The lounge radiated coziness, intimacy. There was a crackling fireplace off to one side, a coffee table with an actual coffee pot and mugs, and a semicircle of the most comfortable armchairs and couches available anywhere. It was nearly pleasant enough to make one forget that there was no logical way they could possibly have gotten there.
But then the room’s occupants realized they couldn’t move or speak, and the moment was lost.
A green-clad figure stood on the other side of the coffee table, pouring himself a drink. Nobody could quite remember when he’d arrived, but they were all certain he’d not been there moments before.
“Welcome, one and all, to my humble abode!”
The entity was dressed much like a stage magician – vest, gloves, mysterious cloak, top hat and all. His face was obscured by an eerie mask forged as a solid white toothy grin.
“I’m sure you’re wondering who I am and what you’re doing here. I am The Charlatan, a being of unimaginable power. I’ve summoned you to-”
The Charlatan paused, seeming to consider something, before returning his untouched cup to its place on the table.
“Actually, I ought to introduce you all to each other! I don’t think any of you have met.”
The coffee table and associated crockery began to shake, vibrations splintering the wood and cracking the mugs before the whole assortment violently collapsed into a single point and vanished.
“Let’s start at normal and work our way up.”
The Charlatan clapped, and the couch at the apex of the semicircle slid forward through the empty space the coffee table no longer occupied, swiveling to face the others as it did so. Seated there was what appeared to be a happy, loving family of five, though it was hard to tell how accurate that depiction was given the paralysis and all.
“Meet the Broderburgs! Tom’s strong and civil, Clarice is intelligent and inquisitive, Alison is tech-savvy and rebellious, Ethan’s energetic and stubborn, and Emma is… a… baby. Together, they can overcome any obstacle – at least, that’s what they’d like to think. They have a beat-up RV filled with camping supplies, too, but… sort of impractical to bring that in here, I thought. Don’t worry; you’ll get it back soon enough.”
The couch slid back and was replaced by an armchair cradling the least memorable figure in the room.
“This lovely lady is Nancy Little. She’s a secretary for some police station, though she’d rather be a detective. She could be a detective, too! But little Miss Little’s too insecure and apathetic to try, even with her implausible luck. This is arguably the… second-best thing that’s ever happened to her. You wanted an adventure, well; today’s your lucky day.”
The chairs shifted around again.
“This is Ashley, our first non-human! He’s somewhat reserved from childhood trauma, though you might see that – among other things – change in your time with him. He’s been trained by the military, and has had several opportunities to put his high endurance and twin knives to good use. A dependable ally, if a little two-faced at times.”
“This automaton is Gamehost 6. He’s the host of a game show entitled ‘Dice of Death,’ and is equipped with a vast store of trivial knowledge – and some equipment to help his show live up to its name. I’d suggest you stay out of arm’s reach, but that wouldn’t help any. Despite his mechanical trappings, Six is quite intelligent, and loves learning new tidbits of info to add to his repertoire.”
“Parsley Krose… Aheh, mm… Mister Krose here is a demon hunter. Yes. He hunts demons. In fact, he’s one of the best in the land. Capable of going from zero to bread in sixty seconds, you’ll find most of his arsenal to be edible, though not necessarily all that tasty. He’s under the impression that none of this is real, albeit for different reasons that the rest of you.”
“Envoy is the result of a failed first-contact attempt. Half alien-space-probe, half human-built-robot, he’s practically indestructible and can store information at a molecular level. He’s being… advised by a board of politicians and scientists, who should note that they’re only still in contact because I’m letting them. Wave to COFCA, everyone! I’m sure they’ll try to assist their impossibly expensive pet in any way they can. Who knows? Maybe they’ll even succeed.”
“John Smith – sorry, I mean ‘John Smith’ – is a time traveler. Or, was. He seems to have lost his temporal displacement… thingy. Not my fault, I swear! He still has a few tricks up his sleeve… and one in his chest, though that’s not exactly his favorite. John’s good with technology – certainly better than Alison – and he can deduce a lot from very little information. Bit of a nutcase, though.”
“Speaking of nutcases, Yanis Carnea! She’s the goddess of locks and doorknobs, and likes to look at things metaphorically. Once she “unlocked” some tectonic plates, which didn’t exactly net her any favor with the rest of the pantheon. In fact, she's been trying to unlock her mobility for the past several minutes. Carnea has something of an inflated ego, though all things considered she certainly has enough reason for it. Did I mention she’s a goddess? Yes? Okay. I think that’s everyone.”
The chairs back in their original positions, The Charlatan clasped his hands and straightened his posture.
“You’ve seen that a lot of these fellows are quite dangerous, and I’m sure most of you are wondering what all this is for. Well.”
He turned solemnly from his guests, letting the tension build a little before speaking again.
“You’re all going to kill each other.”
The room was silent, save for the quiet ticking of a small clock atop the mantelpiece.
Then there was a snicker, and the Charlatan burst into raucous laughter. About a minute passed before he managed to calm himself enough to speak.
“Heeheeheeheehee! You all thought… Heeheehehahaha! You all thought I was serious! Gaaaaaaaaahahahahahahahahahahaha! Oh, man… Heeheehee! That’s great… Heheheh… Heh…”
The man shook himself and cleared his throat.
“Because I was completely serious. You’re all going to kill each other.”
The walls buckled ominously, wood creaking, cracks running through the wallpaper, bits of plaster coming down from the ceiling.
“Now, I figure some of you may not be all that comfortable with the idea of manslaughter.”
The lounge quietly exploded outwards, leaving its occupants and their seats unscathed.
“So I’m sending you somewhere to help you get acquainted with the concept.”
The sky above was a bleak grey-blue, the sort of day where just you knew rain would start at the absolute least convenient moment. The surrounding terrain was rocky, fragmented, pocked with craters and furrowed with trenches. Massive shards of earth stuck up at odd angles here and there, while a single giant mound of rock loomed in the background. The shallow impression in which the motley crew found themselves housed a few well-armed, heavily armored, recently deceased soldiers, several messily disassembled robots, and one faintly-glowing masked man. In the distance, one could see further evidence of prolonged combat – more skeletal robots firing shots at each other, robotic drones and helicopters flying overhead, plumes of smoke rising across the field, and giant mecha dispensing death here and there.
The entire scene was as immobile as the contestants who were to fight in it.
“Welcome to beautiful New Atlantis, everyone! This entire continent was raised from the seabed with geological manipulation technology. It’s not the sort of place you’d want to vacation at, though; if you couldn’t tell, there’s a war going on. That big plateau over there is actually Fort Ayers, home to a bunch of natives and probably some tech or another the invaders would like to have or, if necessary, destroy. You all don’t need to worry too much about who wins or loses – probably the natives – you just have to focus on not dying, and/or ensuring the death of one of these other shmucks. Whenever someone dies, the survivors get to leave and go somewhere potentially less deadly! Incidentally, there was a reason I introduced the Broderburgs as a group.”
“Well? What are you all standing around here for? Get to it!”
The Charlatan clapped his hands, and the contestants were flung across the battlefield, far from any of the others. Then time decided it had had enough, and the bullets resumed their flight.