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Dreadknights

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Dreadknights

For the Love of the Game

Tony Breeden

Dreadknights #1

Øtherworld #0.5

Copyright © 2015 Tony Breeden

Copyright Notice

All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means–electronic, mechanical, recording, scanning, or other–except for brief quotations in critical reviews or articles, without the prior written permission of the author.

Author’s Note

This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. All characters are fictional, and any similarity to people living or dead is purely coincidental. All other characters are Copyright and Trademark their respective owners.

Publisher’s Note

This story occurs before the events of Luckbane by Tony Breeden.

DEDICATION

To Jesus Christ, my Creator, Savior & King

To Angie, my wife, best friend and soul mate.

To my boys, Justice, Bill, Henry & Jack.

CONTENTS

Part 1: Golden Gears

1 – Next of Rank

2 – Nest

3 – AFK

4 – Plug and Play

5 – Gearing Up

6 – Tesla

7 – Calabus

8 – Bellamy Bridge

9 – Fire Fields

10 – Capture the Flag

Part 2: Neverdeath

11 – Suspended

12 – Farm Girl

13 – Trollbogies

14 – Rosco

15 – Tour

16 – Jones

17 – Level Up

Part 3: Doomsmack

18 – Rogar

19 – Ogre’s Choice

20 – Maggie

21 – On the Fence

22 – Bitter Pill

23 – Gauntlet

24 – Devilpede

25 – Doomsmack

26 – Tower

27 – Hurtlocker

28 – Farewell to Impworld

Read the first three chapters of Luckbane

Guild Rosters

About the Author

Also by Tony Breeden

Part 1: Golden Gears

[Back to Table of Contents]

1 – Next of Rank

Christine Johanssen growled in frustration as she was forced to duck for cover once more. The Golden Gears had her team pinned down and nothing was going according to plan.

The gravelly voice of Guildmaster Trollbogies barked into her commset. “Hannibal, status report!”

Christine glanced down at a pachyderman crumpled like a rag doll at the bottom of the tower stairwell. The elephant man warrior called Hannibal wouldn’t be answering Trollbogies’ hail anytime soon, if ever. The only thing that gave her hope was the fact that her heads-up display wasn’t yet confirming Hannibal’s death. Still, unconscious was often as good as dead in a situation like this.

She started to head down the stairs, in the hopes of reviving him.

The whistle of a cannonball alerted her to the next threat. The sniper must’ve seen her shadow, or just made a lucky guess, because he almost scored a direct hit. Christine threw herself down on the ground and covered her head and neck with her big meaty paws just before the shell impacted. Rubble and debris bounced harmlessly off her broad thick-skinned back. As she rose to her feet, she shook her head. Even though she knew none of this was real, it certainly didn’t feel that way.

Her virtual ogre character turned her head this way and that at Christine’s mental command. The nodal implants at her temples made her gaming experience fully immersive. The technology accessed her brain itself, allowing her to see, feel, hear and smell the virtual world of her choice. At the moment, her hearing was significantly muted from the explosion, but she could still smell the smoke from the shell’s impact and taste the blood on her tongue.

Most folks went full skin in these games, diving into the first-person experience GameComm made available through alternate reality programs like Impworld and Guild Wars, but Christine preferred the tactical advantages of the heads-up display. For example, right now it let her to know there was no longer any point in trying to reach Hannibal. The quartermaster was officially game-dead.

Taking a quick personal inventory, she realized that a strap had come loose on the fittings of the metal brazier that served as her breastplate. She’d also managed to smash her bottle of happy water. She sighed heavily as she emptied her pocket of glass. The healing potion’s all-too-familiar smiley face logo was still recognizable amongst the fragments. It was a heavy blow. Without happy water, there’d be no second chances if she got badly hurt.

After she’d adjusted the brazier’s straps, Christine crept up the tower’s stairwell, away from the window. Only when she was relatively sure she was out of the sniper’s range, did she reply to her guildmaster’s hail.

“Bloodskull responding,” she said, giving her character’s name. “The Quartermaster is out. The Gears sent a sniper.”

“He’s out of respawns. You’re next of rank.” her guildmaster acknowledged. Christine watched her status change from Vanguard to Man-at-Arms on her heads-up display. Simultaneously, their current MA’s status was exchanged for Hannibal’s Quartermaster rank. “Is the sniper alone?” Trollbogies asked. “Has he alerted the Gears to your position?”

“Not sure yet.”

“Then find out.”

Christine bit back a retort. It already sounded like Trollbogies was cross – even for a troll! She didn’t want her guildmaster’s anger directed at her personally. Especially since the trolls were practically her only allies within the guild. While no one could dispute that she’d legitimately made the cut to join the Dreadknights of Outland, she remained on the team at Trollbogies’ good pleasure – and there were already several members of the guild who wanted her gone. She understood their reluctance, to a point. After all, she was recruited from Doomsmack, one of the Dreadknights’ top rivals. There was bad blood between the Dreads and the Dooms, no lie. Still, the Guild Wars had taken their toll on every guild. At this stage in the competition, it was hard to find a team that could boast even eighty percent of its original roster. Player shuffling had become the norm as each guild tried to gain some advantage over the other finalists.

“On it,” Christine said. Putting thought to action, she charged up the stairwell at full speed.

To anyone watching the livecasts on her guild’s channel, Christine’s character must’ve been an impressive sight indeed. Ogres were massively muscled and stood several heads taller than a human. It was said that pound for pound, an ogre could best its weight in dragons. Their skin was like armor. Their teeth and bones were some of the strongest stuff in Impworld. Her character was a female of the species, which meant that she was less heavily jawed and was forced to wear a ridiculously large-cupped brazier rather than a breastplate. Generally, she-ogres were considered far more attractive than their male counterparts, and Bloodskull certainly had her share of amorous fans. Doomsmack had even rendered her character as a pin-up on their calendar. Christine personally thought her character’s ferocity and trademark crimson face paint made her seem far scarier than any male ogre she’d ever encountered. Besides, females were always the deadlier of the species.

As she emerged onto the top of the tower, she was forced to wave off an ever-vigilant Tantrum Bloodfire. Behind the other ogress, Christine could see Killmore and the Dreadknights’ trademark battle flag. Appropriately enough, Killmore boasted more kills than any other member of the guild. Unfortunately, the other ogre seemed to loathe Bloodskull’s very presence.

“For crying out loud, Bloodskull!” Tantrum snapped, lowering her weapon. “I almost took your head off just now. Would it frag you to give us some warning?”

Christine snorted. Tantrum was good but she was just a raider, though a blasted good one for certain. Bloodskull had begun her contract with the Dreads at the rank of vanguard, a level above raider, and technically she should’ve been ranked higher than that; she’d been Doomsmack’s quartermaster, but had agreed to a reduced rank when she switched sides. She thought about Hannibal lying at the bottom of the stairwell below. Thanks to his death, she was now one step closer to regaining her former rank. Now she just had to prove she deserved the promotion before some of her guildmates’ resentment turned into friendly fire.

“No luck on the door mechanism then, I take it?” Christine asked, jerking her head back toward the entry.

Castle Odious wasn’t a typical castle. It was built by technomancers and, as one might expect of such architects, their design sported a lot of magically-enhanced mechanical inventions. Both the elevator and the door to the top level of this tower had been damaged in previous guild wars.

Tantrum shook her head.

Christine sighed. She’d really been hoping they’d have the door working by now.

“Where’s Hannibal?” Killmore asked. “Any word from Mike?”

