The Call

I gripped the rope in my left hand, staring up at the mast. I could feel the rough fiber tugging in the breeze and my stomach quivered in kind. I had only dared the climb once before, but had been so useless no one bothered to ask me again. But I felt a kind of challenge in that failure, and every once in a while considered trying again. 

“Oy, get out the way there, Robin, lad! At least help if your hands are idle!”

I winced. I hated being called “lad,” just as I had once hated being addressed as “lass” or “lady.” Robin wasn’t even my real name. The crewman started calling me that after they heard me singing quietly to myself one muggy night. The name didn’t bother me so much as the fact the false identity I had laboured over in order to secure a position on this vessel was now useless. 

I turned and began helping load the new stores. Winston and Rawley always asked why I never wanted to go ashore at every new port, but I preferred the relative safety of the ship. I knew the crew there, and there was a significantly higher chance of being spotted in the busy cities we visited. I knew I was already taking a risk being on the ship in the first place, but by now the men recognized me, and didn’t think to look any closer. 

The ship was called the Chrysanthemum, a word I wouldn’t be able to spell if my life depended on it. I could barely pronounce it. Most men just called her Mum, which was a kind of a joke of itself. But the captain was a strange man with an affinity for flowers. Although he kept the ship in good order and the men well-paid, we all were curious where he found the extra coin to buy bouquets at every port. 

I had been in his quarter’s only once, and the sweet and heady scent of both fresh and wilted blooms made me feel sick. I imagined that room to be like the wild jungles filled with ferocious animals and secretive peoples the crew had seen, or claimed they had. But the flowers found their way around the whole of the ship. The men would plait them into one another’s hair, teasing and flirting, but most of the blossoms ended up hanging in bunches to dry in the galley where I worked. I couldn’t imagine the use for them, although I admit at times I enjoyed watching the dry petals drift lazily down around our heads, the cook and I. 

The cook was a large, silent man named Lukas. Whether he didn’t speak because he chose not to, or because the rumors were true that his tongue had been cut out, I didn’t mind the silence. I took refuge in the dark galley, scaling fish and softening hardtack, and felt a comfortable and completely unfounded sense of companionship with the giant culinarian. 

I was reminded of my current responsibility as the sun flashed against the silver buckle of a bag being hauled aboard. I raised my hand to shield my eyes and noticed one of the passengers staring directly at me. 

She was not tall, but held herself very erect. Her large nose had an attractive arch. Her auburn hair could be seen spilling from her bonnet, and her dress was a handsome dark green that seemed to compliment her rather broad shoulders. She was standing at the top of the ramp, watching me with an intense curiosity that for some reason made me blush. I turned away, eager to finish the load and get back belowdecks, but it seemed as though I could feel the woman’s gaze upon my back. 

A rough nudge made me lose my balance, and I gripped the bag I carried more tightly. 

“Looks like this lot’s a might easier on the eyes than the last one, eh, Rob?”

Percy sneered and tried to trip me, but I steadied myself around his outstretched foot. 

“They’re not here for you to gawk at, Percy,” I mumbled, and he laughed. 

“What else for, then? It’s not like they’re going to be any help.”

He put on his most wicked smile and crossed his arms. “A bit like you, wouldn’t you say?” 

I ignored him and pushed my way past, and for once he didn’t follow. He was a weevil in the flour of the crew, he and Scratch, the one man who tolerated him. I wasn’t quite sure why he was kept on, as the crew didn’t seem to have much love for him either. I had heard once that he was a distant relation to the captain, and that it was only this association that kept him aboard. He certainly didn’t seem like he would find a place on another crew. But this crew, the mean of the Mum, they were good men, from what I understood of my limited experience in life. And, while I could not say what compelled it, they seemed to have developed a fondness for me, and I for them. It was the only thing keeping me alive, and I did not dare disrupt it.

**To be continued**

A Decision

Rough noises in the dark forced Minty to open his eyes. The torch was surprisingly still sputtering feebly, but any moment it would go out. He silently cursed himself for not learning the light cantrip. He grew up in the city. He never needed to produce his own light for anything! And now he was stuck in a dark cave, totally reliant on the few torches he had brought in his pack. If he got out of this alive, he was never leaving the well-lit security of the city again.  

He started to move, to grab the torch and give it new life, but his infinitesimal shift caused searing pain to shoot through his shoulder. Right. That. With what little strength he had left, Minty closed his eyes and sang a quiet lullaby, casting a spell of healing. He felt the muscles and skin close themselves up, the pain dulling significantly as the wound healed.

