This page is rated T for Moderate Violence, Moderate Horror Themes, Frequent Light Horror Themes, and Light Depressive Themes.
Waking up from having been knocked out by I-don't-even-know-what is disconcerting. To make matters worse, I don't even know where I am now. This place looks awfully familiar, though.
That's me. Who's talking?
"What do you know about Crimson Lightning?"
Looks like the guy with the hood who's sitting across from me is talking to me. I don't know why he's asking about Crimson Lightning. I'd like to ask him some questions.
"Who are you?" I'm saying. "Where am I? And why do you want to know about Crimson Lightning?" I am extremely frazzled right now. This is the strangest day ever.
"I'm a member of Crimson Lightning," he says. "You're in a Crimson Lightning hideout." Oh right, that's why this place looks so familiar. "And I want to know what you know about our organization so that I can help you work out your problems."
OK, what problems does he even think I have?
On second thought, he probably knows that I was chased by a monster earlier today because it kind of crashed the whole Harvest Festival. Half the people in Shroud probably know that, and the other half will by tomorrow. Might as well tell him the whole story, in case it helps.
So earlier today, I was making my way to the Harvest Festival celebrations with my girlfriend, Rane, and things were going pretty much as usual. Rane was being really cheerful, I was being a nervous wreck, she was telling me not to be, I was trying to take her advice, and then the weirdness occurred.
Right outside of the mayor's house, there was this statue that I'd swear I've never seen there before. I stopped to stare at it, and then it blinked.
Statues don't blink.
I went to go find Rane, who had gone ahead.
"Rane," I said, "I need to talk to you. This is urgent."
Rane accommodated me, letting me pull her over to a place that wasn't in the walkway.
"I just passed a statue that blinked," I said. "Am I hallucinating or something?"
"Probably nothing to worry about," she said cheerily. She reached her hand out to reassuringly put an arm around me—
—and then suddenly froze. Turned black-and-white. Stuck.
I started trying to shake her, saying, "Rane! Wake up!"
She didn't move. She didn't even speak.
I looked around for help, and that's when I realized that everyone and everything had gone black-and-white, frozen in place.
Everyone but me, that is.
I turned around to find the other person who was mobile.
It was the statue. Statues don't move, either.
"Wondering why everyone's stuck like this…?" said the statue.
I was too freaked out to respond. I just started slowly backing away from the statue.
"Lucky for you, I'll tell you regardless…" said the statue, starting to follow me. I noticed that its arms dragged at its sides, immobile like the rest of the world. "I've frozen time for everyone here, but I can't freeze time for you. You looked me in the eyes, you know I'm not just a statue, so I can't freeze you. Which gives you two options: join me, or…" It cocked its head to the side. "You know the drill…the other option is passing into the Chill to meet any of your ancestors' spirits that remain there. So, what'll it be?" The statue grinned menacingly.
Without thinking, I just started running. I shot right past the statue, just started running the way I'd come. I couldn't stop; I was too scared.
As I ran, color flooded back into the world. People started moving, screaming, getting out of the way. I looked over my shoulder. The statue was chasing me some way back, and everyone was terrified of it. (As they should be. Statues shouldn't move.)
I was so terrified and distracted with assessing the situation that I took some wrong turns somewhere and wound up in a dead-end alley, with no way to get out but the way I came in. I turned around to see if there was time, and discovered the statue in the entryway of the alley.
"Game over, little girl…" it said. "Guess your 16th year was your last."
Suddenly, I felt like a message had just hit my mind, like something was telling me to "touch the symbol". I looked on the wall, and there it was: a dark red lightning-bolt symbol. I hit it as fast as possible. Worst-case scenario, I'd die, but I was going to die anyway.
Immediately after that, I slammed against a wooden floor, so apparently, I wasn't still in the alley. Picking myself up and looking around, it seemed like I was in a small building…actually, nearly identical to the one we're in now. I can't see in a full circle, so it could be a different one, but they're awfully similar…
Anyway, let me get on with the story. The statue wasn't getting into the building, which I could see through the door's small window-grate. It was glaring at me through the grate, but it clearly couldn't get in, as evidenced by the fact that it repeatedly slammed itself against the door and bounced off, not shaking the door an inch from its frame.
Knowing that the statue wouldn't get into the building that way, and that I couldn't get out that way either, I decided to explore where I was. Where I was was pretty boring, so I went up the nearby stairs to the much-larger and more interesting second floor.
