You look up at the name on the shop's sign, swinging gently above you. The Midnight Rose. You recheck the card in your hand. Yes, this is the place. You frown slightly, and look around you. By day, the city is busy and even this out-of-the-way side street has its share of noise and people. But it isn't day now, it is night. By night, although the main streets are still lit and, despite the lateness of the hour, not entirely empty, the narrow alley is filled with nothing but silence and shadows. You look again at the card, still wondering if it is all some sort of joke.
You had received another card earlier in the day. It arrived in the mail in a small white envelope with a curious metallic blue seal. The seal seemed almost familiar to you. As though you had seen it elsewhere and forgotten about it since. Inside the envelope, you found a small card bearing your name and a message. The message read, "You are hereby invited to the Conference of Introductions." On the other side of the card was another message. "Take this card to your nearest computer store to receive further instructions." Curious, you did just that and received another envelope. Inside this envelope, you found another card and a single sheet of delicate, rose scented paper. It read "You have been chosen as one of the representatives of your time to attend the Conference of Introductions. The Conference will begin tonight. To attend, present yourself at the Midnight Rose Cyber-Café - shortly before midnight. You will be guided from there." Although you were hesitant about the strange request, something deep within you whispered that it was a conference you shouldn't miss. Which is how you came to be standing in an eerily silent alley outside a Cyber-Café you hadn't previously known existed, just before midnight.
You hesitate, your hand hovering over the door handle, then you shake your head, chuckling slightly to yourself. No, you won't be fooled so easily. It has to be some sort of prank. You turn away. Before you have taken a single step though, you hear the door open behind you. "We're open, if you wanted to come in." You swing around, blinking in surprise at the young boy standing in the doorway.
He's only around fourteen, small and slight with tousled brown hair and kind brown eyes hidden behind round glasses which give him a faintly owlish appearance. He gives you a smile that seems slightly distracted and then retreats back inside. Shrugging to yourself, you follow him. So what, if it's a joke? At least you might get a laugh out of it!
When you hand him the card, he shoots a swift glance at you and leads you down the back of the surprisingly large place. As you pass along the rows of computers, you are struck by how popular the place is, even at this late hour. Almost all of the computers are already in use. Finally though, he points to a vacant chair. "Here you go. If you just sit down, the website you need will come up by itself in a few minutes."
You sit down and stare at the dark screen in amusement, thinking how silly it all is. Then midnight strikes. Suddenly, the screen before you flickers into life as the web browser opens. Within moments, the home page has loaded and you blink in surprise.
It's a chat room, but not an ordinary one. As you watch in stunned disbelief, a virtual ballroom forms on the screen in front of you. Then a small box pops up. "Please enter your name." Slowly, you type it in. Then you get the surprise of your life. Although you have heard of Avatar, or image, based chatrooms, you have never seen yourself in Avatar form before! There can be no doubt though, the small image now walking through the virtual ballroom is you right down to the smallest detail!
As you begin to get over your shock, you notice other Avatars arriving in the chatroom. Within moments, you find yourself engaged in conversation and all your doubts melt away as you chat.
You meet one person after another. Some of the avatars are human, but there are others who seem so fantastical that you can barely restrain from laughing aloud. You quickly get over the appearances though, especially after your fascinating conversation about philosophy, fate and destiny with someone using the handle of 'Prophecy' whose avatar takes the form of a grey cat. Likewise, the Elven avatar 'Luckyspell' has you in stitches as she relates some of the misadventures she's gotten herself into. Then there's 'Banner' with his knowledge of aviation and 'Justice', who gives you an intriguing glimpse into the world of crime. He's easily identified as being a police officer, but there are a few you're not so sure about.
When you join one particular group of avatars, you notice that the topic of conversation appears to be along similar lines to what Justice was talking about, except that they seem to have a different viewpoint regarding rules and regulations. One of them, 'Ryder', tells you that fighting crime isn't all bullets and car chases, sometimes it's disguises and infiltration and sometimes it's more electronics and physics. One of the others, 'Gabriel', responds that there are times when it's also psychics that get the job done. 'Michael' immediately adds that ghosts play their part too.
