Crimson High

A Dante Morell Mystery

Chapter One – Instinct

Dante awoke in a cold, dark cellar. His vision was ringed with blurred shadows as he rose from the freezing concrete floor. Adjusting his eyes to the darkness, Dante blinked several times. His head was fuzzy with the feeling of unfamiliarity. He did not know where was, he didn't think he had ever been here before. No, he was sure he had never been here before. This dank basement held no place in his memories. So why was he here?

Finally adjusting to the lack of light, his eyes swept the room for clues. Any indication of where he was could help. His gaze alighted on a table not far from his reach. Stumbling over to it, Dante scanned the stacks of papers on its surface, finding a peculiar envelope. It was red, like blood. Attempting to pry open the dry seal, Dante was having trouble opening the envelope. With a forceful rip, he sloppily opened the scarlet letter and examined its contents. A note slipped out into his hands, and he held it between two shaking fingers.

It was addressed to him.

"This letter is addressed to me?" Dante wondered in his thoughts, "H-how could a letter be addressed to me in a place I've never been before?"

Curious, Dante read the note.


Congratulations! You are one of the chosen few who have been selected to participate in a contest! However, before the game begins, I need to make sure your mind is up to the challenge. You will find the door on the other side of the room is locked. If you can successfully find a way out, then you are truly ready for the tasks that lay ahead.

The note was not signed, and Dante let the paper fall from his fingers onto the table.

"What the hell is this?" Dante wondered in his head, his eighteen year-old mind racing with perplexed thoughts.

Then he smelled it, something acrid and foul. Turning around, Dante clamped his hands over his mouth in horror. There were vents in the floor and in the ceiling, and they were currently pouring white smoke into the room. Not having time to process the sudden intrusion of smoke, Dante turned around as a beeping sound began on the other side of the room.

The note had been true about one thing. There was indeed a door on the other side of the room. Above it, a digital clock was ticking down. It had begun at 5:00, but was currently showing 4:56.

Combining the smell of the gas with the ominous timer, Dante presumed his life was on the line. Racing to the door, the horrified teen grasped the metal handle with both hands. It was locked. Pushing or pulling yielded the same result. A fevered panic setting in, Dante pinched his arm, hoping he was within some macabre dream. He certainly felt the pain, and he winced as his fears were confirmed.

This was indeed reality, and he needed to heed the note's orders. If he did not escape this room within five minutes, something horrible could happen to him.

Breathing in and out, Dante controlled his labored breaths. He focused his mind, letting the worry wash away. He could not find a way out in a frenzy, he needed to stay calm. Exhaling one last time, he checked the timer. Four and a half minutes remained to escape the room, and Dante began his search.

Since the door yielded escape, promising to take him onward, Dante considered that direction north. He did so because north meant forward, it represented hope. The only object on this north wall was the heavy metal door, which Dante inspected closely. A reader for a key card was present, allowing Dante to imagine some sort of card was required to open the door. Determining the solution to the puzzle was finding the key, Dante set out to examine the remaining contents of the table.

It was metal, and stood on four thin legs. It was the only piece of furniture in the middle of the room, and Dante rummaged through the papers, looking for some sort of clue. His search resulted in nothing. The only things on the table were the crimson envelope and note he had found, along with complicated documents he had no time to read.

Turning about, Dante moved on to the east wall. This seemed logical to him, for the east wall was clockwise from the north one which held the door. Inspecting everything pushed up against this wall, Dante noted three important features. There were a set of metal filing cabinets, two black towers with five cabinets apiece. This made for ten cabinets in all. He tried each cabinet, finding all of them locked. The topmost cabinet on the left tower had a slot for a key in it, but Dante was lacking the key at the moment.

Moving on, he examined the second feature on the east wall. There was a round, plastic bin, and two cardboard boxes stacked on top of the bin. Placing the boxes on the floor, Dante turned the plastic bin upside down and shook it. Nothing fell out, resulting in another empty search. Opening the cardboard boxes, Dante searched around inside of them, finding something interesting.

