"Two worlds, one reality and two years to save the fictional."

Phew.

It's taken three years, countless roleplay scenarios and a seen month gap where absolutely nothing happened, but it looks as if we're here.

This story will be the finale of the Ace Lightning Roleplay which took place on live journal between the years of 2005-2007. It will include some portions written by Sarah frost, and I have attempted to keep this tale as coherent and in keeping with all the role-players desires as possible.

Obviously, people who were not involved in the roleplay may not have a clue what is going on, but I will try my best to keep the story coherent and understandable anyway, so you can probably follow along. Standard disclaimers apply. Certain original characters are the property of various role-players and will be credited as such when they appear.


"I had to arm the last weapon, I had to point it at the last remaining target, and then, I had to help it make the choice. And for that, I needed a soul."

- Jennifer Diane Reiss.

Coda.

Interlude. One.

Location: Hollander Household.

Date: ...

He was sure the ghosts hadn't been there the last time he came through this level, but they were definitely there now.

Ghosts. Sort of, anyway. It was the only word he could think of to describe the creatures forming on the screen. They were wandering in and out of the walls: shadows of what looked like Lord Fear and Lady Illusion, flickering on the monitor for a few seconds before vanishing. The speakers even gave him the standard cackling sound-effects whenever they appeared, so Mark was sure he wasn't just imagining them.

He hadn't been playing for that long. Not quite.

Still, it was creepy, and Mark knew what it probably meant. Lord Fear wouldn't have started appearing so much if Mark wasn't close to completing the game.

It had taken him two whole hours to get down to the 8th Level of the Nevershine Mines. He would've made it through faster, if he hadn't kept trying to follow the ghosts (they could've been hidden bonus points or something; this game had things like that hidden everywhere).

This was his thirteenth attempt. Or maybe fourteenth, who could keep it all straight?

'Knew I should've taken the right hand path…'

He'd always hated bonus rounds, and in this game you had to do them every time you passed through their level. There was no getting out until you'd beaten them. People had probably wasted weeks of their lives on the Nevershine Mines Bonus Level (Route Eight).

'There should be a pathway here, it's in the… Oh… yeah. The right hand path again. For god's sakes, it's even written in the rulebook why didn't you take it?'

Getting through the bonus-tunnel the once, for example, wasn't enough for this game. Oh no. In this game you had to go back through it every time you wanted to reach one of only three level save points (which you had to do if you didn't want to risk losing a whole zone's worth of accessory build-ups. Seriously not worth it before you went to take on "The Master of the House.")

"The Master of the House" had to be nearby, Mark thought, remembering the name from a cut scene. What had it been that the Lightning Knight instructor had said to Mark's character before he started level one? "Evils, young knight, every one of them within that carnival. They're a cowardly lot, but their Lord of the House has only Fear in his heart."

"But… won't that make him easier to defeat, sir? With our training?'

"Not in the least. You'll understand when you meet him."

Yeah. Mark was starting to understand what that cut-scene was supposed to mean.

"Ace Lightning and the Carnival of Doom" (according to Pete, anyway) was counted fifth of the top twenty list of the most difficult Platformer/RPG Computer Games available on the PC this year. There was a reason for that. That reason was probably the Nevershine Mines

And Mark knows the book didn't say anything about there being ghosts down there… He's really not sure what that's about.

Lady Illusion liked to pop up randomly in the bonus levels anyway –those strange ghosts of her would drift through the walls with the occasional hollow laughter– but that was just the bonus levels. They'd always been there. Now Lord Fear was popping up, too. Both of them were, all over the place. Sometimes together, sometimes alone, always laughing and smiling. It was probably just the game trying to throw him off balance, but it still creeped him out a little.

'Get a grip, Mark. It's just a game.'

He knew where the real (sort of) Lady Illusion was, anyway –hiding in the Mystery Maze in the middle of the Gardens of Illusion that surrounded the Haunted House. He just couldn't get to her because the route kept changing and wouldn't stop until he worked out the level's puzzle. After a while he'd gotten fed up of dying all the time because he had to walk back into the Spider Nests he hadn't wanted to enter in the first place.

He actually almost felt relieved when the normal bad guys started showing up.

