It was beautiful. Radiant, it cast light upon the street. Jacques stood in front of the portal, studying it; admiring its beauty.
It’s too bad the locals aren’t able to see it. He thought, as the passersby continued on their way, walking straight through the portal, unaffected and unaware. He shook his head in amazement. After all this time, of all the things he’d seen, that something like this should still give him pause.
“Aiyah!” A battlecry pieced the night behind him, and he whirled in time to be struck in the face by some kind of energy mace.
Looks like I was right to wait for the other players here. He thought, even as he fell to the ground in pain. But as his opponent leaned over him for the final strike, he scissored his legs beneath the other players, bringing him down. In a second he’s rolled to his feet, snatching the energy mace as he does so. Jacques recognized the man as the one he'd tied up earlier. Evidently he was far more resourceful than the swordsman had given him credit for.The warrior brought the mace down on his opponent, just long enough to render the man unconscious.
A crack of gunfire, and a bullet lodged in whatever material the streets are made of here, right next to Jacques foot.
The Shadow normally doesn’t allow firearms in the game… Perhaps he picked it up around here. Jacques pondered, dodging to his left and hurling the mace, still charged, at the gunman. Caught by surprise, the other player dodged unsuccessfully and was still caught in the shoulder by the point of the mace. He vibrated wildly, firing into the ground before losing his balance. Jacques was on him in a second, knocking the player out with a swift kick to the side of the head.
“You’re good.” Said a voice behind him. “But you’re not killing them. The portal will only allow one of us out.”
“There’s always another way.” Jacques replied as he turned. A woman, with long dark hair stood by the portal, holding out her sword in challenge.
“If only.” She said with a sigh, before charging.
Jacques rolled to avoid the first thrust, and had his blade from its scabbard the second he was on his feet. He met her slash from the left with his guard and twisted his hilt, allowing her blade to slide away as he lunged with his own. But his opponent was a better fencer than he believed, and she quickly riposted, grabbed at his sword point with her own and driving it away again and again. He couldn’t help but grin just a bit. He’d met so few accomplished fencers in his time in the game; it was pure joy to contest with another equal to his skill.
They withdrew slightly, each taking a moment to catch their energy back. Circling, they regarded each other, feinting this way and that, testing the other player. Driving to the right, he switched to overhand and dealt a succession of strikes toward his opponents head, forcing her to bring her blade up in a horizontal block. With each strike, he stepped closer, and just as she blocked the third, he reached with his other hand and grabbed her sword arm, bringing her in close and immediately punching her in the face with the guard of his sword. Falling backward, she dropped her sword and he kicked it away.
“You’ll see. We’ll all escape this.” He assured her, as he turned back to the portal. It still shone like the sun, shining, inviting.
“I have defeated the other players. I have won.”
He stepped forward, holding his palm up to the light, touching it.
One unit only may pass.
The voice that came from the glimmering surface was calm and quiet, so unlike The Shadows sarcastic and prattling echoes. It was glorious, alluring, an aural manifestation of the visual beauty of the portal. And that made it all the more disgusting. This wonderful voice, telling him to end the lives of four other players; people trapped far from home just as he was, all for the amusement of the accursed creature that engineered all this. He stepped back and turned away from the light, anger coursing through him. He was a soldier, and he had killed. Doubtless he would again. But he hated it. Hated it with everything he was. In those dark places, the only way he kept his sanity was by analyzing the situation and knowing that there was no other way out. This was the truth that allowed him to do the things he did. The Shadow, as far as he knew, was omnipotent, without weakness. His control over the players in this game was total. When faced with such an absolute power, such absolute lines drawn across a battlefield created by something that wanted you to kill, you had no choice. He had been wrong when he told the other player that there was always another way out, he saw that now.
