Authors: Annette Oppenlander
First published by Lodestone Books, 2015
Lodestone Books is an imprint of John Hunt Publishing Ltd., Laurel House, Station Approach,
Alresford, Hants, SO24 9JH, UK
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Text copyright: Annette Oppenlander 2014
ISBN: 978 1 84694 973 9
Library of Congress Control Number: 2014959597
All rights reserved. Except for brief quotations in critical articles or reviews, no part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without prior written permission from the publishers.
The rights of Annette Oppenlander as author have been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
Design: Stuart Davies
Printed and bound by CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon, CR0 4YY, UK
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For Ben, my husband and best friend who patiently reads every word I produce, my daughter Nicole, and for my gamer boys, Brian and Ethan
It was exactly 9:32 p.m. when I settled into my favorite chair, the one with the ripped Mexican blanket that serves as a cushion. Little did I know I’d be gone within the hour. I mean gone as in disappeared.
Powering up my high-speed Cyber Xtreme and 32-inch monitor, a guilt gift from my dad and the only valuable thing I own, I stared at the blank disc in my hand. According to my friend, Jimmy, it contained some secret new game his father had invented. Jimmy said his dad thought the game was faulty and I wondered why his dad would have given it to him.
Most people consider Jimmy the lucky one. He lives in a mansion because his father runs some ginormous tech company. My mom and me share space with a thousand spiders in a two-bedroom cottage with a thatched roof. Who in the twenty-first century lives in a house covered with a bunch of straw?
Anyway, I digress. The tower purred as it swallowed the disc, the best sound in the world. It took a long time to boot which should’ve given me the first clue something was wrong. If there’s one thing that drives me crazy it’s slow processors and I knew it wasn’t my equipment. I’ve been gaming since I was six and consider myself pretty good. Especially when it comes to debugging stuff. I was stoked to figure it out, maybe make a few bucks in the process. I’m still American enough to think of dollars instead of Euros because we’ve only lived in Germany for two years.
I was scrounging for a candy bar in my desk when a flame shot across the screen, burning yellow, red and blue. Not that I smoke, but it looked real enough to light a cigarette. In slow motion the fire edged letters into the screen.
Cool name. Of course I didn’t get it then. Stupid me.
Below the fire appeared a globe, the kind librarians have on
their desks. The thing rotated slowly, zooming closer and closer like Google Earth. Jimmy was right, this was the coolest thing I’d ever seen, the graphics as realistic as if I’d been standing there. Bornhagen, the place we live, was marked with a front door.
I was pretty fed up waiting, my fingers twitching to hit the keys. First it took ages to load, then it showed a map? But I didn’t have much else to do except review a few algebra problems—unlike Jimmy I’ve got no trouble with math—so I clicked.
On the screen giant boulders shaped themselves into a gate, opening onto a bunch of hills and a shadowy forest. In the distance, high on the mountain, I saw a castle with two towers, a pale banner fluttering limply on top. It looked vaguely familiar, but at the time I didn’t really think much about it. An ox cart moved slowly across a country road toward the castle.
I sniffed. Something reeked like boiled manure. I looked around to find the source when I noticed a man on the screen scurrying along a bumpy trail. He wheezed, dragging his bare feet. He was obviously injured, the filthy rags on his right shoulder dark with blood. The screen zoomed to follow as the man darted into the woods. Giant oaks swallowed the sun, a patchwork of shadows and light in the undergrowth. At the time I remember thinking how lame this game was despite the graphics—no dragons, no monsters, nothing exciting whatsoever.
Besides, I was slightly worried my mom would come in. The whiskey she likes usually puts her to sleep on the couch, but you never know. Luckily, most of the time, she doesn’t know when I pull an all-nighter.
Horse gallop thudded out of nowhere. Visibly trembling the grimy-looking man hesitated for a moment before thrashing his way through bushes and undergrowth. At the edge of the forest three riders in chainmail and helmets came into view, their chestnut horses whinnying and covered in sweat. The clang of metal sliced the air as the men drew swords.
At that moment my cell rang. I remember hesitating because I thought maybe Jimmy’s dad had found out about me borrowing the game. I’d sort of pushed for it. I should’ve stopped what I was doing right then, but I was still curious and decided to ignore the phone. On the screen a yellowed scroll, its edges burned and crumbling, unfolded into a menu.
Continue Level One
Upgrade to Expert now?
flashed below. Cool. There was an advanced version. I moved the mouse and clicked. Instantly the screen began to pulse and recede. Like looking into a fish tank, the tree trunks, oak leaves and bushes grew larger and three-dimensional, sharper and closer. I heard birds chirping and rustling in the undergrowth. And the foul smell was back.
I leaned forward because all of a sudden my chest was killing me. I was stuck in a truck-sized vise, my ribs squeezing together, body compressing. My lungs throbbed and I couldn’t breathe, not even a little. My arms and legs felt numb.
I thought. I pushed myself to stand.
Something is wrong with the game, stop the game,
my mind urged. But I couldn’t. Lights exploded behind my eyelids and I had to pay every shred of attention to the task of breathing.
It occurred to me that I was having a heart attack.
