I woke up in a prison cell. I could tell by the chains around my ankles, the drab stone walls, and the rusty, iron bars on the window. The window was a good sign; it meant I wasn’t somewhere underground. If I could break free, I could probably escape.
But I couldn’t lift my arms. Even attempting to do so made my head spin. I grunted and tried to use void-step to escape but to my dismay, I found that I couldn’t summon an ounce of magic. I called up my Status and felt my headache increase.
My life bar was in the red, and my mana bar was empty. Several notes indicated that I was drugged and intoxicated. Whoever put me here, knew exactly how to keep me from escaping. The drugs were inhibiting my ability to think, depriving me of my biggest advantage.
Ironically, that all but told me who my captor was. I didn’t have to think particularly hard to come up with his name. Only one person had ever come close to outwitting me in this world, and only he could keep me incapacitated like this.
I fought my headache and grogginess to try to make sense of the situation. I was imprisoned, most likely by him, which meant that something must have happened. I wouldn’t have walked up to him of my own free will.
Think Runir, what’s the last thing you remember?
Stabs of pain shot through my skull and I had to give up for fear that I would lose the last of my HP. Death by headache wasn’t the way I wanted to go. I caught my breath and decided to survey my surroundings.
A couple of buckets, one full of grimy water and the other reeking of human refuse, lay in one corner of the cell. The door was old; made of rotting wood and bars of rusty iron. This was an old prison; far older than the ones I had seen in my time in the Dark Kingdom. The rest of the room was empty. Dirty, but empty.
The drugs would probably keep me from recovering. Sure enough, my HP didn’t increase for hours. Then again, I couldn’t tell the time. The window let in light, but I could have sworn that it had been too bright for too long. What if I was still underground but he wanted me to think I was on a tower? But why would he do that?
Maybe he was messing with my head? Softening me up so I would be more pliable when he finally came to me to get what he wanted.
What did he want, anyway? Why didn’t he just finish me off? That would have been quicker, cleaner, and far less troublesome than locking me up in a prison cell. More importantly, I knew he wouldn’t allow for the smallest chance of failure, and as long as I was alive, I could try to escape.
I don’t know how long I was stuck there. I tried counting my heartbeats, hoping that could give me some measure of time, but it was no use. I hoped the drugs would work their way out of my system but whenever I went to sleep, I’d wake up feeling groggier than ever.
After another long period of time, I lay against the wall and began dozing off.
And then I pounced.
Someone shrieked, but I ignored it and knocked the syringe out of their hand. I kicked the guard into the wall, grabbed his set of keys, and tried to unlock myself.
However, the keys didn’t fit.
Cursing, I threw them out of the window and tried to search the guard’s unconscious body for more tools. I found a small dagger but I wouldn’t be able to cut through the chains with it.
If Lily were here, she could probably pick the lock with this, I thought.
I’d figured out that they were replacing the buckets whenever I fell asleep, so I’d feigned sleeping to break the cycle and it worked. My mind was clearing now that I hadn’t had my regular dose of drugs. However, I didn’t have the time to sit down and think. There must be more guards, and they’d be here to check on me soon. I needed to break the chains around my legs.
My HP was recovering and so was my magic, but not nearly fast enough. I could already hear footsteps in the distance. I had to think of something but I couldn’t focus through the drug-induced haze in my head.
I had to wing it.
Lily would be proud, I mused to myself as I closed the door, dragged the guard into position and huddled behind him.
The door was violently kicked in, and a group of guards stormed in. They saw the guard standing in front of them, and one of them let out a sigh of relief, while the other angrily asked the man why he was taking so long.
And that’s when I shoved him into the lead guard, twisted around the other side to knock out another, and threw the dagger into the last one’s foot. He crumpled to the ground as I struck him in the neck. I ruffled through their belongings, and finally managed to find a key that fit. Free at last, I cautiously left the cell.
The corridor outside was inclined upwards, and there was no way to go any lower. I judged that I was not underground after all, although I was sure that the window in the cell did not lead outside. I ran up, poised to strike with the dagger.
The effects of the drugs were subsiding so my thoughts were growing clearer. We were fighting Lunaris when she pulled some strange smoke out of nowhere. Then Kai was in front of me; he whispered something I couldn’t hear, I felt my stomach lurch, and fainted.
And somehow, I’d woken up here, of all places. Talk about shitty luck.
A door appeared at the end of the corridor. I stopped outside and checked it for traps. I thought for a second, took a deep breath, wore my poker face, and opened the door.
“Welcome Runir,” came a voice from inside. “What took you so long?”
“Rats. They’re everywhere. You should clean up the place,” I said, forcibly keeping myself calm.
I was in a cozy little room, with a table in the center. He was sitting on a chair on the other side of the table, tapping his fingers on the wooden surface impatiently. There was an empty chair facing me, which I took before he could offer it to me.
“I apologize, we do have a bit of a pest problem here,” he said, lightly.
“I would have taken care of it if you hadn’t chased me out,” I said.
“What are you, a cat?” he said. “Couldn’t help but chase you away, I’m afraid. I don’t like cats.”
“Damn it,” I said, finally losing my cool. “Fuck cats, tell me what you’re trying to pull here!” I demanded.
“What do you mean? I haven’t seen you in a while, so I was hoping we could chat for a bit,” he replied, calmly.
“I’ve had enough of your games, Azoth,” I snarled.
