Monday – 11:20 AM
Austin slowed to a stop. He was very out of breath and he could feel a stitch building in his stomach. The three behind him followed suit and Austin turned to face them. Ryan and Alice were looking cautious, but curious at the sight of the newest member of their group, a blonde girl of about the same age as they themselves were. Austin gave the girl a studied look. He had known almost at once who she was. Even though he had only briefly seen a picture of her before, he recognized Riley. She looked different in person, which was only to be expected, but he hadn’t been aware of exactly how attractive she was. That was neither here nor there, though. There were more important matters at hand. He had a million questions for her, but it seemed unlikely that she knew the answers. Besides, introductions were in order.
“You must be Riley,” he said to her, adopting what he hoped was a friendly smile. “I’m Austin. Remember me?”
She nodded, still looking a bit shaken by their run-in with the Beholders earlier. “Yeah, I remember you.”
“Ok, good.” Austin continued. “Well this is Ryan and this is Alice,” he motioned to his friends in respective order. They each gave their greetings.
“Nice job with that suit guy earlier,” Ryan remarked to Riley. “I would’ve never guessed that it was an illusion. How’d you know?”
“It’s… kind of a long story.” Riley answered.
“One I’m sure we’ll have time for later,” Alice interrupted. “What about that Marker? Have you heard about that?”
“Yeah, some guy appeared and told me about it. I don’t know where it is, though. He wouldn’t tell me.”
Austin’s interest was piqued. Maybe it was Ethan. “What’d this guy look like?”
Riley looked surprised, as if she had been expecting another question.
“Well,” she said, looking thoughtful, “He was kinda tall, had short brown hair and wore a leather jacket. Oh, yeah, and he had this wrench thing that he kept playing with.”
Hmm, Austin thought. Definitely doesn’t sound like Ethan. But then who’s this guy? Maybe Ethan has partners.
“Did you get his name?” Austin asked.
Riley shook her head. “Nope. But he knew me.”
“Yeah, we’ve met someone similar. A guy named Ethan. He told us about the Game and the Marker and whatnot. He knew who we all were, as well.”
“So what is this Game, anyway?” Riley asked. “All I know is that we have to survive the week.”
“That’s all we know as well.” Alice agreed. “We haven’t really been told much, other than that.”
Austin spoke up decisively. “Well we might as well try to find this Marker. If we find out any more about what’s going on along the way, then great. However, I think staying alive is our highest priority right now, and the most obvious way to do that is to just play along with their Game for now. Whoever they are.”
“That’s all well and good,” Ryan said, “But where is the damn thing? I know that Ethan guy said it might be somewhere in the city, but for all we know he could either be wrong or lying. Besides, even if it is in the city, we’ve got a lot of ground to search. Where do we even start?”
Austin could see that Riley was holding what looked like a piece of paper in her hand. He wasn’t sure why he hadn’t noticed it before.
“Riley, what’s that?” he asked, motioning towards what she had in her hand.
She brought it up to look at it and Austin saw that it was what looked like a Polaroid photograph.
“I dunno,” Riley shrugged. “I mean, obviously it’s a picture, but I don’t know what of. I found it when I killed that robot guy.” She handed it over to Austin for his scrutiny.
Austin saw that the photo showed a large fountain in a square before an office building. Marble staircases framed the fountain, one on either side, then meeting and forming one staircase behind the fountain in a Y-shaped junction.
“What is it, Austin?” Alice asked impatiently.
Austin was genuinely surprised. “Guys, it’s a picture of the fountain in front of the Reynolds building.”
Ryan cocked an eyebrow. “I’m guessing that’s a clue?” he asked.
“Probably,” Austin said. “But for now it’s all we have to go on. Which way do you guys want to go to get there?”
A gust of wind blew down the street and Riley shivered noticeably. “I don’t know about that,” she said. “But I could really use a jacket. Do you know if there’s a clothing store around here somewhere?”
The closest store between them and their destination was a couple blocks away. Austin had never been in it before, as it was a bit preppy for his taste, but they had decent, if expensive, clothing. It had been hugely popular with the kids of their school, especially David and his gang. Since there was nobody there, they just took what they needed. It wasn’t like there was anyone to stop them. Back on the street, Riley looked much warmer in a pastel-blue jacket. They were ready to begin looking for the Marker.
The fastest route to the Reynolds building was to go straight down 15th street, which would put them right across the street from their destination. It was a decent day out, if very windy, so the four friends didn’t mind the walk. They talked for a while, getting to know each other a little better. Austin was intrigued to learn that Alice was not only an only child, but also lived exclusively with her father. He felt a certain sense of connection to her, as he was sure the others did. Riley seemed to get along well with Alice and Ryan, although she seemed a little quiet. Austin also learned that she was very interested in History and had a passion for the antique and vintage.
