Game Over

Players

 

"That," Zinc explained, from his position on my windowsill, "was a spirit demon - you know, the guys that eat people's souls. I told you about them, remember?"

I kept my face buried in the pillow, as it had been since I'd managed to drag myself home. I was tired and more than a little shaken up. The key I'd picked up sat on my desk, unimportant for the time being. "Thank you for warning me. It helped a lot."

At least I was still capable of sarcasm.

"I saved you," he reminded me, sounding injured.

"I wouldn't have needed saving in the first place if it wasn't for you!" I lifted my head just long enough to flip the pillow up over it. "Remind me never to listen to you again when you start suggesting 'adventures'."

"But I'm your Guide," he protested. "I'm supposed to help you win the Game. And you're not going to get anywhere if you don't take some risks." He paused for a second, then added, "You wouldn't have the Key if it weren't for me."

"I think I could live with that," I told him dryly - then sighed and gave up, rolling over and putting the pillow back against the headboard. I was starting to get uncomfortable under there anyway. "Do these - Items? - always have spirit demons guarding them."

Zinc shook his head, with a bit of a rueful smile. "I don't think it was guarding it. Spirit demons like being near powerful things. It probably just found the chest, liked the feel of it, and fell asleep there. You woke it up when you took the Key - when a Player picks up an Item, its power transfers over to them. The demon would've felt that, for sure."

I got a bit of a chill at that - it definitely didn't help to think about how I'd just actively courted death without realizing it. "It can't get into our world now, right?"

"Ah - well, actually, yes." He deliberately avoided my eyes. "If it finds another gate, it can get here. Maybe not here here, but here in this world, yeah."

I stared at him. "So you're saying it could still find me?"

"It'll try." Zinc laughed nervously, still staring up at the ceiling as if fascinated by it. "It's probably all fixated with you now, so it'll keep searching until it finds you - or until we finish the Level. After that, it'll forget."

Oh, fantastic. Wonderful. I rolled over onto my back and laid an arm over my eyes. "I hate this Game," I announced, voice shaking noticeably. "Hate it with a passion. Wish I'd never heard of it."

"It's not that bad!" The little midget was quick to defend his life's work.

"I have a demon who wants to eat my soul out there looking for me!" I flung my arm away and sat up halfway, glaring at him. "I'm stuck with you and him and all of this" - I waved a hand vaguely in the direction of the Key - "Game crap until I find a bunch of Links and finish a Level! Which I don't even know how to do, and probably won't be any good at!"

"You don't know that!" Zinc turned to return my gaze stubbornly. "You haven't even really tried yet - you just went out once, and now you're saying you can't do it. Have a little confidence in yourself, huh? You wouldn't have been invited if you weren't capable."

I wasn't sure I believed that, and it somehow made me uncomfortable to hear it. "Look, I'll play your stupid Game, okay?" I rolled over to face him. "But after this Level - if I'm still alive - that's it. I'm done. No more demons or Links or Items or any other stuff. The end."

He opened his mouth as if to respond, met my gaze for a moment, and then shut it again. "That's fair."

"Good." I rolled back over and sat up all the way, turning to look at the Key. It still had a little of its glow left, making it sparkle all silvery. Very pretty. "So, tell me about the Items. You said there were five of them - the same way there are five Links?"

"Five different kinds of Links," Zinc corrected me, brightening now that he had something less disturbing to explain. "Vanity, Paranoia, Fear, Lust, and Despair. There's a bunch of each kind scattered around out there. They create illusions based on the emotion they represent in order to protect themselves from being collected by Players. But I'm getting off track - sorry."

"No problem. Go on."

He cleared his throat, closing his eyes to put on a self-important expression, and kept talking. "There are five Items, total. They're like tools - Players can use them to help with getting through the illusions, or in real life if they want. Each one has some pretty useful powers."

I stood up and walked over to my desk so I could pick the thing up. It was decently heavy, and felt cool and smooth in my fingers. For an antique key, it was pretty small - maybe a bit longer than my hand. It would fit into my pocket without much trouble. "What sort of powers does this have?"

"The Key?" Zinc got up from the sill and floated over next to me. "It locks and unlocks things."

Was that all? I was a bit disappointed. "What kinds of things?"

He shrugged. "Anything."

Okay… maybe that was a bit useful. "This can open any lock? And lock it again?"

"Not just locks." Zinc shook his head, with a bit of a smile. "Anything that can be shut up. Like doors without locks, or rooms without doors that close, or small spaces and stuff. It can create and take down barriers if you want it to."

Make that very useful. "That's actually pretty cool." A bit reluctantly, I put it down again. Going through hell to get something seemed to increase my fondness for it. "What about the other Items? What do those ones do?"

