Airi Ohara peeked from behind the bushes. Her unfortunate target stood in the middle of the arbor, looking around nervously, scanning the foliage and tangled roots--searching for her.
He was perhaps, in his late teenage years, but she could be wrong. He could've easily been twenty, or twenty-one, who knew? But, whatever his exact age was, Airi's sure he wasn't more than thirty, or even twenty-five. From her observation back in the Purgatory, all the players were young, more or less her age of 19. That couldn't have been a coincidence--the entity that identified itself as Victorina, said so: they all died young. Not Airi, though--she didn't die. At the very least, not in the usual sense of death.
Her target wore white shirt under an expensive black coat, that had lost its charm due to the dirt smeared all over its silky surface. His brunet hair was combed up and gelled, with a menacing, condescending grin that completed his picture as a filthy rich bastard's son. Vain, Airi mused, in every sense of the word. He won't last long. The sword the boy held was 60 centimeters long--short for a broadsword, but was light enough for fast swings and parry. The mark on his right hand beamed strongly of sea green, as bright as her mark would've been if she hadn't wrapped her right hand with a strip of black linen she tore from the hem of her skirt.
"I know where you are, little prick." the Player muttered, cutting with a swing the hanging vines that got in his way. "I can feel you." he closed in, a smug smile plastered on his face. He flailed his sword as he walked, trimming shrubs on his way.
"Idiot." Airi couldn't help but murmur. She felt the ground for an arrow without taking her eyes off her target. She knocked the arrow on her bow, and she drew.
Her bow was something she made out of a curved twig she chopped off a shrub, and a string she fashioned out of fibrous vines she found hanging down from an ancient tree. The bow was a bit too rigid, and the force needed to draw it was tremendous, but that's to be expected: She was in a different world, and used materials she was not familiar of. She couldn't hope to get the perfect quality in such a bare environment without the proper tools.
He turned her way and smiled even wider, thinking he got her.
"Come out, 'ya scared bastard. Or did your momma teach you to hide like a sewer rat?" the boy mocked.
Airi's aim was still trained on him. With a breath, her sleek fingers let go of the bowstring. The arrow flew forth with an inaudible whistle, bursting through leaves and grass that were her cover. It settled into the boy's heart with pin-point accuracy. He fell to his knees, clutching the arrow on his chest.
Airi walked up to the boy, who then laid on the ground, writhing in pain as blood came out of his mouth. His swimming eyes followed Airi, who pulled something out of her ankle-high rubber boots. A dagger, with a curved blade about six inches long. It had the color of obsidian, its black sheen a flash of the death that was about to come.
"Y-you..." the boy hacked.
"I'm sorry." Airi closed her eyes and bowed to him, before bringing down the dagger upon his stomach. The obsidian-black dagger lit, its cutting edge glowing purple, and she felt energy surge from the grip of the blade, through her veins: a warm, intoxicating juice that made her cognition faster, the world around her turn slower, ever so slightly. Power surged through her muscles, making her stronger, faster. At the other end of the dagger was the boy becoming paler, colder, withering into a ghost of his former youth and vitality.
His breathing stilled. The light of both their marks faded. She pulled her booklet from the hidden pocket inside her skirt and opened it.
She turned to the next page, and it caught on fire just like the last one, writing in trails of carbon across the parchment:
Player 86 - Eliminated
She closed the booklet and kneeled beside the boy, whose name she didn't know. Whose name she didn't have to know.
The boy was stark-white, with not a hint of a rosy glow all new corpses had, for a brief moment after death. He was frail, a skeleton covered in thin, crumbling skin, and he looked as though he would disintegrate with a touch.
She shook her head--she can't afford to feel remorse. Not now, not ever. Remorse means death in this world, in this game.
The game had just begun, and she claimed its first victim.
Airi clutched her booklet and looked up at the blue sky beyond the tree leaves. It was no different from Earth's morning sky. Earth. She have to go back. Soon.
She opened her book on the second page, where Player 86's elimination was reported, and traced the words with her fingers. The paper felt rough under her fingers, the text even rougher.
158 Players to go.
The small confines of the cabin was saturated with green, by the mark on Frey's hand and the man's. The light of their marks kept trying to outshine each other, so much that the sunlight from outside was lost as soon as it poured in through the open door.
The two Players stood on opposite corners of the room, with Frey looking as confused as he was shocked.