His fingers wrapped around a shiny blue disc. Removing it from the box, Dante wondered what purpose it served. Deciding it had to be important, he placed the disc on the table.

The third interesting thing on the east wall was a stack of rotting wooden boards. Lifting them up, Dante inspected them with a quick scan. He found that one of them had a loose nail hanging out of them. Thinking that perhaps his captor lay beyond the door, Dante worked the nail free from the wood and dropped it into the pocket of his jeans. With the east wall inspected, Dante moved on to the south one.

Four minutes remained, and Dante realized the white smoke was now past his ankles. He needed to move quickly if he wanted to live.

On the south wall rested a long metal desk and a computer monitor from about ten years ago. It was large and bulky, and a clunky office keyboard lay in front of it. Kneeling down, Dante opened the desk to reveal a main computer, to which the monitor was hooked up to.

Pressing the button to open the disc drive, Dante smiled as the computer hummed to life. He turned back to the table and grabbed the disc, placing it into the computer. He waited for a moment or two, and the monitor buzzed with activity. The screen displayed a downloading stage, and Dante gulped for a moment as the download began. He didn't have time for a whole download to occur.

However, the process was quick, and the data was download onto the computer in moments. Accessing the internal data, Dante opened the information from the disc and was struck with confusion.

It was a simple screen from a drawing application. The background was blinding white, and in bright red letters, the numbers 1, 3, 4, 1 stared back at him. Swallowing the growing lump in his throat, Dante wiped his forehead with the sleeve of his hoodie. He had no idea what these numbers meant, and decided to leave the monitor on that screen while he turned to the west wall.

He had three minutes remaining, and the tendrils of pearly smoke curled up his leg. He broke into a sweat, and his black hair felt wet with perspiration.

On the west wall, two objects stood out to him. One was a large black box with a handle, and the other was something that looked like a toolkit. Approaching the box, Dante inspected the handle. It was worn and rusty, and looked like it was decaying. Trying to open the door, Dante cursed as he met no results. His eyes darted to the toolkit, an idea forming in his brain.

He smiled as his eyes alighted on a crowbar. Removing the iron bar from the toolkit, Dante turned back to the black box. Wedging the crowbar in between the surface of the box and the handle, Dante gave it a strong thrust.

The handle popped off, clattering to the ground and disrupting the cloud of white smoke with a loud bang. The chilling sound of metal reverberated around the clammy cellar, and Dante grabbed the door of the black box, wedging it open.

Staring at the contents inside, Dante gulped as he found himself staring at a safe. It was locked with a four-digit padlock, and Dante needed the numbers.

"Of course!" He thought to himself. Whipping around, the teen made way for the monitor. Inspecting the screen, he remembered the order of the four numbers. Returning to the safe, Dante punched in the four numbers in the following order.

1, 3, 4, 1.

With a green light, the safe popped open. Breathing a sigh of relief, Dante took the object inside and looked at the timer.

He had just over two minutes remaining.

He looked down at what lay in his hand. It was a tiny key, and he realized what is was meant for. The smoke was now around his thighs, and he waded through it towards the filing cabinets. He inserted the key into the hole on the topmost cabinet of the left tower. Sliding it open with a victorious grin, Dante removed a thick manila folder. Dropping it on the table like a handful of hot coals, Dante quickly skimmed through the pages searching for any hint as to how he could escape this room.

There, in between the final two pages, was a purple and black card. It was thick and made of plastic. The letter, "D" was emblazoned upon the card in elegant script. Dante frowned, thinking the letter was there to represent his name. Whoever had placed him in here had personalized this card for him, and Dante didn't appreciate it.

He had one minute left. The white cloud of toxic smoke floated at his waist, and he could feel the noxious fumes stinging his skin. He crossed over to the door, swiped the card in the slot, and breathed a heavy sigh as a green light flashed upon the card reader. The door swung open with a sad groan, signaling escape.