I have no choice. He thought, gripping the hilt of his sword tight. Marching resolutely toward his female opponent, he brought his sword to her neck, imagining what would happen, as he so effortlessly sliced through her jugular vein. It made him sick. He fought with the logic of the situation; he could do nothing else. But still, he hesitated. The woman looked up at him, her eyes a window to her thoughts. She understood. She knew what had to be done. She was afraid, she certainly would take any opportunity to stop him, to turn the tables, but she understood. And he found that his hand was shaking. He glanced back at the portal.
She grabbed at his blade, trying to knock it away. He instantly swiped it back, cutting her across the palm and returning the point of his sword to her neck, pressing it painfully against her skin. He was focused for a few seconds, angry at the attempt. But his blade began to vibrate once more as he tried to do what had to be done. With his other hand, he brushed his forehead clear of the sweat that had collected. He looked at the portal again, and let out a cry of despair.
In its shining depths, the light held an image of Earth, his home. It flashed closer, and suddenly he could see the village; his students, the buildings.
He clenched his jaw, brought his gaze to his opponent once more, steadying his hand.
I must do this. I must do this.
Those eyes, full of understanding, certainty. They knew exactly what he felt. They pitied him the burden he would carry.
He tossed the sword away and leapt back with a cry of anguish. He shot a look back at the portal. It no longer showed his home. He couldn’t see his village anymore.
“I don’t care!” He shouted to the Shadow, listening, somewhere up there. “I won’t do it! You won’t get any more amusement from me Shadow!” But even as he declared his intentions to the heavens, he brought his gaze down to the sight of a sword pointed at his chest. There were those eyes again. Filled with the same conflict, but… more certainty than his had held. More will to escape. Yet, her hand shook as well. He considered using that, disarming her. But it didn’t matter anymore. He wouldn’t play the Shadows game any longer. If she didn’t kill him, the creature would do it. So he accepted his fate, matched her stare, forgave her with his eyes.
And she stared back, tears welling up as she fought with the same feelings he had. They understood each other. They felt the same. They were one.
Jacques dropped to the ground in the moment that she stabbed at him, cutting a line in his vest as he fell. He surged to his feet and grabbed her hand, wresting the blade from it.
“Wait! Wait!” He said, as she fought against him.
“I have to do it! You know I have to! It said there has to be just one!” She cried.
“We are one!” He said, grabbing her face and turning it towards his. “It said a unit of one! We must all be together, united!”
Hope spread across her face as understanding dawned. Cautiously, she relaxed; daring to believe that what he told her was true. And he let go of her, and held out her sword. She took it, and sheathed it without hesitation. He bent to retrieve his own, and a shot rang out. He whirled to see the player with the firearm, having just shot the player with the mace as he lay unconscious on the ground.
“I’m getting out of here.” He yelled, firing now at Jacques. The swordsman felt a bullet rip through the fabric of his shirt, next to his armpit, even as he ducked, looking for cover. He ran for an alleyway, heard another shot and saw his new partner clutch her arm as she fell to the ground. Reaching cover, he peeked out to see that the gunman had given up on him momentarily and was advancing on his ally. Abandoning the alley, he sprinted for the player’s turned back, as the man aimed at the woman’s head. Tackling the gunman before he could pull the trigger, he disengaged and rolled to absorb the impact, springing to his feet as his opponent did the same. Batting at the man’s gun, he saw in a split second that the player was reacting, lunging for his falling gun. Jacques tried to get his sword out of the way, but the man was determined to retrieve his weapon, and impaled himself on the blade.
“You fool…” Jacque said, “We could have escaped together…”
The man continued to look on him with hatred, even as he slid to the pavement.
Helping his friend to her feet, he sheathed his sword with a sigh. Together, the approached the portal, pausing in front of it. They looked at each other, saying nothing, as together they reached out to the light.
You may pass.
In the blinding wave that engulfed him and the sense of astonishing speed as he left this place, he looked over, to see that his friend was gone. Where she went, whether she’d actually left or not, he couldn’t know for sure. But he silenced his doubts. She’d escaped with him. And perhaps, one day… they’d meet again.