It was his girlfriend's birthday and Frey, getting up as early as he could, which was somewhere around six in the morning, jumpstarted his day with a cold shower and a cold soak on a freezing tub. He doesn't usually do this--preferring the lukewarm bath in such a cold autumn morning, but today he felt himself in need of a push. A hard one, at that.
He knew the problems of a man with a girlfriend--had heard it a lot from his friends, that money was the greatest issue when dating a girl. He had enough money. The next worry he knew were the places to go to, and it wasn't his problem, either: Elise was easy enough to please, and he only need to take her to a resto with good chilies and spaghetti, and she'd be happy as the sun. No, his worry was neither. He let himself slide deeper into the tiled tub of his apartment's bathroom, heart shivering as the cold burned his body.
He made a list in his head, places where he would take her today, the first one being the eco-park two blocks from here. They'd watch the butterfly garden there, maybe pick a few mulberries from the open farm, and then he'd take her to the new café that opened in front of the mall down Naval Street a few weeks ago. Andy said the place served good carbonara, and carbonara was one of Elise's favorites. Then, after eating late lunch at the café, when the sun is well setting, they'd go to an arcade. He'll play the claw game (he was good at it, the few times he tried playing), maybe get the girl a stuffed bear or two, and they'll walk home, and that's where he hit a roadblock: he hadn't made up his mind on how he would put a ring on her finger.
He'd been through scenarios in his head, on the various way he could play it, and each one ended up leaving him exhausted and embarrassed. Should he propose to her before they go to the arcade, or after? Should he give her flowers with the ring inside the bouquet, or just give it to her on bended knees? Before he could finish pondering and freeze himself to death, he was out of the bath and was shaving his stubble and brushing his teeth. He dressed himself in a cool--but not too formal--blue button-down shirt, ironed at the ends, and black slacks. He opened his drawer and took a red velvet ring box, then shoved it in his pocket. He shouldn't think too much on how he should do it, he thought, and he walked out of the door feeling a rush of blind confidence.
He took the elevator to the fourth floor where Elise's unit was at, walked down a hallway of synthetic wooden doors and wine-red carpet, and knocked on the door at the end of the hall.
"Who's there?" grumbled a woman inside.
"Guess who?" Frey teased.
The door opened a crack. "You're too early." Elise peeked out, pouting, eyes half-closed. Her chestnut tresses were a bed-hair mess covering her face, but even then Frey found her as beautiful a woman could ever hope to be. "I'm gonna get changed."
"Will you let me in?" he asked.
"No way in hell." Elise growled, shutting the door on his face.
"Hey, it's not like I'll peek, you know. It's cold in the hallway."
Frey sighed. Sometimes he never did get Elise. He'd seen her naked before--just one time, actually, and that time it was an unavoidable situation, but the point is he'd already seen her--what was left there for her to hide from him? He shook his head, chucking it up to the woman's overall conservative nature. Why, she'd never slept with him, not once in the six years they'd been in a relationship. She told him she wanted her first to be their honeymoon, and her sentiment was very unlikely in this day and age that he thought she was a Victorian woman sent to the future.
He went out at the front of the apartment, Naval Street stretching before him, and watched people and cars pass by. Every five minutes he would glance at his digital wristwatch and stare up at the blue cold mid-autumn sky, then at the streetlights. Girls sure take forever to prepare, he thought, but if it was Elise, then waiting shouldn't be a problem for him. It's boring, though, to the degree that he found the occasional traffic jams entertaining. After what seemed like forever but was actually just thirty minutes of standing in front of the building doing nothing, he fished his pocket for his phone and opened a card game.
He was not much of a gamer: he didn't know what were the latest games, the hot stuff all males of his age talk about. The card game was his only game and it came with the phone, a simple solitaire platform, and he'd been playing it at his leisure ever since. He took a liking to the idea of a game you could play with no strings attached; when you win, you win, and you start another, and you can quit whenever you're bored or life comes back to bother you. No commitments, no 'online friends' to be disappointed in you when you start playing less--solitary, as implied by the name of the game. That, he thought, was what people of this 'social' generation needed. Less sharing and talking and telling, perhaps more silence and retrospection. Maybe he'd love the company of people more, then.
As of now, the only person whose company he truly enjoys is Elise, as she shares the same sentiment, from time to time asking him for quietness, and they'd lay hugging each other on his bed, not saying anything, but happy and strongly bonded together. Women like Elise, he imagined, are very, very hard to find, if not wholly impossible. He breathed, tore his eyes away from his phone screen, his solitary game, to look up at the sky. It was clear and blue as a clean pool that covered the Earth, and he decided he was lucky to have a girlfriend who understood him and his wants, even if she was a grump at mornings, and he'd be willing to wait for her, for the rest of his life, even if he gets bored again and again.