“You sure?” said Demon General Azoth, pulling something out of thin air. “I was hoping we could go another round. I’m a sore loser, so I can’t execute you before I even the score.”
He laid down the chess-set on the table. The pieces floated into their positions, and he let me pick my side first.
Was he seriously doing all this to beat me at chess? Somehow, I doubted that he was petty enough for that but I decided to play along until I figured out his true intentions.
“Black,” I said. The board flipped so that the black pieces would face me.
We didn’t speak after that.
Our previous game started with a queen’s gambit, but this time we opened with a Sicilian defense. He claimed the center with his knight immediately, to which I responded by positioning a pawn at e6. His pawn advanced to d4, and I captured it forthwith. He responded by driving his knight into my territory, whilst capturing a pawn in the process.
From the very beginning, I was put on the defensive; all my moves mere reactions to his. I brought out a knight, he summoned a bishop to the battlefield. I assumed my knight would be safe, since it was defended by a line of pawns, yet he shattered my expectations by trading his knight for mine.
He castled before I could, ensuring that I would have to claw my way across the board if I wanted to threaten his king. Yet, when I castled, it was less an act of intimidation than an act of cowardice. Like a turtle cowering in its shell, I awaited his inevitable stab into my defenses.
It came swiftly in the form of his knights and bishops, supported by his ever-present army of pawns. He whittled away at my walls until they collapsed. His rooks came in to hound my king from behind his battlements and into the spotlight.
I was going to lose this game, I could feel it.
“And what happens if you win?” I asked.
“If I win?” he said, a faint smile on his lips. “If you haven’t realized it yet, then it’s hopeless.” He shook his head. “But to answer your question; nothing. Nothing happens after I win.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“Don’t believe me?” he continued, incredulously. “The door’s right behind me. After I beat you, you’re free to leave.”
“There has to be a catch,” I said, warily.
“I would appreciate it if you listened to a proposal of mine. It’s the least you can do,” he said.
I furrowed my brows. I had not been expecting that.
I had also not been expecting his next move. Trading a rook for a knight, in that position? I couldn’t tell what he was thinking. His intentions were a mystery. I was lost in his plans.
Not just his plans, though. There were so many plans and schemes floating around this world that I couldn’t tell what was real anymore.
And in one fell swoop, he threw me into disarray again.
“Check,” he said, placing his queen on g4.
I blocked the threat with my remaining knight. A cold shiver passed down my spine as I realized what was happening.
“Check.” This time with a bishop.
I blocked it with a rook.
He positioned his other bishop. I felt a sense of foreboding and trepidation growing inside me. It was over but I would go down fighting. He’d been throwing me around since the start, manipulating me with his plan. Pushing me back with every move, yet blinding me with the dense haze of his machinations.
But I had to hit back, just once was enough. I picked up my queen and put it on b6.
“Check,” I said, triumphantly. I’d done it. I’d pushed back against the tide!
Yet all he did was move his king one space, as if dismissing my pathetic attempt at retaliation.
I moved my king as well, as if rebuking him for the insult.
He finished it off by placing his rook on d1.
I breathed and closed my eyes. I toppled my king, officially accepting my defeat.
My first defeat in chess, on the heels of my first defeat in real life. Could this get any worse?
“Now then,” said Demon General Azoth with a smirk. “About that proposal…”
I sighed. “Fine, whatever,” I said, unenthusiastically.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “This’ll make you perk up in no time.” He leaned over the now empty table. “I know what it feels like to have no control over your own destiny. Being played with by higher powers, like a puppet on a string.”
He was right, I did perk up immediately.
“Don’t you want to cut those strings?” he continued.
I waited for him to continue, but he didn’t, indicating that he wanted a reply.
“I do,” I stated, simply. “But aren’t you playing with me right now? How can I trust you if I know nothing about you or your plans?”
He nodded his head. “Of course, I’ll answer all of your questions if you agree to assist. Even if you refuse, I won’t execute you. You’ll merely be locked up again; this time in a cell you definitely won’t be able to get out of.”
I pondered his response, then asked: “First question, why go through all of this?” I gestured towards the room. “The cell with the fake window, the drugs, the incompetent guards. And then this pointless game of chess. Why go through all this trouble?”
“It wasn’t a pointless game of chess,” he muttered. “And that’s an easy one. We had to put on a show.”
“A show?” I asked. “For who?”
He smiled. “Who else could see something without being here?”
I frowned. Several people, actually.
“But what did you want to show them?”
“That I had captured you and tortured you for information; presumably concerning the Hero,” he answered. “Also, to show that you escaped, but ran right into my personal chambers, following which you either disappeared or escaped after defeating me in a grand battle.”
I stopped to digest what he was saying, but I still couldn’t see the point in any of this. “But why? What good would any of that do?”
“Because the reason your plans failed, Runir, was because you were being read like a book. Then again, you can’t be blamed for that. Your opponent can see everything, after all.” He tapped his fingers on the table. “Well, almost everything. This room,” he said, spreading his arms wide. “Is protected by the latest technology developed by the secret organization that I am a part of. Because of this, no one – not even the goddesses – can see what’s happening inside. And that is why I needed to meet you here.”
Secret organization? Opponent? He answered my question, then raised even more. How the hell am I supposed to wrap my head around all of this?
“But why did you want to meet me?” I asked.
“It’s a little melodramatic, to be honest,” he said, a fierce glint in his eyes. “We’re going to save the world.”