0. Prologue

"Damn. I'm way too old for this shit," was in no way a particularly striking or notable statement to make upon waking up in a body too small for what you are—or at least, what you once were.

But it will, for damn sure, fill you with a nauseous surge of dread when the words come out as nothing more than a string of disconnected and unintelligible, whining babbles. So, you make more of those same sounds to protest it, hoping for a miracle. With a tiny, heavy little baby tongue that has no grasp on spoken language whatsoever.

This was Mitsuba's first problem. And—well, her name wasn't always Mitsuba, but it was now and will continue to be, and that's what matters. In fact, she'd be more than happy to leave the past behind, if not for the second problem.

That being the large, heavy body kneeling over hers. Dripping something hot and thick that stunk of sharp, bitter metal and by all means was probably more a corpse than a living body, at this point. No—not probably. Definitely, because of the blade skewering through their chest and sticking deep into the ground, cutting into the outside of her arm on the way.

Inch by inch, the slack corpse slipped down the blade and pressed heavier upon her new, small and defenseless form.

Death had come once, and it had come again, soon.

The whining babbles turned to choked, wheezing sobs. The small baby arms did nothing to shove the crushing weight away, and she'd always had nightmares of being smothered to death by those stupid trap ceilings in adventure movies. Maybe this was some twisted sort of hellscape she'd ended up in, where all of her worst fears came to life.

Maybe she should have converted to Christianity in her final breath.

Better yet, maybe she should now.

Whatever blips of light that had been flashing by beyond the corpse's clothing became complete darkness as the full weight sank upon her, restricting her lungs. Pushing them flat as her creaking ribcage strained to hold its shape.

Fuck. Fuck! The words no longer hit the air—didn't even leave her throat. The darkness—she wasn't even sure if it was because the body's clothing had curtained around her or if she was just on the verge of blacking out. She hoped—begged, prayed—consciousness would give out before her bones.

If she could have closed her eyes, she would have, resigned. She regretted every bug she'd ever stepped on and smashed with her fists.

This is how I go, crushed under the weight of my own sins.

But if she'd closed her eyes, she wouldn't have seen the light.

Just a flicker, a slash of white in the dark—not like the whirling starbursts dancing and popping in her vision.

Then, it exploded into a bright, blinding burst of white as the corpse's crushing and final weight vanished.

It could have been the stark and sudden, second pass into death—but, no. She knew it wasn't, because the blade sliced into her skin again as the body rose up and fell away, assuring her she still had a life that felt pain.

"Mitsuba! Mitsuba!"

The light flickered, strange. Like fire—lots of it. Burning white, yellow, orange—vermilion.

As oxygen filled her body, filled her up like a balloon that had gone too flat, too fast, she saw a face. Not a full face—but the image of a face, blurry, like from the other side of a frosted glass window.

Her arm—the one that felt pain, the one that made this nightmare real, unstuck itself from the muddy, bloody swamp she'd sunk into and reached up, high, toward that face. That person. Her savior.

They grabbed it. Not just it—her. Entirely, fully, pulling her close and leaving the scene of death far behind.

There's a saying that goes: out of the frying pan, into the fire, and, well, not to make it literal, but there was fire. Raging, burning all around them.

Surviving this ordeal brought Mitsuba to her third, and most distressing, problem.