MikeMonkeyMike had volunteered to set up an ambush at ground level. Everything was going according to plan until Mikey didn’t check in when he was supposed to. Christine’s heads-up display confirmed that MikeMonkeyMike was still in the game, so he was either keeping quiet to keep from being exposed or he’d been incapacitated with a sleep spell or something. Christine and Hannibal had been descending the tower to determine why MikeMonkeyMike wasn’t answering his hails when the sniper attack came.

There weren’t a whole lot of spellcasters on the Gears team. If memory served – and Christine had, admittedly, only skimmed the brief on this mission – there were two magus in the enemy guild. The first was a winged clockwork called Helena Helstrom, who was modeled after the Icarii. The Icarii were a rare race of bird-men. The game’s most famous Icarii was Harper Angelos, the rumored long-lost heir to her fallen empire’s throne and Christine’s inspiration for playing the game in the first place. The other magus on the Gears team was an odd-looking mechanical called Pod. Pod looked like a round metal ball with stick-like arms and legs. He looked harmless enough but he was supposed to be full of surprises. Helstrom was never far from her guildmaster, Goldenboy, so if there was a spellcaster out there mucking up their plans, it was probably Pod.

“Hannibal’s out,” Christine said. “Sniper. We got separated before we ever made contact with Mikey. Trollbogies wants to know how many Gears are out there.”

Killmore glared at her with as much contempt as his ugly mug could muster. “Shoulda been you.”

She frowned and took a step towards him. “I am next of rank. I need that count.”

Killmore bristled, the coarse hairs of his mohawk rising in response to his agitation. Christine readied an over-sized war cleaver, just in case. She didn’t want to put Killmore down, but she couldn’t afford a loose cannon in their midst.

Tantrum appeared between them. “Just the one so far,” Tantrum said, giving Killmore a scathing glance over her shoulder. “The mission specs call him Skuttle.”

“He’s the flamethrower crab-thing with the cannon on his back, right?” Christine asked.

Killmore sneered. “I see someone skimmed the briefings. Again.”

Christine ignored him.

“That’s the one,” Tantrum said.

Christine sighed. “Right.” Like every other member of the Golden Gears, Skuttle was a clockwork machine. Some of the mechanical warriors in the Gears’ ranks were steam-powered, while others were brought to life with magical soulstones or technofaeries fused into their creative matrix. The bulk of the Dreads’ roster was made up of ogres and trolls, so this Guild Wars match was being billed as Monsters v. Machines for those watching the livecasts.

Another explosion rocked the tower.

“We need to take this guy out before that racket draws every Gear within earshot,” Killmore said.

Christine shook her head. “Who says he’s alone? He could just be trying to draw us out so his buddies can pick us off.”

Killmore scoffed. “You’re a coward. We don’t even know if there are any other Gears out there. We need to take him out now.”

“We have our orders. Trollbogies wants a count.” She took a deep breath before she spoke her next words. “I need you up in the Nest.”

“You’re kidding me right?”

“It’s the only way we’ll get a clear view.” When Killmore opened his mouth to protest, she added, “And you know it.”

“Then you do it.”

Christine considered ordering him to go anyway, but he knew how Killmore felt. If Skuttle was even a halfway decent sniper, the Nest would be near certain suicide. Everyone knew how Killmore felt about her. When Bloodskull signed on with the Dreadknights, he took a bump in seniority, despite that rather impressive kill record of his. If she gave him this one-way ticket, the others would probably accuse her of killing off her biggest critic on purpose. If she didn’t want to have to watch her back for the rest of her contract with the Dreads, she needed to win Killmore over. She’d settle for just not being the reason he got fragged.

“Fine. I’ll do it, but I need a distraction.”

“Oh, so now you want me to try to take out Skuttle,” Killmore said, crossing his arms over his massive chest.

“Maybe.” She turned away from him and tried to hail MikeMonkeyMike again. “Mikey, if you’re out there, we need a distraction. I need to use the Nest.”

Silence answered her. She bit back a curse. “OK, Plan B…”

“Draw Skuttle’s fire,” Mikey said. “I’ll take care of the rest.” His voice was barely a whisper, but it was unmistakably him.

“Be ready for it,” Christine said.

He didn’t respond this time, but just knowing that he was out there was enough to boost her confidence. She turned back to her team. “OK, Tantrum will stay here as our last line of defense. Killmore, I need you to–”

“No, wait. Send me,” Tantrum said.

Christine shook her head. “I appreciate your enthusiasm, but you’re just a raider. Killmore’s vanguard.”

“Which is why we need him here as our final defense instead of out there as cannon fodder.”

Christine sighed. She genuinely liked Tantrum, but there was no denying either her logic or that endearing look of resolve on her ogrish face. Bloodskull turned to Killmore. “You OK with that?”

Killmore shrugged. “Just remember to shout out when you come back up the stairs,” he warned Tantrum. He glanced at Christine. “If that’d been me guarding the door a few minutes ago, Bloodskull’s life sauce would soak the ground.”

“Noted,” Tantrum said, sounding impatient with Killmore’s posturing.

“Shake the pillars of Hades, kid,” Christine said.

“What?”

“Sorry. It’s just something we used to say back in my old guild.”

Nodding, Tantrum took a deep breath, then descended the stairs with an eager grin.

When Christine turned to face Killmore, he was watching her quietly. “I’ve seen the vids,” he said. “I know why you Dooms used to say that.”

“Old habit,” she said, “and I’m not with Doomsmack anymore.”

“You think you just gave her a one-way ticket.”

“Mikey will look after her.”

“Sure. Of course.” He didn’t look convinced.

“I’d better get going,” she said. “Keep working on this door.” Taking a moment to ready herself, she got down in a sprinter’s stance.

“Shake the pillars of hades, Bloodskull,” Killmore said.

Christine ignored his open leer.

2 – Nest

Christine took off like a shot, running across the tower’s top level as fast as she could. At the last second, she leaped between two merlons and over the defensive battlements. She felt her stomach flip-flop as she dropped. Even though she knew Bloodskull’s ogre body could take the fall, her real-life human side just saw a suicide dive. Her aim was true. She landed two levels below on the broken span between her tower and the next nearest one. She broke through the wooden hoardings on impact and landed on the stone bridge itself.

The flurry of action immediately drew Skuttle’s fire, as she knew it would. She ran back to the entrance of her tower to escape the blast of an exploding shell, but then dug in her heels and ran back the way she’d came. The bridge between the two towers had been partially destroyed in some other guild battle. No human, orc or dwarf could span the gap, but it was an easy, if impressive-looking leap for an ogre.

No other cannon shells harried her progress. Before she entered the next tower, she peered through the hoardings to check on Tantrum’s progress. Sure enough, the other ogress was running through the rubble strewn ruins of Castle Odious, drawing Skuttle’s fire like a pro.

Castle Odious was now a castle in name only. Scores of guild battles had reduced the once-glorious structure to a sprawling, war wrecked ruin of barely standing walls and mostly roof-less buildings. Some of the steampunk machines still worked. Most didn’t. Skuttle had taken up position atop what remained of the castle’s great hall in a cathedral-styled window.

A shadow she recognized as MikeMonkeyMike stealthily moved into position directly beneath the mechanical flame crab. Mikey was a troll. Trolls weren’t quite as big as ogres, nor as strong, but they had their advantages. For example, MikeMonkeyMike could see as well at night as he could in the day. Personally, she thought trolls looked more human than ogres – something like overgrown, thickly muscled Neanderthals, whereas ogres were more like a gorilla parody. A lot of the differences had to do with their character races origins. Both races were Corrupted Elders, races created by balrogs of the Netherworld as fodder for their armies. Trolls were corrupted from dwarves, which explained why they were so thick and strong. Some thought ogres were corrupted from human stock. Others thought they were perverted versions of a lesser race of cloud giants known as the Summa or Anakim.

