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Underworld

Anna paused by the door of the derelict Walters Bank building. Pretending to watch something on her augmented reality glasses, she checked that no-one was looking her way. Once it was all clear, she pushed a door open just enough for her to squeeze through.

Inside, she looked around the grimy lobby, taking a moment to enjoy the battered beauty of graffiti-strewn walls, chipped floor tiles, and a grand but dusty staircase. The smell of dust and age was exhilarating. This was how she had got started. Urban exploring for its own sake.

Now though…

She took off her glasses, cursing her terrible sight as the world became a blur. Pulling an illicit mod chip from her pocket, she clipped it onto the frame and put the glasses back on.

Now there was more to the lobby than grime and abandonment. The features of Underworld, her favorite augmented reality game, were imposed over the top. Flickering hellfire behind an old counter. An imp hovering by the ceiling. White glowing runes showing that no one controlled the power of this space.

Behind her, something in the building creaked, but she ignored it.

Tapping thumb and forefinger together, Anna activated the signalling device in her glove. Within the imagery of the game, magical fire crackled red around her fingertips.

Advancing across the lobby and up the stairs, she redrew the runes as she passed, changing their shapes and making them glow red. The power bar at the left side of her vision rose.

Just like she thought, she was the first one to notice that they’d mapped the game onto here. Given the illegal and hazardous places Underworld’s writers used, it could take weeks for anyone to notice a new location. She’d found this one straight away.

Take that sickninja23.

She reached a landing and considered which way to go next. There were runes here and imps to be collected, but the best finds were likely higher or lower, on the top floor or in the basement.

Her power bar sank. Frowning, she peered back down at the lobby.

Some of the runes had gone an all too familiar green.

Sickninja23. That fucker was following her again, stealing her territory. This time she’d find him. This time they were having words.

Anna stomped back down the stairs. He had to be here somewhere to have stolen her runes. But there was no sign of him.

Frowning, she followed the green runes to a door at the back of the lobby. This was a weird way for anyone to play the game, picking off weak control points when there was good stuff to collect.

Through the door was a narrow and winding flight of stairs. As Anna looked up, something tumbled toward her.

She jumped back just in time. A lump of concrete crashed into the floor.

“You did that on purpose, you sick bastard!” she shouted up the empty stairwell.

Heart pounding, she raced up the stairs two at a time, following the green trail high into the building. This all had to be him.

Except it made no sense. Even the best explorers she’d known couldn’t have gotten away from her this fast while still playing the game.

Could this be the work of the game itself, not a player?

Except the game was all fake reality and that concrete had been all too real.

Now every rune she passed was green. Her power bar slid lower as her opponent gained domination of the building. The few red runes she’d left behind would mean nothing. She’d gone for quality and he was winning by quantity.

Sweat stuck her shirt to her body as she reached the top of the stairs, twelve floors up from the ground below. She flung open the only door.

As she did so, she jerked her head. Slick with sweat, her glasses slid from her face and went flying. They clattered on the floor, disappearing across a room she’d barely seen, a room that was nothing but blurs to her now.

“Shit.” She took a tentative step forward and then another. Lowering herself to the ground, she crawled into the room, feeling for the glasses as she went. The floor to her left creaked alarmingly, forcing her to veer right.

“Here you are at last,” a voice said. It echoed inhumanly around the space, as if distorted by a voice concealing app.

“Help me out, you dick,” Anna said.

“So that you can beat me?” greenninja23 replied. “I don’t think so.”

“This isn’t about the game anymore,” Anna said. At last her fingers closed around the arm of her glasses. Shards of glass sliced her skin and as she picked up the glasses she realized that the lenses were gone, shattered into useless pieces.

Blind in a place she’d never been, she suddenly felt horribly alone.

There was a loud creak. She scrambled back against the wall just as a chunk of floor gave way. There was a massive crash dozens of feet below.

Anna felt the edges of the space she was in. That was what they were, edges of broken tiles and concrete. She was stranded on a few square feet of crumbling ground.

“Game?” the echoing voice said. “What game?”

There was a crackle of static and then silence.

Anna whimpered as the floor creaked one last time.