CHAPTER TWELVE: THE PLAY

CHAPTER TWELVE: THE PLAY
Inside a Rolls-Royce, 8 a.m.

“So.”

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.

<—————————-

“So Anon.”

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)

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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…

LG_mask

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.

Stares.

Screams.

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.

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CHAPTER ELEVEN: GRACE

CHAPTER ELEVEN: GRACE
Train Tracks, 7 a.m. 

By the time you and Wylder make it out of the coffee shop, the sun has risen and Perry has already left for school. Her parting words were a response to your own timid musings, which had been something like: “I wonder if the Fiction will fail again?”

To which Dr. Perry Winkle had responded: “We fail! But screw your courage to the sticking place, and we’ll not fail!”

Then she had left, and you and Wylder had played a guessing game while you packed up, trying to figure out which Shakespeare play she had been quoting. Your money is still on Macbeth.

The sunlight feels like a reprieve from all of the dark musings that have been circling in your head, and you are personally glad for it. For the past two hours you have been doing research on the four main characters of the Fiction. Or rather, three. You could not find anything on “Ren,” who is still just as enigmatic as the committee member who chose her.

Regardless, your findings have not been… pleasant.

Now, you and Wylder follow a series of train tracks on the way back to the neighborhood’s central street. It is where his car is parked, and where your preferred mode of transportation awaits as well.

It is surprisingly quiet; Wylder has ceased talking and is staring at the train tracks as you walk. The silence gives you time to review some of what you’ve learned. You recall three of the more prominent news article headings:

RETIRED VEGAS MAGICIAN VANISHES PERMANENTLY IN DISAPPEARING ACT
HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT DISAPPEARS IN MYSTERIOUS APARTMENT FIRE
MAYHAM ON STAGE: LEADING ACTOR GOES MISSING DURING FINAL ACT

Three characters. All of them clearly kidnapped in the middle of real-life accidents. It’s a correlation, but not a new one. Most of the people thrown into the Fiction are victims of ‘accidents,’ after all.

It’s not the circumstances that are shocking, but the fact that all of the characters have families that have mysteriously disappeared along with them. This, you are sure, is not a part of the original rules set down by the committee…

“Penny for your thoughts, Anon?”

You turn to face Wylder, who is downing the rest of his coffee. He then crumples the cup in his hands with a surprising amount of aggression. Even beneath the mask, you can tell he is glaring.

“I was just thinking about research,” you murmur.

“Yeah? And how’s that been? Pretty damn dreary?” There is a strange bitterness in his voice. “Why didn’t you ask Perry Winkle about it? She chose one of the Fiction characters this time around, right?” His barrage of aggressive questions is disconcerting.

“She left before I could.”

Wylder stops at the edge of the tracks and, after a few moments hesitation, steps onto them. He puts some distance between the two of you, turns his back, and then pulls off his mask. A strange silence hangs in the air as he gazes down the tracks.

You can only stare at his back, wondering. Worrying.

“Wylder?”

“I almost died here,” he says abruptly.

You are not entirely sure of how to respond to him. Pronouncing him crazy certainly isn’t going to help the situation, and pity doesn’t seem like it will help much either.

“On the train tracks? What happened? Was it an accident?”

Wylder shrugs as he begins walking down the tracks. He has his portable game system in one hand and his mask in the other. You still can’t see his face when he says, “Nope. Boss just wouldn’t let me die.”

SELECTED SUGGESTION: #2

(Selected by Random Number Generator)

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Location: A manmade cave? , Time: ???

Ren can finally make out her surroundings. They are surrounded by rough stone walls. The Watcher’s firelight reveals that she is in what looks like a cave, except that the dryness and seeming lack of stalactites and stalagmites tell her it is not one made by nature.

Ren cranes her neck to observe what is situated above her, but the firelight is not bright enough to highlight the high ceiling. As such, all Ren sees above her head is an endless expanse of darkness. It is an unsettling sight; Ren can only imagine what is lying up there in wait…

“The Lord does not like to be kept waiting. I would caution against lingering here.”

Ren levels her gaze with a frown. Before her is the Watcher, waiting for her to follow. As the fire on the Watcher’s fingers illuminates only the immediate area, the area behind it lies in pitch black darkness. The air around them feels heavy and oppressive.

“What is this place?”

The Watcher sighs. “The Lord’s dwelling, obviously. He prefers ominous, dark spaces that strike fear into the hearts of men.” The creature continues walking ahead of her. Ren follows, knowing that to lag behind would mean to become consumed by darkness.

The two of them travel through a labyrinth devoid of light. Only the Watcher’s flame pierces the dark, revealing stone walls every once in awhile. Ren’s mind turns to other things as they walk, to the memory of Adonis that has already faded away, and to the perplexing sight that she beheld in the mirror.

“Red Cloak,” the Watcher says suddenly, startling Ren from her thoughts. She realizes, slowly, that it is referring to her by her clothing. When Ren doesn’t respond, the Watcher casts a surreptitious look over its shoulder and says, “What did you see in the mirror?”

It knows about the mirror?

Ren fumbles for words, trying to decide if it is better to reveal the truth. It wasn’t as if she understood much of what she saw, anyway. From what she remembers…

She was staring into an office filled with colorful smoke. Everywhere she looked, her own face smiled back at her in photographs. There were pictures of her everywhere. On the walls, on a nearby table— the room was almost a shrine.

In the middle of the space sat a woman in an immaculate suit. She had blonde hair and cold, cold eyes. Eyes that seemed to look through and into Ren.

Then the woman had cocked her head and smiled. And it had been such a terrible, toothy grin that for a few moments Ren had been struck dumb by its ferocity.

It had been a murderous, malicious smile.

And the scariest part about it was that Ren actually recognized it. 

Ren takes a deep breath and says, “I saw a woman.”

“She must have been important to you,” the Watcher says. “The mirror shows us the shape of our destiny in reality, after all. The woman you saw must be a part of that destiny.”

Ren frowns. It is possible that the Watcher is lying to her, of course. But if it is telling the truth— what does that mean? Who is the woman that Ren saw in the mirror, and why does she look familiar? Does she have anything to do with Adonis’ betrayal?

The Watcher stops abruptly in front of a shoddy wooden door. It performs a pattern of knocks on the wood and, after moments of silence, unlocks the door with a key in its pocket and steps inside. Ren follows slowly, cautiously, and nearly jumps out of her skin when the door slams shut behind her.

The Watcher turns abruptly, the fire at its fingertips expanding into the familiar shape of a flaming bird. This time however, the bird is brighter and more magnificent, filled with extra shades of blue, red and orange than Ren never even realized existed.

The Watcher surprises Ren by pulling back its hood, revealing features that had been in shadow before. What she sees is the face of a young woman who appears to be a few years her junior. Though her brown eyes are murky and difficult to read, her smile sparkles with a very humanlike mischief. Her black hair may as well be a mane; it is so thick and wavy Ren suspects many living things have gotten lost and suffocated in it.

“You’re… human?” Ren eyes her suspiciously.

“No. I’m a flesh-eating creature that takes the form of its last victim.” The woman snorts. “Of course I’m a human. Do my eyes not give it away?”

Ren eyes the palpable darkness around them and frowns. Then she looks at the bird. “Humans don’t usually craft birds out of fire and lead people through dark, ominous hallways.”

