Chapter 1:

Kidnapped Girl, Puzzle, and Lives at Stake.

Escape from the Cult of Happy Endings

I woke up groggily as I looked at my surroundings - cold walls covered in metal panels welded as if to prevent adjustment, a concrete floor that seemed rather new from the lack of stains. A cell, likely made of iron considering the color, to my side, situated in a corner of the room. A young man stood stock still while gagged and bound inside the cell with varying wires around him and a guillotine above his head as well as a metal floor with even holes, each showing a pointed tip. In an opposite corner from the cell, I saw a clock on the wall, likely removable, but too high up for me to reach. A sliding, metal door with no handles stood imposingly below the clock. A scattering of various boxes lay in the corner by the door, and a poster opposite those, diagonally across from the cell. In the final corner, what appeared to be some sort of speaker protruded from the upper corner, far out of my reach.

Clearly, this was not anywhere I might be familiar with. So how did I get here? I remember eating breakfast with mom, me walking out excited to finally go to school like normal kids do, and a man asking me if I wanted to be happy. Then a struggle?

I see, from what I knew, I saw a few possibilities, but most likely, I was kidnapped in some way or another. The lack of restraints on me suggested that whoever kidnapped me did not seek to hold me for ransom, but what then did they want? Well, I'm certain that if I was in actual danger, I could always call my mom, but I definitely wanted to avoid that until I knew what was happening, especially if there were victims other than me. Mom could be... a tad excessive with how she dealt with things. Auntie and older me as well. Ummm.... it was a bit depressing, so let me avoid talking about my family situation.

"Miss Nara Torr, are you perhaps awake, my dear?"

A gentle, sickeningly sweet voice came from speakers. Likely female from the sound of the voice, but devices to change your voice existed. While I did not see any recording devices, I suspected they had some way to hear and see me. Sitting here was just a pointless waste of time, so I sat up. Shortly after, a male voice came from the speakers, this one a little too syrupy and gooey. It gave me the shivers just hearing it.

"Good, good, the Society of Happy Endings welcomes you!"

"Right. So, what do you want with me?"

"I want to see you play some games. Of course, you can refuse and walk out the door at any time, but then everyone on your team will be given happy endings!"

Team. That suggested additional people and even opposing groups. Well, at least I could quit at any time it seemed. Though that wording suggested something sinister might happen to others if I did give up. I supposed I could play along as long as I was in no danger. If a little inconvenience to me saved the lives of a few people, then I might as well save them. Of course, if I ended up in danger, I had no qualms saving my own life even if it meant abandoning others. Sorry, but I'm no philanthropist.

"So, what kind of games?"

"First you will need to free your teammates. There are several rooms and each one contains a single teammate. If you abandon a room, the teammate in that room will be given a happy ending. Each room's game is self contained. You will not need anything from another room to complete the game."

I understood immediately. Mom loved creating these. Were these followers of my mom then? Perhaps not. Mom had strict rules about who she involved. I looked around the escape room, but no clues in particular stood out. I needed my puzzle cube. Fishing around my pockets, I couldn't find my cube. I wonder if it fell out somewhere.

"My puzzle cube is missing."

"Was there such a thing? I will have someone look for it if you need it."

"No need, as long as you didn't take it away on purpose."

Well, it probably fell at some point or another. It was a gift from my mother, but if it fell, then there was no helping it. I held my hands in front of me and whispered, "Return, my heart, my soul."

A small cube fell into my waiting hands. I didn't know what kind of wizardry my mom used to make this cube, but this was my special tool. Depending on how I moved the cube, the faces changed and depending on which faces showed, throwing the cube resulted in different effects. More importantly, playing with the cube helped focus my thoughts.

Fortunately, the cube was nigh indestructible and if I ever lost it, a short phrase called it back to me. Of course, I was very careful to catch it when I did as I shuddered at the thought of it hitting the ground and activating. Yep, best to keep it unsolved for now. This cube was, of course, also my way of contacting mom if I needed rescue, but these people didn't need to know that.

"Oh? That almost looks as if you performed a magic spell. No matter, such a minor oversight is unlikely to cause any major issues. We wish you best of luck in obtaining a happy ending."

I'm not sure what they were thinking, but I'm certain that my cube amounted to more than just a minor oversight. Still, if they didn't seek to actually hold me, then I suppose it didn't really make much of a difference to them. What strange kidnappers, but I suppose I should play along for now. If nothing else, this could prove entertaining.

"Now then, I suppose I need to think about this. The clock isn't moving, so perhaps it is broken, it only moves when certain conditions are met, or is part of the puzzle."

I fiddled with my cube while I arranged my thoughts aloud. I needed those watching to believe that my cube was nothing more than a toy to help me think. Worst case scenario, once I rescued my team, I might need to break us out. I wanted to avoid getting my family involved since none of them understood the concept of holding back.

Last time they went to rescue me, there wasn't even a country left. Atlantic, Atlantia, or something or another I believe it was called? Totally great country, but I ended up falling into a pit and trapped. They split the country open - literally - just to find me. At least, it was only a country that time. 

<Yeah, let us seriously avoid getting my family involved. I am feeling a headache just thinking about the trouble that incident caused.>

Currently, I decided to examine the poster. Nothing about the poster seemed too odd. It seemed to be just a movie poster with the captions "The Queen of Hearts welcomes you to Wonderland" and "We have Hearts in Spades". Very likely a movie about Alice in Wonderland, a famous story. Hmmm? Spades? Hearts?

