Game Over

Guidance

 

I'd never really been a big fan of computer games.

I mean that, too - I couldn't get the hang of them. I lacked the sheer brainlessness that is necessary for one to stare slack-jawed at the computer for hours while the little hero-figure shoots things in response to keys you press. I was willing to admit I was a bit of a computer geek, but it was more of an Internet thing than anything. I liked to chat and post on message boards and tell stupid stories about the people I went to school with.

Not that I ever got involved in any of those stories myself, being a complete, undersized, scrawny loser and not worth noticing, but that didn't make the stories less stupid. I hated my homeroom classmates.

Well, most of them.

But anyway, it was late March, on a Sunday night, when I made the decision to try playing one of the dumb things. My friend Mike was a game fiend, and he'd been trying for ages to get me into at least one - he kept giving me copies of his as part of my birthday presents. He liked to say, "Shane, man, if you were a gamer, I'd give up being straight, take you to Canada, and marry you."

That was Mike's way of letting me know he was still okay with the fact that I was gay. Subtle, I know, but Mike leaned toward 'bloody fucking obvious' even in his best moments.

It was a boring night. Now, I was actually supposed to be doing homework, but it was geometry, and I hated Math. The class was after lunch, though, and if I told Mike I'd played one of his dumb games, he'd let me copy his.

All right, whatever. I closed up the window I'd been staring at my empty mailbox on, leaned back with a sigh, stretching out, and eyed the computer CD collection I'd been using to catch dust. No one will notice or care.

My parents were always deathly afraid of technology, so they couldn't tell what I was doing on the computer no matter what - unless the game involved a lot of graphics, and even then I could usually get out of it by saying it was for my Info Tech class. They couldn't refute it, really. My dad owned a corner store and my mother did crystal-gazing and told fortunes. Neither of them knew anything about what would go on in a computer class. Hell, we only had a computer in the first place because I was something of a techno prodigy in first grade, and they wanted to "encourage" me. My three-year-old baby sister, Nicole, is better with the thing than they are. It's like a running joke now - their friends are still constantly making fun of "those computer-phobic McMurrays and their oddball son". Not the sort of thing a 17-year-old who's made a career out of blending into the background likes to hear.

At least no one used 'queer'. My parents are slow on the uptake, but not completely oblivious.

Anyway, though, the computer was conveniently located in my room. It made it easier to play around with it and to keep out sibling and parents when I was downloading things I really shouldn't have been looking at.

Hey, I was seventeen. I knew where to find that stuff.

So, I was fishing through Mike's "presents" and trying to find something I could burn braincells on quickly and easily, when I came to a CD that didn't have anything on the case to tell me what it was.

Some people might not think that's unusual, but Mike was psychotic about everything having titles and descriptions pasted on them in big bright letters. And, just in case I lost the case, he usually printed the title of the game in felt pen on the CD itself.

There was nothing on this CD.

"Kind of weird…" I shrugged. It was on the CD shelf I kept Mike's games on - anyway, if it wasn't a game, it'd be simple enough to figure out what it was.

I took the CD from its case, pushed my chair away from the shelves built into the wall for books and computer stuff, and opened my CD-ROM drive to put the thing in and find out what was on it.

My room wasn't too bad. I had the computer in the corner by the window - which faced east, so I woke up to sun in my face at six o'clock every morning. The bed was in the other corner near the window, with the head of it up against the wall - but no matter how I positioned it, I couldn't get away from the glare completely. My shelf was up against the wall right beside my computer desk, so they formed a sort of second corner there. Beside that was the closet, which I couldn't get into any more since my dad had broken the door handle off when I was about seven years old, trying to fix the lock. He'd promised to fix it, but since it had been ten years, I figured he might've forgotten. I also had a dresser drawer on the wall beside the door - opposite my desk - where I kept my clothes. Supposedly.

Both the carpet and the quilt on my bed were green. If it was a bad week, sometimes it was hard to tell. I did have to push any accumulated junk off the bed before I could sleep, though.

My computer seemed to like the CD - that is, it didn't make any crazy whirring noises or eject it right away. That was the problem with using a computer that had been originally bought when I was in the first grade - no matter how many upgrades, repairs, or new parts it got, it wasn't exactly young any more.

I was going to have to think about straight-out asking for a new one. Dropping hints was getting me nowhere.

I was in the middle of thinking about how I was going to go about leading up to the topic with my dad when my computer screen went black.

Oh shit! I grimaced. It must've been too soon to say that the computer liked it - the computer was probably just trying to put me at ease and then shock me by crashing. Not good. I hit the button to open the CD case again, but all I got was the stupid green light blinking at me. Great. A mutiny organized by my own computer.

The color on the screen suddenly faded out from black to white.

It didn't crash… Well, that was a relief. I straightened in my seat again. This was probably part of whatever was on there, then.

