Monday – 9:27 am
A cool breeze blew through the air. Somewhere, birds were chattering to each other. The grass felt cool and soft, but tickled, like a bed made out of thousands of little strings. In the distance, the soft crashing of waves could be heard. It was a soothing sound, one that someone could easily fall asleep to. It wasn’t a bad sound to wake up to, either. It just needed some music.
Riley groaned as she sat up, blinking and rubbing her eyes. It was a beautiful morning, wherever she was. She looked around herself, taking in the scenery. She appeared to be sitting on a grassy plateau, which sloped down to a beautiful white beach in front of her. To her right in the distance was what looked like a harbor. She could see tall cranes jutting out above other machinery. To her left, and slightly behind her, a tall mountain loomed. The top of the mountain was flatter than the mountains she was used to seeing. Perhaps it was a volcano? A glimmer of light in front of the volcano caught her eye. She stood up and turned around to get a better glimpse. It appeared to be a city. She could make out tall buildings that stood above a copse of trees that grew behind her.
She didn’t have the slightest clue where she was. She had never even been to a beach before.
Beside her in the grass lay a tarnished silver flute, which she picked up. The instrument felt cold in her hand, chilled from the cold ocean breeze. As she examined the flute, all of her memories slowly drifted back to her. She remembered her hectic weekend, her mysterious trip to some other world, with a beach quite like this one, where she had found the flute and met someone very strange. The last thing she remembered was standing in her room, holding the cube.
And now she was here, wherever here was.
How did I get here? Riley thought. Did the cube do this? Unfortunately, she had no answers.
On a whim, she brought the flute up to her lips and tried to play, but only managed to produce a breathy puff of air that only barely bore pitch. Riley loved music, but had only ever learned to play string instruments and a little piano. She had never even touched a wind instrument before the flute. There was no way she was going to be able to play it just yet. She stuck the flute in her left pants pocket. It only went in a few inches, but it stayed put. The flute stuck out at an odd angle, but it wasn’t uncomfortable, and left her hands free.
Riley decided that if she were going to find out where she was, the logical next step would be to head toward the city. Surely someone there could tell her. As she walked in the direction of the buildings, she decided to search her pockets. She was surprised she hadn’t thought of it earlier. In her right pocket, she found her phone, which had turned itself off, a $10 bill and a paperclip. She wasn’t sure why she had pocketed a paperclip, but it was what it was. Maybe she could put it to use in a very MacGyver fashion. In her left pocket, beside the flute, she found a scrap of paper that had been folded into fourths and a pencil that had been sharpened down to about half its original size. The tip appeared broken, however, so she wasn’t going to be doing much writing with it.
She pocketed everything except her phone, which she turned on. To her surprise, she found that she had a fairly strong signal. Wasting no time, she did what any girl would do who woke up somewhere different than where she fell asleep. She dialed her dad’s number. Unfortunately, the phone was unable to connect. She then tried her friends, and subsequently every number in her phone, but nothing worked.
Disappointed, she put her phone away as she entered a stretch of woods. The wind died down between the trees, and Riley was glad. She was only wearing a tee shirt and jeans, and the wind was really cold. She was glad that she hadn’t had a chance to change into her pajamas before she had blacked out.
The forest seemed to be mostly empty. There were a few birds and the occasional squirrel, but there was a lot less forest life than what Riley was used to. If she had been at home, she would’ve seen a deer or two by now. She obviously was no longer in Wyoming.
After what felt like hours, but by examination of her watch turned out to only be 30 minutes, she emerged from the woods by the side of a road. To the right, the road lead into the city, and to the left, the road appeared to lead to a suburban area. Riley’s confusion only increased, but she took mental note of everything she saw. She never knew what could turn out to be useful.
Deciding to stick with her original decision of heading towards the city, she turned right and began walking up the sidewalk. Eerily, no cars passed her on her way to the city. In fact, she should surely be hearing the noise of a city that large. There should be people walking on the sidewalks, cars driving up and down the roads, and a general hum of civilization. However, the only sound she could hear was the gentle breeze blowing over the land.
Before long, she was amongst the buildings. The shops and office buildings stretched up into the sky, and served to create boundaries around Riley. She had never been to a big city before, but she had seen pictures. There was something strangely calming about walking through an empty city. It was almost as if she had the entire city to herself.
Riley imagined that if the city was heavily populated like she knew it must be, she might feel claustrophobic, trapped within the concrete walls and buffeting currents of people, but as it was, she felt a sense of freedom. It was still really creepy, though, and she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was being watched, despite nobody being around.
