The Message

After searching the net for hours to get this thing, it better be worth it, thought Rachel as she unwrapped the box that had come with the post that morning.

After battling with the tight packing for a few minutes, she held aloft the dark box, admiring the detail on the front of a knight engaged in a fight to the death with an ogre. The image and title glittered in the early morning light. 'Blade of Darkness' it proclaimed in red lettering that dripped like blood. Turning it over, she saw images from somewhere in the game, each one more terrifying than the last. Beside these was a small description of what the game was about.

'You choose who you are and the story you must lead in this graphically realistic fantasy world' was all it said followed by a list of characters to be and characters to be killed.

Rachel grinned as she opened the box to see if there were any more cool pictures and graphics. The manual only told her how to install the game and the keys to play, nothing more. "Looks like I'll just have to play it," she muttered, but not in the least ways disappointed.

It only took a minute to boot up and load the game as she had done so many times before with her wide variety of other CD games. She sat impatiently, drumming her fingers on the desk, as she watched the dark blue bar crawl across the screen, showing the slow progress of the installation. All the while a dark red eye, the logo of the game's creators, watched her ominously.

A creak in the floorboards behind her made her jump. Looking round she saw it was only her mother. She looked at the screen and asked, "Wasting your money on yet more computer games?" There was no need for Rachel to answer. "You should go outside and get fresh air, not be stuck inside all day."

"I do go outside," argued Rachel. "I take the dog out, and and –"

"And that's it," interjected her mother. "Just please tell me you got this from a reputable source this time. You never know what these things could really be. They could be viruses or something worse. You have to be careful."

"Mum, I know what I'm doing. Look at this," Rachel said as she picked up the box for the game. "Could this possibly be fake?"

"You never know with these things. They could be –"

"Yeah, yeah, I know." Rachel had turned back to the computer screen that was now showing that it was nearly finished.

"Just tell me you'll go out later."

"Uh hu, mum. Of course," she said, although she was no longer paying any attention. The installation had finished and she could finally start the game.

Her mother roller her eyes and walked out, leaving Rachel to her game and knowing that she could be there for hours and not notice the time go by at all.

The introductory trailer started showing video after video of battles and fights, all with different characters and different monsters. In the last one, a dwarf against a hellhound (by the looks of it), the dwarf was ripped to shreds, leaving blood to drip down the screen. The red turned to black again. Small white lettering printed itself on the screen. The message simply asked, "Ready for the game of your life?"

The main menu appeared. She looked at the manual quickly to make sure she knew the keys, then selected 'new game'. Now she had the choice of the characters. Quickly glancing through the long list, she decided on the Amazon warrior. She was quick, stealthy, and her main weapon was a staff. Rachel had watched Amazons in television programmes and thought their fighting looked cool, especially with the staffs.

Yet another video started. 'Chapter I' was printed on the screen, then the Amazon appeared. Rachel watched as she was joined by who must have been merely peasant hunters. They walked for a while, only to be attacked by a strange cat-like creature. The graphics were unbelievable. Rachel could see what must have been blood and flesh hanging from the creature's large and very sharp teeth. It had small spikes protruding through its thick black fur. And it did not look friendly.

The video stopped and it was Rachel's turn to fight. She put her fingers on the keys, slightly nervous and shaking a little as, for some reason, this game seemed so much more realistic than all the other games she had played.

She fought the creature with the abilities that she had learned from playing so many other role-playing games. It wasn't as difficult as she would have thought. But she was so used to using the computer to do everything that she could do anything much better than she would ever have been able to do in real life.

She killed it within minutes and she lost control of her character again. It faded away and started another video. Rachel was slightly bored now. This game was nothing like all the previews had made it out to be.

This time the video showed the head and shoulders of a black-cloaked figure in front of a pure black background. She heard its strange, deep, grating voice say, "You have passed your test."

"This is supposed to be dramatic?" she asked herself. She yawned and stretched out, considering going back to bed. It was Saturday morning and to her this time barely existed. She reached out, ready to press the 'escape' key.

"You have been selected," the figure said, pointing a bony finger through the screen.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. I've heard storylines like this before. Boring!" She pressed the key, but nothing happened. "Oh great, one of those games that change the keys." Pressing the usual ones, while looking down on the manual to see if it said anything. It didn't and the figure remained. "Must be one of those ones where you can't do anything 'til the video's finished," she decided. She looked at her collection of games to see if she should play something else instead.

"You shall come with me to the meeting grounds where we shall discuss your destiny. Your life is no longer what you knew it was, Khalsa."

She looked back at the screen. Why did that name sound so familiar?