I didn't have to wait long for the rest of it. Abruptly, letters started appearing on the screen, as if someone were typing them in. 'Invitation to the Game', they said.

That would explain why it was in with Mike's games.

A picture that sort of resembled a pop-up box faded in to replace the words. 'Danger Ahead. Proceed?', it said, and there were 'YES' and 'NO' buttons I could select with the arrow keys.

"Why not?" I muttered out loud, leaving it on 'YES' and pressing enter.

Another pop-up picture. The new one said, 'Are you sure?'

I didn't know the question of whether or not to play a computer game was such a weighty one. I chose 'YES' again.

And… yet another pop-up. 'Begin the Game?' this time, with 'OK' and 'CANCEL'.

I was starting to wonder if there was some kind of terrible, graphic violence in this game, and the warnings were there to make children get bored and give up before they got all the way through them. It got another 'OK' anyway.

The screen flickered for a moment, my CD-ROM made a slight whirring noise, and then some more of those looking-like-they-were-being-typed letters appeared onscreen.

'Player Added'.

Added to what? I frowned. Was this software for an online game or something? But then why was the CD-ROM reacting but not my unblinking cable box.

It was… kind of weird. I was starting to get a strange chilling sensation sliding down my spine. Somehow, this just didn't seem like an ordinary game. Where was the company logo? The copyright note? The name of the thing!

'Player Four:', the screen typed. 'Shane McMurray'.

I had not typed in my name! There was no point where I had typed in my name!

'Links: 0 of 5'.

What the hell did that mean!?

'Items: 0'.

Okay, items was easier to understand, if this was a game… But still, the rest of it didn't make sense! I leaned back in my chair and gripped the armrests so hard that my knuckles started to turn white. I had not put my name into that thing. There was no way one of Mike's games could have known my name.

'Status: Arrival of Guide pending'.

Guide? Arrival? I didn't like the sound of that at all. Did that mean some weirdo was going to show up at my house and force me to learn how to play this creepy game that knew my name without asking me for it?

I spun my chair around. No weirdo.

That made me feel a little better. Only a little, though.

That feeling went away when I turned around again. The white game screen was gone, and what remained were my James Bond wallpaper and the usual icons. No alert to show that it had crashed. No message box. No blinking light on the CD-ROM.

Nothing.

No way… I clicked on the icon that would take me to the D: drive again, feeling kind of disturbed. This was getting weird. Really weird. And you know what? I didn't like weird. Really.

'CD-ROM Drive (D:) is empty'.

Fuck.

Open the drive. Just open the drive. It's crashed, and it's not recognizing anything… that's all. That's all.

I opened the drive. The computer was right. It was empty.

That really sent a cold shiver down my spine. I sat there and stared at it for a moment. I remember putting the CD in. I remember. I do. I put it right in there. Fuck, this can't be happening…

I looked around for the case - and there was another clue that something Really Weird was going on, because the case was gone, too.

Not good.

In fact, really, really not good. So not good that it wasn't even close to good.

"Shane!"

That was my mom. I jumped, then ran a hand through my sort of shaggy dirty-blond bangs nervously. This was really getting to me… "Yeah, mom?" Okay, yeah, that came out sounding a little squeaky.

"Dinner time," she answered, muffled through the door.

"Okay!" Nice, normal dinner. I pushed the CD-ROM drive closed.

Okay.

So, as of right then, I was having delusions due to guilt over unfinished homework, and was never going to speak of disappearing CDs and cases and weird messages on the computer screen to anyone else. Ever.

Best plan I'd had all night. I spun around in my chair, got up, and headed for the door.

