Author's Note: Oh, dear. How did this happen? Well, a sudden burst of inspiration (probably brought on mostly by the happy-glow from so many nice reviewers, thank you) and some free time produced this short but nevertheless quickly written chapter. It's more of a transition than anything else, and I had intended it to be longer, but something made me end it where I did. I'm not satisfied with how it came out, but oh well. Hope it doesn't disappoint too terribly.

(Oh, and for those of you who weren't sure, a crow's nest is the lookout area attached to the mast of a ship. :3)


The Spider's Web

Chapter Eighteen
White Noise

When Sydney awoke, alone and unharmed, in the small, white room, her first reaction was utter disorientation. It took a panicked moment for her to remember that she was still within the game, and then a few more to remember what had last happened. The crow's nest—the storm—everything stopping—the Game Master. The thoughts sped along, connected and somewhat in order, until they hit that bump. The Game Master … he had … well, he had said some strange things, and then he had … kissed her. The thought sent a cold rush through her, followed immediately by a hot one. She could feel her face burning and knew it must be glowing red.

The fact that the Game Master had kissed her wasn't really what embarrassed her, she forced herself to realize. It was the fact that they had kissed—that she had kissed back. It had felt nice … oh, more than nice, more than … it had just felt. And not only that, but it had seemed like, for that brief time, everything made sense. There weren't any mysteries anymore, any mixed signals or unknown intentions. Everything had solved itself in the span of a single kiss … or, maybe, none of it had mattered anymore.

But then, of course, those brief moments of revelation were fleeting. They had unsolved themselves somewhere between the end of the kiss and … the fall. The cold feeling came again and her heart leapt into her throat as the memory of falling returned quickly to her. Falling through cold air, racing the raindrops down, down to the ship deck below. He had dropped her. The Game Master had dropped her, and she had fallen, screaming, and then …

And then she was here. She had been an instant away from breaking her body on the deck of the ship, and then suddenly she had awoken in this white room, lying on a comfortable sofa and curled slightly to one side. Had she … died? Sydney blinked up at the blank ceiling, at last returning her thoughts to the present, and she sat up slowly. Unconsciously, she touched at her lips, as if trying to catch that lost feeling. She couldn't feel the kiss anymore, certainly, but the memory of it was as clear and bright as fire. The look in his eyes—the gentle lips, brushing, seeking—a hand holding her cheek—

—the terrifying fall.

Abruptly, Sydney stood, her lips pulled tight. Fine, so the Game Master was one hell of a kisser, but he was still a complete and utter bastard. Even if she had even a minute attraction towards him physically, there was no way she felt anything for him emotionally. Besides the huge and glaring roadblock of him being a bastard, there was still the fact that she knew virtually nothing about him. For all she knew, that kiss had been his idea of a joke!

… but it hadn't been, she knew. She wasn't sure how she knew, but she did. Maybe it had simply been too intense to be anything but real.

With an aggravated sound, she looked around the small room. It was strangely circular, with an equally circular couch running around the perimeter, breaking only for a small door. Everything was white, almost blindingly so, and she wondered for the first time exactly where she was. She was dressed in her normal clothes, the one she wore into the game and in the starting field, so she couldn't be in a game scenario. At least she wasn't wearing that stupid dress again.

The central table had several cases on it, and she picked one of them up and opened it only to discover that it was filled with magazines. Teen magazines, gaming magazines, sports magazines, and so on. They held no interest for Sydney, though, so she shoved them back inside and made her way to the only other point of interest in the room: a series of small monitors set into the wall. There was a single, innocent button on the side, which she pressed, and the monitors suddenly came to life—only to display visual static. Frowning, Sydney watched the scattered black and white pixels. Was it broken? At least there was no sound.

Just when she was about to give up and go try the door instead, the monitors turned black and then burst into color. Green and blue—so vibrant compared to lack of color around her—dominated the images. Each screen was different, and she glanced between them, looking at the different figures. Players. Some were solitary, some were in pairs, and they all wore strange outfits. Robes and armor seemed prominent, complete with staffs and swords, respectively. On one screen, she picked out the form of what she guessed to be Dominick, decked out in wizard robes—identifiable mostly by his green hair.

It seemed to be a fantasy game. Was this the next scenario? If it was, then that meant she was … what, not playing this one?

An abrupt knocking sound startled her, and she instinctively turned towards the sound. The door stared back at her innocently. Another knock came, more insistent than the last, and it finally prompted her into action. Without really thinking about it, she stepped around the table, gripped the knob, and opened the door.

There was no one there.

Confused, she stuck her head out into the hall and glanced from side to side. It was nothing more than a short hallway with white walls and carpets like the room, and it led right and left before turning a corner after only a few feet to each side. And it was utterly empty.