"Oh. Lots of stuff." He shrugged. "There's four others, like I said - Time, Healing, Severance, and Infliction. Time is… well, time. Stopping it, starting it, slowing it down, speeding it up - that sort of thing. Healing heals anything short of death, Severance can cut through anything, and Infliction is pure attack force." The grin on his face seemed to suggest that he lived for sharing this kind of knowledge. "Pretty simple stuff."

"I guess." Something about that was nagging at me, though. "You said Severance can cut through anything?"

Zinc nodded. "Right."

"Okay, so suppose I use the Key and lock some place up." I turned to face him. "And then someone with Severance tries to cut through the door or the barrier or whatever I've got up. Would he get through or would I be able to keep him out?"

"Uh…" He blinked. "Good question."

"You don't know?"

"No one's ever tried that." He gave me another sheepish look. "I guess it would depend on the Players using them."

"Oh." Well, hopefully that situation never came up - I didn't have a whole lot of faith in my ability to be a strong Player. "I think I'd better get to bed - I'm going to be tired enough tomorrow as it is."

"Okay!" Zinc seemed content enough with that; he headed for the computer instead, as I went to peel off my jeans and T-shirt. "I'll check your stats."

I stopped with my shirt half-off and turned around to look at what he was doing. "Stats?"

"Yeah." He did some clicking, and suddenly that screen I'd seen just before the CD had disappeared from my computer appeared on the monitor. With two differences. My status said 'Active', and under 'Items' it had 'Key'.

I finished pulling my shirt off. "How'd you do that?"

He shrugged, then moved the mouse around, and the screen went back to normal. "It's one of the things Guides are good for. Anyway, you want to be able to keep track of things, right?"

"I guess so." Just in case I happened to forget that the key-shaped object no one else could see was an Item called the Key? "Are you done?"

"Yup. I'll probably take off and do some scouting out." He beamed at me.

I decided at that point that the most annoying thing about Guides was how cheerful they could be at times when I was tired and cranky.

"Are you going to be around tomorrow morning?"

"Probably." Zinc shrugged. "I'm just going to see what your area looks like. Anyway, if I run into trouble or if you need me, you can always just talk to me like this" - he tapped a finger to his forehead - "and I'll hear you fine."

"Great." Between meeting a miniature person only I could see, finding out I'd joined a Game I didn't really want anything to do with, and narrowly escaping from a demon who wanted to eat my soul, I was getting really sick of that particular evening. "Good night," I said, turning out the light and flopping forward onto my bed without bothering to get under the covers.