Besides… it was probably nothing. Right?

~~~~~~

"Your dad forget to pick these up before he left?" The clerk at our convenience store, Jared, flashed me a smile, quickly bagging the cucumbers and bean sprouts that my mom had sent me to pick up. "Or is this for dessert?"

I frowned back at him. Mom was on one of those 'weird food' kicks - she'd bought a bunch of books on how to be creative and different with meals. "Don't get me started."

He leaned across the counter and rested his chin on his hand. "Problems at home?"

"Not really." I took the bag, receipt, and change from him all at once, stuffing the last two into my jeans pocket. "Do I have a shift this week?"

Dad made me work for my allowance. He refused to just call it a wage, since I was his kid. I worked about two shifts a month, mostly doing inventory, stocking the shelves, and cleaning up any messes. It was better than being broke all the time.

Jared moved away from the counter and checked the schedule. "Yup. Wednesday."

"Okay. Thanks."

"Hey," he said, before I could leave. "How's your funny class? Anything interesting happen?" Jared was a college senior, and he was fascinated by the stories I brought in from my homeroom class. He said he'd never had a high school class like that. I think he was living vicariously through me.

"Well, Hannah Truband accused Jason Tropp of sleeping with a cabbage patch doll." I slid one elbow up onto the counter, leaning against it. Dad's store was arranged in a pretty standard way - four neat rows of products with the less healthy snacks at the ends, and then the counter at the front. "Mrs. Gammond walked in while he was trying to explain that his sister had snuck it into his bed. She said we should leave Jason's sex life out of classroom discussions."

Jared laughed. "That teacher of yours is awesome."

"That wasn't the best part," I said, snickering a bit at the memory. "Brad had his smurf sock puppet with him - you know, the gay one. He brought it out and had it say" - I paused for a moment to try and imitate the falsetto he always used - "'I'm better than any old cabbage patch doll!'"

Jared laughed again. He had a nice laugh. Good-looking, too. Too bad he was straight.

"Then Tristan Dufraine said he could show the cabbage patch doll a better time," I added. "That got most of the girls' attention." Tristan was the school heartthrob. He was blond, blue-eyed, a great dresser, and filthy rich. There was no question of whether or not he'd need to worry about having a date for Friday night. Girls threw themselves at him.

"Yeah, and?"

"That's it." I shrugged. "Then Mrs. Gammond said that we had to start and maybe Jason could bring the doll in tomorrow and introduce her to everyone. So he did."

I left while Jared was still cracking up over that one. Sometimes it was as much fun to tell the stories as it probably would be to be involved in them.

It was a pretty good night for a walk… I'd grumbled about it when mom sent me out, but actually, I felt better with the fresh air to clear my head. The whole computer thing was starting to seem much less immediate now. Hell, I'd probably just imagined the whole thing. The nasty business of avoiding homework was clearly starting to mess with my head. It was probably responsible for all the fantasies I really shouldn't be having about Devon Cross, too.

Okay, well, maybe not, but I had to blame those on something.

The corner store was ten minutes from our house. Good thing for my dad, because mom needed the car to get to her job up the hill. We lived in a pretty small city, but still, for some reason, she really needed to be in a remote spot. Whenever I asked about that, she always gave me a 'you really wouldn't understand' look complete with cryptic smile and wink. It was her way of saying it was a smart business decision.

We lived in a nice quiet part of town. The lawns were neat and green, the houses were decently taken care of, there were usually a lot of young children around, and there was hardly any crime. I wouldn't have called it a rich neighborhood, but it wasn't too bad. And, of course, at that time of night, everything was quiet.

After all, it was after nine.

I really couldn't wait to graduate and move into an apartment in New York or something where people were actually alive.

My house was on the other block, so instead of walking around the curb to get to the other side, I went through the path between one neighbor's fence and the other's hedges and cut across the hedge-person's backyard. The lady who lived there didn't believe in fences for some reason. I think she thought they'd ruin her décor.

"Doing some heavy soul-searching? Or are you planning a strategy already?"

Not a familiar voice - and coming from above me. I jerked to a halt and looked up. There was a boy sitting on top of the hedges. He had a triangular-shaped face, short brown hair, and he wore strange-looking black pants and shirt with a gold sash-type thing. That was kind of weird enough, but not as weird as the rest of it.

Like the fact that his eyes were completely white.

And he was almost transparent.

And he was ten inches tall.

Holy fuck, it's the attack of the ghost-pigmies!

"Hi there!" The midget grinned at me, apparently not noticing my extreme shock. Either that, or he didn't care. "You're Shane McMurray, right?"

Did everything know my name? This was really starting to make me paranoid…

"I'm Zinc," he went on, blissfully oblivious. "You were probably expecting me. I'm your Guide for the Game."

Guide… Wasn't there something about that on my imaginary computer game? Oh, right - the whole 'status' thing. Great.

I opened my mouth to say something. It didn't work. "Ur… gh…"

Oh, that was intelligent. Brilliant, even.

"Look, I know I'm late - I'm sorry about that." Zinc pushed himself up and floated - floated! - down from the hedge to hover about a foot away from where my eyes were trying to pop free from my head. "But I’m worth it. Ask any former Player. You're lucky you got me and not one of the other - hey, are you all right? Hello?"

His voice was starting to get fuzzy. It was hard to see… Things were sort of going black. And falling down.

No, wait - that was me.

~~~~~

"Are you awake? I saw you move. You're awake, aren't you?"

My head was throbbing. I brought one hand up to it and groaned, experiencing that period of 'waking up' that involved not knowing where I was or what was going on. "Mmmmph?"

My eyes opened, and the dizzy feeling that had come with the headache started to slide away. Unfortunately, as that happened, a ten-inch-tall transparent person with completely white eyes slid into view.

I groaned. Oh no…

"Hey, you're all right!" Zinc beamed down at me, floating back a ways. "I was starting to get worried, you know?"

