It was a typical March evening. I left the house in a foul mood and headed toward the railway station. I was lost in thought, pondering our society, which was so full of oddities. We lived in the age of new technologies, but if you were desperate for money, no matter what, you could always get a job offloading the cars that the trains brought in daily — they always needed more people. I wondered what would happen if everyone was doing well, who would sign up for such grueling work? Would the railway stop working without any laborers? However, it seemed that there had never been such a problem in our country. Either there was some fallback option, or there were always some desperate people who needed money.
A few drops of rain fell. I waited for it to start pouring, but the clouds seemed to have changed their mind and moved further down, toward the suburbs.
I breathed in. It felt like I could sense nature, somewhere far away; the fresh air, a clear river — the clouds seemed reluctant to ruin the tableau with their overcast gloom. Suddenly, my stomach rumbled as if speaking to me loudly. Having given it a bit of thought, I decided to buy some food; two packs of noodles would be enough to get me through the rough day. I knew that I'd get tired and become hungry later, and the familiar flavor of ramen would help me survive one more work shift.
Along the way, I entered a small supermarket. Looking around, I noticed that there were few people in the store. Just a married couple in the bread department and a nerd with glasses who was meticulously studying packs of instant coffee. A couple of local punks were talking with the cashier, trying to persuade him that they were old enough to buy beer. A flock of female students who were apparently coming back from volleyball practice were chatting with each other in a corner.
A good looking man drew my attention. He was wearing a stuffy, official looking jacket and stood out when compared to all the other visitors. But I quickly forgot about the man, having decided that he was just an official visiting family in the neighborhood.
I shrugged and made my way over to the familiar aisle. When I got to it, the shelves flickered like a dying light bulb and disappeared. They just melted into the air. I looked around, my eyes wide. Maybe the people who worked in the shop have simply moved the shelf since I last visited this place, I thought. However, it was impossible to get rid of the thought that I'd just seen it standing there.
At that moment, another shelf disappeared. A boom reverberated through the store, accompanied by the screeching sound of rending metal. Two aisles crashed together and turned into one; then it happened again, and again. We were no longer in the ''Firefly'' supermarket; we weren't even in Moscow anymore. We all found ourselves in a white, nearly sterile room that was no longer than 50 yards to a side.
''What happened, man?'' Ahmed, the cashier, asked, his voice trembling. The old man was desperately trying to comprehend the fact that he'd lost all of his property. Strangely enough, the cash register and the counter stood untouched as he made his way around them and toward me. It seemed like he trusted me because he'd seen me around a few times before.
However, I didn't get a chance to answer him. The woman from the bread department dropped her basket and started screaming loudly. The man standing next to her hugged her. The middle-aged man's eyebrows drew down as he glared at all of us, daring us to say anything about his wife's behavior. The punks and the sportswomen huddled together in their own groups, not daring to do anything, and only the four-eyed man tried to speak.
“My name is Anatoly. Does anybody know what's happening here? If this is someone's idea of a joke, then you'd better speak up right now before this goes any further. This woman obviously has a weak heart. If she suffers a heart attack, you'll be held responsible.'' No one answered him, but the hysterical woman, who had been crying until now, immediately fell silent. The guy had said the right thing. I was impressed by how he'd averted the crisis.
''Well, my name is Dmitri, Dmitri Korablev, and I have no idea what's going on here,'' I said, my voice calm. Why had I lied just then? I mean, it was true that I didn't know what was going on, but my real name was Vasily Kotov. This strange habit of mine was a knee-jerk reaction — I would lie if someone suddenly asked me a question. Somehow, the lies came easily and effortlessly to my lips. If I were living somewhere in Europe, I probably would have been forced to get treatment for it. However, in my country, they said that it wasn't a big deal as long as I was able to control myself and didn't slack off when dealing with serious matters. After looking around, I noticed something odd. ''Wait, there was a man in a jacket here earlier… Where is he?'' I asked everyone present.
I didn't immediately notice his absence, even though I always thought that I had a pretty good memory. I had a strange feeling deep down that he hadn't just disappeared from the store but had also been erased from my mind.
''Actually,'' I heard a smooth, powerful voice say. ''I'm right here.'' The missing man showed up, sitting on a cabinet that had materialized out of nowhere. ''Look, I want to end this quickly. We don't have much time, so I'm going to offer you all a simple task. Whoever gets out of this place first will survive. Everyone else...'' He looked around, meeting each of our gazes. ''Will die.''
The last two words seemed to weigh on all of us as he disappeared again. But this time, a pile of various weapons appeared, laid out on the floor. A pipe wrench, a steel chain, a baseball bat with some long nails jutting out from its side, and even a rolling pin in the distance.
''What is this?'' one of the volleyball players asked in a whisper, her voice shaking.
''We're all going to die now, aren't we?'' one of her friends added.
''Calm down.'' The nerd pushed his glasses up and calmly took control of the situation. ''Listen. I think that the exit is right here. Do you hear that noise?''