Not looking back, Dante burst forth from the room, slamming the door behind him. He wanted to make sure the deadly smoke could not follow him, and he did so by barricading it within. Looking ahead now, Dante realized a set of grey stairs faced him. They were made of the same material as the concrete floor, and Dante tentatively placed his foot on the first step. His red and white tennis shoes connected with the chilled concrete, and he placed another foot forward.

Deciding up was the only way to get some answers, Dante climbed the stairs and continued along until he found a door. Hoping this one wasn't locked, he gave it a try and surprisingly found it unlocked. Swinging it open, he held an arm over his eyes. He hadn't been prepared for the flood of light that burnt his retinas, and he staggered out into wherever the door lead.

Once again, his eyes had trouble adjusting to the intense change in light. For a moment, he blinked rapidly, fighting to see past the blinding veil that obscured his vision. It took perhaps half a minute for his eyes to fully adjust to the light. When they did, he was surprised at his surroundings.

He stood in an elegant hallway, the floor carpeted with red velvet. The walls were papered with ornate patterns, running down the length of the hall. The walls were lined with sconces, various nuances of light splashing across the hall.

The first thing Dante noticed however, was the temperature. Glad he had his hoodie with him, he shivered and shoved his hands into the front pocket of the hooded jacket, shielding them from the wintry temperatures. His teeth chattered as he scanned the room. Noticing the hall broke off around the corner, making a right turn, Dante decided he had to follow it.

Cautiously walking down the hall, Dante stopped at the sight of a custodial closet. He attempted to open the door, but met a solid lock. Nodding without surprise, Dante continued onward until he found similar doors marked with industrial signs. He figured he had to be in some sort of supply hall where cleaning equipment and files were kept. The room he had just left had been some sort of storage room, he figured.

The potential possibility of this being a storage wing meant he was in a much larger building than he had anticipated. If a whole hallway was devoted to cleaning supplies and documents, then there must be a lot to archive and a lot to clean. Continuing down the hall, Dante tried every door he came across, similarly discovering they were all locked.

He finally arrived at the right turn, and took it. Upon turning, he was absolutely stunned.

The hall deposited into a brilliant foyer. A massive crystal chandelier hung from the beautifully painted ceiling. Cupid and the cherubim danced across the painted ceiling, smiling down with rosy cheeks at Dante. Four ornate columns made of monolithic marble stood in the four corners of the room, perhaps more for display than for support, Dante believed.

Plush couches decorated the walls, with verdant plants sprouting from antique clay pots next to them. The floor was a polished to perfection, the black and white diamonds of marble sparkling with a sheen luster. The marvelous perfection of this room captured Dante in a sort of surprise that made him feel inadequate. He did not belong in this room. His red and white sneakers, his tight black jeans, the shoddy grey hoodie with his favorite rock band on it, compared to the elegance of this room, made him look insignificant.

Embarrassment seeped into every pore of his body. One would not normally be embarrassed if they were alone, but Dante was not alone.

For in the middle of the foyer, squabbling like clucking hens, stood a group of fourteen teenagers just like Dante, each one equally as puzzled over their whereabouts. Each one shouted ideas, espousing panic and despair in every word. Some were more fervent than others, speaking their minds while discarding the notions of the meek. However, all of them paused when Dante appeared.

They trained their eyes on him like a hungry pack of wolves. From hazel to azure, each set of irises took him in. He noticed looks of disdain, perhaps targeting his clothing, but he also noticed warm looks of invitation.

"Fifteen, huh?" Someone spoke up, a male voice.

"Ah," another male voice spoke calmly, "The men seem outnumber the women."

His voice was full of something Dante could not describe, but would later learn was money. His voice was full of money.