"Define 'all right'," I mumbled, pushing myself painfully into a sitting position. I was lying on the path between the hedges and the fence, just before the point where I'd be into the back yard part. It was probably a lucky thing that I hadn't hit my head on the fence as I went down. "My definition doesn't involve being haunted by midget ghosts who want to play games."

"Midget ghosts?" Zinc actually looked hurt. "I'm a Guide! And anyway, I'm not the one playing the Game." He pointed a finger at me and grinned. "You are."

"Great. Wonderful." I threw my hands in the air. "It's my life's dream. No thank you. I don't want to play a game that involves midget ghost guides and weird computer CDs that know your name and disappear from your CD-ROM drive."

Zinc studied me thoughtfully as I spoke, and then shrugged. "Well, it's too late for that."

I stared at him. "Too late? What do you mean 'too late'?"

"You agreed to play." The bastard seemed completely unsympathetic toward my obvious distress. "The Game doesn't stop until a Level is completed."

"I agreed? When?" Okay, so I had a good idea of when - back when I'd said okay to all of those stupid questions on that goddamn CD, obviously. But still… this was unbelievable! "What kind of game is this, anyway? And how do you complete a Level? What kind of stuff do you do in a Level?"

Zinc coughed, adopting a self-important look. "I'll answer the last three in order, then," he said, with great dignity. "The Game is an invitation-only adventure arranged for humans in which they free the Beings of Light and thus earn themselves points. The winner of the Game will be rewarded beyond their wildest dreams, but all Players who complete the Game with at least some points to their credit will get due reward - once all the Beings are freed. With me so far?"

My head was spinning, but this was starting to sink in. Somewhat. "I think so."

"Good." He was apparently willing to take that at face value and not account for shock-induced stupor at all. "Well, freeing a Being of Light is how you complete a Level, and to free a Being of Light, you spend the Level looking for Links."

"Links," I repeated flatly. Well, the strange words on the computer screen were starting to make sense…

"Yeah, Links." Zinc nodded, still smiling away like a complete moron. "There are five different kinds - they represent human weaknesses. When you try to get them, they create illusions to protect themselves that exploit those weaknesses. But you have to collect one of each kind, because without all five, you can't free a Being of Light."

"Great." I finally took the initiative and pushed myself to my feet. The bean sprouts and cucumbers were lying next to me. I guess it was lucky mom hadn't asked for eggs. "So I go through illusions, collect Links, and free a Being of Light. Is that all?"

"Well…" He floated up to stay at eye level. "Not exactly. I mean, it's not that simple. The illusions aren't totally just illusions. Because in your mind, they really happen - so if you get zapped by something, your mind thinks it really happened, and then you end up brain-dead. Or, well, something like that."

This was not reassuring. "So I go through dangerous, possibly life-threatening illusions, collect Links, and free a Being of Light. Is that all?"

Zinc squirmed a bit. "Er… um… uh, no."

Fantastic. I sighed. "What else?"

"You have to watch out for demons, that's all." He said it like he was trying to pass it off as no big deal. "There's spirit demons - those are the worst - and shadow demons - those ones really aren't so bad, as long as you don't get in their way - and then pocket demons, which are really just little mischief-makers who steal socks from people's laundry."

I did not like the sound of any of that. "Okay. So, explain."

"See, demons sort of exist in the same place where Players do all the Game stuff," he said, earnestly. "It's like in reality - all around us - but ordinary people can't see them. Same with Links and Beings of Light and all that other good stuff. Spirit demons and shadow demons are sort of people-shaped, and they're a lot alike. Spirit demons have white essence and shadow demons have black, and they eat different things. Pocket demons are about my size."

I was not fooled by the casual descriptions. "What do they eat?"

"Um." Zinc rubbed the back of his neck, and laughed nervously. "Shadow demons eat fears and insecurities. They don't have to bother people because they can get what they want just by standing around and taking it in. Spirit demons eat…" And the rest was mumbled out so that I couldn't hear.

"Excuse me?" No way was he getting away with that. "Spirit demons eat what?"

"Souls," he admitted, giving me a wary look.

"Souls?" I repeated, incredulously. "Souls? These things eat souls?"

"Hey, it's not that bad!" Zinc held out his hands in a placating gesture. "They can't really get at normal people's souls, they have to try and trick the person into agreeing to let them have it when they die. That's all!"

I relaxed a bit. Well, that was a… wait. "Normal people? Only normal people?"

"I was hoping you wouldn't catch that," he muttered to himself, then offered me a big, fake reassuring smile. "Yeah, uh, if they catch a Player, they can just take his or her soul. Without having to ask. But they're not very fast, you know," he added quickly. "And hey, most of the time they don't bother you, because they've got victims they're already preying on and don't have time to chase Players around."

