A Girl's Guide to Hardcore Gaming

By Gracie Lutz All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Drama

Blurb

MAGGIE dreams of adventure, the kind her globe-trotting older sister makes a living blogging about. But she's not brave enough to tell her parents she wants to study art not business, let alone drop out of college and start traveling the world. She'll have to settle for finding adventure in her favorite video game, until that adventure becomes much more real than she bargained for... ELLE dreams of everything staying just how it is. She and her best friend since kindergarten are now roommates in college. Once they graduate they'll get an apartment together in the same city they've lived in their whole lives. But then Maggie vanishes, and a mysterious boy is left behind in her place... KINDLE dreams of change, whatever that may be. Just so long as the Abandoned Order breaks out of the stagnated state it's occupied since Lydia took control. What was once a symbol of hope among the magical creatures of the Shadow Realm has become nearly as oppressive as the human kingdom they wish to thwart. When a strange human girl drops into his life, the change Kindle hopes for finally seems possible. But is the rest of the Abandoned Order ready, or even willing?

LEVEL ONE ~ Maggie

Don’t work at a sports grill if you don’t like sports.

I mean sure, a job’s a job. And I’m a college kid without a drivers license and no prior work history, so it’s not like I have many options. But being stuck on the graveyard-shift, when only a few drunk classmates come in for half-priced appetizers, with no source of entertainment other than the same football and soccer games that have been on repeat all day long... you’ll start to lose it after a while.

And of course I forgot my DS.

I sat on one of the spinning stools at the bar, idly twisting in my seat while I sketched a landscape on the back of a menu with a blue crayon. It wasn’t my best work, but it was something to do.

It was a Thursday night, eleven pm, and we weren’t supposed to close until one.

I sneezed and my hand jerked, completely ruining the mountain range I’d spent the past fifteen minutes trying to get perfect. I frowned, crumpled the menu up, and tossed it toward the trash can behind the bar. I was no athlete, it didn’t even land close. Sighing, I grabbed another menu and started my drawing again.

"God Maggie, do you ever smile? Why do you always look like someone just murdered your gerbil?”

I looked up at my coworker Veronica with the most sullen expression I could manage. “My gerbil just died this morning.”

Her face went almost as pale as her platinum-dyed hair and she gaped at me. “Oh shit, Maggie I’m so sorr—” a twitch of my mouth betrayed me and Veronica narrowed her eyes. “You don’t have a gerbil.”

I hid my smile behind my hand, though it was useless now. “Well not anymore, no.”

Veronica yanked the new menu out from under me, crushed it into a ball, and lobbed it at my head.

I rolled my eyes as it bounced harmlessly off my hair. “Guess I won’t be drawing anything tonight.”

“You should be working.” She gestured to the nearly empty restaurant. “Just look at all these hungry people waiting for service!”

“Can I please leave early?” Veronica wasn’t my boss, but she was a few years older and had worked there longer than me, so she had some authority.

Almost as if on cue, the drunk group in the booth behind us started clinking their glasses. “Waitress, yoo-hoo!”

I pouted. “Ronnie, pleeaase.”

The glass clinking continued and Veronica sighed. “Go serve those people.”

I pouted harder, allowing my lower lip to quiver dramatically. “I’ve got a test tomorrow.”

She slid my pad and pen toward me. “Serve those people,” she repeated, then smiled reluctantly. “After that you can go home.”

“You’re the coolest, Ron.” I hopped up and adjusted my apron.

Veronica rolled her eyes and pushed her short hair behind her ears. She went back to cleaning the glasses behind the bar. “Just don’t get me fired.”

I winked at her, then tightened my ponytail as I made my way across the restaurant. Sometimes I wished I had hair like hers, all shiny and slick and manageable. My natural blonde was such a sandy, dull shade, and the waves made it impossible to deal with in humidity. I wasn’t brave enough to dye it, so I settled for being jealous and whiny— I had a lot of practice with that.

“What can I do for you?” I asked the tipsy group, struggling to keep a professional expression. One of the guys, Adrian, was in my Public Speaking class. He had that friendly nerd look going on, with curly brown hair, a slightly pointed chin, and glasses. I had always thought he was kind of cute.

