Dan kept his eyes firmly on the road as he began his story.
“My uncle owns an apartment tower. Not exactly a luxury tower, but it’s a nice place to live I guess. He saved money by paying me and my cousins to pack up and store stuff left behind when people moved out, got evicted or died. Sounds like a random detail, but it’s really not.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he was Petra nod, watching him with polite attention.
“There was this one guy who we all thought was weird. Played himself up as this new age guru with all the crystals and incense and all that. Ran all his businesses out of his apartment—and he had a lot of them: medium, acupressure therapy, ‘psychic healing’, massages—he even claimed to sell voodoo spells at one point. Even after all that’s happened, I’m still not sure that guy’s for real. Especially since he eventually ended up getting evicted.”
A soft laugh made him glance over again, which earned him an apologetic look from Petra. “I’m sorry. It just sounded funny that someone claiming to have so many powers couldn’t figure out a way to pay the rent with them.”
“My thoughts exactly. Like I said: he probably wasn’t the real thing, he just got lucky and ended up owning the real thing.”
Dan shook his head and turned onto the main road leading into town. “Don’t worry, I was getting to that. So the guy just disappears after he got the eviction noticed. Didn’t take anything, which made for a long weekend for my cousins and I trying to clear out all that crap.”
His eyes darkened as he recalled the faithful day everything changed for him. “It was Sunday morning. We’d already gotten all the big stuff out of the apartment and into the moving van and we were down to doing real packing: all his stupid little crystals, knickknacks, his… books. I was dealing with the last one. He had three giant book shelves, stacked two deep; books on all sorts of things, not just magic stuff, but like deep sea creatures, knitting, cookbooks—everything.
“But then I pulled that book out.” He gave a bitter laugh. “You think of magic, evil books and you imagine it’s one of those big, thick books like you see on TV. Probably bound in human skin with a screaming face on the cover. This one was the opposite. It was thin and… and little, you know like the size of a manga—not much bigger than my hand…”
The book caught Dan’s attention specifically because it was so much smaller than the ones around it. To him, it seemed that the slim volume had gotten caught up between the 1970’s guide to North American wildlife and an anthology of an old magazine about tennis. It might have even been purchased by mistake.
Once he took a look at it, his curiosity was even more piqued. The cover was worn cloth dyed a faded black and stretched over what felt like a piece of cardboard. The golden lettering and symbol however still seemed as fresh as the day it had been put down.
It also made his eyes feel funny because he could have sworn it had been moving before focused on it and the moment he looked away, it felt like it was moving again. The words were in small caps at the center top of the cover: Making the World yours: a Game for one Player.
Beneath the title was a symbol. Starting from the bottom as a simple dot, a line extended upward from it before branching off into two separate lines that terminated in two more dots from which lines also extended from them. Branching lines and dot nodes continued in two, three and single divergences until there were a few dozen lines which then collapsed back into junctures until becoming a single dot again.
Dan couldn’t make heads nor tails of the image, but he thought it looked cool at least and the title was intriguing. With only the slightest bit of hesitation, he opened it hoping to get something of a clue as to what it was about.
The pages were gilded and stuck together as he tried to pull them apart.
Inside, there were words in tiny, neat script alongside diagrams of various geometric solids: four, six, eight, twelve, and twenty sides and tables of numbers. Dan could see that the words were in English, but somehow he couldn’t figure out what they were saying. Even so, he found he couldn’t seem to make himself stop reading or, after a moment of reading, understanding concepts that seemed to tumble into his mind.
They seemed to be mostly fantasy concepts—something he was only passingly familiar with. Swords, armor, monsters, magic—they all flowed around him like a river, allowing his mind to just graze them before they wound their way past, lost in the ongoing stream.
Then he reached the end of the book and found it slamming closed on its own accord before unraveling into a streamer of smoke that poured into his nose and mouth. It was only after choking and gagging on the acrid vapor that he realized he was no longer in the apartment of the evicted man.
He was in darkness.
Whether it was by an act of adrenaline or utter confusion, he lashed out with a fist, trying to attack the darkness, striking precisely nothing. What he did manage was causing a great crashing sound like the beating of a giant gong.
Light returned and Dan found himself standing before a huge black marble obelisk in the middle of a yawning, empty room. Tiles in white marble with golden lettering on the were situated upon the face of the obelisk and across a vast hewn stone table set at its foot. Also on the table were the same three-dimensional shapes, each the size of his fist and cut out of gray rock with numbers painted on their faces.