The fight was probably supposed to be important, since it offered a small cut scene before throwing "Ace" into another battle but at least it was better than the spiders. Who cared if Pigface and Dirty Rat weren't supposed to show up in this part of Nevershine? Mark actually almost smiled as the inventory switched to battle mode. Just Pigface and the Rat –he'd faced them in practically every level since he'd started the game. They were nothing new. Nothing to get too worked up about… almost a nice distraction from the spiders.

'You're gonna fry, Pigface…'

Pigface did fry –with a lot of squealing and belching noises. Mark opted for the wrist cannons seeing as he was in a hurry, so no time for using any fancy combos. The rat vanished with a gibbering howl. Pigface vanished altogether and the on-screen Ace made a comment about smelling bacon and then…

Then Anvil came out of nowhere.

They didn't announce him with a cut scene but Mark didn't have time to proclaim the unfairness of that (since when had this game been fair anyway?) before Anvil starting beating the onscreen Ace over the head and bringing down his power levels by roughly twenty percent with every hit –too powerful, too fast. Mark didn't have time to activate his shield and no combos worked while you were being attacked.

'Wait, what the… oh, damn it.'

He'd been so close, the next cut scene had actually looked like it was going to start playing before Mark realised it was just another "GAME OVER" screen. He let his shoulders slump a little, trying not to feel as disappointed as he was. Two whole hours… He probably should've been unpacking some more or something, in all that time.

Then over Mark's shoulder, something tutted.

'Ouch. Looks like that was a tough break, kid.'

It took Mark a couple of seconds, first to work out who it was that was speaking, and then to turn around and face them. Ace was stood there with his arms folded, gazing at the screen the same way he sometimes looked at Sparx after a battle gone wrong.

A nervous feeling tugged at Mark's stomach. He couldn't work out why.

'I'm glad I'm not him. Well…' Ace shrugged in a way Mark could only describe as sheepish. Or self-conscious. It wasn't an expression that worked on Ace, who hadn't been designed for either of those things. 'You know what I mean.'

Mark's mouth opened. He meant to say "no", but no sound came out.

'You should've used your fire booster, kid. That would've gotten rid of him. Or that's what I would've done, anyway. And your choice of power-levelling here?' He pointed at the screen over Mark's shoulder. 'It's totally wrong –I can tell. You know, you really shouldn't go into the Haunted House with anything less than a full powered shield… Or the Garden of Illusion, for that matter. You can afford to sacrifice some of those attack points in exchange for more shielding. I'm surprised you even got this far without another level on the Shield of Justice.'

'I…' Mark started to speak, but his voice trailed off with a strange sort of squeaking noise. At least, he thought, he was able to make a sound now, even if he still didn't have a clue what to say because…

Because this was Ace Lightning, sitting on his bed. Which in retrospect wasn't all that weird, these days, but Ace really shouldn't have been there and…

And…

Wait. No. That didn't make sense

'Um… thanks?'

'Don't mention it, kid. You'll get there. A true Lightning Knight never gives up.'

'Ace?'

'That's the name, kid.'

Mark stood up, letting the joystick drop to the floor. Behind, the game chirped its usual "try again?" message a lot louder than Mark thought he'd had the speakers turned up. He ignored it. Ace didn't look at him; he just kept staring out of the window. The look on his face reminded Mark of his dad whenever he was about to get grounded.

But this Ace didn't even exist yet, he couldn't…

Mark screwed up his eyes and expected that when he opened them, Ace would have disappeared, but he hadn't. He was now staring out of the window through a gap in the curtains which Mark could've sworn had been replaced by blinds months ago. Mark then realised that his room was blue, when it should have been red after his mother's last failed attempt at decorating and…

A spark of recognition fired in Mark's brain and suddenly, things all made sense. Of course.

This was a dream. A dream about the night of the lightning bolt, wasn't it?

'It's me, kid. Don't worry,' Ace said, and… Mark didn't know why that made him feel better, but it did, and he wasn't going to complain about anything that lessened the pounding in his chest. He sat down again.

How long? It was still a while away. Mark could hear the beginning of rainfall, but there was no thunder or lightning outside. No wind, yet. It wasn't late enough and the world outside the window wasn't totally dark.

