Hanging up in the vast black sea, the full moon rested neatly above a small suburban neighborhood. The pale light flooded the area, illuminating the surrounding streets. In one particular one-story home, a teenage girl lies on her back, with her boyfriend arched over her.
“Qu…quieter,” the girl breathed out hastily.
“I’m trying,” the boy groaned.
She sat up, her auburn hair sliding back off of her pale shoulders. She ran her fingers through his dark hair, wrapping her arms around his neck. She kissed him, her body shuddering, her back arched, moaning as she climaxed. As he followed suit, she leaned up, her lips pressed against his, closing her eyes as she crashed down onto her bed.
“I love you,” she whispered softly.
A few moments passed.
“…yeah,” he replied flatly.
She opened her eyes to see his black bangs swaying as he pulled his pants up, his shirt already back on.
“Can’t you stay a bit?” She pleaded insistently.
“Better if I go, babe,” he said. “See you at school, Alex.”
“Okay…” She exhaled, pouting.
He climbed back out the window from which he came, dropping into the yard. Once again alone, she stared up at her ceiling, closing her eyes as a single tear began to slide down her cheek.
The next morning, she entered the kitchen to a familiar sight. At the table sat a man captivated by his laptop. The sound of the latest headline filled the kitchen.
“International tension mounts as a veritable arms race ensues between budding nations…” A man’s voice droned on, adding to the perpetual misery of everyday adulthood.
“Where’s Mom?” Alexa asked.
The man ignored her, completely engrossed in today’s top story. With no food to be seen, it looked like she was once again going without breakfast.
She sighed, “See you later, Dad.”
And with that, she left the house, taking her usual route to school.
“Hey Mike, have you heard?” Alexa whispered to the ebony skinned boy sitting next to her. “There’s supposedly a new game out!”
“Oh yeah? Rumors like that pop up all the time,” he said, dismissing her. “Gaming production has all but come to a halt due to the war, remember?”
“This is supposed to be more than a rumor!” she exclaimed.
“Uh huh,” he replied sarcastically. “What’s it all about then?”
“It’s a world based entirely– “
“How about you go ahead and explain to the class how one would go about finding the volume of a cylinder?” the teacher suddenly interjected.
“Oh… um,” Alexa stuttered.
“That’s what I thought.” The teacher scoffed. “If I hear another word from you, it’ll be detention! Now let’s continue.”
Half an hour later, the lunch bell rang. The students began packing their bags, making their way out of the classroom, and funneling into the hallway.
“So, Alexa,” Mike called out, catching up to his friend. “What’s this game about?”
“Right!” Alexa beamed, picking up where she left off. “It’s a world immersed completely in magic!”
“…So?” he replied, unenthused.
“It’s supposed to be really lifelike, though!” she exclaimed. “Real! Virtual reality! Isn’t that exciting?!”
Mike shook his head. “I thought they gave up on virtual reality ten years ago. You know, because of the sudden war?”
She paused. “Maybe someone kept researching it in secret?”
“Didn’t you say it was just a rumor?” he asked. “Why are you getting so excited?”
“I just want it to be true!” she sighed, exasperated. “Wouldn’t it be exciting?! To be immersed in a world of magic, where we have actual power and influence! Let’s be late to lunch — I’ll show you the website in the library!”
With that, they made their way to the library where they saw a familiar dark haired boy sitting at one of the computers, typing away.
“There’s Gerard,” Alexa told Mike.
“What’s up, Gerard?” Mike asked as they approached him.
“Oh, hey, what are you guys doing here? “ Gerard continued typing. “Isn’t it your lunch period?”
“We’re going to be late so your girlfriend can show me some website,” Mike said.
“Oh…” Gerard rolled his eyes.
“What?!” Alexa’s cheeks turned bright red. “Things have developed since before!”
Gerard nodded listlessly, accommodating her newest obsession once again and allowing Alexa to take his seat. Without missing a beat, she typed in the URL, bringing up the website within seconds. The site’s front page was a single picture split into five horizontal sections. The first was a lush forest brimming with life juxtaposed against the second — mountains so high they kissed the sky. At the base of the mountains, the third section started: a vast ocean which bled into the fourth, a desolate plain. The plain eventually built into the fifth, a modern city. Two words stretched across all five sections; JOIN TODAY.
