Chapter 1

FRIDAY, MAY 13th

“Teal! Behind you!”

I whipped around, but it was already too late. The creature’s hand clamped around my throat, crushing my trachea and squeezing tears from my eyes.

“Eddie,” I gasped, my vision already blurring. “The girl! Save the girl!”

(Any normal guy would have known this, but Eddie could be a bit slow on the uptake.)

Across the cavern, a diminutive troll nodded before stumbling toward a slender female at the far edge of the room.

“Nooo,” my captor screamed, its hand further tightening around my throat. “The girl is mine!”

Then – with one of its four hands still firmly around my neck – the monster used its other three to whip out a trio of blasters. Silently and patiently, the angle of the three blasters aligned on the troll’s poor little head.

I realized too late what was about to happen. Panic set in, and I clawed frantically against my captor’s grasp.

“No…don’t kill him…”

I’m not sure why I chose to say that. Maybe I held some vain hope the monster would turn to me and say, “you know, you’re right. I won’t kill him.”

But alas, it either didn’t hear or didn’t care. Before I could sputter another useless plea, the creature clamped down three trigger fingers.

A triad of blue energy beams streaked toward Eddie’s hapless troll. Two of the three blasts connected, severing the troll’s legs from its body as the rest of its mangled torso collapsed into a motionless heap.

I had no time to think as the same three blasters swiveled around, allineating on my panicked face.

“Good-bye, boy.”

Three fingers again compressed three triggers.

But before the fateful blast connected, I smashed down the Alt and F4 keys and killed the program. Then a mumbled a word I really shouldn’t have, and I mumbled it a lot louder than I’d intended.

“…Excuse me, Teal? Do you have a problem with my lecture?”

I looked up from my screen to find an entire Basic Computer Skills class staring at me – including a particularly nasty glare from Mr. Torvald, the teacher.

This wasn’t going to be good.

“No sir, no problem. Your lecture is great.”

I realized too late how sarcastic that sounded. The class snickered, and Mr. Torvald smiled that cruel, mocking smile reserved for high school teachers who have just placed a student in an awkward situation.

“I see,” he said, turning off his projector. “Then could you please repeat the last bullet point of today’s lesson for us? It should be easy for you, since I repeated such an important statement at least three times.”

I didn’t doubt that. Torvald was famous for repeating pretty much everything. This made his request all the more ridiculous, and more than one student snickered again.

“Um, you said…”

I couldn’t even remember the topic of today’s lesson, let alone a specific bullet point.

“…you said something about…”

Just then, the grating buzz of the class-ending bell echoed across the room. I let out a sigh of relief and hoped that bell wouldn’t be my only good luck for the day.

After all, I had big plans.

(More on that in a moment.)

Students began filing out of the room while Mr. Torvald sat with his arms folded, a frustrated expression smeared across his face.

“You’re lucky today, Teal – but don’t even think about playing games in my class again.”

I forced a smile, wondering if he knew I’d played games every class period since the start of the semester.

And who could blame me? Torvy’s lectures weren’t just boring. They were insipid. Every kid in that class would play the same game if they too knew how to circumvent the school’s anti-game filter.

“Sorry, Mr. Torvald,” I said, this time remembering to make it sound sincere. “It won’t happen again.”

Try as I might, I could barely contain my smirk and Torvald seemed to sense it, so I collected my things as quickly as possible, logged out of the computer, then made a beeline for the hallway.

I hadn’t made it two steps out of the classroom when Eddie – a short Indian boy and my best friend – grabbed me by the arm.

“Dude, you blew it!”

At least half of Eddie’s observations begin with ‘dude.’

I blew it? You were the one who didn’t make it to the girl in time.”

“Only because you made me a troll! What kind of plan was that? An elf or knight would’ve been way faster!”

This was where my nerd-ness started to falter. I was all for playing video games in a boring computer class, but the thought of talking to Eddie about it in public was more than I could bear. In typical 10th grade fashion, people would already be spreading rumors about “the kid Torvald caught playing computer games.” The potential for that nasty rumor made it all the more pressing that I get moving on my big plans for the day.

So I just shook my head as Eddie continued berating my poor choice of video game characters.

And really, the truth of the matter was that we’d tried both the elf and the knight yesterday, and we’d still lost. I didn’t think the troll was going to work, but I secretly enjoyed talking Eddie into doing stupid things.

By the time we reached my locker, Eddie had launched into his favorite part of video game conversations: rhetorical questions.

“Seriously, Teal – why didn’t you try to escape from the monster? You just sat there!”

“Enough already! I couldn’t escape! You think I sat there, being strangled, for the fun of it?”