“True, true. But I’m not just any human. I’M THE CHOSEN ONE FROM MY VILLAGE’S PROPHECY. Grace is my name.” She holds up her left hand, and Ren is surprised to see a strange, yet familiar marking on her palm:

LG_flame

“People also call me the Fire Starter,” Grace says with a smug smile. “Anyhow…” She tucks her hands— both marked and unmarked— into the pockets of her robes. “As you can see, I’m here for infiltration purposes. Watchers don’t have eyes; they can only read body temperatures. Since I can use fire like the rest of them, they let me pass. It’s all going very well.”

Ren clears her throat. She is glad to have an ally (?) here, but she still has no idea what she is doing here and, more importantly, what happens now. When she says this to Grace, the woman shrugs and says, “Well, the Lord wanted to see you, and I intend to bring you to him. I doubt he’ll kill you right away— he obviously wants you for something.

“He hasn’t even killed your friends yet, which is quite the miracle.” She gestures, and the firebird on her shoulder hops down her arm and settles on her wrist with a screech. Its fire illuminates another door that Ren hadn’t realized was there before.

“The Lord is beyond that door. His room often changes based on the person.”

Ren blinks. “What does that even mean?”

“It means that the Lord will have some special trial waiting for you.” Grace turns and makes her way over to the door with a flourish. The firebird, which has once again retreated to her shoulder, cocks its head at Ren in a seemingly curious way.

Grace pulls open the pathetic wooden door and gestures inside to (yet more) darkness.

“Your trial awaits, Red Cloak.”

“And if I refuse to go through with it?”

Grace and the firebird exchange a glance. Then, amazingly, the firebird begins to speak again in Jasper’s voice: “Hey! If you don’t do anything, then I’m doomed! Is this how you repay me for all of my help?

Grace smiles. “There you have it. The fire doesn’t lie, Red Cloak.” She flashes her another grin before walking into the darkness, leaving Ren alone. Whatever other words the firebird had been about to speak fade away into nothing.

Ren chases after her with a hiss. “My name is Ren.

Fine. You want to play games? I can play games. She cracks her knuckles.

SHE STEPS THROUGH THE DOOR AND INTO THE “TRIAL” AWAITING HER…

(Next update: Wednesday, June 6, 2018)

CHAPTER TEN: THE MIRROR

CHAPTER TEN: THE MIRROR
Some Obscure Coffee Shop, 6 a.m.

The hour passes in near silence until the coffee shop’s front door opens and a woman steps inside. It is, surprisingly, a woman you happen to know and work with.

“Dr. Perry Winkle?”

Dr. Perry Winkle stops to stare at you. Today she is in a floral-themed dress and high-heeled sandals— an outfit that looks like it came right out of a summer catalogue. The usual periwinkle flower is tucked behind her ear. “Anon?” Her eyes flit to your table companion. “Wylder? What are you two doing here?”

Wylder presses something on his screen before turning to Perry. “What do you think we’d be doing at a coffee shop, Miss Winkle?”

“Call me Miss Winkle again, Mister Wylder, and I will knock that mask off your face.” She cracks her knuckles as she approaches, making clear that the threat is a promise. She pauses at the edge of the table to glance between the two of you with a raised eyebrow. “I never knew either of you were coffee people.”

Wylder shrugs. “I always thought you were a tea person.”

“Me? Ha!” Perry slides casually into the chair across from Wylder and crosses one leg over the other. “Do you not see how much energy I have coursing through my veins? It takes a lot of caffeine to make that happen, kid.”

Wylder frowns. “Kid?”

Perry smiles at him sweetly. “Would you rather I call you Shortstuff?”

Wylder stands (showcasing his full 5’4 height) and glares at Perry beneath his mask. “Call me that again and I’ll put a curse on you.” He promptly walks away to the front counter before he can hear Perry’s response.

Perry cackles as she leans down to pull something out of her large purse. “Avaunt! And quit my sight! Let the earth hide thee! Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold; thou hast no speculation in those eyes which thou dost glare with!”

She pulls a book out of the bag with a smile. You only catch the briefest glimpse of the cover before she opens it, but the murder of crows and the central figure cloaked in red immediately clues you in to what you are looking at.

Cover_committee_edit

“The Liar’s Gambit?” You raise an eyebrow. “Is that what we’re calling the Fiction?”

Perry shrugs as she opens the book to the latest chapter. The page is blank save for the chapter heading: THE MIRROR.

“Boss texted me this morning asking my opinion. This was our consensus.”

She plucks a pen from her purse and begins to scribble down the opening lines to the next chapter. Before you can protest she looks up and whispers: “Foul whisperings are abroad: unnatural deeds do breed unnatural troubles…”

Then, without any explanation, she sets the pen aside and allows the Fiction to start writing itself.

SELECTED SUGGESTION: #4 

(This suggestion was chosen spontaneously by Dr. Perry Winkle, the committee’s romantic)

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Location: Ye (Not So) Olde Tavern, Time: Irrelevant at this point, honestly 

It is an object that strikes fear into her heart: an antique, handheld mirror. Seared into the back of the mirror are the words: “Ren, for when we are apart, [LOVER’S NAME].

Though the signed name is, for some reason, impossible to read, Ren recognizes the mirror immediately. How could she not? It is an object filled with strife…

She shakes the memories away before they can permeate her mind. She cannot afford to remember, not now, when she is in terrible danger. But still— she cannot steal her eyes away from the mirror.

The mirror frame has an intricate design: ornate golden leaves on a surface that is colored black. There is a beautiful bust of a crow at the top of the mirror, one that is so familiar Ren is almost irritated by it. The longer she stares at the mirror, the more she becomes certain that it is more than what it seems.

“Ren!” Dan’s voice is faded. Ren knows that if she does not step back now, he will most certainly vanish without her and yet…

“You go on ahead,” Ren says. Her voice is filled with a bravado that she does not feel, but she hopes it will inspire her nonetheless.

She has already decided to stay.

She turns to look at Dan, and though his lips seem to be moving, no audile words escape his mouth. He makes a desperate gesture with his hand— then disappears completely, leaving Ren alone with the Watcher.

She turns to face the creature again, expecting a grisly face and flaming fingers. Instead, she finds herself looking into the surface of the mirror. She is not prepared for what she sees. It is not a reflection, BUT SOMETHING ELSE ENTIRELY.

The image is the last thing she sees before something suddenly strikes her from behind. Ren crumples to her knees as stars dance mockingly in front of her eyes. White blossoms into red and then into black.

Crap, she thinks.

Then she passes out.


She can still remember the moment she was gifted the mirror. It was a gloomy, stormy night. Her birthday. She remembered being disgruntled at the weather; she and her lover had been meaning to drive to some tourist location that day. Some house with… falling water.

But the rain had become a storm, and the storm had escalated into a tempest. The windows were rattling and the rain was beating down on the windowpanes with a tenacity that was both awe inspiring and terrifying.

“Hey, Miss Bird Whisperer.” A man— the man she loved— leaned down to plant a kiss on her cheek before plopping down on the bed beside her.

Ren smirked. “No birds in the sky for me to talk to today, I’m afraid.”

“I bet the geese are still out.” He groaned. “Devil spawn wouldn’t be afraid of a tempest.”

