A Friday Fairytale.
This story won’t be posted every week. But I’m going to try to pick up the momentum with again.
Last chapter: Nadisda frees Mike and his friends and calls Connor (Hero Hugo) back into the game to set him challenges. Mike (Villain Valentine) realises that she has fallen for Connor and stops trusting her, and begins to level-down her abilities in the game. He also realizes that she has unintentionally betrayed Connor’s physical whereabouts, and begins to plot revenge.
13: The Truth Challenge
Faff the Ancient reared his huge head and listened. There were strange things happening to the fabric of his world. He hadn’t seen his student, Nadisda, in a while. And from afar, he could hear the call of another dragon.
The magic of his world was shivering and beginning to craze, like glass. He lifted himself to his lazy old legs; he hadn’t had to patrol the Realms in a long time, as everything had been working nicely, like clockwork. But recently there had been one or two times when the place wavered and flickered, and the grid of raw magic weaving underneath had become half visible. There had been a yellow fog drifting through. He had no idea what that was about, but it was gone now. He stretched like a cat – an elderly cat that has been lying still too long. And he unfolded his wings and leaped into the skies; as young and powerful as ever once he was airborne. With a raucous dragon-sized ‘caw!’ he shot off towards the borders of the Magic Realms to see to rights.
The next footstep the Forest Fairy heard in her forest grove was the clip-clopping of Hugo’s horse’s hooves. She puzzled about what had happened to the seal, then she realized that that game had been destroyed and Mike had reverted to a backup.
He wasn’t riding in though. As she came out of her cave, she saw he was leading his horse, and not looking arrogant at all.
“Fairy,” he said, “please tell me that Nadee is safe, wherever she is in the real world?”
“It is me, Connor,” she smiled. “I’m not in the real world. I’m here.”
The next few moments were spent locked in a lover’s greeting.
“I don’t need a challenge,” said Hugo. “I need to stay right here with you. In fact, forget the game. Come home with me, Nadee!”
It did seem nonsensical to send him out into challenges. Her original plan, to break his arrogance and change his mind about prosecuting Mike, had come apart at the edges. And Mike was pressing counter-charges. No: This was by now about convincing Mike to stop treating Connor like an enemy. It was Mike who needed the challenge.
“Stay for a while,” she invited. She pulled the cloaking spell around her grove. The others would only find a fake grove now, and find it empty. With a ‘BBL’ message on her workspace.
“Connor, if you want me to be in your life you must start telling me things,” she said and beckoned him to sit down on a log next to her. “Such as, why do you have it in for Mike?”
“I can’t see why we can’t discuss this more comfortably in my lounge,” said Connor.
“Because we’re in the game,” she said. “Alright. You don’t want to tell me? You don’t have to. But you’ll make a public promise to Mike not to press charges against him again.”
“I can’t blooming-well do that,” exclaimed Connor. “You know that!”
“And as long as there is this war going on between you two, I’m caught in the middle,” she said acidly. “I’m amazed that you can’t see that! Okay, here are the rules. I give you challenges, you know, in my capacity as the Forest Fairy. You can meet them, or you can break out of them at any time by messaging Mike and promising not to press any further charges.”
“Bring it on,” growled Hugo.
Nadisda got up. “Good luck,” she said lightly. “Meet me in the Dread Wastes on Level Thirty.”
“I’m not on Level Thirty yet,” he pointed out.
“You are now,” she informed him. There was a flash and he found himself in the middle of the dread wastes, with her.
“You’re truly beautiful,” scoffed Nadisda. Hugo had transformed into a monster that would have made the Gruffalo look like a fairy queen. He was wriggling along on all fours, like some giant mud-skipper from a swamp; with a slimy skin like a frog and vicious teeth like a shark; warts with tentacles grew all over his skin and his tail had poison-glands at the tip of it.
“So that’s what you think of me,” he replied sarcastically.
“The truth will change you back,” she advised. “And don’t worry, you can defend yourself when they attack you. I didn’t make you weak.”
“So what do I do?”
“You wait and see.”
“Oh shit,” said Mike. “She’s taking him into the Wastes. I forgot. I put something in there that will destroy her in a heartbeat.”
“Get her out, quickly!” urged Jen.
“Hang tight,” replied Mike.
A scroll hung in the air above Nadisda’s head. She reached for it.
‘Warning! Get out of the Dread Wastes! There is an enemy in here that will eat you for breakfast!’
Nadisda put the scroll away into her jeans pocket. It was so much more practical than her fairy gowns!
“An enemy stronger than you?” asked Monster Hugo in surprise.
