When I opened my eyes I was in the middle of a crowd. Red was nowhere to be seen and a loud, nervous, murmuring filled the air. The strangest thing was that all my wounds were healed and I felt much better than before.
“Where’s my son! Jonathan?! Jonathan!” An aggressive man with grey-haired moved through the crowd without care for who he pushed past.
It was the same wherever you look, everyone seemed to be searching for someone they knew.
“We’re in Purgatory!” A man yelled and the crowd went quiet. “Don’t you all get it?! Wretched demons have risen out of hell to harvest the unworthy! Our souls are being tested in order to see if we're worthy of salvation! Pray with me! Repent now and hope to find salvation!” He shouted fervently sending spit everywhere.
After his short outburst, he knelt on the ground and began praying. A few traumatized people seemed convinced and followed right after him causing a sort of ripple effect with more and more people prostrating themselves to pray. I understand why they would do it so easily since this was clearly an apocalypse.
I took this time to examine our location and saw a destroyed skyline of buildings that were shaped weirdly. Several dark spiral towers could be barely seen in the distance, nearly hidden by wrecked buildings. We were in a city of some sort. I remember the notice telling me that it was called the “Broken City,” a name I found quite fitting.
The crowd was gathered somewhere within a small park or square in the city but there were less than two thousand people gathered at the most. It was impossible to count from where I stood.
“I’m afraid you’re somewhat mistaken.” A loud voice broke up the prayer circle and drew everyone’s attention, including mine.
“What the hell?” I watched in pure shock as a floating rock hovered toward us. If someone recorded a video right now it would be praised for its realistic special effects but the rock in front of us was no doubt real.
Atop it was a man whose face, arms, and legs were covered in old bandages while a dingy brown coat hid the rest of his body. A single eye and a pair of dried lips were the only features revealed on his bandaged face. A single rotten eye that had more in common with the eyes of a dead fish.
The rock lowered itself right in the middle of us causing people to move out the way. It was then that I was able to notice a golden brooch on his coat. I squinted my eyes and since he was close to us I could see that it depicted two scales and an olive branch.
“This is no hell or purgatory, though it may feel like. At this moment, in this place, you are indeed alive. Now, as far as being tested...Kekekeke.” He trailed off with an eerie laugh as his still eye remained unblinking and unmoving. His lips peeled back exposing yellow teeth that held an unnatural sharpness to them.
“Where’s my son?!” The disgruntled man from earlier yelled out causing the bandaged man to stop his laughing abruptly.
“I realize you may have questions and I have answers, but questions such as those cannot be answered with compensation. And you do not have nearly enough to ask so I’d ask you to remain silent.”
I was sure he was talking about black coins since it was the only form of currency we received all this time. I remained silent with my theory since I couldn’t bring myself to speak to him. His smile seemed...off. It was like he was waiting for something to happen and it made me want no part of it.
“Tell where my son is?!” The man shouted once more and the mummy-like man snapped his head toward him before slowly reaching in his coat with rigged movements.
“It appears that you all do not understand your predicament.” When he finished speaking he pulled out a shrunken head that rested on his palm with sewn eyes and lips.
“Go.” He ordered and the shrunken head burst to life. It’s eyes caught on fire and it mouthed opened wide as it giggled ominously before rushing toward the man who was looking for his son. As it closed in, it’s jaw stretched to unreal proportions and it bit down on the man’s head before he could even react.
I felt sick to my stomach as I watched his body fall to the ground lifelessly. Blood gushed out of his neck until it slowed, spilling to the ground in small amounts. Realization set in and screams filled the air while people scrambled backward. I couldn't even move as fear filled my bones. I didn't want to make myself a target for the bandaged man so I just stayed still.
“Quiet!” The bandaged man barked in a monstrous voice. The screams turned into silent whimpers.
He cleared his throat and stretched out his palm causing the shrunken head to return to him. It landed in his hand and opened its mouth, spitting out a similarly-sized shrunken head that had comparatively fresher skin.
“Now, I’ll assume that you all understand the consequences of disruptions and will allow me to continue.” His voice went back to its normal, dry and harsh tone.
“The few of you who are smarter than your peers may have realized the truth but for those who haven’t let me explain. The entire human race has been selected to participate in a series of trials to deem whether or not you’re worthy of...continued existence. Of course, the trials have been altered for fairness so those who are deemed too young or too old won’t be involved in the trials.”
Someone raised their hand and the bandaged man seemed satisfied, pointing to the person.
“If they aren’t participating are they dead?” I could now see it was a woman who asked the question.
“No, they’re with the Caretakers. You’ll find out who those are at some point so fret not. And while I appreciate that you raised your hand, I ask that you wait until the end for your questions.” The bandaged man sported a creepy smile. “Now, I’ll explain to you my role in this. At some point, you should have received a certain number of black coins during or after the completion of the trial. Those coins can be used to purchase certain goods or services. I serve merely as someone who oversees the transactions.”