He glanced at his watch--forty-five minutes, since he'd gone out of the lobby into the freezing outside. There was a shriek of help, coming from deep into the narrow path between the apartment building and a tailor shop that sold hand-made woolen sweaters and suits. The scream was distant, but by no means weak: he could hear it in his ears, as loud as it would've been coming from beside him. Yet, not even one person from the crowd of hundreds passing by the building, passing by him, even took the second to look around, hold their phone calls, to find where the scream came. It half-worried and half-disgusted him to see how blind and insensitive people can be, and before he knew what he was doing, he was speeding into the dark, obscure back-alley. The cold morning air burned his lungs, but he paid his wellbeing no mind. Jumping over garbage cans and used carton boxes he plunged deeper into the back alley with the wind on his back. The surrounding got darker and darker as he ran. A corner laid ahead, and beyond the turn shone faint blue light.
Inside his head, a voice was shouting at him to turn back, to not take the turn, but it was never really a habit of him to listen to himself. He looked around for an object he could use to defend himself, if worse came to worst, which was a thin PVC pipe about two feet long. Cautiously he approached the source of the blue light. Just one step from making the turn he stopped, leaned behind a wall to breathe and think. Pulled out the cellphone from his pocket. No signal. No calling the police. Frey took a deep breath. What he would find beyond this wall might include from petty criminals like pick-pockets and addicts, to the worst kind like kidnappers and muggers.
Think. Regardless of the kind, catching criminals require police intervention. He was no police. He considered running back to the open, call the police, and let them handle this. But what if the police came a moment too late and someone dies? What does he care? That's not his problem, he's not Superman. And besides, it's been a good two minutes since he heard the shriek. The victim might already be dead. Yes, the most logical step is to call the police. He took a step back, two steps, three. Turned his back and broke into a silent sprint.
He didn't make it far. The shrill scream of a female rang out from beyond the turn, and all thoughts of fleeing inside him was flooded with the moral urgency to save. He turned around and ran. This time, there was no thinking twice as he stepped out of safety behind the corner wall. He raised his pipe, prepared to thwack whatever criminal would come at him.
He was stupid. So stupid. He realized that a moment too late.
Four meters ahead of him was the one making the shrieks. It wasn't a damsel in distress, nor was it a hardened criminal in ski mask and black leather coat. Hell, it wasn't even human. It was an octopus, only that it was at least three meters tall, and had a hundred tentacles too many, wriggling beneath its head, which was shaped like a brain, with dark red nerves pulsing beneath its translucent, slimy skin.
Frey couldn't move. Something told him he would die if he ran, but who was he kidding? He would die either way if he just stood there. He should've listened to himself. Shouldn't have tried to be a hero. There was no victim. No victim, perhaps except him. Whatever the thing was, he knew it wasn't something so kind as to spare him, nor was it something that could be killed by a flimsy pipe.
In the middle of the thing's head opened an eye as big as a football, solid yellow in color with black outstretched nerves, then a dozen smaller ones popped open around it, and it was the worst sight he had ever seen.
"Hihihihi..." an ear-grating screech vibrated from the monster.
It latched on the wall like a leech, then slowly crept toward him. Frey dropped the pipe and sprinted away from the thing.
He hadn't gotten far. Sharp pain pierced through his back and straight through his lower spinal column. His legs went numb. He couldn't feel his body from the waist down, as if his legs were severed from him. Protruding out his stomach was the tip of a tentacle, black and bulging with red veins. It wriggled like a worm, as if mocking him and his futile attempt at running. It lifted him three feet off the ground, and he yanked and thrashed and he imagined his feet would've been flailing then, if they didn't limp still, unable to be felt, much less moved. The monster pulled him in slowly, its writhing tentacles waiting for him at the end of the line. His hands were painted red with his own blood, and with each passing second his consciousness strayed farther away from the reality of the situation.
Bright blue light shone behind him. He looked over his shoulder and understood: the blue light he saw earlier was the light of the monster's eye.
"This is bullshit."
"I can't be dead!"
Some cried, some shouted, but most were like Frey: paralyzed.
He really did die. Anger, fear, anxiety and sadness all attacked him at once, and he was feeling everything at the same time, or nothing at all. He didn't know.
Airi Ohara, the Japanese girl, stood a few meters ahead, and in his eyes she stood out among the crowd of youth as the only one who didn't seem daunted, surprised, in any way at all, about the situation's development. Victorina spoke again, gathering attention. "I know how all of you feel; you are children, with so many great things left undone, so much love left unsaid. For the curtains of life to draw on you so soon, I know not of a greater anguish." angry shouts became weak whispers before the woman's voice, cries turning to sobs as quick as the turn of a leaf, a calm, soothing melody, sweeping over the crowd as if her words were anesthesia to their sorrow.