Over a whole hour before Ace was meant to appear for the first time and battle Lord Fear in the Hollander's new garden…

Ace was now sitting on the bed again, staring distastefully at the superhero comic (Mark couldn't read the text to make out which comic it was) that'd been left there. His old heroic posture was still there. Even when Ace was just sitting there and staring at a comic book, it was kind of like watching the hero of the comic reading about himself.

Which was a weird thought. Or weirder than things already were.

'Ace I… okay, this doesn't make…'

'Doesn't make?' Ace's voice asked a question.

Mark tried to make a sentence and eventually found one that sounded right. (Probably because he had asked Ace exactly the same thing on more occasions than he liked to count). 'What are you doing here?'

'Just stopping by, Marcus. Mark… sorry, Mark,' Ace corrected himself, wearing that weird, sheepish expression again. 'Is that a problem? At least I didn't break the window, right?'

'…Right,' Mark thought. Ace was always breaking things. Especially windows. But the window now was complete and un-cracked and seemed to be closed shut. Mark realised he had no idea how Ace had even got into the room.

But… no. This was wrong. It was all mixed up. His bedroom couldn't be blue and red. Ace couldn't be here yet but not created yet…

'Well, your agility ratings looked pretty good anyway, kid,' Ace said, suddenly, as if he was worried he might've upset his future (current? Whatever) sidekick and was trying to cheer him up. 'And your experience level. Almost good enough. They'll be easily high enough by the time you get there. You'd better pay attention – the "game over" screen just changed.'

Mark looked. Then his hand lifted the joystick from the floor before he could stop himself.

He figured it was probably instinct, or something. If there was one thing Mark knew he knew (no matter when this really was) it was games.

Anyway, a controller and the videogame-screen Ace felt like something he could be sure of right now. It was pretty much all he could remember about…

About…

'You okay kid? That game's not gonna play itself, you know.'

Mark told himself he wasn't freaking out and didn't quite manage to believe it. He pressed the "continue yes" option, because he felt like it was the only thing he could do.

Ace watched.

The scene faded to black, then back into full colour and the ugly blues and greens –was it just him, or was there too much green in this game?– of the Nevershine Mines.

'My Lord?' A familiar voice came out tinny through the speakers.

'…It's… this is a cut-scene,' Mark felt the bizarre need to explain something that Ace probably already knew. 'It's just… you know. Bits of story told between the game play. I've seen this one before, so I could skip it if you want, I mean…'

'No problem, kid, Just… I'll watch it.' Mark supposed Ace was using that super-enhanced vision of his (he thought Ace had that, anyway) because he didn't move from where he was, just turned around to face the screen.

'My Lord, are you sure of this direction? The Spiders…'

'Will obey you, if you force them. And of course I'm sure,' the voice spat back impatiently. The videogame figure of Lord Fear limped even more obviously than he did in the real world. They had tried to make the shadow movements realistic on the walls and they shifted and curved as the villain moved. 'There is but a single tunnel. And only a fool would enter the Nevershine if he were not certain of the way. Let us hope Lightning is fool enough to follow us.'

'All the same, My Lord, we must hurry…'

The figures on screen paused for a moment, standing still amongst the moving shadows. Lady Illusion's face was still strangely beautiful, even when rendered in pixels on a screen 'Why? Do you think I fear the Lightning Knight? One pathetic do-gooder against the many denizens of my cause?'

One bony, pixilated finger brushed across the Lady's cheek. Mark glanced upwards at Ace, watching for a twitch, or shudder or some other expression of revulsion but none came. Ace continued to gaze the screen the same way he had stared at nothing, that time one of Chuck's viruses had infected him and frozen his entire system. Mark tried not to shiver. 'You are wrong my lady, I have no need to fear the Knights. What is there to fear…'

'But Fear himself,' Lady Illusion finished with an understanding, yet slightly irritated sigh. Now that Mark looked at her more closely he could see just how strange and rehearsed her behaviour seemed to be. 'Of course, my Lord. But—'

'Yes,' Lord Fear cut in, his figure hobbling on across the screen 'Your own fear is understandable, but I would not have obtained your services were it not for your cunning, my Lady. Use it well and he shall not triumph.' The way Fear said this made it feel more like an order than a compliment. 'The battle beyond these walls shall distract them long enough to permit us our escape. Come.'

Lord Fear and Lady Illusion finished their conversation, and then they faded out into the pixel darkness together.