We all nodded. There was a hole in the wall next to the guy. It was small, but just big enough to squeeze through if you crawled. The young man bent down to look inside as one of the punks ran up and shoved him aside with a powerful kick.
''Why don't you have a seat, four-eyes?'' His voice was calm and strangely soft. It was hard to believe that he'd just hit someone. ''The Jacket said that only the first person to get out of this place would survive. And that'll be me.''
Approaching the pile of weapons, he picked up a crowbar. In the meantime, everyone was looking at him in silence. A steady gaze was the only thing we got in return.
''What about us?'' one of his friends asked apprehensively.
''I'll get out of here and then return to help you.'' There was no logic in his words. He had just said that only the first one to leave would survive, and after that, he was already promising to come back. However, his friends were satisfied with this.
Morons and wussies.
I wanted to do something — to be honest, the warning of the mysterious stranger made me feel quite uncomfortable. Suddenly, the middle-aged man rushed forward, pulling out a gun, which he had hidden inside his jacket. His wife screamed as he emptied a clip into the punk. The older man's face became pinched and akin to a rat's. He had just killed a man, but he didn't look like a dangerous predator, more like cornered prey. However, those kinds of people were especially dangerous.
"Hm,'' a voice came from the corner of the room. ''This is a violation of the rules." The man in the jacket suddenly appeared again. His eyes shone brightly, contradicting his words. It was clear that he was pleased with this turn of events. ''I'll take away your weapon, sir, and you will all receive… a small penalty.''
The man raised his gun and squeezed the trigger, but he held only empty air. The firearm had simply disappeared. He took a few steps back and tried to hide behind his wife. However, the group of punks had already charged towards him with a cry of rage, and the older man disappeared under a flurry of blows.
The floor around him was quickly drenched in blood. However, a moment later, the guys stopped in amazement as they heard a familiar voice.
''What… what… happened to me?'' The leader of the punks rolled over and sat up. The pool of blood he had been lying in had disappeared. I was at a loss, no one could have bled out like that and survived, but even the bullet holes were now gone. The guy was looking around, glassy-eyed and confused.
At this point, everyone began slowly moving toward the heap of weapons. I couldn't help but feel a strange threat hanging over all of us, like a sword of Damocles. I didn't know whether it was a coincidence or not, but at this point, my gaze settled on a real blade that had appeared above the hole in the wall.
Was that our small penalty? It seemed that, after stepping into this supermarket, the laws of the world around us had changed.
''Friends, friends, we shouldn't fight. Let's vote on who will climb into the hole,'' Ahmed, the owner of the store, tried to come up with a peaceful solution.
''And what if this… wizard, God, or whatever he is, isn't telling the truth?'' Wiping the blood off of his nose, the nerd stood up, adjusting his spectacles. He was a tough guy, even if he looked like an ordinary geek.
For some reason, I knew that the only way to get out of this place without bloodshed was to support him.
"Look, no one has died yet, in spite of everything that has happened. Hell, one of us even rose from the dead. But I'm not sure that the person who crosses that line won't pay for it with their life,'' I tried to say calmly.
"Hmm... Maybe we just have to wait for the police?" The girls were staring at the four-eyed guy like he was a messiah. What a world. Why wasn't even one of them looking at me like that?
''I'd risk going through, but why do that when we have a hero willing to check the other side for all of us?'' With a victorious smile, the Poindexter gestured at the punk leader who still hadn't fully recovered from his recent bullet wounds. I noted that the nerd didn't miss an opportunity to exact revenge — I could respect that.
However, the leader of the punks didn't seem to appreciate his suggestion. He appraised the blade hanging over the hole in the wall, looked at the girls, then at the unconscious man who had pulled out the gun, and finally at the nerd.
"No, it's his store, let him do it," he answered, nodding toward Ahmed.
''Oh, friends, I have a family, children,'' Ahmed immediately became agitated. "We need someone strong and fast for this mission. As for me, if the blade starts to fall, I can hold it back with a crowbar.''
''Then you climb through, Dmitri.'' The nerd immediately turned to me. I grinned to myself. It had been the right decision to say my name at an appropriate moment as it had greatly increased the chances that they would choose me and not someone else. In the meantime, the guy continued talking. "If you want, we can arrange for a vote, but I'm pretty sure you don't have a chance. The guys over there won't let us choose someone from their group. The same thing with the girls. So only the three of us might be picked. However, our esteemed clerk is too old, and I'm not the strongest one here for sure. It's clear that you're the best choice.''
The gazes of the punks and the girls who were still picking up weapons from the heap silently confirmed his words. For some reason, they were looking at me aggressively. At that point, my eyes settled on the girl who had chosen the rolling pin as her weapon.
Even if I hadn't planned to be the first one to get out of here, it would've been really hard to refuse this mission.
"All right, all right, I'll do it. There's no need for violence."