Small sounds echoed loudly against the hard walls of the city. Riley’s every footstep seemed to be amplified. A scrap of paper tumbled down the street, caught by the breeze. Riley recognized it as a page of newspaper and ran to grab it. She unfolded the page and tried to flatten it out as best as she could. It was the front page of a newspaper entitled The Sombra Gazette.
The Sombra Gazette? Riley had never heard of any place called Sombra before. Maybe I’m in a foreign country? She wondered, but decided that the odds weren’t good, seeing as how the page was in English. Then again, she didn’t know the name of every American city, so she could very well still be somewhere in her home country.
“Wait a second,” she said, thinking out loud. She had heard the name Sombra before, but she couldn’t remember where. The events of the weekend were still a bit fuzzy. The wind whistled through the flute, catching a few notes as it passed through. Oh, that’s right, she thought. That boy she talked to online said that’s where he was from. She seemed to recall that he said it was an island in the Atlantic, but that was all she could remember him saying. Maybe he had something to do with all this? Regardless, this empty city was providing no answers as to how she was going to get home.
Riley stopped walking beside a particularly tall skyscraper. Maybe if she could get to the top of the building, she could get a better view of where she was. She wasn’t entirely sure how this was going to get her home, but at least it would help her get her bearings. The building in front of her was very tall. Riley couldn’t tell exactly how tall, but she had to tilt her head far back to see the top. The side of the building was concrete, mostly, but with marble around the outside of the base, for looks, and a neat grid of windows patterned the structure all the way up. In front of her, a large glass door marked the entrance. She found the door unlocked and walked inside. To her relief, it was much warmer inside the building. The floor was made of patterned marble, and reception desks stood against the left and right walls immediately inside. They stood empty, however, and Riley walked past them to the elevators that were set into the wall at the far side of the room. Her shoes clomped against the hard marble floor, and she felt that ordinarily she would be very out of place in her casual clothes and sneakers. This was unmistakably an office building, and as she reached the elevators, she could see empty conference rooms down hallways to her left and right.
The cold steel elevator button depressed gently under Riley’s finger, and she stood waiting for the doors to open. The floor indicator above the elevator doors was lit up at 37. It would be a while before the elevator reached the ground floor.
Suddenly Riley heard a noise behind her that struck a cold terror in her gut. It was the sound of shattering glass.
Riley spun around to see the glass door decimated and a horrifying one-eyed monster stepping through it.
“Dammit, not you again!” Riley swore to herself.
The creature’s eye glowed blue and a beam shot out towards Riley. She barely had time to dodge it, and jumped out of the way in time. The beam ricocheted off the steel elevator door behind her and hit a reception table, vaporizing it.
As soon as the Beholder saw that Riley had dodged its beam, it lunged forward, dashing toward where Riley’s jump had landed her. Riley was defenseless. She could see the monster rushing at her with razor sharp claws. The only thing she could think of to use for a weapon was the flute, which had fallen out of her pocket. She felt around behind herself for the instrument as the Beholder drew closer. Where the hell is it? She thought. Then her hand gripped something that was definitely not the flute. Her fingers closed around something heavy and metal. With no time to think, she got to her feet and pulled the object into view.
It was a katana. The blade shone in the morning light. Riley could feel its weight in her hand, so she gripped the top of the handle with her right hand. She had never held a sword before, but she was having a lot of firsts today, so why not add wielding a sword to the list?
Upon seeing the blade, the Beholder slowed to a stop. It looked confused and hesitant. Its eye glanced back and forth between the katana and Riley. She brought the blade up to the creature’s eye level. It seemed to recoil at the sight of the blade.
Riley wasn’t confident enough with the sword to attack the Beholder, but if it made the first move, she would do her best to defend herself.
Beside her, the elevator dinged and the door opened. Riley glanced from the elevator, then back to the Beholder. She began to carefully sidestep around the monster until the elevator was behind her. It didn’t seem to want to advance any further on the katana in her hand, but as she backed into the elevator, it seemed to make up its mind and its eye turned blue again. Riley hurriedly jammed her fist down on the first button she saw and the doors closed just in time to stop the beam from disintegrating her.
As the elevator rumbled into motion, Riley leaned against the back wall, exhaling with relief. She slid down the wall into a sitting position and dropped the katana lightly on the ground. This wasn’t her first encounter with a Beholder, and she had a suspicion that it wouldn’t be her last.
The elevator stopped on the 17th floor, but she closed the doors and hit the button for the top floor. After a few minutes of rising, the elevator again slowed to a stop. The doors slid open to reveal what looked like an observatory. Riley reached down to pick up the sword, but found only the old flute lying beside her, which she stuck back in her pocket before walking out.
