>Entry #17: Arcade Wizard.

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Walking into the arcade, it was as though nothing had changed over the past two years. The same games filled the air with their chirps and chimes. People milling around, having fun, laughing, screaming, cursing, but overall, having a great time. It was then that Daniel became starkly aware of the fact that his past two years were nothing like any of theirs. Suddenly he felt like he didn’t belong here.

“Daniel?” Saari turned to him, “Are you alright?”

“Y-yeah… Maybe we should just go meet up with Dad and Jeron.”

“Why the change of heart? You sounded so excited to be here. It sounds pleasant enough. Lots of chattering and strange digital sounds…”

Daniel rolled his head on his shoulders. “Yeah, but…” He looked around again. “I just don’t feel like I belong here anymore…”

“And why is that?”

They stepped aside to allow another group to enter.

“Everything is the same.”

“How is that bad?”

“Because I’m not the same… I didn’t think I changed… But I guess I did…”

Saari sighed, “The past few years were very difficult for you.”

Daniel scoffed, “It was nothing.”

“That is a lie,” she took him by the shoulders, “I know what you went through, Daniel. To be alone and feel abandoned.”

Daniel looked to where her eyes would have been. Even without them, her gaze was firm and sincere.

“Perhaps one day Lord Qaitax will distance himself from me. Perhaps one day your father will do something he cannot return from. Perhaps one day we will be alone again, but Daniel,” she smiled, “We don’t have to be alone without them. We are siblings, right?”

Daniel smiled.

“Where would you like to begin?”

“I guess we could start where I did two years ago,” he took her hand and lead her over to the machine he’d topped the leaderboard on, “Wonder if I’m still number one…”

No one was at the machine so Daniel was quick to step up. He waited for the preview screen to come around to the high scores. Alas, he was now in second place. This would not do.

“I need quarters,” he took Saari’s hand again and lead her to one of the change machines. Soon enough, he’d reduced a twenty into its component quarters. “Okay,” he led her back to the machine. He placed her hand on the console, “It has some tactile feedback. Maybe that’ll help a little.” Once he loaded his quarters, he started playing.

Something in Saari’s mind lit up. She recoiled in pain. Daniel immediately abandoned his game to reach for her. “Saari! Are you…”

She clasped her hands to her head, accidentally throwing her hood off. Some of the ambient murmuring in the room quieted down. She was quickly aware of the silence.

“Saari,” Daniel took hold of her arms, “Are you okay?”

“I-I saw… I saw something… I-I have never… It was like it was there… Not distorted by the Void… Images… Th-the screen…”

“Y-you could…” Daniel looked at the GAME OVER screen on the machine, “You could see it?”

Saari nodded as she fought back sobs. “I’ve never seen anything like it… Clear in a world of darkness…” she shook her head, “Everyone can see me now… I…”

“It’s okay, Saari,” he pulled her hood back up, “Here,” he helped her back to her feet. “Let’s go find Dad and Jeron.”

She shook her head, “No. No… I… I want to see it again.”

“But… it hurt you…”

“I want to see it again…” she approached the case, placing her hands on the controls. “Make it happen again.”

“O-okay…” Daniel put some more quarters in the machine. “But if it hurts you again, we’re leaving.”

Saari stared at the screen.

The game started up and as soon as Daniel started inputting controls, Saari’s hands slapped onto the screen. Unable to see what was happening on the display, so he just kept spamming commands. Inevitably, he was met with a GAME OVER screen.

“I want to see it again…” her hands wandered across the controls.

“Here,” Daniel loaded in some more coins. He put her right hand on a joystick and her left on some buttons. “You play.”

Without a word, Saari became silently absorbed in the game. And she played it effortlessly. In record time, she was plugging her name into the first place slot.

Daniel stood, mouth agape.

“I want to play again.” She announced without inflection.

With a nod, Daniel put more quarters in.

Once more she was glued to the screen. Playing as if it was second nature. This time, however, Daniel noticed a dim violet glow in her antlers. He kept glancing between her and the screen. It wasn’t long before she was putting her name in again.

“Again.” She demanded.

“Well, there’s a two-player mode… Maybe we could play together this time?”

Saari nodded as he put more quarters in.

It was hard for him to pay attention to the game as the light in her antlers grew until there were sparks flying between them.

