because nobody cares. I am always the odd one out in everywhere: the lunchroom, the partner projects, the hallways, the gymnasium, the school dances, the school lunches, and especially outside of school. Nobody wants to have me around unless they have to because I am literally at the bottom of their priority list. I now see no point in going to school events because I know I will just get depressed expecting improvements to my social life, but only coming out depressed and jealous that people are acting all chummy without including me. I know it’s wrong to be selfish, but can’t a guy be entitled to a little selfishness if he wants to be treated like an equal? I wish everyone suffered just as much as I have so that they can learn to take a hint! I wish everybody stopped talking to all of their friends for 6 years! I wish nobody got invited to a social gathering for 6 years! I wish everybody sat alone at lunch for 6 years! I wish everyone was forced to watch others enjoy the social interactions that they can never have every single day for 6 years! I wish everybody knew what it feels like to be clinically depressed and daily be distracted with the thoughts and methods of their death to the point that their cognitive abilities declined to a fraction of their prime, causing them to spiral downwards in schoolwork and always regret their existence for not fulfilling their full potential! There just has to be something wrong with me. Nobody in my school, as far as I know, is a malicious person, so their interactions with me come from a genuine place. They just see something in me that I can’t see, and the more I try to see, the more I hate myself. I mean, what is the point of living? I am not getting any happiness out of it, nobody in my school is going to react a week after I die, I am not a source of happiness for anyone in my school, and I am just racking up debt for the parents that actually love me. I am a living liability. I will be doing my world a favor by giving it one less mouth to feed and by preventing my classmates from having to experience the awkwardness from me interrupting their time with their actual friends. There is no point in trying, anyway. I can’t even interact properly with anyone anymore, and social skills are built by experience. How can I improve and actually succeed if nobody is willing to be comfortable with dealing with my incompetence until the day that I can make a sentence flow? What is the point in trying to get people to understand that their actions are making me want to die if that’s just going to make me even more of a weirdo than I already am?” Alex slumped on the couch. His eyes were no longer focused anywhere. They were lifeless, and could no longer cry after crying for too many years.
Prosody excused himself at some point during the rant, stating that if Nina needed him, all she had to do was call him while he was upstairs. Nina listened to every word that Alex said. Though she didn’t experience this pain, her path led her to the same place. “But here you are,” she said “talking to me right now. What binds you to this plane?”
Alex’s eyes slighted to a hanging book, but immediately lost focus again. “If I am to be honest, it must be because I love drawing what I like.” He removed his sketchbook from his bag and placed it on the table. Nina flipped through it and admired some of the drawings.
“Who’s this girl?” asked Nina. She pointed at a picture of an unrealistic-looking person drinking a colorful drink. It was the upper body of a girl with long blue hair and a white dress with long sleaves. Her mouth was to a large violet straw and the drink was filled with black bulbs. On the cup was inscribed the words “The Jasmine Dragon.” Both of the character’s hands were placed on the drink. Her entire body was faced slightly away from the viewer, but her eyes were definitely facing toward the viewer. The character looked as though she just took notice of the viewer; there was a slight surprised expression on her face.
“Most of my pictures are based off of people who don’t exist,” said Alex. “This girl is Shouko Makinohara.”
“Why did you draw her, specifically?”
“I just think that she looks cute.” Alex’s eyes became more focused, still looking at nothing in particular. “I actually really respect her as a person. I love how she is always trying to give good advice to a person she barely knows and the way that she always listens to listens to the troubles of others with a smile. And she’s just always there when somebody needs help. To top it all off, it’s like she always know what to say help people get over their problems. When she first told this guy that she believes that people were created to be a little nicer every day, I suddenly had the urge to do nice things for other people and to work harder to be a better person. She is like that friend I always wish I had.”
“You said that she doesn’t exist. How is that possible if you know about her and claim that she had a conversation before?” Nina was looking very skeptical. The idea of real nonexistent people was foreign to her.
“Well, the idea is there. I just-. I don’t know. I just know that the medium that she appears in brings me insight and entertainment, which brings me happiness. Then, I draw out whatever my imagination comes up with from watching this medium, which brings me more happiness. I guess life exists for me to be constantly inspired. Constantly drawing and constantly envisioning.”
“That is a weird way to look at things. I see life as a plane for me to constantly make strides to complete my end of my bargain, no matter how futile this is. Still, it’s always nice to spend time with the spiders who respect me for who I am. They are not part of my goal, but they are a pleasant part of my day-to-day search for the answer to my dilemma. Maybe your expectations for what you want are not where they should be. Horrible people like myself should might as well be with horrible creatures like the Spider Clan.”
Alex’s eyes regained focus. “I guess you’re right. You know, there are other people out there who are just like us. If there is a time to make things better for them, that would be now. If you don’t want to join the Sanctuary, then that’s fine. I just want to ask for your help in stopping the Ceidari. Maybe outside of the Sanctuary?”
Nina smiled a genuine smile. “As long as I don’t have to drag the Spider Clan into this. Prosody! Please come down. We could use 3 more bowls of Manuel-Ohs.” Neither Nina nor Alex had fully recovered movement in their bodies, but they didn’t care. The company compensated.