“Nothing that can touch me,” she said. “And don’t worry – I have healing magic, I won’t let you fail this quest on a glitch.” She removed herself just out of sight to the branches of one of the sparse trees, settling down in it and watching.
She’d barely sat down when a shadow circled overhead. As it came down, it grew, and grew, and grew…
“Wow!” whispered Nadisda in amazement. The most beautiful green dragon, young, huge, powerful, gleaming like emeralds in the hot midday sun, came down out of the skies. She tested the dragon’s level at forty.
No, in a one-on-one, Hugo would not survive this. But it was part of the test. Nadisda watched how the dragon got that red sheen around itself – that was a nice graphical touch, she thought – and attacked Monster Hugo.
It went so fast that Nadisda almost didn’t get her healing magic working in time. She had to keep blasting healing into that fight, because Hugo’s health points were cut back dramatically by every blow of the dragon’s tail, every hack of its talons or every bite of its formidable jaws.
An army of warriors appeared over the horizon. Nadisda peered through her fairy distance vision. Valentine was right in front, leading the army. And an onslaught of fireballs, grimballs, iceballs, mudballs, lightning bolts, shockwaves and all sorts of other spells crashed down on the beautiful dragon.
Nadisda held up her hand. The whole scene froze. All avatars and the dragon were suddenly suspended in time. She pulled the keyboard closer and started hammering away on it.
Connor stared at the girl who was suddenly there next to him again.
“Nadee? What the hell? You’re back? Where were you?”
“Wait,” she said and focused fully on the programming. “They’re not supposed to be attacking Elena. They’re supposed to be fighting you.”
He blinked at the army of maybe forty warriors. “What? How the hell do I survive that?”
“Remember what I said,” she reminded him. “And trust me! This is your Truth Quest. And you may have to discover if there’s really a hero in Hugo, or just a self-centred whatever.” She glanced at him. “You wouldn’t maybe be sweet and fetch me some ice water?”
Connor got up from the metal cabinet he was sitting on for a make-shift chair, and left for the front room. When he returned with Nadee’s drink of water, she was missing again.
Damn. He settled down and grabbed the controls, and realized that he was already in the middle of a fight. The mercenaries were bashing Monster Hugo to a pulp. He had hardly any health points left.
“Hay!” he exclaimed and started fighting back. One or two more blows on him and he’d be finished.
That healing magic came and resurrected his health levels just a little bit. He turned to see where she was. Still up in the tree. Except, now she held something square in her hand, almost like a small tablet.
Elena had taken off; flown away. That was interesting. He wished he could backtrack and see what the forest fairy had done.
Once again, the mercenaries beat him to within a hair’s breadth of his life. This time no healing magic came; instead, suddenly all their red auras turned blue. He couldn’t attack them anymore; nor could they attack him.
Valentine approached him.
“So you want to negotiate?”
“Really?” asked Hugo.
“You clicked the ‘parlay’ button,” Valentine pointed out. “So, Hugo, what is there to talk about?”
To Connor’s surprise, there was a “PM player” option hovering above Valentine. PM player? Send the player behind the avatar a personal message? What an interesting option! The game became more impressive every time he played it.
The other option that hovered over Mike’s head, was “Reveal truth about self”. That option chilled him.
A tiny window sprang up with Nadisda’s face – her real face, as though it were a Skype connection.
“First opportunity,” she said. “Pick.” And the window closed.
“Flipping intricate!” marvelled Connor.
He knew what she wanted him to do. She wanted him to contact Mike and let him know that he was dropping all charges. For hell’s sake! He’d been tracking the man down for a year, ever since Mike had first managed to escape from his custody. This went far beyond what a forest fairy – or any outsider – would understand. Besides, he had no choice! In fairness, Nadee didn’t know. He’d have to be so careful!
He picked the “reveal” button instead. And at that moment he felt like a real hero. This was a lot more risky to himself than letting the hacker go – but he couldn’t fail his mission.
Reveal a truth? About himself? He wondered how deep a truth it had to be, to appease the blooming game. He could but try.
Forty eager beta-players were waiting for his disclosure. Give them something. He grinned to himself. Who knew? It was only a game, after all.
“In real life I’m single, male and of course naturally good-looking,” he typed. The game froze; all except for the cursor blinking in that little window. Clearly, that truth didn’t count.
“Why didn’t it work?” he innocently asked Nadisda, who was sitting on her branch creaming herself, amidst a flock of giggling birds. It was good to see her laugh. But he also spotted the overtones. Black roses had begun to crawl up the tree she was sitting in. And for him – thistles had started springing up underneath, spiking him in his soft toady underbelly.
