Eric Hunter began to hear a faint noise. In its subtlety it was like wind over the mouth of a cave, or the gradual onslaught of static from turning a radio dial slowly. He felt the sound on his face, too; a whipping, tearing sensation that offered a gentle burn.
It was difficult to open his eyes. He could feel his extremities, but in a murky way, like he was waking from a deep slumber and unsure of his senses. When he did gain his vision, his eyelids shot back, both by physical force and by willful reaction.
He was in freefall.
He sucked in a quick breath, his head darting back and forth as he surveyed his surroundings – which was difficult, since he was in a chaotic rotation. Land and sky met in a swirling, overwhelming haze of color and blur. Then he spotted something: A fellow shape, tumbling about at gravity’s whim.
“TOM!” cried Hunter, gritting his teeth, even as his cheeks flapped against his jawline. He could not even hear his own voice above the roar in his ears, which gave him little hope for Hall receiving the urgent greeting. The problem, Hunter was quickly surmising, involved Tom’s apparent unconsciousness.
Before Eric could even begin forming any coherent plans as to what to do, he noted the rapid increase in clarity of the vast body of water. It was approaching at speed. Wait, was it even water?
Every bodily splash has a double force: The initial clap of impact against the liquid’s taut tension, then the resounding boom of the liquid crashing back against itself, that unique sort of thunder that hangs in the eardrums and brings back childhood memories of family beach trips, and summers at the pool, whe–
Hunter gasped, popping up to the surface as quickly as he could after the plunge, craning his neck and working his legs furiously. The waves were gentle, at least, gently undulating with a slight swell. The substance he was submerged in had a sticky sweetness to it, not like saltwater at all. That, and it was orange…
Tom Hall, fellow Community Manager, was panting nearby, treading with his arms as he looked around. “Where the hell are we? Did something happen?!”
Eric spit up a mouthful of orange nastiness before shoving his arm forward and high. “Let’s just get to shore!” He was already swimming forward as he called out. Events were proceeding quickly. Neither man felt in full control of their circumstances, nor could they hardly conceive of what was going on. The feeling was heavy, and would not be shaken easily.
The skies had a sickly yellow tinge to them. The clouds remained a puffy white, at least. Occasionally, a star would streak overhead in a bright, silent arc. The pair were already crawling onto the beach. The sand had a heavy weight yet a light color.
Tom was wringing out his shirt. He sighed. “All right, I’ll cross skydiving off the bucket list. Now where can I get a plane ticket home?”
Hunter was glancing about, taking it all in. He furrowed his brow. “I have a bad feeling about this. Let’s just keep moving forward and figure out what’s going on.”
The shore was short, quickly mottled underfoot with grass and underbrush that led into a treeline. The duo paused as they tried to pierce the depth of the woods with their steely gaze. It was dark in there.
“Yeah, see, I don’t think we should go in there. Maybe we can write ‘HELP’ in the sand and wait for rescue,” Tom shrugged, and nearly tripped over a shield embedded in the beach.
Eric stood in place, resolute. He could hear a song playing faintly ahead of them. “I don’t think this is the kind of place where we should seek company,” he said in a measured, hushed cadence.
Some brush rustled nearby. The two quickly drew their Banhammers and bent their knees, bringing the weapons at ready, their senses heightened to full alert.
A short, haggard-lookin’ person stepped halfway into view. He looked like a hobo, with his busted-up, drab brown outfit. His face was green. He had a red nose.
Then he spoke, in a tone like something out of a subversive 1960’s animated film: “You’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you?”
Tom Hall grit his teeth and stared down the diminutive clown. “Listen, bub,” his hands flexed around the handle of his Hammer as he hissed, “I want to know where we are and how we can leave or you’re about to wish you had a better dental plan.”
The being nodded slowly before replying, “I cannot tell you where you are, for I do not know that for myself. But you may need this,” he said, and extended a hand, holding out two bags of what appeared to be candy. “And if you keep advancing,” his other hand pointed behind him, into the thick of the wooded shadows, “You will find a clearing, and meet a friend.”
The two Castle-dwellers exchanged a cautious look. Hunter lowered his blunt object, and leaned in, less-than-confidently grabbing the bags of candy. “Uh, thanks,” he mumbled awkwardly.
The hobo-lookin’ guy tipped his hat and simply-yet-arcanely walked away, disappearing into the darkness. The dual heroes took a breath, and marched forward. Their steps were careful at first, and slow, but the bark and leaves and branches and shoots around them, all clad in dark unnerving mystery, had an ill effect.
