How long Jàl stood mesmerized by the strange habits of his enemies and the perpetual fluttering of a stories tall building, became irrelevant. Time suddenly refused to advance. The gathering of Verge spread across the street side of the fluctuating structure stretching several deep. Jàl wanted to retrace his steps and peer into the exposed depths of the foundation to see what held the monster’s interest but found his feet refused to obey.
A trance like state settled over the proceedings. The Verge numbers multiplied, exposed by the on again, off again veiling of the high-rise under siege. A repeating loop that grew more oblique with each rotation. This thought challenged Jàl’s mind. And to escape it…
A gust of cold wind from the closed end of the alley ruffled his hair. The drop in pressure broke Jàl from his trance. He spun around. A spectre of white danced in the shadows. A ghostly hand beckoned while haunting whispers rode the breeze closing the receptors of his mind to the strange goings on behind.
Jàl blinked. The fluttering of eyelids relieved the strain of burning eyes. The fingers of the breeze ransomed a release from the hypnotic transitions of the building’s stasis and the hold it held over him. With muscles freed, one step bled into the next.
At the feathered edge of transition blending daylight and shadows, the semblance of a face floated at eye level and mimicked Jàl’s searching advances. The illusive globe stood within a fingers reach, the slip of a spirit teased with a glimpse of the coveted prize. The indecipherable coding masking the globe’s features melted away revealing a face Jàl recognized.
A pair of appraising eyes peered back from the avatar he’d met but days ago, on an earlier visit to this dreamt up reality. Ree-al, the Daemon accosted while escaping from a previous level with an injured Roake, stood not more than a couple feet away. Jàl shook the confusion from his over-compensating brain.
“Am I missing something,” the words dribbled from his mouth. “If you are the globe, why did you not reveal this when we met the last time?”
“The information I am tasked with gathering, my job, is not complete. At that time I did not fully understand the ramifications the usage of such knowledge would bring. Now, I am fully versed.” The Wraith answered in a tone void of feeling and inflection.
“Understandable,” Jàl agreed then waved an arm over the walls and streets looming only a short distance from the alleys walls. The realistic renderings leading to the alley, now an almost complete imitation of what he believed the ancient world to resemble. “It seems you’ve completed your mission. The information I loosed the algorithms to retrieve… it waits out there.” He pointed back up the alley. “Your part of the programming is full filled.”
“Perhaps,” the avatar stated. “Unforeseen errors have complicated matters. A virus has invaded this dimension and until it is rectified I must remain relevant. You must also remain until I can determine a solution to the conundrum that now exists.”
“What? The Verge? They’re not a virus,” A snort of laughter borne of pent up tension spurted from Jàl’s lips at the preposterous assumption. He found it difficult to believe the Globe mistook the programmed annoyances as anything more than they were, an obstacle of training.
“You are wrong,” the Globe retorted. “Open your mind and I will show you the truth.”
A trickle of worry leaked into Jàl’s head worming past the wash of whispered promises from the Globe. The Globe was one with the mainframe and in the past, whenever his mind surfed the grid….
The pull to join the Globe increased. Jàl closed his eyes in an effort to block the Avatar’s control of his mind. Lights dazzled in the darkness behind his sealed eyelids. A film of sweat built on his forehead. The tickle of a drop being pulled downward by gravity lighted the minute nerve endings hidden below his skin. The itch, cast of the bead of perspiration, opened the sliver of worry wider.
Overlaid by the spell of ethereal whispers, an unsettling clamour echoed into the narrow opening leading from the street. Jàl shook off the Globe’s mystical power, willing his head to swing around toward the roar of sound. His heart rate increased. In-between the mist filled void left by the fluctuating structure, he caught snatches of movement as the Verge pulled free of the bind connecting them to the wonder of the open foundation. With each heart beat he saw the monsters shuffle toward the mouth of the alley and slowly march in his direction.
“The Verge are not the virus. They are not the threat of which I speak. Your journey ends here, now. Your way back may not follow your path forward.” A chill ran the length of Jàl’s spine at the Daemon’s icy warning. Precious time needed to decipher the Daemon’s words elapsed as the tentacles of the apparition’s hold on his mind severed. When he turned back, the Wraith had vanished. A multitude of questions crashed his mind for the meaning left behind by the Globe.
A thundering echo of shrill cries and guttural wails re-focused his thoughts. His reason for entering the alley came soaring back. The gamble of a doorway into the groundliers lair hiding within this brick tunnel surfaced more as a prayer than a curiosity. A quick last glance at the approaching horde of Verge sent Jàl scampering deeper into the shadows blanketing the bricked end of the alley.
