It was my neighbour who taught me the rules of the Proud, of the Games. Most people have never heard of them—I certainly hadn’t, not before Mrs. Gupta showed me the Agora.
Mrs. Gupta was old. Maybe “elderly” would be a less offensive term, but it implies a certain frailty that Mrs. Gupta did not possess. Her movements always had a tortoise-like slowness to them, so I’d assumed she was arthritic, but it never gave me the impression of weakness. She had sinewy limbs, stardust-silver hair, and liquid brown eyes that ignored your face and looked straight into your soul. When you looked into those eyes, there was no mistaking her strength.
I had seen her many times before, crossing the street or buying groceries, but we hadn’t really spoken until the day my family snapped. My family’s world had been spiralling inexorably downward for years by then, our money stretched and stretched until the loans piled up and the wolves started baying at the door. Debt is a monster. Disagree if you will, but I have seen real monsters, and I still think that debt numbers among them. Debt is a taker, a thief, a weight on your chest that drains your life away.
I wasn’t surprised when Mrs. Gupta noticed our problems. It was her eyes, I think, eyes that looked like they could see anything. It was August, on the sort of day when the air cloyed in your throat and slowly strangled the world with its venomous heat. I hadn’t been able to stand the tension in the house, even if it was air-conditioned, so I was sitting on our ramshackle front porch and staring at nothing.
“You’re in trouble, aren’t you?” she had asked, her bottomless eyes meeting my own.
I started, not having heard her come up beside me. “Yeah.” I muttered. “Money.”
Her mouth twitched, thought I couldn’t tell if it was the touch of a smile or a frown.
“Would you fix it, if you could?” she probed.
“Of course I would.”
“How far are you willing to go?”
I paused, my mind careening down morbid paths as I tried to puzzle out her meaning. There were limits, of course, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized just how desperate I was. Mrs. Gupta must have seen it in my face, because she smiled inscrutably and backed away from my house, gesturing for me to follow.
“Come with me,” she said. “I can give you a chance to win a solution.”
That was when she told me about the Proud Folk. I didn’t believe her at first—it sounded like a fairy tale, or maybe an old woman’s fever dream—but when she showed me the Agora, I was converted. It wasn’t imposing on the outside, just another squat office building, dwarfed against the downtown backdrop. But everyone approaching it looked worried, trembling and glancing over their shoulders or wearing bravado like Halloween masks. All of them went inside, eventually. I craned my neck, trying to see the building’s interior, but it was like the world ended at the doorframe. There was just blank, shifting nothingness in the door, and whenever someone walked into it, they vanished completely. Suddenly, Mrs. Gupta’s story was more than a fairy tale.
There were many rules, and even more advice. Mrs. Gupta warned me that if I was going to deal with the Proud Folk, I needed to be very careful. I had to focus on my wish, had to need it with the depths of my soul. The Proud Folk did not appreciate time-wasters.
That was how I came to be standing on the Agora’s doorstep in a thick sweater, contemplating my chances at the Games. I hadn’t thought I would hesitate like this, after planning for so long, but it was different, on the threshold. This was my last chance to turn back. The normal world where I stood was safely beyond their influence, but the moment I stepped inside, they would be watching me, and they would expect me to pay for what I asked.
In that moment, I wanted to turn back more than almost anything else, but there was one thing I wanted more, and it was what I had come for. I stepped through the door.
Mrs. Gupta had tried to prepare me for what I would find inside, but it hadn’t done much good. It was like reality was twisting in front of me, shredding itself to ribbons and reforming before my eyes. There was no ceiling, just more blank nothingness stretching above me, and the walls, the walls were murals. I’m not saying they had murals on them—they were murals, so breathtakingly realistic that...well, I took Mrs. Gupta’s advice and didn’t try to walk inside of them.
There was a Proud One standing in front of me. He made his mouth smile-shaped, but it was not a smile. He looked at me, and it hurt, like watching my heart’s desire slip away, bit by bit. He was painfully, indescribably beautiful, and his eyes were utterly blank of anything human.
“What is your name?” he asked.
I didn’t respond for a moment, still trying to remember how to breathe. This was all I could give him. I had been warned to leave everything personal behind, to show the Proud Ones only my name and my desire. Anything else, they would use to tear me apart.
“Jana,” I told him.
The Proud One was still not-smiling. “Follow me, he said, leading me down a mural-lined corridor.
The passage was narrow, the walls tight around me, and I had to follow my guide’s footsteps carefully to avoid falling into a mural.
“What will you play for?” he asked me.
My voice was smoother now. “Ten thousand dollars.”