"You shall join the other selected and fulfil the role that you have chosen. You will face the inevitable battle. Your side has been given to you and you have no choice!" At the last moment its hand was thrust forward, somehow breaking the glass of the screen and clamped itself over her mouth. Another hand reached out and grabbed her arm, dragging her towards the screen. She tried to scream, but it was muffled by the clammy hand. She tried her best to get free but to no avail. She was pulled into the screen. There was a flash of light, then nothing.

She woke to find three strange faces looking down at her.

One, the most normal of the three, was wearing heavy armour, his helmet under his arm next to his sword attached to his belt. In the other hand he held a wooden shield. His black hair hung slightly over his face. He stood tall and sturdy above her.

The second was incredibly muscular. He wore only tight trousers. His hair was long and red-blonde, tied behind his back by a black band. At his side he held in his large hands a broader sword than the first's weapon.

The last was shorter than the others and plumper. He wore a loose dull green top, trousers and hat and brown boots. In his small hands he held a double-sided axe.

These all looked like characters from the game, the Knight, the Barbarian and the Dwarf.

She tried to move away and noticed that she was no longer wearing her own clothes but a tight brown outfit, uncannily like the one that the Amazon had been wearing in the game. Beside her she noticed lay her staff. She leapt to her feet, grabbing the staff, holding it the way that the Amazon had, and hoping that the three strangers would not attack her.

The Barbarian took an attack stance with his sword, but the Knight held him back, saying, "We do not mean any harm. I think we all appear to be in the same sort of situation."

She just stared at them, not sure how to react.

"You were just playing a computer game, weren't you?" asked the Knight.

She relaxed her stance, and smiled inwardly. She wasn't alone, and these people weren't going to hurt her. She nodded then asked, "So you were just normal people before?"

"Eh yeah," replied the Dwarf, thinking that it was a rather strange question, but then remembered what he looked like.

She looked around them, taking in the surroundings. They were standing in the centre of a ring of ruins. The broken walls surrounded them apart from at one section where a tall platform stood, rising above the grassy earth. Beyond the ruins, she noticed a hillocky landscape and, beyond that, tall blue mountains rose from the horizon. The sky above was overcast and threatened rain.

"What's your name?" asked the Knight.

"Khalsa," she replied without thinking. Then realising what she had said, she was about to correct herself, only to find she couldn't remember what it was supposed to be.

"Don't worry about it," said the Barbarian seeing the confused and worried look on her face.

"We all feel like that," the Dwarf explained. "I know for a fact that my name isn't Sunan, but I can't think what else it's supposed to be."

"Same with me," the Barbarian continued. "My name seems to be Charong, but I'm not so sure."

"My name is, apparently, Ranveer," the Knight said.

"Ah, good, you are all acquainted." It was that voice again, the voice of the cloaked figure from the computer screen. All four looked up to see the speaker. His face was still hidden in the hood of the cloak but it was undoubtedly him. "That will save me the trouble."

"What do you want with us?" yelled Charong, clutching his sword again. "Why did you take us away from our homes?"

"You had no choice in the matter, so there is no reason for you to go about saying that were taken unfairly. You have been selected for your skills, and will return safely, after your task is finished."

"What task? Who are you and what do you want us to do?" asked Sunan.

"I should have introduced myself earlier. My name is Thanom. I have brought you four here as you are the Four that are needed in the battle to win. Without your fighting expertise, we would be doomed. You will fight for us. It has been decided for you."

"Who said we'd do whatever you tell us to?" said Ranveer threateningly. "We never agreed to this. We don't have to fight."

"That's right," agreed Khalsa. "Plus, though I hate to break this to you, but we only have fighting expertise in computer games, not in real life. I'm afraid we are not likely to be of as much use to you as you had hoped. At least, I know I could never fight in real life. I'm not sure about the others." She looked at them and they all nodded in agreement.

"You will fight, or you will die," was the last words of Thanom before he stalked off behind the damaged ring and disappeared from sight.

The four looked at each other, not sure what exactly they should do.

Thanom walked through the opening in the wall and went down into the underground village. How could he have been so stupid? Now he thought about it, he had been incredibly short tempered. He should have understood that they would have been confused and angry at being dragged away from their homes. But he couldn't go back now. They wouldn't trust him, although that was understandable. He would have to send someone else.

He entered the largest of the buildings. Its walls were joined to the roof and ceiling, all of which made from the earth, just like all the other houses. He walked up to the gathered group of men and women dressed in similar black robes.

"You come back empty handed I see," said one.

"I had some difficulty, Uddam. I'm afraid they believe I am the Enemy," Thanom explained.

