Please note: this story was provided by the author and published as is.
When Agnes’ classmate Lorelei invited her to a last-minute game night, she couldn’t think of a good enough reason not to go. At least, not on the spot. It was supposed to be with a group of people she didn’t know – which was nerve-wracking enough – but she also didn’t know Lorelei very well, either. But when her ever-bubbly acquaintance bounced up to her as they were leaving Psych 302, she was so thrown off guard that she said yes.
She immediately regretted it. Games weren’t her thing. Especially not games with a group of total strangers. But she also didn’t want to bail and look like a loser. So she punched her number into Lorelei’s phone, and a few hours later, pulled up to a nice, quiet, suburban house on the outskirts of town.
As she walked to the door, her stomach made a nervous flip. Was she supposed to bring food? Or drinks? She was sure there would be snacks, but wasn’t it an unspoken rule that guests should always bring something?
Before she had the chance to succumb to her nervous thoughts, though, the door swung open, revealing Lorelei and another girl, both with drinks in hand. Lorelei exclaimed something about being “so excited” Agnes made it and ushered her inside, where two other guests were already sat around a kitchen table. They all smiled, just as friendly as Lorelei, and introduced themselves: Trent, Catherine, and Uma, who had met her at the door.
Agnes smiled, thanked them for the invitation, and sat down opposite Catherine. That’s when Trent, whose house this apparently was, pulled out a box. And spelled on the box, in looping, colorful letters, were the words “Game Night.”
Agnes didn’t recognize it – but to be fair, she barely knew how to play Go Fish. So she was relieved when Trent explained that the premise of the game was relatively simple. They were playing as villagers who had to prepare for a ritual to appease some dark entity that had infested their town. And in order to complete the ritual, they had to gather four items: a knife, a bowl, an occult book, and a quill. Each of these items were hidden in specific parts of the village on the board: the knife by the gallows, the bowl by the slaughterhouse, the book by the graveyard, and the quill by the well.
It seemed easy enough… until Trent pulled out the gameboard. It was massive, taking up almost every inch of the table they were sat around. A series of twisting, jagged paths spread from the town square at the center of the board and led to the four locations in each corner. Some of the paths seemed to lead straight there, while others intersected and jutted out in all directions before finally making a pit stop at their unique destination.
Uma seemed to notice Agnes’ growing panic and reassured her that it looked complicated, but moving along the paths was straightforward. All they had to do was roll two dice, which would tell them how many spaces they could move. They had to get to the locations, get the corresponding item, and then make it back to the town square. The player who made it back to the Town Square last, even if they had an item, would be the sole loser. Simple.
But then, etched into the paths were strange-looking symbols. From what she could gather, she knew that landing on these symbols would impact her turn. But which did what and how and why, required a photogenic memory that Agnes did not have. The shorter paths had a symbol on almost every square, implying some risk, whereas the longer paths were the safer bet, but slower to travel.
Because of this, she asked if she could sit the first round out, just to observe and get a sense of how everything worked. But Uma informed her it would take a few hours to get through the whole thing, so they wouldn’t be able to play another round before everyone had to go home. Plus, it was a five-player game. Everyone had to play.
So, she asked if there was an instruction manual she could read – and maybe keep by her so she could reference it. Catherine told her it was actually called a rulebook – not an instruction manual – and reached into the box, presumably to grab it. But what she pulled out made Agnes’ stomach drop. It was a book. An actual, leather-bound, novel-looking book, with “Game Night” written on the cover in the same looping font as the box. And, sure enough, the first few pages she flipped through were full of rules, strategies, and a key to the dozens of symbols etched on the squares.
Art by Anonymous
She couldn’t help but laugh at the cruel humor of it all. Of course it would take hours. Of course there was a novel-length instruction manual – sorry, “rulebook.” But she couldn’t back out now. And so, like a diver taking a final breath before stepping up to the 20-meter board, Agnes reluctantly picked her game piece out of the multicolored flock of lambs, and waited her turn.
