1 A Second Chance

Have you ever been in an awkward situation where you felt out of place? Yeah, that feeling of dread when you suddenly realized that you didn't belong somewhere.

Like a prostitute hanging around a church, or a scoundrel who accidentally snuck into the local judge's home. You just knew that you weren't meant to be there, but there you were nonetheless.

I'm currently experiencing one of these moments right now and I'm having a hard time processing my feelings, ya know? Especially since the circumstances regarding my current situation are rather....special in nature. Spooky stuff, in fact, if I had to tell ya the truth.

Reed had not moved an inch since he had woken up because he feared of what lurked in the dark.

Darkness shrouded him as he laid on the old stone floor. He hummed a tune as he the passed time waiting for something to happen. Patience was a virtue, or so he had been told a long time ago.

Not that he was the patient type, he was just a coward. But he wasn't about to admit it anytime soon. When have ladies ever liked cowardly men? You gotta fake it 'till you make it.

When he woke up, he found himself unable to see and for the briefest of moments, assumed that he had woken up in hell or the afterlife. Reed pathetically sobbed in the fetal position for a while until he finally remembered what happened to him.

Something saved his life; the shadow that had offered him a deal he couldn't refuse. It promised to save him if he accepted the offer it had given him.

A scam of the highest order. Offer someone who's dying a way out and of-fucking-course they'll accept whatever you say. But there was no point in crying over spilled milk. He had accepted the offer out of necessity, not because of the shady-ass enticement.

Opportunity to have all my wishes fulfilled, my ass. He'd grown up in the slums where lying and getting stabbed in the back were recreational activities. He was surprised that the shadow kept his part of the deal, but that wasn't enough to win him over.

Just have to roll with the punches as per usual. In that regard, this was no different from any other damned day.

"In any case, I've got to make sure to not fuck up the second chance the shadow's given me. I don't know what I signed up for when I accepted the deal, so it's best to just assume I'm fucked."

The last thing he remembered before he fainted was that the shadow had put a small blue light over his chest.

"Haven't the slightest idea what that blue light was, but whatever the shadow did worked like a charm," muttered Reed as he checked himself out. He couldn't even feel scars where the bullet wounds should have been.

"Seems like magic is pretty goddamn convenient, huh. Not so much as a scratch on my ass."

It was widely known that magic existed on Fairis, but Reed had never seen it in action before. Bards that sung their songs often spoke of mages who could freeze the land, call raging storms of flame, and the like. Reed liked hearing about them when he was young but eventually grew out it as he came of age.

Those fanciful stories sounded too unrealistic, but a small part inside of him always hoped he would come across someone who lived in that world. A boy could at least dream, right?

Who'd have thought he'd be saved by a mage one day?

"It'd be nice if you'd give me a break, now and then, Lady of Fate. There's only so much my little heart can handle in a single day..."

As if in response to Reed's prayer, the sound of thunder boomed in his ears and he immediately curled up in fright. Suddenly, a small ball of light appeared in the darkness and began to hover over slowly.

It wasn't too bright, but it was still big enough that illuminated its immediate surroundings. Shaking in fear, Reed felt like the ball of light was a gift sent from heaven and quickly began scurrying towards it.

Unfortunately, the ball of light would move away from him once got too close to it. He caught on that if he stopped chasing the ball of light, it'd stop as well and not move until he moved towards it again.

He wasn't an idiot, he knew that the ball of light was taking him somewhere, but had no choice other than to follow it. Starving to death in this crypt wasn't an option.

"Going to have to play this by the ear." Reed took a deep breath, and then carefully made sure not make too much noise as he followed the ball.

In any case, the place that the shadow dropped him off at was mind-boggling.

He'd been walking for what felt like ages; his legs were starting to get heavy, but he still had not reached the ball's final destination.