Their pace quickened. They did not exchange words, but each knew that the other could hear it: Chanting, in a lilting rhythm, somewhat low and open, rolling through the trees. The sound was disturbing, especially in how it seemed to echo, when it physically should not.
The environment shifted, and a clearing broke ahead. The two practically stumbled into a modest area surrounded by a thicket. Standing in a circle on the grass, the daylight streaming in from above them, were several red-robed figures in white masks. Blank, blackened holes marked where their eyes should be. They were chanting a guttural, simplistic song, almost happy in its rhythm.
Then they stopped. In eerie unison, the half-dozen figures turned to Hunter and Hall, who re-raised their hammers in response. Tension marked the spot.
A new challenger burst forth from no discernible origin. He wore a camouflage pattern over dark green, masking his already-blurred movements as he rapidly wheeled about the red-robed chanters. There were quick, shrill shrieks, and the dropping of bodies. Sometimes a metal blade would glint in the sunlight; other times, the droplets of blood would, as they spiraled through the air.
Moments later, the warrior stood in the middle of the clearing, the red-robed bodies strewn about him on the crimson-strained ground. He panted, and rolled his neck back and forth as he sheathed a long-bladed hunting knife. He wore a thin black mask, pulled tightly over his face. He tugged it off, and took a deep breath. His hair was greased with sweat.
“Joshua?!” Tom exclaimed with mild surprise, and a little fear. Hall looked his old friend up and down, slowly, taking in the sight with a sense of gravity. He had several questions, but it was Hunter who would interject first.
“How long have you been here?” the audio engineer asked. Joshua Caleb looked him face-to-face with a wild countenance. His eyes were open unnaturally wide. He had a certain thousand-year stare about him. His boots were well-worn.
“I’m not sure,” he finally responded under his breath.
Hall and Hunter looked to each other with obvious concern. Eric sighed. “Well, do you know a way ou—”
Joshua interrupted him, and began to speak in a rapid, rambling voice.
“I’ve seen things, things that will haunt my soul until my final rest. You don’t want to be here. One moment I’m playing LSD Dream Emulator, the next I’m in a world of nightmares. There is no way out. And whatever you do, don’t fall asleep. No, no, you mustn’t fall asleep, that’s where the real trouble lies, the deep-down Troubles that take an age to get over. I’ve seen shacks built by children to house their irradiated scraps. I’ve seen creatures that offend my hope for a better tomorrow. I’ve seen skittering fingers and shadows crawling unnaturally across the moon. I’ve seen sumo wrestlers. Sumo! Sumo wrestlers, like this!”
He hunched over, and grimaced dramatically, looking downward as he slapped the earth and rocked to and fro on his heels. He gripped what little belly he had, harrumphing and grunting a bit, extending an arm and waving it back and forth in a steady curve.
The other two shifted nervously. Joshua was throwing dirt here and there.
“Uh, look,” Tom said, crossing his arms sternly. “I need you to snap out of it, buddy. You’re not alone anymore. We need to stick together, and we need a plan.”
Hunter nodded hesitantly.
Joshua stood up straighter, and even smiled. “Okay. Yeah. You’re right. I’m glad you guys are here. If we’re going to make it back home, we’ll need to work together. It’s been hard going at it by myself. This is a place built from every dream realm in gaming. We can use that. Back there a ways, maybe a few miles,” he haphazardly waved a few fingers behind him, “There’s a river. Now, I’ve been downstream a ways, back and forth, but I still don’t know its source. The last time I tried to find out, I had to flee after being attacked b—”
A strong wind suddenly came down over the group. The men raised their hands to their faces, wincing and steadying themselves on their back feet. It was like a helicopter had descended too quickly, or a tornado was approaching.
But when the air calmed, they looked upward, and were confused at first. The vision that greeted them was a black cat perched on a carpet. The carpet just happened to be hovering several feet in the air.
“Oh, c’mon!” Joshua grumbled. “We were just about to introduce a new conflict, advance the plot, and really start exploring the setti—”
“We don’t have time for this,” Jonathan hissed. The carpet was red. It lowered to an altitude of mere inches. Its frayed edges gently undulated in a rhythm that moved around its whole. “We need all of you back at the Castle, immediately. We are being attacked. Get on.”
The three others hesitated. The cat sighed, and crouched down.
He tugged at the rug, and it flew about in a half-circle, tripping the three companions, sweeping them from their feet as they fell onto its soft surface.
