Monday – 8:34 AM
Austin woke slowly, the light from his window alighting on his face as the sun steadily climbed over the horizon. He rolled over and felt around for his pillow, but it wasn’t there. Opening his eyes a bit wider, he realized that he was lying on the floor of his room. His back and legs were sore, which he guessed was from sleeping on the floor. He couldn’t remember how he got there, though.
Austin sat up. He gradually became more lucid as the dark clutches of sleep relinquished their hold on him. He groaned and rubbed the sleep from his eyes.
“Mmm what time is it?” He thought aloud. He looked for his clock on his dresser. It read 8:36.
“Shit, I’m late for school!” He gasped, scrambling to stand up. As he stood up, however, his eyes fell upon something unusual. On the floor between the dresser and himself lay Ryan and Alice, fully clothed and asleep. Austin saw that Ryan’s hand was clenched around the rusty iron lantern, and the events of Sunday night began to slowly creep back to him.
So that’s why I’m so sore, he thought to himself. And still dressed. I’d never have fallen asleep with my shoes on.
Before him, Ryan and Alice slowly stirred.
“Uhhhh what’s going on?” Ryan murmured, sleepily. “Why am I at Austin’s house?”
“Guys, get up. Something’s happened,” Austin said, taking charge of the situation. He helped his friends to their feet, and assessed the situation.
“Ok, so what do we remember from last night?” Austin asked, trying to jog their memories, his included. The events of the previous night were still a little fuzzy.
Alice stretched. “Well, I remember running to the cave, but after that I’m not sure.”
“Yeah, that’s about what I remember as well,” agreed Ryan. “It’s all black after that.
Austin couldn’t remember any more than they could, and found it quite ominous. He couldn’t think of how they could’ve gotten their memories wiped, but it seemed a little too strange that they all had forgotten the same things to be just a coincidence.
“So what do we do now?” Alice asked. “What about school?”
“Something tells me school isn’t the most important thing going on right now. We need to get to the bottom of what’s been going on here. Any ideas?”
“Well,” Ryan said, trying to flatten his messy hair, “We could go back to that cave and see if there’s anything there.”
Austin nodded. That would be a logical first step. Maybe they could find some sort of clue.
They all agreed, and Austin led them downstairs. He paused at the bottom of the stairs, and looked through the kitchen and living room.
“Mom? Are you here?” he asked. He received no answer. A more thorough search of the house revealed that it was indeed empty. Well that’s odd, he thought. Maybe she just went to work early.
The three friends left the house, and Austin locked the door behind them, just in case. The streets were quiet, save for a steady wind blowing down the rows of houses. Austin shivered, more from the eeriness of the situation than the cold. He still had a sweatshirt on from the day before, so the cold wasn’t much of a problem.
They reached the bottom of the cobblestone road, which emptied out onto the main road. Usually the street had a couple cars driving down it at this time of day, but there was nobody to be seen or heard. The street was just as desolate as Austin’s house.
“Guys, where is everybody?” Ryan asked.
The wind whistled down the street, a familiar note produced. It’s the one Desolation plays to keep its instrument in tune. An old scrap of newspaper was caught by an eddy of the breeze and tumbled along past the three friends, like the ubiquitous tumbleweed in an old-fashioned western movie. The shops and stores that lined the main street of the Seaside village were dark and deserted; a foreboding void of expected activity that sent a chill down Austin’s spine.
“Everyone’s… gone,” Austin breathed, his words echoing slightly over the empty street.
“Where’d they all go?” Ryan asked, stepping forward to stand beside Austin.
Alice followed in suit, shooting nervous glances up and down the street. “They’re not… dead, are they?”
“No, if everyone on the island was dead except us, there’d be bodies or some sort of trace,” Austin replied, his brow furrowing. “But then that still begs the question: What did happen? How did everyone somehow vanish?”
Nobody could think of a plausible answer, but they all suspected that there was a connection to whatever had happened in that cave. This suspicion tempted them onwards, making the three friends ever the more curious to see what they would find at the seaside cave and why it was that they could not remember what they knew they should.