“No, but you should have–”

If I hadn’t already stopped listening, this would have been the perfect cue. Once Eddie started talking about what someone ‘should have’ done in a particular situation, he was hard to stop.

I dialed in my locker combination and began the tedious process of loading up next period’s books. Our high school runs on an A-B day schedule, so I had four of my classes on A-days and the other four classes on B-days. Torvald’s Basic Computer Skills class was the first period of A-days, followed by World History, lunch, Algebra II, and Band.

Yes, Band. I know what that makes you think, and I don’t want to hear it. Hopefully I’ll have time later to explain how that happened.

Anyway, somewhere between loading up my history binder and Eddie explaining how the level 19 mage would surely defeat the alien, my target stepped into sight.

I hadn’t planned on acting so soon – between 3rd and 4th periods would have been better – but the thought of my long-awaited plans falling apart over an exaggerated geekiness rumor left me no choice.

I smashed a hand over Eddie’s mouth and simultaneously swept him out of sight. Then I shook my head (to get my hair in place), licked my lips (they were dry), and rapidly formulated an updated version of my plan.

Thirty feet away, Cierra Russell – easily the most beautiful creature in the history of Franklin High School – had just arrived at her locker. Her long auburn hair fell in gentle curls around her perfect face: two dark brown eyes nestled above a pixie nose and full red lips. The gentle sway of her hips accentuated her long, slender legs, and I had to fight to keep from drooling all over myself.

“Mmph grmbl hmph,” Eddie mumbled.

“Shhh,” I replied, slowly removing my hand from his mouth. “Now’s my chance. It’s Friday, she’ll be relaxed, and if I don’t do it today then someone else will ask her over the weekend.”

“Dude. You can’t be serious.”

“I am. I’m gonna ask her to the homecoming dance.”

Eddie’s eyes ballooned.

“Teal, you are completely–”

But I was already gone, slithering through mulling throngs of students toward Cierra.

Unfortunately, that’s as far as my plan went. I had no idea how to ask someone of Cierra’s status out, but hopefully that wouldn’t be a problem. I learned a long time ago that fortune favored the bold.
And this was looking to be one of the boldest things I’d ever done.

I smiled at the thought and slipped around another group of students. Cierra was less then ten feet away and I was as ready as I’d ever be.

That’s when total chaos erupted.

It started with a burst of green light somewhere above my head. A loud crash exploded from the ceiling, followed by an immediate rain of dust, Fiberboard and glass. Somewhere down the hallway a girl screamed, followed by another loud crash – this one more like a smashing sound, less like an explosion.

The screaming spread, and within seconds every student in the packed hallway lost control, the lot of them coalescing into a frantic stampede.

I lost sight of Cierra as a river of panicked students plowed past me. I tried moving against the current, desperately trying to lunge across those last ten feet to reach her, but the movement of the crowd was just too strong. Instead I found myself carried into the flow of students, and it took concentrated effort and several bad bruises to work my way back toward the lockers, where I was momentarily out of the herd’s way.

Eddie materialized beside me, his smaller body much better at navigating crowds.

“Dude! What was that?”

I shook my head, sending clouds of dust flying from my hair.

“I have no idea. I was just about to reach Cierra when the ceiling above me exploded.”

As if on cue, another explosion of green light ripped across the ceiling, dumping more dust and debris into the now-delirious crowd. The screaming grew to a roar and we were forced to slide halfway into my open locker to keep from being swept away.

It took several seconds for the bulk of the crowd to pass, and when it had, an eerie quiet engulfed the hallway. I slowly stepped out of the locker and wondered for a moment why I hadn’t left the school with the rest of the student body.

Apparently Eddie reached the same conclusion, because he grabbed my arm and started dragging me down the hallway.

“Eddie, wait!”

“Wait for what? We have to get out of here!”

“Stop,” I said, yanking my arm away. “I think the explosions are over. We should investigate.”

“What? No! Don’t be an idiot.”

“You worry too much. Those green blasts of light…what could have caused them? Let’s see where they came from.”

Eddie shook his head and rolled his eyes, which usually meant that he disagreed with my judgment but would tag along anyway. In fact, that’s the same look he’d given me when I’d suggested he try saving the cyber-princess with a troll.

I smiled and began creeping down the dusty hallway.

A door behind us suddenly slammed open and I instinctively threw myself to the ground. A pitter-patter of feet ran away from us; I peeked behind to see Mr. Torvald sprinting awkwardly out of his classroom, both hands clasping a keyboard over his head.

…And if I’m not mistaken, it sounded like he was crying.

Embarrassing.

We waited for Torvy to exit the school before climbing to our feet and continuing down the hallway. A fine layer of dust coated everything – the floor, the lockers, me – and the air remained plugged with clouds of dust and soot.

