DEATH & DISMAY
Gathered around the table are Jamie and three other strangers dressed up in what they consider demonic garb, trying to get settled into their characters for their newest campaign. Tonight’s game is a mystery. Though Jamie is considered the master of this game, the story will be told by an ancient book covered in skin and flesh, which he must read from— every single word. Failure to read will cause either death or injury, and as someone on the edge, Jamie couldn’t help buying it from the sketchy pawn shop in the middle of downtown.
The world has always been a dark and evil place. People in Jamie’s town die by the dozens, every day, because of demons erupting from Hell, or witches fulfilling rituals that murder neighborhoods of people, and much more that nothing is being done about. Jamie was once told of a time when humans were killed by each other or died from disease. He always wondered if that was a better way of life.
For years, Jamie watched friends and family die, leaving him alone in an obscure world of anonymity. His mind delved further into a dark void after he woke up to his wife’s body cut into pieces, slain in a ritualistic manner—a common occurrence he tried to avoid. Since then, he quit his meaningless job as an architect to find death.
His skills for the games downtown have developed. If not for the rule of cheating resulting in the death of someone in the world, Jamie would have thrown his first game and been done with it.
This game is played by many who enjoy a challenging adventure with very high stakes. The objective is to work together to defeat a demon God named Zyndahn Maighrist; all other instructions are vague to the players. The unnerving depiction of a demon on the first page induces nerves Jamie believed to die along with his wife. Its beady, yellow eyes gaze into his soul and capture him, along with its perturbing smile that forces his legs to tremble.
“Are you all right?” asks one of the players. “We should get started soon if we want to be home by midnight.”
He’s interrupted by a woman laughing across from him. “Brave of you to expect to make it home by midnight.” She chuckles.
“Ha! I’ve done this four times now. Each campaign is different, but it’s nothing to worry about.” He glances at Jamie and smirks. “So long as the Head of the Table knows what he’s doing.”
All demonic eyes stare at Jamie. He is not a novice at tabletop games; however, this is the first time he isn’t creating the reality for the game. To everyone’s knowledge, nothing is revealed about the characters until the game starts. There is a twenty-sided die in the middle of a Hellish map that displays unusual creatures that resemble abominations created in a lab; as if a child with a sick imagination took apart the bodies of humans and demons and put them back together in unconventional ways.
Jamie turns to the next page. The sharpness of the corner cuts his thumb, leaving a stinging pain as it leaks onto the blank black page. The blood soaks in and transforms into words. “Are you all seeing this?” He asks with a quivering breath and rapidly beating heart.
“That’s new,” says the veteran of this game.
The player next to Jamie leans over and asks, “well, what does it say?”
“The… the only way…” his stomach becomes heavy with every word. “The only way to continue the game is with the reader’s blood. The game has officially started, and will not end until…”
“I have to put more blood on the page.” Jamie squeezes his thumb over the book, and reads, “the game won’t end until we all die or overthrow Zyndahn Maighrist.”
Using more of his blood, he reads the rest of the grueling instructions, each one more shocking than the last. Winning seems impossible with every enemy hundreds of levels higher than a starting player, and the fact they won’t know what their abilities are until the option to roll the die presents itself.
It seems Jamie’s purpose is to read and survive the campaign. He’s directed to turn the page. It reads, “player one, roll the die.”
“Already? Roll it for what?” they ask.
Everyone gasps at the red numbers that appear above the book as it counts down from twenty.
“Hurry! Tell it to stop!” Jamie yells.
The person agrees with three seconds to spare and rolls a seven. No one is aware of what that means.
“Player one rolled a seven.” And as Jamie reads the last few words on the page, a white light consumes everything in the room. Their bones explode as the light touches them, filling the room with screams before the players are transferred to the game’s reality.