Ren nudged him with a laugh. “Hey, geese aren’t that bad.”

The man looked at her, deadpan. “If I die, it will be because a goose killed me. I swear they’re out to get me.”

“I sense some childhood trauma. Want to talk about it?”

He coughed, cleared his throat and then, rather abruptly, withdrew a ribboned package from behind his back. “You know what’s better than talking about childhood trauma? Talking about birthday gifts!” He handed her the package, then began singing “Happy Birthday”— in five different languages, all at once. It was the single most awful thing Ren had heard in her entire life. Especially because he was tone-deaf.

“Okay, okay, I get it. I’ll open your gift!” She began tearing the wrapping paper to pieces. Inside was a cardboard box and inside that…

She held up the ornate mirror and stared in awe. “God, this is…”

Gorgeous, she wanted to say. But she choked on the word instead, because for just a split second, haunting images flashed across the mirror’s surface. A woman cackling in a cloud of smoke. A pale man with a gun aimed at his own head. A young woman falling out of an extremely high tower window…

“Impressive, eh? I commissioned it myself. Look, I even did this.” He took the mirror from her numb hands and turned it over. There on the back, she saw the words: Ren, for when we are apart…


It is not a voice that wakes her, but an unbearable heat. At first it only seems to touch her skin, but then it quickly spreads deeper, punctuating muscle and flaying bone. She feels, suddenly, as if there is smoke in her lungs.

I can’t breathe.

A hacking cough escapes her lips as she forces herself to sit up. She expects to see creatures with gnarled faces, or perhaps an inferno. Something to explain the sudden and nauseating heat in her body.

Instead, she sees a lone Watcher standing before her. Flames dance on its fingertips— five fingers, not three, Ren notes— and throw ominous shadows across the gloomy gray walls. From what Ren can see, the room is empty except for the single Watcher.

When she attempts to stand, the Watcher raises its flaming hand and snaps its finger. The fire at its hand spirals upwards and spreads. In mere moments the fire has crafted itself into the shape of a bird. It hops onto the Watcher’s shoulder and in a shockingly familiar voice says: “Don’t move, Ren. Bad idea.

Ren freezes in place, eyes wide as she stares at the talking fire bird. It is most definitely using Jasper’s voice.

What the hell is happening?

The Watcher takes a step forward and holds out its free hand. This close, Ren can see that its features are different from the Watchers that she saw at the tavern. While the other Watchers had only nostrils and a small red mouth, this one has a fully formed nose and, thankfully, eyes. Dark brown eyes that are set beneath a set of firm, bushy eyebrows.

Even its robes are different. This Watcher’s robe is less mechanical, and there is only a single skull hanging from its shoulder like a bag.

“What do you want from me?” Ren glowers at the Watcher with as much vehemence as she can manage.

The creature cocks its head to the side and hmms. It gestures into the darkness. “The Lord is calling for you. Come see him, and he will answer.” Its voice is so human, so normal that for a few moments Ren is shocked into silence. She considers the thing’s features and gapes when she sees that the Watcher is raising an eyebrow at her.

“It’s rude to stare,” it says.

Ren scowls. “It’s rude to…” She gesticulates around the room. She realizes, belatedly, that without the Watcher’s flames, it would be pitch black in here. Just the thought of being in this dark, enclosed space by herself makes her involuntarily shudder.

“It’s rude to capture someone,” she says weakly.

“It’s ruder still to kill them. You should be grateful you’re still alive. The Lord could have had the Watchers kill you, yet here you stand.” The Watcher actually grins at her. “You’re quite the lucky one. Now, get up.”

The fire bird on her shoulder adds: “If you don’t get up soon, I’m going to be devoured by cats. Oh, also, Mr. Sin is probably going to be tortured.” A pause. “Oh yeah, and John Doe—“

Before the flaming bird can say anything else, the Watcher extinguishes it with her fingers. The bird devolves back into simple fire.

Ren scrambles to her feet. “What have you done with the others?”

“The Lord will answer your question.” The Watcher turns its back on her and starts toward the door. Ren hesitates, but ultimately follows.

I never have a choice in the matter, she thinks grimly. I may as well be a puppet.

“Who is this Lord?” She asks as the Watcher leads her through the door.

“The Lord of this place, and the creative mastermind behind the Watchers.” The Watcher takes her out into another dark space and Ren pauses. She wills her feet to move, but they do not budge. Wariness roots her to the spot.

The Watcher is already far ahead of her when it stops to look at her over its shoulder. “Afraid of the dark, are we?” It snaps its flaming fingers.

The fire bursts to life, illuminating the area around them in golden hues. REN CAN FINALLY MAKE OUT HER SURROUNDINGS…

CHAPTER NINE: THE WATCHERS

CHAPTER NINE: THE WATCHERS
Some Obscure Coffee Shop, 5 a.m.

At 5 in the morning, the coffee shop is absolutely empty, which, of course, is exactly what you were counting on. It is impossible for one to look over classified documents in a crowded place, after all.

“Onion?” The barista says uncertainly. After a few moments, you realize that it is supposed to be your name she is calling. You stare at her, and she flushes.

“I’m sorry, what was your name again?”

It is 5 am, there is no one else in the shop and your name is literally 4 letters. How hard is it to remember Anon? You have to bite your tongue as you grab your ordered drink and make your way back to your table.

You are surprised to see someone waiting there for you.

J.D. Wylder is seated at the table with his arms crossed, bobbing his head up and down to music he’s listening to on his earphones. He raises a hand in greeting when he sees you. “Long time no see, Onion. Beautiful morning, isn’t it?”

You glare at him, but Wylder just cackles as he stuffs his earphones into his pocket. “Sorry, couldn’t help myself.”

You slide into your chair and groan. “What do you want, Wylder?”

“Lots of things. World peace, a cure for cancer…” He waves a hand. “But right now, I’ll settle for an iced coffee.” He leans back in his chair and looks at you expectantly. “Make it an iced caramel mocha, Anon.”

“You have two legs. Get it yourself.”

“Me, go up to the front in this mask? The barista will probably have a heart attack.”

“Or she’ll laugh at you.” You reach for your drink. “You could also take off the mask.”

“If I take off this mask, I’ll die.”

You nearly choke on your drink.

“Or you’ll die. Either way, there will be dead bodies involved. Anyway.” He leans forward suddenly and grabs one of the news articles off the table before you can stop him. He glances at it briefly before holding it up and pointing at the headline:

 RETIRED VEGAS MAGICIAN VANISHES PERMANENTLY IN DISAPPEARING ACT

“Doing research on Dandelion, are we?”

You snatch the article from him with a grimace. “What do you really want, Wylder?”

Wylder leans back in his chair, reaches into a messenger bag you hadn’t noticed he was carrying, and pulls out a compact black… thing. It is not until he presses the power button on it that you realize it is another video game console. This one appears to be portable.

“What if I don’t want anything, hm? What if I just want to spend time with a coworker? You’ve talked about this place before, and I thought I’d give it a try.”

You narrow your eyes at him. The more he dodges the question, the more suspicious you become. It is obvious he must be here for a reason… but what, exactly?

Wylder leans forward, presses the START button on the console and stands up.

“If you’ll excuse me.” He turns on his heels and approaches the baffled barista. “I have some foofoo coffee to buy.”

