Monday – 6:48 P.M.
Dolores watched the computer screen in amazement. She had heard of spectacular exits, but this one was really something else. She almost felt for the kid, falling hundreds of feet to his death, trapped in the claw of an ugly beast. Certainly there were more glamorous ways to die. Oh well, at least that would take care of Chimaera. There was no way she could have survived that fall.
Dolores stood up and stretched. She had been sitting in front of the computer all day and needed a break. Besides, her superior would be looking for her shortly about a status update and she didn’t feel like dealing with Mr. Expensive Suit right now.
There wasn’t a whole lot to see in the dark castle, but anything beat sitting in that dull room all day. Dolores strolled down a staircase and out into what probably used to be a beautiful courtyard. The ground was all dried-up and there was a shriveled old tree in one of the corners, but a few termite-ravaged wooden benches remained and an old fountain, now empty and dry, filled up the middle of the opening. Dolores sat down on one of the benches and stared at the fountain. It was a sort of ritual of hers. When she got fed up with all the petty drama everyone else seemed to enjoy (“office politics,” she called it) and ordering Ethan and Logan around, she would come out and just relax in the ruined courtyard as sort of an escape from it all.
She gazed up at the sky, if you could even call it that. All that could be seen above was a black void, like a night sky devoid of stars. Most people only called it the sky out of habit, but they all knew what was really there, or more accurately, what wasn’t there. There was nothing there at all. No sky, only void. Dolores didn’t exactly know what that meant. Whether they were in some sort of empty parallel universe or something, she didn’t know. All she knew was what she was told, and that there was nothing except the castle where they lived. In fact, there was so much nothing that no matter how far you went in any direction; all you’d find was nothing.
Sometimes she missed it all, the sky, the wind, the people, everything about her old life. Just the feeling of being whole and alive again would be worth killing for. Still, at least here she got to order people around, and that was one of her favorite things to do. Of course, she got ordered around quite a bit herself, but it’s not like she had much choice. It was either this or nothing, after all.
One of the doors to the courtyard opened and the man with the eye patch stepped out onto the cracked stone pathway.
Speaking of being ordered around… she thought to herself.
The man gazed around nonchalantly as he strolled over to where Dolores sat. He took a seat beside her casually, looking around before speaking.
“Dolores, what a pleasure seeing you here.”
Dolores tried to contain her irritation. “Believe me, sir, the pleasure’s all mine.”
“I’ve got a job for you, dear.”
Oh boy, here we go.
The man clasped his hands together and turned to look at Dolores with his good eye. “You know what our goal is. You know what we need to do in order to succeed.”
“Well in order to do that, something important must first be done. Dolores, I need you to find out who the GM has chosen as a Second.”
Dolores was taken aback. The task was nigh impossible. “Isn’t that a secret, though? How am I supposed to find out who the Second is?”
“That’s up to you. However, we may have a problem. That weasel that sabotaged our primary goal seems to have caught the attention of the GM. The GM suspects something’s wrong, although I don’t know if he knows exactly what yet. It’s best we keep it that way. Remember, if you hear anything at all about our little turncoat, be sure to let me know.”
“Yeah, I got it.”
The man gave a grim smile, like a mob boss who just found out who eloped with his daughter.
“Good. Now how are the players coming along?” Dolores thought back to the image of Chimaera plummeting from the roof of the office building. “They’ve taken out Chimaera, but lost one of their own. I don’t think they should be a threat.”
The man stood up slowly. “Excellent. Well that’s all I require. Looks like things should go fairly smoothly from here on out.” He walked slowly out, but said with his back to Dolores, “Don’t forget: find the Second. I need to know who he is for our plan to succeed.”
Dolores sighed. Of course. Give me the impossible job. There was no way she’d find out who the Second was. The Second’s identity was kept secret for this very reason. Hell, even the Second didn’t know they were the Second unless they actually had to perform their duties.
As she sat there on the bench, Dolores began to hear a ringing in her ears. For a second she thought it was just normal, but it got louder and louder until it was all she could hear, like a symphony of fingers on the lips of wine glasses. The GM was summoning her. She had only been summoned a few times before, the last time being when she had been appointed Scribe, so she knew what was going on.
That didn’t make it any more comfortable, however.
The ground began to spin and contort. The fountain twisted into an ungodly shape as the world around her began to fade. For a few seconds everything was black. Then she began to see lights. It was only one or two little green and red LED’s at first, but then a room faded into focus. It was a very dark room, but Dolores could vaguely make out hundreds of servers in the distance in front of her. Dolores bowed her head. She didn’t want to see what was directly in front of her. The first time had been enough for her. She didn’t want to see what floated in the glass tank in front of her. Despite that, she could still see the dim cyan light that emanated from the liquid-filled tank.
Suddenly a thought filled her head.