“Grab on,” the cat growled – and they did, especially when he began accelerating straight into the sky, and burst from the forested setting into the expanse above.
Joshua, Tom, and Eric were clustered closely, knocking elbows and shoulders as they struggled for comfort and a firm grip. Each still felt bewildered and overwhelmed. Still, Hunter asked, “So, what, we have to deal with more spam?”
The cat roared over the clouds whipping past. “No! This is serious. Someone has invaded, someone who knows the layout, knows us, and is dismantling the castle brick by brick. We’re not sure who it is. I think he’s been planning this for a long time. I’m pretty sure trapping the Community Managers here was intentional, and we’re going to lose everything before the day is over unless we can figure this out.”
Something was visible in the distance, growing in their vision. It held an eerie stillness in the orange-tinged sky. It was red, in a way that matched the carpet.
In seconds, all passengers recognized its form: A door. A solitary door, hung in the heavens. Before anyone could say anything further, they crashed right into it.
The three men tumbled to the hard floor, variously gasping and crying out in shock and pain and futile coping mechanisms. Tom groaned in the corner of the room, holding his side. Hunter looked about, noting that the lights were out. The chamber was dim, but Joshua noticed a dark cat sleeping on the Dreamcast.
They were not alone. Paul Potvin, Valerie Minnich, and Alex Weiss were all standing by.
“I can’t believe it worked,” Potvin sighed with clear relief. Minnich clenched her fists. “Of course it worked,” she said.
Joshua rubbed his temples. Tom had risen, and walked over to lend him a hand. Before long, all were standing in a loose circle. “Can someone tell me what the hell is going on?” Hunter said with a frown.
Paul could not look directly at anyone. He stared off to parts unknown as he responded, “We can’t account for everyone. We think some are hiding. We’re gathering in a group and heading downstairs to the storage areas. Some may have already lef—”
The room was rocked by a distant boom. The walls shook, objects clattered where they sat, and the ceiling cracked. A measure of dust fell over them.
Valerie turned to the door. “We need to get moving,” she said, and opened it.
The others walked briskly, filing one-by-one out into the hallway. Paintings had fallen from where they hung. Bits of glass and wood were clumped along the edges of the walking path. Loose bricks sat at odd angles against each other. A small fire burned in a corner, casting everything in flickering, unsteady lighting.
“Can someone make sure Jonathan wakes up?” Alex said, pointing back to the room. Valerie was already jogging down the corridor, toward the stairway.
Meanwhile, those that had returned from the dreamscape just stared at the Castle interior rendered unrecognizable. Their jaws hung agape as they surveyed the damage. Tom bristled, and reached for his Banhammer. “Just show me who’s responsible for this, and I’ll—”
Again, they were interrupted by a thunderous booming, only this time much closer, as a section of wall came crashing down. “Go! Go!” Alex cried out, and ran after Valerie. “C’mon!” he called back to the others, but they stood their ground.
Paul, Tom, Eric, and Joshua turned fully to face the intrusion. Smoke had risen thickly, obscuring their view, but they began to hear it instead: The low whirring of servomotors, the high-pitched squeal of actuators, the heavy thud of weighty footsteps, the steady buzz of powerful machinery.
An outline began to emerge from the haze. It was huge, towering head-and-shoulders above them. Even through the smoke, they could see its hulking, metallic frame, bulky yet sleek, shining with a fine polish. It was humanoid in shape, and had an oversized “head,” almost like a cockpit. The term “mech” would come to mind fairly.
Nobody moved. The cybernetic being remained ominously still as well, as its form continued to reveal with added clarity. Various small lights flickered on and off, up and down its limbs and features. The metal was smooth, but dark, almost black overall, with only silver accents to offset the otherwise shadowy appearance. Its essence brought to mind that of a science-fiction villain, set in some horrifying post-apocalypse.
And then it raised an arm – there was a bang, a flash of light, and a burst of laser fire. A single small energy projectile shot forward… and instantly burned a hole through Paul Potvin’s forehead, and out the back of his skull. The entry wound was still burning hot at its edges as Potvin’s body hit the floor.
There was no time for grief, and barely even for shock. Hunter drew his Banhammer, Joshua drew his oversized knife, and the trio faced down their foe.
The adversary spoke. Its voice was digitized, sounding electronic, and modulated to rumble low. It was loud. Each word echoed down the hall.
“Leave now, and your survival is possible. Remain here, and your death is inevitable.”