“See?” Alexa exclaimed. “Each section is a separate link that takes you to more information. Races, spells, equipment, locations, everything you need to know! If it’s a prank, it’s quite elaborate!”
“Any screen shots?” Mike asked.
“Well….” Alexa began.
“No,” Gerard smirked.
“There is a ton of concept art though!” Alexa pouted.
“Still, it doesn’t have any download link, or release information,” Mike added.
“Well, that’s the thing.” Alexa paused. “Just the other day, the ’join now’ became a hyperlink.”
“Have you clicked on it yet?” Gerard asked.
Glancing to the side, Alexa clicked the link. “…Yes.”
Obviously, she hadn’t.
The page changed, loading a map of their city, with a red circle on a street corner.
Mike’s eyes widened. “I know that street.”
Alexa turned to face him. “What’s on it?”
“Nothing, really; mostly just specialty shops,” Mike stated. “Is there a specific address?”
“Yeah. Want to stop and get food on the way there?” Alexa glanced from Mike to Gerard.
Mike nodded. “Sounds good.”
“How am I getting dragged into this?” Gerard sighed. “I didn’t agree to ditching school today.”
“Come on, man!” Mike exclaimed. “There’s a good chance this city will be leveled by the end of the year. It won’t matter if we miss a day or two of school. We should focus on enjoying the time we have not living in a war zone!”
Gerard rolled his eyes, “Fine.”
After taking the liberty of printing out a copy of the map, the group left the library, making their way out of the school and wandering deep into the city.
“Well, this is the place,” Alexa said as they turned a corner, standing at the end of a street full of run-down buildings. “Keep an eye out for the building number.”
They casually made their way down the desolate street. It was eerily quiet, as though the entire area was devoid of activity. It wasn’t long before they came upon the last building at the end of the street.
Gerard sighed, crumpling the wrapping of his burger and tossing it onto the ground. “Good thing I skipped school with you guys for this…”
They stared at the decrepit wooden shack of a building for a few minutes. It looked as though a small gust of wind would knock the entire thing over. Where there wasn’t a gaping hole, there were endless cracks.
A sign hung loosely above the wooden door. “Golden Leaf Tea Shoppe,” Alexa read.
Gerard glanced at his friends. “This can’t be right.”
“Yeah.” Mike added. “Seems sketchy — like we’re going to be killed and have our organs harvested,”
“Look, we came this far.” Alexa shouted. “Let’s just do it!”
She grabbed their wrists and pulled them up to the front door, knocking gently. To everyone’s surprise, the door didn’t collapse, but slowly swung open.
“Hello?” Her voice echoed as they made their way through a dark, narrow and musty corridor.
They stepped around several holes in the wooden floor, and ducked past more than one cobweb before reaching a second door. Once more Alexa knocked, only to find it slowly open, inviting the group further into the building.
Gerard started to pull against Alexa’s grip. “We should just go…”
“Stop being such a baby,” Alexa snubbed him.
He had never seen her like this; he was much more used to being in control. She was normally such a pushover — it was as if she was an entirely different person.
As they moved forward, the group stepped into a surprisingly well-lit, spacious room. The once pungent air had been replaced by an overwhelming floral scent. Stemming out from the entrance of the room was a systematic pattern: lamp, bookshelf, lamp. At the far side of the room, a hooded figure stood behind a raised wooden counter.
“Can I help you?” a deep voice, presumably from the figure, boomed through the air.
“We had heard there was supposed to be a game available here,” Alexa inquired.
“Oh?” the figure responded, amused by her brash behavior.
“This is more than creepy,” Mike whispered to Gerard.
“Ditch?” Gerard whispered back.
“You’d do that to your own girlfriend?” Mike stared in awe.
Gerard shrugged and mouthed, “First chance we get.”
“You’ve come to the right place, young ones.” the figure assured them. “I have what you are looking for right in the other room.”
The bookshelf just to the right of the counter began to shake, slowly swinging open and revealing a hidden doorway.
“Just through here.” The figure motioned, stepping out from behind the counter. “Follow me.”
As Alexa stepped forward, she reached back, and once more, grabbed the boys firmly by their wrists.
“Come on, assholes.” She glared back at them. “Don’t think I didn’t hear your plan.”