“Single?” she asked accusingly. “What are you trying?”
“Sorry! Had to try,” he grinned at her. And shook his head. He agreed; that had been mean. Maybe just a tiny bit of revenge for the way she was toying with him.
“An uncomfortable truth,” she said impatiently. Those thistles turned quite painful. “My gosh, I thought you’d figure that one out, Mr Ego! Now get on with it!”
Connor returned to the text window.
“I’m not really a hero,” he typed.
Nothing happened. They all stayed stuck, frozen in place, unable to move. Clearly more was needed.
“I’m a cop,” he typed.
That didn’t do it either. Cyber gamers never revealed their real-life identity, unless perhaps in private messages. He had breached a cardinal, unwritten rule of cyberplay, and it felt awful. But it didn’t move the game forward.
“The creator of this game is a felon,” he typed.
This time, the level went haywire. Snow buzzed across the screen; the landscape shifted; and more warts grew out of his already ugly head. He looked fearsome now.
He had also dropped down two levels. He had no idea a quest could do this! He turned to the forest fairy and got a PM from her on the screen.
Wrong thing to say, she wrote. It’s not relevant what others are and you don’t give away someone else’s identity online. That’s unspeakable. You’ve weakened yourself.
Connor typed back. But it’s a truth.
But you can’t hope to solve your problems by blaming someone else’s truth, she replied. You have disappointed me. And she closed the PM window.
Connor looked for the PM window for the fairy, but there was no such option. Blast!
But it had broken the game’s paralysis. Valentine, on the screen, was grinning viciously at him.
“So we’re into truth or dare?” he asked. “Who’s in?”
Nancy came forward and lifted her wand. “Pick me!” Sparkles flew out of that wand.
Valentine nodded at her.
“The Princess has of course always been secretly in love with the Villain,” she announced.
“Hey, that’s cute!” and “yay!” and similar came from the hired mercenaries. Some applauded.
Mike peered over his laptop at Nancy.
“For real?” he mouthed. The others were also gaping at her.
She was blushing deeply.
“Just shut up and play,” she said. “I had to start off the rounds of truth or dare with something that would challenge them.”
Connor glanced at Nadee who had appeared in the armchair from shock.
“Didn’t expect that,” he muttered.
“Me neither,” she breathed. “Wow! Nancy! I should have seen it…”
“Are you alright?” He reached for her hand; she clasped his.
“Fine, just… surprised. Nancy is a darling. I’m not sure she’ll cope with him. I may have to protect her.”
Connor looked for floral messages from the surrounds. There was nothing. The briar grove of half an hour back was gone. If she was feeling disappointment or shock, she was controlling it well.
He pulled her to him and kissed her forehead.
“I’ll help you.”
The fairy faded in his arms. Damn. He returned his focus to the game.
One of the others stepped forward.
“I’m a single mother, and I’m middle-aged. My kids are asleep. LOL.”
“Bravo!” shouted some, and “welcome!” and “but in here you’re a slinky young fox!”
“I’m a retired high-school teacher,” came another. “You kids thought I’d be missing out on all the fun?”
“Yikes!” and “alarm! We’ve got a teacher!”
“In here I’m just another dragon slayer,” laughed the gamer. “Anyway I’m not in your town, don’t worry, Judy!”
“Hey! How did you know who I am?”
“It’s a dead giveaway.”
“My turn,” said Valentine. “I’m a hacker and a thief. But I know a better one!” He approached Monster Hugo and prodded him with his sword. “Don’t I, Hugo? Takes one to know one, eh?”
“Valentine!” called Nadisda in disgust. “Don’t be evil!”
The Villain laughed. “But that’s who I am! I’m evil!”
“I’m a hacker too,” came another call from the crowd, from a necromancer. “And me, too,” from a pretty little girlish avatar. “And we all are a little bit evil in real life too. Like, skipping school so we can play. Sorry, teach!”
“You’re forgiven,” called the dragon slayer. “You’re not in my class. Or you wouldn’t dare.”
“And you’re forgiven for stalking us kids into our game,” she called back cheekily.
“I’m so evil, I look for shortcuts and glitches that I can exploit in this game,” called another voice from the crowd.
Valentine turned to face his crowd, raising his arms like an Olympic medalist.
“This is amazing! Thanks, guys! You’re awesome.”
Connor felt a light touch on his shoulder and turned. Nadisda was standing behind him in the half-dark of the study.
“There, you see?” she asked. “Isn’t that group spirit amazing?”