As strange as that group was, you meet up with stranger in that chatroom. There's one boy, 'Arin', who claims to be able to juggle eight rubber chickens at once. Then there's 'Birrek', who combines a conversation about gardening with one about correct garden gnome placement!
Time seems to fly as you chat and long before you are ready, you realize that it is almost dawn! Oddly, you aren't in the least tired, but the others all begin to log off and you know it's time for you to go too. Still, you hold off as long as you can, until there are only three others left in the chatroom. 'Rose' bids you goodnight before she leaves and 'Caretaker' does the same, leaving you alone with 'Protector5'. For a moment, you are silent. Although you've noticed this particular avatar around all night, you have yet to speak to him. There's something about the Elven avatar that seems faintly... evil. At first glance, he seems harmless enough. The avatar is of a young Elven male, clearly a child, with dark hair and eyes. But he's dressed completely in black and there's a look on his face that you can't quite comprehend. He almost seems to be... laughing at you!
"Well, it's finally happened. I was beginning to think they'd never all get in the same place at the same time. I should have known that she would choose this way to do it!" His words don't make sense and you remain silent. He waits and when you don't reply, elaborates. "The Conference. This isn't the first time they've tried to hold it. But every time they've tried, something's happened and it's had to be postponed. Until now."
As he speaks, something that has been stirring in the back of your mind finally moves into view. All through the night, you have felt the faintest hint of familiarity with some of those you have met. Now the feeling strengthens, but the answer remains out of your reach. Before you can question the avatar though, another avatar appears in the room.
'Mirror' moves over towards you and, much to your surprise, 'Protector5' moves back almost respectfully. His typed comments are anything but respectful though. "About time you got here. I didn't think you'd bother turning up!"
"I've had a lot to do. But I'm here now." While the avatar responds, you take the opportunity to study her.
'Mirror' has the appearance of a human girl of around eighteen. Her serious eyes are grey, not silvery-blue or steely grey, just an ordinary grey, while her long hair is an equally ordinary dark brown that falls past her shoulders in a sleek and orderly cascade. Only her outfit is less than ordinary in fact, as it is comprised of a long medieval gown of dark purple velvet, trimmed with thin gold braid. Her only ornament is a brooch pinned to her bodice, a small circular mirror with a delicate, light blue rose etched in the center. Then she turns towards you.
"Welcome. I am very pleased that you could make it here. I am Mirror, recorder of history in the Hall of Archives. The Conference of Introductions has now been held. We hope you have enjoyed meeting us, but now it is time for you to return to your own life."
As she speaks, the virtual ballroom begins to shimmer, dissolving into another image. The badge 'Mirror' wears, enlarged so it fills the screen. A soft, female voice suddenly echoes from the speakers.
"The conference was intended as an introduction to us, so that future events would not seem completely unfamiliar to you. I... we... hope that it has been successful in that. We will meet again, but for now, you must think of all this as just a dream. Or perhaps... a story." The badge seems to sparkle and the unexpected movement on the screen traps your gaze. The world around you seems to dissolve until there is nothing except the image on the screen. Then it too fades to black.
You blink and wonder why you are standing at your window at midnight. You can't remember getting up, but you do vaguely remember a dream, or maybe a story, you can't quite recall. You turn to go back to bed and a glint of light reflected in your mirror catches your eye.
On another world...
"Lord Dark? Darkling, wake up! Mirarne has brought a message for you." The girl's voice woke Dark out of a deep sleep. As his night-black eyes opened, he brushed back a wayward lock of black hair and blinked up at his Lady Locken. In the shifting shadows of his chamber, her near-white hair seemed far darker. For a moment he thought she was someone else. Someone else? Then he remembered.
"I had the strangest dream."
A slight frown crossed his face and he went suddenly still. He murmured the words again, his frown deepening, but with unease instead of anger. "Something... is not right," he whispered.
On to the epilogue