The top floor of the building seemed to be a restaurant with windows all around the walls, so that the customers could look down upon the city and its surroundings. Riley walked over a plush red carpet and through the expensive-looking wooden chairs and tables to the window at the far end of the room. She pressed her face against the glass. Judging by the position of the sun, the direction she was facing was roughly north. She could see the city extend out in front of her until it reached cliffs at the north shore. As Riley walked clockwise around the room, she could see that the cliffs comprised the entirety of the northern shore. Northeast of the city stood the huge volcano which rose higher even than the building in which she was standing. Riley could just barely make out train tracks winding around the side of the volcano, and what looked like a residential area along the eastern shore. A flicker of movement caught her eye and she was able to make out a small train making its way along the tracks towards the city. She marveled in the fact that the train could still run without any people to operate it.
The southern shore was mostly devoid of buildings, and she could see the field where she had awoken and the forest she had hiked through. From here, she had a much better view of the harbor that she had seen before. There seemed to be a large tanker ship docked there with different-colored shipping crates on its deck. Further along the shoreline, she could see large buildings that looked like hotels. The suburban area she had seen before lay between the hotels and the city. After that, she was back where she started, on the opposite side of the room from the elevators, staring out over the northern shore.
“Well I guess I am on an island, after all,” she said, thinking out loud.
“C’mon, Riley. I could’ve told you that.” A voice said from behind her.
Riley looked over her shoulder at the person addressing her.
“Ugh, not you again,” she groaned. Riley turned to face this person. Before her stood a man of about twenty or twenty-one. He was thin, with short, almost buzzed brown hair. He wore dark navy, almost black, jeans and a black jacket over a white tee shirt. He looked like a greaser, but without the slicked-back hair.
He gave Riley a bemused smile. “Don’t act like you aren’t happy to see me.”
Riley rolled her eyes. “After what happened before? How could I be happy to see you?”
“Hey now, what happened before was nothing personal. Besides, I’m not here to cause you any trouble. Strictly business, you know?” He spoke in a nonchalant manner, as if nothing he was saying was terribly important, but almost affectedly so. He flipped an old wrench in his right hand as he talked, as if out of habit.
“Business? And what business would that be?”
The man smiled before continuing. “Do you know where you are, Riley?”
Riley was confused at him answering her question with another question, but she answered all the same, hoping he was leading somewhere with it. “Well, from what I’ve gathered, I’m on the island of Sombra, right?”
“In a sense, yes.”
“What do you mean, ‘In a sense’?”
He smiled, as if he had a secret, and was trying to tantalize Riley with it. “Ok, yes. You are on Sombra. That is true. You’re right smack-dab in the middle of downtown Sombra City; that I can’t deny. However, you’re not on the island in the same way that you think you’re on the island.”
Riley was getting exasperated. “What does that even mean?”
“You’ll find out, soon enough. Just… I wouldn’t go swimming if I were you.”
The socket wrench made a soft clink every time the man flipped it and caught it in his hand. It began to form a rhythm that began to get on Riley’s nerves, more so even than the riddles the man spoke in.
“Did you bring me here? Why am I here?” Riley asked to break the silence.
“I didn’t bring you here. Do you really think I have that kind of power? As for why you’re here, that’s the reason why I’m here now.” He paused, walking over to a chair at one of the restaurant tables. He pulled it out and sat down in one fluid motion. He looked amused at the wary look on Riley’s face and motioned for her to sit down across from him.
“Hey, don’t look so scared. I can’t kill you. Not yet, anyway.”
That didn’t do much to ease Riley’s apprehension, but she took a seat, anyway. Her feet were getting tired from walking all morning.
Riley leaned forward in the chair, elbows on the table as the man across from her leaned back, with his hands behind his head. Riley was relieved to notice that he had stopped flipping his damn wrench. Why was he carrying that thing, anyway? It seemed a strange thing to just be carrying around.
“So, out with it,” Riley demanded, growing impatient. “Why am I here?”
The man sighed before continuing. “You’ve been chosen to be a part of The Game.” He paused. “This isn’t just any game, mind you. This is the Ludus Umbra. The Game of Shadows.”
“What’s that? I’ve never heard of that before.”
“Well of course you haven’t. The only people who know about it are those that are involved, and most of those wouldn’t be able to tell you, anyway.”
“So what exactly is this game?” Riley asked.
“The rules of the game are simple. Every day you will be faced with certain tasks in varying environments. Make it through the week and you win.”
“Okay,” Riley said slowly, taking everything in. “But why me? Why not someone else?”