SELECTED SUGGESTION: #7

This suggestion was selected according to J.D. Wylder’s preferences

Screen Shot 2018-05-20 at 8.05.51 AM

Location: Ye (Not so Olde) Tavern, Time: Some point after sunset 

And then, “they” step through the front door. There are only three of them, but they seem to overwhelm the tavern space regardless. They have gray faces with noseless nostrils and a pursed, very red mouth. Ren realizes immediately that they have no eyes.

She stares in horror at the things’ arms, which are long and thin and topped off with hands that contain only three, very gnarled, spidery fingers that seem to point at her accusingly.

“Move!” Jasper screeches, and the sound of his voice spurs her into action.

She detaches herself from Dan moments before the area between them bursts into flame. The bewildered Dan steps back and waves his hat at the flames. Ren, meanwhile, turns indecisively to the glass coffin where Mr. Sin is trapped. He is pounding on the glass, yelling as the flames push toward the coffin.

I have to let him out.

“To your left!” Jasper shrieks.

Ren has only a single moment to determine whether this means moving left or right. In the end she ducks behind the glass coffin instead. Some terrible force slams into the glass, causing it to rattle. Miraculously, the thing does not shatter or topple.

“Well,” Jasper says. “Apparently Mr. Sin makes a very good shield.”

Inside the glass coffin, Mr. Sin is wheezing. “What the hell is this thing made of?”

“Magic!” Dan says triumphantly from behind a wall of flames. He sounds amazingly cheery for such a dire situation. “…And glass, I suppose.”

Ren peeks her head out from behind the coffin and narrows her eyes at the three creatures. None of them have moved, but each of them seems to have its head angled in a different direction. Despite having no sight, they are each staring directly at someone— one looks at Ren, the other at Dan, and the last at the barkeep, who has finally made it to the stage area.

“You two need to get out of here!” Kaz snaps. He turns to face them, and the intensity of his eyes is almost on par with the heat of the flames. “Doesn’t matter what tricks you can do, Mr. Dandelion, you can’t kill the Watchers!”

Ren glances at the eyeless creatures. This time her attention is caught by their robes, which have a strange mechanical appearance that is at odds with the robe’s silken texture. Perhaps the illusion is created by the wires that are wound around their thin bodies, or the ticking clocks that are both stitched into the material and also protruding from it. If that wasn’t odd enough, the robes are also adorned with skulls— some belong to animals, but others are clearly human.

The Watchers, Kaz called them. WHAT ARE THEY?

“You know what happened to the rest of the villagers? They ran away because they knew they wouldn’t survive. You hear me? They ran, which is exactly what you should be doing!”

No sooner have the words escaped Kaz’s mouth that all hell breaks loose.

One of the creatures raises its fingers toward the flames and the fire explodes, creating a force so strong it sends Ren skidding across the stage. Jasper flees from her shoulder with a startled cry.

He calls her name frantically, but Ren can barely focus. Her mind is so foggy that, for a few moments, everything is a painful blur. She cannot see anything, cannot hear anything, cannot…

“REN!” Jasper’s screech pierces her jumbled mind and brings her back to reality. She gasps and sits up just in time to see one of the Watchers pointing at her.

A wall of fire erupts at her feet, and it is all Ren can do to get away before the fire torches her feet. With the robed creature closing in, she does the first thing she can think of— she takes out her gun and fires at its head.

Thud.

The robed creature freezes, puts a hand absently to the hole in its forehead, and then continues forward.

Immortal creatures. Lovely. 

Ren pushes to her feet and looks around. The tavern has become an ocean of flames and chaos. Somewhere in the mess she can hear Dan and Kaz, though she cannot make out what they are saying. And beneath that sound, somewhere close by is—

Mr. Sin.

She can see the glass coffin out of the corner of her eyes, reflecting all of the terrible gold and red hues of the fire. It is in that moment, as she takes in the terror on Mr. Sin’s face, that she notices something she hadn’t seen before: a nearly invisible latch on the side of the coffin.

I can’t just leave him here.

She falls back, keeping her gaze trained on the flames as she approaches the coffin. She kneels, raises her gun— and knocks it into the latch hard enough to break it off.

Mr. Sin kicks the pane of glass open just as Ren turns back to the Watcher and shoots. Just as she expects, the bullet does not harm the creature, but it does petrify it long enough for Mr. Sin to escape the coffin.

“Give me the gun.” Mr. Sin holds out a hand. When she hesitates, he snatches it from her fingers, turns it on the Watcher, and shoots a bullet straight into its chest.

Thud.

The creature pauses to glance at the black blood that now oozes from its skin.

Mr. Sin clicks his tongue and says, “Perhaps we’re actually getting somewhere.” He offers Ren a grim smile before pushing forward. Each of his steps is punctuated by a gunshot.

Thud. Thud. Thud. Every bullet causes the Watcher to retreat.

Ren stares on in shock. How many bullets does he have?

Mr. Sin disappears into the hell of smoke and fire, leaving Ren alone. It is not for long; only moments later she feels fingers at her wrist. Someone pulls her back and hisses into her ear: “We need to leave.”

She recognizes Dan’s voice without turning around. There is an urgency in it that is at odds with his usual laissez faire character. Which means that they are in deep, deep trouble.

Dan pulls her backward, toward a patch of amassing shadows. Kaz stands at the edge of the darkness, staring around the tavern with eyes that sparkle with tears. He looks at Ren, takes a deep breath, and then steps into the darkness. He is gone in the blink of an eye. Ren stares in horrified amazement before unlatching herself from Dan.

“Mr. Sin’s still in here.”

Dan stares at her, wide-eyed. “Leave him be, Ren. He can handle himself. But we have to get out of here.” He steps back toward the portal and holds out a hand. Ren can see his body beginning to regress into shadow.

She looks frantically around the room, but Mr. Sin is nowhere to be seen. And…

Where is Jasper?

Dan has reached the edge of the portal. Shadows lap at his feet like hungry waves, pulling him deeper and deeper into darkness. He gestures frantically at Ren. “There’s nothing more we can do here, Ren.”

She looks around the tavern and feels her heart falter. The place is caving in on itself, the fire eating up everything and anything in its path. She can hear gunshots in the smoke, and— but hopefully this is just her imagination— the shrieking of a bird.

She takes a deep breath.

DOES SHE STAY OR ESCAPE?

The thought tumbles around in her mind as she notices something flickering in the corner of her eyes. She turns, hoping to see Mr. Sin or Jasper but instead, sees one of the Watchers approaching. Though she knows instinctively that she should look away from it, there is something about the creature that catches her attention. Something that is different. Something…

And then she realizes what it is: the Watcher is holding something in its hands. IT IS AN OBJECT THAT STRIKES FEAR INTO HER HEART. IT IS…

(Next update: Friday, May 25, 2018)

CHAPTER EIGHT: THE BARKEEP

CHAPTER EIGHT: THE BARKEEP
Outside ‘The Office,’ 4 a.m.

By the time you make it back home it is 4 a.m. and you are exceptionally tired. So much so that you do not recognize you have a guest until you nearly stumble into her. This is quite pathetic, considering said guest is in a bright yellow dress and sticks out like a sore thumb in the darkness of the night.