She watched Mikey stroke his lush black beard once before reaching up and grabbing one of Skuttle’s legs. With effort, the troll dragged Skuttle from his perch and hurled him to the ground below. With a laugh, Mikey leapt from his perch after the mechanical flamecrab, his over-sized metal mace raised high to pound the Gears sniper into shrapnel. Christine entered the next tower with a grin on her ogrish lips.

She made her way to the top of the tower with as much speed as she dared. Normally, she took her time, even in Guild Wars. Careless haste almost always led to ruin. Even if the building was clear of enemy guild members, the Gamelords liked to toss in the occasional random hazard or roaming monster to make things more interesting. In this case, she was painfully aware of the fact that her window of opportunity to safely use the Nest was closing. Skuttle had seen her on the bridge. He had to know what she was after. If Skuttle survived Mikey’s attack, the Gears’ sniper would be keeping a weather eye out for her.

Unlike the other tower, this one still had a vaulted wooden roof. At the top of the tower was an arcane mechanical device, the work of technomancers. At the center of the machine was a big metal cage. She ran for it without hesitation, sweeping the room with her eyes for any sign of her enemies. She was almost at her goal when she felt movement behind and above her. Rolling aside instinctively, she barely avoided a salvo of metal discs. As her enemy passed over her, she got a good look at it. This one was known as Kamizooki, a birdlike machine that was apparently armed with a couple of goblin disc guns under each wing. As it banked and wheeled back around for another pass, Christine readied herself. She took several discs to her broad back. She turned and swung her war cleaver at the last second, delivering a glancing blow that knocked Kamizooki out of the sky. Ignoring her wounds for the present, she lumbered over to the fallen bird and prepared to stomp it out of existence. Kamizooki’s eyes lit up at the last second, the precursor to an electric shock attack that sent Christine’s Bloodskull avatar flying. She landed on her butt. Kamizooki shot out from beneath her like a sparrow startled from its nest. Knowing she couldn’t let her foe get away, Christine cast about for something to throw at it. An enormous gear as big around as a dwarf’s height caught her eye. Swinging it round once like a discus thrower, she sent it spinning after her enemy. The gear connected with Kamizooki before he could escape the tower. One half of the clockwork bird landed somewhere outside the tower, far below. The other half landed in front of a window, sparked for a few seconds and then slumped lifeless.

Christine took a moment to assess her wounds, keeping a wary eye out for more potential foes. An ogre’s skin in notoriously thick and calloused. Her wounds from the disc guns were negligible.

After stepping into the Nest’s iron cage, she landed heavily in the control seat and threw a few knobs into position. The metal cage rose on a slender pole toward a conspicuous hole in the roof. In no time at all, she had a vertigo-inducing view of the battlefield below. There was no sign of Skuttle, but MikeMonkeyMike and Tantrum were heading back. Tantrum was heading for the flag tower. Mikey seemed to be heading for the Nest tower instead. She hoped that didn’t mean he’d seen an enemy enter the structure below her. She was vulnerable up here.

Time to get moving. First, she swiveled the Nest in a wide circle to take in her surroundings. At first, it looked like Kamizooki and Skuttle were the only ones who’d discovered their position. Christine hadn’t gone through all the trouble of getting up here just to rely on her own ogrish sight. The Nest came equipped with a technomancer’s periscope that could zoom in and out, let her see in X-ray or infrared, and a whole lot more. From experience, Christine activated the X-ray first.

She saw them coming almost instantly. It looked like almost all of the Gears were heading her way, from every direction at once. She tried to make sense of it. Skuttle couldn’t have laid eyes on the Dreaknights’ flag. It seemed foolish to think that Goldenboy would commit nearly the entirety of his forces to a hunch.

Then it hit her. “Kamizooki.” The bird machine must’ve been watching them from the Nest tower all along. He might’ve even have just returned from relaying their position to the Gears when Christine first encountered him.

There was no more time to waste. “Master Trollbogies,” she said over the comms, “I have eyes from the Nest. We have a large force of hostiles incoming.”

“How many?” Trollbogies asked.

“Almost all of them.”

“ What?? Then who’s guarding their own flag?”

“Gimme a sec,” Christine said. She adjusted a few knobs as she began a longer range scan. She found Trollbogies’ team before she spotted any more Gears. Trollbogies had opted for an all-ogre entourage for this mission. Their guildmaster had taken clumsy ol’ Belch Hammerhands, as usual. Aside from Captain Hammerhands, the team consisted of two Raiders, Mudflap and Sass-Squatch respectively, and a newbie called Bandersmack, the sole survivor of the late great Edger Angels guild. It was a good bet that even the Gears wouldn’t be able to hold out against Trollbogies’ team for long, once they located that flag.

“I’m sending Rosco’s team to shore up your defenses,” Trollbogies said.

Christine suppressed a groan. Rosco was a destruktir, a member of a relatively rare species of sentient arthropod. They had massive spiked shells, strong snapping jaws, and crab-like legs. Their right and left hands varied. The right hand was always a taloned claw. The other ended in a chitin blade, club or pincer. Rosco’s leftie was a lobster-like pincer. The Dread’s newly promoted Quartermaster hated Christine worse than Killmore did. His reasons were more personal. When she was Doomsmack’s quartermaster, Christine had almost managed to take his head off.

Rosco’s team was no less exotic than himself. Apep was an ophidian, a reptilian race of humanoids. He was a long-standing member of the Dreadknights’ vanguard. The other two were ringers, members of the Dreadknights’ auxiliary, what some guilds dubbed honorary members. Tauvek Wraithfell was a minotaur. Calabus Adams was a catlord, basically a feline humanoid. Calabus had been contractually forced into this Guild Wars match. Win or lose, this was a one-shot deal for him, so she didn’t expect him to take too many risks. The last member of Rosco’s outfit was a goblyn, but he was almost never seen in the presence of his cohorts. Like any good scout, Nikky Napalm liked to range abroad.

Thinking of scouts, Christine took a moment to check the area immediately around her guild’s flag one more time before renewing the search for their foe’s flag. She almost missed it, but then she saw the hulking form of the one they called Gunnar Gladi8r. Gladi8r was twice the height of the average ogre and armed to the teeth. His only limitation was mobility. Instead of legs, he had tank treads. While this gave him speed and stability in combat, it did limit which terrains he could navigate. Unfortunately, he was placed in a perfect spot to capitalize on his strengths.

“I just spotted one of the Gears in the Fire Fields,” Christine said. “That flag has to be somewhere nearby.”

“Then keep looking.”

“Wait. I think I have something.” The Fire Fields was aptly named after the fire jets that randomly erupted across its breadth. Well, not completely at random. The eruptions always seemed to follow a path but the route wasn’t always the same. That was because they were caused by the burrowing activity of a vulcanopede nicknamed Lucy, a monstrous worm one usually only encountered in the Nether realms of the balrogs. Lucy herself had only been seen in all her terrible glory on rare occasions, but given that this was a championship game, well, anything was possible. The only safe havens in the Fire Fields had been tagged with big Xes by past gamers who played this level, but there were a few red herrings thrown in, too. There was also a lighthouse situated at the corner of the gaming level. Hedged in by a magical lightning sea, which was exactly as dangerous as it sounded, the lighthouse afforded ample protection but virtually no escape routes. If the Gears had placed their flag there – and, yes, it was there! She could see it through the glass panes of the lamp house.