As we crept along, I took a moment to replay the events of the last minute in my head. The green blasts had undoubtedly come from this direction, but it was impossible to see a cause through the thick dust. I fought to remember what lay down the hall…a couple classroom doors, the school trophy case, an unmarked door – probably a janitor’s closet…?

Was there anything else? If so, I couldn’t remember it. My mind raced as we stepped up the half-flight of stairs leading further down the hallway.

Behind me, Eddie coughed.

“Teal, this is stupid. Why are we here?”

That’s the thing with Eddie – he’ll always tag along, but only on the condition that he’s allowed to second-guess everything we do. I’m of the belief that if you have problems with a decision, voice them before you act on it. Eddie is more of the “tag-along-then-gripe-the-whole-way-just-in-case-this-idea-was-stupid” type of person.

I held up my hand in a clear gesture of ‘shut up,’ then leaned toward him.

“Quiet. Can you hear that?”

Eddie paused, his face blank in concentration.

Somewhere further down the hallway, a soft scuttling sound drifted through the dust.

“That!”

“Yeah, I hear it,” he replied. “What do you think it is?”

Again I shook my head.

We continued down the hallway.

Suddenly I felt something wasn’t right. You know the feeling – that flickering moment of doubt at the very back of your mind, subtle enough to barely notice it at first, and yet within moments it’s all you can think about.

For reasons I can’t really isolate, I made the decision to repress that instance of doubt. Truthfully, I was dying to know what was going on (I mean really dying to know – otherwise I would have been outside tracking down Cierra), and I had a sinking suspicion that if I stopped long enough to think about what on earth we were doing, I’d have no good reason to continue forward.

So we kept moving, and I sincerely hoped we could reach something definitive before my sense of rationale kicked back in.

By now we had nearly reached the end of the hall. The corridor down which we walked met up with a perpendicular hallway, forming a t-intersection. Along the far wall sat the school’s disappointingly empty trophy case – three trophies for the debate team, one for the FBLA club, zero for any kind of sport – and next to it, the unmarked door I suspected was some kind of utility or janitor’s closet. Something about the door looked awry, so I motioned to Eddie and we moved in for a better look.

Upon closer inspection, it was clear that somewhere beyond this door was where the green blasts had originated. Two holes, each one big enough to stick a hand through, had been blown in the wooden door; the holes sat several inches apart, and – weird – they were perfectly circular. Perfectly circular. There was no sign of shattering or burning or melting or anything of the sort.

I raised an eyebrow and leaned in to inspect the holes when a colossal crash sounded on the other side of the door. I leaped backward just as the door swung open, barely missing my face.

A tall, rugged figure emerged from the doorway, caked from head to foot in dust. Two piercing black eyes scanned the hallway, immediately honing in on mine and Eddie’s faces. I had the sudden urge to run for my life (and judging by the strange squeals coming from Eddie, he felt similarly).

But instead we remained frozen in place as the dusty figure looked us up and down, deep black eyes clearly searching for something. My legs tensed; I suddenly realized my heart had at some point began pounding with audible strength, and then I wondered why I was still inside the school. That sense of rationale I’d tried so hard to suppress was rising and it was definitely telling me to run for my life.

Then the dust-encrusted figure – a man, I realized – raised a finger, pointing it straight at my chest.

“You,” he croaked, his voice as dust-encrusted as his body. “You’re Teal. Teal Garrison.”

My heart dropped into my stomach. How did he know who I was?

I traded startled glances with Eddie, then nodded.

“…Yes.”

“We need to talk,” he continued, eyes boring into me. “When can you meet me?”

“I, uh, what?”

I hate being caught off guard. Surprise always makes me feel so… vulnerable.

“What do you mean, meet you?”

Somewhere behind us, the sound of sirens echoed down the hallway. The firemen had arrived.

Mystery man grunted.

“Dammit, boy – don’t play dumb at a time like this! We ain’t got time for games! Meet me here on,” he paused, “…Monday morning, 6:00 am.”

He raised a menacing finger.

“And don’t even think about bein’ late. Your life may depend on it.”

And without so much as a second glance, he turned and walked back into the closet, closing the damaged door behind him.

The ridiculousness of the situation was difficult to reconcile. Dust thick as cotton candy still choked the air, I’d just watched parts of my school explode in mysterious bursts of colored light, and some crazy old man had just crawled from a closet and announced we needed to talk about something life-threateningly important.

This couldn’t possibly be real.

But as I turned to find firemen running toward us, grabbing us, dragging us out of the school, it set in that – however unbelievable – it was real. All of it.

And there was no Alt+F4 to get me out of this one.



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