"I told you, you had to be careful," said another, a young woman.

"I know, and I should have listened to you, Ravindar, but I never learn."

"We have to do something to try and fix the mess he has made," said Uddam.

Ravindar stepped forward slightly, along with another woman who looked very similar to her. "My sister, Vicharleen, and I will meet with them."

"Yes, friendlier faces should help them with trusting us," said a different man. "Just don't mention Thanom. They will obviously associate him with evil."

"I'll keep that in mind, Sulakhan" Vicharleen said, and turned with Ravindar to walk out.

Khalsa, Ranveer, Sunan and Charong stood in the circle, unsure as to what they should do. They didn't know where they were or the way back to their homes. Khalsa wandered over and stood looking through a hole in the wall over the land that she had never seen before. She wondered where she was. She thought how she had got there. She couldn't really be inside a strange computer world or something like that, could she?

But her memory of her life was disappearing from her mind. It was faint, almost too faint to remember what her parents or brother and sisters looked like. She tried to describe them to herself and found that she couldn't remember the details. She thought about her younger sister what was her name? She couldn't remember that either. It was all disappearing.

She tried to put the horrible thought out of her mind that her life was fading before her eyes and there was nothing to do but watch it go away. But the thought wouldn't leave her. If there were something she could do to go back home, to see what the missing details were, she would do it.

She turned back to see if she could talk to the others and saw walking towards them two women in black robes, their hoods away from their faces and their red-brown hair flowing behind them. She couldn't see where they had come from. From what she could see, the land was completely barren.

The two walked up to Ranveer, Sunan and Charong, and Khalsa joined them. "Who are you?" demanded Ranveer.

"I am Ravindar and this is Vicharleen. We come offering you a way for you to get home."

All four of their hearts felt as if it stopped for half a second. But there had to be a catch. They stared at the two almost identical people. They didn't look dangerous.

"There is a way at a temple, much like this used to be," Vicharleen said, spreading her arms, indicating the ruins. "You have to go there and we will perform a spell and you will be gone from here."

"But?" Charong asked, expecting it coming before it was said.

"It was captured by the enemy," explained Ravindar. "The only way to get the temple back is if we fight for it. Come, I will take you to our village." She turned and Vicharleen signalled for them to follow.

Uncertain what else they could do, they all followed. They were led round the other side of the ruins and saw the opening in the wall. Ravindar and Vicharleen took them down into the village and through the streets. They were stared at by many of the villagers and one of those looked disturbingly like the person that had brought them there. He watched them briefly, before disappearing behind a building. Khalsa was going to mention it but thought better of it. If they were in danger, surely they would have been attacked already.

Vicharleen was pleased with the way the Four had followed them with no questions. Thanom had been the wrong person for the job, Ravindar had been right about that. But it could easily have been the Enemy that had come for them. They would have gone and been caught in a trap and killed. Luckily, she and her sister had got there first.

Vicharleen noticed Thanom watching them. She signalled slightly with her hand for him to leave, just enough for him to see, but not enough for anyone else. She glared at him warningly. He turned and stalked off. Good, he's gone. Can't have the Four getting suspicious now they are here. They didn't seem to have noticed. Everything was going according to plan. Everything would be fine soon.

They were led to a large building. There they saw two other men waiting for them. "You have come with the Four," said one.

"We should leave for the temple at once," said another. "There is no time to spare."

"Wait a second," said Sunan. "We're still a little confused here."

"Don't worry," said the first. "We'll explain when you see what is happening. You'll have a better understanding then."

"Vicharleen, I think you should go gather some others to join us later," said Ravindar. There was something in her voice that seemed to have hidden meaning, but it couldn't be important. These were the good guys after all.

Thanom waited at the well, tapping his foot on the ground. Someone should have come by now to tell him that they were leaving. They wouldn't have left without him, would they have?

He thought about this for a little bit more. Maybe they couldn't leave the Four for some reason. Maybe the Four were getting suspicious. He should go anyway.

He was just about to leave when he saw Vicharleen running up to him. "They're ready to leave. Remember, stay some distance behind, for if they see you it could mean the end. You nearly fouled it up back there. Don't do it again." She ran off again, before he could speak.

He watched her running down the road, stopping to shout into some of the houses to gather more forces to go with them. He mumbled to himself, "You're right, I could bring about the end." He walked off to gather some things before following them.

The journey seemed long as the large group travelled in the direction of the mountains. The journey was dull to start with as they walked across the grassy hills. But as they progressed, they came down into a very wide valley filled with beautiful trees and a river running through the centre. They stopped there, gathering their energy for the next long stretch. They ate some of the supplies they had brought with them and drank from a clear sparkling stream.