Looking around on the second floor, the first thing I saw was Rane. Full-color, mobile, usual Rane. I half-wanted to hug her because I was so glad that she wasn't permanently stuck in some weird monochrome, frozen state, but I also had lots of questions. I have too many questions.
The questions just started spilling out of my mouth without thinking. "Are you all right? Where are we? How are you here? How'd I get here?" I ran out of breath before I could come up with anything more, so Rane took this as her cue to talk.
"I'm fine," she said with her usual happiness. "We're…" A look of worry suddenly overcame her face, and she started fiddling with her backpack straps to get something out. Rane, when she gets nervous, is in the habit of sucking on a lollipop to dispel anxiety (which is what she was trying to get out of her backpack). I kind of feel bad about that whole habit because I got her into the habit, just to get her to stop biting her nails in the same situations, but I'm always nervous about replacing one bad habit with another, and…
You wanted the story?
I don't really want to tell this next part…
Oh well. I got this far. I can't go back.
"We're in a Crimson Lightning hideout," said Rane, muffled slightly by the object that was now in her mouth (having retrieved it from her backpack). "Crimson Lightning is…an organization that keeps monsters from getting into Shroud here. Ever wondered why our parents tell us stories of monsters like vampires and werewolves, but we never see any? It's completely because of Crimson Lightning. And…" Rane bit down a bit, twisting her face into a more unsettled expression. "I'm part of it. I've been part of it since I was 10; for these past six years, I've been in it. I never told you because I didn't want to endanger you. These past six months of 'us', I've been trying to protect you. I guess that ends now."
"So how'd we get here?" I asked. It didn't even matter to me that Rane was keeping secrets like this. I was trying to figure out how not to die.
"I went in the door," said Rane, giggling slightly, "and you came in through the symbol on the wall. I sent that mental prompt, by the way," she said, tapping a small black device near her. "This thing lets whoever uses it clue people into that 'back-door' in case they need it."
I went over what she'd said. Then I asked another question: "If Crimson Lightning keeps out the monsters, how was this statue thing chasing me? That would count as a monster, right?"
Rane hesitated. "…Yeah," she said. "I guess one of the protective wards around Shroud must have been lowered for the Gargoyle to get in. We should probably go get one of the Wardmasters to put the wards back up before more monsters get in. I know one of them at Graydyke. Come on, let's go."
"Wait, Rane," I said, following her down the stairs, "the Gargoyle—if that's what it is—is probably still outside the door."
Rane looked through the grate. "Nah," she said. "It's fine." Tossing her oral fixation—I mean, lollipop—into her backpack, Rane opened the door, and the two of us walked out.
Approximately right as Rane closed the door, the Gargoyle suddenly jumped at us. It had apparently been hiding in the alley.
"Sara, run!" said Rane. "I'll hold it off."
I had no clue what she was thinking, but if she'd been keeping secrets about being a part of this super-powerful organization, she probably had a weapon or something, right?
Anyway, so I followed her order to run. She'd told me to go to Graydyke, and I basically knew where that was. Fortunately, it wasn't very far.
Maybe it was because I was thinking about that name, but it really seemed like the whole world flashed gray for a second in there. It was only for a second, so it might have been nothing, but it made an impression on me.
After that, nothing much happened until I got to Graydyke and discovered that, sure enough, the big translucent screen that was supposed to provide a magical barrier just wasn't there. The fog on the other side was, of course—that's been there forever and probably will be there forever—but the screen was down.
I looked around for someone who could help. I quickly spotted a man wearing a crimson hood and work-ready clothes. Deciding that crimson was my lucky color today, I went over to the man and asked, "Excuse me, sir, do you know anyone who calls themselves a Wardmaster?"
The man looked around to make sure that no one was in earshot, then quietly said, "I'm one. Why?"
"The screen over there," I said, gesturing to it, "seems to be down. A Gargoyle attacked me earlier. My girlfriend thinks—I think—some combination of one or both of us thinks that the two events may be related. Do you know how to fix that?"
