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Tom looked at the obstacles ahead of him in this strange place he was stuck in. He had his choice of rickety rope bridges to reach the distant, tall square platform where the hooded guy watched. One had some obvious fraying cords on the near side that'd collapse, forcing him to run and climb or have a serious fall. The second was just one rope below and one overhead. The third? Boards across two ropes, with a handhold cord, but the boards looked slick.

Tom studied the damaged rope. The first bridge looked overbuilt. He gingerly pried one rope loose to see what'd happen. Then a second. The bridge held, but now it definitely wouldn't take his weight. But... He had some slack. He tied the cords tighter, past the frayed parts, then did the same to the third cord. He gave them a good tug and nodded in satisfaction.

He held onto the handrail ropes with white-knuckled hands just in case, imagining it'd all crash. Foam or not, he didn't want to think about landing two or three stories below. He let out a breath when he was finally on the gym-mat surface of the central square.

"You going to tell me what this is about?" Tom asked the watcher.

As the light brightened above them, the figure threw off its coat and revealed it was made of metal and plastic, holding a sword hilt-out in each hand. These were blunt, but not padded.

He glanced behind him at the drop. "Hey, now. Whoever's steering this thing, let's talk. I promise not to call the cops on you when you let me go; you didn't really hurt me."

The robot merely held out the two swords insistently for him to choose.

"Then I accept your challenge." Tom stepped forward, snagged both swords, and kicked.

The robot staggered backward. Tom tried to exploit the moment, but his foot hurt from the kick and he nearly fell off the platform. He flailed around with the twin blades. The disarmed robot punched instead of slashing. Tom's heart thudded. The blows were fast and the fists weren't padded either. He awkwardly parried one blow and a clang of metal echoed into the darkness. His uneven slashes couldn't break the machine even when he hit. The bot slammed him in the gut, then struck him on the shoulder. He reeled. Four marks in the meter flashing at his feet.

"Should've taken that fencing class," he said. The bot was fighting fair, for a boxer. It gave him a moment.

He didn't want to find out what'd happen at zero points. He raised his left sword to parry, ducked, and wedged his right blade like a crowbar between the bot's legs, pushing and pulling. They weren't swords so much as levers.

The machine staggered. One metal fist whooshed and grazed his ear. The other grabbed for his high sword. He let it go and focused on turning the other one harder. Payoff! The metal man's right foot slipped forward and its body toppled backward, crashing on the platform's edge. Tom stole back the second blade and jabbed with both to push his enemy over. It crashed far down onto the padded floor with a clatter of expensive hardware.

Tom raised both bloodless blades high and turned around. "The winner and champion! Now do I get to meet whoever's behind this?"

The middle of the square platform lurched and began sinking like an elevator. Tom let it carry him away to his unknown fate.

It stopped in a hallway of bitter cold. The uneven floor was ice and his breath made clouds. Dim light outlined a doorway on the far end. Parts of the floor and one wall were marked with yellow hazard zones. Simple enough. But the other wall was frosted glass and a crank stood out halfway along it.

Tom crept along the icy floor. His swords made for good ski poles and saved him from a crash. Soon he'd reached the crank, and recognized the dim shapes beyond the window.

He was looking out at the obstacle course, where the rotating balance-beam was. He'd taken two falls from that thing. He tried turning the wheel in front of him and discovered it could fight the automatic spin, speeding or slowing it.

A dim shape was moving outside. Someone else was stuck here! Tom called out and banged on the glass, but got no reaction. The newcomer was busy looking down at a red light like the "life meter" Tom had.

He shivered. Even the swords he held were freezing his hands. His meter was down to three, either from that ear punch or the cold.

Still, he had time. He turned the wheel rapidly to counter the spin and give the other guy an easier time. The barely-seen figure startled at the change, then shrugged and ran. And fell.

Tom sighed. "Wheel in the maze, keep on turning." He kept things steady and nervously checked his meter. Down to two from the cold. The running man climbed back up, paused, and dashed.

"Great!" Tom said, and abandoned his post. He poled his way down to the end of the hall without more trouble, still at two points. No time to wait for the newcomer in here. He hurried ahead, out of the cold and into the darkness of another mystery.

#

A door crashed down behind Tom. He found himself back in something very like the tiny garden where he'd begun. Only now, someone was waiting.

In the clearing stood a tall figure in a blue-grey robe like a stormy sky, wearing a blank white mask. "I won't harm you," it said in a faintly musical voice. None of its body was visible; white gloves covered its hands.

Tom hung back amid the trees, by some instinct suggesting it was safer there. "Look, whoever you are. I'm not angry; that was kind of fun. But what's going on? Who are you? Where are we?"

The figure bowed. "There's been an accident of fate. You may call me System. As for your third question, it's a space on the threshold of my world. Welcome."

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A note from Snow Quill

You may also be interested in "Wavebound", a fantasy series about the novice Goddess of Water! Find it here:

https://www.royalroad.com/fiction/39279/wavebound

I also have a Patreon account for advanced chapters of both stories! Find that here:

https://www.patreon.com/user?u=5942610


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About the author

Snow Quill

Bio: I'm a writer with several books up on Amazon. Many of these are in a setting called "Thousand Tales", where a virtual game world offers immortality under the rule of a friendly AI whose ambitions extend far beyond the game.

See kschnee.deviantart.com for a larger gallery of stories, and check out novels such as "Virtual Horizon" or "Crafter's Passion" for my published fiction!

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