“Trollbogies! The lighthouse beyond the Fire Fields,” Christine said over the comm. “I just found it.”

There was no response.

“Trollbogies, come in. Do you read me?”

When there was still no reply, Christine honed in on her guildmaster’s last known position. Trollbogies and her team weren’t moving. They were all lying on the ground. Her heads-up display said they were still alive, so she figured they must be unconscious. But what had happened?

Then she saw Helena Helstrom perched on the remains of a nearby tower. The mechanical Icarii was playing some sort of instrument, an ocarina by the looks of it. It didn’t take a genius to realize the magus was using it to keep Trollbogies’ team in an enchanted sleep.

She had to warn the others. “Rosco, I have located the Gears’ flag. It’s only guarded by one Gear, but Helena Helstrom has Trollbogies’ team under a sleep spell and our own flag is about to be overwhelmed by nearly every other Gear still in play.”

“Say again?” Rosco asked.

“Trollbogies’ team is down. You are acting next of rank,” Christine said.

“Where is the Gears’ flag?”

Christine grimaced. It’s not the decision she would’ve made. “You’re too far out of position. You won’t make it to their flag before they reach ours.”

“Then you’ll have to hold them off until I can get that flag,” Rosco said.

“You glory-hogging moron!” Christine blurted out the words before she considered them, but, black void, he was making the worst decision possible!

“Excuse me?” Rosco asked.

“We need to free Trollbogies if we even want a chance at coming out of this on top.”

“You’re out of line, soldier! Whether you like it or not, I’m next of rank and you have your orders,” Rosco said.

Christine roared into the commlink. On purpose. Rosco was dooming them all. If it came down to a race for the flag – and that was exactly what Rosco was proposing – well, the Gears already had a mighty head start and a numbers advantage to boot. The Dreads might as well hand their flag over now.

“MikeMonkeyMike,” Rosco called over the commset, “Bloodskull is being demoted for insubordination. You are next of rank. Understood?”

“Understood,” Mikey said. “Sir.” To her troll friend’s credit, she could hear the reluctance in his voice.

“You are to hold that position against whatever they throw at you until we get their flag,” Rosco said. “Do not fail me.”

“On it,” Mikey said.

“And put Bloodskull somewhere where she can do the least amount of damage. I’ll deal with her later.”

Christine couldn’t resist one last retort. “If we live, you mean.”

“That’s enough, Bloodskull,” MikeMonkeyMike said. “You’ve made your point. We need to dig in and do what we do best, ok?”

She didn’t answer.

“Bloodskull? Are you with me?”

3 – AFK

Christine couldn’t answer him. She was out of the game.

Well, technically she was AFK. Some terms lingered far past the point where anyone remembered their origins. She’d heard once that AFK literally meant “away from keyboard,” hailing back to a time where gaming didn’t utilize nodal technology. The basic idea remained: you weren’t in play because you were away from the thing that allowed you to play the game to begin with.

Christine thought about these things while she assimilated to the real world with its shrill screaming. The source of the screaming was her Aunt Margaret. Margaret’s two strapping boys, Bryce and Keegan, stood behind her, mean-spirited grins splitting their wide, homely faces. Christine played an ogre in the game; her cousins were the real thing. Their sister Dorothy stood off to one side of the dark room, her perpetually sad, petite face illuminated by the harsh but colorful neon lights outside the window. Christine’s mother was nowhere to be seen. A glance at the wall clock made the reason for her absence obvious; her mother was scheduled for a shift.

It was no use trying to concentrate on the content of her aunt’s piercing rant. She was quite literally a wall of dissonance. “Stop!” Christine said. “Stop it now!”

Margaret stopped in mid-rant, her eyes bulging. “You dare to speak to me like that? After everything me and my family have done for you?”

“Seriously? You unplugged me for this? I’m in the middle of a game, Aunt Maggie!” She didn’t bother adding that asking someone to be grateful for treating them like their own personal servant was a bit much. If it weren’t for her mother, her aunt probably would’ve sold her into slavery years ago!

“A game? Always with the games! And what good do these games do you?”

Christine scoffed. “It’s not just any game. This is a championship game. Surely even someone as AFK as you has heard of Guild Wars, right?”

Her aunt sneered. “And how much money will you be contributing to this month’s rent from these Guild Wars, dearie?”

Christine fumed. Truth be told, when she’d traded to the Dreads, she’d taken a pay cut. Now she barely made enough to cover the costs of the gaming rig she used. “I get a big, fat bonus if we win this match. You know, the match you’re keeping me from right now.”

“And if you lose? Will you be able to pay your share of the rent then?” Her aunt stood with her hands on her hips, a look of cruel triumph on her face.

Christine forced herself to meet and hold her aunt’s gaze. She did not have time for this. Every second she wasted here, someone could be scoring an easy kill on her vulnerable avatar. “I’ll be a little short this month. We can discuss this later. After the game.”

“How short?”

“Don’t you worry about it. I’ll make it up with extra shifts if I have to.”

“You ditched the last shift Oscar gave you,” Keegan said. “You really think he’ll give you another, just like that?” He crossed his arms over his barrel chest.

Christine suppressed a growl. It was just like Keegan to chime in on his mother’s side. “Mr. Diggs is a fan,” Christine said. “Besides, this is my time we’re talking about. I paid for it.” She glanced at the clock again. “And I still have forty-five minutes left, so back off!”

“Don’t you talk to my mother like that!” Bryce thundered.

Christine took a step back, genuinely surprised at the outburst. Oh, she would’ve expected something like this from Keegan. He was the mouthy one. Bryce was more the strong, silent type. Most of his friends called him Mountain. They said if the Mountain rumbled, you’d better get ready for the avalanche!

She licked her lips. “I earned that time, guys. I’ve a legal right to it.” She looked at the clock again. She’d already lost several minutes. If she wasted much more time, she’d probably come back to the game to find her character fragged.

“And you worked hard for it, didn’t you?” Margaret asked.

“Yes. I did.”

“You said you were playing Guild Wars,” her aunt said. “That’s one of them Impworld games, right?”

Christine nodded. Where was Aunt Maggie going with this?

Her aunt offered a sad smile. “I’m sorry, it’s just so hard to keep track these days. Last year, you were knee deep in some superhero game. What was that one called again?”

“The Prometheus Initiative,” Keegan said. Judging from the leer on her cousin’s face, he was enjoying this moment very much.

“Right. And before that your mother says there was this other game you just couldn’t be pried away from. What was it called? Knights of Doomstank, I think.”

“Doomsmack. What’s your point?” Christine asked. She didn’t bother explaining to her aunt that Doomsmack was also part of Guild Wars. She was losing too much time as it was.

Her aunt crossed her arms. “You act like you’re so dedicated to these games, but you can’t even focus on one. The only thing you’re really dedicated to is playing games, any game, so long as you can pretend you’re somewhere else.”

Christine scowled. Sure, it sounded bad when you put it like that, but she had a good reason for game hopping. She’d quit the Prometheus Initiative when she and her mom had come to live with Maggie on Platform 161. The facility was a typical fish and kelp farm owned by PanGen Aquafarms. Offshore factories like this one farmed and processed sea life into all sorts of products, including a form of coffee made from seaweed. Most PanGen stations were almost fully automated, with one technician and his family on site. The entire reason her aunt had invited Christine and her mom to the 161 was because Glinda Johanssen was a bigshot with AmeriCo’s Human Workers of the Americas union. AmeriCo, or more formally the American Cooperative megacorporation owned pretty much every other company in North and South America, so Glinda’s union pulled a lot of weight. It used to be that unions like the HWA worked to secure Homo sapiens labor forces against the growing trend of utilizing Homo adaptis slave batches. After mutants secured their rights after the Mutant Wars, the HWA found itself trying to secure a balance between mutant and human employees, as well as fighting to keep robot drones from taking over the work force. Thanks to Glinda’s leadership, the 161 was officially designated as a PanGen control station, which basically meant it was one of the few stations that ran with as few mutants or robots as possible. There were other control stations established in the deal, including one that was almost completely ran by mutants. Long story short, Christine had acted as her mother’s personal assistant through the ordeal and initially found herself with very little time for gaming. When she finally got a chance to get back to the games, she decided to give Guild Wars another try.

