Authors: James Frey
Twelve thousand years ago, they came. They descended from the sky amid smoke and fire, and created humanity and gave us rules to live by. They needed gold and they built our earliest civilizations to mine it for them. When they had what they needed, they left. But before they left, they told us that someday they would come back, and that when they did, a game would be played. A game that would determine our future.
This is Endgame.
For 10,000 years the lines have existed in secret. The 12 original lines of humanity. Each has to have a Player prepared at all times. A Player becomes eligible at 13 and ages out at 19. Each bloodline has its own measure of who is worthy to be chosen. Who is worthy of saving their people. They have trained generation after generation after generation in weapons, languages, history, tactics, disguise, assassination. Together the Players are everything: strong, kind, ruthless, loyal, smart, stupid, ugly, lustful, mean, fickle, beautiful, calculating, lazy, exuberant, weak. They are good and evil. Like you. Like all.
This is Endgame.
When the game starts, the Players will have to find three keys. The keys are somewhere on Earth. The only rule of Endgame is that there are no rules. Whoever finds the keys first wins the game.
These are the stories of the Players before they were chosenâof how they shed their normal lives and transformed into the Players they were meant to be.
These are the Training Diaries.
This is the story Aisling Kopp, Player of the 3rd line, does not know.
This is the story Aisling Kopp will never know, because the only one who could tell it is dead.
This is the story of her life and her lineâthe story of how she began and how the world will end.
This is the story of a hero and a traitor, neither of them certain which is which.
This is the story before the story.
Declan Kopp stands at the mouth of the cave, a 2,500-year-old sword in his hand. The heft of it calms him. The familiar grip reminds him of a time when the Falcata was rightfully his to wield, a simpler time, when he could lay its blade against flesh and enjoy the kill.
A time before Aisling was alive, a time before Lorelei was dead, a time when he was young and foolish and the sword was a symbol of all things just and good.
Now it's nothing but a symbol of the lines he's crossed.
The people he's betrayed.
The home he's left behind and the family to which he can never return.
The ancient sword, like the polished stone in his pocket, like the baby whimpering in the dark depths of the cave, is a precious stolen good.
Not his to takeâbut taken nonetheless.
would say, at least.
the High Council. The La TÃ¨ne Player. His father.
Everyone who matters to him, or once did.
Once, he had so much in his life. Family, love, hopeâthe belief that his life's mission was just and his future was fated. Once, he had certainty.
Now he has only his stolen child, and her birthright.
He has the Falcata, whose razor-sharp blade has taken 3,890 lives and awaits its next kill.
And he has a few precious hours, or maybe minutes, before they come for him and try to reclaim what he's stolenâbefore he and the sword make their last stand.
The child's cries echo through the dark.
“Peace, Aisling,” he calls to her. “Daddy's here. Daddy will protect you, I promise.”
She's too young to understandâand too young to recognize the lie. He can't promise to protect her. Only to try.
He's given up everything, trying to save his daughter from her fateâbut still it's not enough. The cave is surrounded. There's no way out. No way down the mountain, not for him. The final battle is coming, and he will not survive it. He knows that.
He's lured them here, knowing that.
They will pursue him wherever he goes. He finally understands: There is no safe place for him and his daughter, not in this world. He fought; he lost. Letting them follow him here is his last, final, desperate effort to make them see the truth.
If they see itâif he can
them see itâeverything he's given up will be worth it. Even his life.
The child cries and cries.
Declan can't stand the sound of it.
He turns his back to the cave opening, even though he knows never to turn your back on the enemy.
He retreats into the dark, following the sound of his daughter's cries, and lifts the squirming child into his arms.
At his touch, she quiets. He kisses her forehead, makes soothing noises, inhales the scent of her soft red hair, wonders if she will remember him.
If she will ever know how she came to be here on this lonely mountain, or why.
If she will ever forgive him for what he's done, and the things he has wrought.
Aisling is still in his arms when they come for him.