"Watch out for pocket demons in your room," he said brightly, and then disappeared.

~~~~~~

For about the first ten seconds after I'd woken at the sound of my alarm going off the next morning, I believed that I'd actually dreamed up the entire thing. I mean, a game that took place in real life, demons that ate souls, and a ten-inch-tall guide called Zinc? It had all the makings of a regular old messed-up dream.

Or nightmare, as the case might be. I hadn't decided yet.

Ten seconds was a pretty short amount of time, though, and the sleepy little smirk that had sort of half-formed on my face dropped off it as soon as that early-morning period was up.

The reason being the furious gnawing and growling noises coming from across my room.

Oh, shit… I slid one eye open cautiously. And then both of them opened. All the way.

Something that looked like a cross between a monkey and a skunk was rolling around on my floor locked in a fierce battle with a pair of socks mom had just bought for me. It was growling and clawing and twisting around as if it were having a seizure, clearly frustrated with its lack of progress on the helpless prey.

After watching it for a moment with a kind of morbid fascination, it because obvious that the reason for the agitation was the plastic holding the socks together.

Jesus fucking christ… I was not in the mood for this. With a groan, I shoved myself up, grabbed my alarm clock, and managed to bean the thing right smack across the back of its ugly black head. It yelped, jumped away from the socks, and glowered at me, yellow-green eyes hateful.

I was not impressed. "Get the hell out!"

The monkey-skunk thing bared a set of not-very-dangerous-looking fangs, snarled again, and then jumped up onto my desk and dived out the window.

"Goddamnit…" I flopped back down onto the bed, pulling the pillow up over my head. "I don’t need this… What did I do to deserve it?"

No one answered me, which meant Zinc was still not back from wherever he'd gone the night before.

Good news at last.

My bedroom door clicked open cautiously, and I pulled the pillow back quickly, peering out to see what would appear.

What I got was a head of blond hair and sleepy green eyes. "Shay?"

Just Nicole. I relaxed.

My baby sister always called me 'Shay'. I wasn't sure if she still hadn't learned to pronounce 'Shane', or if she just liked 'Shay' better. It was probably going to stick, either way. But I guess it could've been worse.

"What's up, Icky-Nic?" Now, if there was anything I didn't want my friends hearing…

She blinked cutely at me. Nicole's specialty was making people fuss over her, and she did it really well. Looking at me and my sister next to each other, it was easy to see why she got way more babying than I'd been told that I ever got as a kid. She was like the refined version of me - pure blond hair where mine was dirty-blond, bright green eyes instead of grey-green, and dimples on both cheeks instead of one.

"Why bang?" she asked, after a minute.

Oh, right. The alarm clock. Oops.

"Sorry, Nicky," I apologized, finally taking the initiative and getting out of bed. Wasn't like I could sleep any more anyway, and I had school to get ready for. "I knocked my alarm clock over trying to turn it off."

She nodded solemnly at me - which probably meant she understood probably about a third of that - and started to chew on the collar of her 'My Little Pony' nightgown. Since I had yet to kick her out, she stood there and stared as I rooted around in my drawers for something to put over my boxers, with the kind of mute fascination only a three-year-old could really pull off.

Kids were weird creatures.

"Go get mom to make you breakfast," I suggested, herding her out of the room ahead of me once I had my clothing for the day tucked over my arm. "You can have soggy Fruit Loops. How's that?"

She considered that, her lip tucked up in her mouth instead of the pajamas. "Okay."

"Good." I gave her a push in the direction of the stairs, careful not to do anything that'd make the kid scream. She had a voice like a banshee when she was upset - which, fortunately, wasn't too often. I waited until it seemed like she was safely on her way down the stairs and then ducked into the bathroom to take my shower in peace.

Except for that whatever-it-was, it could've been a perfectly normal day.

"Morning, Shane," Dad greeted me when I came into the kitchen. He was in his manager's outfit and reading a book while his cheerios got as soggy as the multicolored loops in Nicole's bowl. In the glass by his hand was orange juice, without pulp. Dad hated coffee.

"Morning." I sank into the seat opposite him. Someone had made toast and scrambled eggs, so I grabbed a couple of pieces and dished myself a generous helping. It was probably getting cold, but that was okay.

There was still no sign of Zinc. I was actually starting to worry about the little guy.

After breakfast, Mom offered a ride to school on the way to dropping Nicole off at the daycare, so I ran upstairs to grab my backpack and finished homework. I was busy stuffing the hateful math textbook back into my bag when I noticed the silver key still sitting on the edge of my desk.

Just… sitting there. Doing nothing.

"Shane! We're leaving!"

"Coming!" Hesitating for just a second, I grabbed the Item and quickly jammed it into my pocket before running back out of the room and down the stairs.

You never knew when something like that might come in handy.

~~~~~~

My school building was small and grey. It hadn't originally been grey, but the blue paint was chipping off all over the place, and the walls looked like skin on a molting snake of some sort. There was a big grassy area around it - and two football fields at the back - and all of the people living nearby had fences around their yards to keep teenagers from trespassing. Which, needless to say, didn't really work that well.

"Have a nice day," Mom said with a bit of a wave, and I slid out of the car. Nicole waved her favorite red toy car at me from behind the passenger window.

Actually, the school was only a fifteen minute walk from my house. Mom giving me a ride generally didn't get me there much faster than I'd get by walking, since traffic slowed to a crawl around the area and I probably could've passed by the car without trying too hard. But it saved me the leg work.

"Tristan! Hey!" Some girl accidentally knocked me into a couple of tenth graders in her haste to get by me. "Oops, sorry!" she said without looking back and kept hurrying forward. "Tristan!"

The tall, good-looking blond she was waving at turned and smiled, waiting for her to catch up. Tristan Dufraine: eleventh grade heartthrob. His parents were socialites, and he took his dates to fancy restaurants and clubs that high school kids didn't normally get into. It also didn't hurt that he was blue-eyed, a great dresser, and one of the friendliest people in school.

Some people were born with all the right stuff. It really wasn't fair - there should've been a balancing act done somewhere.

"Tristan, wait for me!"

"Hey! Tristan!"

Well… if there was any flaw… I watched two other girls converge on the not-too-miserable-looking 17-year-old. His flaw would have to be his fickle attitude. He was never with any one girl for more than a few nights.

Not that it caused any sort of problems for him.

"You know that Adam Zattakis kid, right?" A few of my homeroom classmates were clustered around one desk as I tried to slip in unnoticed and sit at my usual place near - but not quite at - the back.

"The one who's obsessed with the word 'fuck'?"

"Yeah… Gina heard him talking to some friends while she was standing outside on break, and almost turned to go back in because she thought he was Mrs. Parker."

"Well, he's got a high enough voice."

"No kidding."

I let my backpack hit the ground with a thud, and slunk into my seat. The fact that I'd been up late being terrorized by a spirit demon was starting to hit me right about then, and I wished the desk came with a pillow. Sleep would be really nice…

Leaning my head on one hand, I let the elbow slide down so my face lowered.

