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The First Level - Art Of War

What on earth?

Well, I'm not exactly on earth, but near enough. I've been transported somewhere, and I assume that it must be the first level. The landscape has totally changed. I'm no longer being devoured by the white darkness any more, which is a relief. I'm in a new place, and I look behind me to see if I could see any other person.

Nope, I'm by myself again. The other participants are probably here too, but as of yet I still haven't seen them. Around me, the whole landscape looks like a Windows monitor screen saver; the ground beneath me is covered by a beautiful layer of soft, bold green grass, and the sky is a beautiful, clear azure blue, without a cloud in sight. There is light coming from somewhere, but I cannot see the sun. It is like I am seeing everything in high definition; the resolution of the image is extremely sharp and high. I spin around slowly, taking in my surroundings, taking a whole 360 degree turn.

When I come back round again, I am startled to see a young white girl has appeared, sitting down on what looks like a giant red bean bag. She looks around 9 or 10 years old, and she has long, slightly curled dark brown hair, with a yellow hair clip pinned to the left side of her head. She is wearing glasses, and has on a black and white checked pinafore over a white blouse. I think she's wearing a school uniform just like Dimple was, because this girl is also wearing white socks and black shiny shoes. The girl looks heavily engrossed in a book she is reading, and she looks very relaxed. Is this supposed to be the first level keeper?

''I am the first level keeper; my name is Mathilde Montague,'' the girl speaks up as if she is answering a silent question. She has a French accent, which is not too strong. She glances up at me after she says this, and she has an emotionless look on her face. I know that face. I get it when I am bored stiff of the same old rubbish I have to deal with on a routine basis.

''How do you do? I'm Na-,'' I begin to say, but the little girl cuts me off.

''I know who you are, Mr Williams. We all know who you are,'' Mathilde says sharply. For a little girl, she's got quite an attitude. As I come closer to her, a huge bubble suddenly appears in front of me.

''What the...,'' I say quietly to myself. The bubble reaches up to my height, and its width is the size of my arms outstretched on each side. I can see the girl through the transparency of the bubble, but then the transparency begins to disappear and the bubble change color. It first turns purple, then five seconds later it turns blue, then after that green. It goes through all the colors known to man in an endless cycle. I go to touch it, and I expect it to burst.

But it doesn't.

I'm in a game made up of 5 children's imaginations after all.

The bubble begins to bounce up and down; slowly and lightly at first, but then it begins to bounce higher and more forcefully on the ground. I back away from it, not knowing whether the bubble could suddenly turn and bounce on to me and kill me or something.

I don't know what to expect now.

''Where are you going, Mr Williams, the game hasn't started yet,'' I hear the French girl say.

Oh really?

What's up with the freakin' color-changing bouncing bubbles then?

''You are a funny guy, Mr Williams,'' Mathilde says as she giggles.

What is she on about?

As the bubble moves out of the way to reveal her, the red bean bag she had been sitting on vanishes. She is now standing up, holding her book open in her hands, looking directly at me. I notice something in the corner of my eye, and see that there are bubbles bouncing up and down everywhere. Maybe the other participants are having the same show put on for them.

''So when does it start then?'' I ask her. She looks at me cautiously and then snaps shut her book with a noise so loud the sky begins to open up.

No, it literally opens up above me.

As I gaze upwards, the blue sky that had been peacefully settled upon us was becoming grey and explosive. I look closely at the sky and see various large mechanical rings descend out of the grey clouds and begin to charge some sort of electrical current into its centre. I count at most 8 rings in the expanse of the sky, but there could be more. It was like seeing the spokes of a bicycle wheel light up a brilliant blue in the heavens. It's quite an awesome sight.

''It starts now,'' the girl says suddenly as she stares at me, with her right hand on her hip and the book in the other hand. I see that the book she had been reading is 'The Art of War' by Sun Tzu.

''Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt,'' Mathilde says with a cunning smile on her face.

OK, having a French girl quote a line from The Art of War whilst giving me an evil look is slightly deterring. But as soon as she says this, the various rings generated an electrical beam that shoots down into the ground. I look down to where the beams have landed, and I see a great army has emerged from the beams.

But this wasn't the army that I was used to.

This is the mighty Roman army.

Their faces all have angry, savage looks, and they are so riled up that they storm towards me with a roar so thunderous that I can feel the ground tremble beneath me.

''So my challenge is what? To defeat them?'' I yell to the girl who has her gaze locked on me.

''The greatest victory is that which requires no battle,'' Mathilde quotes again. OK, so I don't defeat them. Well, not with brawns any way. I need to do it with brains.

Alright, so what do I do?

What do I do?

How do I prove victorious without a battle?

I look around me to see what can help, but I'm blank out of ideas. This is not a good sign, since the bloodthirsty Roman army are coming towards me faster than I thought.

Think, Nash, think.

How can you win without fighting them?

I close my eyes to see what I can do, but my mind is panicking as I hear the army's roar approaching nearer. The sound of the roar is becoming deafening. I can't hear myself think!

''AARGH! JUST GO AWAY!'' I scream as I block my ears with my hands.


I can't hear...anything. Oh yeah, I've blocked my ears.

Wait, I can hear...nothing.

Absolutely nothing.

I open my eyes and uncover my ears at the same time, revealing to me that the Roman army has all but disappeared without a trace. The calm serenity that I had experienced when I first entered the level came back as the sky turns back to being blue once more. The mechanical rings are gone, and, to my relief, the annoying bubbles have too.

''Well done; you got the answer quite quicker than the others,'' a French female voice says behind me. Oh yeah, I forgot about her.

''Thanks, I think,'' I say to her as I turn around to face her.

''Well, let's get on with it, shall we?'' she says to me as she walks out in front of me.

''Get on with what? I thought I completed the challenge?'' I ask her. I am slightly bemused as to what is going to happen next.

''The challenge isn't complete. I have yet to reward you your points based on your performance, Mr Williams,'' Mathilde answers.

''So...what is the challenge?'' I ask her since she says I haven't completed one.

What was the deal with the Roman Army coming out of the sky then?

Was it a warm up?

''You could say that what just happened was a warm up,'' she replies. This girl surely can't be reading my mind, or is she as highly intuitive as Dimple is?

''Would you like a dream or a nightmare?'' Mathilde asks me all of a sudden.

What does that mean?

A dream or a nightmare?

Is she giving me one?

Do I even have a choice? Think carefully, Nash. Is she asking me to get one for her, or to give one to you?

Ah, I see. A smirk is developing across her face as I look at her.

Alright, I'll give her what she wants.

''A nightmare,'' I answer her. Her smirks drops as she hears what I have just said.

''That's strange, you're the only one who wants a nightmare. I wonder why,'' she says half to herself, half to me. She turns around and starts walking off. The other participants had the same choice? And they chose a dream? Of course they would. A dream is what you want, what you desire. A nightmare is your reality.

And you can't escape from reality.

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