“I’m afraid I can’t say, sweetie,” the man said, the word “sweetie” dripping in sarcasm. “But my job here today is to tell you your task for today.” He stood up from the table and walked over to the closed elevator. “Your task today is to find the Marker.”
“Not a marker. The Marker.” He traced a pattern in the air with his wrench. Strangely enough, the wrench left a green trail. A circle hung in the air, a straight line tracing a vertical diameter. After a few seconds it faded away into nothing.
“This is what you’re looking for. There’s one of these somewhere on the island. It’s a simple task, really, but then again, it is your first day. It should be glowing and hanging in midair.”
“How am I supposed to find something like that? It’ll take me forever to search the entire island!”
“Yeah, that’s kinda the point, princess.” Riley was really starting to hate this guy. “Now, for a warning, you’re gonna want to get this done by nightfall. Just letting you know.”
“Why? What happens at night?”
The man laughed, almost maniacally. “You think this place is dangerous during the day? Well let’s just say that after the sun goes down, you’ll have much worse things to deal with than just Beholders, dear.”
Riley really wasn’t sure she wanted to know what was worse than a Beholder. Those guys were tough enough as it was.
“Well, I think that’s all I’m supposed to tell you, so I’m gonna split. No sense telling you things you don’t yet need to know, am I right? Where’s the fun in ruining the surprise?” With a chuckle, the man stepped towards the elevator and vanished into thin air.
Riley blinked a few times. Despite all the strange happenings of the past few days, she still found it strange that someone could just disappear like that. She walked over to where the man had disappeared. It had looked like he stepped through some sort of crack in the air, but she couldn’t see it.
Turning back around to the windows, she reflected on what she had learned. She was part of some game. The Game was some sort of contest to see if she could survive a week, while completing certain challenges to stay alive. There would be dangers, of course. There were those eye monsters – what did he call them? Beholders? – And Riley couldn’t think of what could be worse than those horrifying abominations.
So who was that guy? He said he was supposed to tell her these things. That suggested that he was taking orders from someone, which seemed likely. Riley had run into this guy before and only barely made it out with her life. The words he had said when he sat down came back to her. I can’t kill you. Not yet, anyway. Not yet? So he was by no means an ally. But why would he want to kill her? She hadn’t done anything to him, so maybe she was important in some other way.
And what of this Marker? How was she supposed to find something like that? It could be anywhere on the island! Riley took another look out of the windows, but she couldn’t see anything that looked like a floating, glowing circle. I guess I would’ve noticed that the first time I looked, she thought. As she looked down at the city, though, she thought she could see movement. It was hard to make out from so high up, but she thought she saw people on one of the streets so far below, but whatever it was moved behind a building and she couldn’t see it anymore.
“Well,” she said to herself, “If I’m gonna find this thing before sundown, I better start looking now.” It was a daunting task, especially by herself, but she wouldn’t get anything done just standing there thinking about things. Turning around, she entered the elevator again and returned to the ground floor.
When the doors opened again on the lobby, she beheld the destruction the Beholder had caused before. Both of the reception desks seemed to be gone now, and Riley could only guess that the final blast the Beholder had shot at her had also ricocheted off the shining steel doors. The floor near the door was covered in shattered glass, and Riley was careful as she exited the building.
Outside on the street, she turned towards where she had seen the movement earlier. It was as good a starting place as any.
The streets were just as quiet as before, but now the sun was higher in the sky, so there weren’t as many shadows between the tall buildings. The wind had picked up, as well, making it feel even colder out. I really need to find a jacket, she thought, looking around for a clothing store. It seemed, though, that she was in the business district, and as such there were no stores to be seen.
After a few minutes of walking down one street, she came to a large four-way intersection. The stoplights swayed in the wind, yet still changed lights every few seconds, ignorant of the fact that there were no longer cars for them to direct. It was almost as if they had lost their purpose in the world, yet they carried on, if for the sheer comfort of the familiar.
A footstep broke Riley’s thoughts. She turned to her left to face whoever had made the noise. She had been expecting a Beholder, or maybe even a person, but what she saw was not quite either. It looked like a man in a fine black suit and hat, but without a face. Despite his lack of eyes, the faceless man seemed to be staring at her. Riley took a step back, quite disturbed by what she was seeing.
“Wh-who’re you?” She asked of him. She instantly berated herself. Of course he couldn’t answer. He didn’t have a mouth.
The man didn’t make any kind of answer. He didn’t even make any inclination that he had heard her, even though he clearly had ears. Instead he brought his hands up beside where his face would have been. A piercing screech sounded, driving Riley to her knees. She was forced to cover her ears, but even that couldn’t block out the sound entirely.