"Are you alright?" A female voice cried in worry, the owner pushing through the crowd and appearing at the front of the line. She had soft features about her. Mousy hips that swayed when she walked. A ghostly pallor was attributed to her face, but it looked more purposeful than a result of an introverted nature. Her eyes with grey, to the point they appeared to be a soft shade of milky lavender in the light. A small mouth rested under a curled nose, lips a soft peach. She wore a blue sweater and black leggings. A matching knit scarf was wrapped around her neck, and sapphire earrings dangled from her small ears. Her complexion was without a single blemish, and her caramel hair was tied in a loose ponytail that swayed as she approached Dante.

"I asked if you were alright," she reiterated, snapping Dante from his trance.

"Oh, I-I'm fine," he answered dumbly.

No one said anything for a little bit.

"He said he's fine," the boy who spoke up first stated, "Which means none of us are injured."

Something struck Dante as odd. If the other fourteen were checking for injuries, then they had something to fear. If Dante could take a guess, he would assume they all woke to similar circumstances.

"Did anyone else have to escape a room?" Dante inquired, his statement met with fourteen discordant cries.

All of the answers were in the affirmative.

"Instead of tripping over one another's words," The boy who spoke second said with a sharp touch of disdain, "I believe we should introduce ourselves. From there, we can get a better grip on the situation."

"Wait a minute!" Another boy cried, "What if this…this person who took us, what if he doesn't know our names? We could endanger our families by giving away information!"

"Are you dim?" The boy who offered the introductions snapped, "If we all awoke to similar conditions, then all of us found a letter with our name printed on it."

Everyone nodded in agreement.

"Which means our sick host knows our names," he concluded.

Dante agreed. If whoever had done this knew their names already, it couldn't hurt to introduce themselves.

"Since I had the wits to prove you wrong," the boy continued with a sneer, "I'll go first."

Dante felt something bite at his skin when this boy spoke. It was like a million gnats pecked at his flesh. Something about this boy struck Dante as annoying and spoiled.

He struck Dante as rich.

Dante had no qualms with the elite, but he carried a predisposed notion that they were an entitled and smug class. Taking pleasure in proving others incorrect, as the boy had done, was something Dante viewed as immoral. He didn't hate the boy, but he wasn't going to allow him to continue this charade as their unspoken leader.

"My name is Oris Oakmont," the boy said with panache. He wore a green jacket over a black dress shirt with a tie. Golden buttons clasped the jacket together over his stomach. He had silvery hair that ran a river down the side of his face, his green eyes penetrating the crowd cruelly.

The boy who had opposed Oris over the matter of introducing one another spoke next.

"I'm Daniel Tanoko," he smiled. He had straight black hair swept to one side, exposing his chillingly blue eyes. He wore super skinny jeans tucked into black combat boots and a black leather jacket. His plain white tee stood out against the otherwise black ensemble. Dante noted he was an Asian-American.

A behemoth of a man spoke next. He wore a tight-fitting grey shirt and loose denim jeans. He had bulging muscles on his arms, and a cleft chin that he held above the others as he spoke. His wispy blonde hair came down in a sweeping arc over his heavy brow.

"The name's Ransom Grey," he spoke with a voice like tough iron.

Expecting another male voice to introduce himself, Dante was a bit shocked by the interjection of an annoyed female tone.

"I'm Minerva Li," the young woman said, she too, Asian like Daniel. Her bountiful black hair was piled in a lustrous set of braids upon her head, and her slate grey eyes cut daggers into Oris. His smug demeanor was met with Minerva's cold tenacity. She wore a white tank top and green harem pants that stopped at her ankles. Jade earrings dangled from her ears and golden sandals complimented bangles of the same color on her wrists.

Feeling empowered by Minerva's declaration, another female introduced herself.

"I'm Amethyst," a busty young woman with a vest too tight explained, "But you all can call me Amy, everyone does." She had luscious brown hair that snaked down her back like a river of chocolate. Her intense blue eyes were lined with heavy make-up, as if she were trying all too hard to impress someone. Her skin glowed with an olive radiance, having been exposed to the sun for years.