Just in time to get a fantastic viewpoint of someone's denim-covered crotch as they moved past my desk. Holy fucking Jesus - I jerked back and promptly managed to fall off my chair and hit the back of my head on the desk behind me. "Owww…"

People were staring at me now. I rubbed my head and tried not to feel like a complete idiot. So much for inconspicuous.

"Are you okay?" Oh, was that voice familiar…

I looked up slowly, and wished I could die and shrivel up into ashes.

The guy standing beside my overturned chair and looking down at me with a sort of mild concern was the person I would least like to see me in any sort of embarrassing position. He was about half a head taller than me, with unevenly cut dark hair - most of which was pulled back loosely, with a few bits hanging in front of his very attractive face. He had a set of very deep, royal blue eyes that sometimes almost seemed purple, and he normally dressed in a lot of black. Which looked painfully good on him.

Devon Cross. The guy voted 'least likely to give a shit if the world came to an end' - and now standing beside me while I rubbed my injured head and asking if I was all right.

God, I couldn't take that kind of strain so early in the morning.

"Uh… fine, sorry." My biggest triumph was not squeaking as I got that out. I scrambled to my feet and pulled the chair up quickly so that I could sit in it again, trying not to look at him. "It's okay. It's…"

And he was already moving on to the back of the room where he always sat.

"… okay." I slumped forward and buried my face in my hand to try and hide the red color that was probably taking it over. How humiliating. Even though it wasn't like I had a chance anyway - and I wasn't so sure I'd take it even if I did.

Devon was probably the only 17-year-old in the school who didn't live with his parents. The rumor was that he lived in an apartment with his older brother, which meant he also had an after-school job that paid more than minimum wage. He also wasn't very social - but it didn't matter, because everyone knew who he was anyway, by reputation if nothing else.

And despite the fact that he probably wasn't a bad guy, I was still just a bit afraid of him.

"Good morning, everyone!" Mrs. Gammond strolled into the room, bringing everyone's attention - well, most people's attention - up to where it belonged. "Let's get started."

I pushed thoughts of Devon away. They were bad for me anyway.

It was just a good thing that he wasn't in my next class.

Actually, he couldn't be. I thought about it for a while on my way to the room I was in for the first half of the morning. My second class was Information Technology, and as far as I knew, Devon wasn't into computers. I think he had English Lit or something.

No, I hadn't memorized his schedule. Really. I was not that pathetic. It was just… hard not to notice where he was going sometimes. He was really good to look at from behind.

Really good.

"Ow!" The air in front of me suddenly took on a solid form. "Hey, watch it!"

"Sorry." I stepped back a couple of paces, feeling a bit stupid.

The girl I'd just walked into - another homeroom classmate, Sasenti - raised an eyebrow at me, meaningfully. "Spacing out in the hallway is asking for death," she said frankly, and turned to go into the computer room ahead of me. "I wouldn't push my luck if I were you."

Good advice. I shrugged sheepishly. "Yeah."

She offered me a bit of a grin, spun her finger in the air a bit in some obscure gesture, and took a seat.

I liked this girl - well, I would if I knew her at all. She didn't have a very large group of friends, like me, but unlike me she was also pretty well-known in school. Sasenti was actually her last name - she was Korean - but everyone called her that because no one knew her first name. Even the teachers just got initials for her. She had long dark hair and she wore a bandana to class every day. She'd once argued with a teacher over whether it should be considered a hat, and ended up getting special permission to wear them no matter what. She also usually had jeans with beads or colored thread stitched on them into strange designs and always wore at least two layers of shirts - T-shirts and long-sleeved in the cold weather and tank tops in the hot. And variable numbers of earrings.

Today, she had five in one ear and seven or eight in the other. She didn't have a nose piercing. Someone in class had made a loud, obnoxious comment about that once and she'd said, "Sorry, I just can't see myself sticking my finger up my nose to put an earring in."

Sasenti maybe didn't have many close friends, but people respected her.

That could have had something to do with her rumored skill as a hacker, too. Even teachers tended to step around her pretty carefully.

And hopefully she forgets about me within about ten seconds or so. I went in and sat down, blending with the background as best as I could.

Info Tech wasn't the most informative class we could've had on computers. Learning to use spreadsheets and create basic web pages didn't impress me too much, and I noticed more than a few kids kept chat windows open while they worked. With our exercise printed up on the whiteboard and the instruction given to ask if help was needed, the teacher was free to mark our last quiz. Which meant she wasn't checking to make sure we were behaving ourselves.

Most people were having conversations offline as well as on the computer.

Still, that steady buzz of voices let me know things were still safe. My work was done, so I felt that I had probably earned a chance to check out the message board I'd posted on the night before. Leaning back a bit, I clicked open the browser and waited for a response.

I didn't get one, though.

At least, not the one I expected.

