INTERLUDE: Limbo Location: In front of this screen
“Hey, you. Yeah, you. Reader.”
INTERLUDE: Limbo Location: In front of this screen
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CHAPTER NINETEEN: THE QUESTION Location: Second Homebase, Time: 3:00 p.m. (J.D. Wylder)
I’m limping by the time I reach Second Homebase but that’s not too bad, all things considered. Usually, falling off a balcony would lead to more permanent injury. Or, I don’t know, death. (But maybe I’m being overdramatic)
A twisted ankle isn’t too bad, though. Hurts like hell, but still.
I very nearly knock on the door when I arrive at Second Homebase (old habits die hard), but quickly change course and enter the 15-number code into the digital lock. The door beeps, clicks, and lets me in.
Second Homebase is unchanged. Despite having been untouched for at least a couple of weeks, everything inside shines— even the fake plastic flowers littering the apartment. I pass by furniture that is just as sleek— a polished oak work desk, a gleaming black center table, a very stiff-looking settee— as I make my way to the kitchen. The Wine Cabinet is still stocked, so I pour myself a bottle of sherry before heading back to the main room.
I find what I’m looking for beneath one of the settee cushions: a small white laptop. The moment it starts up, I navigate my way to a folder marked “ANONYMOUS,” all the while keeping an eye on the game console to make sure the Fiction doesn’t start up again without my knowledge. Last time, I was too busy being in pain to concentrate on what was happening, but I can’t use the same excuse twice. Ren is a smart character; she’s going to realize something is up if Jasper stays mute.
I eventually find what I’m looking for: a corrupted video file titled R3N. It takes a bit to unscramble the data, but when I do, the video I remember watching before the Fiction started starts playing.
“Ren” looks at me solemnly from the other side of the screen, wearing a red hoodie. Only when she made this video, she wasn’t “Ren,” because she still existed in the real world, and she had a real name. “Hey,” she says to the screen. She waves, as if she can actually see me.
“Hey yourself,” I murmur to no one.
She leans forward. “So if you’re watching this, it means that Boss found a way to cheat the system…”
I hear the Fiction start up before I see it. By the time I look at the game console, Ren and co. are already on the other side of the door. My brain is scattered, so I focus on the most noticeable thing— a flaming bird— and make a comment: “Another bird, seriously?”
Ren— both the one in the Fiction and the one in the video— respond at the same time: “Seriously.”
SELECTED SUGGESTION: #4
(Selected with random number generator)
Location: Apparently, a ginormous ice flat. Time: ???
The first thing she becomes aware of is the cold, which coats her arms with goosebumps. Behind her, Grace and Henry collectively gasp. It doesn’t take long for them to see they are standing on a ginormous ice flat. It expands outward in every direction, a pristine and empty sheet of ice that goes on forever.
Before any of them can question their life choices, the door behind them slams shut and disappears from existence, leaving them stranded on the ice flat. It is extremely quiet, not even the wind is blowing, and there seems to be no shelter in sight.
An awkward silence hovers between the three of them, but is quickly broken when Grace sneezes and says, “Oh for god’s sake.” Without waiting for anyone’s permission, she holds out her hand and conjures a flaming bird. It squawks as it rises into the air. Ren finds herself drawing closer to it without realizing. It is damn freezing in this place.
Jasper, who has been quiet on Ren’s shoulder for quite some time, picks this moment to release an exasperated croak. “Another bird, seriously?”
“Seriously.” At least the flaming bird is warm. All Jasper is good for is banter.
“Your bird’s talking again.”
Ren turns in-place, holding up her hand in a defensive gesture before she sees it’s just Mr. Sin, observing them all with his usual deadpan expression. With his pale skin and eyes, he almost looks like he belongs here in the icy landscape.
“Really?” Ren deadpans right back at him. “I hadn’t noticed.”
“Hey,” Jasper pecks her ear. “Stop talking about me like I’m not here.”
Mr. Sin narrows his eyes, so much like slivers of ice, at the bird. “You know,” he says, almost conversationally. “You remind me of someone, bird.”
Jasper squawks. “I hope it’s someone cool.”
“It’s someone… very annoying.”
“Hey.” Grace snaps her fingers and the flaming bird flares brighter, hotter. “Enough with the idle chatter.” She glances at Henry, who has just been standing there quietly, curled into himself and shivering in the light of the flaming bird. “Henry, book,” she commands.
Henry straightens immediately. “Yes, ma’am.” He turns a page of his book and begins to read aloud: “The group enters the frigid Place-In-Between and finds what they are looking for beneath their feet.”
The minute he says the words, they all look down. Ren is astonished to see blurry shapes beneath the ice. “The Book doesn’t say how to get them out,” Henry says.
Grace gives him a look. “You do realize I can burn things?”
Even though Henry is, for some reason, still wearing his mask, Ren is fairly certain she can see him blush. “You know that… that’s a good point.”
Grace waves them all back, then sets her flaming bird on the ice. The thing shrieks as it pounds itself against the landscape.
“Wow, that is an extremely angry bird,” Jasper says.
Ren shrugs. “I’d be angry too if I were on fire all the time.”
Some indeterminable amount of time later, the bird burns the ice down enough for Grace to reach inside and pull out the first of the blurry shapes. Ren quirks an eyebrow when she sees it’s a fish— a blue, wooden fish with a gaping mouth and soulless eyes. Grace tosses it to Ren and says, “I’m not reaching inside that thing.”
Ren rolls her eyes and puts her hand inside. She pulls out AN ITEM. And stares at it.
Henry clears his throat and reads from the book, unprompted: “The first item they find will help guide them to the Woman in the Mirror, but it is not how they find their exit.”
They all stare at the item. Jasper croaks. “Nifty… I think.”
Without comment, Ren sets the item aside and waits for Grace to pull out more fish. While she watches, it occurs to her that she has gone fishing before. A memory, fuzzy and soft around the edges, fades into being.
She remembers, vaguely, sitting side-by-side on a pier with Adonis. In the memory, he is whistling, only pausing to grin at her when her line comes up empty.
“You’re really terrible at this,” he offers.
Ren rolls her eyes. “At least I know how to fish. Didn’t you grow up near an ocean?”
Adonis makes a sound that is something in between psht and nah. “So? I hate the ocean.”
“That’s… a little sad.”
“I prefer swimming pools. At least if I drown, I won’t be swallowing salt.”
“Ren! Earth to Ren!” Jasper squawks, and Ren pulls herself out of the memory just fast enough to catch the next wooden fish.
She reaches into it. Nothing. The same thing happens with the next dozen fish. There is nothing inside any of them. Henry’s future-telling book does not give them the future beyond “the group finds nothing in the next fish.” It quickly becomes obsolete.
Soon, everyone’s patience is wearing thin. Ren cannot stop herself from shuddering, Henry is pacing back and forth in an effort to get heat into his body, Mr. Sin blinks ice flakes from his eyelashes, and Grace curses as she rams her flaming bird into the ice.
Ren is too cold and too tired to see the cracks in the ice sheet. She does not notice them until they have stretched beneath her feet and by then, it is much too late.
“Ren!” Jasper cries, just as the ice groans beneath her.
Ren looks down— and plummets as the ice separates beneath her feet.
She hears shouts and cries, but they quickly become muted as she plummets like an anchor through the water. Some part of her— the small part of her mind that is miraculously not panicking— notes that she should not be sinking this fast.
But sinking she is.
It is a surprisingly pleasant feeling, sinking. The world becomes warmer and Ren feels, finally, like she can rest. She’s been going, going, going this whole time, and for what? She doesn’t even know what her final destination is.
“That is because your final destination is neither here nor there,” says a whisper-thin voice. Ren startles and opens her eyes, and finds herself floating in-place, darkness all around her. Briefly, she spots something colorful glinting in the dark: a canvas of scales, perhaps, but it quickly disappears. “Your destination is a different pane of existence.”
“What the hell does that mean?” Ren doesn’t realize she’s said the words aloud until she sees little bubbles coming from her mouth.
“That is for you to discover,” says the mysterious-voice-that-is-everywhere. “But for now, I ask you a simple question: What do you value most?”
Ren stares suspiciously into the darkness. She recalls the fortune she unveiled earlier
in the previous chapter. In order to find the truth, you must lie, it had said.
But how can she lie when she doesn’t know what she values most?
In the end, she OFFERS THE ANSWER THAT FEELS MOST RIGHT.
“Good,” the voice says. “Very good. Let us see where this takes us…”
Ren again feels herself sinking. “Wait.” She grasps uselessly at the water. “Wait! I have people up there!”
But the magical ocean does not care. It pulls Ren deeper and deeper into its depths. She can’t see, can’t breathe—
And then, miraculously: light.
Ren tumbles from darkness into SOME OTHER PLACE…
CHAPTER EIGHTEEN: THE VISION Location: The Trash Heap, Time: 2:00 p.m.
J.D. Wylder never answers his phone, but moments after you give up calling, you get a message from Boss: “Meet me at Wylder’s apartment.”
When you arrive, you find Wylder’s room in complete disarray. Furniture has been toppled and shredded, and documents lay scattered across the floor. Boss sits in front of Wylder’s blank computer screens, breathing colorful smoke into the air.