Narrowing her eyes, she slowly stepped back inside the room and closed the door behind her, but she kept her hand on the doorknob. It was just a guess, and a paranoid one at that, but …. When the knocking came again, she immediately shoved the door open, determined to catch whoever was doing it … but the hallway was still empty. And now she looked like a fool.

She stepped out into the hallway, thoroughly annoyed now, and peered around either corner. There didn't seem to be anything there, but the light faded after several feet past each corner, leaving the rest of the hall in darkness. Sydney turned back to the room she had left, giving up on the issue, and she almost had a heart attack when the door slammed in her face just before she stepped back inside.

Tentatively, she tried the handle, but it wouldn't give. Adrenaline still rushed loudly in her ears, and then she became aware of another loud sound. Knocking. Coming from inside.

It was teasing her! She tugged the knob harder, but the knocking only increased in volume, and at last she submitted to childish irritation and kicked the door. It felt good—up until the laughter started. It wasn't coming from inside the room, at least, but instead it came from all around. Deep and rich and very undeniably belonging to …

… the Game Master.

Of course. Only he could be this annoying.

Still facing the door, she gripped the handle tightly and spat, "Something funny, bastard?"

The laughter faded slightly into an amused, "Oh, quite."

Sydney spun around, sure the reply had come from behind her, but the hall was still empty. Then a flash of red disappeared around the left corner, and she automatically followed it into the darkness of the hallway. It took her several steps into the blackness to come back to her senses and wonder what she thought she was doing, chasing a bit of red like a cat chasing a piece of yarn. What did she want to do? Ask the Game Master why he had kissed her? Punch his lights out? Kiss him again? Immediately, she smothered that last thought and began, instead, to trace her steps backwards in the dark

And then a hand brushed her waist, first from behind, then from in front, and she was so surprised that she spun around, disorienting herself. Now she wasn't sure which way she had come from, and she glared at the blackness helplessly. "Game Master?" she said after a moment, trying to sound threatening and confident. "I know you're there." She reached a hand in front of her.

"Actually, I'm not," came a chuckle from behind her, and a finger ran down her spine so quickly she jerked forward at the tickling sensation.

"Stop that!" she snapped, turned towards the voice again.

"Stop what?" the tenor returned innocently, this time from far off to her right.

Sydney turned her head towards the sound, took a step forward—and walked right into a wall. Momentarily stunned, she tried to turn right instead, and she hit another wall after a few steps.

"Not that way, little raven," the Game Master teased, and Sydney smacked the wall with her hand, wishing that it was his face instead. "This way." A hand grabbed hers in the dark, warm and gloveless, and she pulled back instinctively. His grip tightened lightly, though, and his fingers intertwined with hers.

"Stop it!" she shouted, fear starting to nip away at the edge of her annoyance. This was stupid—so stupid! Struggling, she finally managed to pull her hand away, and she immediately set off at a run. Blindly, she headed forward, feeling along the walls when she ran into them, and soon she was winded and had succeeded only in getting herself more lost than before.

"Afraid of the dark?" a calm query came at her ear, accompanied by warm breath that made her shiver.

"God, you're such a bastard," she said bitterly back, her flight having run off some of the anger but none of the resentment. "What do you want?"

"Nothing much," the disembodied voice answered offhandedly, and Sydney hardly flinched now when hands settled on her hips and leaned her backwards into a warm embrace. For some reason, the assurance that he was actually physically there breathed some relief into her. He was still a bastard, but at least he was a tangible bastard. "I just want to keep you warm."

Yes, he was there. Warm and tall and very much there. He held her gently, not clutching at her, and he didn't do anything except that. He wasn't wearing his trench coat—that much she could tell by the lack of the feel of it enveloping them both. In any other circumstance, between any other two people, it would have been comfortable. Here and between them, though, it walked a fine, strange line between being dangerous and safe.

Into the intoxicating silence, Sydney's accusing words sounded overly loud, "You dropped me."

"I knew you could fly," he leaned down and whispered. His cheek brushed hers, and turned her head away rebelliously.

"You kissed me," Sydney added quieter.

There was a pause, and Sydney began to think that he wouldn't answer. She would have thought that he had left entirely, in fact, had it not been for the contact between them.

Finally, hollowly, the words sounded: "You kissed him."

"I don't belong to you," she said sharply, and the Game Master only chuckled humorlessly. His hands tightened on her hips, and he pulled her a little closer.

"Do you belong to him?" His tone was bitter now and laced with that same, strange, dangerous emotion Sydney had seen in his eyes atop the crow's nest.

"I don't belong to anyone," she said defiantly and tried to pull away. It was a weak attempt, though, and he didn't even bother tightening his grip against it.

Instead, he laughed softly. "Of course, my little raven."