The Wardmaster was already examining the place where the screen should have been up before I had finished speaking. "Strange," he said. "The surrounding wards bear heavy tear marks on the borders to where this ward would be, but the marks are nearly invisible, as though it's been decades since anyone even tried to put a ward here. This must the place where the ward was left missing right after Shroud was created, when the Fog Beast tore it down. I suppose everyone thought that the Fog Beast was enough protection and so they just kept the ward down. I suppose it's no longer enough protection, so I'll take my chances, put the ward back up, and hope that the Fog Beast won't tear it down again."
Approximately as he finished speaking, a big, purple bubble went up around him, sealing the gap between the two nearby wards. "This will protect me from anything while I place the real ward," he said. "Just make sure that nothing comes by to cause trouble, will you?"
I turned to look over my shoulder to see if anything was there, and that's when I blacked out.
That's the end of the story. I hope he's satisfied now.
"Is that the end?" he's saying. I guess he can't read my thoughts. That's good. It would be super creepy if I were dealing with a telepath.
"Yes," I say. "After I blacked out, I woke up here and started talking to you."
"Hmm," he says, stroking where I'd assume his chin would be except that I can't see his face. "Quite an interesting story you have there. Well, that gives me all the information that I need."
He casually flips back his hood, and I freeze in horror. This cannot be happening. I refuse to believe it. I—
Well, denial will get me nowhere. I just have to accept this.
The man I'm staring at and have told the whole story to is the Gargoyle.
"I can't stop your friend, the Wardmaster, from putting up the ward," he's saying, calm as ever, "but now that I'm in here, I can use those time-stopping powers to take over Shroud. Your mental prompt box will be very useful to me in making Shroud's mayor obey my every whim, effectively putting me in charge of your town. And luckily, I know just where he lives. I stood in front of his house since sunrise without knowing it. You're quite useful, you know. It's really a shame that I'm going to have to kill you."
I don't usually get angry. I'm feeling angry now, though. My fists are clenching and I feel like I'm burning, hating myself for giving him what he needs and hating him for being so cruel. I barely even notice that I'm being dragged upstairs. The pain just feels like an extension of this anger.
Over in the corner of the second floor, Rane's tied up. I guess she didn't have a weapon and was just being heroic, only to get knocked out when the world flashed (because the Gargoyle must have frozen time then to get an advantage. Of course). I wish I hadn't accepted her order to run. Then maybe we could have taken down this thing together. This way, we just both die.
The Gargoyle's dropping me by Rane. He's picking up the mental prompt box, trying to mount it on his shoulder. It looks like his arms work here, but not with time frozen. I guess he wants to use the box with time stopped, because of course he does. Sneak to the mayor's house with time frozen, un-freeze, control the mayor before he knows it, bam. Takeover. I'm such an idiot.
"Sara," Rane whispers. "Can you cut these cords?"
I shrug helplessly. I don't have a single sharp object. I don't even have a hairpin. I thought about putting my hair up today and then decided against it. That was a mistake.
"I have a sai in here," Rane whispers, poking her backpack pocket with her elbow, which isn't quite immobile. "You can cut the cords with that."
I am absolutely dumbfounded by the fact that we actually have a thing that works. I thought we were done for, but apparently, Rane is actually smart and has a weapon like I'd thought she would have had.
I'm pulling out the sai (good thing that the Gargoyle is facing in the other direction), trying to cut the cords (although I'm really bad at it), and—
Oh no. The Gargoyle is turning around. He's going to freeze time and—
"Rane," I'm whispering. "Look him in the eyes."
Rane does. The Gargoyle freezes time right afterwards. The boards go gray, Rane and I don't. This worked.
The Gargoyle grunts with frustration. "I should have just killed you when we first met!" he says, unfreezing time. He starts charging at me. All of my pent-up frustration and anger must be guiding my movement, I'm swinging the sai at him and…
…Then it all stops. He's stuck in place, and my sai's stuck in the materials of his chest.
Without a word, he falls to the floor.
…Well, I guess we won?
Rane apparently got herself out of the rest of the cords and has just securely wrapped herself around me. This is extremely awkward, because I'm holding a sharp weapon and she's hugging me from behind. Oh well.
"Rane, can I put down the sai?" I manage to squeeze out.
"Sure," she says, letting me go. "If what I heard the Gargoyle say from downstairs is true, then all of today's problems are hopefully gone forever."
"Rane," I'm saying, putting down the sai and almost instantaneously getting re-tackled by Rane, "do you really think that? That this is going to be the end of our story of hardships, not just the first in a series of problems and misery?"
Rane smiles. "I think we're good."