She does not even bother turning when you enter. “Hello, Anon.”
Your eyes are drawn to the only open window in the apartment. Or, well, ‘open’ is the wrong word. The glass has been fractured— there’s a bullet hole in the center of the web of cracks.
When you ask Boss what happened, she tells you that Wylder has been irresponsibly manipulating the Fiction and that she came here to apprehend (punish) him. She tells you that he fled the scene, but not before hacking into the Fiction’s system and stealing important files and software from the committee.
Boss looks amazingly nonchalant given the series of recent events. It’s hard to believe she is the same woman who shot at Wylder in this room, who pursued him off a balcony.
When you ask Boss how Wylder survived the drop she shrugs and says, “He’s an extremely tenacious insect.”
You know what comes next: Boss will chase Wylder to the ends of the world to punish him. As far as you know, she has never failed in this kind of endeavor. Boss is a persistent woman and she always gets her justice. But you cannot help but feel like there is something… personal about the vengeance she is seeking against Wylder. He’s unique; an anomaly Boss invited onto the Fiction board without consulting anyone else.
You recall something Wylder said on the train tracks yesterday: I almost died here, he’d said. And then, But Boss just wouldn’t let me die.
You think about the photograph you saw in your files— the one of Wylder and “Ren.” If Boss is the one that chose to throw “Ren” into the Fiction, it stands to reason that she, Wylder and “Ren” have a shared past. But you know even without asking Boss will never divulge your questions; she never does.
“Why did you call me here?” You finally ask.
“Why do you think?” Boss swivels in the chair to face you. Her black eyes are like dark, nebulous voids behind the veil of colorful smoke. “I need your help, Anon.”
You flinch. When Boss asks for your help, it only ever means one thing, and it’s the last thing you ever want to do.
“I want you to use whatever means necessary to track Wylder down.” She breathes out through her nose, and a cloud of colorful smoke rises into the air and hangs above her head like a garish storm cloud. “I’d ask Mr. Sin for assistance if he was still here, but he’s still in the Fiction.” She raises an eyebrow, indicating that this is clearly your fault.
You nod silently as resignation slumps your shoulders.
“Oh, and don’t tell the others about this.” She stands, becoming a shadow in the layers of colorful clouds. Her black eyes glisten with the promise of consequences should you fail. “You know how they get when there are complications. Better to keep this under wraps for now.”
They get agitated because they’re scared. Because you’re terrifying and no one wants to speak up to you. Those are the words you want to say, but they’re a statement better suited to a bold and daring protagonist. They are not words for you, a cowardly writer.
“Okay” is all that comes out of your mouth.
It is good enough for Boss. After double checking Wylder’s drawers for god knows what information, she leaves you in the ransacked room by yourself. You stand there quietly for a long time until your phone begins buzzing— a sure sign that the Fiction is being updated.
Out of habit, you slip your phone out of your pocket and begin reading the newest chapter.
Location: The Lord’s Basement, Time: ???
The mirror shows Ren a fancy room with marble pillars and walls painted a white that seems too pure to exist in the real world. In the back of the room is a podium with a woman standing behind it. Her hair is blonde and her eyes are a green that remind Ren of summer.
“Ren,” she says. “I have something to give you that might be of interest. The Narrator’s book should be able to give you details on where to go. Meet me here no later than 48 hours from now.” The woman pauses for a moment, then chuckles. “And please tell Samuel to come back home soon. I’ve told him to drop his ‘The Lord’ charade enough times already.”
This is the last thing the woman says before the image vanishes into black.
Ren looks up from the mirror and at the Lord. “Samuel?” The Lord— Samuel— flushes a deep crimson when she relays the message from the mysterious woman. He says something beneath his breath before standing and snapping his fingers. When Ren blinks, the Watchers have completely vanished and Samuel is in normal clothing. Not a cosplay uniform, not a robe— but a plain red t-shirt and a pair of too-big jeans.
Grace steps back, eyes wide. “What kind of witchcraft is this?”
Samuel blinks at her. “Why haven’t you disappeared?” He tilts his head. “You’re part of the game, right? You’re supposed to disappear when I snap my fingers.”
Grace opens and closes her mouth, looking like a fish out of water.“What do you mean a game? I’m the Chosen One! It’s my destiny to burn you to a crisp and siphon your powers!”
Samuel frowns at her. “Well, yeah. In the game.” He ignores the baffled horror on Grace’s face and turns to Henry, whose expression is difficult to decipher beneath his mask. “I thought you were part of the game too,” he says.
Henry shrugs. “Even if I was, I… really enjoyed it. The narrating, I mean. It was a pretty good gig, even if it was all fictional and I thought I was going to die more than a few times.” His eyes crease behind his mask; Ren thinks he might be smiling.
Grace is still in the middle of an identity crisis.“But what about my village? The prophecy?”
“All fiction,” Samuel says. “You guys are characters in a video game. Or well…” He eyes them warily. “You’re supposed to be. The simulation is supposed to end when I snap my fingers.” With a deeply consternated look on his face, he raises his hand and snaps his fingers.
This time, it is he that disappears without a trace.
Grace lets out another cry of despair. Ren simply stares at the space the boy was in. She has seen so many strange things since waking that she is not even surprised by this scenario. “A fiction, huh…” she mumbles beneath her breath.
“It’s okay,” Henry is speaking to Grace in a soft voice. “We’ll figure out this whole ‘Chosen One’ business on the way to um, wherever we’re supposed to go?” He glances down at his book for a few moments before he says, “The Place In-Between. That’s where we’re supposed to go next.” He looks at Ren, and though she can’t see his expression, she can tell by the dip of his shoulders that he’s embarrassed. “You don’t mind if we all travel together, do you? I have nowhere to be anymore and Grace…” He looks at Grace, who is staring blankly at the ground. Her eyes are empty.
Ren shrugs. “Do what you want.”
At this point she doesn’t care. People come and go in this new world. Sometimes they help her, sometimes they don’t. Grace and Henry are just two new additions to an entourage that keeps on changing.
It’s better than being alone, at least, she thinks.
Henry beams. “Four is better than one!” He says cheerfully.
“Five,” Ren says immediately. Jasper is annoying, but he’s still technically a part of the group. And he’s… well, he’s been here since the beginning.
“Your bird is awfully quiet,” Mr. Sin, who has been watching the exchange quietly, says. Ren realizes he’s right; it’s not like Jasper to be so silent. He has been twitching on her shoulder, but hasn’t said a word.
Henry clears his throat, startling her out of her thoughts. He reads from his book: “The group picks through the wolf’s remains for a clue on where to go next. Then, fortune in-hand, they step out of the Lord’s basement and into the Place In-Between. They will spend only one chapter of their journey here.”
Mr. Sin moves as Henry reads, sifting through the ‘remains’— a pile of really vague fortune cookie messages. He hands one to Ren, who flips it over and READS THE VERY VAGUE FORTUNE/PROPHECY.
She blinks. “How do we know this is the right one?”
“Any of them will do. The outcome is out of our hands regardless.” It’s a very cryptic thing to say, but Mr. Sin gives them no time to ask questions. He makes his way through the slush pile of fortunes and throws open the door Henry entered from earlier.
The room is immediately awash in a bright white light.
Grace holds up her hands to shield her eyes. “Egad!” She cries.
“My god,” Henry agrees with a much more modern interjection.
Mr. Sin disappears through the doorway. Ren glances once more at the blank mirror in her hands before making her way toward the bright light.
She has to close her eyes against the brightness, so she does not see “The Place In-Between” until she steps inside. Slowly, cautiously, she opens her eyes AND TAKES IN HER SURROUNDINGS…
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: THE SONG Location: The Trash Heap, Time: 12:30 p.m.
[ E N T E R _ U S E R N A M E ]
“Seriously?” I sigh as I type in the username again.
[ J D _ W Y L D E R ]
Not very original, I know, but hey, an identity is only believable if you stick with it. I press the return key and let my eyes wander as the loading bar fills.
“Home.” I have to say the word aloud to believe it because, hell, this place hasn’t felt like ‘home’ since the Fiction started. If anything, it’s begun to feel like a prison. Right now it even looks like one, what with the shutters closed and the lights off. Most people would look around this place and think I was a shut-in.
A really spoiled shut-in.
Because even in the dark you can see the scintillating chandeliers, the impressively-sized TV, the really pretentious paintings on the walls… Wow. It’s no wonder Anon was making the faces they were making when they came in yesterday.
A little ping sounds, and I turn my attention back to the laptop.
[ A L L D A T A C O P I E D. O R I G I N A L D A T A D E L E T E D. ]
My phone starts ringing as soon as I unplug the flash drive. “ANOOOON” flashes across the screen. I should answer, probably. But I know Anon; they would only ever call to talk to me about my Fiction decorum and right now, that’s the last thing I need.
I let the phone ring as I slide my laptop into my bag— it’s studded with diamonds because you know, go rich or go home— and slide the still-buzzing phone into my pocket. I take out the portable game console and plug my earphones into it so that I can hear the characters’ voices when the Fiction starts up again. I make sure the microphone is on too.