"Generation. What do you mean by that?" Frey closed the door behind him. The man turned his attention back to the two cloth bags he brought in. One bag, he assumed from the black apple-shaped fruits peeking out of it, were full of food. The other bag had swords, clothing and various tools mixed in. The man started by pulling out equipment out of the second bag, which were a pair of leather gloves and a roll of what seemed like cloth bandage.
"It's exactly what it sounds like. Catch." The man tossed the gloves and the roll of bandage his way. Frey caught them with both hands.
"What am I supposed to do with these?"
"Wrap your right hand with the bandage then put the gloves on. Or would you rather have your hand's back glow all day like you're some walking lantern?"
He did as he was told. He wrapped his right hand in bandages. However, some of the green light still escaped from underneath the layers of cloth, albeit muted. He then slipped his hands into the leather gloves, which was a perfect fit for his bandaged hand, but a lousy fit to his other. It took care of his mark, but the man's mark still burned with intense Turquoise light.
"What about your mark?" Frey asked the man.
"This?" the man caressed the back of his hand with his fingers. "This is actually called Victorina's Symbol, or the Death Goddess' Crest. We call it the Bitch's Cross."
"That's misogynistic. I'll stick to calling it a mark."
"Anyway, I don't have to cover my hand like you do. My Cross is a bit... special."
The man smiled a devious smile, and it didn't take a genius to know he deliberately kept Frey hanging. Within seconds, the light of the man's mark began to weaken, until it went back to looking like a normal tattoo. Only then did Frey notice something different about the man's mark. If Frey's mark was a normal sword within two enclosing crescents, the man's was an arrowhead inside a full circle.
"Your mark is different." he concurred.
"Mine's an evolved one. At the start of the game all the players get the same mark as you, the standard Bitch's Cross. But after three months, give or take, considering you have grown accustomed to fighting, you'll start to notice change in the behavior of your Cross, or "mark", as you want to call it. My generation calls it Evolution, though, it's not really the official term for it, I'd wager.
"The end product of Evolution differs from each Player. You can say that each Player will have a unique mark, although there's no hard evidence to that yet since I haven't met enough Players to say for sure, and most I have met are already dead so there's no asking them."
"So," Frey eyed the man's mark like it was a fascinating gem. "Your mark, what does it do?"
"Mine's called the Assassin Sigil. I can turn its light on and off with only a thought."
"I can't see how that's useful... aside from the convenience of not having to wear gloves."
"It's well damn useful." the man retorted. "You don't underestimate the Cross' light, let alone the ability to switch it on and off." he sat on the floor, his back straight, feet folded beneath him. "Gonna sit?" he asked Frey.
Frey sat on the wooden floor, not taking his eyes off the man. The planks creaked quietly as he crossed his legs to a clumsy Indian seat.
The man breathed in, wiped the sweat off his forehead and temples, and he started. "A Cross is more than just a fancy proximity sensor. It's hard to explain the theory in a few words, but think of it like a signal emitter, that is also a receiver, at the same time. When two players get within certain distance from each other, say, 30 meters apart as the crow flies, both their marks start to glow. Now this glow, isn't just a candle saying, "Hey I'm here, come at me" no. You'll see what I mean." the middle-aged Player caressed the black arrowhead at the back of his right hand, and it lit, slowly filling up with blue-emerald light. The rays started faint, growing brighter, denser, until he could see white glare streaking in between the green and azure beams.
"Now, take off your gloves."
Frey did, pulling the leather gloves off given to him by the man first. His hand was covered in bandages like a mummy, but there was a hint of green light coming from underneath the cloth. He was compelled to look at the faint trace of light, like gravity pulling his focus toward the mark on the back of his hand. The harder he stared at the diffused glow his mark was giving, the more he started to feel weird: he began feeling himself sitting, not in the way he sat with his legs crossed, but were instead folded beneath him. Another set of heartbeat overlapped with his, although much weaker, and he felt as though he was breathing for two people. The man smiled, and he felt his lips curve the same way, although he knew it wasn't him who was smiling, but the man, the same way he felt the man's walk earlier.
"The light of your mark, when it registers to your eyes, transmits to you the faintest feeling of what the other Player is doing. Now, try putting the gloves back on."
Frey slipped the glove back on. His senses went back to normal.