Mark remembered Fear's bony, skinless fingertip digging into his own neck once, sharp and real where they shouldn't have been, even though none of that had happened yet and…

He wondered if Ace was feeling just as confused.

'Ace…?'

'No, kid, I don't get it,' Ace answered the question Mark had wanted to ask, but didn't quite know how. Ace had moved a few steps closer to him, but still continued to stare at the screen. 'I don't know where they're going anymore than you do. But then again, I wasn't there. I guess that's how the game was made. The person playing gets to see everything.'

Mark swallowed, not really understanding what Ace meant. 'What… what are they talking about there? That bit about a battle?'

'Do you remember what Sparx told you about what happened in Magery City after I left to come here?' Ace asked. Mark nodded jerkily. 'It's likely something to do with that. I was… I don't know where I was at the time.'

'…You went after them,' Mark said, remembering playing the level. 'After Lord Fear and Lady Illusion. You followed them into the Nevershine Mines, and you fought Pigface and Dirty Rat, and the spiders… And then you went to the Haunted House… And then you came… here.' But that hasn't happened yet. And you haven't happened yet; a small, confused voice inside Mark's head tried to scream at him in annoyance. '…Didn't you?'

'Sure, kid, but that's not me,' Ace said, pointing at the screen. 'It's just a game. If it was me I wouldn't have died before. I still don't know how you got so far the way you had things set up. You must've collected a good few amulet pieces, huh? I hear that's how a lot of people make it through. Not the safest method, though.'

'The safest… method?'

'Of defeating the enemy,' Ace explained. 'It means you're relying on raw power in order to overcome Lord Fear and sometimes that's not enough. I learned that myself. Or will. Who can keep it all straight?'

Mark's hand moved instinctively to his own chest but of course, the amulet piece wasn't there –at least one thing about this time was right, then, even though it was the one thing Mark kind of wished wasn't. He wanted the amulet. As much as it scared him, he preferred the medallion to have an actual location. After all, if it was nowhere then it could be anywhere

'And now I'm going crazy.' Mark sighed, feeling more resigned to the fact that anything else. It figured that all this would get to him, sooner or later.

Ace sighed also, shrugging his shoulders. 'You and me both, kid. I know –I'm not even supposed to be here,' he help up his hands in defeat. 'Not yet. Which means that either this is a dream, in which case what happens to me isn't really important, or we're both losing it entirely. Don't think I ever asked for this, Mark, it's not like I expected you… or any of your world.'

'You would've been happy not to know,' Mark finished Ace's unspoken thought, and then he wondered whether or not there would be anything to remember anyway. If the Sixth Dimension wasn't real before the lightning bolt, then…

'Anyway, in case you're wondering, Mark…' (The world outside the window had gotten strangely dark, all of a sudden, and the game behind Mark had switched straight to the "CONTINUE?" scene with no explanation. Mark thought for a second "What's wrong with this game?" then realised it didn't matter.) '…I didn't come here to play games. We've got work to do.'

'What? You mean… now? But…'

'Evil waits for no knight, Mark,' Ace said. He was back to using his "you're supposed to be a sidekick, please try and act like one, or else I shall be Very Disappointed" voice. The one that Mark always had trouble saying "no" to (he used to manage it okay, but it had been getting harder and harder lately and…

And he was thinking about things that weren't real again. Had to stop that…)

'Ace—'

Mark thought he could see Ace rolling his eyes –a gesture the old Ace (new? Mark totally doesn't get this) never used to use and which even the new (old? Who cares…) Ace hardly ever does. He's still getting the hang of his human emotions. 'Yeah, I know you don't have powers, kid… took you long enough to convince me, but try to keep up anyway.'

And then he flew out of the window (open again, despite the fact that it had been locked shut a moment earlier) and vanished.

Mark could think of a lot of reasons not to go along with that.

They weren't very convincing reasons. About how wrong and messed up and confusing this all was, his parents and how late it is –too late to be going out and saving the world. Too late to even try

He'd used all of the excuses at least once before, but none of them were true right now, and who could lie to a superhero?

Mark turned and bolted for his bedroom door, leaving the computer screen to beep quietly to itself, the message still flashing: "CONTINUE: Y/N?"

And then, just like that, he woke up.