The others had obviously played this game before – they expertly maneuvered from square to square, fanning out across the multitude of paths towards the destinations. She noticed each person seemed to be going for a different one: Trent headed towards the slaughterhouse, Lorelei towards the graveyard, et cetera. When Agnes’ first turn came, she decided to follow Uma to the gallows to look for the knife, but when her little white lamb landed on a wolf symbol, Lorelei gave her a sympathetic look. Her piece was removed to the start, where it waited, until her next turn. She rolled a 5 and landed on a stick symbol… that sent her back four spaces.
At least she wasn’t on the opening square anymore.
It continued like that for a while: the others flew towards their chosen locations, expertly knowing when to choose a safer, longer path versus when to take the risk on a short one. Meanwhile, Agnes was stuck running laps around the town square. She’d approach the path she needed to go down in order to get to the gallows, but missed it each time. So, she’d have to circle around the entirety of the town square before she’d get the chance to go down that path again. But every time, she either passed it, or landed on a symbol that sent her backwards or for forwards or skipped her turn altogether.
It was, in a word, frustrating. She kept referencing the rule book, trying to calculate some way to at least get out of that god-forsaken loop, but it was no help. All the other sheep were off grazing through the town while she was left behind.
After what felt like an hour, something finally happened – but not for her. On Uma’s turn, the square she landed on glowed with the symbol of a knife, indicating she’d found the first item. Agnes was surprised – the board didn’t look that advanced. But to be fair, she hadn’t even thought to ask how they would know the items had been found, so maybe she missed something.
The whole group cheered, Trent drew a tiny plastic knife from the box and handed to it Uma, who set off back towards the town square to wait out the end of the game in safety. She even made it back in two turns – Page 4 of the rule book stated The Knife allowed the player holding it to add six to their roll.
Things continued like that for literal hours. The others drank and laughed, sharing jokes and stories as they played, while Agnes tried to pretend like she was having fun.
Her internal spiral spun away in full force, though. Why had she come? She and Lorelei weren’t friends. They’d done one group project together at the start of the semester and hadn’t spoken since. Lorelei had plenty of friends – why would she invite Agnes?
The longer the game went on, the more like an outcast she felt. But she wasn’t about to dip out early – she’d look like a sore loser. So, she tried to steel her mind, relegated herself to losing, and decided to just wait it out.
Eventually, Lorelei found The Book, and Trent found The Bowl. Both gave their respective players big advantages that allowed them to make it back to the Town Square relatively quickly. It was down to her and Catherine, who didn’t look the least bit nervous about losing. She was already at the final location – The Well. And even though Agnes finally landed on a square that sent her in the right direction, there was no way she’d be able to make it there, find The Quill, and beat her to the end.
So she was shocked when, on her next turn, the square beneath her figure lit up. She wasn’t even at The Well… and yet she found the final item.
She was stunned – and so, apparently, was everyone else. Catherine, for one, had to be nudged a few times to get her to roll again.
But the other girl hadn’t lost yet. Now that the last item had been found, getting to the finish line was all that mattered. For some reason, The Quill didn’t offer its holder any advantages like the other items did, but Agnes didn’t care. A strange competitiveness had come over her at the idea of maybe not losing. In fact, when counting the distance, she was elated to find that the two of them were neck and neck.
The thought of not totally embarrassing herself in front of everyone was enough to focus her mind. And with a few astonishingly high rolls, she started making progress.
In fact, it was like they traded luck. Catherine rolled low and then lost her next turn. Agnes rolled high and then skipped ahead. She couldn’t help but notice the way Catherine’s leg bounced underneath the table, or how her eyes darted back and forth across the board, no doubt calculating the numbers she’d have to roll to make it to safety. But with what Agnes could only describe as divine intervention, she somehow avoided landing on any of the squares that would send her backwards.
Despite her change of luck, the mood in the room had tangibly shifted. Gone was the laughter and the joking. All eyes were on the board as Catherine’s little red lamb bounced back and forth, while Agnes barreled towards the finish line. The silence was broken only by the clanging of the die on the board. No one moved. No one breathed. And then… finally… it was over.
