I started a countdown-three, two, one, jump.
As I landed, a shrill scream echoed beneath me. The bones of the bird crushed easily, like cracking knuckles, when I flattened its body to the ground. A pool of red surrounded me, turning the golden feathers dark. I shrieked and jumped back, flailing my arms until I hit a tree. The rough bark grabbed at my hair and scratched my back. The other birds squawked a warning before puffing into balls and rolling away down the hill. I covered my hurt hand and looked around nervously.
This wasn’t real, this was a game; it couldn’t be real. But the knot in my stomach and tears falling down my cheeks told me otherwise. This was real, too real. I was losing it.
Only a few minutes in, and I had killed an innocent creature. I felt sick. Did I really expect it to burst into a puff of feathers, disappear, and deposit golden coins in my pockets like in the game?
I looked over at the lifeless bird with the sick feeling of guilt in my chest. How was I going to survive in this world? I thought about the most dangerous levels. Any advantage I’d thought I had disappeared.
I plucked a yellow feather from my heel, looked to the ground where the trampled bird lay, and sighed. No matter how I felt, I had to move. Waiting would only bring the birds back. I didn’t want another punctured foot or reminder of my cruelty.
To the right of me, the forest grew together. Branches intertwined, limbs crossing at all angles, blocking the light from reaching the ground. It was dark. Darker than I’d imagined, but that was where the first level of the game started.
I glanced in the other direction, noticing the birds twisting and turning, flying in random directions over a treeless, grassy hill. Patches of red wildflowers sprinkled the green meadow.
I bit the inside of my cheek and glanced between the forest and the meadow. If this place was real, maybe I didn’t have to follow the rules of the game. The crimson puddle haunted me. I didn’t want to follow those rules.
Turning away from the trees, I walked towards the field. Warm sunlight settled over me. My smile stretched across my face. I broke into a run across the grass. It seemed so perfect—the pristine beauty of the hill in comparison to the dark forest, the warmth of the sun, and the silence. Halfway up the hill, I paused mid-step and looked around.
When had the birds stopped singing?
Oh crap. Something was wrong. The grass tangled my legs. Warm gusts of wind pressed against me, slowing me down. The small patches of wildflowers gave way to larger pockets of red poppy-like flowers. Their delicate fragrance turned sickly sweet.
A burning sensation rushed across my leg. When I moved the tall grass out of the way, I saw a trail of blisters along my shin. Behind me, a bright red poppy whipped in the wind.
“Dragon weeds,” I muttered, recognizing the flower. This threw in a new angle. Biting fuzz birds, burning pollen—the dangers were the same and yet they caught me off guard. I blew cool air onto my shins and, using a blade of grass, carefully scraped the poppy pollen off before more blisters grew. One thing was becoming painfully clear—I’d have to keep my eyes open.
My steps slowed as the ground softened to mud the further I trudged up the hill. Wind blew my hair into my face, blinding me just as I stepped on a loose rock. My feet slid out beneath me, slamming me into the muck. I flailed at the grass, trying to stop my slide back down the hill. A sharp pain shot up my legs as the blisters broke open.
I dug into the ground, pulling, grabbing anything to slow my descent. I glanced down the hill. Darkness waited for me past the floating pollen and whipping grass. The edge. My heartbeat doubled. I seized the closest bundle of poppy stems, ignoring their burn as I lurched to a stop and curled into a ball. Pollen covered my hands, and new blisters swelled immediately, but I only felt relief. Five feet down, the hillside dropped off in a sheer cliff.
Even from a distance, the abrupt edge terrified me. I could see myself freefalling over it. But then again, maybe that would get me home?
I threw a handful of rocks over the cliff, watching them fall, then disappear through a layer of haze that blocked my view of the bottom. My foot slipped, sending smaller rocks over the edge, bouncing off the walls. My heart thundered in my chest. Maybe not. I didn’t want to be like one of those rocks.
Reality, dream, or insanity, it didn’t matter. I didn’t want to die. That meant one thing. No more messing around. I had to play the game, level by level, until I saved the queen.
There was only one problem. I’d never won without my codes.