I’m walking toward the door when the knocking starts. “Wylder?” It’s Boss’s voice.
I take a step back, consider my options.
Walking through the front door would be Dumb Bad. Going out the window would be Desperate Bad and staying in here without answering is Avoid-at-all-costs-Bad.
The knocking starts again. Louder this time. “Wylder, I know you’ve been interfering with the Fiction. Open the door.”
Of course Perry chooses that moment to restart the Fiction. The title screen vanishes, and the Lord’s living room appears in pixelated form. The little “Ren” sprite walks across the screen to a lyre. The “Jasper” sprite sits on her shoulder. I sigh loudly into my earphone speaker as the ITEM OBTAINED text-box flashes on the screen, and the bird sprite opens its beak in mock imitation.
“Seriously?” I mutter into the microphone. “That’s what you were looking for?” I make my way to the window, unlatch it from the inside, and make my way out to the shoddy balcony.
“I…I don’t know. It’s the only thing that looked promising?” Ren says in the Fiction.
“What are we going to do?” My own voice sounds panicked and breathless which— well, I guess I am both of those things. “We going to strum an off-key lullaby and sing it to sleep?”
Inside the apartment, the door bursts open and Boss enters in one of her charcoal-black suits. She sees me outside and stalks toward the window, eyes burning with murder.
I step up onto the balcony railings and jump before common sense kicks in.
SELECTED SUGGESTION: #8
(Selected by random number generator)
Location: The Lord’s Basement, Time: ???
She keeps looking until, finally, she sees something. Something she thinks might give her a fighting chance: a lyre. But when Ren reaches for it and tries to play it, she finds that the instrument is *severely* out of tune.
“Seriously?” Jasper says on her shoulder. “That’s what you were looking for?”
Ren flushes. She is not entirely sure of why she picked it up. It just felt right.
“I… I don’t know,” she says honestly. “It’s the only thing that looked promising?” It sounds pathetic even to her own ears.
“What are we going to do?” Jasper sounds ruffled in a way that he rarely does, as if he might honestly be panicking about their situation. “We going to strum an off-key lullaby and sing it to sleep?”
Ren pauses to consider this. She strums the lyre a little louder to see what happens. The effect is immediate: the animatronic stops wreaking havoc to look at her. It tilts its head, as if listening for something.
And then it rushes toward her with a bloodcurdling howl.
Ren wills herself to move, to run, but the wolf is coming too fast and she knows she is not going to be able to escape this assault unless—
A series of gunshots sound, and the wolf pauses mere feet from Ren. Mr. Sin approaches with his gun raised, cursing all the while. He murmurs something beneath his breath, something that sounds a lot like, “Why is it always me? Damn audience.”
“I’ve got it!” Henry yells from behind the couch. He is leaning over the gramophone. Ren watches him turn the disc over and set it back on the device. The minute he pins the needle down, it begins to play a song. Not the ominous looping sounds from earlier, but an upbeat song full of twinkling, happy instruments.
The wolf howls with rage.
“Ren, the song is missing an instrument!” Henry calls. “The Book says the missing part needs to be filled in with the lyre!”
“Ugh,” Jasper says. Ren agrees.
She stares at the lyre. How on earth is she supposed to play this when it’s out-of-tune? When she doesn’t even know how to play?
Mr. Sin stands in front of her. “Well? Don’t just stand there looking dumb, Ren.”
The wolf comes again. Mr. Sin levels the gun at its chest and shoots four bullets. The creature keels over as Mr. Sin glances over his shoulder.
His glare spurs her into action. She begins fiddling with the knobs. Distantly, she remembers tuning an instrument in the past, something that also had knobs. A guitar, maybe.
Eventually, Ren manages to adjust the knobs so that the sounds the lyre emits are at least less severely out-of-tune. She strums on the instrument tunelessly, but this only seems to enrage the wolf, who responds by swiping at Mr. Sin with one of its gigantic paws. The animatronic sends the gun flying out of Mr. Sin’s hands.
Behind Ren, the children’s song starts again on the gramophone.
Mr. Sin backs away as the wolf raises a paw.
Ren hesitates, but only for a heartbeat before she rushes forward with the lyre held out in front of her like a shield. She catches the wolf’s swipe with the lyre. Its padded fingers aggressively brush the strings— and create a tune so lovely even Mr. Sin gasps aloud.
Ren moves to take a step back, but the wolf grabs the instrument from her before she can retreat. Then, it begins to play. Slowly at first, and then faster as the song on the gramophone picks up in pace. Ren finds herself both awed and disturbed by the wolf’s talent.
Maybe, she thinks, this is all the wolf wanted all along: to play the song of its animatronic people.
No sooner has Ren thought this than Mr. Sin locates his gun.
He shoots the wolf in the eyes three times.
Once to knock off its sunglasses. Then two more shots: one per eye.
Ren hears the snap of wires, the cackle of electricity in the wolf’s short-circuiting head— and then the animatronic explodes INTO A SHOWER OF SOMETHING THAT IS DEFINITELY NOT GEARS.
Silence follows the combustion.
Even the Lord seems shocked by the wolf’s sudden demise.
Ren clears her throat and faces him. “You told me there’d be one more game, and I won it.” Well… probably. She completed her shift and ‘tamed’ the wolf, but it is Mr. Sin who brought the game to its abrupt end.
“I won,” Ren repeats into the silence. “So what happens now? What do I win?”
The Lord falls, defeated, onto the couch. He suddenly looks small and very… soft in his cosplay uniform. He snaps his fingers and one of the Watchers stalks toward Ren. Ren steps back, but the Watcher just holds up its gnarled figures: a gesture of peace.
It reaches into one of its sleeves and withdraws a mirror, which it hands to Ren.
“Ah,” Jasper says, voice oddly strained. “That antique mirror
from Chapter Ten.”
Ren looks at the back, where her lover’s name— still unreadable— is signed. She remembers the last time she looked into this mirror and saw a woman hidden behind colorful clouds of cigarette smoke.
“Your reward,” the Lord says. “For winning the game.”
Ren turns the mirror over and stares into the glass. IT IS NOT HER REFLECTION THAT GREETS HER, BUT A VISION…
CHAPTER SIXTEEN: THE WOLF Location: The Office, Time: 11:45 a.m.
Immediately after Chapter Fifteen ends, Dr. Perry Winkle calls you a car home on ‘one of those pick-me-up apps.’ On your way out of her office, you glance again at the missing poster featuring the student with the bright smile. You wonder vaguely if he will ever smile like that again— in or out of the Fiction.
It’s surprising how much regret you have this time around. This isn’t your first Fiction, but for some reason, this project, more than any other, makes you feel like a monster.
The thought remains when you return to your ambiguous office space, and you feel compelled to look over the character sheets and newspaper clippings you have in your possession.You turn to the documents after setting up your laptop. On the top of the pile is Dandelion the Magician. Real name: Daniel Saun. 35, married, with one child. Last seen in the middle of a performance in Las Vegas.
Though you are missing Grace’s character sheet, you still have the newspaper clipping that reads: high school student disappears in mysterious apartment fire. And though Perry has also failed to give you a character sheet, you now know from the missing poster that the fiction’s third character, Henry, is a student that has gone missing from school.
You flip through your notes again, searching for any glimpses into the life of the final character— into Ren’s life. But her character sheet is still absolutely blank, and most of what you know about her is a fabrication created by the audience.
Maybe it’s the not knowing that makes you more anxious than usual.
As an author, you’re used to knowing. But in this scenario, Boss has the upper hand. She was the one who chose Ren, and she is the only one that can tell you where she came from. You sigh as you begin reorganizing the documents. It is then, whilst tapping the papers on the desk, that something falls out from the pile.
A photograph, one that had been buried deep in the stack of papers. You’re pretty sure you’ve never seen it before.
You pick up the photograph.
Two people stand together in the photo, holding their hands to their foreheads in mock-salute. One is a sunglasses-wearing man with a cocky smile. The other: a grinning woman in a red tank top. You recognize her immediately, though you can’t help but think she looks smaller without her red jacket.
And the man…
Suddenly, you are not at all tired. In fact, you’re quite jittery. You reach for your phone and dial a number. On your laptop, the Fiction has resumed. Lines begin to appear on the blog, but you find you cannot focus on them.
“Come on,” you whisper to the air. “Answer the phone…”
SELECTED SUGGESTION: #2
(Selected by random number generator)
Location: A dark security room, Time: 6 a.m.
Ren answers the phone and hears heavy breathing, followed by sudden silence. And then a voice (clearly auto tuned, because it sounds so mechanical) starts speaking. “Breathe, Ren. All you have to do is think of where else you want to go.”
She blinks in surprise. It is not so much the voice but the command that surprises her. She has become accustomed to weird occurrences, but usually the weird occurrences happen without her input.
Before she can respond, the voice cuts in again with a cackle. “Oh, and don’t open your eyes. This is about to get really messy.”
The phone cuts out.
Abruptly, the scratching sound outside stops and Ren can hear nothing but the ominous sound of a gramophone, only… it’s playing a song backwards. Ren hesitates, unsure if she should be taking advice from an auto tuned stranger.