The main road led down to the beach, and the three friends retraced their path from the previous night. Austin could almost feel the pouring rain that had soaked him as he had made his way down the dark sands. He was glad that, whatever had happened after they entered the cave, he was dry now. He pulled his phone from his pocket and checked it. It appeared to have suffered no water damage, and functioned as if it had never touched a drop of water.
Speaking of water, Austin thought, the ocean sure seems calm for such a windy day. Sure enough, the ocean that ran along their right side seemed to be more still than normal. There were barely any waves breaking offshore, and the water that made it to the beach never made it past a certain point of the shore. This struck Austin as quite odd. Normally the seas were rougher on such windy days. Normally, he would’ve just dismissed the oddity to one excuse or another
Pocketing his phone again, Austin turned to his friends, who were following behind him in what he guessed was their usual formation.
“Alright,” Austin said, “There’s something strange going on here.”
“What is it?” Ryan asked, sounding a bit worried.
“Look at ocean. Is it just me or does it seem a little… off?” Austin turned and motioned towards the water.
“Hmmmm” Ryan hummed as he fixed a curious eye on the sea. “You’re right, it seems quiet. A little too quiet, even.”
“I hardly think that’s the biggest of our concerns right now,” Alice interrupted, still staring ahead in the direction they had to go.
Austin turned to match the direction of her stare. “Huh? What do you mean?” However, the words had barely left his mouth when he saw what she meant. Two hundred feet beyond them, Austin could see a huge hole in the ground.
“Oh, that,” he muttered. He couldn’t imagine why he had failed to notice the gaping hole before. Too wrapped up in my own thoughts, he mused.
The kids quickly closed the distance between them and the pit before them, pausing on the rim to get a better glimpse. Austin peered over the edge. All he could see below him was the sand of the beach forming the walls of the abyss, which fell away into nothing after about a hundred feet. The sand at their feet felt hard, almost like stone, and only a few loose grains of were blown by the wind into the blackness.
Immediately, Austin began to look for a way around. To their left, the cliffs rose up to a grassy ledge that bordered the town. The edge of the chasm ended right where the cliff met the beach, so there was no foothold on that side. To their right, the hole breached the waterline of the beach, and Austin had a hard time looking at the ocean there. It was as if there was a heat haze above the water at that certain stretch, and he couldn’t focus his eyes on it. After a second or two, it started to make his eyes water, and he had to look away. He didn’t like the look of it one bit. If there was something wrong with the water, there was something very wrong with that particular stretch of it.
“So what do we do?” Alice asked.
“I don’t think we can get around the edges,” Austin began. “Are there any other beach accesses between here and the caves?”
Alice shook her head. “I don’t think so, but if there’s no other way, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to go check.”
“I wouldn’t waste my time, if I were you,” a voice suddenly said from behind the three. Austin spun to face whomever had spoken, then gasped. It was the same red-haired guy from his dream.
“You!” Austin yelled.
“Me,” the stranger said calmly.
“Hey, that’s the guy from the train,” Ryan said, his eyebrows rising in obvious incredulity.
“And from the festival,” Alice added, her countenance bearing a shrewder expression than the two boys.
“Yes, yes. I did appear to each of you before today, however, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t go around telling a lot of people.”
“Who’s there to tell?” Ryan asked, motioning around, as if to showcase the glaringly obvious lack of people.
“So who are you?” Austin asked, hoping to steer the conversation in a helpful direction.
The red-haired stranger sighed. “Well I guess I can tell you my name now. My name’s Ethan.”
Alice still bore the shrewd look on her face. “Well that may be your name, but who exactly are you, and why are you helping us?”
“I’ll get to that,” Ethan began. “As to why I’m helping you, part of it is because I’m required to, but partly because there were some things that happened this weekend that didn’t go according to plan.”
“What do you mean?” Austin asked.
Ethan sighed, looking down, as if composing himself. “I suppose I better just go through the whole spiel for this to make any sense. Alright, so you’re probably wondering what the hell has been happening recently. I can’t give you all the details, but what I can tell you is that you’ve all been chosen to participate in the Ludus Umbra, also known as the Game of Shadows. It’s an ancient game, a test of ability for four mortals. The point of this game is to make it to the end of the week. There are various tasks that you’ll have to do every day in order to ‘beat’ that specific day. For instance, today’s task is to find the Marker that’s been placed somewhere on the island. I don’t know where it is, but it looks like this:”
He drew a hammer from a loop in his jeans and traced out a pattern in midair, a red light illuminating the path the tip of his hammer made through the air. When he was finished, he had drawn a red circle in the air with a line bisecting it vertically.
