The thief has been flattened against the wall by the door for the past ten minutes. He’s gone over this level in his head dozens of times, and every time he’s come to the same conclusion. Somehow, somehow, he’s made it through every level so far. His hoard of gold grows by the day. He’s well on his way to becoming King of Thieves (whatever becoming “King of Thieves” actually means, but now doesn’t seem like the time to ask those kinds of questions). This level, though… this one is impossible. If the saw blade doesn’t get him, one of the two saw blades or one of the two—no, three red guards will. Probably the one closest to him—it’s been eyeing him in an uncannily knowing way for the past ten minutes, like it can tell what he’s thinking.
The thief swallows hard, making a minute and probably unnecessary adjustment to his jaunty red mask. The door locked itself when he closed it behind him, and there’s no way of opening it from the inside. This is it. “This is it,” he says out loud. The steadiness of his voice brings him some small measure of comfort. “Come and get me—if you can!” he cries, pushing off from the wall and springing nimbly into the air.
The beginning, at least, is just like every other level. The thief skims across the floor, clearing the saw blade with ease and leaping lightly over three bullets in a row. After that, though, are the three red guards, too close together for him to jump over. The thief leaps into the air, closing his eyes in spite of himself as he braces for the final blow. But the blow doesn’t come. He hits the floor and opens his eyes again—to see the first red guard turning on the second one and body-checking it down the chasm, where it caroms off the walls straight into the third, knocking them both unconscious. Then the red guard turns back to the thief.
"Are you okay?" he asks.
For a moment, the thief is speechless, but politeness wins out in the end.
"Yeah," he says. "Um—are you?"
"I think so," the red guard says. "I’ve never done anything like that before. I’m not sure what came over me. But we have really tough skin; it didn’t hurt at all."
"It’s not that I’m not grateful," the thief says carefully. "Because I really, really am. But—why?!”
"No one’s ever cleared this level," the red guard replies. "It’s like it was designed to be impossible. The other two guys, they loved it, but me… I just didn’t see the point, you know? I’m kind of what you might call a gentle soul, and… I guess I just got sick of seeing you guys die."
"There have been others?" the thief asks. He had some vague sense that there were all along (he had to have been competing for his crown against someone, after all), but he’d never seen any of them, and always assumed this was because he was so far ahead of the pack. He glances around, as if one of the others might be lurking behind a saw blade or something.
"Well, they’re not here anymore,” the red guard says. “Sometimes I think we spend more time mopping up this level than we do defending it. The last one hit the saw at a funny angle and just kind of… exploded. Blood everywhere. Took a whole day to clean up. Imagine that, but every. Single. Day. It just got to be too much after a while. And then I saw you huddled against the wall over there, looking so scared—and I just couldn’t do it again.”
"I wasn’t huddled," the thief says, a little annoyed. "That’s just how my body is shaped. But in a general sense I get what you mean."
A small pause. The red guard floats there, smiling in a way that’s probably meant to be reassuring but isn’t, quite. His teeth are huge.
"So," the thief says, a little awkwardly. "What now?"
"Well." Suddenly, the red guard seems shy. "I was kind of thinking… you can say no if you want, don’t worry, I won’t take it personally, but I was thinking we could… get out of here? Not just here here, but—this whole thing? I’ve only ever really seen the inside of this level, but there’s gotta be more to the world than this, right?”
The thief hesitates. “I guess…” he says.
"No no no," the red guard says hurriedly. "That’s totally fine. Don’t even worry about it. You want to stay and keep doing your thing; I get that. You’ve got to be really good at it, to get this far… I guess I just thought, since I wasn’t really cut out for my line of work, that you must not be cut out for yours. I shouldn’t have assumed.”
"No, no," the thief says. "It’s not that. I just… never even imagined doing anything but this. But now that I think about it… Who’s to say the next level isn’t going to be even more impossible than this one? There can’t be that many red guards out there like you to save my butt, right?"
"I’ve never met anyone like me," the red guard says, casting his one eye modestly downward. "But then again, I’ve only ever met two other red guards my whole life, so it’s not like I’m some kind of authority or anything."
The thief peers into the chasm. The other two red guards are lying at the bottom, apparently unconscious. There’s a chest piled high with gold down there, but there’s also at least one cannon thump, thump, thumping dully away in the near distance. And after that? Another level? Another cannon? Another chest of gold? And another level, another cannon, and another chest of gold afterthat?
"I saw a crashed UFO near Level 15," the thief says. "We could go check that out, see if there’s any way of fixing it up."
A gleeful grin spreads across the red guard’s face—then, just as quickly, his face falls.”What about all your gold?” he asks. “Everything you’ve worked so hard for? Me, I’ve got nothing to lose, but you’ve got a whole fortune…”
The thief adjusts his mask at a more rakish angle and tips the red guard a wink. “What does being ‘King of Thieves’ actually mean, anyway?” he says. “I was always too busy picking locks and performing rituals to wonder…”
The red guard leaps delightedly into the air before the thief can finish his sentence, plunges into the abyss, and smashes directly into the cannon—which detonates in a shower of sparks, hurling him halfway across the room.
"No!" the thief cries, leaping to his side. "Oh no no no no no…" The scorched, unconscious red guard is more than three times his size, but somehow he manages to push him across the dungeon to the foot of the chest, huge and imposing and overflowing with gold.
The thief hesitates. It’s a weird feeling, jumping into the chest; almost like it’s swallowing you, then shitting you out of the level. He has no idea if a red guard will fit through. You’ll never know if you don’t try, he tells himself, and, with one last mighty heave, hoists the red guard into the chest and jumps in after him.
When the thief hits the grass, he just lies there for a moment, relishing the sun on his face—sun he thought he’d never feel again. Then he remembers. The red guard is lying a few feet away, eye closed. The tips of the spikes on his back are burnt clean off, and the rest of him is scorched black. “Oh no no no no no,” the thief moans, leaping over and circling around him in consternation. “You can’t die now; you never even told me your name!”
The red guard opens his one eye. “You can call me Angel,” he says. “I told you we had thick skin! Now let’s go find that UFO, shall we?”