A few blocks from the fountain, their conversation was interrupted by a disturbance up ahead. Completely blocking the road was a pile of what appeared to be destroyed cars that towered about thirty feet above the pavement. Someone had crammed what looked like every car on the island into a single stretch of road between two buildings.
“Can we get over it?” Ryan asked.
“Maybe,” Austin said, scanning the wreckage for a possible route to the top. It was then that he noticed movement on the pile of cars. A Faceless was climbing to the top on the other side. Once he reached the top, he stood straight up and stared with his eyeless face down at the four kids. They stood staring at each other for what felt like a few minutes, then the Faceless reached into a pocket of his suit and pulled out something small and shiny. It was hard to see exactly what it was from that distance, but Austin had a suspicion as to what it was. A familiar “shink” noise confirmed his suspicions as the Faceless flipped open the lighter and lit it. The Faceless turned his blank gaze to the lighter and dropped it carelessly into the pile of twisted metal. As the flame found some tiny reserve of oil, the Faceless leaped out of sight and down to the far side of the car pile. The stack of cars suddenly erupted into flames.
“Get back!” Austin yelled, looking around frantically for an alternate route. The alleyways between the buildings were all dead ends, however the building to their left had a lobby that had doors to the street on the other side.
“In here! Quick!” Austin shouted, running into the lobby. They quickly dashed through the marble foyer, down a set of steps and out the glass doors at the far end. As soon as the glass door closed behind Riley, who was last, a series of deafening explosions reverberated through the empty streets.
The blasts subsided almost as quickly as they began.
“Are we safe?” Ryan asked, his hands clasped over his ears.
“I think so,” Alice said.
Austin, however, wasn’t so sure. He heard a low creaking sound and turned back to the building they had just run through. It seemed the force from the explosions had taken out some of the building’s supports and it was slowly tipping towards them.
“Run!” Austin shouted and again they ran for their lives. The building was wider than they thought, and after a few seconds the tipping building had enveloped them in its shadow. They were almost out of the way when the top of the falling skyscraper impacted the building across the street. The second building held, but only just, and the first building began to slide down its side, gaining speed toward the ground. Austin hadn’t stopped running, however, and the four friends were able to make it out of the way in time for the building to land with a boom. Glass shattered, concrete cracked and flew apart, papers and bits of furniture flew out of the destroyed windows. It was truly a sight to behold. Austin was just glad that they had made it out of the way in time and that there hadn’t been anyone in the building.
A creak from further away signaled the destruction of the building that had been to the right of the explosion. It fell in the same direction as the first building, blocking the original street and adding rubble to the wreckage.
“Holy shit,” Ryan breathed, gazing out over the destruction.
“Looks like they knew we were coming,” Alice said.
“So what now?” Riley asked.
Austin turned away from the destruction and gazed down the road. “Looks like our only choice is to keep going.”
Fortunately, the Reynolds building was only a few blocks away and they wasted no time in getting there. The office building was one of the taller buildings in the city. The walls were tinted blue glass all the way up the side of the buildings, which gave it a reflective quality.
The quickest way to the fountain was to head through the lobby of the building, which they did. The lobby had a high ceiling adorned with a glass chandelier. The floors and walls were made of slabs of marble, which gave the room a very bare appearance. The room was ominously quiet. The only sounds that could be heard were each of the friends’ echoing footsteps on the hard marble and the wind blowing stronger than ever outside, albeit muffled by the glass. Not wanting to hang around too long, they stepped quickly down the staircase in the center of the room and towards the long row of glass doors on the far side.
On the other side of the doors, Austin could clearly discern the square he had seen in the photograph, with a glistening green shape floating above the fountain. It was bright, so he couldn’t quite make out what the shape was, but he would have bet his spyglass that it was the Marker.
Riley sighed. “Oh good, we’re almost there.”
Austin felt reinvigorated. He was ready to have a moment alone to figure out the events of the past few days. However, when he pushed on the handle of one of the doors, he found it locked.
“Uh oh,” he said, his stomach dropping. He knew this was too good to be true.
They tried the other doors and found them all to be locked. Austin was about to suggest they backtrack and just go around the building, but something seemed to be happening. The glass in the doors was growing darker, as if it was gradually being tinted.
“Guys, I don’t like the look of this at all,” Ryan said, glancing around nervously.
Within a few seconds, all the doors and windows were completely blackened out. The only light in the room was the dim glow from the chandelier above them, casting eerie shadows around the room. It was as if the building had been plunged into a sudden night. Austin could hear the wind rushing outside and his friends’ nervous breathing, but nothing else.
A thump sounded somewhere in the room. It was hard to place exactly where it had come from, since nobody was expecting it. However, when the second one rang out over the reverberant hall, Austin could tell it was coming from behind the corner where a hallway jutted off at a tangent from the lobby.