"So, now that my hand is covered,"
"Now that your hand is covered, it still glows, you can't just see it. But, because you can't see any light from it, the link is severed, you don't gain information of the enemy. The principle is complicated, but, if your mark is covered considerably, it's also unable to broadcast your feed to the enemy."
Frey nodded, getting the gist of things. "Like a data exchange between two linked computers, only with lights as signals and eyes as receivers, right."
"You're a quick one to catch on, kid."
"I'm already 20." Frey's eyes narrowed into slits.
"But," and his rebuttal was ignored. "You can still see the light of your enemy, assuming he's not also covering his hand. You'll know he's a Player, but he won't know you are."
"Useful," concurred Frey.
"Useful. This game isn't played with just raw strength, you'll see. This game will test everything you are, use every skill you have, exploit the most fundamental of weaknesses inside you. That Cross you have on your right hand, it's just one of the tools you would need to survive this game." The man looked down, at the back of his own right hand. For a second Frey saw the shadow of a grimace on his face, that went as soon as it appeared.
"You... know a lot about this game." he stared straight at the man's eyes. He intrigued Frey. There were too many things Victorina didn't tell them, things that this man knew, and was sharing with him so openly, and the reason bugged him. Was the man doing it out of good will? Or was it pity? What, if there was anything, was the man expecting he'd do in return for this gesture? He had to know. "Just how long have you been here, in this world, playing this game?"
The man scratched his head, heaved an irritated sigh. "Brings us back to the original topic, eh? Well..." he paused, looking over at Frey, staring at his face as he looked for the right words. "Let's just say that, I'm from another Game. The last Game. Yes, you kids aren't the first ones to play it. This game has been going on for I don't know, maybe millions of years now? It's run by gods, see."
"Yeah, like that bitch. She's a goddess, y'know. The goddess of death around here, something like that. So, every twenty years--in this world, anyway--a new game is started. And I can see it doesn't care whether the last game had ended or not, seeing you're here. Where you from?"
"A Brit, I see. The last Brit I saw wanted to flay me alive--it was fifteen years ago, if memory serves me right. Call me Shin, from the Land of the Rising Sun."
Frey looked up the ceiling, digging his brain for a country with that title, when Shin interrupted him, "It's Japan."
"Ah." Frey knew that. He had simply... forgotten, as temporarily he had forgotten everything earthly.
"So, you were asking how long I've been playing this game? I'd say twenty years is about right." Shin said, with ironic nonchalance.
"That long?" he asked, and he wondered if he'd be trapped in this world as long as the man in front of him had been.
"Our game has... stagnated, I should say. There's only four of us left but, damn, what a pain the others are. One had become a king of a giant empire, the other a leader of some cult and the last, well, became a blacksmith. They've really settled here. Enough about that--how about I train you?"
"... Train me?" Frey asked, confused.
"Yeah. I've seen kids like you. The lanky, pathetic type who had never played outdoors. This world gobbled them up for breakfast and pretty soon, too."
Frey wanted to hit the man, although he wasn't exactly wrong--he was pathetic. He fell for a nasty trap trying to be a hero and he ended up dying because he couldn't run fast enough. And, even though he knew no human was fast enough to outrun such monster, the fact that he couldn't do anything about it still infuriated him.
"How are you going to train me?" asked Frey, one brow raised.
The man snickered, showing a toothed grin. "I'll teach you the sacred art of keeping your head intact."
"That's handy." he replied.
"And also how the game works. That lesson about the Cross was the free trial."
Frey took in air, and exhaled--a sigh with only nose involved. "What's the catch?" he asked, and it was not his first time asking the question. His father--although the man that had produced him could barely be called such, absent as he was in Frey's life--thought him one important thing, if not much else, and it was that there's no such thing as free lunch. Any man, woman, or otherwise, living in a world of loan sharks and bankruptcy and corporations, and whose only real currency is their time, would give none of it willingly without expecting equal or greater return, consciously or by instinct. Whether it was for bought affection, or bought happiness, or boot-lick approval, people would expect something, anything, than none.
The man's grin grew wider, more menacing. A living testament to his father's lesson. "Hmmmm. There are actually two things I want from you." Shin said, playing with his stubble. "One, is you have to win your game."
Easier said than done, Frey thought as he studied Shin's face. Shin looked like a goofy, conniving uncle with his smile, and Frey thought he was joking, but he wasn't.
Frey gulped. "And the other?"
"The second... Why don't we talk about this over lunch?"