Agnes sat back, a smile spreading across her face. She made it.
A sense of pride cheered with her relief. A glance at the clock in the kitchen told her they’d been playing for the better part of three hours, and she was ready to go home. But the blanket of silence that had fallen on the room kept her seated – and silent.
Catherine stared at the pieces before her, as if she couldn’t comprehend what had just happened. The rest of the group was just as dumbfounded. But Agnes didn’t really care – she was so focused on getting home that she barely noticed when Uma bent down to pick something up out of the game box. Catherine noticed, though. She whipped her head up to face her, words Agnes couldn’t guess forming on her lips.
She never got the chance to say them, though. In one fluid motion, Uma pulled a knife – a real knife – out of the game box, leaned over the table, and slashed it across Catherine’s throat. Blood sprayed across the game board, and everything else. The symbols Agnes hadn’t understood began to glow a deep orange color, and a strange hum filled the air – not loud, but insistent, vibrating the board as Catherine’s blood continued to spill. Her eyes darted around the room as she clutched at her neck, blood pumping from between her fingers. Eventually, she locked eyes with Agnes, her expression a mix of rage and helplessness.
But Agnes couldn’t do anything. She sat, frozen, as Catherine slumped over, head smacking into the game board. Out of nowhere, Trent produced a bowl, and with an unceremonious flick of his hand, he wiped some of the blood from where it had pooled and fed it into the dish.
At that, the orange light began to pulse, and the blood on the board sizzled, sending a horrible metallic smell into the air. It made Agnes’ stomach churn, but she couldn’t move. She could barely breathe. The hum, the glow, the blood – it was something out of a horror movie. Things like this didn’t happen in real life. But Catherine’s lifeless eyes were all the proof she needed that this was very, very real.
Numbly, she registered that Lorelei had placed the rule book in front of her, along with a feather quill. It was in that moment Agnes realized everyone was looking at her expectantly. She looked down at the book, the quill, the bowl of blood Trent had placed next to her, then back up to the group.
Lorelei instructed her to open the book, and for some reason, she did. Her hand did not feel like her own as the flipped through to the back, revealing pages lined with what must have been dozens – maybe hundreds – of names scrawled with a rusty brown.
Lorelei spoke again, this time telling her to write Catherine’s name on the next available line. And again, with a hand that couldn’t have been hers, she picked up the quill, dipped it in the blood, and scratched Catherine’s first and last name down. She didn’t even know her last name, but she wrote it anyway.
Once it was done, the world went silent again. The board stopped buzzing. The pulsing light dimmed. The hum became nothing more than a sigh, and then nothing at all.
Trent was the first to break the silence. “Well,” he said, “that was… unexpected.” The others laughed. Agnes didn’t laugh, though. Her body finally felt like her own again, and she slowly stood on shaky legs.
The door. She could make it to the door. Slowly, she turned and walked away, praying the others wouldn’t try to stop her. But just as she was reaching for the handle…
“It likes you,” Lorelei said with her signature bright smile. Agnes jumped, whipping around to face her. “We’re about to leave town, but you should come with us! Since, you know, we’re down a member.” The thought of ever seeing Lorelei and her friends – or whatever they were – again filled her with an indescribable dread.
Agnes turned to go, not even wanting to respond… but Lorelei caught her arm before she could leave. “It knows your name now,” she whispered. “Either you show up next week, or you’re next on the list.”
With a last meaningful look, she released her arm, and let her stumble to her car. Agnes spent the weekend alone, locked in her dorm room with the door barricaded and the blinds shut tight. First she cried, then she slept. Then, she spent hours obsessively Googling the game, the names she remembered from the book, anything she could think of to figure out what had happened. But, search after search, she came up with nothing, until she almost started to wonder if she’d imagined the whole thing. Either that, or it was some sort of prank.
She decided to just ask Lorelei after class the following week… but come Monday, her seat was empty.
And a week later, Agnes’ seat was empty, too.