A Ghost's Den


 The Dark Sector was full of holes and loops. And shadows, most of all.

 It's not exactly night-time 24 hours a day, though. Right now, it was daytime, but the dark clouds above made the landscape foggy that only a few light rays could pass through in a shade of dim yellow. That made the surrounding more or less like a warm evening overlaid by thick stormy clouds.

Zack had been jogging straight in the direction of where he'd seen the doughnuts fly to, but now that it was already fifteen minutes since they split up to look for it, he was beginning to think that he was on the wrong track.

Well – first of all, he'd somehow found himself in the forest, when he was sure that the doughnuts were headed towards some old rocks that were part of some ruins. Second, he should have probably done at least a bit of research about who this Chris guy was really. If he was a friend of Sky's, why hadn't he heard of him?

And he'd thought that when they first met, this guy was another member of the programming team.

Oh, yeah, and when they set off on this little game, Chris had already vanished.

Finally tired of brooding and wandering through the forest aimlessly, he punched a dead tree hard that it fell over, then kicked the log hard that it shattered to shards of wood.

They narrowly missed a girl who had been standing at the edge of the forest. At least she didn’t seem to have gotten hurt.

“Oh, sorry about that,” he muttered. “Um, excuse me-”

Her eyes widened, and she turned and fled.

“Excuse me! Where's the direction to the ruins?” he called, jogging after her.

“Get away from me! Monster!” she yelled back.

Monster? Did he scare her?

Zack huffed – just as lightning flashed downwards from the sky and struck a tree in front of the girl, bursting it into flames.

It began to fall, aiming for the girl, who had frozen at the sound of the thunder, and was now staring at what would have crushed her, if he hadn't charged straight at her, scooped her up, and leaped out of the tree's way before it fell onto the ground behind him.

“Any later and you would have died! React faster, will you?” Zack snapped, alarmed.

“S-sorry!” the girl gasped, her words trembling as she clung to him, shocked. “B-but - even so, I’d probably just be ejected out of the game for bad luck, I won’t get hurt, right?”

“That’s true . . .” Zack muttered, realizing his mistake. How could he have forgotten that the game won’t have hurt her? Oh, that’s right, he would be the one crushed by the tree if he were standing frozen there.

But then he frowned. “If that was real life, it just showed me how you would have reacted if a real tree was falling onto you.”

The girl tensed as he let her go, then approached the tree.

The chances that a lightning would strike a tree in the Dark Sector was rare, too. Why would the lightning strike downwards towards people? Nature? No way, why would a computer-generated nature send lightning down on purpose near a player? If anything, the virtual world was not one with any harm intended. A bug, most likely. Especially if it wasn’t the programmers back at the Synchron Organization.

“What are you doing?” asked the girl.

“Nothing, just trying to figure out whether that lightning earlier was a natural phenomena of the game or not.”

“It’s a game. Why is it like real life, to you?” asked the girl.

Zack shrugged. “Well, never mind that.” He turned away from the tree. The way it struck down did bother him. Like it was an abnormal phenomenon. And abnormal phenomenon aren’t something he could easily overlook when it came to the game.

“Say, can you tell me where the ruins are? I’ve got someone I have to find,” he said, turning to the girl, who had been standing frozen, watching him.

“The - the ruins?” she asked.

“Yeah. I was trying to ask you that. But then for some reason, you ran away.”

The girl looked offended. “Anyone would have thought you’re trying to attack me! Lately, there’s been rumors of someone picking on other Gladiators in this Sector, so I was worried of being targeted!”

“What?” Zack stared at her. “Someone picking on other Gladiators? Does it involve the Gladiator who uses shadows and traps his targets by dragging them into the Sector?”

The girl blinked at him, then shook her head. “That’s another one. The one I’m talking about is someone who wields lightning. He rampages through the whole sector and attacks any Gladiator he meets. I’m pretty sure it’s a real rumor.”

Zack sighed. “Man, I’m gonna have a hell of a time figuring all that out. Well - just show me where the ruins are.”

“No need for that, Zack,” said Chris’ voice, and Zack whirled around to see him perched in a tree. “Did anyone ever tell you that your sense of direction is pretty bad? Compared to your brother’s.”

“I’m afraid I’m just slightly off from my brother,” Zack said.

“Well, that’s one of your flaws, I suppose,” said Chris. “By the way, I found what you were looking for.” He held up a bag of doughnuts. “I win.”

Zack waved his hand and sent a bolt of red aimed straight at Chris.

Like a shadow, Chris faded and disappeared, then reappeared, perched on another tree. The bolt struck a branch and knocked it off towards the ground.

“Close call,” said Chris. “You have some bloodlust in your eyes, there, kid. That’s not normal for a teenager to have, unless he’s got some bad history.”

“That person . . .” The girl gasped behind him.

Zack spun around to her in surprise. “You know him?”

“He’s a legend in the world of Gladiators! Didn't you know?” gasped the girl, stunned. “That’s Chris Hunter! He’s known as the Ghost Catcher! They even say that he can speak to ghosts! - Or something like that. But he’s probably the rank of the Core Gladiators! He’s powerful, for a gamer!”

Zack almost assumed that when she mentioned the Core Gladiators, she meant him and the current other two, but then realized that she referred to their predecessors.

“Did you say . . . Ghost Catcher?” Zack mumbled.

“That is him!” said the girl.

Zack turned back to Chris, and then drew his sword. There was a glint in his eyes. “Say, Gladiate me.”

That made Chris and the girl stare at him.

“No kidding,” said Chris finally. “You want to fight someone who’s far more stronger than you?”

 “Yeah. I thought you’d be the kind of guy who’d accept, seeing as you took my doughnuts from me.”

“That’s absolutely crazy,” the girl spun to Zack. “You’re gonna lose. You’re definitely gonna lose.”

“Stick around and see how long I last fighting him, then,” said Zack. “You mind, Chris?”

Chris hopped off the branch and landed lightly onto the ground, despite the branch being thirty feet above ground. “Actually, I was thinking that I should test you out alone, away from your friends, rather than let Mikey see how good your skills are.” He hid away the doughnuts in his jacket and took out his key, turning it into a bow. “You might get hurt, though. Especially since this place is actually also to my advantage, and not yours.”

The End

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