Then the scratching outside begins anew and Ren hears the unmistakable sound of thumping footsteps. She squeezes her eyes shut and tries to think of a place— any place— that is better than here.
“There’s no place like home?” Jasper says.
But Ren does not know where home even is. She has vague memories of her past and of Adonis, even some memories of a hotel room in Pittsburgh, but nothing that screams home.
“Okay, you tap your feet together and I’ll say The Words. There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home…”
Ren grabs Jasper’s beak to shut him up.
Whatever’s coming, Ren does not want to face it alone.
The Lord’s basement, she thinks. Take me to the Lord’s basement.
Many things happen at once then: the voice on the phone line once again begins to cackle; the door bursts open and a bloodcurdling howl shatters the silence of the room, and Ren is knocked back by some invisible force. Then— a cacophony of voices.
“Impossible!” One voice carries above the rest; Ren would recognize it anywhere, even in her nightmares. Especially in her nightmares. It is the Lord’s voice, and it is shrill with fear.
She opens her eyes and sees him standing atop the armchair Mr. Sin was recently sitting in. His hands are raised in a gesture of supplication. Ren realizes everyone— that is, the Watchers, Grace, Mr. Sin, and the Lord— are all looking at her with wide, terrified eyes.
She is extremely perplexed by this, until she realizes they are looking past her. Slowly, Ren glances over her shoulder.
An anthropomorphic wolf stands behind her on two legs, shiny fangs bared in a feral grimace. Or a smile, maybe? It’s hard to tell when the creature’s eyes and eyebrows are obscured by a pair of shiny (and shockingly trendy) black sunglasses. Vaguely, Ren is aware of the gramophone in the wolf’s arms, and of the record looping over and over again.
Ren stares at the wolf. It is hard to say whether or not the wolf stares back.
Then— a door bursts open and the Narrator enters, breathing hard. “Wow,” he wheezes. “That was a lot of stairs. What did I miss?” He freezes when he sees the wolf. “Oh. Oh no—“ The words pitch into a scream when the wolf lunges toward him. Ren sidesteps just in-time, though she ends up tripping over the edge of a rug and falling onto the couch in the process.
“Kill it!” The Lord cries, waving his whip in the air. “Kill it with fire!”
The Watchers turn and begin throwing fire at the wolf. They are by far the strangest firing squad Ren has ever seen, especially with Grace standing between them, looking wildly out-of-place in her entirely black attire and distracting sparkling scarf.
Ren is still staring at it when the wolf lashes out with one of its paws.
She tumbles backward, over and off the couch, until she is pressed against a wall with the Narrator, who is urgently flipping through his Future-telling book.
“Hey.” She taps him on the shoulder. “Thanks for helping me back there. In the video game.” She is fairly certain that without the Narrator and his book, she would be dead. Video game dead or dead dead, she is not sure, but she assumes it would be unpleasant either way.
In the background, the gramophone continues playing really bad music and the wolf keeps hacking at things and the Watchers keep throwing fire. Mr. Sin is standing by the door with his gun, indecisively looking between the exit and his firearm.
The Narrator looks up, expression unreadable beneath his elegant mask. But she thinks, maybe, she sees his eyes crinkle just a little bit. “Sure thing. Not like I did much. Just read out of a book, you know?”
“Still, you were a big help. Oh, also.” Ren slides Henry’s phone out of her pocket and hands it to him. “Some mysterious person called. Auto tuned voice. Didn’t recognize the number.”
Henry looks at the number and gasps. “I know this number. IT BELONGS TO…”
The wolf finds them behind the couch and Henry’s words die into a scream. Ren rolls one way and Henry crawls the other as the wolf knocks the couch over. Somehow—amazingly, horrifyingly—it is in one piece despite being on fire.
“It’s fire-proof!” Grace yells.
“Well, damn,” Jasper says.
“Ugh,” Ren agrees, and she steps out of the way as the flaming wolf hurls itself at her. The movement puts her in the center of the room, in the middle of all the action.
From here she can Grace forming a bird of fire with her hands, Mr. Sin walking slowly toward the center with his gun raised, the Lord waving his arms in the air, and Henry reading frantically from his book. She also sees the gramophone discarded in the corner. Forgotten but not mute— it is still ominously playing a song backwards.
There has to be something she can do. Some way she can help. Someone she can help. BUT WHO DOES SHE TEAM UP WITH?
While she is thinking she looks around the room, eyes skimming past the toy action figures on the shelves and the blank TV.
“Hey, hey,” Jasper says. “What are you doing? This isn’t the time to stand around being indecisive. A flaming wolf is on the loose!”
Ren hisses at him. “I’m looking for something.” She says. “Something I can use to get us out of this situation….” She keeps looking until, finally, she sees something. SOMETHING SHE THINKS MIGHT GIVE HER A FIGHTING CHANCE…
CHAPTER FIFTEEN: THE VIDEO GAME Location: Dr. Perry Winkle’s office, Time: 11:00 a.m.
You do not realize you have fallen asleep until Dr. Perry Winkle shakes you awake. You are curled up on an extremely uncomfortable wooden chair in her office. A tea tray sits beside Perry’s computer.
“Isn’t that dangerous?”
Perry smiles pleasantly. “If you get tea on anything, I will find you and I will kill you. Remember Anon, I know where you live.” She forces a teacup into your hands and returns to her own chair by the computer while you sip cautiously at the tea.
“You fell asleep for about an hour,” Perry says. She is looking through the poll answers on the last chapter and hmming to herself. “It was adorable. You looked like a cat.”
You choose to ignore this comment and, seeking a distraction, glance around Perry’s office. Your eyes immediately fall on the pictures on the wall. Each photograph features Perry hugging some person. In one, Perry hugs a woman much shorter than her; she is in the act of placing a kiss on her cheek. In another, Perry is gripping a laughing man twice her size.
There are about ten photographs in total, which surprises you because you know Perry has dated far more than ten people. She wears and discards her lovers like badges.
Because you are curious, you ask if she is currently seeing someone.
“I broke up with Dustin a few days ago,” she says without even turning around.
That is the way it always is with Perry— she becomes close enough to a person to claim relationship status, then breaks up with them after they’ve fallen for her. She told you a story once in which one of her boyfriends tried to break up with her over the phone. Somehow, she managed to convince him to reconsider just so she could end the call by breaking up with him.
“Hey, Anon.” Perry pauses to glance back at you. “You know that Boss tried to end the Fiction recently, yeah?”
Perry frowns. “Why not just let her? This is by far the least popular Fiction we’ve ever written. We’re not even making any money from it.”
You stare at her. You wonder how to say, it’s because Boss is going to make these characters’ lives a living hell and the only way to stop her is to let the audience control the story and decide their fates without being specific.
In the end you simply shrug and say, “Because I think we’re onto something.”
Perry raises an eyebrow. “You sound like someone who’s let power get to their head.”
She freezes as soon as she says it, realizing her mistake. For a few moments, an awkward silence persists. You sip at your tea and Perry sips at hers.
Perry’s mistake is this: you have always been in charge, even if you don’t want to be.
You clear your throat and point at the self-writing journal. “Fiction’s back on.”
Perry nods absently, then turns her back on you to look at the journal.
SELECTED SUGGESTION: #6
(Selected by random number generator)
Location: A dark security room, Time: 12 a.m.
Ren finds herself in a dark, claustrophobic office space. The lamp above gives off a dying white light that barely illuminates the room. On a desk in front of her sits a small old-fashioned computer, an electric fan, and papers of which some have been crumpled into balls. Ren is caught off-guard by how dark everything is.
She looks behind and around her. On the wall behind the desk are several posters and children drawings. The largest poster stands out to her— CELEBRATE! can be read in a bubbly yellow font at the top. Underneath the text are three creepy looking characters: a purple bunny, a bear, and a duck. IT SEEMS AS IF THERE IS A FOURTH CHARACTER AS WELL, though it has been torn from the poster.
They remind her of the animatronic characters at this one place she used to go as a kid, this place kids went for celebrating birthday parties. She glances to the sides of the room, and sees two heavy-duty doors and light switches for seeing down the hallways that stretch beyond them.
Just then, a phone rings, although she can’t spot where it is placed. Unable to answer in-time, a voicemail plays aloud with a simple warning: “Careful. The characters do tend to wander around at night.” It is the Lord’s voice.
The lights in the room flicker, and Ren wonders how much electricity there is— or isn’t. She glances at the computer screen, where an assortment of tabs are open. Each time she clicks a tab, footage from a different security camera in the building pops up. Most of the rooms are empty, but in some she sees figures— the same animatronics that are in the poster.
The lights flicker again and Ren hears a clicking sound which is not the ticking of her heart. She looks again at the screen and sees that one of the animatronics— the purple bunny— has moved. It is most certainly closer to the camera than it was before.
She swallows and turns to the keyboard. She finds out that she can close the doors on either side of the room by clicking two of the keys, and that doing so depletes what little electricity she has. This, she can tell by the percentage at the bottom of her screen.
I hate this, she thinks, because she is too nervous to break the silence.