It seemed like so little to ask, in the face of so many miracles, but Mrs. Gupta’s warnings were clear in my mind. My family had exhausted every option in the normal world, and we desperately needed a stopgap to keep the debtors away for just a little longer. I had been warned against asking for one dollar more than I needed, warned that the more I asked for, the higher the price would be.
In spite of the impossibility of the world I had plunged into, there was a certain order to it, even a certain predictability. The point of the Games was to compete for a prize against other human contestants. The greater the prize, the more terrible the contest. People who came for larger miracles often had to face off against a dozen other contestants, only one of them able to win the prize. Smaller requests, like my own, usually saw contenders competing one-on-one. If two people asked for the same prize at roughly the same time, they were often pitted against each other. I would probably be competing against someone else who needed ten thousand dollars as much as I did. I could only pray that it would be the right person, someone who wouldn’t crush me in whatever Game the Proud Folk gave us and take every last penny of the money I needed so badly.
The Proud One and I walked for some time before reaching an open space. The walls were mirrors now, and I had the disconcerting sense that I was being watched, that there were eyes behind the inscrutable silver panels.
I saw his reflection before I my eyes actually landed on him, a thousand broken, distorted images of a young man in blue jeans and a faded black t-shirt entering the room from another corridor. He followed his own Proud One, a woman with flowing hair that trailed behind her like a train.
Avery. I hid the recognition on my face, remembering just in time to leave my personal life outside of the Agora. He met my eyes, and I thought I saw a hint of a smile on his lips.
The Proud One escorting Avery nodded to me. “Contestant, this is Avery. You will be competing against him for your prize.”
My own guide nodded to Avery. “Contestant, this is Jana.”
The words sounded stiff and stilted, like a worn out ceremony. I wondered why it mattered to them, that we knew each other’s names when we tried to kill each other for their money.
I had met Avery at an audition. Since I didn’t have the money for post-secondary, my career was essentially nonexistent, but I was trying to get off the ground as an actor. Most of the roles I auditioned for were the dregs of the barrel—commercials, low-budget short films, local plays. I ran into Avery while we were waiting our turns to try for roles in a local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We started chatting while we waited, and exchanged social media. When neither of us got a role, we hung out behind the theatre and did exaggeratedly ridiculous impressions of the judges. It turned out Avery didn’t have much money either, so he was working odd jobs to save up for university.
The Proud Ones could give him the money much more quickly, though.
Our guides led us through another set of winding corridors, and my heartbeat pattered a panicked staccato in my chest. It took all of my strength to keep from making some stupid joke at Avery, to dispel the tension. But that was the sort of thing the Proud Folk would sink their claws into, so we kept our eyes ahead and pretended to be strangers.
They brought us to a tall, cylindrical room. It looked to me like the inside of a tower, but the walls had that reflective shimmer again. My stomach lurched as I imagined the Proud ones on the other side, watching our competition with exultant bloodlust. The Game itself was only half the danger—the Proud Ones punished competitors who didn’t give them a good show.
Avery shot me one last glance through the corner of his eye, then raised his chin to stare upward. I followed his gaze, and shuddered. Above us, dozens of long, thin cords were strung between the walls. They shimmered in a rainbow of colours and were as thick as bungee cords, but I suspected they were supposed to resemble spider webs.
Admittedly, the giant spiders were something of a giveaway.
As I watched, one of the massive arachnids spun a new thread and descended through the webwork, its fat, ruby studded body swaying slightly. The entire Game looked like a work of art, but that did little to comfort me. The spiders’ legs tapered into knifelike points, and there were weapons strewn throughout the silk. I had hoped Mrs. Gupta was exaggerating when she told me that the Proud Folk preferred Games where contestants died.
The male Proud One spoke up. “The Game is simple. Whichever of you reaches the top wins.”
Not whichever of us would reach the top first—whichever of us reached it at all.
I blinked, and the Proud Ones were gone. It was just Avery and I, alone in the bottom of the web room.
The Game had begun.
Avery moved first, jumping and seizing hold of a cord just above his head. I reached for my own piece of spider silk, pulling myself up into a messy web of cords. Already, I was overheating in my heavy sweater, but I had to keep it on.
The silk gleamed, prismatic and delicate around me. I started to climb, finding precarious purchase on the swaying cords. I went still as I came to a small silver pistol, embroiled in the tangle of silk. My hands shaking, I began to tear off the strands, trying to free the weapon. My heart stuttered as I noticed the threads around me swaying. An emerald green spider the size of a sheepdog was picking its way toward me. Frantically, I tore the pistol free, pointed it at the spider, and tried to fire it.