Things seemed to freeze - almost slow down. But it was me, not anything outside. I could feel the difference in my head, almost exactly the same as when I'd done the sensing thing and found the Key. It made me shut my eyes for a second, the impression of the gate forcing itself into my head. I hadn't been looking for it or anything; it'd just found me, instead. And there was a feeling about it - like confidence, or being seen just how I wanted people to see me.

My eyes shot open again.

Was that…? I gulped in a few breaths, sitting rigidly. I could still feel it, pulling. Is that…?

Around me, the buzzing talk came to an abrupt halt.

And not just in my head.

Oh shit… At that point, I was trying very hard not to hyperventilate. All around me, people were frozen in their seats, caught in the act of opening their mouths to talk, or placing their fingers on the keyboard to type. Even the teacher was sitting there like a rock, unmoving.

My gaze shot up to the clock, almost instinctively. The little red seconds hand wasn't moving, either.

It was like someone had stopped time.

Somehow, in the middle of my almost-panic, that struck a familiar chord. It seemed like I remembered someone saying something about stopping time…

There was a little click from the front of the room, and a not-very-concerned-looking Sasenti got up from her seat, tossing what looked like an antique pocket watch in the air and catching it again. "This'll be Vanity," she said - apparently to herself - and grinned. "I don't have a Vanity yet. Good timing."

Did she not notice the fact that people weren't moving? I tried to speak. "Uh…"

She spun around and stared at me with some surprise. "Hey! What are you doing outside time?"

"Uh," I said again, and stared right back at her. How was I supposed to answer a question like that? "I… um…"

"Oh, you're probably the new Player, right?" The surprised look melted into a sort-of grin. "Guess my secret's out. It couldn't hold forever, though, could it?"

As if I was supposed to understand that.

"Well, I don't want the others to get ahead of me, so…" Sasenti shrugged, then turned her back on me, opened the window, and climbed up onto the sill. "Catch up if you can."

Then she was jumping off and gone.

I stood there for a few more minutes staring after her.

All right then…

The gate was still pulling on me, though, and I wasn't sure what I was supposed to do about it. Clearly, I was going to need help. And I knew what that meant.

"Ugh." I leaned against the desk my computer had been on, rubbing my forehead with one hand. It would've been great if I could've avoided this…

No help for it, though. Shutting my eyes, I tried to concentrate on sending out a thought. ~Zinc?~

Apparently, I'd done it right, because I got a response right away. ~Huh?~ Not a very helpful response, though. He sounded like he'd been sleeping. ~Wassit?~

~Time just stopped, and a girl in my class jumped out a window.~ I was actually very proud of how nice and steady that thought was. Not bad, under the circumstances. ~Can you tell me what's going on?~

~Time stopped?~ Zinc's voice sounded considerably more awake. ~Someone's using an Item. Did that girl in your class have anything with her?~

~A pocket watch.~ Now that I thought about it, the watch had been the same sort of silver color that the Key was. I reached into my pocket to make sure my Item was still there. It felt warm and solid under my fingers. ~It was pretty old-fashioned looking.~

~That's Time. I told you about it, remember?~ He was definitely starting to sound like the same old Zinc again. ~Hey, what happened? She didn't just stop time for no reason, did she?~

I told him about sensing the gate, and the part about the confident feeling. No point leaving stuff out, especially if it turned out to be important. ~Would that be a good reason to stop time?~

~Yeah! It means there's a Link in the area!~ Zinc sounded a lot more cheerful about this than I did. ~You'd better hurry or she'll get it before you can - go on!~

~She'll probably get it first anyway - I'm just a beginner.~ I started out the window anyway. We were only a couple of feet from the ground, so it was a short jump. Sasenti was nowhere in sight. ~How come I'm only sensing it now if it's in the area?~

~The gate probably relocated,~ he answered, as if it were no big deal and I should've known anyway. ~They do that sometimes. Are you going after it?~

I was starting to seriously wonder why I'd chosen to contact him at all. ~Yeah, I'm going. She's got a head start, though.~

~Doesn't matter, if you handle the illusion part better.~ He said it like it was going to be easy. ~Have a little confidence! You can do it!~

I had my doubts, but I didn't feel like arguing with him right then. ~I'll tell you if I run into more trouble,~ I said instead, pushing myself out the window. I could see the gate by then, on the sidewalk just outside the school.

~Great! Good luck!~

Yeah. I'd need it.

I started for the sidewalk - and then stopped again at the sound of something hitting the ground hard behind me.

"Hey," a semi-familiar voice said, "I don't think I know you."

I turned. Tristan Dufraine was standing just a couple of steps from the window he must've just jumped out of, giving me a curious look. He had a large silver-plated bow - without arrows - tucked under one arm. "Uh" - that was my brilliance showing itself again. "Hi." And I still hadn't told him my name. "Shane."

