The bright sunlight filtered through the lilac color leaves overhead. There were sounds of birds singing somewhere far off, of wind rustling the leaves. He could smell the fragrant heat of summer, of wet earth, and of nutty grass.
His head was thick and throbbing, even worse than before. He started to pick himself up, easing up slowly onto his elbows.
A fist grabbed the front of his shirt and hauled him to his feet. He found them rather gracelessly and stood, looking into the eyes of the man who had lifted him up. It was Hector. Probably, at least. He had dark eyes and tan skin, with jet black hair that he pushed back. His eyes were so piercing and, in the bright light of midday, Michael felt like it couldn’t be anyone but Hector.
“What the hell are you doing here?” The man asked, but Michael wasn’t listening. He’d been in Mrs. Zhang’s basement just moments before and now? He was standing beneath one of the largest trees he’d ever seen, apparently at the tree line where the forest met rolling plains. Off in the distance there was a tower. A wide thing made of pristine white stone and accented with silver. It seemed to climb up and up and up to the clouds, the spire disappearing into mist.
Probably-Hector slapped him. Michael raised a hand to his face, barely feeling it, too stunned to say anything. Hector let Michael down and followed his gaze.
“Shit.” Probably-Hector rubbed his eyes and turned away toward the tower. “That’s lucky. Just like last time.”
“Last time?” Michael managed to stammer out. It was hot here, too. It had been a cool April afternoon when he’d went into Mrs. Zhang’s house and now. “We’re in the game.”
“Yes, last time. We’ve been pulling into the…,” Hector stopped. He turned back to Michael and studied him for a long moment. “What did you say?”
“We’re in the game,” Michael said. It was starting to make sense. He could feel the stinging pain of the slap on his cheek. Still, he picked himself up. “That’s the only explanation. That or I’m dreaming but, well…” He rubbed his cheek, which was already reddening. “This is insanity, though. I mean, how is this possible?”
“I don’t know,” Hector watched his hand open and close, his eyes narrowed and serious. “Let’s go.”
“Wait,” Michael grabbed the man’s shoulder. “You never answered me. You’re Hector Alvarez, aren’t you? Is this where you went missing to?” Michael gestured to the world and waited for Hector to answer. The look on the man’s face was enough. Michael let his hand fall, his eyes going wide. “It is,” he put his hand to his forehead and fell right back down. “Oh Jesus, it makes so much weird sense.” He put both hands in his hair, trying to make it make sense.
“Calm down. Yes, I am Hector Alvarez, though here, people call me Orephius.” He let out a sigh. “Or they used to. Maybe…maybe I’m not him anymore.” He looked at his hands again. He seemed to focus hard on something for a moment, then his features relaxed and he looked sad. He pointed away. “See that? It’s a tower. We need to go there and get our classes.”
“Like, for school?” Hector just sighed and rubbed his eyes.
They walked through the tall grass. Michael was surprised to find that it felt so real. He let it gently slap against his hand as he walked. His clothes were different. Instead of his Nerd Crew uniform, he wore a plain green shirt and a pair of heavy canvas trousers. He touched his face and hair to check, but those seemed to be the same as they had always been.
They had walked a long time in silence. Hector seemed to be thinking, more like brooding, over something, though Michael wasn’t sure how to ask what. It was alright with him. It was a beautiful day and it was nice to walk in the fields, even if he wasn’t sure how he was going to get home.
“What were you doing in my house, by the way?” Hector asked after a while. There seemed to be a storm brewing beneath that knitted brow. Is that what had been bothering him?
“Well, I mean, it’s not really your house anymore. It belongs to Mrs. Zhang, the woman that was with me, you know. She has computer troubles and I usually go fix them.” Hector looked back, but did not stop pushing a path through the tall grass.
“Right. And how long has it been her house?”
“Almost 5 years,” Michael said. He wasn’t sure if answering questions like this was making Hector more or less angry. He seemed to hold all of his frustrations in a tight knot. “After you disappeared…”
“Right,” Hector said. “Into the game. So you are some kind of engineer or something?”
“No,” Michael said, laughing. “Just IT. You know, just tech repair. It’s not like all that.”