“I don’t need a support group,” he growled at her, glancing back at the screen.
“No,” she agreed. “You don’t. You need a character overhaul.”
“Nadee,” he pleaded, “this is stupid. Let’s can this idiotic game and just talk. Maybe we can come up with a solution for tomorrow.”
“You can get out of playing,” she said. “PM Mike, and tell him you’re dropping the charges.”
He shook his head.
“Girl, Nickells is a crook. I’m sorry you got dragged into this. It’s his fault really, he shouldn’t have involved you! This is between him and me.”
“They say,” she said, “people always hate the one thing in others that irritates them most in themselves.”
Connor stared at her. And he turned back to the screen and clicked the “reveal” button once more.
“You win, Villain. Here’s the truth. I want to put you behind bars because it’s only fair. They locked me up for four years, for being the most blooming brilliant hacker this country has ever seen, and I got the last one off because I started helping the police catch other hackers. Takes one to know one, just like you said. Think like a crook and you’ll catch him. Get it?”
The game froze. Connor felt Nadisda’s arms around him from behind. Hell, that made up for surfing so close to the truth that the marrow had crystallized in his bones. Then again, the best cover-ups were so close to the truth that the truth itself seemed unlikely.
“You’ve faced up to yourself,” she said with pride. “Now we must keep playing.”
The game unfroze. And the scene changed. He found himself in the middle of the forest, at a small lake. His level was back up to twenty-nine; and his shape had improved and was less monstrous and more dragon-like. His legs had lengthened from mud-skipper flippers into actual dragon legs; he had a distinct head now, rather than a frog-like all-in-one body; and on his back, the beginnings of wings were showing. But he still had those hairy tentacled warts, and the stupid grin on the monster’s face still reminded him of a bad cartoon of the Cheshire Cat.
He pulled out his questbook and saw that he had passed the first level of the Truth Quest. “Reveal an uncomfortable truth about yourself” had been achieved.
The next level was going to be more difficult. “Publicly admit something you have done wrong.”
Connor groaned. The fairy was naive. In the police force, self-incrimination broke your career.
The biggest wrong he had done, he hadn’t even had control over. And had it been wrong? That was on another level entirely. But blow that wide open – he’d be dead before he’d get to the end of the sentence.
So, something else then. She would not be content with him simply repeating that he’d been a juvenile hacker. And laying false charges against the rest of Mike’s team – while that was a strategy to get the guy behind bars, if he admitted to that publicly, he was finished in the police force.
He looked for the forest fairy. “Nadee! Can we talk?”
She was suddenly there, wrapping her blue wings around him. He hit the ‘pause’ button and turned to her.
“Let’s take this somewhere more comfortable.” He led her to the lounge. Poured her a glass of – whatever that stuff was that had used to be Jack Daniels. Sat down on the sofa. She curled up next to him, with his arms around her.
“I can’t do this,” he said. “It will finish my career.”
“So promise not to push further charges, and end this quickly.”
She was blackmailing him! “Can’t do that either, Nadee.”
He let out an impatient sigh. “Nickells hacked into many people’s accounts and looted their money.”
“Sure. And there are countless criminals out there who do much worse than that. So…?”
“I was a hacker too,” said Connor with a sigh, staring at the ceiling but pulling her closer. “I served my time for it. After that I started helping the police find other hackers. You see, I know how they think.”
“But there are many,” she agreed. “Surely you put a fair number of them behind bars?”
“Nobody as brilliant as Nickells,” said Connor with a quirky smile. “He outsmarts me by a mile. It’s a competition. You see, I was the best there was.”
“You already had him arrested twice,” she pointed out.
“And he jumped jail, twice now,” replied Connor. “No thanks to you, vixen!”
“And you can let it go,” she concluded firmly, peering at his face. “It’s alright. You don’t need to arrest him to prove yourself. You’ve got me, now.”
“I’ll quit my job and look for IT posts,” said Connor. He toyed with that scenario. Was it doable? Escape the force? Finally bury the terrible past?
It wouldn’t be enough, he realized. He had to complete his mission first.
The front door was forcibly broken open, and a squad of policemen came storming in, in bulletproof vests and with their guns raised.
“Connor McNaught, you’re under arrest!”
Nadisda watched in numb horror as they handcuffed her love and man-handled him out of the door. One of them cast a glance back at her. “Were you also part of it?”
“Of what?” she asked dumbly.
“That shooting. In the hardware store.”
“We’d better take her along, just in case,” said another one of the cops.
She found herself handcuffed for the second time in twenty-four hours.