Sacks of blood morph into their respective bodies. Jamie appears, the campaign book in his grasp, staring in awe, petrified at the world around him. It’s a polar opposite of what he imagined Hell to be, and on a much weirder scale. Demons with elongated limbs, multicolored skin, and protruding eye sockets squirm and crawl about. Eyes and tongues stick out of the ground like plants and trees. Clusters of enormous and colorful celestial rocks occupy most of the blue sky. To the right is a frozen region with various sizes of unsettling ice sculptures moving in strange patterns. A vast group of hellions floats through the air like a roller coaster and draws everyone’s attention to the left side of the map; a fiery dungeon of screaming souls.
The dead fall down from a black hole in the light blue sky. Hideous winged beasts pull others out of the ground. In front of Jamie and the other players stands a giant monster staring down with multiple golden, beady eyes that sink into cavernous holes in its face. This is Zyndahn Maighrist as the Creator.
Player One kneels down in front of the monster and begs for their life. A sharp wind cuts Jamie’s forehead and applies blood to the page. It is Player Two’s turn to roll the die. Before them, a large, red twenty-sided die appears and spins, its pace steadily increasing. “Tell it to stop!” Jamie shouts, and when he does, the die stops and reveals the number eighteen.
“Eig… Eighteen? That’s good! That’s gotta be good, right?” Player One stammers as he crawls away.
“Player Two rolled an eighteen.” Jamie begins. “Another player must die to grant Player One a second chance.” Another timer appears; countdown from twenty again.
Each player shares a frightened glance.
Player Two approaches them with balled fists. “What? Why the hell do you get a second chance when I’m the one that rolled?”
Seven seconds left. Jamie ponders making the first move; perhaps he could push Player Two into the monster’s creepy fingers that tap on the soft, orange ground. His foot jerks forward, but a loud buzzer stops him cold. The giant zero turns into maggots that slither toward Player One. Too scared to run, the bugs crawl into their orifices. Their cries and screams of agony echo loud enough to vibrate the atmosphere and erupt holes in the sky. Bright colors and the screaming dead traverse through the portals like an infinite chain, creating more chaos with brain-numbing noise. Unable to release the book, Jamie must suffer through it, losing some stats he was unaware he possessed.
The others cover their ears as he focuses on the appearing messages. “The maggots devour Player One’s flesh from the inside out. Failure to obtain a sacrifice results in death.” Their cries cease. Silence as their body disappears into the ground, to eject out of a portal above the Creator and plummet into its mouth. All the players gasp in horror. The many games Jamie played, all of his grueling night terrors, and conversing with occultists did not prepare him for this Hell. Player Three, who has remained silent since arrival, vomits at the sight of Player One’s body becoming an abomination–limbs ripped from their sockets, their blood drained from an open wound in their throat and sprayed over the other freakish fiends. Zyndahn surgically removes chunks of their flesh and sews it onto a different body part with thread from its fingers. The body changes color when new flesh attaches giving birth to a colorful revolting creature with calves where its eyes should be, veins for legs, skinless fingers for hair, and other inhumane features too sickening for Jamie to describe.
“Last time I played this game, I saw someone turn into a demon, but…” Player Two pauses, stares blankly at the development of the horrid creature. “…it made sense. I’ve never seen anything so… otherworldly… even from other versions of Hell.”
“How many Hells did you say you saw?” asks Jamie, unsure if he wants the answer.
Player Two’s vacant stare meets Jamie’s terrified expression. “One too many.”
A ball of light forms at Zyndahn’s fingertip; the urge to faint as Jamie realizes it’s pointing at him is stopped by the book’s unbending control. The shot of energy pierces through Jamie’s shoulder and opens a wound big enough to allow blood to flow through. It leaks onto the page, continuing the story.
Now, it is Player Three’s roll. A question takes up an entire page: left or right? The die reappears and rotates, and without hesitation, Player Three stands up, wipes the vomit from her mouth, and says “stop” with seventeen seconds left. Its spinning slows down until it lands on the number twenty.