The thought was too loud to be her own. It was hard to place exactly when the thought entered her head, but she knew it was there.
Do you know why I have brought you here?
“No, I don’t.” She spoke out loud, even though she knew a simple thought would have sufficed.
I’ve got an important job for you
Dolores fought the urge to think something sarcastic and instead said, “What is it?”
I need two people to be involved with tomorrow’s Game. I thought you would be best for the job
“Who’s the other person?”
That is up to you. Pick someone you work well with. However, this is what you have to do…
Images and brief words drifted through Dolores’s head as the GM explained to her what she needed to do. A grin spread across Dolores’s face. This was more like it. She might actually have fun with this.
The ground was cold, covered with snow. A chilling wind blew, whispering a haunting secret through the air. As Austin swam into consciousness, he began to take in his surroundings. He was lying in a body-shaped indent in a snow bank. He struggled to sit up, but felt dizzy, so he lay back down, staring up into the night sky. He rubbed his eyes, trying to clear the rush of blood to his head. His vision quickly cleared, as did his memory. He recalled the image of the ground beneath the Reynolds building rushing up to meet him. He shivered, more from the horror of the image than the cold. It occurred to him that even though he was sitting in snow, he was neither cold nor wet. He could feel the cold of the air and snow around him, but he didn’t feel cold internally. Like he had some sort of internal heater keeping him warm.
So, did I die? He thought to himself. Is this some sort of afterlife?
A fluttering of feathers caught Austin’s attention and he managed to sit back up again. Looking around, he noticed he was back on the snowy mountaintop he had been transported to the other day. He sat upon the flat peak of a mountain, covered with snow and a small, withered tree, which extended for about thirty feet in any direction. Beyond that, the mountain sloped sharply downward for about fifty feet until it crossed the cloud layer and disappeared. In the distance, Austin could see a second mountain peak rising from the grey cloud blanket beneath him. The other mountain was much thicker and had what looked like an observatory on its peak. It was a short, round building with a long telescope aimed up at the heavens.
Austin heard the feathers rustle again and his gaze shifted over to the dead tree. Perched on one of its branches was a barn owl, its black eyes gazing intently at Austin.
“Minerva?” Austin asked the owl.
“Yes child?” Minerva said, maternally.
“Am I dead?”
Minerva the owl gave a hoot that sounded like a soft laugh. “No, Austin, you’re not dead.”
Austin breathed a sigh of relief. “Oh good. So what exactly happened with that monster? I remember falling off the building, but then I blacked out. How’d I wind up here?” For the first time, Austin noticed a long indentation in the snow in front of him, leading to where he sat. It was as if he had slid or been dragged through the snow.
“It’s quite the tale, actually. When Chimaera grabbed you, you both fell from the building. As you neared the ground, however, it became apparent that your trajectory carried you right over the fountain before the building. As you passed out, so did Chimaera. Her grip loosened on you and in the seconds before impact, the two of you drifted apart. Chimaera impacted the ground, while you, luckily, were blown by the wind right into the Marker. You were then transported here, where the snow cancelled your remaining momentum, saving your life.”
Austin was wide-eyed incredulous. “Well… that was lucky.” He managed after a few seconds. He could have died. He should have died. Yet, somehow, here he was, wherever this place was.
After a minute of reflection, Austin decided to put the question to Minerva. “Hey Minerva, what is this place? I remember being here the other day. You wouldn’t tell me what all this is. Do I get to find out now?”
Minerva gave a hooting sigh before answering. “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to tell you now. You already know a little about The Game. You know that the main events take place on your island of Sombra. This is referred to as “The Field.” That’s what they call wherever the missions take place. However, after a mission has been completed, it’s not safe for players to remain on the field. Thus, when the Architect designs everything, a separate world is created for the players to inhabit between missions.”
“A separate world?” Austin asked. “You mean we’re on a different planet?”
“Yes, this is a different planet, orbiting a different star. The planet is created and destroyed with each new instance of The Game, and each instance of this planet is prototyped to suit each of the players that will inhabit it. You can think of this planet as sort of a hub world. For that reason, this world is called the Terminus. Its sole purpose is to keep the players safe between missions.”
“So are Alice and Ryan here as well? And Riley?”
“Each of your friends are on separate areas of this planet. Each area specifically created for each player to match their individual character aspects.”
Austin wasn’t entirely sure what this meant, but it didn’t seem extremely important, so he figured he’d move on to other questions.
“So what was that monster that almost killed me? You called it Chimaera?”
Minerva shifted her wings. “Ah, yes, Chimaera: mythological beast, head and body of a lion, horns of a goat and a snake for a tail. One of the Guardians.”
“Each day you will be presented with a mission, and each mission has its own Marker, like the one you hunted down today. However, finding the Marker is not as easy as it seems. Each day’s Marker is protected by one of the Guardians. Each is a fearsome beast whose only purpose is to guard that Marker. If you can make it past them, you can finish your mission.”