“All you have to do is find a floating shape that looks like this and touch it. Pretty simple, in theory.”
Austin was so full of questions that he could barely contain himself. Before he could ask any, though, Ryan beat him to it.
“What if we don’t want to play your game? What if we’ve had enough of all this bullshit?”
Ethan shrugged. “Well you could always lay down and let a Beholder find you. Honestly, you don’t have a choice. Either you play the Game and survive, or you give up and die.”
Ethan met Ryan’s glare and gave a defensive look. “Hey, it’s not my decision. My orders come from higher up. This certainly isn’t ‘my’ game, by any means.”
“So if you’re not in charge here, then who is?” Alice asked.
“I’m afraid I can’t say,” Ethan told her. “You’ll figure out a lot of things in time, but for now, I’ve got a limit on what I can tell you.”
“So, where should we start looking for this… Marker?” Austin asked.
“Like I said, I don’t know for certain where it is, but if I were the GM, I’d probably put it in the city. It’s a good midway point for the entering players. I do really need to get going, though. I’ve probably told you too much already, and I don’t want to get in trouble with the boss. She’s not one you want to piss off.”
Ethan turned to go, then paused, mid-step. “Oh yeah, I almost forgot. You really want to finish this mission before nightfall. You don’t want to know what happens after the sun goes down.” And with that, he disappeared into thin air with a soft wobbling sound. Austin had to blink his eyes a couple times. Despite all the strange things he had thus far seen, someone disappearing into thin air still took him by surprise.
After the shock of Ethan’s sudden appearance and disappearance wore down, Austin began to consider their next move.
“Alright, guys. What now?” he asked. “Do you think we can trust this Ethan guy? Do you want to go search for the Marker thing in the city or try to find another way to the cave?”
“Well I think we can trust him,” Ryan said after a moment’s deliberation. “He did point us in the right direction before with the whole cave thing.”
“And he did warn me about the Beholders,” Alice agreed.
“Alright then, I guess we’ll go check out the city,” decided Austin. “The cave will still be there later.
The path from the beach to the train station was much more direct than the previous day, as the market was probably abandoned like the rest of the town. After a few minutes of backtracking, Austin spotted a staircase hewn into the stone face of the cliff. The three friends climbed it and found themselves on a short road to the market area. As if to confirm their expectations, the market was completely devoid of life. The disorderly merchant stalls and stands were still erected, however, as if everyone had vanished while they were still in use. It made navigating the market a confusing and irritating mess. Just when Austin thought he had found a way through, he found that a fruit stall blocked the path, displays of apples and oranges still open to the world.
Somewhere in the market, a clattering noise rang out. It sounded like a crate of fruit falling over. The three friends froze immediately.
“What the hell was that?” Ryan whispered.
Austin shrugged, looking around to find the source of the disturbance. After a long minute with no other disturbances, Austin crept around the corner in the direction of the noise. A couple turns brought him to a stand, in front of which lay an overturned pomegranate crate, the blood red juice spilling out onto the cobblestones. One of the fruits looked like it had been crushed by something other than its fall from the shelf of the stand, and what resembled footprints led away from it.
Moving cautiously, Austin followed the footprints around a couple more stalls until he heard a soft sniffing noise coming from behind a vegetable stand. Peering around the corner of the stand, Austin found the source of the noise.
Before him, investigating the vegetables stood one of the panther-like creatures from the previous night. Now that it was daylight out, Austin could get a good look at the thing. It was long, black and lithe, like a large cat, however, it’s proportions didn’t seem to be right. The body seemed too thin, the legs too long and angular. The creature had a long black tail, with what looked like a red blade at the end, which waved around casually as the creature sniffed the air.
The creature paused in its vegetable investigation, head slowly turning. It had caught Austin’s scent. The beast whipped around to face Austin, its head long and jagged, then opened beaklike jaws and let out a screech like a dying eagle at Austin.