Nothing happened. I shrieked and threw myself backward, tumbling several feet before the webbing caught me. Stupid. The safety was still on.
The green spider followed me down, its eight eyes gleaming like dark pearls. With the safety off, I pulled the trigger again, and this time, the gun fired.
My aim was lamentable. However, the spider was so close that it barely mattered. My bullet struck its swollen abdomen and it cringed backward. I bared my teeth in victory.
Pain tore across my wrist. I jerked into motion, scanning the room around me. My hand had been struck by a drop of falling liquid that smoked on impact. I wiped it off on my sleeve and swung onto a new cord, clambering to regain the altitude I had lost. Just above me, Avery swung a machete at a purple spider that spat dark liquid at him. From Avery’s cries of pain, I guessed it was the same corrosive substance that had burned my wrist.
I could help him, shoot the spider and give him an opening to escape. He was my friend.
But they couldn’t know that, and I had to give them a show.
I surged upward through the web, taking more care to maneuver around the spiders. Avery managed to behead the one attacking him, but he had lost ground and was now below me. Panting from the climb, I paused to claim a shield from the web, sliding its strap over my shoulder so that it hung against my back.
Above me, a large mass of webbing burst open, spewing tiny golden spiders into the web. Arachnids showered down on me as I swung up my shield, too slow to completely block the barrage of falling spiders. I cried out as tiny, razor-sharp legs pricked my skin, thrashing to dislodge them.
Cords twisted and strained behind me, sending a sharp stab of fear through my gut. Was another spider coming?
I spun around to find Avery poised on the web, machete raised. For an instant, I though he had come to my rescue. Then his hand shot forward, and I nearly lost my footing as he tore the shield from my grip.
Mrs. Gupta’s voice rang in my head. There is no mercy in the Games.
Swatting away the last of the golden spiders, I grabbed at the webs above me, the cords digging deep into my hands as I fought my way upward. Avery followed suit, and we scrambled faster and faster as the ceiling drew near. I turned and kicked Avery in the side, sending him swinging. He reared back and swiped with the machete, missing narrowly. I fired at him, but my shot went far wide. I cursed, surging upward, but strong hands wrapped around my ankle and dragged me back downward.
I flailed as Avery raised his blade again, but the silk wove a net around me. The machete came down on my side, shearing through my sweater, and I screamed. Dark liquid gushed from my stomach. I screamed again as Avery shoved me off of my perch. Spider silk tore around me, and I crashed down through it all, landing heavily on the floor. I moaned in pain, barely hearing the trumpet of horns that declared Avery’s victory. I stared blearily up at where he hung, one hand braced against the ceiling.
A Proud One loomed over me, the same one who had escorted me before. He grabbed my arm and dragged me to a door. Nothingness swirled in the frame, and I moaned.
“No, I can’t leave, I can’t, I have to...”
“You have lost,” the Proud One told me. “Stay at your own peril.”
I staggered out of the Agora, clutching my side with red-stained hands. My legs burned with exertion, but I continued to stumble forward, off of the lot where the Agora stood. Mrs. Gupta had assured me that their domain ended at the doorway, but I wasn’t taking the chance that they’d see me straighten up, my apparent agony gone, see me wipe the fake blood from my hands and stride off into the fading night.
I ignored my own car, parked down the street, and forged ahead to where a dented silver pickup idled on the curb. The bladders of dyed water, hidden beneath the thick wool of my sweater, gushed more crimson onto my waist as I swung open the passenger door and slid inside. Avery swore jubilantly from the driver’s seat.
“They really bought it,” he breathed.
I laughed until I nearly choked. “Did you count it?” I asked.
“All here.” He handed me a thick wad of cash. “Here’s your cut.”
My hands shook as I held it. Five-thousand dollars, five-thousand real dollars clutched in my hand.
I grinned back at Avery. “You did great in there.”
“You too,” he replied. “For a minute there, I really thought I’d killed you.”
“It had to believable. Who knows what they’d have done if they'd realized we were conning them.”
Avery fanned his half of the money in front of his face. “University, here I come.”
I snorted, but I couldn’t really blame him. Like his, my hands were full of hope.
I returned home early that morning, slipping out of my car like a wraith in the feathery light of the dawn. I froze, my eyes catching movement across the street. Mrs. Gupta waved at me from her lawn, eyes smiling. I beamed back at her, tears burning against my face.
"Thank you!" I called.
She laughed, the sound defiant and joyful in the morning quiet. “I knew you could do it, Jana!"
She was not a Proud One, but I could see pride in her eyes.