Maybe it was just my imagination, but it seemed like everyone was looking at me as if I were some selfish jerk who had just tried to refuse a chance to save them all.
I waited until the guillotine was being held up with the crowbar, then I wrapped a chain around my hand, just in case, and went in.
The wall was surprisingly thick, no less than 80 inches, and the confines were very tight. I could hardly pull myself forward. I had to grip the small protrusions on the rock with my fingertips and dig the tips of my toes into the walls. Only then could I both pull and push in order to work my way through. It was a good thing that I had been keeping up with my morning exercises. However, even though I had kept myself fit, after a while, I started breathing heavily, and my heart began to beat rapidly. I didn't consider myself claustrophobic, but to be honest, before that day, I had never been in such a tight place. It felt like a huge weight was pressing down on me. The good thing was that, in spite of all these drawbacks, I was able to move forward. Just as panic began to overwhelm me, I finally found myself on the other side. I slowly got up and looked around.
Everything seemed to be quite normal. It was my city, down to the finest detail. Except for one thing — there was no one around. After a while, I turned back to the hole.
"Okay, I'm on the street, but there are no people here. I guess I'll try to call the cops,'' I shouted, stooping down next to the hole. It was a pity, really; for some reason, I thought that something like this wouldn’t end this easily. "Wait, I'll get out too," came the nerd's voice. After a little while, I heard the rustling of a body kneeling down, then a loud cry, followed by a blood-soaked head rolling out of the hole.
''Congratulations on your victory,'' said a cold voice nearby. He was standing in front of me, smoothing out his jacket. ''Now I can finally introduce myself: my name is Abaddon, the Great Chaos.''
With an elegant flick of his fingers, the building I'd just come out was engulfed in flames. In an instant, even the steel beams and the concrete ceiling melted into slag and ashes. It all happened so quickly that I didn't even hear the screams of the dying people.
"That isn't your name,'' I said the words with a strange certainty and authority.
"Perhaps." My interlocutor immediately agreed. "I have had many names. To be honest, they don't matter. The conceptual understanding of a great truth is what's essential. I am a God of Cunning and Deceit. You have been blessed, Vasily Kotov from Earth. You have the honor of joining me in oblivion.''
Immediately, the world around us was covered in a haze that seemed to crush my senses and darken my mind with agony. Only Abaddon's voice came through.
"I give you two presents. The first is a tombstone — hide it in a good place, and you'll be resurrected next to it if you die. But be careful, if it's destroyed, your next death will be your last one. The second gift is a special ability. Choose any weapon, and I'll teach you how to use it. No, boy, I won't train you enough to become a real master. You'll only get a little, just one technique, but that will be enough to start your adventure.''
I was hallucinating. The world was filled with flickering images of swords, dragons, and… men who had real power over others.
"Help me master magic!" Since he had said that I could choose any weapon, I knew that I had to use every opportunity and resource to survive. I was going to do my best, and maybe that would help me forget, at least for a while, about the people that had been left behind in that store.
''That's impossible, child. In the world that lies before you, there is no magic.'' For the first time, I heard a note of surprised concern in his voice.
''Deal!'' I said instantly. I thought quickly, my mind spinning. ''I'll lie to everyone about my power, about magic. Isn't that what a true disciple of the God of Deceit should do?''
For a moment, there was silence, and then a deep, terrifying, and gut-churning laugh broke its way through the darkness.
A world appeared suddenly. Only, it was not my world. Everything was gray and lifeless.
Stop. The voice. Abaddon.
He said something about another world. What did he mean by that?
A portion of space folded and blossomed into a riot of colors. A man stood there, silhouetted by a shroud of smoke and fire. He shifted from one foot to the other.
''Hey, guys. Come out from the Gray Lands. That place is dangerous. Time is short,'' he said, his voice alarmed.
Lethargy had me wrapped up in a warm blanket of complacent comfort and ease. A small corner of my mind screamed at me to escape, to take this stranger's offer, and find freedom. There was no need for such a rush, was there? I just wanted to lay down and have a nice rest since I was tired. The day had been long, and everything was so confusing, muddled in a gray haze. I'd figure it all out in the morning.
Thin figures made of shadow and stardust slipped past me toward the flaming portal which began to shrink fractionally. Only then did a cold realization wash over me, banishing the fog from my mind. I knew that if I didn't escape, I'd die.
I looked around, and then back toward the portal. There was still time. There was an opportunity here, in this place, I knew it. If I could only figure out what I should do... I did the only thing I could think of. I stuffed my pockets full of the ghostly grass and herbs as I started moving forward. Suddenly, I tripped over a stone and almost fell. Shrugging, I picked it up as well and entered the portal.
The hazy, numb quiet of the Gray Lands was shattered by the cacophony of a new world. My bones turned into putty and muscles into water. I fell to the ground as exhaustion washed over me, crashing against consciousness like waves against the shore. I fell forward and rolled onto my back. The strange stone dug painfully into my side. But I didn't have the strength to protest as darkness took me.