Chapter 1

Opening – The beginning moves of a game (first 10-20 moves)

October 1, 2006

There was something delightfully intimate about the relationship between predator and prey. The careful dance; neither party quite willing to make the first strike — or flight, as the case might be. It could almost be interpreted as a very strange courtship ritual until, finally, the whole game was brought to a close and the predator reaped its reward.

Which it was: rewarding. A game with a suitable prize.

He was fascinated with predators of all kinds. Wolves, hawks, lions; creatures that were noted in history as being strong, noble, and feared. He felt he embodied many of these traits. He was an attractive youth, strong in both body and mind — though he found school boring and a waste of time. If it served any purpose at all, it was to provide him with an ample hunting ground.

He even had his prey, oh yes, and her name was Valerian Kimble.

It wasn't a common name. Valerian was the name of a delicate, sweet-smelling flowered herb used for medicine and perfume. But it was also the name of a noble Roman emperor who was captured by the Persians and treated harshly until the day of his death; his captors had flayed him alive.

He could appreciate the paradox: so strong-willed, and yet so hopelessly fragile. She was not classically beautiful, but he liked her slender, almost awkward frame, the bright green of her eyes, and the way her hair flared with color in direct sunlight. And that mouth. How quickly it could go from smiling to a bitter grimace. He'd often considered how it must feel to be kissing that mouth, knotting his hands through her wild, unwieldy hair. Closing his hands around her slim wrists and feeling her heart pound against his; knowing how easy it would be to stop that desperate rhythm forever.

How... arousing.

Slowly, his eyes lowered to his desk. Several sheaves of paper lay before him, some crumpled and tossed aside. He toyed with the pen in his hand, before slowly raising it to his lips, and closed his eyes. "You're a work of art, my flower," he whispered against the cool plastic, and while the words were tender, his voice was laced with derision.

His Valerian, the herb, the haughty empress, was indeed a work of art — but still, a work in progress nonetheless. Not quite ready for the showcase. There were still many flaws to paint out. Weaknesses of character aside, there was the rather annoying matter of her boyfriend.

Oh, the boy was attractive enough in that dull, wholesome way. Dark brown hair, pale green eyes, a scrawny body that was nothing but bone and muscle. He might have been able to kick a ball around the field, but he couldn't dodge a bullet. And, if it ever came right down to it, he wouldn't be able to protect her from one, either.

"I will have you," he said, so quietly his breath barely stirred the air. "And when I do, my dear, I don't intend to let you go." The hand holding the pen lowered to the table's surface, as if a gesture of defeat. Then the eyes opened lazily, at half-mast. "Ever."

Only then did he begin to write.

"I can't wait for lunch to end," Val muttered, "Just think, after sixth period we have a whole three day weekend."

"Do you have any plans, Val?" Lisa asked, with a slightly suggestive wink.

"No. Well, yes and no." Val sighed. "We're getting the house remodeled so everything's gonna get ripped up, torn out, you name it. I'm probably going to end up being shut in my room for six-plus hours, glued to the computer screen and listening to depressing music."

Lisa rolled her eyes. "So no hot date with James, then, huh?"

"James isn't like that," Val said. Honestly. They were both seniors, but sometimes her friend seemed to have the mentality of a freshman boy. "Get your mind out of the gutter," she added, for good measure.

"My mind out of the gutter?" Lisa's eyebrows shot up. "This is the boy who was drawing boobs in art class during freshman year, right?"

Val's cheeks took on a rosy tint. "Well, maybe he's changed."

Lisa snorted. "I hate to burst your bubble, but they're all secretly like that. You know, sex-obsessed. Whether they show it or not is just a test of character."

"James doesn't," Val snapped.

"Shows how much you know," Lisa said gleefully. "It's built into them biologically, to spread their genes or something. They can't even help it."

"Can't help what?"

Val looked away from Lisa to a pair of sea foam green eyes, and the annoyed expression vanished instantly as she returned his smile. Everyone was telling her it wasn't good to lose her head over a boy, but she was obsessed. He was perfect, and she considered herself extremely lucky that he had chosen her over the other girls that were practically queuing up for a date. Literally, she thought, smile fading.

It had something to do with the way he held himself, the way he moved, spoke, and looked at people. He drew girls — and sometimes boys — to him, like moths to a light. He was sexy, even if he didn't dress the part. And Val knew he enjoyed the attention... and he wasn't always subtle about it.

"Nothing. Lisa and I were just talking about how great it is to have a break,right Lisa?"

"Oh, that's right," Lisa said with a devious smile Val didn't trust for a minute.

"Your parents still doing the construction thing?" James asked curiously.