A dark blur shot across Austin’s field of view and he heard the sound of breaking glass as the light in the room went out. There was a moment of panic before the clink of iron signaled Ryan lighting his lantern. A soft yellow glow spread for a few feet around the four friends, but was too weak to illuminate the whole room.
“What the hell just happened?” Alice asked.
Austin was looking around for any sign of what could have caused the blackout. “I don’t know, but I have the feeling we’re not alone.”
Very faintly, Austin could hear a clicking noise from somewhere in the darkness, like fingernails rapping on a hard surface, or (he shuddered), like claws on marble.
He could feel his heart pounding frantically in his chest. There was something in the room with them, and he was getting the feeling that it wasn’t a small something. He could almost feel it out there, lurking, sizing them up. Austin wanted to get away from whatever it was as quickly as possible, but the problem was he didn’t know where it was, so he ran the risk of fleeing straight towards it.
“Austin, what’s going on?” Alice whispered to him.
Austin did his best to remain still and keep his eyes searching the dark room. “Don’t panic, but I think there’s something in here with us.” He whispered back.
“What kind of something?” Riley breathed.
A jet of fire erupted from the darkness and over the heads of the four friends, engulfing the rest of Austin’s sentence. The light it gave was brief, but he could barely make out something very large at the other end of the lobby.
“Can we panic now?” Ryan said, the lantern shaking in his hand.
Another blast of fire shot straight upward from the creature, and this time Austin wasn’t too busy ducking to see what it was.
The creature appeared to be a huge lion, over ten feet tall, but with the long horns of a goat and a wicked-looking serpent tail that thrashed back and forth.
“Yes definitely panic!” Austin yelled. By the light of the lantern, he could see a hallway to their right. “This way!” he shouted, taking off towards it, motioning for them to follow. The four friends ran as fast as they could down the hallway, trying to outpace the monster that was locked in with them. It didn’t seem to be much use, however, as the monster roared loudly and gave chase.
Running didn’t seem to be doing them much good, though, as the beast seemed to be able to catch up with them at any point. Curiously enough, though, it didn’t, as if it enjoyed the thrill of the chase.
Shortly ahead, Austin could see a light emptying out into the pitch black hallway. The four friends ran into the room, which turned out to be an elevator. Thinking fast, Austin slammed his hand down on one of the buttons. Thankfully, the door began to close as the beast drew even with them. It tried to shove a monstrous paw into the closing doors, but there was too little space. The beast uttered a roar of vexation and shot a blast of fire at the doors, which closed just in time to shield Austin, Ryan, Alice and Riley from the searing heat.
As the elevator began to move upwards, Austin fell into a sitting position, the others following suit.
“So,” Ryan said between heavy breaths, “What the hell was that thing?”
In the room filled with computers, Dolores sat by her keyboard, watching information flash across the screen. Being Scribe meant constantly typing up player reports for the GM, which ordinarily was very tedious, but it gave her a decent excuse to constantly spy on the players.
As she neared the end of a paragraph, she heard the door open and someone slowly walk in. At first she thought it was Ethan or Logan, and made a motion to address them as such.
“Look, I don’t have anything else for you guys to do, so just stop-“ She turned and realized it was not either of the two people she had been expecting. The person who stood before her was a tall man with short black hair wearing an expensive-looking black suit. He wore an eye patch over one eye and a horizontal scar under the other.
Dolores gave an apologetic look, standing to attention. “Oh, sorry, I thought you were someone else.”
The man nodded. “How goes the Game?” he asked in a deep voice.
“Well, the Players have just encountered the first Guardian.”
A sadistic grin spread across the man’s face. “Ah, Chimaera. I hope she treats them well. Keep me posted on their progress.”
“Can do sir.”
The man turned to leave, but stopped at the door.
“Remember that we need you for the next stage. Don’t do anything…” he paused slightly, as if carefully selecting the word. “…careless. We can only protect you to a certain extent. Also, keep a look out for that traitor that sabotaged our original plan. I don’t know who he is, but I will find him and he will be…” he paused again. “…taken care of.”
As the door closed, Dolores sank back in her chair with an inward sigh of relief. There was just something about that guy she didn’t like, but above that distrust was a certain feeling of fear that commanded nothing less than respect and obedience. She’d hate to get on his bad side.
Glancing again at her screen, she saw a video feed of the four Players in a small elevator. She didn’t envy them one bit. She certainly didn’t want to have to go up against Chimaera.
Dolores watched as the four kids sat waiting for the elevator to reach its destination.