He sat a moment longer, rolling his shoulder and rubbing out the ache that remained. It was a good spell. He felt almost back to normal. He leaned forward, propping himself up on his hands and knees. The damp air tickled his shoulder as he reached for the torch, and he cast a quick mending cantrip on his armor. The leather obediently stitched itself neatly together again. Now there was a cantrip worth knowing.

Minty picked up the torch and stood himself up, gazing down at the litter of bones and wood on the ground. Now that the torch was upright, its flame grew stronger and he could see more clearly. The remains of the skeleton lay flung about, its scimitar gleaming in the torchlight. And there, scattered in dismal pieces, was his beloved dulcimer.

Minty knelt, the gloom around him forgotten. He picked the instrument up by its neck, only a piece of it intact. The strings were broken, the bouts shattered. It had been a lovely instrument, carved by an old friend. The scroll was in the shape of a nautilus shell.

There was more scraping and scuffling in the dark, and Minty whipped around, his grip tightening on the torch. He had almost forgotten what had caused him to run headlong into the skeleton in the first place. He peered into the darkness, easing the dulcimer’s scroll into his pocket and reaching for his shortsword. Luckily, with him standing, it was much easier to access this time.

Having adjusted more to the darkness, he could see a shape sniffing and snuffling along the tunnel where he had entered. It was a small creature, no more than a few feet in height, and it seemed to be crawling along on all fours. It was still too far away for Minty to be able to make out its features, but its head seemed to be…pointy.

Minty found himself unable to decide what to do. As the creature approached, he contemplated his options. He could stand and confront the creature, whatever it was, and now that he was fully healed and had his shortsword drawn, he felt more confident in his capability to fight. But he was in uncharted territory, and who knew what powers or abilities this thing had. It could spit venom for all he knew.

He could also simply continue on his quest. The thing hadn’t attacked him while he was down, and it wasn’t rushing him now. It was possible it had no interest in him whatsoever. Minty was just disinclined to turn his back on anything that might suddenly decide to come after him.

Neither option was great.

Before he could even decide, the thing was upon him. Minty cursed under his breath. He was always terrible at quick decisions, and too often choices were made for him. Minty took a step back, gazing down at what appeared to be a…

Badger. A badger? It was definitely a badger, Minty thought, although he had never seen one in real life, and he always imagined them to be a little smaller. At least it appeared to be alive. The animal was striped in gray and black, white bands glowing eerily across its face. It was moving slowly through the tunnel, stopping every now and then to stick its nose deeply into the soil.

As Minty tightened his grip on his sword, the badger stopped and raised its head, looking directly at him. Its small eyes were not dark as the bard expected, but milky white, and he realized the animal was blind.

But there was something about the way it was looking at him that made Minty uneasy. He saw its nose twitch as it sniffed the air, clearly recognizing there was something here that didn’t belong. Minty would have happily left in a hurry, except now there was a badger between him and the exit, and, as much as he hated to admit it, he did kind of want to find the treasure for the Elf.

Would it be totally crazy to ask the badger for directions? It was clearly intelligent, and although Minty had no idea whether or not it spoke Common, he cleared his throat.

The Escape

The train screeched and stuttered as it started. Devin breathed a sigh of relief as he collapsed into a seat. He rotated his arm, trying to work out the soreness in his shoulder. He had had to push past at least a dozen people to get onto this train.

He glanced again at the photo on his phone, still shrugging out the soreness. The photo showed a man in his early forties, gray just beginning to show at his temples. He wasn’t smiling, and there something in his eyes, a fierce look, that made Devin uneasy. He had the uncomfortable feeling that he’d seen the man before, but couldn’t place him.

Either way, he didn’t have to worry about the man for another three days at least. There’s no way he could have followed him onto the train, and even if the man knew where Devin was going, it would take him at least that long to get there. Devin would figure out his next move in the city.

He leaned his head against the glass and watched everything speeding by. It was hot, the train car stuffy. He reached up and opened the window as wide as it would go, hoping a cool breeze would relieve the stale air. He sighed. He was finally able to take a moment to simply breathe. He had been living looking over one shoulder for so long that now that he had a moment to himself he felt suddenly exhausted. He closed his eyes.

He’d been playing “The Game” for four years. There were only a handful of them who had made it that long. It had been such a rush for the first few months—escaping, finding clues, forging alliances. He’d even betrayed a double agent or two. The pay was better than anything he could have imagined. He’d made a few hundred, even a few thousand dollars, by beta testing games before. Besides, reality sucked. But those were always video games, sitting in a room by himself and then sending an email after he’d played through. When he’d been offered this position, a beta player in the world’s first “real world” video game, for ten times the amount he had ever made, he said yes immediately. It didn’t occur to him that he wouldn’t be able to find a way back out of it.

After the noobs had been weeded out, the puzzles had become exponentially harder. The goals became more challenging. And more and more people dropped out because they got hurt.