“C’n we ahhh... get s’more waterrr?” the guy next to Adrian slurred, clinking his empty glass again.

I slipped my notepad into my pocket, that wasn’t an order I needed to write down. “Sure thing, I’ll get you guys a whole pitcher. Looks like you need it.”

I walked back to the bar to find Veronica already filling a pitcher.

“I could hear that guy from over here,” she said. “Give them these breadsticks too. From the looks of it they don’t have much in their stomach but booze.”

“Good call.”

I carried the pitcher and the basket of breadsticks to the table, where I was met with thunderous applause and a shout of “HELL YEAH, BREADSTICKS!” from a red haired girl who had been asleep and snoring the first time I came by.

“Thanks, Maggie.” Adrian smiled at me. The alcohol in his system gave his freckled cheeks a rosy hue and made his blue eyes sparkle.

“See you in class tomorrow.” I felt my face heat up and I turned away, hopefully before he noticed.

I walked back behind the bar and took my apron off, hastily folding it and slipping it on the shelf under the cups. I looked up to see Veronica smiling at me with raised eyebrows.

“What’s with the face?” I asked as I slipped my work shoes off and pulled on my paint-splattered converse.

“What’s with yours?” she countered. “You got a thing for the Harry Potter lookin’ guy over there?”

I rolled my eyes, but I could feel my stupid blush giving me away. “Adrian. We’re just classmates, we’ve barely ever spoken.”

“Mhm. Well you should change that.” She bumped my hip with hers as I took my jacket off the rack and tugged it on.

I ignored her teasing. “Goodnight Ron, have a good weekend. See you Tuesday.”

I risked a quick glance at the table of drunks as I hurried to the restaurant door. The redhead was asleep again, a half eaten breadstick in hand. Adrian gave me a little wave and I very nearly walked into the door.

The walk from work to my dorm building wasn’t very far, but by the time I slid my key-card to get into my room, it was ten minutes to midnight. I opened my door and was immediately greeted by the familiar piano chords of the Shadows of Light battle-theme on full blast.

“Hey Mags, how was work?” Elle, my best friend and roommate, called from the mess of screens, speakers, wires, and pillows she lovingly referred to as her ‘nest.’

I groaned loudly in response, kicking my shoes off.

She nodded, her puffy black pigtails bobbing with the motion. “Ah yes, as usual.”

“Quiet hours start at ten you know,” I shouted over the music.

Elle shrugged, but thankfully turned the music down to a reasonable volume. “Yeah, but I challenged the last girl who turned me over to the RA to a brawl behind the library, so no one’s gonna report me again.”

“You should really stop doing that with everyone who gets on your nerves. Eventually someone will take you up on it.”

Elle smiled broadly. “Good, then I’ll get a chance to kick some butt! A five foot four, dorky looking Computer Programming major? I’ll even wear my reading glasses. They’ll never see it coming. Earn me some mad street cred.”

I laughed and grabbed my pajamas off my bed. “To be honest, you were scary before you started taking that krav manga class.”

“Remember when I punched you at that birthday party in fourth grade?”

I nodded as I made my way into the bathroom to change. “I told you your favorite Final Fantasy game was the worst.”

“I still think that’s blasphemy. And it’s krav maga, by the way. Not manga, you weeb.”

“Whatever.” I examined my face in the bathroom mirror as I pulled my hair down from the ponytail I’d had it in all day. My skin was on the lighter side, which I didn’t mind until I was nervous, or angry, or happy, because then it would go from porcelain pale to cherry red in seconds. I pulled a ratty gray sleep sweatshirt on.

“Oh, Mags!” The video game music cut off and I heard Elle yelp as she tripped over the tangle of wires around her nest. A second later she tossed the bathroom door open. “I nearly forgot to tell you— I got my hands on a demo of Dark Reckonings today!”

“Wait, seriously?” I whirled to face her.

“Yep, just finished downloading.” Elle beamed like a proud mother.

I bounced in place, torn between ridiculous levels of excitement and disbelief. “How did you swing that? I thought DR was still in production?” I stopped bouncing and glared at her. “Was there illegal activity involved?”