"Unfortunately. We're having the bathroom ripped out tomorrow. And since said bathroom happens to be right next to my bedroom, I'm practically under house arrest."

His face fell. "So we can't hang out this weekend."

"No. I'm really, really sorry, James."

James shrugged. "That's too bad."

His voice was pleasant enough, but she felt a tug of anxiety at her stomach. She'd had to blow him off a lot, lately. James was a senior, like her and Lisa, so he should have understood her troubles — especially since he was taking difficult classes, too. His easiest class was Intro to Programming with Visual Basic. "It's object oriented programming," he'd informed her proudly, "And much easier than C-plus-plus." Which, of course, he planned on taking in college next semester.

Val would rather out with him than doing stupid homework for a teacher that only assigned it was easy to grade with the answer key. It was only the threat of failure and post-apocalyptic parents that kept her on track and out of her boyfriend's house on weekends. Still, she couldn't feel that all this pressure was finally starting to take its toll. Was he mad at her?

Val smiled timidly at him, and he returned the smile, although with less enthusiasm than he had initially. Oh great. He's annoyed — or disappointed. Or both.

"What? No apology for me?"

Val glanced at the blond girl. "Why should I apologize to you?"

Lisa sniffed. "For sniping at me earlier."

"I'msorry, Lisa."

"Great. Next time don't sound so sarcastic and it'll be perfect."

The three of them walked to their respective lockers in the 600 hall. From the way it was filling up, Val guessed lunch was going to end in a matter of minutes. Val smiled in relief. Only a forty-five minutes of class, and then I can go home, she thought, grabbing her math book.

At that moment, the bell rang, shattering her thoughts.

"Oh, great. Time to go to Geometry."

"It's better than French," Lisa pointed out. "Madame Gerhard hates me — and she never calls on me when I raise my hand. And the moment I start to zone out, it's Quand est-ce que les cours finissent? I don't know how she does it."

"I think you're paranoid," Val said. "Anyway, I'd still take French over Geometry."

"Um, Val? You don't speak French," James cut in, back from his locker. "You speak Spanish."

"I know. That's the point."

"That you don't speak French?"

"No, that I hate Geometry so much I'd be willing to take a course I don't know anything about."

"That's weird," Lisa said. "Why would you do that?"

"Because I hate it with a flaming passion. Damn Aristotle! Damn him to hell!"

"I think you mean Archimedes," James said, smirking.

Lisa just shook her head, walking away. "I'm sorry. You guys are just too weird."

"Bye," Val shouted after her departing back. She didn't answer, but her hand went up in response.

"I'll walk you," James offered.

They made their way to the math area; a series of portable box-like buildings in the boondocks of the school. "I still don't understand how you can take calculus," Val said dolefully. "I've seen the text. It doesn't even look like math. It looks like a foreign language."

James laughed. "That's probably close enough to the truth."

"Why do you take it?" she asked. "Isn't it hard?"

"That's why I like it. Because it's a challenge. I like being able to do things other people can't do."

"My god, you're full of yourself."

"You know it," James said, leaning in and kissing her. On the mouth. In school. In front of the other students, granted that there still weren't that many around yet. Val was thrilled. For the longest time, she hadn't been sure whether the attraction was mutual. James had flirted with her — and about half a dozen other girls on a regular basis, driving her crazy with his cryptic flirtations.

In fact, he hadn't actually asked her out until the summer before their senior year. The four of them — her, Lisa, James, and Blake — had all been at a party when he finally confessed his feelings for her. She'd gone home glowing inside. Even now, three months later, she still couldn't believe that he was hers. It seemed too good to be true. Sometimes, she wondered if it was.

"Later," he said, pulling away.

"Bye," she said. "Have fun in your smart-kid class."

He only grinned in response before opening the door and disappearing inside his classroom. Val watched the door for a moment and then climbed up the ramp to hers. Seeing him smile just for her brought an indescribable feeling of happiness which swelled. Lisa didn't know what she was talking about, as usual. She didn't need passion to know she loved James.

But does he love you?

That was unpleasant to think about, though, and so Val pushed the thought away.

Val glared down at her math problems. "I need some help."

"What do you need help with?" Mr. Giles said, gliding over like some bird of prey. A vulture, maybe. The toupee on his head certainly looked like something one could find in the middle of the road.

"The proofs," Val said, pointing at the textbook. "I don't get them."

"What don't you get?" Mr. Giles asked.

"The proofs!" Val stabbed an accusatory finger at a picture of a triangle. "I know I'm supposed to explain them using theorems and postulates — "

" — And definitions," Mr. Giles cut in.