“Rough night, Anon?” Lady Euphoria stands from your porch and brushes specks of dust from her dress. Her expression is, as always, the epitome of skepticism.

Rough night is putting it lightly. The Fiction hasn’t even been running for a single day and yet you feel as if it has been going on for months. How is that possible? Is this what it feels like to be in charge of such a big project?

You look at Lady Euphoria warily. You have spent enough time with her to know that the bright and cheery colors she wears are nothing but a facade, an attempt to hide an inner darkness that is so expansive she has taken to calling it ‘the void.’

After a few moments, something occurs to you. “It’s 4 a.m.”

Lady Euphoria gasps. “Really? I had no idea.”

“Why are you at my home at 4 in the morning?”

“Because I’m a vampire and don’t sleep at night.” Euphoria delivers the statement with an intense deadpan stare. Then slowly, she shrugs. “Or I work an opening shift and needed to drop by some important documents before I went to work.”

She reaches behind her for a folder of documents. The motion makes the chain around her neck glimmer. Hanging off the chain is a golden amulet— an agimat, she calls it. It, unlike the bright attire, at least showcases part of her personality. From what you have been able to surmise, she is a surprisingly superstitious person.

She hands you the folder. “I figured you might need this, considering my guy’s already in the Fiction.”

You open the folder and look at the first document. You see that it has information on Dandelion, the Con Artist. This is not a character sheet however, but a reality sheet— a chart that describes Dandelion’s person in the real world.

Screen Shot 2018-05-15 at 7.44.38 PM

When you look up again, Euphoria has already started walking toward a motorcycle parked on the street. It is sleek, black and has the phrase: Walang tiyaga, walang nilaga printed on its side in silver letters. When she sees you looking, she grins and says, “It means no pain, no game.”

You clear your throat and eye the document again. One thing in particular has caught your attention. “He has a wife and child? What happened to them?”

Most of the people you bring into the Fiction are loners, people who won’t be missed. But a man with a spouse and a child…

Euphoria grins. “That’s part of the mystery, isn’t it? Let’s see if you can figure it out, Anon.” Her face disappears beneath the cool black glass of a helmet. “There’s some other information in there too. Text if you have any questions.”

A shrill buzz erupts from the bike as Euphoria starts the engine. She promptly salutes and drives away. The last thing you see on her is her amulet, winking gold beneath the moonlight.

SELECTED SUGGESTION 1: #10

(This suggestion was chosen by the Random Number Generator)

Screen Shot 2018-05-14 at 8.55.14 PM

Location: Ye (Not so) Olde Tavern, Time: Just past sunset 

The barkeep: an old man in surprisingly hip and trendy clothing. His attire is blatantly anachronistic yet impressively chic, plain yet stylish. His sweater vest and pants are especially vibrant in light of the dusty surroundings. He wears thick-rimmed glasses that are simultaneously too big for his face but also perfectly suited to it. Oddly, he looks like he has stepped off some fashion runway.

Only…

SELECTED SUGGESTION 2: #4 

(This suggestion was Wylder’s preference. It very conveniently suits the earlier suggestion)

Screen Shot 2018-05-14 at 9.15.32 PM

His colorful sweater vest is decorated with multiple pins, all of which proclaim him a “crazy cat man.” His sleek pants are, in actuality, covered in cat hair galore. Yet while his outfit is covered in hair, the same cannot be said for the top of his head, which is noticeably bald. Though it is difficult to peg down exactly what type of person he is from appearance alone,  he definitely does not look like he belongs here.

Ren is baffled by the sight of him, and even more uncomfortable when she notices the crooked smile on his face. At first glance he looks quite wicked.

Dan however, seems to have no such reservations about the man’s character.

“Ren, this is Kaz, the barkeep. Kaz, Ren.”

A cackling sound that may or may not be a laugh erupts from Jasper’s beak. “Oh goody, another three-lettered character name.”

Ren groans. “Ignore the bird, Kaz. It’s nice to meet you.”

“I don’t trust him,” Jasper says. “He’s clearly a cat person, and cats can’t be trusted.”

“It’s not good to assume, bird,” Kaz says in a gruff voice. He looks wholly unperturbed by the fact that Jasper is using human words to insult him. He turns to Ren, scanning her from head to foot.“You Dan’s new assistant?” He points to her chest. “Fake blood for a magic show?”

Ren puts a hand to the dried blood and flinches. “Excuse me?”

No sooner have the words left her mouth that she realizes what he means. For all the differences in their clothing, both she and Dan are dressed in coattail jackets. They really do look like a pair.

Ren has the sudden urge to throw off her jacket and stomp on it.

Dan shakes his head with a grin. “She has great fashion sense, but no, she’s not my assistant. That job will never be for anyone but my Shadow. You know that, Kaz.”

Kaz raises an eyebrow. “What about John Doe?”

Dan blinks. “Oh. I’d quite forgotten about John Doe. I suppose he’s useful too sometimes. Is he backstage?”

Kaz shrugs. “Believe so. He was at a loss when he put your volunteer in a glass box and then saw the audience was missing.”

“Oh, right. I’ve been meaning to ask someone about that. Where is everyone?”

The barkeep’s smirk fades. “The villagers are already gone.

He turns on his heels and makes his way back to the roundtable bar at the center of the tavern. It is an old, shoddy thing with chipped edges and multiple alcohol stains. Kaz makes his way around the table and gestures listlessly to the bottles displayed on the wall behind him.

“Can I get you two anything? Ale, mead, cider?”

Ren and Dan exchange a look. Jasper mumbles: “See, this is why I hate cat-people. They’re always so dodgy.”

Dan approaches the counter with an awkward smile. “Uh, would you care to elaborate, Kaz? WHY ARE THE VILLAGERS GONE?

The barkeep chuckles darkly as he reaches for a bottle. He begins to polish it with a rag. “You don’t want to know, boy.”

“On the contrary, I want to know very much,” Dan says with a frown.

Ren takes a step forward. Just one, because she is still very wary. “Might I ask why you are the only one we’ve seen so far?”

Kaz looks up with a grim smile. “A barkeep goes down with his tavern. I’m here until the bitter end.” He turns his gaze to Dan, blinks, and then goes back to cleaning the bottle.

Jasper clicks his beak. “What, cat got your tongue, old man? Or is it the audience?”

Dan shakes his head. “I don’t understand, Kaz. Ren and I most definitely heard the villagers. There was even a slamming door.”

Kaz pauses and looks up. “What you hear is only a memory, boy. A magic trace. It keeps the history of this place preserved, but only in memory.”

“Ah, I suppose that explains the whisper of magic I felt in the air earlier. But Kaz you must give us the bigger picture…”

The conversation continues, albeit very one-sidedly. Dan tries to coax the old man into talking, but whether it is because Kaz is traumatized or simply stubborn, he refuses to say anything else about what happened. When Ren sees that Dan’s efforts are useless, she turns away from the scene and begins to explore the rest of the tavern.

It is an exceedingly gloomy place. The lighting is dreary, nothing more than patches of warm light strewn across creaking boards and crudely constructed tables. A thin stream of smoke wafts from the fireplace, and there are shelves all around her displaying bottles— not all of them filled with alcohol, from what she can see.

Ren has just come around to the stage when she notices movement out of the corner of her eyes. It is Mr. Sin. He is still in the glass coffin, but now he has given up pounding on the glass and is sitting with his knees hugged to his chest because the coffin is too small for him to unfold his long legs.