I turned around and looked at the boxes, quickly finding what I wanted. A box with a spade symbol around the lock. It looked like it needed a key. Nearby, I saw a similar box with a heart symbol. I didn't dare touch any of these lest I trigger some mechanism. I looked at the clock and saw the arrow - there was only a single arrow - ended in a spade-like shape. Likely that was part of the puzzle, but how did it fit in?

I looked at the poster again and saw a queen figure in red with a heart shaped fan, soldier shaped like a six of spades card being prodded by several heart card shaped soldiers. Hmmm... Could it be referencing... No, I was likely overthinking it. Most importantly, I needed to find the spade key. The only place I had yet to examine closely...

I walked over to the cell and began examining it from all sort of angles, but saw nothing of immediate interest. Well, I saw a button and a hatch below it, but without knowing what the button did, I hesitated to mess with that. I took a second look at the boxes. 

A few boxes stood out, a club box, a diamond box, and four boxes with no obvious way to open them.  There were also several combination locks of varying kinds, but I suspected that several of the boxes were little more than traps. A typical scenario in escape games was that the first victim was not savable, but instead revealed the mechanisms and validity of the game.

Very likely, they expected me to either fail this puzzle or walk out and see the victim die, setting the mood and forcing me to play their game out of a guilty conscience. Of course, that assumed that your mom wasn't a crazy lover of building deadly escape rooms to research... some ethically questionable things.

Well, nothing to it but to take some sort of action. I pressed the button and heard the clock ticking, very quickly as the hand ticked counterclockwise by the second. A timer then. I continued to examine the room for any changes, but moved near the boxes. As expected, when the hand struck the 6, the unmarked boxes unlatched and I was able to open them. The heart key was missing, but the spade key sat there proudly.

Grabbing the spade key, I hurriedly opened the spade box, where I found the heart key. I immediately used that key on the heart box to find a rabbit key. Rabbit?  I went back to the cell and opened the hatch. It popped open readily to reveal three key shaped holes. One marked with a spade, one marked with a rabbit, and one marked with a pit. Remembering the story of Alice in Wonderland, I made my decision quickly. Time was ticking by fast.

I went back to the boxes and grabbed the heart key, shoving that in the spade hole and the rabbit key in the pit hole. I turned the keys and heard several things unlock. I quickly grabbed the cage door and swung it open. I glanced at the clock and with no time to think, I reached in and yanked the victim towards me as I pulled on the cage to pull myself out. Just in time as the guillotine dropped and spikes shot out of the holes in the ground. The victim made a pained cry, but a small injury was probably better than being completely impaled.

Feeling thankful that the bindings unlocked as expected, I removed the gag from the victim.

"What the heck man? What the heck is this?"

"It seems that we are in some sort of escape room game. At least, for now. Also, it seems your life depends on me, so if you want to live, I'd suggest you stick with me."

"You are just a girl."

Typical human mentality. They see what is in front of them and make judgements based on preconceived beliefs instead of taking facts as facts and opinions and opinions. Here, I clearly just saved his life and he still wanted to judge me by my appearance.

"Sorry, but I'm not a girl. For one, I'm probably at least a few hundred years older than you. Second, I'm not even a human. I'm a homunculus. A sort of clone of sorts."

"What the heck man? This isn't the time to play jokes."

Typical. Not that I had anything to prove anyways. If he wanted to do his own thing, I didn't have any responsibility to care about his well being. Just then, my thoughts were interrupted.

"Amazing. You solved that room. This is certainly a surprise. Wonderful, wonderful! Now, please proceed to the next room."

That voice grated on my nerves, but for now, I'd follow it. Turning to the victim, I laid out my thoughts.

"Look, I don't really care if you live or die. I don't care if you believe me or not. You can either follow me and I will try to keep you alive, or you can go off on your own and I just won't care about you. Your choice. Not that I see you having much of a choice but to follow me unless you want to stay in this room."

With that I turned away and found the man behind me, moving his hands towards my neck. Pretty foolish, but at least that made me feel a little better. Clearly the victims here were not the most upstanding of citizens. And while I might look like a kid, I had mom's genes in me. I was certainly weak, but that was only compared to my family.

I quickly solved the puzzle, dropping it as I also dropped down, slid between his legs, then turned around and hugged the man in front of me. I heard a tink sound and immediately recited, "Return, my heart, my soul."

The effects were immediate as the man began frantically clawed at his belly in pain. His skin turned a frost white as water froze to his skin, the icicles spreading quickly while I backed away to avoid the secondary effects. In moments, the man was nothing but a white statue. "Return, my heart, my soul."

Well, revealing my cards wasn't ideal, but not like they could do anything about it. If anything, I suspected that they didn't see this as anything worth worrying about. I smiled a just a little.

"Teams, eh? That means there will be others like me. I'll finally have some friends to play with. So kind of these people to set up a playdate for me."

I felt a little giddy think about the new friends I might make. I made my way to the door, wondering what game I might see next. Maybe the next victim would make a good friend. As for the statue, I considered breaking it a little, but that might really kill him. I mean, they just needed to thaw him out later and he'd be fine. Mom did it all the time when transporting criminals.

Syed Al Wasee
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