"Must have walked a dozen miles and the ball still hasn't stopped moving. This place is fucking massive; it was a good thing I stayed in place when I woke up or else I would have certainly screwed myself over." He shuddered at the thought of getting lost in this gargantuan crypt.

Reed was pulled out of his thoughts when the ball suddenly stopped. It stopped in front of an impressive door that had an exquisite carving of angels and demons on it. The door ominously shimmered in the dark with a red glow that looked all too uninviting.

The longer he stared at the door, the stronger his sense of foreboding increased. He put his cold, sweaty hand on the golden doorknob and hesitated as he stood in front of the door.

His instincts were screaming at him to not enter. He felt ill just standing the front of the door. His body and mind had come together in agreement for once as they both reacted adversely to the idea of opening the door.

He didn't have a say in the matter, in any case. It was either this or walking back out into the void, and only God knew what lay waiting for him if he went back.

"Ahh, goddamnit. Just gotta stay calm and get in the zone," Reed muttered to himself as he did his best to push down his emotions in preparation for the worst. He finally mustered up the remaining embers of courage he possessed and entered the door.

What he saw when he first entered caught his attention almost instantly as if it had a magnetic quality to it. The door itself connected to a massive stone hall that looked worn beyond belief. Bits and pieces of the titanic pillars that supported the hall laid strewn about the main passage. Complex symbols and hieroglyphics of some kind had been engraved upon the pillars. Although faded and almost destroyed, a couple of portions of some of the pillars still had pieces of their gorgeous murals intact.

But that wasn't what had drawn his attention when he had entered the hall, what had taken his breath away when he entered was a painting that hung at the front of the hall below an old stone altar.

The painting was so beautiful that even Reed knew that it was special when he had laid his eyes upon it, but that wasn't why had been left dumbfounded by it. It was the size of the painting.

"Fucking. Massive. Painting." was the best description that Reed's limited vocabulary could come up with at the moment. He wagered that he was probably a hundredth the size of the painting's height and width. Compared to the ancient, decaying hall around him, the painting looked like it had not been aged a single day since it had been completed.

The painting depicted a grand staircase that pierced the heavenly firmament. A single man stood at the bottom of the staircase as he gazed at a woman who stood at the summit. She gently held a mote of light in her grasp as she stared at the starry sky, completely oblivious of the man down below...

What kind of relationship did the two figures have with one another to have elicited the expression that the man had at the bottom?

The longer that Reed stared at the man's face, the harder it became to determine his expression.

His expression was one of sorrow, but his eyes told a different story. They looked like they contained a million thoughts within them. None of those feelings would ever reach the woman in heaven it seemed. It gave him a longing feeling that couldn't be put into words.

"What's your first impression, boy? Most people are often torn about the man's expression the first time they see it, you see..." The tender voice resounded in his ears, jolting him out of the daze he had been in.

He jumped up in fright, turned around and saw that a man had been beside him already. He was dressed in a fancy suit that shimmered around the edges with a soft, pulsing light that gave him an otherworldly appearance. The fellow was one of the handsome types, too, and possessed an air of elegance that common people would not have. His long, silver hair that drooped past his shoulders even gave him an androgynous look when it was coupled with his face.

Had it not been for his Adam's apple, Reed would have probably mistaken him for a woman.

"Ah, don't be scared, boy. I'm not here to hurt you, after all, I'm the one who guided you in here in the first place." He waved his hand and a familiar ball of light appeared in front of him.

"Do you have the entrance mark that your sponsor gave you? You can show it to me and I'll send you on your way. Congratulations on becoming a contender." The man smiled as he waited for an answer.

Reed slowly backed up and said, "Entrance mark? What's that? I don't think I have that, sir," afraid of angering the posh gentleman.

A single eyebrow rose as the elegant man stared at Reed curiously. The man said, "Hm? You don't know what an entrance mark is? Who's your 'sponsor', boy? Have you not been taught anything?"

The man was quick on the uptake and put together that something was off about the situation based on what Reed had said. He asked Reed to explain what he knew from the beginning.