“It took me hours to figure out what I was supposed to do. You ever play a roleplaying game?”
Petra gave it some thought. “I played the free trial of Deathgate a while back, but it got in the way of too many of my after school activities…”
Dan shook his head. “Close enough. And about as much as I understood aside from having seen that Geekness Ascends documentary. I’d probably still be trapped there if not for that. Anyway, remember character creation?” Petra nodded. “Great. So the pillar is like that. You have to use the tiles to make your choices: class, perks, disadvantages, things like that, and the dice decide your stats.”
He cringed. “My stats. That’s what my ‘power’ is. Whenever I die or level up, I end up back in that room to re-roll my stats and make my choices just like a game character.”
There wasn’t any point in looking to see Petra’s reaction: he knew that look: mixed disbelief and concern that he might actually be insane. He didn’t bother trying to assure her, instead just soldiering on. Taking one hand off the wheel, he did his best to make a muscle. “I actually used to be a lot more muscular before all this started, but I haven’t rolled decent Strength in a while. Ever notice that I sometimes look just a little bit different from day to day? That’s because my Strength, Agility, Heartiness and Verve change every time I get reset.”
He fell quiet after that. It occurred to him that he hadn’t asked where Petra wanted to go to lunch, and felt like it would be more than a little awkward to bring up at the moment.
Petra broke the silence; voice quiet, tentative. “How many times have you… been reset?”
“You really want to know?” He knew he wouldn’t have.
“If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine. I just… you said you had to die to reset so doing it even one must be horrible for you…”
“I’ve actually lost count,” Dan admitted, keeping himself from looking at her reaction by browsing the signs as they drove past. “Didn’t know about it for the longest time. By the time I finally figured out how to create a new ‘character’ for myself, I’d been in a coma for three days. It was months ’til I… ended up dying again. Then the guy who’s really in charge around here showed up the Orb Weaver.”
Even trying to avoid paying attention to her reactions, he caught Petra drawing into herself at the mention of the man’s name.
“Yeah, I feel the same. No idea how he even found out about me, but there he was. He’d bought out the loan my uncle had on the apartments. Said he’d forgive the whole thing if I just came here.” Dan glowered straight ahead down the street. “When he told me he wanted to see it work though… I kind of freaked out. He told me the other way things could go was he could make it so my uncle lost everything.”
The next part of the story wasn’t one he wanted to share. Clearing his throat, he suddenly asked, “Uh… hey, where did you want to eat? Guess I should have asked before we left but…”
“He killed you didn’t he?”
It was all Dan could do not to drive up onto the sidewalk. “W-what?”
“The Orb Weaver. He’s the kind of person who would do something like that. He wanted to see if dying let you change what you could do, so I imagine he killed you.”
Hearing someone else say it was just too much. Dan pulled over to the curb and gripped the wheel with both hands. He leaned forward until the seat belt stopped him from going further. “He’s killed me a lot in the past year or so,” he admitted. “You know my watch? Really nice platinum designer watch—on the outside. The inside is all custom.”
Removing one hand from the wheel, he held out his arm to show off the watch. “There’s a little bottle of what he calls ‘engineered cone snail venom’ in there. I didn’t even know snails were poisonous, but there you go. One push of a button and I go out almost instantly.”
Now he couldn’t help but look and what he was was Petra with eyes wide in abject horror as she stared at the watch. “Why would you wear that voluntarily?!”
“Part of the deal,” Dan sighed. “Look, it’s actually better this way. I only just barely feel the needle when they use the watch. The first time the son of a bitch actually just stabbed me in the chest with his hand. His goddamn hand. Those fingers on his armor are sharper than steak knives and they hurt. A lot. And the guy just… stood there an waited for me to bleed out.”
He looked away. “I was so pissed off, I chose a mage class to come back as and tried to shoot fire at him, but it didn’t even scorch his suit.” The haunting memories glazed his eyes. “I don’t get it though: he’s always the one holding all the cards, he’s almost untouchable, and he’s rich enough to own the school, all the expensive stuff in it and even my uncle’s debt—what the hell does he need us for?”
“I’ve been wondering the same thing,” replied Petra. “I get that I’m pretty powerful and I can’t really judge, but your powers sound super-versatile, but what are we to him? Why train us at all—it seems like it would make us a threat to him.”