That headache was coming back full force. I rubbed at my forehead, fervently wishing that I could wake up and find out that this was all a bad dream. "Ugh. Fine. Whatever. I'll watch out for them." What else could I do, after all?

Zinc looked relieved. I guess he'd thought I would scream and rave at him a bit longer. "Good."

"So, collect Links, suffer through dangerous illusions, free a Being of Light, and watch out for demons." I gave him a flat look. "Is that all?"

"Those are the basics," he agreed, cheerfully. "I'll fill you in on more details as we go."

"Great." I picked up the bag again. "I think we'd better get out of here before the neighbors hear people talking and come out to investigate."

"They wouldn't be able to see me anyway." Zinc shrugged, trailing after me as I started walking again. "Ordinary people don't notice Game stuff."

That was kind of useful, but at the moment it really didn't make a difference. "Yeah, well, ordinary people will notice me, and if they catch me talking to myself, they'll lock me in a nuthouse. It'd be hard to play the Game from there."

"Don't be so sure about that. Sometimes you find Links in some pretty weird places." Zinc grinned a bit, floating backwards so he could watch my face while we talked. "We can talk mind-to-mind, you know. Like with telephones, but you don't have to dial."

I divided my attention between making sure I didn't walk into something and staring at him. "So, what? I'm telepathic now?"

"Telepathy means reading people's minds. You can talk to me, and I can talk to you. That's as far as it goes."

I frowned at him suspiciously. "Are you sure?"

"Hey!" He looked offended again. "Are you saying you think I don't know what I'm talking about?"

"I'm saying I don't trust you." And I think that mistrust was really justified, too. Zinc didn't strike me as highly reliable. "I don't want you poking around in my head, all right? It's bad enough that I have to see what's in there."

Zinc sighed, crossing his arms. "Well, you're going to have to learn to trust me - I'm your Guide, after all."

"I get that - we'll work on it, okay?" I cut across our newly-mowed front lawn and started up the steps to our front door. "We can talk about this later - when my parents aren't around to watch me have a conversation with myself."

A suspicious period of silence answered me.

I really don't want to deal with this… Suppressing the urge to try and strangle my 'Guide', I opened the front door and stepped into the entranceway. "I'm home!"

"Oh, good!" Mom came out of the kitchen - just past the sitting room, which was right beyond the entranceway - with a smile on her face. My mother was a willowy sort of person - tall and thin with greying brown hair, and looking like a strong breeze could knock her over. She smiled a lot, and sometimes acted kind of vague and mystic-y, but she was tough when she had to be. "I need to get this finished and into the fridge so it'll be all set for tomorrow. Was there any change?"

"Yeah." I handed her the bag and dug into my pocket.

~You probably could've kept that, you know.~

I dropped the change.

"Shane!" Mom jumped a bit. "What's the matter with you?"

"Sorry." I bent to pick up the coins, shooting a glare at the unrepentant midget hovering over my right shoulder. "It's just this really annoying thing that I can't seem to get out of my head."

~Hey, at least I didn't faint in someone else's back yard!~

"Shut up!"

"Pardon me?" She didn't sound pleased with that.

"Sorry, Mom. I didn't mean you." I stood back up, handing her the change and receipt. "I was thinking something, that's all. Just wanted to tell my thoughts to shut up." Lame. Very lame. Although, knowing me, it could possibly have been the truth.

"All right." Mom pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes, but didn't comment. "Have you finished your homework for tomorrow?"

"No, but I'll work on that now." I pulled off the light jacket - it still got kind of chilly outside at night - and headed for the stairs. "Jackass," I muttered at Zinc.

Unfortunately, Mom's ears are really good. "What was that?"

"Nothing!" I decided it was in my best interests to get out of there as soon as possible.

Our house wasn't actually that big. The kitchen, sitting room, a bathroom, and mom and dad's room were downstairs, and my room, Nicole's room, and another bathroom were upstairs. There were two sets of stairs - the one I went up was the one you got to if you went straight from the entranceway down the little hallway that had doors to the bathroom and my parents' room on the right and the sitting room and kitchen on the left. The other set led down from the kitchen to the basement.

It wasn't much of a house, but it was a lot better than having an apartment. At least we had breathing room.

Zinc had the whole innocent act ready for me when I finally got into my room and shut the door; he blinked in response to my glare. "What?"

"You could've found a better time and place to test that out," I informed him - as if he didn't know - in a low tone. The lowness was actually for my own benefit, since my parents would probably be annoyed if I started yelling and woke up Nicole.

~I was only teasing.~ He actually sounded injured! "You could lighten up a bit."

"Right." I turned away from him and made a face at my math textbook. It was going to be hard to concentrate on geometry, but since I hadn't actually played a game - and didn't exactly feel like trying it then - I wouldn't be guaranteed Mike's answers at lunch. "I'll lighten up when I get out of this Game thing and back to life without demons and guides and beings of light or whatever."

