Chapter 2: Pact
"Idiot!" Static filled the silent surroundings and momentarily broke the tension that had been steadily building its way up. I could hear a flick, must have been some kind of switch, and then a brief period of peace before the voices filled my head again like a babbling brook.
The headache was unbearable, like a thousand hammers pounding away on my skull. I closed my eyes and massaged my forehead. But it refused to go away.
The voices grew louder.
Damn! Shouldn't have tried to do…Some were angry, like this one was. Angry for bringing this upon themselves.
Others were like lost little lambs. This place…I…what happened…
What will my children do now? Without me…Will Robert remember to take care of them? To scare away the bad dreams and help out with the kids' homework? I miss them so much…A mother's worries.
Huh. Or, as that one-word comment suggested, simply neutral.
Aside from that, there were also the spoken words. It was hard to keep up with both of them all at once. But beside me, the girl I'd found was still quiet as she had arrived, save for that ear-shattering scream. I tried to focus on her, make conversation, my only way of escaping the traffic that had erupted in my head.
"What's your name?" I asked her gently, not wanting to scare her. She had contorted herself in such a way that she looked like a turtle poking its head out of its shell to see whether or not the coast was clear.
She turned her head to look at me. "Maxine Belwick. Eighteen years old." My throat is dry. She swallowed. "I…Why are you…being so nice?"
"Because I am nice," I told her. "Well…that's what I'd like to believe."
A smile tugged at the corners of her lips. She opened her mouth to say more, probably her life's story, but there was a crackle and a voice working hard to sound enthusiastic came on. "Sorry, people! Oh, I meant Souls." There was a high-pitched giggle, but none of us looked amused. Stupid Althea, her thoughts grumbled. "Welcome to the Deadlock!"
A pause, possibly waiting for us to respond. Instead, we looked blankly at one another. The Deadlock? Sounded like a wrestling match, except for the added bonus of making us feel sentimental because of the word "Dead." Made especially for us. How thoughtful of them.
When no response whatsoever seemed forthcoming, there was an embarrassed clearing of the throat, and then a rustle. "Oh, for goodness' sake," said an impatient voice. "They have just arrived. You can't expect them to know about this."
"Are you angry at me?" The peppy voice inquired, shocked. Though it didn't sound so peppy right now.
A sigh. Blond stereotypes! Don't know why she's even a Reaper, can't even do her job properly. "Move aside," the other person brusquely ordered.
Why should I do what she says? Blond Stereotype was indignant. There was a yelp. Seems like her resolve didn't go too far.
"A warm greeting to the Souls in the vicinity," Althea began. "As earlier stated, you are now players entered in the game of Deadlock." Wonder what the quota is this year?
I wanted to probe deeper on that, but she continued on. "The Deadlock's objectives are simple. Once you are a Player, or if you wish to be a Player, you pay with your most prized possession. For all of you gathered here, in this Final Stop, that prized possession was your life. In the minute immediately after the signal is given, you must form a pact with two other Souls. Those who are not able to do this will be subsequently Suspended and given a Choice: Transcend to a higher plane of existence and be a Reaper, or face the Elders. You will then have twenty minutes to reach the Landing Stage in order to transfer to the Real World, where the Deadlock takes place. A warning: No one will see you, but they can feel your Presence, and they will also be affected by the powers you were given upon arrival. No power is the same, and can only be used for this game."
"I have powers?! Neat!" Someone exclaimed from a distance, interrupting the announcement. The grin faded from his face when we looked at him. Oh, right. I'm dead now, he realized.
Althea sniffed. This place is full of idiots. "Complete all three tasks within the time limit given for each. The winner will be the last surviving Pact or, if there are more than one, then the first to reach the Last Destination." She stopped. Her thoughts were drowned out by all the others', I couldn't pick it out.
"The prize is a Revival of Lives for that Pact. You will return amongst the Living."
And suddenly, everyone couldn't breathe. This was the ultimate prize. It meant going back to what once was, if only they could win.
I wanted to go back and hunt down my killer. Demand why he or she did this to me.
"One last thing. Death Mask is looking over you."
Death Mask? Who was that?
There was a buzz of noise, and then I felt a spark of vibration. My hand was suddenly wearing an inky-black bracelet gilded with silver. As I watched, glowing purple letters flashed from the blank background, ticking down the seconds. 5…4…3…2…1…
Beep. Beep. Beep.