What is she even supposed to do?
Again, she looks at the screen. The purple bunny is gone.
She flicks the screen and finds it in another room. Have the others moved? She finds herself flicking from one screen to the next, paranoid when the animatronics disappear off one screen and reappear on another. Every time, they are closer to her room.
She begins to hear strange, shuffling footsteps.
And then— music. The high-pitched melody of some kid’s song.
A laugh echoes down the hall.
Ren’s eyes dart between the doors. She thinks she sees eyes in the darkness and closes one door, only to hear shuffling from outside the other.
She breathes in. Tick. And out. Tock. In. Tick…
Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. She realizes belatedly that the ticking is not her heart.
It is footsteps.
“AH!” The scream sounds in her ear, and Ren jumps up into the air, also screaming. It is only when she is standing on her chair that she realizes she has closed both doors.
“Oh my god,” says a voice at her ear. “Did you see it? That thing was right outside!”
Ren realizes she has been so absorbed in her fear that she has forgotten about Jasper. “You scared the crap out of me!” she hisses. “Keep your damned voice down.”
She falls back into her chair and checks the screens. Only when she is sure the terrible creatures aren’t roaming outside does she open the doors. She does not want to think about what will happen if the animatronics get into the room.
She looks down and sees that her hands are shaking.
“I hate this game,” she whispers.
“Same,” Jasper says. “Hey, do you have any like, secret weapons?”
Ren wonders what will happen if she throws Jasper out the door. Would he be able to claw out the creatures’ eyes? Act as a distraction?
“But you brought something inside with you, didn’t you?”
Ren suddenly remembers the thing the Narrator threw at her before she fell through the stage. She reaches into her coat and grabs it. It is a cellphone. An old model.
The screen flashes with an incoming call from The Prodigy. It vibrates silently.
Ren puts it to her ear, expecting more cryptic explanations from the Lord. Instead, she hears the young voice of the Narrator.
“Hi,” he says. “Are you stuck in a video game with really creepy animatronic characters? Main goal is surviving the night without being mauled to death?”
“I think so.” The lights flicker. “How do you know this?”
“I have a book that tells me the future.”
“Right now it’s telling me that a purple bunny is three seconds away from your door.”
Ren hears the scrape of its claws on the wall moments before she slams the door shut. Silence. And then, she hears receding footsteps.
She and the Narrator let out a collective sigh of relief.
“My name is Henry,” he says. “And I think I can help you cheat your way through this.”
And so he does— Henry remains on the phone with her and tells her exactly when and what is coming for her at any given moment. Ren does not have to use up all of her electricity and come 6 a.m., she is unharmed. A message appears on her computer screen: SHIFT OVER.
Ren is happy enough to cry. She stands up and waits, expecting to be whisked out of this world now that she has completed her objective.
Instead, the light turns off and the room falls into darkness.
“Henry?” Ren says into the phone. “What’s happening?”
“There’s something—“ Henry’s voice abruptly cuts off into static. Then, moments later, it is replaced by the Lord’s voice. “Tsk, no cheating, Ren. You’ll have to face this last challenge alone.” The call cuts off, and Ren is left alone again in the dark.
Distantly, she can make out A STRANGE, MUFFLED SOUND. It is the only thing that fills the tense silence.
“Hey,” Jasper says, voice uncharacteristically soft. “You have another call.” Ren looks numbly down at her phone. Sure enough, it is vibrating again, the words UNKNOWN NUMBER flashing across the screen. “Maybe it’s help?”
Who could possibly be calling her?
Ren hears a scratching sound outside. Her breathing hitches.
There’s only one way to find out.
CHAPTER FOURTEEN:THE BASEMENT Location: Inside a Rolls Royce, Time: 9:30 a.m.
You are approaching your street when J.D. Wylder gets a call and asks you to check it for him. Shakespeare Nut flashes across the screen and you know before Wylder says anything that it must be Dr. Perry Winkle.
“Go ahead and answer; I’ll put her on speaker.”
The moment you hit the button, the music in the car dies out and is replaced by Dr. Perry Winkle’s shrill voice. “You little thief!”
You flinch back at the outburst, but J.D. Wylder just laughs in response.
“Hola, Miss Winkle.”
“Hello, Short stuff.” The words sound like they’re coming from between gritted teeth.
At this, Wylder openly scowls. “What do you want? I’m busy dropping Anon home.”
Silence on the other end. And then, “Anon, are you there? I’d like to file a complaint against Mr. Wylder. He’s impeding on my territory by posting surveys for my character!”
You throw a sideways glance at Wylder, who shrugs. “I’m in charge of conflict.”
“Conflict, not my character!” Perry pauses and then says, “Wait, if you two are in Anon’s neighborhood, that means you’re close to me. Anon, would you mind dropping by the university for a chat?”
It is an effort to suffocate your sigh. As tired as you are, you cannot afford to decline Perry’s request. You are in charge, after all. Thankfully, Wylder agrees to drive you.
Only, he does not actually drive. You are horrified to find out that autopilot is a function, and that Wylder commands the car to drive itself while he looks at the answers for the last chapter. The survey’s answers are Perry’s responsibility, but Wylder runs the suggestions through a random number generator and—
He bursts out laughing. “Oh god.”
J.D. Wylder just grins at you. “I love the random number generator” is his only answer.
Eventually, The University comes into view. The building that houses the English department— and Perry’s office— is atop a small hill. Wylder parks at the top and dons his skull mask as you exit the car. Outside, a passing university student gives him a look.
Wylder snaps his fingers and points at him, and the boys shuffles nervously away.
“Stay in school, kid!” He calls after the student. Then he turns to you, salutes, and says “May the force be with you” before rolling up his window and speeding away. You stare after him for a few moments, discontented by everything that recently happened with Wylder. The ominous feeling lingers as you head into the building and make your way to Perry’s office.
Dr. Perry Winkle’s office is located in the basement, along with the rest of the department’s offices. Somehow, despite the doom and gloom feeling, her office is vibrant and colorful, filled with garlands of flowers and other floral knickknacks.
Dr. Perry Winkle sits at her desk, watching the fiction progress on her self-writing journal while also writing some Shakespeare essay. Your eyes snag on the bulletin board above her, which is pinned with university announcements. One in particular catches your eye. It is a missing student poster that features a headshot of a beaming undergraduate student. He is black-skinned with slightly mismatched eyes that…
Wait. You know those eyes.
“Hello again, Anon.” Perry notices your interest in the poster and smiles. “Look familiar?”
“That’s the Narrator in the Fiction,” you say faintly.
“He’s my favorite student,” Perry Winkle says fondly. “He’s always wanted to be in the spotlight— I thought I’d grant his wish.”
You stare at her. “You kidnapped one of your students and threw him into the Fiction?”
Perry shrugs, then hands you a clipboard. “Here, the survey results.”
“Oh.” Perry Winkle is staring at her self-writing journal when you look up. Her eyebrows are knit together. “Out of all things to get selected— that gets chosen?”
The self-writing journal continues to write the Fiction…
SELECTED SUGGESTION: #6
(Selected by the random number generator)
Location: A large stage in the Lord’s dwelling, Time: ???
“And behold! The item inside the chest is…” The Narrator abruptly becomes silent and stares, uncomprehending, at the script in his book. Ren stares into the box.
“…What?” The Narrator says.
“What?” Ren says, voice crackling with irritation.
“What?” The Lord says, impatient.
The Narrator clears his throat and says, “…a cosplay uniform with a short dress. It comes with a pair of cat ears and a uh, a whip.”
Ren glares at the outfit, willing it to combust into flames. Unfortunately, it does not.
The Lord begins to laugh. His tiny body quivers with the action, as if the laugh is too big for him. Between hiccups of giggles he says, “Put it on.”
Ren grimaces. “This is an offering for you, not me.”
The Lord abruptly stops laughing. “You want the golden apple? Then put on the outfit.”
Before Ren can say anything, the Narrator coughs into his microphone. “Uh,” he says. He seems to shrink when the Lord glares at him. “T-the script says she offers you the item in the chest.”
The Lord slams his fists into the arms of his chair. “So? I’m the Lord, I make the rules.”
The Narrator shakes his head. “But the Book determines the future. And if it says the outfit is an offering to you, then well…”
A strange thing happens then. The items in the chest disappear. The world goes white, as if someone has just snapped a photo with really, really bright flash. The Lord shrieks as Ren backs away, heart ticking nervously in her chest.
When the light clears, the Lord is standing on his chair, his beatific smile replaced with a terrifying grimace. His red teeth somehow appear even bloodier in this lighting. And yet—
He looks adorable.
The cosplay uniform, which would have been much too short on Ren, is too big for the Lord. The fluffy cat ears on his head are… endearing.
The audience begins to laugh. Not at her, but at him.
The lord pumps his arms up and down like a toddler. “How dare you! How dare you make a fool out of me!”
The Watchers all stand stoically around him, except for Grace, who is silent-laughing so hard her shoulders shake. The Lord does not seem to notice. He has eyes only for Ren.
At first, she thinks maybe she has triumphed.
Then the Lord raises the third item from the chest— the whip.
Ren pales as the Lord pushes to the front of the crowd.
She hears footsteps and turns to see the Narrator walking toward her.
The Lord nears the stage.
The Narrator walks faster.
The Lord climbs onto the stage.
The Narrator fast-walks.
“Watch out!” The masked narrator pushes her out of the way just as the whip comes down with enough force to crack a wooden board. And then, as if the stage was held together by only that single block of wood, it begins to collapse beneath her feet.
“Here!” The Narrator calls over the chaos. HE THROWS SOMETHING AT HER. “Take this! I’ll come back for it!” Ren catches the thing, but loses her grip on it as the stage beneath her breaks and she tumbles into darkness.
At least— she assumes it is going to be darkness.
But instead, she lands in a small, dimly lit room filled with unextraordinary furniture. In the corner of the room is a TV and next to the TV, a stack of video games. And atop the stack of video games: a very noisy, very real crow.
“Hey!” Jasper zooms toward her and attaches himself to her shoulder. “My partner in crime! Miss Bird Whisperer! I knew you would come for us.”
Ren groans as she stumbles to her feet. All around her is the debris from the stage— broken wood planks and crimson roses.
“My, if it isn’t Ren.”
She turns and sees Mr. Sin sitting on an armchair, somehow managing to look menacing despite the fact that he is surrounded by shelves of toy action figures.
Ren frowns. “If you two are here then this must be… The Basement?”
“I would have preferred a trendy coffee shop,” Jasper says.
Mr. Sin sighs. “Even a torture chamber would have had more ambience.”
Ren looks between them quizzically, but before she can say anything, other things begin to fall from the ceiling. Not debris— but creatures. Five Watchers land on their feet in front of her. All of them wield unholy fire. And standing in front of them, whip raised, is the Lord.
“This is the end,” he says. “No one escapes the Basement, not even—“
An arc of fire flares through the air, and the Lord falls back with a cry. One of the Watchers— the only Watcher with a human face— stands with her hand raised, fingers splayed.
The Lord stares at her, mouth agape. “You— what are you doing?”
Grace’s smile is crooked beneath the shadow of her hood. “What does it look like? I’m betraying you, lordling. Your Watchers may take orders from you, but I’m no Watcher.” She grabs her cloak and in one impossibly fluid motion, pulls it from her shoulders and throws it up into the air, revealing THE APPAREL BENEATH IT.
“My name is Grace.” She taps the fire tattoo on her hand. “I’m the Chosen One.”
The room is quiet as everyone processes this information.
Then Jasper leans forward and whispers, “What a showoff.”
The word is like a magic spell, causing everything to unfreeze. The scene unfolds into pure, unadulterated chaos: the Watchers throw fire and Grace throws fire and the Lord yells at Ren and Jasper squawks and Mr. Sin yawns very loudly and Ren screams because the scene has all the chaos of a run-on sentence.
She stumbles back and away from the fighting, searching for the item the Narrator threw at her before she fell through the stage. She has just picked it up when Jasper flaps his wings and says, “Hey! That thing wasn’t on before, was it?”
Ren turns in-place, and beholds the TV she saw
earlier. Only now, it is on. The video game console beside it hums with energy. Even as Ren watches, the TV flashes with color, displaying the title screen of some video game.
From behind her comes the Lord’s voice. “One more game,” the little boy in the cosplay dress says.“You beat me, you win. You lose and you’re stuck in this game forever.”
Ren blinks. What does that even mean?
An explosion rattles the room and Ren falls. She makes to place a hand on the TV to balance herself— but a strange thing happens.
Instead of falling against the TV, she falls into it.
“Wow,” Jasper says. “Talk about deja vu. Didn’t this happen in the library
in chapter three?”
Ren does not hear his words. She is too consumed by shock and fear.
As she falls out of one world and into another completely fictional one, she forces herself to take in her surroundings. SHE IS SHOCKED INTO SILENCE BY WHAT SHE SEES…
CHAPTER THIRTEEN: THE LORD Inside a Rolls Royce, 9:00 a.m.
“The girl awakes to a profound silence. The quiet is a tangible, suffocating thing— a thick and ominous weight that clings to her shoulders as she forces herself to sit up. At first, there is nothing but the darkness behind her eyelids and the sound of her heartbeat. The world is simultaneously empty and infinite.
Then she opens her eyes, and the world resolves into predetermined shapes.
She is surrounded on all sides by dreary gray walls…”
An audiobook is playing in the background when you come back to reality. The narrator’s voice is a monotonous drone, their voice a soft buzzing in your ear.
You look around, hazy-eyed.
Even though it feels as if you have been asleep for months, everything is exactly the same. You are still in a Rolls Royce and stuck in the middle of some really terrible traffic.
“Finally back from the dead, Anon?” J.D. Wylder is waving a hand in front of your face, eyebrows raised so high they form a stack of neat lines on his forehead. “Finally. I thought you were going to sit there and stare out the window forever.”
You stare at him. Wylder stares back. The audiobook narrator is the only one that speaks into the awkward silence: “There is a bed, a sad looking thing that is just as drab as the walls. Just to the side of the bed there is a hook and on the hook, a crimson-black tailcoat jacket.”
It occurs to you that the words the narrator is speaking are familiar. When you tell Wylder this he snorts and says, “Well, yeah. I paid a woman to read the Liar’s Gambit. You know, the project you put on hiatus for months?”
More awkward silence ensues.
Then, sudden understanding lights Wylder’s eyes. “Oh. So this was your Plan B— keep the Fiction from being shut down by keeping it on eternal hiatus.” He starts laughing. Only there’s something malevolent about the laughter, and it sounds more like a cackle.
“Participation was dwindling,” you say honestly. “You can’t write a collaborative fiction if people aren’t interested in helping you write the story.”
Wylder snorts. “So you froze the entire project to keep it from failing?”
You say nothing. The answer is self-explanatory, after all. But then, something else occurs to you, and you turn to look at your laptop. Even though you distinctly remember putting the Fiction on a spontaneous hiatus, it is once again active.
“I did you the favor of restarting the Fiction,” J.D. Wylder says. He shrugs when you stare at him in horror. “What? Boss agreed to let us continue.”
Behind you, a car honks. Wylder makes a face in the rear view mirror and stomps hard on the gas. The car lurches forward suddenly, drifting easily down streets that were only moments ago jam-packed with cars.
You eye Wylder warily. “What’s the catch?”
There is always a catch with Boss, which is why you put the Fiction on hiatus in the first place. Better to freeze the whole project than to let Boss get ahold of it. She is an absolutely merciless author. You should know; you’ve worked with her since the beginning.
Wylder tries a smile but it looks more like a grimace. “It’s conditional,” he says. “We don’t get a certain amount of participation and Boss just ends the Fiction. No more warnings, no more polls for the audience. Just, bam, The End. Then Boss deletes the website, the story stops, and she gets to rewrite the whole thing whatever way she wants to.”
You focus on the outside in an effort to calm your rapidly beating heart. It doesn’t work. The audiobook only worsens your anxiety; the narrator’s voice is so bland it makes you want to scream.
“…She likes birds, she realizes. It is a strange thing to remember when every other memory is gone, but she cannot shake this affection. It is rather mystifying but also frustrating because the information is wholly useless…”
Wylder coughs. “So. You ready to do this thing, Anon?”
You smile grimly as you turn back to your laptop. You decide failure can’t be any worse than a hiatus. Both mean the death of a story, after all, even if one is only temporary.
You open up the Fiction’s blog and, for the first time in what feels like months, you watch the Fiction resume.
SELECTED SUGGESTION: #3
(Selected by random number generator)
Location: A large stage in the Lord’s dwelling, Time: ???
…She is certain she is looking at the Lord, though she is also surprised by the fact— even has to second guess it— because the Lord is nothing but a little boy. He is rosy-cheeked and has a bright and nearly cherubic smile that makes Ren falter. Around his neck he wears a necklace of skulls, skulls from small animals such as birds and rodents.
Ren stares. Or rather, she continues staring. It feels like she has been staring for a long time— for months. Or a year, maybe. Her whole body feels stiff and cold, like she’s made out of ice. Slowly, experimentally, she raises a hand.
The Lord raises a hand in response. “Hiya,” he says.
He is still beaming at her, eyes sparkling with innocence. And yet, Ren cannot help but look again at the small skulls wrapped around his neck and think they feel too intimidating for such a sweet face.
Ren frowns. “What do you want from me?” She is surprised by the hoarseness of her voice. She coughs to clear her throat.
The theater has gone completely quiet; the audience leers quietly at her from behind their permanently grinning masks.
The Lord laughs. “Well duh, I want to be entertained.”
The audience titters behind their masks, and Ren scowls. She takes a step closer to the edge of the stage, closer to the Lord, but then stops, seeing the Watchers around him tense. Her eyes flicker to Grace, who shakes her head quietly, urgently.
She keeps opening her mouth in what looks like aaah or nah. Either way, the message is clear. Ren stops where she is, and glares at the lord.
“Who are you? What have you done to the talking bird and the man in the suit?”