Christine was about to remind her aunt that she was one of the reasons for “quitting” the Prometheus Initiative, but Maggie cut off her protest before she could even begin. “But don’t you think that time could be better spent elsewhere?”

Christine’s expression cooled instantly. She knew where this was going. “This is about the Colonial Trials. You just don’t give up, do you?”

Ever since the posters had come up, it was like all anyone could talk about were the Colonial Trials. GameComm, the same company that owned Impworld’s Guild Wars and the Prometheus Initiative, had won the so-called “space race,” successfully colonizing the far away planet of Tarak. She’d heard a lot about Tarak lately. Apparently, it was an alien world that GameComm intended to fill with fairy tale sized vegetables. Something in the soil of the planet interacted with Earth plants, causing them to grow to enormous proportions, allowing farmers to harvest improbable things like tomatoes the size of basketballs. When you spent your life eating food made from processed fish and seaweed, so much fresh food like that sounded like a dream come true. GameComm had struck a deal with AmeriCo to build a heilo wave platform that could send people and cargo across the galaxy in a few months compared to the centuries it took by generation ship. Now, GameComm was looking for colonists to populate their world, but you had to pass the Trials to get in. They’d set up practice times for interested candidates and people like her aunt were trying to get in as much practice as possible.

Her aunt Maggie scoffed. “Give up on a real future for our family? Give up on the chance to breathe unpolluted air? Give up on a chance to live out in the wide open instead of being crammed in here like sardines? The Colonial Trials is our ticket out of here, child.” Her aunt vented an exasperated sigh and shook her head. “I know you think these games are just so slaughter, but this is our real life we’re talking about here, not some fantasy world you can just escape to whenever you don’t like the real one. You’d see that if you weren’t so selfish.”

“I’m not a child. I’m seventeen years old. It’s my choice. I said I would be there. After my game.”

Her aunt’s face blossomed into an ugly purple. The Mountain took a dangerous step forward. “I said watch it!” His voice echoed through the room like a gunshot.

Margaret placed a staying hand to his chest and indulged him with a smile. Turning to Christine, she said, “No, dearie. You don’t have a choice. The only way you’re jacking back into the system is over my dead body.”

Mountain walked over to the gaming rig. He loomed over Christine for a few seconds before reaching over and turning the game off.

“This isn’t fair!”

“I’m doing what’s best for this family even if you don’t see it, child,” Margaret said. “You’ll thank me for this someday.”

Christine looked past Mountain’s shadow to the clock. She couldn’t fight them. Even if she jacked back in, they’d just unplug her again. And the game was going on without her.

With a wordless cry, she bolted for the door. Mountain was big but he wasn’t quick enough to stop her. Keegan was content to let her go until he heard his mother screech.

“Don’t just stand there!” Maggie yelled. “She’ll go straight to Glinda. Get her!”

Christine was already running down the corridor, but a part of her cheered at the mention of her mother’s name. Maggie and her boys were afraid of good ol’ Glinda. Her mother was as tough as nails. Nobody messed with her lightly.

She thought about running to her mom, but that wouldn’t put her back in the game. By the time things got sorted out, Maggie would have her time and the game would be over. What she needed was a place to jack back in. A place her aunt would never think of.

4 – Plug and Play

It hit her in a flash. Grinning like a madman, she took a left at the next intersection and a right at the next. Mountain was chugging fast behind her, but with his mass he couldn’t take turns quite like she could. Taking advantage of his lag, she ducked into a custodial closet.

She surprised the blazes out of a janitor who was sitting in there on an upturned mop bucket. She was lucky he didn’t scream. Of course, that would’ve been hard to do with half a sandwich stuffed in his mouth. The closet was small but clean, mostly because a janitor’s job these days didn’t involve cleaning; rather, they simply monitored the robots who did the job. The manual cleaning supplies were, like the custodian himself, merely a backup for the drones, in case they broke down and a job needed done before they were repaired. From what she understood, that almost never happened, which meant it was one of the few jobs with a lot of down time. In fact, this particular custodian had been reading the latest issue of Mann from Midwich on his tablet to pass the time. Christine recognized the comic because the Prometheus Initiative game she used to play was based on it.

She held a finger to her lips to silence him. He stared at her with large eyes, still too stunned to speak. His name tag identified him as Tom. Tom was a Homo adaptis, what most folks just called mutants. Mutants were conceived as a pantropic solution to Earth’s overpopulation problem. They were designed to mine near-airless Martian mines, farm the oceans, fight wars and generally exist in any other condition mankind found undesirable. Until the Mutant Wars, they were basically slaves to their Homo sapiens creators. For example, Tom was designed for life in the ocean, which made sense given that the facility they lived and worked in was underwater. Tom had a functional set of gills, large fish-like eyes and webbed hands and feet. His skin was almost rubbery, reminding her of a shark. He also had no nose and fleshy tentacles for hair. She’d long ago gotten used to seeing mutants, so his appearance didn’t bother her, but his bulging eyes made the moment near-comical. She held her hand over her own mouth to suppress a laugh as she listened for Mountain to pass by.

When she was sure the coast was clear, she waved goodbye to Tom, who gulped down the rest of his sandwich and wordlessly waved back. Opening the door, she ran back the way she came, made a right at the intersection and a left at the next. At the end of a short hallway was stairwell. Unfortunately, so was Keegan.

He was looking down the stairwell for some sign of her, his back to her. Gritting her teeth, she ran down the hall with all her might. He shouted a warning to the others when he finally saw her. Too late. She barreled into him, knocking him over. Before he could recover, she headed up the metal stairs.

Two levels up, she emerged onto a metal walkway leading to the diving station where she worked. The walkway wound all the way around one of the access pools to the farm tanks. Most folks worked as technicians in the processing plant sectors. She was one of the lucky few who got to interact with the biologicals. All because Mr. Diggs was a fan. Her basic job was to subject random plant samples to a battery of tests meant to detect mutagens, pollutants and other potential health hazards. There was a lot of foreign stuff floating around in the oceans these days even if one didn’t count the possibility of biogenetic weapons left over from the Mutant Wars. The world was in chaos before the Megacorporations took over. Many of the great megapolis’ lower levels were actually garbage levels. A lot of that waste floated out to sea. The great trash gyres of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans had basically formed into artificial islands made of plastic and other floating waste.

She was hoping she could count on Mr. Diggs’s support now.

She grabbed a rebreather off a rack and slipped it over head. When she had the mask securely over her face, she leapt over the rail and dove into the water. The long vertical strands of a kelp forest surrounded her instantly. The first time she came down here, she got very lost. By now, Christine knew the layout intimately, so she headed straight for her station. There was no need to worry about running out of air; the rebreather pulled breathable air straight out of the water.