“Hmph,” was all Hector said in answer.
The tower loomed above them now, though they still seemed to be many hours away. It was amazing just how tall it really was. Michael marveled at it, it’s apex disappearing amongst the clouds. “I’m going to go inside that.” He marveled.
“For your class,” Hector said. “We’ll both need one.”
“What does that mean?” Michael asked. He almost stumbled, trying to keep up with Hector’s long determined strides. “You said that once before, but I don’t understand. We’re going to school in there?”
That made Hector stop, and so abruptly that Michael almost barreled into him. “I thought you were a nerd?”
“Not really,” Michael said. “Why’d you think that?”
“You said you fix computers.”
“That’s not really what most people consider nerdy anymore. I told you, it’s kind of a retail thing, nothing impressive.”
“So how’d you know we were in the game?” Michael laughed.
“I’ve seen movies before,” Michael said. “You know, travelling into another world. Haven’t you see like, Tron, Jumanji, even something like Last Action Hero? Though, in that one, he went into a movie.”
“I don’t know what any of that is.” Hector started walking again, but he only stopped speaking for a moment. “Classes like in a video game. You know, Warrior, Mage. In Legacy, classes don’t work that like. You have to take the Class Trial, then you get a class. We’ll go to the trial together but then I have things I need to attend to.” Michael was barely listening at that last part.
“So, it’s like, an aptitude thing? A personality test? Something else?”
“Yeah, basically. If you’d be a good healer it’ll make you a healer. Depends on your likes and needs and even your wants, to some extent.”
“Healer? So you can like, know medicine?”
“You really aren’t a nerd. No, like magic. You’ll be able to cast healing spells.” Now that was something he’d not expected. Michael stopped, looking up at the tower. He’d seen movies about going into video games, but usually a person’s natural aptitude remained to some extent. The thought of learning magic was amazing to Michael. Hector, however, had not stopped. He kept pushing forward, right up to the massive steps that led up to the entrance. “Here’s where we go in.”
The door was massive. It was made of polished, heavy black stone that seemed to reflect the light. All around the doors there were carvings. He’d expected they might be in some ancient language at first, with impossibly complex loops and swirls, but as he drew closer he saw that was not the case. Instead, they were reliefs, each carved in the likenesses of a different animal.
Starting from the bottom left and arching over the door, he recognized a lion, a wolf, a snake, an eagle, an owl, and a deer. There were four others he didn’t recognize at all: a horse with a fish tail and wings, some sort of giant beast, a monstrous insect, and what might have been a kind of dragon. As Hector approached, they seemed to glow with inner light, colors all swirling, like oil on water. It was amazing to look at.
“What does that mean?” Micahel asked, pointed at the carvings of the beasts. “Are we going to have to fight those monsters, or something, when we go inside?”
“These represent the classes,” Hector said, gesturing up at the images. “Each class is associated with a Guardian Spirit. They aren’t monsters. They give the classes access to certain types of energy. The Energy powers certain types of spells.
“I don’t really get it,” Michael said.
“It’s not really that complicated. See this?” Hector pointed at the imaged that looked like a lion. “This is Nemea. She stands for the Juggernaut class. She gives access to Glory energy, Resilience Energy, and Power Energy. This,” he pointed to another picture, the snake this time. “Is Ydra. He represents the Duelist. He gives access to Knowledge energy, Deceit energy, and Poison energy. That will give you different kinds of spells.” Michael nodded, but his head was swimming.
“So, which one should I try to get?” Hector shook his head.
“That’s not how it works. Don’t try to get any of them. In the real game you can, but here, you can’t. They have a sense of humor, I guess. Just take the trial and then you can decide what you want to do.” Michael looked around.
“I want to go home,” he said. “Is there a class that lets me teleport back to Earth, or something?”
“No,” Hector said. His eyes were sorrowful, full of regret. “There is no way back.”
“But you came back,” Michael said. “I could try to do that.”
“You…” Hector looked angry again, frustrated. More than he’d even seemed before, when they were walking. “You don’t want to do that.” He finally said. He looked at Mihcale as if to ask ready? Michael gave a nod. Hector pushed the door of the temple open and they were pulled toward a pulsing, bright light.