It all comes back to her slowly: the town, once apparently filled with people, now completely empty. Dandelion and Kaz (the barkeeper), escaping the Lord’s Watchers through a shadow portal. And Mr. Sin and Jasper…
“Your friends are waiting backstage for you.” The Lord is mindlessly poking a skull’s eye socket. He looks extremely bored. Kid-waiting-for-his-mom-to-come-out-of-a-meeting-bored. “If you want to see them again, you’ll entertain us.” He looks up and smiles, this time with his teeth.
Ren pales at the sight.
His teeth are jagged and stained red.
“If you don’t, we’ll send them to THE BASEMENT.” His voice pitches so high when he says the word it cracks. Nonetheless, it still manages to echo ominously.
Before Ren can think to ask what the basement even is, the stage again comes to life. Mounds of flowers fall from the ceiling, so heavy they physically shake the platform when they fall. Ren just barely manages to avoid being buried by another gigantic clump of roses.
Behind her, the narrator with the beautiful gold-white mask continues narrating: “The goddess of love was so adored she was given offerings by thousands. Many of her followers claimed she was the most loved goddess…”
Ren dives out of the way as yet another pile of roses fall to the stage with a heavy thud. She keeps running and, in passing, sees the narrator again.
He is reading from
that one book from Chapter Two a book she recognizes: a book that has a grinning mask silhouette imprinted on the cover. She recognizes it as the talking book that saved her life.
She looks up, and her eyes snag on the narrator’s.
She realizes that his mask has holes for the eyes. She sees two different colors: one is a brown the shade of oak, and the other is a brown so dark it is nearly black. Their gazes lock, and the moment seems to slow, as if the world is moving in slow-motion.
Something snaps into place. She realizes she has seen this mask before.It was on a door at the very beginning of her journey.
“Who are you?” She whispers to the narrator.
The Narrator blinks at her. “ME? I’M…”
But then the moment is over, and before the Narrator can respond, the stage begins to darken. The hesitance in his eyes fades, and he resumes reading from the future-telling book.
“But the Goddess of Love was only one of many goddesses. There was also Hera and Athena, Eris and…”
The stage is suddenly lost in darkness. Ren cannot see anything, but as she listens to the story the Narrator is telling, she realizes she knows it. It is the story of Aphrodite’s Golden Apple. In order to earn the title of “Fairest” and a beautiful golden apple, Aphrodite offers a shepherd prince Helen of Troy and, consequently, starts a war.
Ren has read this story before. She used to read it sitting on the bed with her lover…
A single spotlight comes to life on the stage, soaking Ren in bright light. She narrows her eyes, trying to make out the Lord in the completely dark theater. She thinks, maybe, she can still see the glimmer of his red teeth.
“Aphrodite desired the golden apple above all else…” The Narrator says.
The Lord raises his hand. Ren can make out the glint of something gold cupped in his palm even from this distance.
The Golden Apple? She squints into the darkness. Or is it a key?
“If Aphrodite won the apple, she would be declared the fairest and surely then she would be the best of all goddesses. She would be able to get anything she wanted…”
The wooden planks in front of Ren begin to creak. She moves back, expecting something terrible to leap up at her, but the planks only slide aside to reveal a chest hiding inside the stage. Ren looks at the it suspiciously.
“To win the Golden Apple, she offered the item she found in the chest…”
Ren reaches down to brush her fingers across the top of the chest. This is not how the story goes, not at all. Her heart— the pocket watch—ticks nervously in her pocket as she reaches for the edges of the chest.
Slowly, she begins to lift the lid.
The Narrator’s voice suddenly gets louder, deeper. “AND BEHOLD! THE ITEM INSIDE THE CHEST IS…”
CHAPTER ZERO: THE GAMBIT A really dark room, time unknown
The woman in the ominously dark room leans back in her chair, watching words that are just as ominous flash across her laptop screen. She stares, stone-faced, as the blog post in front of her begins to write itself. An image posts itself onto the blog, followed by more words:
“It’s been a long time, huh? Or maybe, no time at all. I guess it depends on how long you’ve been reading this thing, or if you’ve been reading it at all.”
The self-writing blog pauses momentarily, as if deep in thought. The woman in the ominously dark room frowns at the blinking cursor. Its indecisiveness is deeply frustrating to her. So frustrating that she considers hitting the button. The Button. It is right there on her screen, waiting for her to press it:
“I know what you’re thinking,” the self-writing blog continues. “Or okay, wait. Maybe I don’t. So why don’t you tell me? Yeah, that’s right. TALK TO ME. (Click on the red letters all in caps to share your feedback. Yes, those letters just above!)”
The woman raises an eyebrow. She does not click the red letters all in caps. She will not participate in the story. She never has, and never will. Especially not now, when she plans on hitting the “Delete your site permanently” button and ending the project.
“Did you enjoy that, reader? Because if you did, you’d probably enjoy the rest of the “Liar’s Gambit!” It’s a collaborative choose-your-own-adventure where you, the reader, gets to leave feedback on the story and shape the narrative!”
The woman sighs. She is not impressed. But then again, it is very hard to impress her. It has been years since she was moved emotionally. The woman is still reading the self-writing blog when she receives an incoming call from one of her coworkers. She lets it ring five times to make it seem like she is busy doing other, more important things, before accepting the call.
A woman with a periwinkle flower tucked behind her ear smiles at her. “Hey, Boss.”
Boss’s frown deepens. “Dr. Perry Winkle.”
Dr. Perry Winkle’s smile slips from her face. “Did you get the update? The update from The Liar’s Gambit? The Fiction Anon spontaneously put on hiatus like, a year ago?”
Boss’s frown becomes an all-out-glare. “I did. I’m watching the live update now.”
Even as she speaks, the blog continues to update itself:
“If you’re interested in participating, you can read the SYNOPSIS HERE. (Yes, I know, synopses are super boring…)” The blog pauses, and then: “Which is why you should read the whole story, starting FROM THE BEGINNING!”
“Boss?” A dent has appeared between Dr. Perry Winkle’s eyebrows. “Are you writing this?”
Boss sighs, and colorful smoke escapes her lips on the exhale. She glances briefly at the cigarette she is holding: it is smoldering with colorful smoke. Crushed dreams, she once told Anon, her most problematic coworker. They didn’t say anything, just looked at her, terrified.
They should be terrified of me, Boss thinks. I’m an author, the most heartless creature in the world. I make characters suffer for a living.
She stumps the cigarette out in her ashtray and hisses at the screen. Dr. Perry Winkle, thinking she is hissing at her, ducks out of the screen with a sound of distress. Boss ignores her. She focuses, instead, on the self-writing blog.
More than a year ago, she and her coworkers started a project called The Liar’s Gambit, a Fiction where their audience got to shape their story. A little less than a year ago, that project abruptly went on hiatus. She isn’t sure why. She only knows that, because the project was on Unofficial Hiatus, she could not end it.
But now she can.
No one cares about this damned thing, she thinks. The reason Anon put it on hiatus in the first place was because participation was dwindling.
She told Anon many times that the Fiction would end if they could not find enough participants. A collaborative fiction relies entirely on participation, after all. Boss knows this– it is why she let Anon propose the idea in the first place.
And now, the project is dying. It should have been dead a long time ago, but the hiatus stopped her from entering the website and closing down the blog. Now, however, the power is back in her hands. Now, she can put a stop to this foolish collaborative novel.
She glances at the photographs scattered in front of her. They are photographs of the characters, of the people they have kidnapped from Reality and thrown into the Fiction. Her eyes hinge on the photograph of the girl in the red coat. “REN” is the name beneath the photograph.
Boss grins. It a malicious, crooked grin.
She has been wanting to torture these characters for awhile, but Ren most of all. And now, when she closes the project down for good, she will be able to. Once the project has “ended” on the Internet, she will reclaim authorship of it.
“How many authors does it take to make characters suffer?” She murmurs to no one. Dr. Perry Winkle does not reappear on the screen to answer her question, so Boss answers for herself: “Just one.”
Authors are solitary for a reason.
Boss moves her cursor to the DELETE button. She smiles.
But before she can click it, another incoming call encroaches on the quiet. Boss waits a few moments— cursing all the while— before she accepts the call. This time, it is a man with a skull mask on the other end of the line.
His lips are curled into what she reads as a defiant smirk.
“J.D. Wylder.” She narrows her eyes at her fellow coworker.
Wylder coughs and then, in a wobbly voice she thinks is meant to sound like an old woman’s, he says: “It’s been 84 years.”
“What do you want?”
“A second chance to run the Fiction.”
“I already gave Anon a second chance. The Audience has voted—“
“Actually, they haven’t.” J.D. Wylder grins. She hears a click on his end of the screen, and then she sees one last update on the self-writing blog which, evidently, was being written by J.D. Wylder the entire time.
The update says simply: “VOTE HERE TO KEEP THE LIAR’S GAMBIT RUNNING!” The bolded letters lead to a poll with only one answer.
“Give us a third chance then. Or a fourth,” J.D. Wylder says. The smirk has disappeared, and even though a skull mask obscures his features, Boss is suddenly sure that he is glaring at her. “If we don’t get enough responses, shut the thing down. For real, this time.”