The break seemed too short, but the cloaked people were anxious to get going. They walked through the wood, observing animals and birds when they saw them. As they came out into the open, they found themselves climbing a steep slope. Nearing the top, the people in front warned those in back to slow down and keep quiet.

The Four crawled to the top and looked out to see what they were to be careful about. Looking down on the other side of the slope they saw a white brick building with a domed roof. Around it they saw armoured men patrolling the entrance.

"Sunan and Charong," Ravindar said quietly, "You, Uddam and I will scout round and see if there is an other way in. The rest will stay here and stay out of sight for the mean time."

They watched as the rest crawled down off the top of the slope and ran between the bushes to keep from being seen.

"Who's that?" asked Ranveer as he pointed down to a dark cloaked man running towards the domed building. "Is that? It is. It's the guy who brought us here. Looks like he's running back to his Master."

"No, wait," said the other cloaked figure. They had learned was named Sulakhan. "That's Thanom."

Ranveer and Khalsa stared at him. "He's good?" exclaimed Ranveer.

"He was the evil guy who brought us here." Khalsa said, unwilling to believe that he was not actually evil.

Vicharleen quickly filled them in, hoping that they wouldn't get angry and do something terrible like hurt them, kill them or, worse, just leave them there.

Ranveer and Khalsa were hesitant about what to do with this new piece of information. They watched as Thanom ran at the guards that marched outside.

However, the armed soldiers, instead of killing him when he went up to them, opened the door for him, letting him go by, greeting him as if they knew him as a friend. "But you're right," said Sulakhan, "He does look like he's returning to his Master."

Suddenly, they heard yells from their group behind them, yells of pain. They turned to face many swords and arrows pointed at their faces. There was no escape.

But something in Khalsa and Ranveer crept into being, some instinct that they had learned from playing so many action games. They held onto their weapons tightly and leaped up onto their feet, surprising their enemy.

Khalsa drove her staff into the stomach of one, knocked the weapon out of the hand of another, and struck the head of a third in one single swing. Two of them fell to the ground, one clutched his stomach and another was unconscious. She swung the staff round and stabbed the neck of the remaining standing soldier, causing him to collapse, rasping for breath and spitting out blood.

Ranveer hacked through the head of the enemy facing him with his sword, watching the body fall and the blood spill onto the ground. He spun on his feet, barring a blow from one soldier with his shield, then brought his own sword through the soldier's midsection and finally cut through the last two soldiers' necks in one slice.

Ranveer and Khalsa looked at the carnage they had caused. They had never thought they could kill, but it had come so naturally. It almost scared them. Khalsa turned away, feeling very sick, but Ranveer found it hard to keep his eyes away from the slaughter.

"You saved us," exclaimed Sulakhan happily.

"Do you understand now why you were selected?" Vicharleen asked. Neither of them seemed to care about the bloodshed in front of them.

Khalsa and Ranveer nodded, almost imperceptibly. Their thoughts were elsewhere. "You don't find that revolting?" asked Khalsa, watching their faces.

"We've seen worse," mumbled Vicharleen.

Khalsa turned to try and imagine it, and then decided it was a bad idea. Her last meal crept up her throat. She swallowed hard, putting her hand over her mouth and turned away again.

"Come on," said Vicharleen, tugging at Khalsa's arm, and trying to get her to walk away from the scene. "We'll go join the others and tell them of Thanom. We don't want them trusting the traitor."

"There," said Sunan, pointing to a door at the back of the building. "It's less guarded. We might make it through there without facing too much danger."

The rest nodded. "I'll go back and tell the other's to come," said Ravindar as she started to walk off.

Suddenly out of the bushes a cloaked figure stepped out. "It's the evil guy!" shouted Charong and ran at him, wielding his sword.

"No! Wait!" and Uddam, holding him back. "He's on our side."

Charong and Sunan looked at each other, confused. "Since when?" asked Sunan.

"Since never," replied Thanom threateningly, bringing out a dagger from under his cloak. He grabbed Ravindar before she could do anything and slit her throat. She collapsed to the ground, trying to breathe unsuccessfully. Her eyes glazed over as she fell to the ground and the last thing she saw was Thanom attacking and killing Uddam. He fell with the knife in his stomach.

"I always felt you were evil. I just didn't think you would act on it," he said between gasps of air before he too sank to the ground and died.

Sunan and Charong stared at the scene, unwilling to take a life, but as they saw the two die they couldn't contain their anger. They lashed out, Sunan with his axe held high and Charong driving his sword through Thanom. They watched him die next to the others, not at all regretful of their actions, and stared at the blood that poured onto the grass around their feet.