"Back to a normal life," he said, giving me a look like he thought he was making some kind of huge point. "A boring life."

"I like my normal, boring life," I informed him, flopping into the chair at my desk with a sigh. There wasn't a lot of room for things on there besides the computer, but there was enough to do homework. "Now can you leave me alone? I have to finish the homework I didn't do because of a disappearing computer CD that nearly gave me a paranoia attack."

He settled down, sitting on my math textbook, cross-legged. "I'll disappear and keep quiet on one condition."

I sighed again. Great. Blackmailed by the midget ghost. "What?"

"That you agree to play the Game tonight." He gave me a determined look. "We can sneak out when your parents go to bed. Go looking for Links. Then you can hopefully get the hang of things before you run into other Players."

I hadn't thought about other Players… It might be a good idea not to make a complete idiot of myself. Even if that meant getting very little sleep and dozing through a few classes the next day. "All right, fine. Get off my textbook."

He beamed, and did as he was told. "Just you wait. Tonight will be fantastic. You won't want to stop playing when I'm done with you."

"I can hardly wait." Sarcasm? Me? Nooo. "Now disappear and let me get some work done."

And, wonder of wonders, he actually did.

Knowing what was coming, though, I had a feeling getting any homework done was going to be pretty difficult.

What had I gotten myself into, anyway?

~~~~~~

"All right." Zinc floated out ahead of me, enthusiastically waving a hand forward as if to show which part of the neighborhood I should dismantle in my search. "Go to it."

I looked at him. It was nearly midnight, and the atmosphere was clear and cool. Guess I was lucky it was still early spring. If it had been muggy and warm, I'd probably have trouble staying alert. But still, we were just out on my front lawn, and it wasn't like he was explaining anything. "Go to what?"

"Go to… oh, right." Zinc sagged a bit. "You don't know yet."

Well, that was helpful. "Know what?"

"You're a Player," he answered, as if that explained everything. "You're in charge of finding the Links. I'm just a Guide, so all I can do is tell you stuff. Sort of like a rule book."

I seriously doubted that. A rule book would've talked less and told me more. "All right, so what am I supposed to do?"

"You have to concentrate on trying to sense them." He sat cross-legged in the air and grinned at me. "Close your eyes, and think about finding what you want."

"Sense them," I repeated, flatly. This just gets better and better…

"Right." Apparently, Zinc didn't think there was anything wrong with that; he leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and watched me expectantly. "So?"

"All right, fine!" I glanced around - just to be sure. There were some kids in our area who liked to sneak out of the house after their parents went to bed, and I didn't want them to catch me standing there with my eyes closed trying to sense Game Links.

The rest of the world doesn't need to see me looking like a moron.

No one was there, though; it was quiet. Great - I could get this over with quickly. Well, assuming Zinc was right and something actually happened. I trusted Zinc about as far as I could throw my house.

Of course, it wasn't like I had any better options. Shutting my eyes quickly, I tried to ignore the little voice at the back of my head that was telling me this was stupid and thought about how much I wanted to find those Links so that I could end this and get back to my excitement-free existence.

And just like he said, something did happen.

It was almost like a bunch of things I'd felt before, mixed in together. Smooth, black marble under my hands… darkness lurking just beyond the arch of that dark stone… footsteps echoing in the stillness - the cold floor under my feet. It wasn't the same as remembering them, but I wasn't sure how the differences came in. And it pulled at me - not hard, but it definitely made me want to move toward it.

"That's… interesting." I opened my eyes, blinking a bit.

Zinc was watching me impatiently. "Well?"

I pointed across the street, where a house blocked the most direct path to the place I wanted to get to. "It'll be quicker if we go over the fence and cut through their back yard than if we walk around the block."

"All right! More trespassing." He slid out of his cross-legged position, grinning like an idiot. "Are you getting impatient for the fun part?"

"I just don't like wasting time," I said, starting across the street. "Anyway, it pulls - sort of. I feel like I'd better go."

"'Course it does," Zinc answered, in that offhand tone that made me wish I could strangle him. "Hey, so what'd it feel like, huh? What kind of Link are we going for?"

I started over the fence. It was metal, so I wasn't about to get splinters, but I didn't want to make too much noise climbing and wake someone up. "Like black marble - a gate or something. Is that what the Links are supposed to be? Gates?"

"No, not that!" When I finished climbing and jumped over to the other side, he was giving me an annoyed look. "Not the physical stuff - I mean, the emotions. What'd it feel like?"

"It didn't feel like anything." I'd decided by then that the best way to deal with Zinc was just to carry on as usual and talk to him at the same time. Otherwise, I wasn't going to get much done. "I just felt it pulling at me."