Reed sighed as he explained how he had ended up in his current situation, hoping that if he came clean, the man would be able to figure out why he was sent here for. He told the gentleman about his unfortunate run-in with death and the deal that he made the shadow before he almost died.

Surely this gentleman would have more insight about the shadow and the deal he had rashly made, right?

Unfortunately, his story didn't help him at all, and in fact, confused the man even more.

"You don't have any entrance mark; you don't know your sponsor's name or title, so how did you even enter in the first place? It should be impossible in theory for a mortal to enter without permission from a sponsor or a gate lord's special admission..."

The gentleman's face scrunched up as he thought about Reed's story and eventually let out a long sigh as he looked at the young boy who looked just as lost as him.

The gentleman looked up at the ceiling and began talking in a language Reed had never heard before. It a soft, buzzing type of speech that sounded as if the gentleman had a bee stuck in his throat. He spoke a couple of sentences and finally turned his attention back towards Reed after a moment of contemplation.

"I can't tell if this will be a curse or a blessing for you, boy. I don't know how you got in here, or what smuggled you into here, but since you made it in here, I suppose I could sneak you in through the last step. You made it this far in any case, which is commendable for a mortal." The gentleman's expression softened up the more he looked at Reed's pitiful appearance.

"I did what? Why are you looking at me like that? I just woke up and followed your light blub here..."

Reed decided it was best not voice his suspicions out loud; he didn't want to get into more trouble than he already was.

"Well, I guess I should explain to you what you've gotten yourself into, otherwise you'll be in trouble. Listen closely, because I'm only going to tell you once."

"There's a place beyond the world you call home, a place where it is possible for men to become gods. A place where all of your dreams can be realized. You'll have the chance to get anything you could ever imagine of if you're willing to fight for it."

"But to enter this land of opportunities, you need an entrance mark which is normally given to you by a 'sponsor', someone who's already from there. The only way you can get in through Heaven's Gate is if you have a mark, but you already got in without one..."

"It's one thing to have a mediocre sponsor, but not to have one at all? Freelancers don't live long, boy. And without a mark, I can't even begin to imagine what kind of 'Alma' you'll end up creating when you enter. This is unprecedented in many ways."

"If I were to be completely honest, it would best if you simply backed out and returned to a mortal world, boy. I don't know what this shadow told you, but the only thing inside there is a struggle for happiness. It's crush or be crushed in there. Are you sure you have the heart for that?"

Reed hesitated as he heard the man's warning. Sure he wanted to escape the ghetto he born in and explore the world; set out for an adventure, but at what cost?

The shadow promised everything he could ever dream once he got in, but the gentleman warned him otherwise.

Still, Reed knew he couldn't back down easily from this chance. He would probably never another receive a chance like this ever again. If he gave it up, it'd be back to slums all over again and daydreaming of better days.

What of the shadow as well? He had made a deal with shadow to enter if it saved his life. Reed was slightly scared of the consequences if he didn't keep up his end of the deal. Would the shadow come back and take his life for breaking the deal? He didn't want to figure that out the hard way...

Reed laughed at himself as he thought of the excuses he was giving himself to stay. He hated how roundabout and indecisive he was at times.

The gentleman grinned as he looked at the determined face that formed on the boy and knew that this was going to be a moment to be remembered. The boy's face was precious.

"It seems you've made your decision, boy. I hope you find whatever you're looking for if you make to the top. You see that altar up there in front of the painting? Just step up there and you'll begin your new life in Mulia."

"Don't worry about the small stuff, as everything will be explained once you formally enter and get through the tutorial," said the gentleman was he dragged Reed towards the altar, almost as if he was trying to get rid of him as quickly as possible.

By then, Reed didn't have a say in the matter, in a matter of seconds he was thrown onto the altar and a bright flash of light enveloped him before he could even shout out a surprised yelp...

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