A dark torpedo-shaped shadow parted the kelp strands to her left. Christine gasped involuntarily as the toothy face of a big shark burst into her space. She held completely still as Toto brushed past her. She noted that it was tagged with a bright green marker the same color as her rebreather. Toto was a nu-shark, a genetically modified variant of shark bred to protect the kelp forests from poachers and vandals. The factory’s nu-sharks were trained to leave anyone wearing a rebreather alone, so long as it was the right color. Well, technically, the correct smell. Even nu-sharks were color blind. The company color-coordinated the different scents. For security’s sake, the rebreathers were supposed to be secured in lockers. As always, convenience was the bane of good security, which is why the correctly colored headset was laying out, ready for the next dive tech. The rebreather was also outfitted with communications and a nodal reality relay to allow her to do her job. Once she was at her station, she jacked back into the system. Instead of logging in to her work intranet, she started the interface with the Impworld Guild Wars domain.

“This is an unauthorized use of this station,” an automated voice warned. “Gaming is not allowed on company equipment. Violators will be prosecuted. Stand by for security.”

She checked Toto’s position out of the corner of her eye. The nu-shark was circling back around, meaning the station’s security measures were pumping out a scent the creatures were trained to investigate. If she didn’t override security, the station would begin pumping out blood and, well, she really didn’t want to think about what would happen then. She’d come to think of Toto as something of a pet or mascot, but she was pretty sure the nu-shark would just follow its instincts without a second thought to their relationship.

A moment later, a human voice interjected. “Christine, what are you doing? You know you’re not allowed to use the work rig for this.”

“I know! I know,” Christine said. “I’m sorry, Mr. Diggs. I didn’t have a choice. My aunt unplugged me in the middle of a championship match. She wants to steal my time and she wouldn’t let me use the one at home and–”

“Say no more,” Mr. Diggs said. “We’ll discuss this later. Just get back in that game. I have money riding on this one.”

“Yes, sir! Thank you, sir!”

5 – Gearing Up

When the game came back online, a really big mace with razor sharp spikes was descending for her thick ogre skull. Christine had known she had to be ready for anything. After all that effort, an instant funeral was not what she had in mind.

Fortunately, MikeMonkeyMike’s weapon parried the potential deathblow. The troll followed up the move by plowing into his mechanical foe, using a bit of heavy-handed shield-bashing technique to drive the clockwork creature further away.

“Any time now, Bloodskull!” Mikey said between grunts and growls. “I can’t keep this up forever, you know.”

Christine swept the room with her eyes and took quick stock of the situation. Two Gears.

One had four arms that currently ended in wicked katana blades. The clockwork man cat-called Mikey. “Don’t worry, troll-boy. We take good care of her for ya!” Their adversary’s metal dreadlocks made him easy to identify as Ninjeremy.

The one Mikey was sparring with was some sort of anthropomorphic mechanical grasshopper. The machine wore a waistcoat and a steampunk stove pipe hat. As his name suggested, Spring-heeled Jacque was quite agile for someone who carried such a large spiked bludgeon.

Ninjeremy used MikeMonkeyMike’s preoccupation with Jacque as an opportunity to swoop in for an easy kill. Of course, when he approached Bloodskull, he was assuming she was still AFK. As a result, he opted for a bit of theater when he should’ve just finished her quickly. Placing two of his blades at her neck, he gave a sharp whistle.

“Hey, troll!” Ninjeremy yelled. “You’re not gonna wanna miss this.”

Christine knew what he intended from the way he’d crossed his blades: the mechanical ninja planned to scissor her head off. Not happening. The crimson-faced ogress roared into action. Before her foe could react, she grabbed two of his arms and ripped them completely from their sockets. Ninjeremy still bore an almost comical look of stunned despair as she drove the blades attached to those arms deep into his chest. A second later, the mechanical man’s soul stone shattered, resulting in a small explosion.

As Christine’s avatar picked herself off the floor, Mikey crossed maces with his enemy. Jacque spat and yelled something in French, likely a threat of some sort.

Mikey snorted. “Not sure what you said there, fella, but he was right: I’m glad I didn’t miss that.” He winked, causing a howl of outrage and a new flurry of attacks from his metal foe.

Bloodskull drew her weapon and charged to MikeMonkeyMike’s side. Spring-heeled Jacque wasn’t so hot-headed that he didn’t know when he was out-matched. Taking advantage of his namesake leaping abilities, the metal grasshopper-man launched skyward. He burst through the wooden hoardings while screeching threats in French.

Both Dreadknights waited at ready until it was obvious he wasn’t going to return.

“Think he’ll be back?” Christine asked.

Mikey laughed. “I was beginning to ask the same thing about you. What happened?”

“Somebody unplugged me.”

“You’re kidding me. In the middle of a championship bout? Who does that?”

“My aunt Maggie.”

Mikey took a deep breath and shook his head. “That’s the Edger’s dice there, sis. Just goes to show: you can pick your friends, but you’re stuck with your relatives.”

“So how bad is it?” she asked.

“Pretty bad. Rosco’s probably doing us as much damage as the Gears are, but it looks like you’re not going to be the only one he’s gunning for once this is over.”

Christine tilted her ogress avatar’s head to the side.

“Calabus and Nikky told him to go stuff himself,” the troll said with a grin. “They’re on their way to help us with the incoming hordes.”

“Calabus?” Christine was genuinely surprised. The catlord was a reserve member of the guild and was only here for this one match because Guildmaster Trollbogies had legally forced him to. Given his circumstances, she’d really just assumed he’d duck most of the action so he could get back to whatever they’d pulled him away from.

“Yup. And Nikky. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Rosco’s team is pinned down by that Pod character. We’re running pure defense here.”

“Yeah, but that’s kinda good news about Pod.”

“How so?”

“If Helena Helstrom is busy keeping Trollbogies team asleep and Pod is deviling Rosco that means we won’t be dealing with any magus at least.”

Mikey raised an eyebrow. “Hadn’t thought of that. Still doesn’t change the fact that we’ve got no offense now.”

“We need to do something about that.” Running a purely defensive strategy wasn’t a good option. And Auric “Goldenboy” Lothario himself was on his way to claim the prize for his guild. The Golden Gears’ guildmaster had to be pretty confident of his chances if he was going all in on a blitz for their flag. He was a bit of a gloryhound, but he cared enough about his reputation not to risk everything on anything but a sure thing when the stakes were this big.

“What did you have in mind?”

“We move the flag.”

MikeMonkeyMike made a face. “I like the idea of a running battle a lot less than a siege.”

“Which is why we don’t want them to know we’re moving it.”

The troll blinked. “But that means leaving most of our forces here as a distraction. The flag will be vulnerable.”

Christine scoffed. “The flag is vulnerable, Mikey. At least, this way we have a chance.” She turned to the Nest mechanism and sighed. “You still got that chem bomb you like bragging about?”

“Y-yes.”

“I need it.”

“Seriously?”

Bloodskull held out her hand. “We don’t have a whole lot of time here, Mikey.”

The troll reached into a pack and pulled out a small bundle wrapped in oilskin. Inside that was an odd-looking device made of two alchemical phials connected to a mechanical clock timer. As Mikey handed the alchemical bomb over to Bloodskull, he offered one final objection. “This is a major taboo. You know that, right? You risk the wrath of the Gamelords.”

It was an unspoken law of Guild Wars: damage to major artifacts like the Nest were only supposed to happen by accident. Still, it wasn’t an official rule or anything and what she intended couldn’t be helped: she couldn’t have the Gears using the Nest to track her. “I’ll take that chance.” She set the timer.

“How long?”

“Enough time to reach the flag and tell the others the plan.”

“What exactly is the plan? Just to keep moving until they catch us? Trollbogies is out and Rosco can’t help us either.”

“The game is Capture the Flag, not Keep Away.”