I doubted I was making much of a first impression on my fellow Players.

I never would've thought Tristan would be a Player… Of course, I wouldn't have thought Sasenti would be one, either. I was starting to wonder if anyone else from my homeroom class was in on this. The stats on my computer said I was Player Four…

That left at least one other person I didn't know about, then.

"Are you the one who stopped time?" Tristan asked, with a slight, friendly sort of smile. It was the kind of expression that put people at ease. And it was working on me.

I wasn't sure if I should be grateful or suspicious. "No. Sasenti did."

"Sasenti?" His eyes widened a bit. "I didn't think of her…" Then he grinned at me, suddenly. "We've been trying to figure out who the first Player is for a while now. She's got Time, so she's always a step or two ahead of us."

Well, at least he seemed willing to provide information. I could use it about then. "Us?"

"Oh, yeah." The grin turned into a frown. "He's probably ahead of me by now - I'll have to hurry if I want this Vanity Link. Catch you later!"

And he ran right past me, with a bit of a wave over one shoulder.

Lost. That about summed up how I felt right then. But there wasn't much I could do besides trail along behind. Letting out a long breath, I hurried to follow Tristan into the gate.

Maybe I could at least get some answers after someone else picked up this Link.

The setting beyond this gate was no where close to the setting from the last one. For one thing, there was plenty of sunlight instead of torches, and for another, I was in the middle of a forest. And there didn't appear to be a path of any sort.

Which meant I was going to have to wander around aimlessly and hope I found either a Link, Tristan, or Sasenti somewhere. Or the other Player - whoever he was.

Great… But there wasn't much else to be done. Still harboring some pretty serious misgivings about the whole business, I started out away from the gate.

I didn't get very far.

Actually, I got around one tree - and then I ended up being shoved back, hard enough so that my breath jerked out of me, and someone was pinning me to it.

Someone who kept a tight hold on my shoulders, and - while I was still busy catching my breath - leaned over and got entirely too close for anyone's comfort. "I wouldn't think you'd be a Player," he said, right into my ear.

I froze.

That voice… was definitely familiar.

"You don't seem like the type," Devon went on, apparently oblivious to my extreme tension due to the fact that he was inside my personal space. His breath brushed against the side of my face; I could feel it when his mouth curved up. "And you've already got an Item - not bad for a first-timer."

Dear god, this isn't happening… I made a pathetic-sounding squeaking noise and turned my head to the side, fighting down a hell of a lot of panic. My face was probably bright red - he was almost on top of me, for christ's sake! My libido was having a field day with this; it was making breathing very difficult. Why isn't he moving?

Did he not know what he was doing to me? Fuck, I hope he didn't…

"Sorry about this," he murmured, shifting a bit and letting go of my right shoulder, "but I'm in this Game to win it." His free hand drifted down over the front of my chest and stomach, toward the waist of my jeans.

I think I just about did a full-body jerk at that point, and my face felt on fire. He's not…

He wasn't. "I'll just take that Item off your hands, then."

It was a miscalculation anyone could've made - especially with his face where it was and him unable to really see where his hand was going. But if he was aiming for the pocket I had the Key in, he was slightly off.

And my reaction wasn't anything I could help. Or hide.

I made another pathetic squeaking noise, and wished as hard as I could for something to strike me down and kill me right then and there.

Devon went very still for a moment, breathing a bit stilted against my neck as I stood with my eyes squeezed painfully shut and shivering. Any second now he was going to reel back and punch me out, or at least make some show of being disgusted - I was just waiting for it.

Why wasn't he moving his hand?

Wait a minute… was he smirking?

This… can't be… I just about had a heart attack. I was in the middle of an alternate dimension's forest, Devon Cross's mouth was just bare millimeters from the corner of my jaw, and he still had his hand on my -

Not helping with the 'unwanted crush' problem. At all. I took in several just-short-of-hysterical breaths and tried to ignore the throaty-sounding chuckle my tormenter let out as he nudged my head a little more to the side. My heart was going about a mile a minute; he still hadn't moved his hand…

"So you two know each other, huh?"

Cold water bucket. That was the effect. And wasn't that just what I needed - a witness. I opened my eyes slowly, and found Tristan standing about two feet away with both eyebrows raised and a grin that spoke of trouble. "Or maybe this is how you get to know each other."

For someone who was both straight and popular, his reaction was a pretty calm one.

Of course, he wasn't the one being groped, was he?

"Fuck off," Devon said, not sounding very amused, and backed away, letting me go. I wasn't sure if I was disappointed by that or very, very relieved. I was glad for the tree behind me, though - my legs were not very steady at the moment. It was like stepping out of a heated room into a blizzard, suddenly having him at a comfortable distance.