Even Frey found Victorina's voice a calming salve, but it couldn't heat the cold he felt, like the cold of becoming a corpse, and the woman's spell just sat on the surface, unable to penetrate the murky depths of emotions ebbing and flowing in monotony in his gut.
He was dead. As far as the world was concerned, Frey Alcott was dead, a hole in his stomach, body bathing in the pool of his own blood, in a back alley along Naval Street, or not; maybe the monster--whatever the hell it was--had eaten him whole, then Frey Alcott had simply gone missing, one cold autumn morning, and Elise, she might be looking for him now, knocking on his door, checking with the security, calling the cops, and she'd never find him.
"However, all is not lost." Victorina smiled, a gentle, sweet smile, the reassuring smile of a surgeon before an operation, or the confident smile of a lawyer before a defense. "The gods have brought you here, all one-hundred-sixty of you, for the chance to live again. Redemption, how does that sound?"
All eyes were on her then, and she paced around the stage, like a beautiful actress addressing the audience. "That said, a second life is not without a cost. You must prove yourself worthy of such a sacred gift, and you can only prove it by playing." she paused, sneaking another glance at Frey.
"That's right, you're going to play a game. One hundred and sixty Players, all of you, but only one should win. To be that one, the other one hundred and fifty-nine Players should be eliminated."
"Eliminated." Frey had a bad feeling, as if everything could get any worse. Victorina breathed on her palm, her breath a gust of blue stardust that swirled and spun above her palm, forming a galaxy of blue specks, before imploding, and materializing, into an orb of green and blue and yellow, a representation of a planet like Earth in color and vibrance, and it floated on her palm like hologram.
"Your game is set in Eideleir, a place of gods and monsters as well a place for humans. Each Player will be in a borrowed body, and is eliminated when his or her body ceases all life function. Put simply, dead." this earned more than a few cries of indignation from the youth, now appropriately called Players, and Victorina waited for the noise to die down before speaking again.
"To eliminate other Players and achieve the main objective of the game, each will be given the appropriate tools, at the start of the game."
Frey was lost. He had some idea about what the black-gowned woman was saying, although he kept wishing he was wrong. Killing others for the sake of living again? It sounded stupid. And sickening. To think that someone, or something out there, would think of something so atrocious and call it a mere "game". And yet, it was the way out he needed. It was the way for him to bring back his life, to see Elise's smile again. He clenched his fists and looked up at Victorina. She met his eyes, and she winked at him, a slow, playful wink, and he understood.
The ground at their feet began to vibrate, and then crumble, cracks running like electricity through stone, breaking the floor in chunks and pieces, before it collapsed, and Frey closed his eyes.
He was falling. His eyes were still shut. Elise smiled at him from above, and as he fell farther and farther down the endless black pit the face of his love became smaller, and smaller, until all he could see was black.
"Wait for me." he muttered softly.
He knew what he needed to do. He understood it was evil, and selfish, but what choice did he have? If it was for Elise, then, even if he had to eliminate a hundred people, he'll do it. He must do it.
Frey woke up in the middle of nowhere, which was a rainforest of ancient trees and thick shrubs and overgrowth. At his feet was a wooden chest, square, measuring one foot on all sides. Carved on the back of his right hand was a tattoo, of a sword encircled by two crescents on both side.
He sat up, nausea in his motion. The sun was high in the sky, but the roof of leaves above him filtered the harsh sunlight. He inspected the chest, first looking at it, searching for openings, or locks. There were no visible locks, but the moment he touched its wooden surface something inside clicked, and the chest lid sprung open. Inside was a bracer of some sort, or an arm guard, made almost entirely of shiny steel. A blue rhombus gem was embedded into the arm guard's surface, and inside the gem sea-green-colored dusts swirled like a galaxy in a universe of blue.
Along with the arm guard was a green booklet, a little like the student handbook the school issued him when he was still in college, and it contained brief and trivial info about the school, and gave short description of the courses available. Frey opened the booklet, expecting a guide of some sort, like the student handbook, but it was empty. Then the first page caught on fire and he dropped the booklet on the ground. There was something funny with the way it burned: first, the flames didn't spread to the dead and well-dried leaves around it and second, letters were forming on the page, written with the black color of burnt parchment, and when it was done writing the flames died, snuffed-out.
Cautiously, perhaps a little spooked out, Frey picked up the book, and the first page that should've been empty, read: