Who are we? But empty shells,

Moving as they dictate.

Have we got a choice at all

Or is it all pre-decided fate?

 

She held her breath with a loud, painful gulp. Her chest was still heaving from the painful regeneration. Whipping her head in all directions, she tried to get her bearings. Her skin was still burning as she ran, petrified, in the first direction she saw, but paused on hearing a strange yelping scream.

“Wait! I am here!” screamed a voice, not too far away.

Instinctively, the girl ran towards it, somehow knowing that whoever it was needed her help more than anything else. Lying under thick nettled brambles was a Counter from her House. He was a beautiful, elegant boy with golden hair and eyes.

“Hurry up!” he screamed, in agony; the entire length of the left side of his body was bubbling and burning. The material from the Counter outfit was melting into his skin horrifically.

The girl stood, frozen, watching this boy writhe in pain; her hands shaking uncontrollably.
“What should I do?” she cried, waving her arms around, helplessly.

“GET ME OUT OF THE OPEN!” he screamed, so she quickly helped him up, and using her shoulder as his support they quickly ran into thicker foliage.

“We’re from the same House,” said the girl, breathlessly, looking at their matching Counter outfits.

“Yes. Are you new? Have you just generated?” he hissed, in agony, tears and sweat mucked up his face.

“Yes, I’m new. I don’t know anything,” she shook her head. She could barely look at the brutal mess of flesh that had been left raw, but she couldn’t ignore it either. “Can I help you with your burns?” she gestured towards his body.

“Just… pick the material off, it’s going to tear off my skin, but it’s the only way it will heal…” he lay back, and covered his mouth with his arm.

She began slowly, picking out the material that had burned into his skin, with trembling fingers, and a palpitating heart, wincing each time he jerked in pain.

“What is your name?” she questioned further, “Do we have names?”

“Yeah,” he said breathlessly, “my name is Carmelan.”

“I don’t know my name,” she whispered, fiddling with her hair, “How do we get names?”

“They are branded on you, on the back of your neck it should have a name,” he replied. “Do you want me to read yours?”

She turned her head, and swept her thick golden hair to one side, revealing the nape of her neck. “Dior,” he read.

Dior cocked her head, taking in her identity. Dior.

“Alright. We don’t have much time, so, how much do you know?” Carmelan tried to sit up slightly, as Dior continued to pick out pieces of material from his skin.

“All I know is that we are in the Game, and I have to wait till the next Roll to know what to do,” her brow puckered, “I don’t want to be here. Why are we here?”

“We don’t get to decide that, we are just Counters… objects that they use to play the Game. Let me explain it to you:  To end the Game, a House must win; which happens when either it is the only House left playing, or it reaches Ludo first. Problem is, no one knows where Ludo is, but the Counters have to try and get there. When the Fates Roll, each play begins, and to end each play, the Roll must be completed, or terminated by another Counter,” He put his hands together; as if in prayer

“The worst possible Roll is to kill another Counter.”

Dior clocked on fast that this was why he was lying in the brambles, someone… someone from another House must have Rolled a kill.

“So, do the Fates Roll who to kill?” she whispered, dreading the answer.

“No, but someone from another House – obviously, the aim is to win… and if you don’t play the Roll then you can’t reach Ludo,” he explained.

“So… we have no choice! We are like pawns? No past, no choice in the present, and are most likely going to be killed, so we don’t have a future?” Dior exclaimed, loudly, reaching hysteria.

“SHUT UP!” Carmelan hissed, waving his hand, “SOMEONE WILL HEAR US!” his eyes were furious.

Dior’s face fell, guilty, and she glanced around in panic. “Who did this to you?” she whispered, softly.

“I didn’t see who it was. But they shot a rock, on fire, at me, and when the rock hit me, it broke into a thousand pieces, each tiny piece scalding me and covering me in burns,” he continued, with a slight smile, “but there are two of us now. We can form a block and Roll together.”

“What does that mean? I’ve finished picking out as much as I could,” Dior sighed thankfully. His frazzled flesh was nauseatingly painful to look at.

“It means that when the Fates Roll, we can move together, treated as one Counter,” he continued, meeting Dior’s eyes in earnest. “You have no idea how long I’ve been waiting to meet another Counter from our House. I thought I was the only one left.”

Dior smiled, despite being inwardly panicked about the whole situation. She didn’t know how long this poor boy had been in the Game, and probably all alone. She was lucky to have found him so soon.

She reached over and squeezed his hand reassuringly.

“How sweet,” said a sharp voice behind them. Dior’s head snapped around to a strikingly beautiful girl, who stepped sideways, into their view. She was vividly different from herself and Carmelan; with a red Counter-outfit and short dark red hair. She had caramel skin,  covered in sheen of sweat, glistening off her shoulders, which were bare as she was wearing a red skin tight material, around her chest, tied up at the back, exposing her stomach and back. She had red thigh high boots on, and arm length gloves on as well. Her features were angled and her eyes were a fiery red, stark and invading.

Carmelan immediately began to get up, looking at his wrist repeatedly. Dior, confused, stood up too, her eyes fixated on the red Counter.

“We’re in the Safe zone,” called out Carmelan, his voice rough around the edges, and Dior pricked up the traces of a lie.

The red girl stopped in her tracks, questioning him. Dior couldn’t help but stare at her; she was outstandingly red in a green background, standing out as sore as sight could be. All around was thick dense foliage of forest, and through the various shades of green, all that could be seen was brown earth.

She had a small catapult in her hand, which she was swinging, and it was glowing red hot.

This was the Counter whose Roll was to Kill. And she had chosen Carmelan.

Dior watched the unfathomable expressions between the Red and Carmelan; and felt rooted to her spectator-like spot. Opening her mouth, Dior tried to begin speaking, to have some sort of input, but second guessing, closed her mouth again; staring, dumbly, at Carmelan. This was Red’s play, and she was nothing to do with it.

Carmelan suddenly, broke into a run; sprinting in a jagged limping fashion, through the woods. The Red girl screeched, and chased after him, her boots squeaking, and Dior, not knowing anything or anyone else, followed.

Unaccustomed to movement, Dior felt her arms and legs loosen up from their rigidity as she ran. She felt light, and quickly caught up behind Red. She catapulted a rock forwards, and Dior heard a scream: Carmelan.

Red was standing over him, pointing another rock at his throat, muttering under her breath.

“No! Wait!” Dior screamed, her hands forwards, she ran to push Red over, to knock her out of the way.

But Red blinked at her, and released the rock onto Carmelan, whose vocal chords burned, so all that could be seen was his mouth open in a silent agonizing scream, and him flailing his arms about, reaching out.

Dior screamed; diving at Carmelan’s burning remains, bringing his head up into her lap, she watched his eyes widen and narrow, his mouth shouted in voiceless words, and his body was twitching. Red took a step back, and realigned her catapult to Dior’s neck. And before Dior had even turned to look, Red released the burning rock.

She felt a pang on her side and a yellow glow all over her body. The rock bounced off, and fell to the ground, burning a hole in the grass. Red and Dior stared at each other, eyes locked in total confusion.

“What?” Red was shocked, and glancing around, retreated, and ran away into the forest.

“Carmelan…” Dior turned back to the boy on her lap. His eyes were closed, but brimming with fresh tears under his lids; mixing with the blood and sweat from his neck. She closed her eyes, listening to the silence trickling in around her.

There was a loud, low rumble from the clouds above; which Dior assumed was a thunderstorm gathering, but when she looked, the sky was clear. When she looked down to Carmelan, she knew that he was dead. His body was cold and rigid, and was eerily still.

Dior sat there, with his head in her lap until nightfall, unable to absorb what had happened, with a thousand questions running through her mind.

She did not notice that she was being watched, nor did she stir when another Counter approached her. He stood a distance and studied her. She was strikingly golden… Her hair was a yellow gold flow, her skin was a flawless soft creamy sun-kissed colour, and she was relatively small and lean. Her counter-outfit was yellow too, and she definitely did not have any weapon on her.

“You’re a sitting duck,” he said, breaking the silence in a dulcet voice.

“Who are you?” she hissed, her eyes, brown with gold flecks, wide open in terror.

“You’re new,” he replied, simply, a smile curling at his lips.

“Please, I don’t know where I am… Just go on ahead with the Game. I promise I am not going to kill you or follow you,” her eyes fell back on the half-mangled corpse on her lap.

“You are probably going to die anyway,” he replied, flatly. “What is your name?”

“Why are you asking if you are going to kill me? Why don’t you just do it and move on to the next Roll?”  her eyes caught his, ablaze in anger.

“You ask an interesting question… but I never said that I was going to kill you,” he smiled, and sat down opposite her.

“My name is Cyan,” he said, casually, lying down on the grass at ease.

Dior’s eyes narrowed… What was he up to? She noticed his appearance; clearly he had been in the Game for a while, and was overall, a big, tall, burly guy.

His hair was so black; it actually looked blue, which only made his huge blue eyes look even bluer. His Counter outfit had once been a bright blue, but was worn and faded, and glinted like a fish’s scales. He was extremely handsome…

“Enjoying the view?” smiled Cyan, his voice embedded in boyish pride.

“No!” Dior answered, snapping, “What are you doing here? Why are you here? We are from different Houses!” A strange tingling sensation settled into her stomach and a brief blush stained her cheeks.

“Oh for Die’s sake!” Cyan sat up, abruptly. “I am NOT trying to kill you! I am tired of playing, and I wanted a ‘Safe play’, so I came here. But the ‘Safe play’ is still going, so I am still here, to be here whenever or, if ever you do leave the ‘Safe zone’ empty,” he raised his eyebrows at her.

“What ‘Safe zone’? Carmelan said that too,” questioned Dior, ignoring the rest of his explanation.

“Every field has a ‘Safe zone’, but can’t have more than one Counter using it, so right now, you are,” he explained, closing his eyes and resting his arm over his eyes.

“How do you know that?”

“There is a star on your wrist, where our Rolls are written. Right now, you are ‘Safe’,” he murmured, heavily.

Dior looked down at her wrist, having to squint in the darkness of night time she hadn’t realised had crept in. On her forearm was a large black star, as if it had been painted there. She shifted Carmelan’s head to the grassy bed under him. It was getting darker by the minute, and she knew that she had to leave.

After contemplating the thought for a few moments longer, she prodded Cyan.

“Leaving?” he asked, sitting up, eyes lost in darkness.

She murmured a ‘Yes’, and began to walk. Cyan followed up behind her, explaining that if she left the next Roll would play.

They walked, in silence, and Dior resumed her wonder of what Cyan was up to.

“Who was the stiff?” he asked, nudging her playfully.

Dior flipped her hair over her shoulder and pushed Cyan up against the tree behind him, her elbow at his throat. Remembering not to make noise she spat, “Don’t call him that! That was his life, Cyan. This is not a –”

He cut her short, “Game?” and laughed, “You dumb girl, this IS a game. It is The Game! Ludo! We’re playing because it’s a GAME.” He shoved her back, with brute force, making her stumble. “You don’t know anything, Dior. You were generated a few hours ago. I’ve been in here for months. Searching, running, hunting, hiding. All the others? Their agenda is to get as many Kill Rolls as possible, and knock out the competing Counters, so that they can win as quickly as possible,” his voice softened as he continued explaining.

“You’re the first Counter I met who was mourning another. Most would have left to hide in an instant. I thought, we could help each other out… maybe.”

“We’re not allowed to do that,” Dior replied, her voice sounding harsher than she meant it to.

“Just because the Die Roll our Fates, does not mean they see everything…” his voice echoed a smile. “Besides,” he continued, “It might be fun, you know…. To break the rules.”

“Or just bend them,” piped in Dior.

“So are you game?” punned Cyan. Dior heard him bend and then snap two rocks together, which started glowing, giving them light.

She saw his blue eyes, looking at her, hoping. And despite every cell in her body screaming at her to follow the rules, and stay away from another House, she said, “Let’s try it.”

*                          *                          *

Dior’s eyes fluttered open. Around her, the air was still and lifeless, and all she could hear was breathing; hers and his.

She was lying on her side, her palm was pillowing her cheek, and the other was wrapped tightly around her chest, in an effort to conserve heat. She sat up, slowly, her eyes adjusting to the morning. After deciding to team together last night, Cyan and Dior had found a heavily rooted tree, with its roots protruding far out of the ground. They had crawled under the roots, and decided to spend the night there, but she had barely slept. Her mind had raced through thoughts and images, of Carmelan’s horrific death, of her being the last one of her House. Whether the Red Counter was following her.

Cyan, on the other hand, had dropped asleep the minute they were covered, and was still asleep now. Despite being a massive guy, he looked strangely tranquil, in boyish charm, as he slept. He had insisted to keep watch, and was still in a sitting position, resting against a root, arms tightly crossed together, and his chin resting on his chest. She lay across from him, watching him sleep; wishing she could have slept too, when she heard the same loud, low rumbling that she had heard the day before.  Dior untangled herself from the roots, and began to make her way back out into the open. As she did, she felt a strange sensation over her forearm, and all the hair on her skin pricked up. She looked down and saw that the star, had gone, and been replaced by ‘Free Run’.

She traced over the words, and again, it was as if they had been painted, tattooed into her skin, realising that the loud, low rumble was the Fate’s Roll. So, her play had been set: she was free to move across the Board, hopefully covering enough fields until she found Ludo. She glanced over at Cyan, what would she do with him? They were working together… for now. She continued tracing over her forearm, absentmindedly staring at Cyan, who woke with a start.

His left hand flew to his forearm, and he glanced around in sleepy amnesia; and then once reading his arm, and noticing the small Yellow girl cowering in the corner, he remembered, brow relaxing.