"No, not yours."

"Of course," he repeated, obviously humoring her, and for some reason she knew he was grinning.

"Bastard. I hate you."

The Game Master rested his head on hers, and she felt the vibration in his throat when he murmured, "Mhmm."

"Ugh, you're impossible."

"My sincerest apologies, my dear." The Game Master didn't sound in the least bit contrite. Bastard.

They settled into silence once more. They stood, she gently leaning against him and he lightly holding her back. Somehow, the darkness made this more acceptable to Sydney; somehow, because there was only sound and touch and no sight, she could let herself stay as she was. She was still angry with him, certainly—after all, when wasn't she? But, just now, it mattered less.

"Do you love him?" The sudden question startled her into opening her eyes, which she hadn't been aware of closing in the first place.


"The one you kissed. Do you love him?"

Did she what? Love Dom? Of course not! How laughable—the guy was nice, sure, and she had kissed him, but what right did the Game Master have to jump to such a conclusion. … Actually, what right did he have to ask her that in the first place?

Unconsciously, her lips pulled into a thin line, and she firmly pushed herself out of his hold and turned to face him. It didn't matter that she couldn't see him, she knew he was there now. "That's none of your business."

This, apparently, was not the answer he wanted. They weren't touching any longer, but she could hear him stiffen. "You do," he breathed, "You do, don't you?"

Oh, for heaven's sake. "I never said that."

"Tell me," the Game Master said tautly, his voice shaking slightly, and Sydney flinched when he suddenly grabbed her arm and pulled her closer. "I want to hear you say it. Tell me." His grip tightened to the threshold of pain, and Sydney's anger rose sharply in response.

"No," she stated boldly, tugging at her arm. Light abruptly flooded her vision, blinding her temporarily, and her senses only registered a flash of color and displacement of wind in front of her face. Out of instinct, she shut her eyes, clenched her jaw, and steeled herself for a blow that never came. Instead, she found herself pulled into a hug, her face pressed against his shoulder.

Confused, she neither drew back nor sunk into the hug and instead stood stiffly, breathing in the incense on his shirt. He was still angry, she realized, if the way he shaking slightly and holding her a bit too tightly was any indication. She stared into the deep red of his shirt.

"I would never hit you," he said slowly, his tone cool, if slightly hurt, and betraying none of the anger she could feel in him. She glanced up at him and wound her fingers around the thin chain of his silver cross. The Game Master paused, and then his grasp loosened and he pulled her away from him a little. Her fingers slipped from the necklace, and she met his gray eyes with poise. "I don't know who did, but I never would."

Staring, she enunciated calmly, "Leave me alone," and began to pull away. He frowned, which she could see now that her eyes had adjusted the light, but made no move to restrain her.

They stood in a simple, white hall that looked uniform from every angle, and she wondered how it had turned into such a labyrinth in the darkness. The Game Master was dressed in baggy black pants and a red shirt, and his hair, less spiked up than usual, fell in red-tipped tendrils around his face. The darkness was gone, and with it went whatever had made it all right for her to submit, at least on one level, to the Game Master's embrace.

"Leave me alone," she said again, but neither made any move. She would have walked away, but she knew well enough by now that she would only succeed in getting herself lost again.

Ignoring her demand, the Game Master glanced off to one side, smiled faintly, and then looked back at her. "Let's trade."

She blinked, confused, and managed, "What?"

"Quickly," he said, "Something you want."

"What are you—"

"Quickly. Now."

His gray eyes fixed on hers as he spoke, immobilizing her, and then her lips began to move with words long denied "… Why? Everything—why?"

The Game Master's smile widened, making his already handsome face twice as attractive. He reached a hand forward, and Sydney restrained herself out of some strange sense of pride from flinching. His fingertips brushed along her jaw line, creating a ticklish sensation, and then curled to cup her cheek. Leaning towards her, he whispered, "Because you saved me. Because I hated you. Because I want to capture your flame without extinguishing it. Because I want you."

With his words, her heartbeat sped up and her eyes fell closed, and when his lips pressed lightly to hers, it was all she could do to stand upright. Nothing made sense anymore. But his kiss was sweet, nothing more than his lips touching hers, even when his words were bewildering.

In a moment, the contact was gone, and Sydney opened her eyes slowly. What she saw before her, though, surprised her so intensely that she sat, stunned, for a long, bated breath until everything processed in her mind. She was in a room. A small, dark room, dissimilar in almost every way to the circular white room she had been in earlier. An ornate light fixture hung from the ceiling, casting a dim, yellowish light over the room. The chair she sat on was stiff, wooden, and with a high, elaborate back. The grandiose, polished wooden table stretched out before her, and the edges of the room faded eerily into the darkness. In the middle of the table, a wire decoration in the shape of a crescent moon extended up into a metal dish, where a fortune cookie rested innocently.