“Are they all as tough as Chimaera?”
“Most of them, yes. However, they each have their own weakness. Figure that out, and you should be able to take them down. For instance, Chimaera was a fire-breather, and suffered damage when exposed to water.”
Austin stared at the distant mountaintop. He was in no hurry to have to face one of those monsters again. They barely made it out of that office building. Who knew what else would be in store for them?
“Anything else you need to know?”
Austin’s thoughts drifted back to the morning. He remembered what Ethan had said about taking orders from higher up.
“Yeah, those people that brought us here? The ones in charge? Who are they?”
Minerva looked thoughtful for a second. “Well I can’t tell you much, but I’ll tell you all I can. The people that you keep seeing call themselves The Fallen. They’re all failed players who are employed by the GM, or Game Master, to help run The Game. You see, when a player is killed in The Game, they’re given the choice to either go on being dead or be brought back as a Fallen. Now, this sounds like an easy choice, but I promise you it’s not as simple as it sounds. The Fallen are different than you and your friends. They’ve lost that spark that makes them human. In fact, most of them don’t even consider themselves human anymore. They’re mere fragments of what they used to be. They don’t need to eat; they don’t need to sleep or anything like that. Most of all, most of them lack any sort of compassion whatsoever. All they think about is helping themselves.”
“They can’t be all bad,” Austin muttered, thinking of Ethan’s attempts to help them.
“Since the Fallen can’t really feel much, most of them don’t. Some, however, have memories of their life before The Game, and it’s these memories of being whole that drive them to act human. Keep in mind, though, that they only know compassion from a distant memory. They don’t actually feel it. Not to mention the Fallen are very powerful on the Field. They have powers that you could only dream of, Austin. Don’t trust one of them for a second.”
“Are you saying they’d try to kill us? What good would that be to them if they run the game?”
A gust of wind blew over the top of the mountain. Austin’s hair was getting tossed around violently in the breeze, but he was too focused on what Minerva had to say to notice.
“While it’s true that some of them run the game, not all of them do. Most of them just sit around without anything to do. Now, during the daytime, Fallen aren’t allowed on the Field without express permission from the GM, and even if they went there, they’d be powerless to stop you without, again, express permission from the GM. The most the Fallen can do is attack you indirectly by sending monsters like the Beholders and the Panthers after you.
“However, at night, everything changes. When the Players fail to complete the mission within the allotted time, being the day, the mission becomes void. The Marker disappears and the Game enters Sudden Death. The day’s mission can no longer be completed, and thus the players are stuck on the Field until morning. During this time, monsters run free across the Field, killing anything in their path. The monsters are the least of anyone’s worries, though. The real danger comes from the Fallen. During Sudden Death, the restriction on Fallen activity is lifted. Any Fallen can enter the Field and are free to attack and kill Players. The Fallen will jump on any chance they get to force a Game into Sudden Death, some will even try to indirectly interfere with the game in order to deter Players from their objective until their time runs out. The reason for this is because when a Fallen kills a Player during Sudden Death, the Fallen takes the Player’s place and thus has a second chance to finish the game. However, if any players make it to sunrise, the voided mission is omitted and they continue playing normally.”
The stakes were higher than Austin had thought. Not only did they have to avoid being killed by monsters, traps and Guardians during the day, but they also had to finish before nightfall in order to keep their place in the game.
“Don’t look so worried. There’s hardly ever a Sudden Death in a Game, despite how hard some of the Fallen may try to force one.” As if reading Austin’s anxious expression, Minerva changed the subject. “On a lighter note, each Player that completes the Game is entitled to one reward.”
Austin raised an eyebrow. “A reward? It better be good.”
“It generally is. Each player who makes it past the final challenge gets to choose between bringing back a player who was killed or using their reward to bringing themselves great fortune when they return from the Game.”
“So if one of us gets killed, we can bring them back at the end of the Game?”
“If your friends use their rewards selflessly. You never know what Players will do until they’re given the option.”
“My friends would never choose themselves over one of us!” Austin couldn’t imagine Ryan or Alice picking something selfish over having him back. He wasn’t so sure about Riley, but he was fairly confident she could do the right thing.
“I don’t mean to imply that your friends are selfish. I just know that Players in the past have chosen themselves over their friends and I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened again.”
Austin was about to argue, but Minerva unfurled her wings sharply.
“Now Austin,” she said, sounding like she was his mother. “Sleep now. You have another long day tomorrow.” She flapped her wings softly and Austin could see a fine powder emerge from them and mix with the snow falling around him. After a few seconds, Austin was feeling more tired than he had been all day. His eyes felt heavy and without meaning to he fell sideways into the snow, fast asleep.