“And?” His face went pale as he suddenly realized what she intended. “You’re going after their flag. With our flag.”

She nodded and grinned.

He grinned back. “That’s so crazy it just might work. Only one thing.”

She raised an eyebrow.

“You’re going to need someone to guard the bomb to make sure no one disarms it,” he said. “And someone should try to wake Trollbogies.”

“That’s where you come in.”

He snorted. “I was afraid of that. Off with you then. Shake the pillars of hades, Bloodskull.”

She blinked, genuinely surprised at his comment. He shrugged. “Sorry. I thought that’s what you guys used to say back in your old guild. Felt right at the time.”

She nodded. “Don’t get dead, Mikey.”

He snorted. “Don’t worry about me. This is all riding on you.”

“You OK with that?”

“We wouldn’t even be talking about this if I wasn’t,” he said. “Or did you forget that Rosco made me next of rank?”

“I didn’t forget,” she said.

“Well, for the record, I still think it oughtta be you. Trollbogies will sort him out.”

“Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it. Now, it’s my understanding that you have not one, but two flags to capture tonight. Let’s get to it.”

6 – Tesla

Bloodskull took a glance at the timer on Mikey’s alchemical bomb and began running.

She took fire the moment she emerged onto the bridge between towers. On the field below she spotted not only Skuttle, but two other Gears besides. One of the Gears looked like a mechanical centaur with a frog-mouth jousting helmet. She couldn’t remember the centaur’s name. He was making good use of a power lance, blasting away sections of the bridge as she dodged and weaved across it. Skuttle looked really bashed up from his encounter with Mikey, but his back cannon was still operational. Between the two of them, Bloodskull was wondering how she was going to make it across. The other Gear was the only human-looking Gear she’d seen so far. He wore a conical bamboo hat and an ominous-looking backpack with coils coming out of it. The coils attached to his arms and allowed Raiden Tesla to shoot lightning at his enemies. He wasn’t currently adding electrical attacks to the mayhem. Unfortunately, Telsa was entering the tower the Dreadknights’ flag was in.

She made it to the door of the next tower. Barely. She didn’t dare stop for a breath. She could hear Telsa powering up his weapons downstairs. The electricity jumping off him was bathing the stairwell below in eerie blue light. He was coming and wasn’t bothering to be sneaky about it.

Bloodskull headed upstairs. She moved fast, taking full advantage of her ogrish strength, but the mechanical man actually seemed to be gaining on her. How was that possible?

Tesla hit her like a ton of bricks. The crazy mechanical was actually running on the walls. Sideways. His blow had an extra electrical kick that knocked her flat on her face, but the collision stopped his progress cold. Deciding that one good hit deserved another, Bloodskull rolled over and grabbed Tesla before he could flee. She punch him in the face three times before he delivered a shock attack that she was pretty sure had the viewing audience seeing her in X-ray. Somehow she held onto the Gear and had the presence of mind to bash him into a wall. Dropping him, she kicked him down the stairs. He tumbled down the stairs but his glowing eyes let her know he wasn’t yet down for the count.

Shaking off the pain, Bloodskull climbed the stairs. She noticed she was smoking slightly from the electrical attack. She doubted she could take much more abuse from that guy.

When she came to the top of the tower, she was surprised to find the door was closed. On the one hand, she was happy that they’d finally fixed the door mechanism. She wasn’t as thrilled to be trapped on the wrong side of it.

“Killmore, Tantrum, it’s me,” she called. “I need in. Hurry! I got a Gear on my tail.”

She heard Killmore roar from the other side of the door. “You led them to us? What’s wrong with you?”

“They already know where we are. Open the door. Have you heard from Mikey yet?”

“Yeah, he told me what you guys have in mind and you can just forget it, okay? My orders are to keep the flag safe. I’m not opening that door with a hostile outside.”

“You’re an idiot, Killmore.”

Bloodskull heard the crackle of electricity, the only warning she had of Tesla’s next attack. It bothered her that she hadn’t heard him coming. What was the deal with this guy? She might’ve skimmed the brief, but she definitely wouldn’t have missed something as mission critical as an enemy teleporter or anything else that might account for this freak’s otherwise inexplicable speed.

She rolled to the side as a blast of electricity hit the metal door.

“Hold still,” Tesla said. “I promise this will only hurt a lot.”

Bloodskull hurled a throwing hammer at him in response. She stepped to the right and drew another hammer from a holster while Tesla dodged the first weapon. The metal man grinned when he realized she’d backed herself into a corner.

“Nowhere to run,” he said. Laughing to punish, Tesla hurled another bolt of lightning at her. Bloodskull dropped flat to the ground. The bolt hit a control panel behind her, the one she’d positioned herself in front of on purpose. The door flew open as the panel overloaded.

Tantrum Bloodfire was standing in the doorway. Apparently, she’d been about to open the door for Bloodskull whether Killmore liked it or not. Tesla blasted Tantrum with a bolt of lightning before she could react. She flew back through the doorway, landing on her rear. Tesla crowed when he spotted the Dreadknights’ flag through the door, sticking out conspicuously behind Killmore. Killmore looked stunned and outraged at being suddenly exposed. Bloodskull took advantage of Tesla’s glorified pause to somersault through the doorway herself.

Cursing under his breath at missing her, Tesla locked onto his next target. Killmore’s mohawk bristled in anticipation of their confrontation. Tesla’s savage lightning attack should have fried Killmore. Certainly, the ogre’s skeleton was visible in X-ray for a few seconds during Tesla’s attack. Yet at the end of the assault, while Tesla’s power cells were cycling back around, Killmore stood grinning at the mechanical man like a madman.

“How is this possible?” Raiden Tesla asked. “Are you just too stupid to die?”

Bloodskull plowed into Tesla before Killmore could answer. She knew the reason Killmore was still alive, of course. His sire was an ogre of the Black Hills. As a breed, they were pretty tough to kill. Better still, they built up a resistance to electricity in their storm-tossed homeland. Bloodskull took particular care to damage Tesla’s backpack, making sure they’d suffered their last lightning attack.

The metal man broke free from her and bolted for the door. Tantrum was getting to her feet shakily. She made a wild grab for him. For a second, Bloodskull thought she’d nabbed him, but she must’ve seen wrong because the next second Tesla was running through the door. Bloodskull heard a familiar whistling sound, followed by an explosion on the other side of the doorway. Pieces of the mechanical man bounced back through. She turned to Killmore, who held his bow in one meaty paw.

“Exploding arrows,” Bloodskull said, grinning. “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Killmore drew another arrow from his quiver and trained his weapon on Bloodskull. Bloodskull’s grin faded, but she held his gaze. After a moment, he relaxed the bowstring, but his gaze remained dark. “Do you have any idea how long it took us to fix that door mechanism?”

“I need you to fix it again. There’s more coming. They can’t know we’ve moved the flag.”

“On it,” Tantrum said, walking to the control panel wearily.

“I don’t like this plan,” Killmore said. “How are you going to get it out of here unnoticed?”

“A big distraction.” She glanced at the clock on her heads-up display. “Any second now. Wish me luck.” She strode forward and grabbed the Dreadknights’ battle flag.

Killmore placed a hand on her shoulder. “Guard it with your life, Bloodskull.”

She nodded. He released her.

“That Gear really fried everything, but I think I’ve got it,” Tantrum called. “It’s much easier the second time around.”

“Hold them out as long as you can,” Bloodskull said.

“Shake the pillars of hades, Bloodskull,” Tantrum said, her eyes agleam with guild pride.

Killmore snickered. “Yeah, do that.”