He continued on. “Now, while outside the trials, any actions that would be considered a harsh crime in your normal lives is not allowed in the Broken City. I’d strongly advise that you don’t attempt to break the law lest you draw unwanted attention from the Lawbringers. Once again, you’ll most likely get acquainted with them very soon as I know you humans can’t resist doing things you ought not to.”
“Moving on, it’s time to tell you about the Broken City, your new home. There are five neutral zones around the city where you can make purchases and find housing. Outside those neutral zones are various hostile entities and killing them will earn you black coins. Exploring locations outside of the neutral zone will give you the highest rewards but they are not without their own dangers. In addition, there are also non-hostile entities within the city and certain interactions with them will allow you to earn black coins or items that couldn't otherwise be purchased. I think that about sums that part up.” The bandaged man looked around to make sure everyone heard him properly and then spoke once more.
“Finally, I’ll inform you of the most important aspect of the trial and that is receiving a sponsor. A sponsor can periodically give you black coins with no effort on your part. You’ll also receive a discount on things you purchase for as long as your sponsor keeps you as their selected. Higher ranked sponsors can also give you special items that only they possess. You should all aspire to be selected by a sponsor but know that it’s not without its dangers. Certain sponsors are in conflict with each other and may force you to take part in those conflicts. These...sponsors...are very powerful so you shouldn’t be surprised if you’re given some impossible task to complete as they would have very high expectations and an image to uphold. You may also find yourself a target so be aware that a sponsor’s assistance only stretches so far.” The man spoke carefully when mentioning the sponsors. He seemed to even be cautious toward them.
Tension left my body and my mind began to race. Could I use that cautiousness to gain something? The only way to find out would be to probe further.
“Any questions?” He added.
“Do sponsors have names?” I asked while raising my hand. I didn't want to be too direct and run the risk of upsetting him so I asked a basic question.
“Yes, some sponsors go under different aliases while others will reveal their names outright. There are also the rare cases where certain sponsors can’t reveal their names because they can cause insanity if read or pronounced incorrectly.”
“Can you have multiple sponsors?” I asked again while I had his attention.
The man sounded annoyed but I made a gamble and decided to continue.
“No. You cannot. High-ranked sponsors can select multiple people but you will never be able to have multiple sponsors. Any other questions?” The man searched through the crowd and their were obviously hands raised but I skipped over everyone and spoke again.
“What happens if a sponsor requests a meeting?” I asked.
The bandaged man was about to reach into his coat when his hand stopped and his body shook. Good thing too because I was only a second away from begging for forgiveness if he produced another shrunken head. “You...how did you know that it was possible for a sponsor to request a meeting”
He sent me a look of scrutiny before drawing a magnifying glass with a carved wooden handle and looking through it.
“You’re not someone pretending to be a human,” He mumbled just loud enough for everyone to hear before putting his magnifying glass away.
“So that means you have a sponsor which isn’t unexpected since a few hundred people in this city should be sponsored by now...but the only sponsors who can request meetings are the highest ones. Hey, kid, what’s your sponsor’s name?” His tone became polite and he showed a noticeably less hostile grin when looking at me.
He almost seemed like a different person entirely.
I could also feel the heated gazes of those around me and since no one spoke up I guessed I was the only one in the crowd of a thousand or so people who had a sponsor. But I couldn’t be sure, someone else could be waiting for me to reveal information about my sponsor and target me.
“Do I have to tell you? You said that some sponsors are at odds with each other and giving out information like that would put me at risk, right?” I held back my nervousness and put on a facade of confidence.
“No, I can’t force you to tell me. But if I can guarantee your privacy in the matter would you be willing to? I’ll also compensate for sharing the information with me.” The bandaged man seemed a bit desperate to know and I didn’t want to go overboard and make demands without knowing what would happen so I nodded in agreement.
“Good.” The bandaged man went into his coat and retrieved a ring before tossing it to me.
Weirdly enough, the ring floated through the air and stopped in front of me and once I raised my hand it slid onto my pinky finger.
‘Can you hear me?’
‘Y-Yes.’ I was flustered by the unexpected voice in my head. I could immediately see how useful the ring would be. It was like a cellphone but far better and if a technology was introduced that replicated its effects was introduced it would changed the world.
‘Ah, then would you like to tell me the name of your sponsor. I will warn you ahead of time that lying about the name of your sponsor won’t end well for you. Certain sponsor’s take offense to actions so act carefully until you understand their nature.’
‘I understand, thank you for the advice...My sponsor’s name is Spectator One.’
‘...’ The bandaged man didn’t respond to me.
I looked at him closely and he seemed to be completely shaken. His decaying looking bloodshot eye showed signs of life as it slightly trembled.