"What? That's not - oh." He blinked, as if something had just occurred to him. "Oh. Right."

I gave him a quick, suspicious glance. "Now what?"

"Ah - I just thought of something, that's all." He gave me a look of pure innocence - or pure evil, depending on how you interpret looks like those, and then pointed ahead of me at the little garden our neighbors had been vainly trying to protect from kids who liked to cut through their back yard. "Hey, there's the gate!"

The gate was… pretty much what I'd pictured, which I guess made sense, since I'd sensed it, after all. It was made of smoothly carved black marble, and looked more like an arch than anything. I could see the rest of the garden through it - if ordinary people could see the thing, it'd probably pass as a regular decoration. Non-ordinary people… well. I got the feeling if I went through the thing, I wouldn't just end up on the other side of it.

I looked at Zinc. "I'm supposed to go through, right?" There wasn't much point in waiting for an answer. "Where will I end up?"

He shrugged. "Could be anywhere, really. The gates lead to different planes of existence. Just right close to the things we want."

Very reassuring. "Thanks."

It didn't seem like he caught the sarcasm. "No problem. Let's go."

And he floated on ahead of me, right through the arch.

Where he promptly vanished.

No turning back, I guess… I took in a deep breath. Zinc seemed awfully careless about the whole business, so I had a feeling that things like caution and self-preservation were going to be up to me. But, if I wanted out of the Game…

Making up my mind, I moved forward and through the gate after him.

Beyond the doorway was a place that seemed - appropriately enough - like a setting from a video game. The floor and walls were hard, dark stone, and the plain pillars that supported the ceiling made the place seem more like a cavern than a castle. There was no sign of light other than small, flickering torches lining the walls, and the room stretched in front of me like a wide, endless hallway.

How cheerful.

"Hey!" Zinc was already waiting impatiently for me, hovering a few feet down the hall. "This way!"

Following after him, I had the strangest feeling that there should be music playing somewhere.

Maybe I'd been hanging around Mike and his games more than was really good for me.

"What are we looking for?" I asked, after watching Zinc poke around at the walls for a few minutes.

He didn't look up. "There's probably a hidden door around here somewhere…"

I did look up. The torches I'd noticed earlier on were actually held onto the wall by heavy metal rings, equally spaced out so that the light distributed evenly. Except for… "It's probably over here," I said, heading past him.

"Huh?" That seemed to get his attention. "How do you know?"

"Just look at the torches." I shrugged, stopping by the wall. "They're all evenly spaced out, but there's this big stretch here like one of them is missing. Except there's no ring, which means there wasn't a torch to go here in the first place. It makes sense, right?"

"I guess it does." Zinc floated out to the point above my head - even with where the other torches were attached to the walls. "There's a latch here that you can probably put a ring on. Let me see if it does something." He reached out and gave the thing a sharp twist.

And with a loud, rusty-sounding creak, part of the wall swung inwards.

Kicking up a massive cloud of dust so thick that I had to back up and cover my face, choking a bit. Great. When it settled, I saw that the room we'd just revealed was really more like a closet - a small, hollowed out part of the stone with a dank, musty smell and what looked like a treasure chest from an old movie.

"That's it!" Zinc declared enthusiastically, settling by my shoulder again. "In that box!"

"So I open it, right?" I bent down and looked at the large, rusting brass lock holding the thing closed. "Does it need a key?"

"Depends." He floated closer to take a look. "Sometimes they do and sometimes it just looks like they do - to keep Guides from just taking stuff back to their Players for them." He said it like it was the most heinous crime anyone could commit. "That's cheating."

"Good to know." I reached out to tentatively touch the lock. As soon as I did, there was an audible click, and the lid abruptly came free. "I guess this one didn't need a key." I pulled it up to get a look at what was inside.

I was not expecting what I found.

A soft silver glow was coming from the inside; as I lifted up the lid, it seemed to fill more and more of the small space. And at the center, floating in the middle of the light that was making me squint, was an old-fashioned, ornate silver key.

"I knew it!" Zinc crowed triumphantly.

I couldn't stop staring. There was something appealing about that simple picture - but at the same time, I got a bit of a chill too. It seemed like there was something else - something I maybe should've been paying attention to… "Is this one of the Links?"

"It's the Key! You found the Key!" I half expected to find my Guide doing a victory dance when I turned my head to stare at him. "And on your first time - talk about luck!"

I just blinked at him. "The key to what?"

"No, no, not that kind of key!" He waved a hand at me, as if I was being silly somehow. "It's one of the five Items - they're things the Players can find that help them get Links and fight and stuff. Go on!" By that point, he was waving both hands, at me and at the key in the box. "Take it!"