Other chairs sat around the table, occupied by other people, and she was in utter confusion over what had happened until she spied one particular boy. Dom sat in a seat diagonal to her, just opening his eyes, and he seemed to sense her attention. He met her baffled gaze with a wink, and she slowly relaxed.

Of course. It was just the next game scenario. Why hadn't she gone to the starting field first, though?

With varying degrees of noisiness, the other occupants made their consciousness known. They shifted around, looked at one another, and a few whispered questioningly to one another. Sydney noted with mixed feelings that Melissa was the player who sat to her right. The other players were less visible to her, as many sat in shadows.

"Welcome, candidates," said a smooth voice from the head of the table, and a dozen heads swiveled towards it simultaneously. Only now did Sydney notice the larger chair, almost like a throne, located at the table's head, blanketed in shadows. A figure sat in it, and there was just enough light to make out his silhouette. Immediately, Sydney knew it was the Game Master, even though his voice was different. He steepled his hands in front of his mouth and paused as if he were looking them over with a critical eye. Several of the players fidgeted slightly, feeling the intensity of the gaze even if they couldn't see it.

At last, the Game Master—in whatever role he was currently filling—seemed satisfied, and he continued. "You are all gathered her today as aspirants to a limited number of positions within the prestigious and exclusive Order of the New Moon. As such, you are here to undergo a series of trials before possible admission into the Order."

He paused and looked them over again, perhaps waiting for them to absorb that. Sydney watched him carefully. All right, so it was a secret society of some sort. Had this been explained in the starting room already, or was this the first time the others had heard it as well?

"Your goal, as a team, is to escape this mansion. Your goal as an individual is identical to your team goal—however, keep this in mind: only three may leave this mansion. Only three will be admitted as new members. In this way, you face danger even from your fellow teammates.

"But, I should warn you, there are other, more deadly perils you will face. As you progress, you may find clues—and I suggest you heed their warnings. There is no time limit here except the one on your lives. I wish you luck, candidates."

With that, the shadow in the throne vanished, leaving the room in stunned silence. In comparison to the other scenarios, this one was very dark. After a suitably awkward pause, the players began to move. Several pushed back their chairs, stood up, and began to look around the room. Two, who had been at the table's end and therefore had been cast in shadows during Sydney's initial inspection, drifted into one corner and began to murmur to one another. Sydney sat, eyes narrowed, still staring at the Game Master's seat as if she expected him to reappear any minute.

Dom, after glancing up to find Sydney preoccupied, looked around briefly. Finally, his gaze settled on the strange, seemingly out of place fortune cookie. Curious, he stood and reached across the table to pluck the item from its resting place. Several players had taken note of his actions by now, including Sydney, and he carefully grasped the edge of the slip of paper that stuck out of one end of the cookie. He drew it out slowly, afraid it might rip, and red writing revealed itself as he did. By the time he tossed the cookie back on the dish, the message cupped in one hand, he had the silent attention of most of the room.

He glanced up at them, eyes sharp, and then began to read, "You are—"

Suddenly, the sound of a gunshot split the silence. Dominick collapsed, someone screamed, and everything degenerated into chaos. Chairs fell over, and people ducked to the ground out of instinct. Sydney, shaking, went on her hands and knees under the table and over to Dom. He lay, sprawled on the carpet, seeping blood where he was shot in the chest, and well and truly dead. She gulped, reaching a trembling hand and prying the slip of paper from his fingers.

It was pure white with red, flowing calligraphy on it that reminded her of the writing on her invitation to the game. The room had fallen quiet again, this time out of fear rather than curiosity, and she saw other players watching her from varying positions around the room.

"You are being … hunted," she read out slowly and looked up. Silence and wide eyes stared back.

Dom opened his eyes in the small, white room, and his first thought was that of wondering who had been shot. Then he remembered that it had been him, and he blinked up at the colorless ceiling. Well, that had been a short game. With a sigh, he sat up, and he was slightly surprised to find that he had been lying on the floor. He rubbed his face, stretched a little, and then stood up. The couch around him looked comfortable, and he intended to take a nap on it, not the floor. He was dead, after all, so he might as well enjoy the rest and relaxation.

As he stood, something caught his attention from the corner of his eyes, and he rotated slowly to face the opposite wall. His eyes widened and he fell back a step. On the curved white wall, written in dripping, red calligraphy were the words: Welcome to Hell.

Author's Note: Just in case anyone cares, the new scenario is a bit of a throwback to those classic escape-the-room puzzles. Couldn't resist. Go play the Crimson Room series. XD

Anyway, I'll try not to take too long to update. Thank you for reading, everyone, and your responses are very much appreciated!