“A Twenty! That must mean we can move forward now,” she says.
“Left or right?” asks Jamie.
“Hurry!” Jamie yells as the timer restarts.
“Um…” she jerks left and right, bewildered at the gruesome choices before her. “Right! I despise the heat.”
In a vibrating motion, long, frail arms different from any other material in this world reach out of the snowy arctic and wrap around all three players. Pulls them into the Icy Hell, which becomes a dark abyss the deeper they journey.
Jamie swears his wife just called his name. Impulse to turn around opens his eyes. There she is, standing before him in a beautiful gown, her captivating reflection portrayed differently in each mirror that covers the walls of the bright room. Hesitant footsteps as he approaches her. Her smile brings tears to his eyes and a rapid pace to his heart. “Is this real?” He questions.
“Is any of this real?” She questions.
His legs go numb. “Did I say that out loud?” His belly aches at this world’s uncertainty.
She holds out her hand. “Jamie.”
Their hands touch. All her reflections; sad, happy, shy, join in on the dance. He remembers ballroom dancing with her on days he was free from work. Jamie’s love for games was not shared, so they found something they both enjoyed.
Every depiction of his deceased wife walks out of the mirrors and gathers around them. Entranced by the dazed look in her eyes, the anomalies do not faze him as they sway back and forth to a harsh violin. The deafening, blood dripping down his neck from shot eardrums, and lack of control of his body are faint to the touch of her skin.
“Jamie…” He reads her lips. “There’s something you should know.” Their bodies stop in a foxtrot pose. The lights go dim, one after another, then a spotlight casts on his wife. He can’t break away from her; cold tears and her warm blood cover his face as her reflection’s claws split her skull open.
Jamie’s eyes roll to the back of his head as he experiences death.
Emotions run high during a barrage of unknown memories. His wife during her childhood to the age she is now: strange dreams she had, memories of relatives and friends who have died, times she smiled because of Jamie–all lead up to her brutal death. In a vile nightmare, she runs through flesh-covered caves away from two people dressed in dark, hooded cloaks. He instinctively reaches for her when she tumbles down a dark path. She awakes several minutes later in immense pain.
At her feet are the two mysterious people with blades in their hands. “Why are you doing this?” his wife asks.
A white hand removes one of the hoods and reveals a face that brings Jamie’s spirit to its knees. “The only way to continue living in this world is by sacrificing others,” answers Player Three. “Now…” She raises her weapon. “Hold still.”
He can’t take much more. Her screaming and bones cracking—the slicing noises, it all makes him sick! He can feel himself regurgitating in another realm. “Stop!” he yells repeatedly.
An anonymous power pulls him out of the nightmare. The mirrors and ceiling shatter and unveil a world of fire. “You’re running out of time!” Jamie’s wife tells him. Her grip releases. She returns to the cursed state when he woke up next to her for the last time, yet still moves like a live human.
Claws wrap around Jamie’s body. Again, to separate them to further prove life’s cruel humor. He reaches a hand out to her. “I love you,” they both whisper; words lost in the fiery void of teleportation.
Jamie awakes, standing in an upside-down house full of staircases. Everything is red as if gazing through a bloody lens. It’s rusty and old; dust in the atmosphere, warmth of a swamp, subtle creak sounds that frighten him.
Of course, the book has not left him. He wants revenge on Player Three on his next turn. If only he could get her alone. Jamie would butcher her after he choked her to death; smile as she breathes her last.
It still wouldn’t be enough to satisfy him.
His head becomes heavy and slams against the book. He almost fainted now that the pages are hard as concrete, but the book refused to let him fall. Blood leaks out of his forehead and onto the page. The die appears. “It is your turn.”
“What?” Jamie asks, puzzled by the sudden change in rules. “I thought I was just the reader.”
The die spins.
“What… punish… ment…” It’s difficult to read with blood stinging his eyes. “… do you… wish upon… Play… er Three?”
If not for the pain, he would crack a smile.
The timer starts. A scream from above grabs his attention. Player Two and Three are falling from the dark sky. Her face disgusts him. Jamie ponders an evil request, then stops the die.
“Well, what happens now?” Player Three asks.
“Yeah? And since when does the Reader roll?”
“Do you know where we were just now?” Player Three pinches the bridge of her nose. She speaks of a brittle cold that created the bruises on her skin.
Jamie remains quiet, his eyes staring at the moving staircases, daydreaming about dancing with his wife. “How much time?”
“Hey did you hear me? I asked what you rolled for?”
Footsteps approach Jamie. A glance to the left and he’s met with Player Two’s irate gaze. He looks past it and grimaces at Player Three.
“I’m the one talking to you!” Player Two shouts with a raised fist. The die and timer get in his way and force him to take a few steps back. “Stop!”He drops to his knees. “A… a… three?” His voice cracks. Jamie smirks at his face going pale. From a dark corner of the house sneaks a small fiend, their beady eyes and drooling mouths set on Player Two. Jamie maintains his silence on the creature, watching it creep forward. “Tell me what it means, Reader!” Player Two demands.
Jamie obliges. “Player Two failed to obtain an answer to their question regarding the Reader’s turn. Thus, knowledge must be gained for knowledge lost.”
“What? What the hell does th–”
Player Three screams and falls to the floor.
For someone who has seen Hell before, Player Two’s scared reaction to the demon is disappointing. Begs to be spared, knowing full well his turn has ended. With every step closer, the demon grows more hideous and spreads its gangly appendages. The pointed tips stab Player Two’s leg as he crawls away. “No! No! Please–” he screams. Its spikes dig into his temples, then cut around the skull. Player Two’s eyes go white and drool seeps down his mouth as his brain is stabbed and sliced. His legs jerk around like live wires to the torture. The other player turns away with a hand over her mouth; Jamie, contemplating a worse death for her, watches and learns. It cuts his brain in half and devours it, then stitches him back together like a doll. When finished, it returns to its dark corner and lurks.
Player Two’s vulnerable state poses a threat: players that are not dead must continue.
“I don’t know who you are, but I don’t trust you,” Player Three dares to say. “I’m going off on my own! I’ll find a way out of here by myself.” She takes a step forward and is stopped by the die and timer.
“Player Three must roll for initiative.”
“I’m so sick of this!” she yells. “Stop dammit!”
It lands on five.
She curses under her breath. “I don’t care! I–” A red line forms down her body. An unknown orchestrator splits her body in two and connects it with veins to Player Two’s right half. Two rights to create a monster. Player Three cries at her new appearance while her other half stares into nothing, their side of the body sagging down, applying weight to an already debilitating situation.
Written in blood, the page reads, “The guard of this place approaches.” The house quakes. An overwhelming gust of wind sends Jamie flying against a wall. His eyes widen at the sight of half the house being snatched away by the guard’s hand. The outer world is littered with copious amounts of the damned climbing each other to escape a vast fire. Shelves of carcasses miles long down a path to nowhere.
It is Jamie’s turn again.
He rolled an eleven.
The enormous demon opens its mouth and unleashes a fire that consumes the house. The book shields his upper body from the fire and tells him it is now Player Two’s turn. Time is almost out, yet the die continues to spin. Only the Player whose turn it currently is can stop the die, and with half a brain, Player Two cannot form words. “Failure to stop the die in time results in death,” Jamie pants.
The guard strengthens its attack. The flames are too powerful to watch Player Two’s death unfold, so he reads how Player Two’s body is scorched until it becomes ash. Player Two and Three succumb to the fire’s intensity.
Jamie’s unprotected legs suffer burns, which slows his moving speed and decreases his health at a slow rate. He’s lost feeling in his legs, collapses when the fire ceases. Still, the book is in his grasp.
“The guard must be defeated in order to move to the next part of the map.”