He just… just…

Tristan shrugged off the reaction he'd gotten - apparently he was used to the other Player's attitude. "The Link's gone anyway. I guess Sasenti got it, since it looks like you guys were busy with other things." The grin stayed.

Devon scowled at him, ignoring me completely and managing to look as if he hadn't just been pinning someone to a tree and groping them. It was hard to ignore the very large, silver-hilted sword that was strapped to his back, even in my present condition. It was as wide as his leg, and about the same length, too. "Where did you get 'Sasenti' from?"

"From him." Tristan waved a hand in my direction, graciously including me in the conversation. "Shane was in class with her - right, Shane?"

"Uh." That came out sounding kind of strange. My head was starting to spin… I cleared my throat, and tried again. "Yeah. Info Tech."

The speculative look I was getting from Devon was doing odd things to my stomach, too. I swallowed hard and tried to ignore it. Really, it would be best for everyone if we acted like the past five minutes had never happened.

No matter how much parts of me disagreed.

"Figures it'd be a newbie who figured it out," Tristan said, not seeming bothered by the fact at all. "We've only been trying for how long? It makes sense when you think about it, though."

Devon made a dismissive sort of sound. "I'm going back," he said, without answering, and then walked past my tree - with a sideways glance that didn't do a lot for my nerves - and headed for the gate.

I very deliberately fixed my gaze on the ground. Fascinating. Much more interesting than Devon's retreating back end. Really.

"So… Shane." Tristan leaned against the tree beside me, showing no signs of following Devon's example. "You're in homeroom with us, right? I think I saw you a couple times."

Obviously my plan to be invisible hadn't succeeded as well as I'd hoped. "Uh, yeah." I looked up. It was safer to look at Tristan than at Devon - at least I knew he was completely straight. "Shouldn't we… um… go back? I mean, if Sasenti started time up again…"

"Oh, she's really good about that." He waved that aside. "Don't worry. That's one of the things we thought was pretty impressive - she always seemed to know when it'd be safe to start things up again. Well," he added, with a bit of a grin, "I thought it was impressive."

Tristan seemed like the sort of person who found a lot of things impressive. I decided it was in my best interests not to say anything. "Oh."

And to think, less than ten minutes ago I'd had a million and one questions.

He didn't seem to notice the fact that I was a little less than responsive - either that, or he didn't care. "By the way, how'd you manage to pick up an Item so fast? Didn't you just become a Player last night?"

Well, there was something to ask about. "How'd you know I had an Item?"

Tristan glanced at me sideways. "It's all concentration. Haven't you noticed by now?"

"Oh - right." Of course. Concentration. Why didn't I think of that? "Sure."

He seemed to think my response was funny - enough to make his lips twitch anyway. "So? How'd you get it?"

My legs felt a lot steadier. I pushed myself away from the tree, experimentally. "My - uh - my Guide talked me into trying to sense Links, and I found this" - I reached into my pocket and pulled out the Key to show him - "instead."

"Lucky break," Tristan congratulated me, tucking the hand that wasn't holding his bow behind his head. It almost looked like he was settling in for a while. "It took me weeks to find mine. Almost had to fight Devon for it - he's obsessed with winning."

"I noticed," I said, dryly, tightening my fingers around the Key. Now that I thought about it, I really didn't want to lose the Item. Not even to someone as dead sexy as Devon. "Which Item is that, anyway?" I asked, to distract myself.

"This?" He raised the bow - as if it could be something else I was talking about. "Infliction. Attack force." He straightened, grin turning wicked as he reached out to expertly draw it. "Watch."

As his fingers pulled back the string, something seemed to take shape in the place where an arrow should sit. It was the right shape and length - but instead of being wood, it flickered like fire and glowed an odd, misty blue color.

I got the feeling it might be pretty dangerous.

"Not bad, huh?" He lowered it, and the firy arrow disappeared.

"Yeah," I had to admit. It was pretty impressive.

With Devon gone, it was easier to remember what my original questions had been. It definitely helped that Tristan seemed willing to give me straight answers. "Are you guys the only other Players?"

"Yeah, as far as I know. It said Player Four for you, right?" Tristan tucked Infliction back under his arm. "I was the last person to become a Player before you came in, so…" He let that trail off.

"Okay." That was kind of a relief. At least it was just a small group I had to deal with. Even if one of them loomed pretty large in my view of the world at the moment. "Does this sort of thing happen often?"

He frowned at me. "What sort of thing?"

"This - sensing Links at school, and Sasenti stopping time." I waved a hand vaguely, as if it could illustrate my point somehow. "Is this a normal day for you guys, or what?"

"You could say that." Tristan scratched his head and gave me another disarming grin. "It happens a lot, but not all the time. Maybe once a week or once every two weeks, or something like that." He paused, then added, "Devon's not big on teamwork, though - just so you know. He probably wouldn't hesitate to attack you if you've got something he wants."