‘Is there something important about my sponsor?’ I asked and the bandaged man was shocked back to life.
‘I can’t divulge that information but you’re either extremely lucky or extremely unfortunate. I'd be willing to bet it's the latter.’ The bandaged man snapped his finger and the ring slipped off of my pinky and returned to him.
“For your troubles.” A black dart shot into my wrist and when I looked my black coins increased from 67 to 117.
My eyes widened at that number but I quickly hid the amount with a single thought. I only earned 17 from completing the trial and stealing some from the others. 30 came from me burning down the entire apartment and another 20 came from my sponsor, Spectator One. It appeared that my information was worth 50 coins and that was the highest amount I received at once since this entire thing began.
While the bandaged man started answering other questions, my head was spinning. I had to wonder if the danger of having a high-ranked sponsor outweighed the gains. Without seeing the costs of the things we could buy, I couldn’t say for sure but the additional coins definitely seemed useful. I also didn’t know if I could remove my sponsored status without facing repercussion but based on what the man said it wasn’t likely. If I had a prideful sponsor, I’d be in trouble as soon as I got rid of them. I wouldn’t be surprised if it ended with someone else being sponsored and tasked with killing me.
While I thought about it, the presence of sponsors also seemed a bit strange. Outside items were removed to ensure fairness and certain ages were barred from participating but sponsors broke any balance of the trials especially since they were separated into different levels. So did that mean that sponsors were the ones responsible for the trials? If that was true why would they have different ranks since it meant that they all weren't on the same level? And my sponsor’s name was a clue. “Spectator One” implied that they were the first observer and with how the bandaged man reacted it supported my theory. I couldn’t figure an exact answer but I calmed down when realizing I at least knew more than what I started with.
“What do we call you?” A man’s question redirected my attention.
“Representative Twelve Thousand Two Hundred Forty-Three. Of course, Twelve K or Twelve Grand is also accepted,” He said.
“Now, I’ve answered the most common questions, it’s time for you to enter the safe zone.” He went into his coat again and took out a clay miniature of a cabin. He crushed it in his hands and then scattered it in front of him causing the ground to shake.
Three large buildings rose from the ground around us with a fence enclosing all of them. One looked like a shabby motel you would pass on the road without a second thought. The other building looked like a convenience store that was close to being run down. And the last appeared to a be small directory booth with a map posted in front of it
“Don’t let the size of the buildings fool you, the inn, or motel as you humans like to call it, is big enough to fit all of you so make yourself at home.”
With those words I immediately headed for the motel.
“Hey! Do you want to work together?” A young guy tried to approach me but I coldly brushed him off.
“No,” I answered while speeding up my stride.
“Wait! We can help each other!”
“Please, let me join you.”
“Hold on, kid. Don’t you think you’re being a little selfish?”
People gave different excuses or spoke different words but I know they wanted to take advantage of my sponsored status. Since the law couldn’t be broken and no one would do it so blatantly in front of 12k, I didn’t have anything to fear. But I still didn’t want to deal with them after what I just went through. I went to the main lobby and I found myself speechless once again. Just as 12k said, the inside was a massive hall with expensive looking chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. The carpets looked imported and even the furniture on display seemed to cost more than I could hope to make in my life.
"Over here, Sir." At the desk was a deathly pale man. His hair stuck to his head with what seemed like an unnecessary amount of gel as it shined from the light above. His mustache was also curled in a peculiar way. Looking at his entire outfit, he seemed to have stepped out from the 1800's. A white shirt, red ascot, and embroidered red and black vest.
"...Can I have a room?"
"Why certainly," He spoke warmly enough but his eyes remained shut and his face seemed to be stuck in a permanent grin.
Were his lips even moving? His strange mustache obscured his lips so I couldn't tell. The longer I looked the more my spine began to shiver.
"Oh, sorry," I mumbled awkwardly.
"There's no issue, Sir. Due to your sponsored status, you are entitled to our best rooms, the finest meals, and a discount to top it off."
"How much will it be?" I asked cautiously.
"One coin a night, Sir. Those without sponsors will most likely spend three coins a night if you wanted to compare."
"Oh...Then I'll have a room for one night," I raised my wrist and a black coin fell onto the table.
"Certainly." The attendant's face seemed to become even brighter once he received the coin. "Here's your room key, if you need me to show you there please let me know."
"I'm fine, thank you."
"Well, someone will come by shortly in order to listen to any dinner requests. You must be famished after a long day."
"Ok." I took the key and headed toward an elevator just as people started to pour in, shouting in awe at the interior of the "motel".
As I entered the elevator, the attendant's expression warped into one of repulsion as he looked at the people entering.
"Line up and have your coins ready."
The last thing I heard him say before the doors closed. His voice was practically dripping with venom and I became a bit more thankful for my sponsored status.