Boss inclines her head. She should just say no. She has given these fools enough chances already. But, as an author, she cannot help but enjoy relishing in the struggle of others.
“Fine.” Boss leans away from the screen, and her features become obscured by the darkness of her office space. “But this will be your last move, Wylder.”
J.D. Wylder salutes her, then logs off.
In the darkness of the office, Boss bides her time. She has no faith in the Audience.
She never has.
CHAPTER TWELVE: THE PLAY Inside a Rolls-Royce, 8 a.m.
One hour and one chapter later, you are seated in the passenger seat of J.D. Wylder’s Rolls-Royce, which is frozen in city traffic. This wasn’t the way you were expecting to travel, but it was impossible to refuse Wylder when he offered you a ride home. Mostly because he bugged you incessantly until you agreed.
He has been blasting 80’s music since he started up the car. Right now, some song about karma and chameleons is playing. Earlier, it was a song about the color of money.
“How many 80’s playlists do you have?” You glance at Wylder, who is seated in the driver’s seat looking exceptionally bored. His expression wouldn’t be so profound if not for the fact that you can actually see it for a change.
He turns to you and raises a very visible eyebrow over a very visible eye. “I don’t do playlists. Shuffle just really likes my 80’s music.”
You stare at him, perhaps a little too long because he wiggles his eyebrows and grins at you. You turn away with a sigh. Without the skull mask you can make out all the details of his face: unremarkable brown eyes set beneath a set of bushy, relaxed eyebrows, an exceptionally aquiline nose and…
Wylder clears his throat. “I know I’m handsome, Anon but seriously, it’s rude to stare.”
“I thought one of us would die if you took off your mask?” You raise an eyebrow at him.
“It was a fifty-fifty chance. Thought I’d warn you anyway.”
“Why do you wear that thing anyway?” You cast a look over your shoulder at the skull mask, which has been set on the backseat. Really, the thing is anything but spectacular. But still, on Wylder’s face it looks appropriately enigmatic.
“Because.” The single word is his only non-explanation.
You groan as you glance at the traffic splayed out in front of you. You have caught more than a few people glaring at you enviously through their windows. You wish you could pin a disclaimer on your shirt, something like:
I’m not rich, HE is.
You pull your eyes away from the long line of cars to look at Wylder. You are surprised to see that he is now wearing a pair of sunglasses. Something designer brand and expensive. Something that would make your wallet scream, no doubt.
“How long do you think the Fiction has before Boss shuts it down?” He asks the question completely deadpan, his face fixed on the traffic ahead of you. Still, even then, you feel judged. Like a failure. As you should, probably— because it’s clear that your idea for the Fiction is about to fail, what with the significant decrease is responses.
“Not long,” you say with as much calmness as you can manage. It is difficult not to sound disheartened.
“I figured. So what’s Plan B when Boss does shut it down?”
“I don’t have a Plan B yet,” you admit, sheepish.
Wylder snorts. “Well, I recommend it. Because whatever you’re trying to accomplish with this project, you won’t be able to do it if Boss shuts it down.” You can see his eyes flit to you when he speaks. Or maybe he is looking not at you, but at the laptop you have balanced on your lap. It is already opened to the blog so that you can read the next chapter as it is written.
“Why did you start a collaborative Fiction, anyway? Writers don’t just give up control of their work. Unless…” His eyes seem to glint behind his glasses. “…They no longer have control over it in the first place.”
You stare resolutely at your laptop screen.
And say nothing.
SELECTED SUGGESTION: #5
(Selected with Random Number Generator)
Location: A large stage in the Lord’s Dwelling, Time: ???
Ren walks into what looks like a theater where people wearing masks fill every available seat. She realizes she is on a flat platform shaped like a semi-circle and that the crowd is beyond and above her— the seats climb upwards and away, rows of pale white chairs that seem to expand into infinity.
Slowly, Ren becomes aware of the fact that she is standing alone on the stage. She also realizes that the surrounding crowds are shouting. At first, she cannot make out the words. Then the shouting resolves into a single word.
The crowd shouts out “Aphrodite! Aphrodite!” again and again as Ren stands alone on the stage, gawking at her surroundings.
What kind of trial is this?
There is no answer to her question. Only that ceaseless call for Aphrodite, which is more or less gibberish to Ren. She knows who Aphrodite is, of course— the mischievous greek goddess of love, lover to many men, one of whom was Adonis…
“Did your parents name you Adonis just so you’d grow into it?” She nudges her lover’s arm with a smirk, amusement twinkling in her eyes.
Adonis falls back against his chair with an arm pressed to his forehead. He sighs loudly, dramatically. “It’s a cursed name. Do you know how many expectations come with it?”
“Oh yes, I can imagine. Your life must be so very hard.” She arches an eyebrow.
“My life is more intense than a soap opera,” Adonis says, and flutters his eyelashes just for the effect. Usually, Ren flicks his forehead when he does that, but right now she is too busy doing research to pay him any mind. A mythology book is open on the desk before her, opened up to a page on Aphrodite.
Adonis notices. He sits up and, setting his head on her shoulder, scans the page. “Hmm, what’s this? Research on Aphrodite?”
Ren nods. “I was just reading THE STORY OF APHRODITE AND…”
A glaring light startles Ren from the memory, cutting through the darkness of both mind and stage. She puts a hand to her eyes and grimaces.
Oh. The realization dawns upon her suddenly. Oh no.
The chanting ceases as suddenly as it started; the immediate area is suffocated in quiet. Ren tries her best to glare at the audience, but, much to her chagrin, the glare does not hold when she notices that every mask in the audience is smiling at her. No, not smiling so much as leering. They are all wear the same condescending smile…
There is only a single variation of the mask. Black on white instead of white on black.
A grand voice fills the space like ink on empty parchment: “Behold, ladies and gentlemen! The woman who stands before you is none other than Aphrodite, the most pulchritudinous of all goddesses…”
Pulchritudinous? Who even uses that word?
The audience is enamored; they applaud and hoot after the narrator introduces her, and do not stop until the voice continues: “It is said that the beautiful goddess had begun as nothing more than sea foam in the ocean…”
The narration continues, but Ren has stopped paying attention. The stage is beginning to rumble, and Ren’s concentration breaks apart as she fights to keep her balance. The light above her quivers, the boards creak— and then a gigantic glass wall shoots upwards from the edges of the stage, encircling the area.
Ren blinks up at the glass wall owlishly. A prison?
“Aphrodite drifted among the waves…” the narrator says. They are the only words Ren hears before the sound of falling water overwhelms his voice. At first, it is nothing but an ominous echo. Then, just as suddenly, the sound is directly above her head.
Ren looks up.
And then a gigantic wave of water crashes down on the stage from above.
Her world collapses into quivering and endless darkness. She cannot breathe, cannot move, cannot think. Panic floods her body just as certainly as water floods her lungs. She feels like she is sinking to the bottom of an abyss. Like a stone in a river, a boulder in the ocean…
But then there is a moment of clarity, of startling resolution. She is not going to die here, beneath some manmade ocean. Not when she has made it this far, and has just begun to start remembering things.
At first she flails but then, after the panic fades to anger, she synchronizes her body and begins to swim, rising higher and higher… until she is at the water’s surface. She is sputtering, but breathing at least.
A distant cry echoes from beyond the glass wall. A cheer. Or perhaps laughter.
She has no idea how long she remains struggling on the water’s surface before finally, the manmade ocean begins to drain. By some strange magic, the water simply sinks into the floorboards, taking Ren with it.
When the last of it has drained into the stage, Ren alone remains, dripping wet and glaring. The stage rumbles again, the gears beneath it straining and hissing as the glass wall disappears back into the edge of the stage. With the glass gone, Ren can finally hear the audience.
They are laughing at her.
She clenches her fists and grits her teeth. At that moment, she wishes fervently for fire magic. Anything to burn down this damned place.
After the tittering is over, the stage once again comes alive: this time with roses rather than water. The red flowers rain down on Ren from the high ceiling and gather at her feet until she is at the center of a blood-red pile.
“And thus, the goddess of love was born,” says the narrator.
Ren’s anger abruptly crumples, replaced by shock when she realizes the narrator is now standing at the edge of the wet stage with his back turned to her. Though his voice projects across the theater, it is most clearly coming from the man in front of her.
Even as she stares, he turns and gestures to her grandly.
He, like everyone else in the theater, is wearing a mask. His, however, is colored gold and white and matches his outfit: a checkered white-gold vest over a pair of white pants. Though the hand he extends dramatically to Ren is empty, HE HOLDS AN ITEM IN HIS OTHER HAND that captures her attention.
It is the applause from the audience that forces Ren to look up and away from the object.
It is then, while she is staring out at the masked masses, that she notices one man situated in the center of the theater. He has a distinguishable aura, one that marks him as clearly different—superior— to everyone around him.
Even more damning are the Watchers that surround him. Ren recognizes the one behind him as Grace; the others are just horrid, ugly creatures that bring to mind the horror that transpired in the Ye (Not So Olde) Tavern.
If the man is surrounded by Watchers, then…
Ren fixes her eyes on him with a grimace. THIS MUST BE THE LORD.