Dan drew in a long breath. “Look, maybe we shouldn’t talk about this here. The guy owns the car so…”
Petra’s eyes widened in terror. “Oh. I…”
“It’s okay, let’s just get out of the car right now and find someplace to eat.” He was already opening the door and trying to unbuckle his seat belt at the same time.
“Right.” Petra did the same and moments later, they were both walking down the street in a random direction.
After a block or so, Petra finally dared to talk. “I’m… sorry by the way.”
“For what they’ve done to you. I’ve spent my entire time here feeling sorry for myself because my parents were being blackmailed and I probably won’t get a chance to go to college while you’ve been…”
Dan raised a hand. “You don’t have to say it out loud. Plus, it was bound to become a thing seeing how my powers work, I guess.”
Petra hummed her reluctant agreement before mercifully changing the subject. “So… you said that you can get magic powers?”
“I think they whole thing is magic to be honest—y’know with the book turning to smoke and making me huff it and all—but yeah: there’s a couple of what they call jobs or classes that can give you spells. The mage is the one that’s just a straight up wizard though and yeah, it lets you throw fire and lightning and stuff.”
“That sounds really cool at least,” Petra offered.
A tiny smile touched Dan’s lips. “Yeah, it really is. I actually haven’t tried all of them yet, mostly because Orb Weaver and the school always want to go into detail figuring out all the options for each one.”
“Which one are you now?”
Dan hesitated, feeling uncommonly embarrassed. “Uh… first promise not to laugh.”
Big, green eyes blinked at him, honestly confused at the request. “Why would I?”
“These games like using weird names for everything. You’re not a thief, you’re a rogue. You’re not a warrior, you’re a champion or a duelist or something. And you’re not just good at social skills you’re… a rake.” Throwing up his hands preemptively he added, “Not a garden tool. It’s an old timey word for—”
“‘A dissolute or profligate person, especially a man who is licentious.’” Petra cut him off, then blushed, “I know, I know. I’m kind of a word nerd. Old words especially.” she laughed softly, “My mom and I would never just say ‘yes’ to each other; always ‘indubitably’.”
At the thought of her mother, she sighed. “I wonder if they’re even going to let us go home for holidays. I really miss my mom and dad.”
“Same.” Dan ducked his head.
They continued on for along while without saying anything. Again, Petra got things back on track. “So what does being a Rake mean for your powers?”
“It’s what they call a ‘social’ build. Lots of skills, almost all to do with talking or reading people. So while I’ve got those skills, I can be really smooth if I want to be, and I notice a lot of things about people while I’m talking to them.”
Petra tensed a little. “Are you doing it with me?”
Realizing the implications she was inferring, Dan raised his hands defensively. “I-I promise I’m not trying to manipulate you or hit on you or anything. And I’ve been trying to to look at you, because the cold reading stuff happens automatically.”
A slight pause, then hesitantly, “What have you gotten so far?”
Dan swallowed, some of his social skills already internally editing the profile he’d been unconsciously building on Petra since the first time he’d seen her with the Rake abilities. “First of all, you’re smart. Not a hypercog, but just naturally, higher-percentile-of-normal-humans smart. In fact, you’re just naturally good at most things you’ve done because you’re clearly athletic too. Up until Orb Weaver showed up, it’s been a good lie for you. But now you’re nervous. Not just nervous, but afraid. You don’t know who to trust because…” He blinked as he came to the conclusion he hadn’t realized he’d drawn, “Because the Orb Weaver is smarter than you—or at least you feel that way.”
Petra swallowed. “Wow. You… that pretty much covers it. This school’s made me paranoid. I’m not even sure if you or the others aren’t working for him too. I’m scared that I might do the wrong thing or say it, and He’ll ruin my parents… or worse.”
At this, Dan nodded. “You’re not the only one. I’m also scared about what he’s going to want from us.”
“Yeah,” she said quietly, “It’s a school for supervillains. What if he asks us to kill someone?”
Dan lowered his gaze to the ground. He hadn’t thought of that. “You know what? I’m not really feeling all that hungry anymore.”
“Me neither. Want to just walk around town for a while?” After a second, she added, “And talk about literally anything else?”
Dan finally met her eye and smiled. “Indubitably.”
To Be Continued…