Mike scowled at Gerard as they were dragged into the back room. Inside, it was pitch black, save for a single ray of light illuminating a coffee table beside the hooded figure. Presented upon it were three different gems: a crescent shaped emerald, a round ruby, and a triangular topaz.
“Gems?” Alexa asked, perplexed.
“Very special gems.” The figure’s voice had become almost a whisper.
Suddenly Alexa stumbled as her temple throbbed in pain. She raised her hand to her head, rubbing it gently. “I can barely hear what you’re saying, Gerard.” She turned toward the boy in question.
Gerard hesitated. “I didn’t say anything,” he managed to respond. “Are you okay…?”
“Whatever!” Alexa exclaimed, dismissing him and turning back to the gems. “I’m fine.”
“What does this have to do with the game?” Mike asked.
“These are the game,” the figure sneered.” “With these you can begin installation.”
“…Okay,” Gerard began skeptically, “but how, exactly? I mean, what system requires gems?”
“The greatest system in existence,” the figure’s voice boomed, filling the entire room. “Just watch!”
Suddenly, the entire area was filled with a bright light. The group moved to shield their eyes, and after a few moments, it became apparent how small the room was. Other than the table in the center, the room was empty; however, three of the walls were made of glass, revealing more rooms past them. Alexa, Mike and Gerard each made toward a wall. Alexa raised her hand to cover her gaping mouth, mesmerized by the scene unfolding before her.
A slim, pale-skinned girl wearing nothing but a pair of shredded jeans stood covered in bruises, cuts, and blood, glaring at a boy standing across from her. His shirt and jeans were untouched in contrast, flapping violently with strands of his blonde hair as though he was standing in front of a large fan. He closed the distance in an instant, grabbing the girl’s exposed breasts and forcing her onto the ground.
“It’s over,” the boy sneered with a wide, toothy grin. “What happens next — well, I may seem a bit cruel. But as the man said before, this is the nature of the game. The strong survive, and the weak perish.”
He lowered his head, pressing his lips against her bright pink nipple, and slowly kissed a path along her bony collar up to her neck. Without warning, he suddenly sunk his teeth deep into her skin. He pulled away, blood running down his chin as he chomped at the piece of loose flesh.
“Don’t worry,” he whispered. “You will — “
He was cut off as a pink light slashed through him. The boy’s head spiraled through the air, landing several feet away from his body. The girl struggled to her feet, breathing heavily; her long, dark hair draped down the front of her body, partially covering her face and exposed flesh. From her right hand extended a pink beam of pure light.
On her stomach, four glowing pink lines of light formed a diamond around her belly button. It began to glow brighter and brighter as it drew in the blood from the headless corpse and her own body. The blood from the boy seemed to flow through the air like a ribbon, converging on the glowing symbol until all that remained was a withered corpse. As the blood stopped flowing, her entire body began to glow until she had become nothing but a beacon of pure light. And just as quickly as she was enveloped by the light, it shattered and no trace of the girl remained.
Alexa stumbled backward, struggling to regain her composure. She turned to see that Gerard was on his knees, leaning over a puddle of vomit reflected in the left wall. Mike seemed to have fallen backwards, staring completely wide-eyed out the right window. Each scene, it appeared, was relatively the same.
“Wh…what the hell?” Alexa stammered.
“Is it not glorious?” the figure suddenly chimed in.
“This isn’t a game!” Mike shouted, struggling to stand.
“No…no, I suppose it’s not,” the figure conceded. “It’s something much, much greater: A chance to escape and begin anew.”
Alexa paused for a moment, her gaze fixing on the figure more intently now.
“What does that mean?”
“Who cares what that means?!” Gerard finally seemed to regain his composure. “People just died! We need to get the police!”
Her eyes tepidly moved to meet Gerard’s. She couldn’t help but think of last night, and so many other similar nights; this man certainly left much to be desired. Not to mention the distance with her parents — there was so much she wished to run from. She closed her eyes as she felt a pull at her heart, tears beginning to swell. But he was right: this was crazy. This was not the answer she needed to pursue. She exhaled, opening her eyes and nodding frantically at the boys.
“Let’s go!” she shouted, turning to run from the room.
However, as if she had no control, Alexa instinctively reached out and grasped the crescent emerald. Immediately, the gem began to glow and a green aura flowed out from it, outlining her whole body. She felt amazing. Her heart raced, her skin tingled, and the hairs all over her body stood up on end. It was a rush greater than anything she had felt before, greater than anything she could have imagined. But then, the aura around her body faded and her right eye began to sting. It started as merely uncomfortable, but slowly intensified until pain consumed her. She screamed, and then suddenly she couldn’t see from her right eye. It burned; blood ran down from the right side of her face and pooled onto the floor below her.
Gerard and Mike leapt forward, reaching out to grab her. As they closed the distance, they were suddenly held in place, unable to move.
“What?!” Gerard shouted before gritting his teeth.
The figure effortlessly glided across the floor, stopping before the two boys. It raised its fingers to their lips. “Hush now, little babies. The ordeal is nearly through.”
Just like that, the two boys felt as though their voice had been taken right from their throats. Neither could make a sound.
Meanwhile, Alexa, covered in her own blood, was curled up on the ground. After what had felt like an eternity of pain, she went numb. Slowly, her body began to tremble, her breathing returning to normal. She raised her hand to her right eye and noticed that she could see once again. She felt normal, almost like nothing had even happened.
“What was that?” she managed to gasp out.
“Your rebirth,” the figure said.
“Was that even real?” she whispered softly, turning to Gerard and Mike.
The two boys had regained their composure. As they came to their senses, they turned to Alexa, staring in awe.
“What’s wrong?” Alexa stared at them, puzzled.
“Well —” Mike began.
“Your face…” Gerard blurted out.
“Yeah, it really hurt,” Alexa stated. “I guess it was just a panic attack, though…?”
She turned to face the figure, noticing a large mirror on the far wall and seeing her reflection. She raised her hand to her mouth, tears pooling in her eyes. “Wh… what the…?”
An emerald-colored crescent ran through her right eye, starting at the center of her forehead and arching down through the center of her pupil until it curved back around, stopping at the center of her chin.
“Then, that pain…” She turned to the figure. “What is this!?”
“That is your mark, the figure stated. “Now you need just activate it in order to log in to the game.”
“No game is worth begin scarred!” she shouted.
“Oh,” the figure chimed in. “I think you will soon disagree with that statement. Now, who’s next?”
Mike and Gerard took a step back.
Alexa’s anger swelled. “You’re going to leave me all alone here?!”
“Hey!” Gerard shouted back in defense. “It was your idea to do this! I didn’t want to come!”
He took another step back. “This…this is too much,” he said softly, before running out of the building.
Mike’s head sank as he watched him go. “I’m…I’m sorry, Alexa.” He looked her in the eyes one last time before running after his friend.
The figure smirked, taking a step toward Alexa. “It’s alright. This isn’t a curse, but a gift,” it said smoothly.
“No!” Alexa screamed.
As she did, a torrent of air shot outward from her body, filling the whole room. The curtain on the door waved violently, the mirror shattered, the table overturned, and the figure was blown back into the wall. Taken back by what had just happened, she darted out of the building and as far as she could, until she couldn’t run any further, eventually stopping in the middle of the dark, moonlit street.
“What am I?” she asked softly, tears falling from her eyes as she slowly began making her way home.
Around midnight, she slid her key into the doorknob, sneaking inside and up to her room.
Exasperated, she fell onto her bed. “What am I supposed to do?”
Unexpectedly, she heard a voice answer her, echoing through her head. “You know what to do, child.” She jolted up from her bed to look around — it was morning.
There was a sudden knock at her door.
“Breakfast,” her mother shouted.
She got out of bed and walked over to her mirror. The mark was still there. Placing her hand over her eye, she sighed before changing her clothes and heading downstairs.
“Oh my god…honey!” Her mother exclaimed. “What did you do to your precious face?!”
“It’s spirit week at school,” Alexa murmured, lying.
Her mother’s green eyes lingered over her; she seemed to accept her daughter’s lie. “…Oh, okay, just face paint…You scared me.”
Alexa began eating her cereal, keeping her head down the entire time.
Before long, her father came downstairs, dressed in his usual suit and tie. His dark hair was slicked back, and as soon as he sat at the table, he was already engrossed in his phone.
“Dear, did you know that Alex is participating in spirit week?” her mother said to her father.
“Oh? That’s good,” her father replied without looking up from his phone. “Are you going to be a cheerleader?”
She raised her head, lowering her brow and glaring at the man across from her.
“‘Foreign forces have successfully conquered the far continent, and are advancing east,’” her father methodically read aloud. “Things are going to start getting worse.”
Alexa finished eating and excused herself from the table before going upstairs to grab her backpack. Today is probably a good day to ditch class, she thought.
She made her way toward school for the first couple of blocks, then changed directions, heading in the direction of a local drug store. She eventually found herself in the make-up aisle, a place she wasn’t particularly acquainted with. She scanned the various powders and creams, exhaling.
“Need assistance?” asked a chubby woman with glasses, draped in a gaudy red vest.
“Uh…no.” Alexa tilted her head away from the employee.
The woman simply smiled and stood next to her, scanning the selections. After a moment she reached out, taking a small container of cream, handing it to Alexa.
“This should help cover up that nasty bruise.” The employee flashed a sincere smile as she walked away.
Alexa studied the container for a moment, reading the components and warning label.
She glanced up and down the aisle, sighing before pocketing the container and heading back to the entrance. She walked outside and toward an adjacent pizza place, making her way straight to the bathroom and making sure to lock the door before taking out the container. She dabbed her fingers into the cream and began to spread it over the mark. It seemed to be working — the mark began to fade under the cream. She smiled weakly, continuing to apply more until it was completely covered. Once she was satisfied, she pocketed the container and walked out to the lobby.
“Can I get—” she began, stopping once she noticed the bemused stare at the boy behind the counter.
“Uh… is something…?” She started to say before nervously averting her eyes.
“Your face,” he responded. “What’s up — parade?”
Taken back, she suddenly darted back to the bathroom, locking the door once again. She looked down into the sink, eyes shut tight, and then slowly lifted her head, opening her eyes. The mark had burned through the make-up, clear as ever on her pale face.
“Why?” She asked herself, tears welling in her eyes.
She lowered her head. Cursed, she thought.
Then, a familiar voice rang through her head. “Gift, not a curse.”
She clenched her fist and looked up, only to step back in surprise. In the mirror she saw herself, but with white hair, grey, wrinkled skin, patches of black stained on her face, and gold, gleaming eyes. Then, her reflection spoke.
“Child,” it said, “fear not. You have received a great gift.”
Alexa took another step back, trembling against the door to the stall. “What…?”
Before she could continue, darkness enveloped the area, leaving only the mirror and her ghastly reflection visible.
“What is this!?” She screamed.
“The beginning,” her reflection said. “You wanted this. Don’t pretend you aren’t excited to break free from the mundane. I have heard your heart cry out.”
But not this way, she thought. “I just… not…”
“Enough!” Her reflection shouted. “Let me show you, then!”
The mirror’s reflection disappeared and a vast field appeared in its place. The lush, green meadow was stained with patches of crimson. Blood, Alexa realized. Two armies stood across from each other, one side lead by a woman clad in black, plated armor and equipped with a round shield and flail. Behind her were hundreds of humans and humanoid creatures equipped with various garments and weapons.
Across from them was a hoard of four legged beasts with black fur, bulging muscles, long claws, horns and fangs, wings and untamed manes.
As Alexa watched the scene unfold, she heard, “This world you see is the game you seek.”
The female leader rushed forward, raising her shield to cover her upper body as she slammed her shield into a black beast. Without hesitation, she swung her flail, striking the beast’s face. It was enough to stun the beast; it reeled back from the force of the blow. The woman turned her hand, still holding the flail, and extended her index finger. A beam of light, wrapped in sparks, suddenly erupted from the tip of her finger, piercing the beast’s head. It wailed, then began to convulse before collapsing onto the ground. She continued on, trampling it effortlessly on her way to the next foe.
From behind her, figures holding staves and wands began volleying balls of flames into the masses of beasts. Most of the attacks only fizzled out against the beasts’ thick skin.
“And, take a closer look, child,” the voice whispered to Alexa. “That woman…is you.”
“Change spells!” The woman shouted back at her group. “They are vulnerable to ice and wind damage!”
Battles waged all over the field, yet little by little, the woman was able to keep her forces moving forward, pushing the beasts back. The image faded, and Alexa’s reflection reappeared in the familiar bathroom.
“This is your future. No… Your destiny,” Alexa’s reflection said. “It’s not as though you fit into this world, so you can hardly call this running away. You’re simply going to where you belong. “
There was a knock on the bathroom door, and suddenly the darkness had disappeared, her reflection her own. Covered in sweat and breathing heavily, she barely heard another sharp knock against the door.
“Excuse me!” A woman shouted. “Excuse me! You’ve been in there an awfully long time and my daughter desperately needs to use the restroom!”
Alexa shook her head, regaining her composure before turning to the door. She opened it to see the employee from the drug store, accompanied by two police officers. “That’s the thief, officers!”
Shit, Alex thought to herself.
“Come with us, young lady,” one of the officers said, reaching out to grab Alexa.
“N — no!” She screamed, raising her arms up to block her face. “No!”
A sudden, fierce current of air shot forward from her body, filling the small hallway. The sharp winds pulled and pushed against the woman and the officers until their bodies began to shred to pieces, blood wafting through the air as they screamed. Alexa lowered her arms to see the hallway stained red, littered with limbs and flesh.
“What… no,” she gasped, her body trembling.
She heard the familiar voice. “Don’t fret, child — this is your power. Embrace it. Cut through those who would stand before your destiny!”
The voice had become much louder than before. She raised her hand to her throbbing forehead.
”Now go!” the voice bellowed.
“Damn it,” Alexa whispered, running through the bloody hallway. She didn’t have much of a choice at this point.
She burst out of the restaurant, unsure of where she was going but determined to distance herself from the mess she’d made. Before long, she found herself at her school, through the front gate, into the familiar courtyard. She walked through here every day, arguing and laughing with Gerard and Mike. Why had she wanted to escape that? Was this really what she wanted?
She watched the students clustered together, eating lunch, socializing, trading the latest gossip while her life fell apart. Two days ago, she was in the library with Mike and Gerard. Now she was alone, hands stained with blood. Blankly she walked through the courtyard, staring straight ahead, unaware of the murmurs and stares.
“Is that blood on her shoes?” One of the girls whispered.
“What’s up with her face?” Another voice cried out.
Students stepped out of her path as she made her way to the double doors of the entrance. As she reached for the door handle, she noticed a familiar head of dark hair in the corner of her eye. She turned her head to see Gerard with his hand up a red-haired girl’s shirt, kissing her neck.
It’s too much, Gerard’s voice rang through her head. It was the last thing he had said to her.
“It’s too much…” Alexa said softly, to herself. “It’s too much!?”
Her voice echoed through the courtyard. Gerard and the girl froze, turning to see Alexa, who had already closed the distance between them. Furiously she reached out, her hands clamping around each of their throats. The air grew dense, whirling around them with a defining howl. Gerard and the girl could only scream as small cuts opened up along their bodies. The air filled with blood as the cuts deepened, and one by one their limbs began to fall to the ground. The crescent scar on Alexa’s face began to glow, brighter and brighter, as the blood began to swirl and flow into it. Then the winds calmed; she loosened her grip, and Gerard and his companion’s severed heads fell atop a pile of withered flesh.
She stood over the remains, staring absently into the distance. It was as though she had just watched herself in a horror movie — An Ordeal on Willow Street: Alexa’s Ill Will. However, the blood drenching her clothes proved otherwise. There was no turning back at this point.
Alexa slowly turned around to face a group of policemen, whose composure wavered as they took in the scene.
“Y-You’re… you’re under arrest,” one of them stammered, shakily pointing a gun in her direction.
Alexa blinked, and the policeman’s face began to fade. Starting with the mark on her face, her entire body began to glow green and then she suddenly shattered, green shards fading into the air. Hazily, she saw the earth disappear below her.
When she regained consciousness, she found herself lying on a grassy plain. She slowly came to her feet, raising her arm to block the aggressive light shining down over her.
“Baah,” A creature to her left bellowed.
As her eyes adjusted, she looked over to see what appeared to be a sheep with purple wool, and a pair of curled horns and wings.
Alexa gazed in awe at the lush greenery surrounding her. ”I guess… I made it.”
Hanging up in the vast black sea, the full moon rested neatly above a small suburban neighborhood. The pale light flooded the area, illuminating the surrounding streets. In one particular one-story home, a teenage girl lies on her back, with her boyfriend arched over her.