They looked up to see four figures running towards them.

Khalsa, Ranveer, Vicharleen and Sulakhan saw the four figures standing on the ridge, outlined against the tall blue mountains beyond them. Then they spotted the arrival of a fifth figure, followed by yelling. They watched the commotion in shock until only two figures were left standing. Quickly running to them, they surmised correctly what had happened.

Vicharleen ran straight to the bloody body of her sister, holding her head in her arms, sobbing uncontrollably. Sulakhan stood above his fallen friends, sadness in his eyes. The Four looked on in horror. They had seen too much death in such a little time.

"We have to kill the Enemy!" exclaimed Vicharleen angrily. "We have to get back at him for what he has done!"

"But where will we find him? Won't he be able to defeat us all?" asked Khalsa nervously.

"He is nothing but a man, only an evil man."

"Then why do we have to be here if he is nothing special? And won't his followers try to continue his work?" asked Sunan.

"Do you think that there are a lot of people in our civilisation that would want to fight against all those guards? Believe me, there are very few that know how to wield a sword or any other weapon," answered Sulakhan.

"And when you kill him, his minions will flee. They have no minds of their own," continued Vicharleen quickly. "We shouldn't have split up and separated the Four. It was a mistake that we paid for dearly. But we will get revenge." Vicharleen stood up. She looked taller, and much more menacing than she had ever before. She brought out her sword, rage burning in her eyes.

Sulakhan did the same, although he looked inferior to her, and the six of them marched down the hillside, not caring anymore if they were seen.

They were discovered, but it did not bother them. Whoever came near them were cut down in a matter of seconds. The same thought was in each of their minds: Any enemy that gets in my way will be destroyed.

They barged through the door, knocking down yet more guards as they saw the inside of the building. Pillars rose to the arched ceiling. The walls were plain white with no windows, but the floor had been painted a confusing pattern of engraved circular and triangular shapes. Off to the side on a platform stood a black-robed man. He would have looked fierce if it were not for his face of pure fear.

"Kill them! Kill them now!" he yelled out to the remaining soldiers. They ran attacked invaders futilely, falling like many had before. "Please please no!" he begged, backing into the wall.

"Why should we be merciful to you?" asked Ranveer viciously.

"When you showed none for us?" continued Sulakhan.

"You have had so many others killed," stated Sunan.

"You couldn't even do it yourself, you weak coward!" said Khalsa.

"You will be executed!" growled Charong.

"Like you executed so many before, like Ravindar!" cried Vicharleen as she ran at him and stabbed him in the gut. He cried out in pain. "Now you know how she felt as she died!" He collapsed to the ground, his blood flowing over the paved floor. It seeped down the cracks of the shapes and flowed down to the centre of the room.

"Come quickly," beckoned Sulakhan as he indicated to the centre of the room where all the lines seemed to emanate from. "Stand there while we perform the spell."

"There should have been five of us, and I'm not sure if we will be powerful enough by ourselves. But we will try," said Vicharleen sadly as small tears rolling down her cheeks.

The Four stood at the centre of the building while Vicharleen and Sulakhan stood at opposite sides to them. They closed their eyes and in one voice chanted strange words in an unknown language.

And nothing happened. The blood was running through the slits in the floor and disappearing through some opening that they couldn't see. The Four realised that the blood of the Enemy was important to the spell.

"Try again!" called Sulakhan. "We need to send these people home."

They chanted the same words again, and this time it worked. The room grew brighter and the blood started to glow, a light appearing somewhere below it. The red light seemed to leave the blood and started to spiral around the four.

As they watched the lights spin faster, their memories of their families, their homes and their lives came flooding back. Khalsa now remembered the names and appearances of all her friends and family. Her little sister's name was Rosalind. It seemed so obvious now.

The light got brighter and soon they could see nothing but the light. She wanted to close her eyes and blot it out, as it was almost hurting her eyes now, but something in her didn't want her to.

Then the light was gone.

She woke up with her head on her folded arms. She must have dozed off. That's what I get for getting up early on a Saturday, she thought. She looked up at the computer screen, expecting to see it cracked and broken pieces of glass all over her desk.

She saw a blue screen with white lettering telling her of an 'unknown error' in a strange computer language. She rolled her eyes. Typical 'Windows'!

Then the memory of what had happened to her came back, of the killing and dying she had witnessed and caused.

What a nightmare! It couldn't have been real in her opinion. It was too dreamlike to be real. It was perfectly safe to assume that it was just something brought on by that pathetic game.

She turned off the computer and decided she might as well go watch television now that she was awake. There was nothing else to do.

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