Shortly, though, the noise stopped and the man brought his hands down from his face. Riley slowly stood up, looking around cautiously. What did he just do?
It wasn’t long before she found out, however, as at each side of the intersection other than where the faceless man was standing, a bulge suddenly appeared underneath the road, cracking the pavement. Almost in unison, the three mounds broke and a red, scaly Beholder climbed out of each.
Riley was surrounded.
She stood, scared out of mind, in the middle of the intersection. Not knowing what else to do, she pulled the flute out of her pocket. The instrument quickly turned into the katana, and she gripped the handle with both hands. The sword would hardly be much use against three of these monsters, plus the man in the suit. For whatever reason, the Beholders didn’t appear afraid of the sword as the one before had.
The faceless man brought his hands up to his face again, but this time he let out a low bass rumble. As if on cue, the three Beholders started to close in on Riley. They moved slowly, as if they were stalking a prey that they knew could not get away.
Riley spun, pointing the katana at each Beholder in turn. They drew closer every second, and before long they were each only five feet away.
There’s no way I can take them by myself, Riley thought. I don’t even know how to fight.
Just as the Beholder right in front of her was about to strike and she had given up all hope, she heard a voice from somewhere to her left.
The Beholders turned in unison to face the taunt. Riley could see three people running towards her. There were two boys, one brandishing a bronze-colored sword, the other a mace, and a girl, a dark axe in her hand.
The Beholders jumped aside as the three people joined Riley. She could see now that they were about her age. The boy with the sword and the girl both had dark hair and the boy with the mace had light hair, like Riley herself.
“Who are you guys?” Riley asked.
“No time to talk!” The dark-haired boy said as they all stood back to back, facing the Beholders.
The faceless man let out another bass pulse and the Beholders seemed to strengthen their resolve. The monsters leaped towards the four kids, claws outstretched.
Everything that happened next was a blur to Riley. The Beholders seemed to go after the three that had rushed to her defense. She could see them each struggling to battle the creatures with their weapons. Riley was at a bit of a loss as for what to do. She didn’t have a Beholder to fight and she wasn’t sure how to intervene in the one-on-one fights without hurting the wrong person.
Then she saw the man in the suit. He seemed deep in concentration, hands held in front of his face. He’s controlling the Beholders. Riley realized. Maybe if she could take him out, the Beholders wouldn’t be able to fight. She ran forward with the katana and tried to stab at the man, but an invisible force kept her blade from touching the man. Again and again she struck at him, but her blows had no effect. Then, a bolt of electricity shot out from the man and knocked Riley back off her feet. Apparently the man could still defend himself while he was controlling the Beholders. There didn’t seem to be anything she could do.
Suddenly, a memory came back to her.
She was waking up Saturday morning, and had just finished some homework. Coming downstairs, she met her Dad as he came in the door. He had just come back from town. He had gone to get groceries and whatnot, and had stopped to get the mail from their PO box. He handed her an envelope before walking off into the kitchen to pour himself a drink. The envelope was small and white, and on its front she could see her name, Riley Hawthorne, written in ornate cursive. There were no other markings on the envelope. She had asked her father who had sent it, but he didn’t know. She thought it might be a friend. Upon opening the letter, however, she had found only a piece of thick card paper, upon which was written, “The Faceless are not always what, or where, they appear to be.”
Riley hadn’t understood what the message had meant, but she began to consider the words in light of the current situation.
“The Faceless are not always what, or where they appear to be,” Riley murmured to herself. She cast her gaze around. One of the buildings that bordered the intersection had an overhang above its entrance. A stone pillar marked the corner of the overhang, and behind it, Riley could see movement. She ran over to the pillar to find another Faceless crouched behind it. With a swing of her katana, she lopped off the man’s head. She had expected blood, but none came. Instead, she could see wiring and mechanics inside the exposed neck of the Faceless. It was a robot. The body toppled over with a loud clang.
Riley turned around to see her rescuers standing in front of the limp forms of Beholders that had seemingly lost all sort of thought. It was as if the faceless robot served as the brain of the monsters. The Faceless that she had seen before had vanished.
Suddenly a soft beeping noise could be heard from the headless body of the robot behind her. It was periodic and slowly increased in frequency. It sounded like a bomb. Similarly, the Beholders out on the street were coursing with blue electricity.
“Run!” the dark-haired boy shouted. They all heeded his word and hastily retreated from the intersection, running as a group in the opposite direction that Riley had come. When they were a block or two away, they heard the loud explosions of four bodies self-destructing.
The group stopped and the dark-haired boy turned to Riley.
“You must be Riley,” he said, smiling. “I’m Austin. Remember me?”