Irritation brings Ren onto the stage and up to the glass coffin. She glares at Mr. Sin with as much ferocity as she can muster.

“As much as you will it, you cannot kill people with your glare.” Mr. Sin raises an eyebrow. “That is an art that takes years to hone to a deadly edge.”

Ren ignores his taunt. “Changing the subject isn’t going to save you from this predicament, Mr. Sin.”

“No, I suppose I’m at the audience’s mercy now. We all are.”

“Audience?” The nonexistent audience of villagers?

“Ignorance is bliss, Ren.” Mr. Sin lays his head against the back of the coffin and sighs. “Better to live a lie than perish in the realm of truth.” There is something undeniably sad about his expression when he speaks, and for a few moments Ren’s hatred for Mr. Sin cools to confusion.

She is still musing on how to respond to his change of character when a terrible rumble rattles the innards of the tavern. Mr. Sin stands and stares past Ren’s shoulder.

She whirls to follow his gaze, gun already in hand.

Dan and Kaz have are moving away from the bar and closer to the stage. Ren looks at them only briefly. Her attention is caught by another, more concerning sight: the front door is rattling on its hinges. No, not rattling. Pulsating.

Thump. Thump thump. Thump.

Kaz stops abruptly in place. “They’re coming,” he says. There is a begrudging acceptance in his voice.

“They?” Dan is on the stage now. “Are ‘they’ the reason for the villager’s disappearance?”

Kaz does not answer. His eyes are trained on the door.

The entrance rattles again.

Mr. Sin slams his fists down on the glass coffin. “Let me out of this damned thing!”

Thump. Thump thump thump

Dan grabs Ren’s wrist and pulls her away.

“Let me out!” Mr. Sin pounds on the glass again. He turns, and his eyes snag on Ren’s. They stare at each other.

Thump. Ren takes a deep breath. Thump. Considers. Thump.

SHOULD SHE HELP HIM?

The door bursts into pieces. The tavern is suddenly very quiet. So quiet Ren can hear the hitch in Dan’s breathing and the ominous ticking of her heartbeat.

And then, “THEY” STEP(S) THROUGH THE FRONT DOORS. 

(Next Update: Sunday, May 20, 2018)

 

CHAPTER SEVEN: THE VILLAGE

CHAPTER SEVEN: THE VILLAGE
'The Trash Heap,' 3:00 a.m. 

“Hey, Anon. You mind if I ask you a question?” J.D. Wylder turns to face you in his fancy black chair. He holds his phone in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. The phrase WINE NOT? is printed on the glass in gaudy letters.

You look up from the Fiction and raise an eyebrow.

Earlier, when you tried to leave, Wylder insisted you stay in his apartment for at least one segment of the Fiction. “Us homebodies got to stick together,” he’d said. It was hard to turn down his request when he offered free food.

Now, you cannot help but eye him warily.

“Relax, Anon.” Wylder leans back in his chair and crosses his legs. “I only wanted to ask: Who started the Fiction? Whose idea was it to drag real people into a Fictional world and make money off of their suffering?”

You are about to retort that this is not what you are doing with the Fiction, but then stop. Wylder is not smiling, and you know full well that he will see through your lie.

“Boss.” The word escapes your lips in a murmur.

“Huh.” Wylder twirls the wine glass in his fingers. “Surprising. I’d thought with how passionate you were about the Fiction, it’d be you who’d have come up with the idea.”

You raise an eyebrow. “Me, passionate?”

Wylder does not answer. He has gotten distracted by something on his phone. It is only seconds later, when your phone chimes, that you realize he has texted you. You pick up the phone, check the message and…

29ryhq

You stare at him.

Wylder cackles. “That, Anon, is you.”

You set your phone down, clear your throat, and pointedly ignore the image.

“How do you not know Boss was the one who started the Fiction? Didn’t she hire you?”

Wylder smirks. “Come on Anon, you know none of us were ‘hired’. And besides, just because I’m an employee, doesn’t mean I know all of the committee’s history.” He leans forward, and though the mask on his face is only cardboard, it seems to change in the lighting. It becomes darker. More malevolent.

“How were you ‘hired,’ Anon?” Wylder uses air quotation marks around the word.

“Like a normal person. Resume and interview.” The words are like a defense mechanism; you blurt them out before you even think them.

“Sure. Whatever you say, Anon.” Wylder is absently entering the number of responses into a random number generator as he speaks.

Screen Shot 2018-05-08 at 7.37.19 PM

“And you? How were you hired?”

Wylder laughs. “You know, the usual.” He clicks the CONTINUE button on the Fiction. “Accidentally.”

SELECTED SUGGESTION, #2

Screen Shot 2018-05-07 at 9.16.27 AM

Location: A tiny village, Time: Sunset

Ren looks around to gather her surroundings and sees a tiny village surrounded by rolling hills. It is a humble place, not just in size but in appearance, with squat stone, thatched-roofed houses and slim cobblestone pathways. The landscape is awash in vibrant red and gold, the colors of sunset.

Ren steps up and out of the hole and looks around the immediate vicinity. For a few moments, she forgets what she sees and focuses on the sounds around her. She realizes she can hear people moving across the cobblestones… but no one is in sight. A faint breeze ruffles the thatched roofs and Ren shudders. There is something in that breeze, something like…

A whisper of magic,” Dan says.

“Magic?”

He nods his head. “Right, magic. I have no idea what kind of magic, though. And…” He clears his throat and raises his voice: “I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT HAPPENED TO THE VILLAGERS.

Ren raises her eyebrows. “Is there any reason you had to raise your voice to say that?”

Dan shrugs. “I figured if I said it louder, I’d have a better chance of getting an answer.”

Jasper, who has been stationary on her shoulder all this time, finally shifts, and huffs into her ear. “It’s not fair. Magic Man gets bolded words and I still don’t even have my italics back.”

Dan turns to Jasper with a bemused smile. “What a delightfully peculiar bird.”

“I don’t want to hear that from a crazy man in a top hat,” Jasper snaps.

Ren swivels in place, ignoring both bird and man. She can hear the gentle murmur of voices, the soft patter of footsteps and yet… nothing. Whatever magic this is, it is stranger than any thing she has witnessed thus far.

Dan clears his throat. “So, shall we continue on to Some Place?” He has just begun to walk when Ren claps a hand on his shoulder and turns him around.

“Not until you give me some answers, Con Artist.” She narrows her eyes at him.

“Answers?” The magician lifts Ren’s hand from his shoulder with a smile that is so pleasant it is almost condescending. Ren realizes, for the first time, that he is wearing gloves. Gloves marked with dazzling, gaudy stars.

“Yes, answers. Tell me more about yourself and Mr. Sin.” Ren clenches her hand and shoves it into her pocket, all whilst looking at Dan expectantly. For a few moments, the two of them simply stare at each other. Then, Dan shrugs and gestures.

“I did say we would walk and talk. Come on.” He waves her after him and the two begin to make their way down the empty— but not silent— streets. As they do, Dan begins to talk.

“I’ve already given you my name and occupation. I used to work for Mr. Sin until fairly recently. I was his uh, personal con artist, you could say. I played tricks on people for him, stole things when they weren’t looking, finalized absurd monetary deals that no one in their right mind would accept…” He taps the rim of his hat. “In short, I was a villain.”