A stunning girl spoke up after Amy. She had bright blonde hair that shone with an electric luster. Her hazel eyes met Dante's as she smiled at him from across the room. She wore a shimmering pink shirt, along with gossamer golden pants. She had the appearance of a dancer, and wore tall heels.

"I'm Challis," she introduced herself, "Challis Glennly."

Behind her, a boy who looked a lot like her spoke up. He had bleach blonde hair that swung to one side like a rugged surfer. His tanned skin beamed in the brilliant light. He was tall and built, his chiseled faces possessing many defined angles. His high cheekbones made him attractive, drawing attention to his unnatural eyes. They were purple.

"My name's Avery Reid," he said with a killer smile, "And they're contacts."

He addressed the issue as if it had been on everyone's mind. His aura gave off an expectant vibe, as if Avery was used to being the center of attention.

It made Dante uneasy.

"My name's Dahlia," a girl with dark skin spoke. Her ebony complexion complimented her golden attire, making her look like a princess to Dante. She had tumbling black hair that came down her chest in shiny ringlets. She wore a golden dress and matching heels, complete with bangles much like Minerva's. Her eyes were a kind of misty grey, the kind that gave off an aura of mystery.

"Dahlia White," she finished.

Next to her, a girl with butchered hair cracked a wary smile. Her hair was bright blue, dyed obviously. Her eyes matched her hair, and she had a pinched nose that made her appear to be smelling something foul. She wore a green knit shirt and stained denim jeans tucked into dusty boots. Her appearance was difficult to take in, she looked pained when she spoke.

"The name is Zoe Winter," she announced, looking as if she expected applause.

The next person to speak Dante marked as a glutton. He was grotesquely overweight, with greasy brown hair that made Dante think of an oily walrus. His face was round and covered in freckles. He had beady eyes behind wire-framed glasses that looked at the others as if they were a meal. His clothes were straining to keep his body contained, the buttons on the blue blazer he wore exposing some of his bulging flesh.

"I'm Chauncey Drake," the boy pointed at himself, smiling with an odd confidence.

"Maximillian Wargrave," the next boy announced, looking no more than fourteen to Dante. He had on nice clothes however, like he was going to a dance or something. His dress shirt collar was undone, and his tie was loose. His shirt wasn't tucked in either, as if he had been in the middle of changing clothes and then rushed off.

"My friends call me Max."

A girl next to Minerva spoke with a timid stammer.

"M-my name is Chastity," she said finally, her bright red hair slithering down her chest like salamandrine fires. Freckles stood out on her snowy complexion, and she smiled rather awkwardly. She wore a red swimming jacket and a white undershirt with green running shorts. Her tennis shoes gave her the complete look of someone ready to go for a jog.

"Do you have a last name?" Minerva asked a bit rudely.

"Rosewood," she gulped, forcing out the answer.

Dante realized this left only himself and the girl as the ones who hadn't introduced themselves.

Wait, that wasn't right. Behind the group, leaning up against one of the columns, was a boy garbed in all black. His sandy blonde hair stuck out from underneath his hood, and his yellow eyes leered out like a cat's.

"What about you?" Amy cocked her head, "Don't you have a name?"

"Not that it matters," the boy huffed, "I won't be here long enough to merit introducing myself. If you insist on calling me something, call me Night."

Everyone was a bit stunned by his acidic attitude, but Amy shrugged it off and turned her back to them.

"That leaves you two," she pointed both fingers at the girl and Dante.

"Who?" The girl pointed at herself, "Me?"

Amy nodded with a small smile.

"My name's Vivian Childs," the girl introducing herself, turning to Dante.

"Who are you?"

It was a simple question, but Dante couldn't bring himself to answer it. When he was finished, they would have to turn to the matter at hand, something he wasn't sure he could face just yet.

Opening up his mouth, saying nothing for a few moments, Dante finally answered.

"I'm Dante Morell," he replied.

As he said his name, the lights in the foyer suddenly flickered off. A chorus of discordant cries rose from the group. Engulfing them in black, they were swallowed by the darkness.