“Shoosh, my dear.” Elle pet my face and hair over and over until I swatted her away. “I have my connections, do not question.”

I crossed my arms and glared at her. “If the FBI shows up at our door I’m telling you right now I will absolutely hand you over.”

Her smile widened. “Sick. I’ve always wanted to fight government officials.”

I shook my head and went back out to our bedroom. “You terrify me.”

A moment later though, I was bouncing on my heels again. “So can we play the demo then, please please?” I had a test to study for, but what did I care? It was an easy class and this was Dark Reckonings, for God’s sake— the game Elle and I had been desperately waiting for since a sequel to our beloved Shadows of Light was hinted at back when we were in tenth grade.

Since then we’d read every article, watched every interview with SoL’s creator, Jared Frobisher— aka, God himself. We’d clung to every bit of information we could get on the new game. We had a whole notebook dedicated to theories, head canons, and fan art— most of that was mine, Elle could only draw stick figures.

And now Elle had an actual copy of the game on her computer.

"Pleease can we play it?” I begged.

Elle surprised me by shaking her head. “Not yet, I want to do some data-mining first. It’s not a complete demo, but there’s probably some ridiculously cool stuff buried in the code.”

I deflated like a balloon, flopping onto my bed with a pathetic pout. “You are the worst friend.”

“That’s a little extreme,” Elle scoffed as she settled back into her nest.

“No, you’re actually the worst. You have broken my heart. You dangled the string of hope in my face, only to yank it back and look on, uncaring, as I suffer.”

“Yes, that is exactly what I did.” Elle leaned over and grabbed a can of Mountain Dew from her mini fridge. She pulled her headphones into place then popped the tab. “Go to bed Mags, don’t you have a test tomorrow afternoon?”

“Art History,” I mumbled into my pillow. “It’ll be easy.”

“Right, that thing you’re taking as an elective that should absolutely be your major.” Elle nodded, her eyes glued to one of her three computer screens. “Remind me why you’re a business student again?”

“Parents are paying.”

“Right, right. Don’t wanna let down the people who barely think of you as a person.”

“Stop sassing and start data-digging,” I ordered, burrowing under my blankets. “I want to play that demo as soon as I’m done with class tomorrow.”

“Yes ma’am, now get your beauty rest.” Elle flicked the little switch she’d rigged up to allow her to turn the lights on and off without moving from her nest, then adjusted the brightness of her screens.

“Maybe sometime you could sleep too?” I suggested.

“Eh, power naps and caffeine.”

“Right,” I yawned. I fell asleep surprisingly fast, and dreamed about swords and fire.

~*~

Eight AM the next morning, still half asleep, I sat in the back of my Public Speaking class with a tall travel mug of coffee. Mornings were so not my thing. Still, I was early enough that class hadn’t started yet, and I could allow myself to doze in and out of consciousness for a bit.

And then Adrian walked over with a smile on his face and-- tada!-- I was suddenly fully awake. “Hey, this seat taken?”

“Um, no, you can sit here.” I answered, hastily sliding my books out of his way.

He sat down next to me and I suddenly felt like a fluttery teenager in a romcom. At least, for my sake, I hadn’t started blushing yet. To be fair, my last boyfriend had been when I was in eight grade, and he broke up with me because he couldn’t compete with Elle or SoL for my attention.

“I’m surprised to see you in class this morning,” I said after a long stretch of semi-awkward silence.

He shrugged. “Yeah, I have a bit of a headache.”

“Whoever decided partying on a Thursday night was a good idea clearly hates students.”

Adrian actually laughed at that and I felt a little burst of joy. “Thanks for the breadsticks by the way, but you left before I could give you a tip.”

I shook my head fiercely. Thankfully I was wearing my hair down instead of in a ponytail today or I would have whipped him in the face. “Oh, no, that’s totally fine.”

“I was um,” he looked down for a second and cleared his throat. “I was going to give you my number.”

“Oh.” Was this happening?

“And um.. ask if you had any plans this weekend?”

Oh my God it was happening.

“Are you interested in catching a movie or something?” He bit his lip, looking hopeful and dorky and totally adorable.

“I don’t have any plans,” I spoke slowly, trying to keep myself from blushing. From the heat I felt in my face, it was probably too late. “I would love to see a movie.”