That didn't sound good at all.

"But hey, I wouldn't worry about it if I were you." He leaned back against the tree again, arm under his head and one leg crossed over the other. "He wouldn't take your Item - looked like he wanted to keep you in the Game for more than a Level." His grin went more along the lines of 'smirk' about then.

I was more interested in what he'd said about the Item than what he was implying about Devon - for right then, anyway. "What do Items have to do with staying in the Game?"

"Your Guide didn't tell you?" Tristan looked surprised. "Players only pass on to the next Level if they've got an Item."

I blinked. "What?"

"Yeah, it's supposed to weed out the weaker ones, I guess." He shrugged, shifting a bit to get more comfortable. "No Item, and it's game over. The end."

… It looked like I was going to have to kill Zinc when I saw him again. "That's… interesting." And he didn't tell me - he was just going to let me pass through without saying a word…

"I still can't believe you didn't know." Tristan shook his head, trademark smile back in place. "It was one of the first things Ivory explained to me."

"Ivory?"

"My Guide." The smile turned a bit wolfish. "She's cute. For a miniature person, I mean."

So his Guide was a girl. Somehow, I wasn't surprised.

I didn't really get a chance to comment, though - Sasenti joined us before I could think of something to say, without any attempt at sneaking around. She just walked calmly through the bushes to my right and offered a wave. "Hi," she said, with a perfectly straight face.

I think we both just blinked at her.

"This guy's probably already told you about me," she explained, hooking a thumb in my direction. "So there's no real point in hiding any more." Then she smiled suddenly. "It was fun while it lasted, though."

Tristan actually laughed. "It'll be nice to have a beautiful lady on the team," he said, giving her a trademark charming smile and pushing himself away from the tree again. "Shall we, then?"

"Gotta go back to class at some point." Sasenti made a face, then glanced curiously at me. "I didn't get your name."

"Oh." I'd forgotten that she wasn't likely to know anything about me. "Sorry. It's Shane."

"Sasenti," she returned - as if I didn't know already - with a brief nod. "Come on, your friend's probably throwing a shit fit waiting for us."

"Good call," Tristan said agreeably, standing back a ways and letting her go through the gate ahead of him. I followed after him, a little more slowly.

It was about time for one of those talks…

~Zinc?~

Immediate response. ~About time! What have you been doing out there, anyway? You've been projecting like crazy, and I can't make any sense of it.~

So maybe I'd have to put aside the talk for a bit. ~Projecting?~

~Yeah, sometimes emotions get through if they're really strong and you leave the mind link open like this.~ He said it like it was no big thing. ~So come on, what's going on?~

~I didn't get the Link.~ I didn't give him time to say anything in response to that. ~But that's not the point here. How come you didn't tell me that having an Item means I move on to the next Level?~

Silence for a moment. Then, in a considerably more quiet tone, ~You found that out, huh?~

~When were you planning on telling me?~ I was just a little annoyed. True, I'd said more than once that I didn't really trust Zinc, but there hadn't been proof then. ~After I found out I was still in the Game when I was supposed to be out already?~

~Uh…~ At least he had the decency to sound guilty. ~Sorry?~

I rubbed at my forehead. This was giving me a headache.

"Hey, Shane!" Tristan was waiting a few feet ahead - and past him, Sasenti had stopped, too. "You coming?"

"Yeah, sorry!" ~We'll talk about this later, all right?~ I moved forward, trying to act like I didn't feel homicidal at the moment.

~Uh-huh.~ By that point, he sounded like a kid that had stolen cookies before dinner.

Great. I let out a frustrated breath, and caught up to Tristan again.

"You're in my Comparative Civilizations class, aren't you?" he asked, when we'd got walking again. "First period after lunch?"

"Yeah…" Where was this going? I gave him a bit of a suspicious look.

"Great." He didn't seem bothered. By that point, we'd reached the windows again. Devon wasn't around - not that that was a surprise - but Sasenti must've known where he was, since she didn't seem very concerned about his whereabouts.

I kind of had to wonder how she managed to keep track of everyone like that.

There wasn't much time to speculate, though. Without stopping to talk about it, the first Player pulled herself up onto the sill easily and offered me a hand. I didn't have any qualms about letting her help me. Athletics really weren't my thing.

"See you then," Tristan called out, and climbed back into his own classroom.

I wasn't so sure I liked the sound of that.

A quick glance at Sasenti just got me a shrug and a half smile. "He's a friendly guy," she said, as if that explained everything.

Even as I sat down at my desk again and waited for time to start up so I could go on with my school day, I couldn't help the feeling of dread that was building at the pit of my stomach.

What exactly was I in for with this group of Players?

And did I really want to find out?

 

~~~~~~

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