And they had been seriously hurt. He was still nursing his shoulder injury, and that had happened nearly two months ago. There had even been some subtle rumors of people dying…brief mentions on forums and chat boards in hidden corners of the internet. But Devin couldn’t bring himself to believe it would ever get that far with him.

Someone brushed past him and sat heavily in the seat opposite. Devin ignored them and kept looking at his phone. But then he heard the quiet click of a pistol being cocked. He looked up.

It was the man from the photo.

Devin tensed up, his grip tightening on his phone. He glanced around, but no one seemed to be paying any attention. This man could shoot him right here, on this train, and no one would even notice.

“It’s about fucking time I found you,” the man said. His eyes held that intensely fierce look from the photo. Devin’s brow furrowed.

“What do you mean? What do you want?”

The man laughed. “What do I want?” He looked down at the ground for a moment. “I want a lot of things. I want to go back in time. I want to win the game. I want to shoot you in the face. I want Juniper to be on my side again.”

Devin frowned. “Who the hell is Juniper?”

The man’s eyes widened. “You really don’t remember, do you?”

Devin had one eye on the pistol in the man’s hand. He shook his head slowly.

“Early in the game,” the man said. “Maybe six months after it had started. An alliance. You, me, Roger, Quinn, and Juniper.”

Devin felt like corners of his memory were being nudged by the names, but he couldn’t recall the events they were attached to. He shrugged at the man.

“You goddamn selfish son of a bitch,” the man said, raising the muzzle of the gun a fraction.

Devin’s fists clenched.

“You know the rules,” Devin barked. “You understand how it works. We’re all trying to win. Anyone else would have done the same to you and me if given the chance.”

“No, they wouldn’t have,” the man said softly. “They didn’t.”

The memories were edging back into his mind, names connected to details. He had never met anyone else in person, of course. They were all just names scattered across the net. It had made sense to make alliances back then, before the stakes were so high that it was a liability to trust anyone else. He remembered that there had been some sort of argument, and Juniper had taken Devin’s side, and the two of them had broken up the larger alliance. Their partnership only lasted a few weeks. Eventually, you’ve got to be on your own if you want to win. This man…

“Marcus,” Devin breathed. “Juniper made her choice.”

“And you made yours,” Marcus said. He was leaned forward in his seat, a spring about to uncoil. Devin’s eyes darted around the train car. It would be a struggle for Devin to escape. He tried to keep his voice calm.

“Juniper struck out on her own soon after…after everything, anyway. And you don’t see me on aiming a pistol at someone because I couldn’t look at my own shortcomings to see how they led me to be alone in all this.”

Marcus’ voice was a manic whisper now.

“I’ve never met a more self-centered, stuck-up kid in my goddamn life. You don’t even remember these people, do you? These people who saved you, protected you? Don’t you care about anyone but yourself, you little shit?!”

Devin held one hand up. “Calm down, man. We can—”

“Fuck you!”

Devin’s other hand raised into the air in a gesture of surrender. But Marcus was still furious. Devin knew he wasn’t going to be able to talk Marcus down from this. He was remembering Marcus’ quick intelligence and even quicker temper. His inability to keep things neutral, his lack of understanding of the importance of winning. How that importance was greater than anything else. s

Devin had been glad to be rid of him. He had been glad to forget him. But now he was forced to face that mistake head on. And he had nothing. He was sore and exhausted, caught on a moving train with someone who obviously wanted to kill him. Was the game really worth all this?

Suddenly the train slowed. Passengers glanced out their windows. They weren’t anywhere near the station—there were only fields and the occasional fence. Marcus turned his gaze towards the open window. There was some buzzy-sounding announcement over a loudspeaker about a delay.

The train jolted violently. The pistol clattered to the floor. Devin leaned forward quickly and scooped it up. He aimed it at Marcus as the train grinded to a full stop.

Marcus’ eyes narrowed.

Devin said nothing. He stood up, the gun aiming at Marcus’ stomach. The crowd on the train were chattering amongst themselves, milling about, speculating about the train’s sudden halt. Devin glanced up toward the open window, the darkness outside, the possibility of escape.

“It doesn’t matter if you shoot me,” Marcus said, his eyes flashing. Devin felt his stomach clench. “There’s nowhere to go. You can’t run from this.”

“There’s always someplace to go,” Devin replied coolly, and pulled the trigger.

The blast lingered in his ears, ringing with deafening clarity as he hoisted himself out of the train window, dropping the gun as he sprinted away into the darkness. He thought he could hear the other passengers shouting, but he didn’t look back. He thought he heard Marcus’ voice, startlingly close, “You can’t run. You can’t keep running.”

Devin didn’t stop. He couldn’t stop.