"Yes, and those," Val agreed, somewhat impatiently. "But I don't know when to use them. I mean, I can barely solve the problems themselves, and now I have to label what I'm doing, too?"

"You're supposed to have them memorized," Mr. Giles said. "Which you obviously haven't done, judging from some of your quizzes."

"It's hard," she said, feeling hopeless. The teacher obviously didn't care about her predicament. She was just another slacker to him, trying to get out of work. "I can't think like... math."

"Logically," the teacher corrected, with a sigh. "You can't think logically."

Val scowled. "What good is logic?"

"Well, in chess, for example, logic is very important."

Oh, for God's sake. "I don't play chess."

"It might improve your scores — "

"Valerian Kimble to the administration office, please. Valerian Kimble to the administration office."

Val stared at the black speaker in the wall. She'd been in high school for three years now, and they'd never called her on the intercom. She turned towards her teacher, a question in her gaze.

"You'd better go," the teacher said, waving her off. "We'll discuss this when you return."

He didn't need to tell her twice.

Despite being a welcome distraction from proofs, the office was a dark and gloomy place with wallpaper that hadn't been changed since '62 and a vague smell of disinfectant that hung loosely in the air. It probably came from the nurse's office, but seemed prominent everywhere else, too.

Most of the people who worked in there seemed to blend right into the ugly wallpaper. The office was supposed to provide help, but vast majority of its staff weren't interested in helping — unless said help happened to be out the door. And even then, they wouldn't hold it open for you.

Miss Fields was on duty that afternoon, and she gave Val an unimpressed look when she walked in. She was in her mid-thirties and wore heavy make-up that made her look years older — and tough. Val supposed she had to be pretty tough, since her name was an invite to open attack to jokes — usually having to do with cookies — and thiswas a high school. "Can I help you?"

"You called for me on the, uh, intercom," she said lamely.

"You're Valerian?"


Ignoring her, the secretary reached behind her desk and pulled out an olive green planter box. A leafy green plant was growing out of it, speckled with little, bright pink flowers. "And this," Miss Fields added, dropping an envelope on top of the plant. "Is it your birthday or something?"


"Better get back to class," Miss Fields said. "Do you need me to write you a pass?"

Val shook her head. "Wait, who's it from?"

"I don't know. He didn't say. Now, get back to class."


Why would a boy be sending her things? Val left the office, feeling puzzled, and stopped outside to set the flowers on a bench so she could read the card. She wished she'd thought to ask the secretary what he looked like, but it was too late now.

She turned her attention to the card. The paper was grainy, and left her hands feeling slightly dry. She licked her finger before sliding it under the flap and slicing it open. The paper inside was a neat piece of stationary, plain and off-white, like a bit of old parchment folded into a rectangle.

She unfolded it, revealing inky black handwriting that looked like calligraphy.

A few pink flower petals, like the ones in the box, fluttered to her feet.

I've been watching you for some time, Valerian. I know you're passionate about the things and people you love — and disinclined to do things that don't suit your interests. In that aspect, you remind me of a powerful predator, a hunter. But sadly, in many other ways you are a lower-scale being. The hunted.

The prey.

I have singled you out because you have potential. I want to play with you, Valerian. I want to play suicide chess with you. You with your pawns, and me with mine. Together we'll level the playing field. And you know what else? I know you'll do it. Because the same passion that fuels your affection drives your curiosity. You're a gamer, and you like a good challenge. I think you'll find me quite a challenge.

Even now, I know you're looking for me, wondering who I am. Where I am. How I know what I do. These questions will be answered during the course of the game, Valerian, although by then you might not want the answers. Are you frightened? Do I frighten you? I should. Because first, you must play the game for more than you can afford to lose. Sacrifice everything. Learn true fear. Only then will you win the game.

I am the Grandmaster. I look forward to playing against you, my dear.


P.S. The flowers are valerians. Your namesake — quite appropriate, although not as beautiful as you.

Her heart was throbbing when she finished the letter. Slowly, Val sank down on the bench, beside the flowers. The letter was full of masked emotion and yet bore a harsh, almost clinical quality. One of indifference. Games, flowers, prey, and predators? It was more than her mind could comprehend.

Distantly, she remembered hearing that a 'grandmaster' was a high-ranking chess title, but the thought faded quickly. All she could grasp at the moment was that somewhere, someone was watching her. Stalking her. Hunting her. Like a cat batting at a mouse before consuming it. And they wanted to play a game with her. She shivered slightly, despite her sweatshirt, which she pulled more tightly around her.

Are you frightened? He'd asked. Do I frighten you?

Yes, he did. Yes, she was.

(You should be)