Two of them, their headlamps sweeping across the dank cave walls. He could hide in the shadows, for just a little longer, but there's no point. He's come here to face them.
To try, one last time, to show them the truth.
“We know you're in here, Declan.” It's a young woman's voiceâMolly, his niece, who he's known since she was born. The La TÃ¨ne Player. He knows exactly how deadly she is; he trained her himself. “Show yourself.”
Declan does as he's told, steps into the beam of light. Aisling squints and, recognizing Molly and the gray-haired man by her side, giggles and waves.
“We don't want to hurt you,” Declan's father says, lifting a rifle to his shoulder. “Just give us the child.”
Sometimes, Declan thinks, it began the day his inbox pinged with the strange anonymous message.
You've been lied to,
it said, no more than that, and he felt only a mild twinge of curiosity before sending it to the trash. Thinking spammers got more inventive every day. Thinking he was too clever to believe anyone's lies.
Maybe it began the day his curiosity got the better of him, and he finally responded to one of the strange messages.
Or the day he stood in dark woods, met the eyes of a cloaked stranger
who told him everything he'd ever believed in was a lie.
Don't you ever want to know why you fight, what you fight for?
the woman asked, before melting back into the shadows, and for the first time, Declan did.
Maybe, he sometimes thinks, it began long before, on the day he first took his father's rifle into his scrawny young arms, aimed at a paper target, pulled the trigger. “You will make a fine Player,” his father said, ruffling the fire-red hair that marked him as a Kopp. “You'll make me proud.”
But maybe it didn't really begin until he was a father himself. Until he understood what it meant to love unconditionally, with his whole self, to know he would give his life for his daughter. Until the High Council decreed that his infant daughter would be the Player once she came of age. Then he knew the time for waiting, for questioning, was over.
It was the time to act.
He managed to keep it together until the end of the High Council's meeting, knowing there was no point in arguing. He's aware of what they think of him: that he's bitter and washed up, that he was warped by his tenure as a Player, by the fact that Endgame never happened. Some of themâhis father among themâthink he's mad. So he smiled and nodded as if he were happy they wanted to turn his daughter into their puppet, an agent of needless death.
Then he hailed a taxi he couldn't afford and held his breath as it sped down the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, until the towers of Downtown Brooklyn came into sight and with them the dingy brownstone where his wife was waiting.
Now here he is, standing before the door of his apartment, taking a deep breath and preparing to change their lives forever. Thinking,
How did I get here?
But he knows exactly how he got here.
And he knows what has to happen next.
Declan bursts into the apartment and finally lets his panic off the
leash. “Pack everything!” he booms, into the tiny bedroom, where his money and passports are stashed, and his wife and little Aisling are sound asleep.
“Declan?” Lorelei blinks groggily on the bed, baby napping on her chest. She sleeps whenever the baby sleeps, which is never enough for either of them. “Quiet, hon. You'll wake her.”
“We've got to go,” Declan says, in a quieter voice. He's ripping through their tiny closet, throwing shirts and dresses haphazardly into a suitcase. “Now.”
“Go? Go where? It's nearly midnight.” Gently, Lorelei settles Aisling into her crib. She goes to her husband, stands behind him, and wraps her arms around his waist, lets him feel her slow, steady breathing, the rhythm of her heartbeat. “Take a breath, Declan.”
“Now, tell me what happened.”
Declan turns to face Lorelei, the love of his life, the outsider who, for love of him, adopted his traditions and his people as her own. She did it because he asked her toâand now, because of that, because of
, their daughter is in danger.
This is all his fault, he thinks, panic blooming again.
“Declan.” She can always tell when he's spinning out of control.
She's always been the only one who can stop him.
She fixes her gaze on him, and, for just a moment, he lets himself get lost in her sea-gray eyes.
“It's going to be okay,” she says, in soft, measured tones.
He knows he's no longer the man she fell in love with, the man she married.
That man was full of righteous conviction, strong and proud; that man had been raised to believe he could save the world.