“This is exactly why we can’t trust him,” Jasper whispers in her ear. Though Ren is tempted to say, And what reason do I have to trust you, you strange bird? she settles on shushing Jasper instead.

Dan turns away from the main path and toward a smaller street in between especially squat buildings. Some of these buildings have signs outside. The one just around the corner reads Dyes, and the sign beneath it proclaims: The new “Blood of your enemies” shade of red is now in! 

Even as she stares, the store’s front door opens and closes.

She moves faster, matching her footsteps to Dan’s without realizing.

“Hm,” Dan says as he looks around. “This really is strange. I hope there are still living people in Some Place. If there aren’t, things could get… a little messy. Mr. Sin may not have a gun, but he’s still, well, Mr. Sin. Which, speaking of—“ He turns to Ren with a glint in his eyes. “Do you know why Mr. Sin is chasing you?”

Ren blinks. “I thought you knew the answer to that. I certainly don’t.” She narrows her eyes. “But wait, how did you know my name?”

“Mr. Sin, of course. I don’t know why he was chasing you exactly, but I know that he was. I’m not entirely sure how he found you in the library, but…” Here Dan stops suddenly and stares grimly down at the ground. “Hmm.”

Ren hangs back warily. “What is it?”

“My mind. It’s so foggy. I can’t really…” He scrunches his eyebrows together and sighs. “If I’m being quite honest, I can’t remember much of what happened before the library incident. I suppose it’ll come to me eventually.”

He starts walking again, slower this time. “What about you, Ren? How did you come to be in the library? It’s obvious you didn’t take the Underground tunnels, otherwise you would have used them to escape.”

Ren sighs. “I woke up in a room behind a door marked The Liar, found a secret tunnel leading into a mysterious library, got a gun randomly pulled on me by Mr. Sin whom I don’t know and…” She pauses, suddenly remembering the door that she had seen labeled Con Artist. “Did you not wake up behind a mysterious door?”

Dan chuckles. “I’d think I would remember if I had.”

Ren scratches her head. The more removed she becomes from that memory, the more she wonders if it was a dream. But it can’t be a dream, right? Because before that she was…

Her mind is suddenly heavy with recollection. With memories of the young man that gave her the pocket watch, who kissed her good morning and good night everyday. A young man who, somehow, was always a mystery to her.

So much so that she could never have foreseen his betrayal on that one, wintery night. His words, coated with poison: Join us. Join the Dark side. Her refusal. The sad smile on his face. The chase down the street. The panic that flooded her body when she slid on an unfortunately placed patch of black ice.

She knows that, after falling on that  black ice, she blacked out. And the next time she woke up, she was in… this mess with no memories.

“We’re here.”

Dan’s words pull her from her reverie. Her heart is still beating unevenly in her chest— tick tick tick—  as she detaches herself from the memory and glances up. They have arrived at a rather large building, one that stretches the length of two or three shops. The roof on this place is notably composed of red tile.

The sign hanging by the door reads, Ye (Not So) Olde Tavern.

“Welcome to Some Place!” Dan says, and throws the door open with a bright smile.

The first thing Ren sees is the stage: large, spacious and made up of smooth, polished wood. There are no curtains, and there is nothing particularly spectacular about it except…

Ren points at the single prop on stage— a glass case. “Is that Mr. Sin?”

Dan laughs. “Yes, yes it is.”

The prop is less a case than it is a coffin. Mr. Sin stands inside, ramming his hands against the surface and yelling something she cannot hear. Ren is equally horrified and confused. She looks to Dan for an explanation, and he simply shrugs.

“I figured I may as teleport him to my magic show stage, use him like he’s been using me. The tavern regulars very much appreciate my anachronistic magic; they’d have gotten a kick out of all of this.” Dan taps his chin. “Of course, I was expecting there to actually be people in the tavern, so now I’m at a bit of a loss.”

Ren begins to look around the tavern area, contemplating.

I wonder what happened to everyone?

Suddenly, there is a sound. Ren recognizes it as a chair against floorboards. She turns in place, already fingering her gun, but Dan sets a hand on her shoulder to still her.

“Well, well, and here I was thinking everyone had up and disappeared.” He grins. “But it looks like the barkeep is still here, huh?”

Ren turns and almost breathes a sigh of relief when she sees a living, breathing, very visible person heading toward them. THE BARKEEP. 

(Next update: Tuesday, May 15, 2018)

CHAPTER SIX: THE CON ARTIST

CHAPTER SIX: THE CON ARTIST
'The Trash Heap', 2:00 a.m. 

J.D. Wylder’s apartment building is unspectacular. At least on the outside. It is made up of drab, gray walls and grungy windows that are shuttered to the public eye. It looks like a place that has been abandoned for years.

Wylder’s name for the place— “The Trash Heap”— suddenly makes a lot of sense.

Now, standing before his front door (Room 7 on the 13th floor), you cannot help but wonder if the interior of his apartment will be just as sad-looking.

You have already rung the doorbell three times, and are about to ring it again when the door suddenly bursts open. Wylder stands before you, holding a cellphone to his ear.

“Anon,” he says.

You hold up your phone. The poll from the last update, the one that reads: DECIDE MR. SIN’S FATE, is displayed on the screen. Wylder takes one look at it and smirks. “Clever, huh?”

“You can’t kill off Mr. Sin!”

Clearly, putting Wylder in charge of the Fiction’s conflict wasn’t the best idea.

J.D. Wylder shrugs. “Relax, Anon. I just made the poll. It’s not like the audience actually voted to kill him off.”

He murmurs something into the phone and then sidesteps and gestures inside. “Give me a sec. Overseas call.” He walks away, leaving you to step inside and stare around the room.

It looks and feels like someone has moved an entire mansion into an apartment spread. There are chandeliers (more than one); a large TV screen that looks more like it belongs in a theater than a home; an assortment of fancy looking furniture; a series of expensive looking paintings on the wall, and…

You are so absorbed in your surroundings that you do not realize you are at J.D. Wylder’s workspace until you bump into his desk (it’s shiny and sleek, and looks like it costs more money than you make in a month) and see his many computer screens.

The monitor closest to you showcases some kind of brainstorm document. One  line reads: WHAT IS REN’S ROLE IN THE STORY? A quick examination tells you that the embedded link leads to a poll. Is the audience supposed to respond to this?

You turn away from the smaller monitor and look to the main display.

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Though the interface is clearly meant to be that of a video game, the link is still embedded into the question, just like it is in your blog. Before you realize it, you are hovering over the link indecisively. Last time you checked the poll results the count was at 26. Has it changed any since you last looked? Is it high enough to convince Boss to continue the Fiction?

You click the link and wait for the results to come up.

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You open your mouth to breathe. And promptly choke. You are still trying to catch your breath when your phone rings. It’s Boss. Hurriedly, you put her on speaker.

She says only one thing: “Fiction’s still on.” She ends the call before you can respond.

You feel a tap on your shoulder and turn to see Wylder standing behind you with a glass of water. “Don’t die,” he says helpfully as he hands you the glass.

You gesticulate wildly at his screen. “How?”

Wylder snorts. “Boss never said we couldn’t vote.”