Standing at the sealed end of the tunnel, he rubbed his hands across the coarse surface of brick and mortar with little expectation. Again, the darkness refused to reveal the doorway Jàl believed existed. He turned his head for a quick scan of the surroundings before raising his eyes to search the tops of the buildings. The light source lit the back of a building to his right. Jàl calmed his mind and reviewed his options.
The first was a no starter. He could summon a light to release the door but the actions would leave him at the mercy of the Verge. This time Roake was not around to rush him through the open gateway. Jàl’s foot began a slow tapping on the road. The rhythm increased in tempo as he surfed the recesses of his mind.
The growing cantations of the slow marching beasts caused the hairs on his body to stand. With each closing shriek, he felt the blood in his veins thicken. The beat of his heart thumped louder. Withdrawing inward, Jàl sensed the blood at his feet warm as it started its journey upward. The cells pulsed in rhythm with his heart, the two increasing in tempo as his mind fought off panic from the threat entering the mouth of the alley.
Jàl welcomed the adrenaline using the rising courage to push away the web of fear. He brought forward the strength required to recode the outcome. Calculations flooded his thoughts while his eyes drank in the myriad of details impeded in the walled tunnel. Tilting his head upward, he studied the angle of light blocked by the protruding buildings.
A stream of bits and bytes washed over his mind. Their intensity climbing along side his concern for Roake and his rage at being cornered by the Verge. The need for light and also the ability to move when the gateway appeared produced answers that ran parallel to one another. Then a third option scraped across the front of his brain. It was so obvious that he wondered why it never surfaced earlier.
The immense heat from a particle rifle tickled at the boundary of his conscious. The super heated air of the blasters beam burned deep into his lungs. Jàl squeezed his lids tighter in concentration. Drifting into the labyrinths of his mind, off-shoots of his thoughts sorted screens of passing codes and departmentalized his brain activity while he mentally slowed the march of time. His breathing eased, relaxed and faint.
An explosion of white light flared behind his sealed eyelids. A cleansing light called upon to erase the last images captured and trapped on the front of his brain moments before his eyes locked out the threatening world. Jàl imagined a blank screen, clean and scrubbed of all distractions from the darkest corners of his mind. The further he submersed, the quieter the cries of the Verge became until their threat dissolved with the digital environment.
When the screen was wiped clean, Jàl lay the seeds for a new foundation born of his imagination. The alley re-materialized with the compilation of a single edifice at first. Bricks and mortar stacked on one another, rising row upon row until they stretched the length and height of the old tunnel. The exception this time, the artificial light overhead caressed the crevices forced into shadow by the previous rendering.
On one wall, a cascade of light flushed the minute details from the brick façade. Slowly, inch by inch, the outline of a door tugged at the digital structure as the alley slowly re-bloomed. The opening worked free of his thoughts. The faux wood rearranging the previous configuration of the supporting materials.
While the alley reformed to the image Jàl held in his mind, the beasts, in their brownish sagging skin and large bulging eyes, awoke with the returning program. Along with the digital reproduction came the other entities of the games program. The building over Jàl’s left shoulder shuddered as it took its place on the waiting foundation. The structure shorter now by several stories. The result, the artificial light produced by the games conception shone brightly on the wall facing Jàl.
Cries of anger and…fright. The roar of the Verge rose to thundering volumes in the close confines of the walled alley, the blasts of anger carried a…softer, more subtle tone if such a thing was possible. The cries and shrieks assaulting Jàl’s ears sounded more like pleas of distress. Again, if digital characters had the ability to such feelings.
Curiosity forced Jàl around to face the oncoming squad of lumbering beasts. The awkward bodies swayed in a mismatched rhythm. The Verge downcast faces portraying a somber…pleading. To Jàl’s ears the cries begged for him to understand. The sprouts of a knowing smile lifted the edge of his lips. A clever trick by the Verge, he reasoned. Change tactics to confuse him while they regained the upper hand.
Jàl forced his mind back to the mission. The outline of the doorway stared back. Several moments hesitation passed until he imagined the warm breath of the monster on the back of his neck. A thoughtless gesture swung his hand to the back of his neck to swat away the imagined warmth while the rest of his brain worked to calm his breathing but yet allow him the courage to place a hand forward and test the door knob.
A flash of light burst past his head and scorched the bricks. The return to reality jumped his nerves. Jàl’s hand shot forward and twisted. The knob moved easily. The door swung inwards. A brief glimpse of the other side overwhelmed his senses. One step brought him close to the opening. The second step moved him across the dimension. Oddly, he remembered hearing the wooden door slam shut before a wash of liquid light stole his consciousness.