I turned back to the glowing silver key, feeling a bit doubtful about this. I wanted to take it - something about the way it looked gave me the feeling it'd be pretty useful. But I couldn't shake that feeling… "Are you sure it's safe? Seems kind of easy, doesn't it?"

"Well, maybe," Zinc agreed, reluctantly. "But you can't just leave an Item behind after you've found it! These are hard to come across, you know! There are only five of them, and there's probably Players right now who already have at least one."

"If you say so." Pushing aside that feeling, I reached out and took hold of the glowing key.

The glow died out abruptly, and the room went cold.

"Uh…" Okay, the feeling had just gone from 'weird' to 'really fucking creepy', and I was pretty sure it wasn't just paranoia. My nerves were screaming at me. I stood, gripping the Key tightly and took a nervous step backwards. "What's this?"

Zinc was quiet for a minute. Then, "Oh, crap."

What? 'Oh crap'? What was that supposed to mean? "What do you mean 'oh crap'? What's wrong?"

If he had an answer, I never got to hear it.

A blinding white light lit up the whole room - something fierce, not like the soft silver glow from the Key. 'Cold' shifted to 'freezing', and I barely got a squeak out before every muscle in my body went slack. It felt like I was falling backward through water - and that white light covered my thoughts. I couldn't see. I couldn't think. It was hard to breathe.

Is this what it feels like to die…?

I almost couldn't care, even if it was. The voice at the back of my head that was shrieking at the rest of me in a gibbering fright was fading out, like it was coming from behind a wall of ice that just kept getting thicker.

Someone's arms caught me as I was falling back - cold arms, propping me up against the shoulder of whoever they belonged to. My head lolled back, and I was looking at some blurry-looking guy's face. Some transparent guy's face, surrounded by that choking white light.

And with white eyes, just like Zinc's.

My clouded brain made a feeble attempt to make sense of this. What…?

"Just relax, lovely." He smiled, running a finger delicately up my chest and using it to prop my chin up further. "You won't feel a thing." And he leaned his face down toward me.

All at once, every single cell in my body was on fire with unreasoning, panicky terror. I couldn't even move to struggle. Help me, someone, I don't wanna die, help me help me help me helpmehelpmehelpmehelpme…!

"Shane!"

Something jarred the person holding onto my shoulders and waist, and I suddenly wrenched free and hit the floor, dazed.

"Oh man, get up!" Zinc was tugging frantically at me. "He's not gonna stay stunned for long - we gotta get out of here! Hurry up and get running!"

"Wh - Wha…?" I looked up, feeling disoriented and out-of-breath, and felt my breath run cold.

The person hovering over me - with his head in his hands, as if someone had hit him - was glowing a dangerous white, as if he were on fire with the color. There was something… nightmare-ish about him; I could feel it screaming at my senses. This, my brain was telling me, was the ultimate horror.

Holy shit… Holy fucking shi -

"Come on!" Zinc yelled, and jerked my arm back as hard as he could, toward the door.

I didn't need to be told twice. Scrambling to my feet, I ran for the exit as fast as my legs would carry me. The thought of that… thing… following me gave me a speed I hadn't even known I could achieve.

"Through the gate!" my Guide shouted, and shot through ahead of me.

I was fully prepared to keep running all the way back to my house and not stop until I was hiding under the bed, but Zinc grabbed the back of my shirt and held me before I got very far.

"What are you doing?" I screamed at him. Through the opening, I could see the whatever-it-was coming out of the secret room, slowly and with murder written all over his expression.

Not good. Not good at all.

"You have to lock it!" Zinc screamed right back at me. "Otherwise he'll just follow us and kill you when he catches you! Hurry up!"

"What?" This was not going well. "How the hell am I supposed to do that?"

"You've still got the Key, right?" Without waiting for an answer, Zinc grabbed my wrist and brought the big silver key - still clutched tightly in my fist - up to hold out boldly in front of the gate. "Go on! Use it!"

"How? Tell me how, you brainless freak of nature!" He was getting closer… I could feel the cold closing in…

"Concentrate on it! Think 'lock'! I don't know! Just - do what you have to!"

Great… I grit my teeth as hard as I could, trying to ignore the panic that was trying to take over my brain. Lock the door! Get it shut - lock it! Hurry… please! I sent out the thought as hard as I could, trying to will the doorway shut.

The glowing white figure was just a few feet away…

Please LOCK!

Abruptly, the doorway went black - and then the rest of the garden in behind it appeared. Just as if it were any normal backyard decoration.

For a moment, I just stood there - shaking all over - and stared.

"All right!" Zinc broke the silence first, thrusting a fist into the air triumphantly. "That was great!" he crowed, floating in front of me. "And you've got an Item now! What a great first trip!"

… Great…?

That was just too much.

With a long, drawn-out moan, I sank down into a hard seat on the ground, the Key slipping from my numb fingers to fall to the grass beside me.

If this really was just a game, I wished I'd read the rules before playing.

 

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