Jamie would do anything for this to be over. It was foolish to ask for the other players to roll low scores in a game where teamwork is key for success. But, he was blinded by revenge. His negative thoughts produce the appearance of the die and timer. “How would you like to proceed?” He reads.
Jamie props himself up on a solid piece of the wall. “Whose turn is it?” he asks, staring into the haunting eyes of the giant monster patiently waiting to kill him.
“All other players are dead. The last player alive must continue the game or die.” It replies.
In the end, he could die anyway, and all this will have been for nothing. The point of this was to meet an exciting demise, one he could be proud of. Every day without his wife seemed like Hell; never wanting to be around other people that were happy, but those who were miserable and needed dejected company, sad and wicked are traits he required in new acquaintances—they don’t remind him of the kind heart he lost—lived in seclusion outside of playing in the murderous downtown areas with strangers and demons, and he fell into a depressive state because of it. It is always a risk, a gamble, playing tabletop games downtown. Only the wretched partake, so he knew the plan. The goal is death, yet he contemplates his next move hoping to avoid execution.
This game and realm, which concludes is not a cruel hallucination, has elevated his fear of death. He questions his ability to make the weighted decision. “I just want to be with her,” Jamie cries. Instant regret strikes him when the die and timer appear. He takes a deep breath, holds back the tears of holding his wife again—albeit in a strange Hell that toyed with her brain, then exhales. “Stop.”
His right eye twitches as the number six is presented. A worse punishment is coming for him. Pride and confusion led him down this road. Now, Jamie must experience the consequences.
The die crumbles. The book falls to the floor and disappears under an army of tiny worms. Jamie prepared himself mentally to be doused in flames; at least death will follow it, but to his dismay, a horde of groaning arms seeps out of the abyssal mouth. Too slow to escape their grasp, he allows them to grab him; tear off parts of his flesh with their sharp claws, and pull him inside of the monster’s belly.
Falling forever through a void of his blunders and failed dreams, forced to listen to every regret on repeat. The lower he goes, the darker each thought becomes. Some are not his own. A foreign voice creeps in his mind, warns him about the horrors of Hell and the only way to escape them is to keep dying, or endure torture for eternity.
Weakness chains him to the latter.
Jamie’s spirit lands in the palm of Zyndahns Maighrist’s hand, along with his wife, whose mouth and eyes are sewn shut. Jamie feels heat on his back as he approaches her. He turns to see those sinister eyes of the demon God beaming down on him.
The surface underneath becomes unstable. Miniature versions of the Creator rip through the flesh of its hand and crawl out like spiders. Hellions surround them. “This time, we die together.” He presses his wife’s hands to his chest. They close in. Jamie hugs her once more, not letting go until the barbarians rip his arms off and throw them into a pile. In added cruelty, he cannot succumb to the pain, only suffer. Hearing his wife’s muffled screams compels him to hate himself more than before. All the pieces and chunks of their bodies fall through a hole that magically appears, then crash on a flat metal surface. Jamie’s left eye glimpses the monstrous creations hanging from veins in the rotting flesh of the ceiling. Player Two must be around here somewhere.
To be with his wife was Jamie’s request. Zyndahn, the creator of this Hell and all its creatures, pieces together Jamie and his wife in different shapes and unorthodox ways, molding and stitching until they are one entity. Their brains are now connected, side by side, skull fragments embedded in their veins and skin. Their new body walks on its elbows, speaks through fingers that protrude out of holes in the spine, listens by disconnecting its kneecaps to open the ear canal. Communication between the two entities is turn-based, and until all blood passes to the other side of the body, the other cannot perform any tasks.
Feeling his wife’s disdain for him through connected nerves is worse than the excruciation of being mutilated. This isn’t what he wanted for her, or the fate he imagined for himself. He presumed death would vanquish his desire to be free from a life of loneliness, but instead, it caused the only person he would give his life for eternal pain.