He put his fingers through his hair, mumbling in a scratched voice. “Ugh! I’m parched…”

Dior smiled, “Me too.” she added. “I have my first Roll – Free Run.”

“Oh! That’s good. I guess today we can sort out how to play together,” he continued, “I think we should get through all the fields, and then we can focus on finding Ludo… Since no one knows where that is, we could just find it together.”

Dior nodded, biting her lips, unconvinced that this was a good idea. What if the Die realised they were cheating and working together? Was this even classed as cheating? Despite this doubt, Dior put it out of her mind, remembering that she had no clue how to play, besides, Cyan might help keep her alive for longer than she could on her own.

They made their way through the thick green forests, finding nuts and berries, they ate along the way. Their thirst increased, and Dior began to wonder why, in such a thick forest, there was a severe lack of a stream, ponds, springs – any water!

“How are the trees surviving with no water?” She asked Cyan, as she followed his heavy tread.

“It’s the Forest field, Di,” he replied, dismissively, “It won’t have any water.”
Dior frowned, that was impossible. Even if the Game had a bizarre world, it still functioned according to basic rules. If the Counters could get burned, could die and the forests were growing, there must be water somewhere.

“Wait,” she called out, as she turned to the thick leafed tree beside her. It was spongy and thick, almost like wax, smooth on its surface. Dior pulled at it, ripping off the leaf from its stem.

“Do you have a knife?” she asked Cyan, who was standing, big, beside her. He handed her a sharpened makeshift-knife, and she pierced the leaf and peeled back its layer, taking it to her mouth, she sucked at the incision. The taste was sharp and sweet, both at once, but it was definitely water. She sucked up the leaf, until it had shrivelled up and then cut another, handing it over to Cyan.

“I can’t believe this… I thought that the only source of water was the rivers that run into the Ocean,” he sucked up the leafy water.

They stood, for a long while, sucking up water to satiate their thirst; periodically looking about to make sure they were safe.

“How did you figure that out?” exclaimed Cyan as they continued on their walk.

“I’ve been thinking about the design of the Game, how we are technically, breaking the rules because we are making our own choice… despite following the Fate’s Roll,” Dior waved her forearm. “The Game follows basic rules, in order to work: like how we die, or get hurt. So, the trees must have some sort of water in them…” she shrugged her shoulders.

“That is really logical, Di!” Cyan thumped her back, cheerfully, slightly out of breath. They noticed that they were walking uphill, and the forest was dispersing into a strange red soil.

Dior turned her attention from Cyan’s growingly beautiful, happy face, to their surroundings. Up ahead, she could make out thick, heavy, black smoke, under which a mountain towered, made up of red soil and black rock. She turned to Cyan to ask him, but on seeing her expression, guessed her question and answered, “Volcano field.”

So, they had to walk through it, and progress onto the next field.

With Cyan leading the way, they began climbing the increasingly steep mountain side. Since they were both a huge contrast to the red rock, they kept stopping to keep  watch and listen for any Counters following them.

“How long does each play last?” panted Dior, wrinkling her nose at the strange smell coming off the mountain rock.

“It varies. Free Run is usually a day, and the others are until you complete the task,” he explained, gesturing her to move forwards.

“What do the other Counter’s do when it isn’t their turn?” she asked again, having to shout over her head.

“I don’t know what they others do, but usually just try and cover Fields and find Ludo…, but when it isn’t your play, you can’t move out of the Field you are in.”

Dior shook her head, confused, “No, then that doesn’t explain why you moved out of the Forest and into the Volcano?”

“No, the Field we just came out of was the Safe Zone in the Forest, so technically, this is the first Field of my day today. I won’t be able to move off the Volcano now though,” he explained, smiling, and began to sit down on the black soil. “AH!!!!” He yelped and stood up quickly, “the ground is super hot!”

Dior began jumping her feet up and down, in alarm, jogging on the spot. “Quick! Cyan, don’t stand still!” When Cyan looked at her blanking, she grabbed his hands and started running, forcing him to follow.

“What is wrong with you?” he yelled, as they continued to run up the Volcano.

“The smell; it’s not the rock, its out boots, they are going to melt if we stand still, we have to get over the rock into the Safe Zone on the other side,” she screamed back. The ground was rough and steep, the air had thickened into hazy smog, and Dior was having troubling running across it blindly, aware that it was going to get hotter and hotter.

Cyan, thankfully, had understood Dior’s panic; they would burn their feet off, if they didn’t cross over. Clambering as fast as they could, they began to reach the peak of the mountain, and below them the ground was open; revealing hot, steaming lava, bubbling.

*                  *                *