My mother’s face flashed by. I wanted to shout for her, but my lungs had quit for good, my tongue a rigid piece of meat. She’d find me in the morning dead on the carpet. My sight turned foggy then black. I was passing out. I sucked frantically and drew in a bit of air. Slowly with each breath the crushing heaviness disappeared.
Blinking away the haze, I wiped my sweaty forehead. I should make an appointment with the family doctor.
Something moved ahead. There at the edge of a clearing
cowered the man in rags holding his right elbow. He trembled and now that I was closer, I saw blood dripping from his wrist. The three riders had surrounded him, their blades pointing toward the man’s neck. One rider dismounted, his face shadowed by a half helmet and curled brownish beard, his hands covered by steel gauntlets like lizard scales. The other two sat motionless, waiting. I tried to get a better view of what the horsemen were doing when I looked down.
I stood on the root of an oak tree. Surely I imagined things. But those were definitely
Nikes I’d forgotten to take off when I returned home. I moved my foot. Leaves crackled. A twig snapped. Something terrible had happened, something I couldn’t wrap my mind around. I blinked and looked to my right. Trees and undergrowth were losing themselves in the gloom. I remembered the mouse in my right hand, but when I lifted my arm, my fingers came up empty—except for the smear of something sticky on my palm. I was
The bush next to me was covered in blood. Not mine, I realized with relief. Disgusted I wiped my shaking hands with a fistful of leaves and turned to look behind me. The woods stretched into darkness—shadows within shadows nearly black.
My room was gone.
I heard more rustling. Louder now. Not from the men, but from the woods behind me. My knees buckled and I was vaguely aware of the thudding sound I’d made. I had to figure out what had just happened, retrace my steps.
Where was my room?
My mind churned as I scanned the ground for some sign of home, something familiar.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw the bearded thug turn his head. Ducking behind a hazelnut bush, I squinted through the leaves. The thug had raised his sword and stepped toward my hiding place.
I crouched lower, my ears filled with the pounding of my own heartbeat. Rough laughter came from the other two riders. Despite my panic I caught a glimpse of them poking their swords at the injured man’s shoulder. I smelled their stench—and the wounded man’s fear.
The bearded thug continued in my direction. Sunlight bounced off the edge of his blade. He took another step, scanning, listening. I forced my shaking body to be absolutely still. This had to be some kind of challenge in the game.
The man kept coming. Twenty feet. Everything about him looked menacing: his eyes the color of mud, his razor-sharp sword wide as a hand. Fifteen feet. I held my breath.
A scream rang out.
“Have mercy, My Lords,” the bleeding man cried. He was kneeling now, waiving his good arm in a pleading gesture. “I beg you,” he wailed.
I lowered my gaze. Somewhere I’d read that the white of a man’s eyes could give you away. Keeping my lids half-closed, I peeked through the leaves once more. The thug was ten feet away. Close up he looked worse, a brute with arms the size of my thighs, his chest covered in leather and wide as a barrel. Despite
his size he had the soundless walk of a stalking animal. I watched with paralyzed fascination. Any second I’d be discovered, but all I managed was to shove my hands into my jeans pockets to keep them from trembling.
It’s a computer game,
my brain screamed.
my gut argued.
Eilet Euch und bindet den Gefangenen.
We’ve squandered enough time.” The rider spoke in some kind of medieval-sounding German, his voice icy and bored, but I was certain he’d said something like make haste and bind the prisoner.
The bearded thug hesitated. He glanced left and right and then abruptly turned. I gulped air, my ears ringing with waning adrenalin.
“I’ll pay for the bread,” the injured man cried. “I’ll find…” the rest of his words turned to incoherent mumble.
The thug now towered over his prisoner, a giant ready to squash an annoying insect. The rider with the cold voice wriggled his sword in front of the man’s nose.
“Teach him a lesson first.”
“Let’s cut off his hands.” The bearded thug smacked his lips in anticipation as he lifted his sword above his head.
“No, please,” the injured man cried. “I’ll pay the Duke, I promise.”
“Hold out your arms,” the thug said, raising his sword higher. I blinked. I wanted to look away, but my eyes refused to move.
“The right middle finger,” the rider with the icy voice said. “He won’t use a bow again.”
“Put your hand on the ground,” the thug barked. “Or I’ll cut it off and feed it to you.” He sounded disappointed. The injured man leaned forward and stretched out his hand covered with blood.
That’s when he saw me.
As the brute aimed the tip of his sword at the man’s middle finger, the prisoner turned his head, our eyes meeting for the briefest moment. They were bluish-green like my own and filled
with something like recognition. Had I imagined the man nodding? Before I could work out what I’d seen, I heard a soft crunch. A bloodcurdling scream rang out, the man’s head whipping toward his mangled hand. He clutched his palm to apply pressure, his face drained of color. I finally looked away.
“Bind him,” the rider said. He still sounded bored but there was an element of urgency in his voice. “We shall leave before we run into Hanstein’s guards.”
The revolting stink of blood wafted across. I swallowed bile. I kept seeing the blood flowing from the man’s hand, the empty spot where the middle finger had been. Do
puke. I began to tremble once more as the terror of being discovered turned my stomach. I was sure the prisoner had seen me. What if he told his captors?