He beamed at me. “Great! I ah, here— here’s my number.” He had already written it out on a napkin. Probably last night. My god, that’s precious.

“Great.” I smiled back.” I’ll um, I’ll text you then.”

“Great.”

“Cool.”

Before another awkward silence could set in, the teacher arrived and started class.

I floated through the rest of the morning on cloud, like, eleven. When my early classes were done, I entered Adrien’s name and number into my phone. I was even brave enough to add a little heart at the end of his name. I sent him a quick text as I made my way across campus to the art building.

“Hey, this is Maggie. Thanks again for the movie invite :)”

Before putting my phone in my backpack, I checked my notifications and frowned. Abby had updated her blog. She was in Belize this week, feeding monkeys out of her hands and going cave tubing with locals. And she was getting payed for it.

I pulled my jacket tighter around me as a particularly hard gust of October wind blew. I would have to make a trip home for my winter clothes soon. Fun fun fun. Maybe I could convince my parents to mail some warmer clothes to me instead? Yeah, not likely. They’d want me to come home so they could ask me about my “future plans” again.

It was only 12 pm, which meant I still had two hours until my art history class. Normally, I used that time to take a nap or work on homework (or thrash Elle in some fighting game) but in my sudden good mood I decided to start a new project instead. My backpack was full of sketchbooks, colors pencils, crayons, and copic markers, but I wanted to work with paint or clay-- something I hadn’t used in a while.

The art building was big and old, it had been part of the campus for years. They had a ton of supplies in the basement, usually only available to art students, which unfortunately I was not. But Professor Kayts, my Art History teacher, was probably the coolest lady ever-- she let me use whatever supplies I needed.

I descended the stairs to the supply basement, humming the Shadows of Light battle-theme. The lights were flickering, but I payed it no mind. The wiring in this building was ancient. Weird as it sounds, I liked the smell of the supply basement. It smelled like dust and paper and paint. It was comforting in the way that old libraries were.

Most of the supplies were cleared out it seemed, except for some acrylics paints and canvas on a shelf behind what looked to be a rickety old door frame— which honestly could make for a cool project in itself.

I set my backpack down against the wall and took out my sketchbook and crayons. The more I thought about it, the cooler a project involving the door felt. There was talk of a magic door in Shadows of Light. The lore of the game implied that the villains used it to smuggle their princess to a secret safe place until it was time for her to challenge the hero, King Jareth of Lumina, in an attempt to take over the realm.

Elle and I speculated that the return of this evil princess would be the plot of Dark Reckonings. Some sort of fan project with this door frame would be ridiculously cool, and maybe if I posted about it online Jared Frobisher would see it and give Elle and I a free copy of Dark Reckonings when it comes out. I mean, probably not. But a girl can dream.

I circled around the door frame a few times, making note of its dimensions in my sketch book. Elle could definitely rig up some sort of lighting thing for me, and I could paint the door to make it look more magical, and add details like fake billows of smoke and maybe a paper mache hand reaching through.

I paused in front of the frame to make a quick sketch of my idea, but then a strange breeze blew my hair into my mouth, carrying with it the scent of baking bread. I looked up from my sketchbook in shock. There was no kitchen in the art building, and no windows in the supply room.

Tentatively, I reached a hand toward the empty door frame. Another warm gust hit my hand and rustled the pages of my sketchbook.

"Ookay...”

With my heart pounding in my chest in a mix of terror and eager anticipation, I slowly stepped through the door frame.

It was a feeling unlike any I had experienced before. The air around me shifted, the breath caught in my lungs, and my stomach lurched in the way it does when you go down a particularly steep hill on a rollercoaster. I gasped out loud, slamming my eyes shut against the spinning. I stumbled forward as a sudden wave of nausea hit me. The supply shelf I should have caught myself on was gone, and I fell to the ground on my hands and knees.

The room I opened my eyes in was not the supply room. It was not a room I recognized as part of the university at all. I was in some sort of kitchen, or bakery. There was a large brick oven, a wooden table covered in flour, and a slim window with dusty light streaming through.

The door was gone.

Something was very very wrong.

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