“Whatever it is this time, we can handle it,” she says, pressing a smooth palm to his stubbled cheek.
She married that Declanâand got saddled with this one instead, till death do they part. Erratic, paranoid, afraid of shadows, consumed by
guilt. Shamed. Obsessed. Broken.
“Now, tell me what happened,” she says, once his breathing finally draws even with hers and his panic temporarily abates.
When he met her, he thought Lorelei was the miracle of his life.
Now he knows that the true miracle is that she still loves him, even now. But that might change when he answers her question. When she understands what loving him means for Aisling.
“The High Council has named the next generation's Player,” Declan says. He takes his wife's hand in his own, holds tight. “They've named our Aisling.”
She doesn't gasp.
She doesn't scream.
She doesn't yank her hand away and castigate him for drawing her into his nightmare.
She only nods and says, “Okay. So what does that mean?”
“What does it mean?” He's raging again. He needs to make her understand. “It means we have to get out of here, now. Disappearâgo somewhere they can never find us.”
“Isn't that a little dramatic, Declan?”
“Lor, are you hearing me? They want her to be the
. They want to turn her into a soldier, brainwash her into this Endgame madness, just as they did me.”
“I'm not saying I want that either,” she says. “But can't we just say no?”
Declan sighs. Were it only that easy. “It's not like this is a game of tag and they decided she's
,” he says. “This isn't a game you can just decide not to play.”
The High Council doesn't ask; the High Council commands.
Declan knew it was a possibility, of course. The Player has always been a Kopp, for as long as anyone can remember. But there are so many of them now, little Kopp children running around Queens, so many cousins he can't remember all their names. What were the odds they would choose Aisling? They thought Declan an apostate, a madmanâwhat were the odds they would name his daughter the Player?
“We don't like it any more than you do,” the High Council's leader told him at the meeting. “But the stones have spoken.”
“Screw the stones!” he shouted.
The High Council looked scandalized, all of them but his father, who simply looked tired. Pop was the first to give up on him, the first to accept that Declan had turned his back on his people. Or at least that was how Pop saw it. The move to Brooklyn from Queens, the railing against Endgame, the marriage to an outsider, the trips all over the world in search of answers to questions he wasn't supposed to askâPop thinks Declan has rejected his family, his line, his sacred duties. Pop doesn't understand, none of them do, that Declan loves his family and his people fiercely. He's too old to be their Player, but he still sees himself as their warrior, charged with their protection. That's why he fights them so hard: not because he's a traitor, but because he's
“The High Council has made its decision,” Pop said. “We journeyed to Stonehenge and asked our question. The stones gave us their answer, and the answer is Aisling.”
A gaggle of old men measuring angles of light and lengths of shadow, their protractors consigning Declan's daughter to a useless life of blood. He wanted to scream, to overturn the table, to seize the Falcata from its place of honor on the council wall and slash off their headsâbut none of that would help Aisling. So instead he pretended to accept it, and came home to do what needed to be done.
“If they want her to Play, she'll Play,” Declan tells Lorelei. “Whatever we want, whatever she wants, they won't care. They'll turn her into a killer. They'll make her help the gods with their genocide. And if she dies, they'll shrug and pretend to care, and then they'll throw another poor child to the wolves.”
What he doesn't tell Lorelei, has never told Lorelei, is what being the Player really means: how much blood has been spilled, even without Endgame. So much death, all of it justified as “necessary to protect the line,” necessary to prepare for Endgame. Declan has killed 23 people, and he remembers every single one of their faces.
Just as vividly, he remembers the face of the current Player when Declan helped her make her first killâthe face of a 13-year-old who has learned what she's capable of, who's drawn blood and murdered her childhood and is equal parts terrified and proud. These are the faces he sees in his dreams every night; this is the fateâguilt, sorrow, regret, obsessionâhe wants to spare his daughter. Terrible to imagine that she too will someday be tortured by the faces of those she's killed.