The '1' blinked on and off. I stared at it, completely oblivious to everything else, the gasps, the baffled reactions…
Okay, so maybe I wasn't as oblivious as I'd thought.
The '1' froze in place for a very long time. And then it disappeared and changed.
A panel descended down out of nowhere, numbers in red visible from here. 59:45.
The minute had begun.
I immediately grabbed the arm of the girl beside me. "Maxine, right? Would you please form a Pact with me?" I asked her urgently. Please, say yes.
She nodded. Behind us, there was the sound of running feet. "Come on," she said, speaking normally. "Let's find another."
A hand shot out to grab my shoulder. I reflexively twisted around and found myself looking at a young man with thick dark hair and green eyes. He seemed out of breath. "Another one's here. Will you make a Pact with me?"
I glanced at Maxine. She squeezed my hand, conveying her assent.
There was a sudden burst of smoke near us, and a figure appeared amidst it. His face was shadowed, and he wore a long red cloak tied with a gold cord. Tattoos ran along his arms. "Pact confirmed," he intoned.
I looked at the panel. 10 seconds left. When I looked back down, I was wearing a shirt, shorts, and running shoes. Maxine was in a similar get-up, while the mystery guy was dressed in pants instead of shorts.
0 seconds. Cages suddenly fell from overhead, trapping those that had not formed a Pact in time. Their shrieks filled the air as they were lifted upwards. Maxine, who had not let go of me yet, tightened her grip.
The figure clicked his fingers and produced a flame, a dragon's head rearing out of it. Then it shot out from his fingers and touched my hand, creating a tattoo of a dragon along my arm. My companions were given similar ones. And then the dull outlines sparked and were replaced by vivid red and gold hues.
"You must find the Landing Stage. The only clue I can give you is that it is found in the direction where the dragon yearns to go." Before we could stop him, clarify some things, he disappeared.
Maxine gulped as the panel switched to twenty minutes. "Where does the dragon want to go?" She sounded panicked. "O, Dragon, please tell us---"she began, talking to her tattoo.
"Come on," the guy hissed, grabbing our hands and tugging us along, breaking out into a run as the other Pacts surged all around us, heading for different directions.
"How do you know where to go?" I yelled above the none-too-quiet shouts and arguments.
"Remember what the guy said? That we should head for wherever the dragon yearns to go?" he called to me over his shoulder.
"Yeah. But I don't see anything special about it."
"Look at your tattoo. The eyes," he instructed.
Automatically, Maxine and I scanned the finely-drawn eyes of the dragon. "I don't see---Oh!"
Upon closer inspection, the eyes were not just dark random lines. It was a repeating chain of words: Head West.
"How do we know this is West?" Maxine asked, panting a little.
I could see the guy's grin. "Didn't you see the panel earlier? At the very top, there was a cross with four arrows. With labels."
I shook my head. "Glad I didn't turn you down," I commented.
"You didn't have much choice anyway," he replied.
We poured on the speed as a platform to a row of glass-paneled domes came into view. We had about ten minutes left. Plenty of time.
That is, before we were stopped short at the sight of wicked red creatures rising up from the ground.
"What are these things?!"
Before I could try to stop them or at least read what they were thinking, three of them circled Maxine. She shrieked and jumped up and down, flailing to keep them away. Mystery Guy's eyebrows pulled together in concentration.
Out of nowhere came sound waves that hurt my ears---and the creatures. They clapped their hands over pointed ears, and we quickly ran to a glass dome. The doors slid open and we stumbled inside, hearing it whir closed. Words were illuminated on a screen.
PREPARING FOR TAKE-OFF.
"Whew." Maxine was still pale-faced but she looked better. "Thanks."
Mystery Guy shrugged. "It's nothing. No big deal."
"Okay, what's your name?" I said, turning on him. "I mean, I can't keep labeling you as 'Mystery Guy', you know?"
He gave me a dazzling smile. "True. Well, my name is Christophe Anderson,"
Dazzling smile. Sound manipulation. Good sense of humor. This guy was really something.
"I'm Maxine Belwick," Maxine offered.
"And I am Tanya Crosshunt."
The screen now displayed TAKE-OFF.
Hold on tight.
Before I could pinpoint the source of that warning, there was a shuddering jolt. I could feel it unlocking itself from whatever held it in place. The dome was finally moving.
All analysis and sanity vanished, one thought dominant above all.
The ride was over before we knew it. The glass doors opened. We stepped outside.
We were back in the Real World, the world of the Living.