“S-Saari?”

Determined silence.

“Saari! Are you…”

She clasped her hands over the screen and with a shriek she pulled away, taking the image of the game with her. Daniel stood back as what looked like a hologram projection of the game they’d just been playing filled the space between them. She lifted her arms, taking control of her character.

“Play with me, Daniel.”

Daniel had no idea what he was looking at. Her antlers seemed to be the source of the image, but how and why?

“H-how are you doing this, Saari?” he raised his own arms, his character mimicking his actions.

“I-I do not know…”

“What can you see?” he flexed a bit, his avatar did the same.

“I see the game. And I see you as a specter. The rest is dark.” She took an offensive stance, “Let us begin.”

Daniel did his best to mimic her movements. He was no fighter and he knew Saari was a martial master. He didn’t stand a chance, but what did it matter? His mind was still racing with the entire concept of what was occurring right before his own eyes.

Their characters immediately began grappling with each other while Saari and Daniel stood across the room from one another. Their movements reflected in the hologram. Every punch, every duck, every leg swing… They could feel when they made contact, yet both remained unharmed. It was exhilarating.

It was impossible to avoid a gathering crowd. Whatever was happening wasn’t easily ignored. People stood around them, their eyes darting from the holographic game and Saari’s electrified antlers. Nobody knew how to react. None of this was normal and yet… It wasn’t exactly terrifying either.

Parents were quick to try to escort their children out, but as children do, they only wanted to see the cool game. Unshaperoned kids stood entranced by the bizarre manipulation of reality.

As expected, Daniel lost, but Saari wasn’t done yet.

“I-I…” he panted, “I have to sit down, Saari…”

“Another challenger then!” she turned to the crowd, “Someone step forward and test your mettle against the Void’s finest!”

The crowd glanced among themselves muttering about what they should do.

“D-did the punches hurt?” one of the kids turned to Daniel.

“Nope!” he panted, “Didn’t feel a thing!”

“I wanna play!”

Everyone turned to a little girl forcing her way through the crowd.

“I wanna play!” She repeated as she put her quarters in the machine and took her place across the room from Saari.

Daniel put Saari’s fare into her side of the machine.

The character select screen came up. Saari chose the same agile looking character from before while the girl picked a burly buy with muscles stacked on his muscles.

“I will go easy on you, little one,” Saari smiled as the timer counted down.

It was only a matter of moments before the girl was K.O.’d.

“One more time!” The girl put more quarters in. Daniel once more put his own in on Saari’s side.

This time the fight lasted a lot longer. The girl was tiny, bet she was fierce. Eventually, Saari actually lost.

“You let me win!” The girl put more quarters in, “I wanna play again. This time play fair.”

Saari nodded.

After two more defeats, the girl walked away penniless, but excited.

“That was fun! You should all play!” she cheered as she returned to standing in the crowd.

Daniel stepped up again. This time he managed to place again.

A few more kids summoned the guts to challenge Saari. None of them managed to get on the leaderboard, but they all had a lot of fun. Daniel played a few more times between challengers. The crowd began spectating wildly. Cheers and boos and all kinds of clamoring excitement filled the room.

Hours past before Saari found herself exhausted. It came on suddenly as the images cast by her antlers flickered before vanishing. They returned to the screen upon which they were normally seen and that was that. The onlookers sighed and groaned a bit, but they all wandered away talking non-stop about what they’d just been a part of. Some of them even approached Saari thanking her for the show. Their voices shook a bit, but not a single one of them said anything about her antlers.

“Hungry?” Daniel smiled as he pulled out what was left of his money, “I think I have enough for two pizzas. Unless pizzas got a lot more expensive over the past two years…”

Saari was clearly winded, but she smiled uncontrollably. “I wonder if I can do that with any of the other games…”

Daniel grinned, “Maybe? But let’s find out some other day, okay? I’m hungry.”

“As am I,” she nodded. Her world was once more dark and empty, but knowing that she could bring light into it was incredibly comforting. Perhaps she could figure out how to permanently make her vision that clear in everyday life. A world of opportunity had suddenly been exposed to her. For so long she had thought there was nothing more for her in this world than to languish in darkness, but this? This was something else. It gave her hope that if nothing else, she’d always find the light here. The best part of it all was that no one, not a single person, remarked about her antlers.

