CHAPTER 1: A NEW BEGINNING
I fell, tumbling over and over through a seemingly endless void of darkness. My eyes stared out, but I saw nothing. My mouth was open, and my throat was raw and scraped. It felt as if I had been screaming for hours. Yet I heard nothing.
Even worse, I remembered nothing.
No, that wasn’t quite true. I knew my name. I’m Michael, I thought. I knew nothing else. Not where I lived. Not how old I was. Not where I was from, or even how I came to be falling through a void of nothingness.
But I knew who I was.
I’m Michael, I repeated. It seemed a nearly negligible tidbit of knowledge, yet it gave me a measure of comfort, and I clung to it as I plummeted downwards.
Hours passed, if not days, or weeks.
I kept falling.
And kept screaming.
Eventually, it proved too much for my overwrought mind, and oblivion beckoned. Gratefully, I surrendered myself to unconsciousness, and waited for it all to end.
Hands shook at me. “Wake up, boy. Don’t keep the Master waiting.”
I groaned. My body was riddled with pain. Not an inch of me felt free of aches and bruises, and I wanted nothing more than to return to the sweet nothingness of sleep. Shrugging away from the interloper’s reaching touch, I rolled over. Escaping his attention was not so easy however.
He tugged at me again. Stubbornly, I ignored him. That proved to be a poor decision. A brutal kick to my midriff followed and my world went white with agony. Involuntarily, I curled up in a ball. Vicious bastard, I swore.
“Easy Stayne,” someone else said. “I may have need of him yet.” The words were mildly spoken, yet the timbre of command in the speaker’s voice was unmistakable.
“Sorry, Master,” Stayne said. “I’ll be more careful, promise.”
The pain in my center eased slightly, and I forced my eyes open. I was on the ground; the bare earth covered with only loose bits of rock and shale. My gaze drifted upwards. A dome of white light about twelve feet across surrounded me, but beyond that was only pitch black. The darkness was unrelieved by the slightest detail and gave no hint of what lay within it.
I shivered as the memory of falling came rushing back.
My eyes darted back to the hard ground. It seemed that my plunge through the void had finally come to an end. No wonder my body feels like one big mass of bruises. But then again, if I had fallen anywhere near as far as I suspected, it was a miracle I was even alive.
Where am I?
I still didn’t remember how I came to be wherever I was, or any more of myself other than my name. Time enough to deal with the mystery later, Michael, I told myself. Right now, you have other matters to attend to.
I rolled onto my back again, and found the two who had disturbed my sleep watching me intently. At the sight of the pair, a ripple of fear shuddered through my body. Both figures were disturbingly unnatural.
The Master… floated. My gaze flicked from his robed form to his booted heels hovering nearly a foot above the ground. My eyes widened at the sight. Still, it was not the only startling aspect of the man. What was equally disturbing was the Master’s size.
He was at least nine-feet-tall.
I gulped and turned my gaze to the second figure, Stayne. My appetite for amazement had been sated, so I barely blinked as I took in his bleached-white bones. He is a bloody skeleton. A walking, talking skeleton. What the hell is going on here? I paused, struck by a ludicrous thought.
Is this… hell? I certainly seemed to have fallen enough. I chuckled grimly. Maybe it is, and maybe I deserve to be here.
“What are you cackling at human?” Stayne asked suspiciously. His empty orbs pulsed an ominous red. “You find all this funny?” He took a threatening step forward.
I scrambled backwards and out of his reach. Now, now, Michael, I chided myself. Wherever you are, you are in enough trouble already. Let’s try not to ruffle the natives' feathers anymore, shall we?
“Enough Stayne,” the Master snapped. “Help the boy up.”
The skeleton hung his head sheepishly and lowered the weapon in his bony hands. It was a double-bladed axe and I hadn’t even noticed him draw the bloody thing. My eyes narrowed as I stared at the weapon. The axe head was formed from an obsidian metallic substance that I didn’t recognize.
Stayne stepped forward again. This time I didn’t back away and only watched warily as he stuck out his arm. Cautiously, I took the offered hand and the skeleton heaved me to my feet.
I tottered slightly, wincing as new aches made themselves known, before regaining my balance. Standing beside the skeleton, I immediately noticed our disparity in height. Stayne loomed over me. I judged his height to be around six-feet, which would put my own height at just under five and a half feet.
So, I’m short, I thought. I stared down at my pale brown arms. They lacked any muscle definition. And thin.
“That’s better,” the Master said. I still couldn’t see his face. His voluminous black robe covered him from head to toe. Only his steel-clad boots and leather gloves were visible.
“Welcome, Michael,” the Master said.
My head jerked involuntarily at that. “You know who I am?” I asked hopefully.
The Master shook his head. “No, Michael. I do not. Your memories were wiped when you were brought here. Only your name remains. You are a blank slate and free to write your story anew in whatever fashion you wish.”
“Brought here?” I asked sharply, dissatisfied by his response. “Who brought me here? You?”
“Watch your tone, boy,” Stayne growled.
The Master waved his servant to silence. “No, it was not me. I do not have the power to perform such a feat. Yet.” He paused. “It was the cosmos.”
At my blank look, the Master continued, “Still your thoughts and focus your attention inwards. Make of your mind a still and waiting pool, and perhaps things will become clearer.”
I stared at the so-called Master in consternation, wondering if I should do as he bade. Focus my attention inwards? How was that going to help? My gaze darted from the Master to Stayne. Both were watching me expectantly.
Just how crazy were these two? And me as well for contemplating doing what the Master asked. Still, it didn’t look like I was going to get answers any other way. And besides, what could it hurt to try?
With a sigh, I closed my eyes and did my best to quiet my mind. A second passed. Then another. Nothing happened. “This is ridiculous,” I said, feeling foolish. “Nothing is—”
I broke off as a strange and wholly unnatural sensation rippled through me. Something—a foreign entity? an unfathomable consciousness?—entered my mind, and words spilled across it.
Welcome to the Forever Kingdom, Michael.
You have been brought to this realm by the Forces of Light, Dark, and Shadow to participate in the Grand Game. Through your own deeds and actions in your past life, you have merited a place as a player in the Game.
Rest assured, you made the choice to enter the Forever Kingdom willingly. To preserve your sanity and to allow you to forge your destiny afresh and unburdened by your past, your memories have been wiped clean.
Good luck and may fortune favor your Game!
My jaw dropped open and for long moments my mouth worked soundlessly. “What was that?” I finally managed to ask.
The Master laughed and even Stayne seemed to share in the amusement, snickering loudly.
“That, Michael,” the Master said, “was the Adjudicator. And you, my dear boy, are the Game’s newest participant.”