The elevator dinged as it reached the designated floor. In his haste, Austin hadn’t even bothered to check which button he had pressed. It seemed that he had hit the button for the top floor, since it had been the closest at hand. The doors opened onto another dark floor. The room was large and open. Ryan’s lantern revealed that this floor contained cubicles that looked as if they had been left normally the night before and nobody had bothered to return. As they crept along the rows, Austin could see personal affects tacked onto each cubicle: a picture of a family, a goofy coffee mug, a poster of a famous singer, etc.
What happened to everyone? Austin thought. He hadn’t much time to reflect on the idea until now, but a lingering thought plagued him. Is everyone dead? He sure hoped not. Not that he particularly cared for many people on the island beside the ones with him, but it would still be a horrible tragedy. However, he didn’t have any proof as to what happened to everyone. For all he knew, they could all have been transported somewhere safe. I sure hope Mom’s OK.
“Austin!” Alice yelled, snapping him out of his thoughts.
“The monster’s coming!”
It was true. Austin could hear the beast’s paws clumping down a hallway. He wondered how it had managed to get here. There was no way it could’ve fit through the human-sized doorways. In the gloom towards the walls of the room, Austin could see the creature move out from behind a wall. It smelled the air in attempt to discover them. Its snake head flicked its tongue in and out, flitting its head this way and that.
Austin held his breath, hoping that they wouldn’t be detected. He could hear his heart pounding in his ears.
With a roar, the beast found them. It tore down the aisle between blocks of cubicles towards them, destroying office chairs and flimsy divider walls before it.
Austin jumped to his feet quickly and the four of them took off as fast as they could towards a doorway in the far wall. As they got closer, Austin could read the sign bolted to the door. It read ROOF ACCESS. Better yet, the door was ajar. If they could make it out onto the roof, they’d be able to see, which would make fighting this monster a whole lot easier.
They were maybe ten feet from the door when the monster cut across their path, blocking their advance towards the door. It threw a paw at them, which only barely missed Austin’s face as turned around to run the other way. Ryan was a little slow to stop, however, and got hit by the creature’s backhand, which sent him flying into a nearby divider wall. Luckily the walls were flimsy enough that they fell over when he impacted them; he seemed winded, but otherwise unhurt. Austin reached down and pulled Ryan to his feet as the lion head sent a jet of fire towards them. Austin felt the flames pass behind him, however it took him a second to realize that his sleeve was on fire. He hurried to shake it out, but they soon discovered that there was more than just Austin’s sleeve on fire. The destroyed cubicles were also alight, the stacks of papers and dry divider walls providing ample fuel. In almost no time, the sprinkler system kicked in, dousing the Players with a cold spray. All the fires went out, including the one on Austin’s shirt.
The unexpected rain was also having a more unexpected effect. The beast in front of them seemed to be hurt by the water. It was shaking as if poked by a thousand tiny needles. Taking advantage of its distraction, Austin ordered Ryan, Alice and Riley through the doorway behind the creature. They made it through without alerting the monster of their intentions, although Riley had to jump out of the way of one of its hind legs to avoid being trampled.
Through the doorway a short staircases lead up to the rooftop. Austin had to wait a few seconds before he could see. The midday sun was blinding compared to the darkness they had just exited. Before long, though, a roar sounded from beneath them, and the beast appeared out of thin air before them. The sprinklers had seemingly damaged it. Its skin looked blistered and burned. There were spots where the skin had been burned away completely and a sort of black mist steamed out from the creature. It staggered a bit, but still managed to stay on its feet. It didn’t seem to have much energy left, but it was still focused on taking out the four players.
Austin stepped nervously away from the beast, cautious of the ledge of the building behind him.
Gathering up whatever energy it had left, the beast made one final charge towards the players. As it leapt towards them, they all dove in different directions to evade the suicidal beast. Austin’s dive hadn’t been enough, as he was right in the middle of the group, and the beast plowed into him. It closed a paw around Austin as it skidded towards the side of the building. Austin’s sword appeared in his hand and he tried frantically to cut through the creature’s arm, but to no avail. It was like trying to cut through a tree trunk. The claw around him held fast.
With a crumbling noise the beast crashed through the short wall at the edge of the building and the two flew over the side and into midair.
“Austin!” his friends shouted, but there was nothing they could do but watch.
For Austin, the fall felt like minutes, when in actuality it only took a few seconds. He saw his friends disappear into the distance; he saw his reflection in the blue glass of the building’s windows. He turned his head around and saw the beast that had damned him. It roared in frustration. The sound would have been deafening, but to Austin it sounded underwater and far away, the wind in his ears made it hard to hear anything else. Plus, the adrenaline blurred the whole experience for him.
So this is how I die.
As they neared the ground, Austin glanced towards the ground to see the fountain of the plaza beneath him. Their trajectory would put them right on top of it.
In the final seconds, Austin saw the fountain rush up to meet him. A spark of green flashed across his vision and he knew no more.