Daniel led her to a table before ordering some pizza at the counter. Saari sat in pleasant silence until she could feel someone approach her.

“So what exactly are you?” it was a man’s voice.

“W-what am I?” she turned in the general direction of where the words had come from. “I-I…”

“You’re some mutant from the no-go zone aren’t you?”

Saari bit her lip.

“You really don’t belong here, you know that right?”

She clenched her fists.

“You’re like diseased or something, aren’t you?”

Silence.

“You’re going to make everyone sick.”

“How did you do that anyway?”

“I do not know…” she finally spoke up, her voice cracking terribly.

“Was it these things?”

Suddenly, she felt something touch one of her antlers. Without a thought, she took hold of his arm, spun him around, and dropped him to the floor.

“DO NOT TOUCH ME!”

Daniel ran back to the table. He put a hand on Saari’s shoulder. She was sobbing.

“Why did you do that?” he turned to the man who was slowly picking himself up off the floor, “You don’t just touch people like that!”

“People?!” the man scoffed, “That’s not people! What the fuck is it?!”

“HER name is SAARI and she’s a priestess of the Void! Her dad is a Voidlord who’ll tear you apart when he hears you hurt her!”

“Void? What, as in, the Rift?”

Daniel nodded.

“I knew you were from the corrupted zone, but from inside that thing?!” his cocky-ness turned to panic, “You’re monsters! Like all the other shit that spews out of that hell hole! Y-you’re contaminated! Diseased! You’re probably infecting everyone!”

“Corruption isn’t contagious like that!”

“Your kind doesn’t belong here! I’m calling the fucking police!” the man ran off with his cellphone in his hand.

A deep sigh came from behind them. An woman stood there with their pizzas.

“C-can we get them to go?” All of Daniel’s happiness from the day was completely dissolved.

“Nonsense,” the woman placed the pizzas on their table. “Sit tight and eat up. I’ll go deal with that rabble-rouser.”

Daniel pulled a chair close to Saari. “Here,” he put a piece of plain on her plate. “When you’re ready…”

“I am not hungry…” Saari’s voice was shaking, “I knew this would happen…”

“Saari, we had a lot of fun today and a lot of people thought what you were doing was cool! Don’t let one asshole ruin it, please…” he put an arm around her shoulders, “You’re really cool, Saari.”

She shook her head, “I am an abomination.”

“Well I will say this is the first time I’ve ever seen someone with antlers coming out of their eye sockets, but ya seem harmless enough,” the woman had returned, “Kids liked ya enough. That’s always a good sign.”

Daniel glanced between him and Saari.

“Listen, I’m the owner of this place and,” the woman sat beside Daniel, “I know now’s not the best time for such a thing, but the arcade business is kinda dying off what with home consoles and personal computers. That crowd you drew was one of the biggest I’d seen in years.” Saari sniffed, “I’m not gonna ask and I’m not gonna pretend I care, because honestly I don’t, but would you have any interest in coming back as a scheduled event of some kind?”

“Saari isn’t some kind of animal doing tricks because you want her to!” Daniel shrieked.

“I don’t mean it like that,” the woman sat back with his arms in the air, “I meant as a guest entertainer. I’d pay ya for your time.”

“Saari?” Daniel turned to her, rubbing her back gently, “Let’s get out of here…”

She shook her head slowly. “Am I not something horrific to you?”

The woman sighed, “We can see the Mist from here. It’s hard to ignore. We know there’re people trapped in there. Lord knows what happens to ’em. You’re the first people from there I’ve ever met and I’m impressed.”

“Impressed? Because I can make digital images appear in 3D space?”

“My dear, people pay big money for virtual experiences. I’d kill to get in on that. You’d help me skip all the tech upgrades. Can you do that trick with any of the other machines?”

Saari thought a moment, “I do not know for certain…”

“Well, someday, you should stop back and do the grand tour. Playtesting’s on the house.”

Saari’s fists clenched in her lap.

“We really should talk to our dads about this…” Daniel muttered.

“Oh, of course! Also, you should eat your pizza before it gets cold. Wife’d kill me if she knew I let you eat cold pizza.” The woman stood up and walked away.

 

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