“You voted…” You do the math. “…fifty-four times?”

“In a row. You’re not the only one who wants the Fiction to continue.” Wylder’s smile all but fades as he falls into the swiveling black chair in front of his monitors.

“Why?” You ask after a few moments. “Why are you so invested in this Fiction?”

Wylder shrugs. He leans forward to click YES on his screen.

“I have my reasons.”

 

Location: Dan’s Library, Time: ???

Ren decides to spare him. She is not a murderer.

She grimaces as she thumbs the trigger of the gun. “I think it’s about time you gave me some answers, Mr. Sin. Starting first with who you are and how you know who I am.”

Mr. Sin glares at her with one eye. His other, injured eye is hidden beneath his hand. He is shaking— Not with fear, from what Ren can tell, but with rage.

“How are you alive?” He hisses.

Ren makes a conscious effort not to clutch the pocket watch in her other hand when he speaks. She can still hear the jagged tick, tick, tick reverberating in her chest, but she does not want to think about it, not until later, after she has pulled herself out of this hell.

There is silence between the two of them. Ren can hear Mr. Sin’s ragged breathing, but little else. Jasper hobbles indecisively on her shoulder and says, “Hey, Ren. I can still pluck his eyes out. Want me to pluck his eyes out?”

“Thanks but no thanks.”

She frowns at Mr. Sin. How will she make him talk? She is still considering when a familiar voice interrupts her thoughts.

“Oh Mr. Sin, don’t be that way.”

Ren looks up and sees a man in exceptionally bizarre attire standing at the entrance to the private library. She recognizes him immediately as Dan. Daniel. Dandelion— whatever the hell his name is.

Jasper cocks his head and whispers. “Hey, it’s that guy! The guy that knocked you into a bookcase in Chapter Two: The Library…” The last of his words are murmured, and Ren does not catch them.

Irritated, she returns her attention to Dan, and then to the shadow with the top hat that is draped on the floor beneath him.

“This is quite a show.” Dan approaches with a pleasant smile. He reaches out a hand, and the shadow beneath him flicks its hat impossibly up and out of the ground. Dan grabs the top hat from the air and balances it on his tuft of wild, red hair.

Something snaps into place in Ren’s mind in that moment. She recalls the image on one of the doors that she saw when she first woke up. A simple image with a strange title beneath it…

Symbol hat

The image of the door that slides in and out of Ren’s mind is crystal clear.

She takes a deep breath and frowns as Dan approaches. She had already decided before to trust him, and so she will, strange and suspicious though he may be.

“You.” Mr. Sin hisses. “Con Artist.”

Dan sighs. “I prefer Magician, but I suppose that also works.”

He snaps his fingers, and the shadow that had been crawling at his feet suddenly shoots forward, grabs Mr. Sin and pins him to the ground. Ren stares at the scene in horrified wonder.

“A pleasure to see you again, Ren.” Dan stops a few feet away from her and tips his hat. She is surprised to see a dandelion tucked into the hat’s sash— a flower that was most certainly not there before.

Jasper squawks irritably on Ren’s shoulder. “Hey! You trapped me in your hat when I was trying to fight off Mr. Sin! You little—“ Ren claps her hands over the bird’s beak to keep him from rambling.

She turns to Dan and furrows her eyebrows. “How do you know Mr. Sin? What is he to you?”

“Mm, my boss, I suppose.” He glances at Mr. Sin, who is staring daggers at him. “I suspected the arrangement wouldn’t last very long. Magicians like myself usually prefer working alone.” He turns to Mr. Sin. “What say you, Mr. Sin? Will you talk now that you’re cornered?

“Go die in a plot hole.” Mr. Sin snaps.

Dan laughs. “You have a wonderful sense of humor, Mr. Sin. Very author-like.”

He snaps his fingers, and the shadow pinning Mr. Sin to the ground suddenly expands. Ren catches only the beginning of Mr. Sin’s scream before the shadow swallows him whole. One tick later, both Mr. Sin and the shadow have disappeared.

Ren whirls on Dan with the gun still in her hand. Her heartbeat— the wretched tick, tick, tick— is loud enough to make her feel faint. “What have you done?”

She did not spare Mr. Sin only to watch him be eaten by shadows.

Dan chuckles. “He’s fine, I promise. Perhaps we should walk and talk? While I am very fond of libraries, I think I could do with a change of scenery. Something more spacious.” He pauses and glances at her chest. She puts a hand to her heart— or where her heart should be— and grimaces. There is blood on her chest and she is dizzy, but she can still move.

“It looks like you have some magic of your own, mm?” The Con Artist grins and turns away from her before she can respond.

“Hey, I think you should just shoot him,” Jasper twitters in her ear. “In the back. Or in the neck. They always tell you to go for the jugular.”

Ren shakes her head and slowly, cautiously, follows after Dan. As she walks, she looks around the library and notices, for the first time, that John Doe is nowhere to be seen. Dan seems to read her mind.

“Doe has already gone ahead to where I’ve taken Mr. Sin,” he says. “I teleported them both using shadows. Shadows are very good for that, you know. For teleporting. Portal-ing. Tearing a rift in the spacetime continuum.” He raises his hands and wiggles his fingers. “Shadow magic.”

Ren follows him into the dark tunnel with a grimace. “Where have you uh, ‘teleported’ Mr. Sin?”

Dan turns to grin at her. “SOME PLACE.

Ren raises an eyebrow. “Some place?”

“You’ll see when we get there. But for now, we head to the surface.” He gestures, and Ren follows him through the tunnel. For a long time, there is nothing but darkness. She can just barely make out Dan’s shape as they press further and further into the tunnel. She wonders vaguely how she can see anything at this point, but then decides not to think too hard on it. She is already confused enough as it is.

Dan turns and speaks to her: “Right now we’re in the Underground. There are tunnels here that lead to different parts of the world. The Library was one of them and my private library was another. We’re going to bypass them both and head straight for the exit closest to Some Place.”

Ren grumbles. Some Place is exceptionally vague, but at this point, she doesn’t have enough information to strike out on her own.

At least she has a gun now.

And a pocket watch that will potentially keep me alive and

She realizes that she has forgotten the Book in the private library. The book that guided her through her earlier conflicts. The Book that told her to run, to search her pockets. Ren exhales and deflates, feeling suddenly weak. The Book does not technically belong to her, and yet losing it almost feels like losing a limb.

It’s not important, Ren chides herself. It’s not worth going back for.

Right?

She is still debating when Dan abruptly stops.

“We’re here,” he says. He gestures to an unspectacular, very plain door. He pulls it open, walks through, and nods to a ladder at the far end of the empty room. Ren crosses her arms and looks at him expectantly. “You first.”

He shrugs and begins to climb without complaint. Soon after, Ren tucks everything she is carrying into her pockets and follows after him. Light assaults her as she climbs.

“The light…” Jasper hisses in her ears. “It burns!”

Ren rolls her eyes and continues ascending. The longer she climbs, the more she can feel the promise of a breeze. Of fresh air. Sweet, blessed fresh air.

She climbs one rung. Two rungs. Three. Then, she steps out into the world. Finally, she is outside.

SHE LOOKS AROUND TO GATHER HER SURROUNDINGS AND SEES…

(Next Chapter Release: Tuesday, May 8, 2018)