“Shit. Run!” he called to Ryan and Alice, who were waiting anxiously behind him. They didn’t need much warning. At Austin’s words, they quickly dashed away from the monster.
It was if the monster’s screech was a cue, for when it let out its grating call, quivering shadows seemed to blossom from the sides of stalls and the dirty cobblestone ground. The shadows then coalesced into more of the beasts, which didn’t hesitate to give chase.
The Panthers (which, for the time being, is what Austin decided to call them) chased the three friends into the midst of the market, crashing through stalls as if they were made of cardboard. Before too long, though, the Panthers had pinned Austin, Ryan and Alice against the fountain in the center of the market, surrounding them on three sides.
“What’re we gonna do?” Alice asked, frightened, but not beaten. The three stood back-to-back
The beasts crept closer. There seemed to be about five or six of them. “I guess we’re gonna have to fight,” Ryan answered.
Austin looked around, assessing the situation. “With what, though? We don’t exactly have weapons!” When Austin said the word “weapons,” however, something strange happened. A cold weight suddenly appeared in his right hand. With a quick glance down, Austin saw that he was now holding a bronze-colored sword. Quick gasps from Ryan and Alice told him that they had experienced a something similar. The Panthers had noticed it, too. They seemed confused, as if they weren’t sure what to do. The frantic looks the beasts gave each other told Austin that their prey had suddenly become more dangerous than they had originally thought. After a shriek from one Panther, however, the beasts regained their composure; they had numbers on their side. One of the beasts in front of Austin decided to be a hero and leapt forward with a snarl.
Austin had never held a sword before, but he had played a lot of video games and seen a lot of movies. The sword was lighter than he expected it to be, but still carried a decent amount of weight. As the Panther leapt through the air toward him, Austin let instinct take over and brought the sword up in a horizontal slash. He felt the blade connect with the body of the creature, then swipe completely through it as if the beast had been made of no more than smoke.
Austin released the breath that he was unconsciously holding and looked up. All that was left of the Panther was a black smoke that quickly dissipated.
A shout from behind him alerted Austin that Ryan had just swung at a Panther. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw one of the creatures leap at Alice. He figured that she could defend herself, though. The fizzing sound of a Panther evaporating confirmed his suspicions.
Taking the initiative, Austin set his sights on a Panther in front of him and ran forward, slicing at it with his sword before the monster had a chance to attack. The blade carved through the monster, rending it into smoke upon impact.
Turning around, Austin just had time to see Alice dispatch a Panther with a swing of a wicked-looking axe. That appeared to be the last of the monsters, though, and the three friends turned to each other, each breathing heavily and looking a bit rattled. Ryan, though, looked a little more excited than the other two. He carried a mace that bore a striking resemblance to the lantern he had carried before.
“That was awesome!” Ryan whooped, a grin breaking over his face.
Austin couldn’t help but laugh. “Actually, it kinda was.”
“It was lucky these weapons just appeared like this, though,” Alice pointed out, getting a closer look at the axe in her hand.
As Austin’s pulse slowly began to relax, he heard the “shink” sound of metal and the weight in his hand significantly lessened. Instead of the bronze sword, he now held his old bronze spyglass. Almost simultaneously, Alice’s axe was replaced by her key and Ryan’s mace turned into his lantern.
“Well that’s where this thing went!” Ryan chuckled. “I was wondering where all our random kitsch went. Turns out it’s useful after all!”
“Well let’s hope they don’t vanish aga-” Alice started to say, but on the word “vanish,” all three of their tools disappeared in a flash of light.
“Well shit,” Ryan moaned. “I was just getting to like the damn thing.”
“I have a feeling they’re not really gone. They’ll be here whenever we need them.” Austin wasn’t entirely sure how he knew this, but somehow he did. This seemed to reassure Ryan, and they were once again able to set off toward the train station. Now, however, Austin realized that the Panthers had destroyed many of the stalls that had blocked the path through the market. They had an almost clear shot to the exit.
There didn’t appear to be any more ambushes laying in wait between the market and the train station, and once the three had arrived, it was a simple manner to hop the ticket machines and wait for the train that still showed up, despite not having anyone to conduct it.