7 – Calabus

The door slammed shut behind her the second she entered the stairwell. Bloodskull headed one floor down and entered a short hallway. A room at the very end of the hall led to the privy. The bathrooms were the one part of Castle Odious that the technomancers hadn’t bothered to update, so like most medieval styled castles the toilets were basic. There was a seat. There was a hole. There was a drop all the way down the face of the tower.

Bloodskull glanced at the clock. Five seconds. She steeled herself. She wasn’t relishing the next part, the most critical to her plan. Mikey’s alchemical bomb went off. The explosion was big and loud, lighting up the battlefield. Bloodskull kicked the toilet seat hard, timing her demolition with the explosion. After making a big enough hole, she jumped through.

Again she felt the stomach lurching sensation of dropping from a height that would kill any normal person. She landed with a big splash in a moat filled with slime and filth. Bloodskull stifled her gag reflex and forced herself to sink down into the depths. It was hard to see in the murky gloom, but she knew where she needed to go. She forced herself to move slowly and deliberately toward the shore, hoping she’d avoided notice. Her powerful ogre lungs made it possible to hold her breath for a long time, but she needed to get back on dry land and get moving as soon as possible.

Her head emerged from the water soundlessly. She took a long look around, her back to a bank. No one could see her down here. She could see the top of the Nest tower. In any case, she could see where it used to be.

Goldenboy wasn’t an idiot. He would figure out that the Nest was gone because his foes didn’t want him knowing where their flag was. She just hoped he didn’t stumble on the idea that they’d done it because they were moving the flag before he actually went through all the trouble of finding out it was gone. It was a risk she had to take.

She heard the clattering of metal crab legs along the bank above and behind her. Skuttle was somewhere nearby. Had he seen her falling? Had he heard the splash? Playing cat-and-mouse with a Gears sniper was not part of the plan.

She caught a glimpse of Skuttle’s face. He looked like a metal bearded pirate. His gaze was focused on the bridge between the towers. It took her a second, but she saw MikeMonkeyMike creeping along the bridge, trying not to be noticed. Skuttle trained his weapon on the troll.

“There ye are, ya little sucker punch,” Skuttle drawled as he readied his back cannon. “Payback’s a – What the?”

Skuttle was suddenly yanked out of sight. Bloodskull heard a scuffle, punctuated by a couple of low growls. Moments later, she heard the unmistakably buttery voice of Calabus Adams.

“You can come out now, ogress. Or is this your kind’s idea of a day at the spa?” the catlord asked with a wink and a proffered hand. Christine Johanssen’s heart did flip-flops as she looked into Calabus’ golden eyes. From what she understood, his character always had that effect on women, so her nodal connection was probably responsible for a good measure of her reaction. Not that he wasn’t drop dead gorgeous all on his own. The catlord wore his trademark duster and had his long hair tied back with black ribbon. His forearms and the lower half of his feline legs were wrapped in strips of cloth. He wore a breastplate engraved with the figure of a unicorn’s head. He waited for her to respond, his tail twitching in amusement. Finally, he repeated his offer. “Do you need help getting out of that muck hole?”

Bloodskull snorted at the gesture. The catlord was strong, but she doubted he was strong enough to pull her up the bank. “I’ve got it.” Once she was back on dry land, she took stock of her situation.

Skuttle lay in a smoking heap nearby, his metal body sliced open and decapitated, courtesy of the catlord’s astral claw ability. The struggle had been hidden behind the tall grass that even now hid them from the metal centaur who stood sentry in the battlefield proper, waiting for reinforcements to arrive.

Calabus wasn’t alone. She couldn’t see Nikky Napalm, but she knew he was there. Goblyns could camouflage so well that most folks couldn’t even tell they were there – except for the awful stench. It was really bad. Even soaked in the moat’s sewage, Bloodskull smelled better than Nikky. “Hey, Nick,” she said, to be polite.

“Nikky,” the goblyn reminded her. Again. It was an old joke by this point. She could hear the smile in his voice even if she couldn’t see his face yet. “So Mikey tells us you have a plan.”

“And that it’s a really, really bad one, but pretty much the best option anyone can think of, given our present circumstances,” Calabus said.

“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Dreamwalker,” she said, grinning.

Calabus grinned at the nickname. “We’re to take you as far as Bellamy Bridge,” he said, “and then return here to keep up your ruse, if it’s possible.”

Without another word, they made their way stealthily around the edge of the battlefield immediately surrounding the twin towers. They managed to evade the frog-mouth helmed centaur’s notice. Frankly, Calabus and Nikky were masters of stealth; getting a big, lumbering ogress to tiptoe past someone was the real trick. Once they got into what most gamers called the Junkyard, things got easier. Before this area was leveled, it was an abandoned village just outside the castle walls – back when Castle Odious still had things like walls. Now the Junkyard was a graveyard of rubble and war machines, hailing back to the time when this level had fully operational Sentinels for gamers to utilize at their discretion. Sentinels, or walkers, were big anthropomorphic steampunk robots piloted from within, usually somewhere in the chest area. The only one that was even marginally operational now was called Martin. Martin required a bona fide technomancer in the pilot’s chair, so he didn’t get much use.

They saw one Gear on their way through the Junkyard, but they were careful to hide and let him pass by.

On the other side of the Junkyard was Bellamy Bridge. Unfortunately, it was being guarded.

8 – Bellamy Bridge

Calabus signaled for a halt.

“Well, that’s inconvenient,” Nikky said, not bothering to make himself visible.

“Why are they here?” Bloodskull asked. “The way things looked from the Nest, they were all headed to the Towers.”

Calabus shook his head. “They’re guarding the exits. Boxing us in.”

“Which means the main Gear force probably came across the old drawbridge.” There wasn’t much left of Castle Odious these days, but the magical drawbridge that once served as its main entrance was still in good working order. The drawbridge and Bellamy were the only practical ways across the Chasm of Sar.

“OK, that’s Kali on the bridge,” the catlord said.

Kali was a robotic naga. She was a snake from the waist down and a human female from the waist up. Her preferred weapon was a bow. The gear archer was scanning the Junkyard vigilantly. There’d be no escaping her notice. Worse still, Christine spotted a golden horn at her waist. The Hunting Horn of the Golden Gears had the ability to call forth Goldenboy and every other Gear on the field to the one who sounded it.

“Tell me you see that hunting horn,” Christine said, just to be sure everyone was on the same page.

“Yeah, I see it.” Calabus spat. “We really are stuck between a rock and a hard place. You recognized that Gear we passed, didn’t you?”

Christine nodded. “Doubler.” Doubler was a mechanical man in a metal bowler who drove a headless robot power suit as his “chariot.”

“Remember, he may not be a proper magus, but with what he can do,” Nikky said, “and the entire Junkyard at his disposal, I doubt we’ll quibble over the distinction.”

“I’m sorry, I must’ve missed that part of the brief. What are you talking about?” Christine asked.

Calabus snorted and Christine realized that someone must’ve filled in their auxiliary member on her habit of skimming the required reading. “There’s probably a reason they have him patrolling the Junkyard. Doubler animates and controls any machine he touches.”

Christine gasped as the implications sunk in. “He’s going after Martin. We have to stop him.” Martin would decimate the Towers in a matter of minutes.

“No, we have to stop him,” Calabus said, glancing in Nikky’s direction. “You have to get to the Gears’ flag and to do that we have to get you past Kali.”

“And how do we do that exactly?” Christine asked.

Calabus stroked his chin. “Well, we do have a goblyn.”

“I was afraid you were gonna say that,” Nikky Napalm said. “Fine, wait here. I’ll deal with her. You get ready to cross.”

They waited on pins and needles while the goblyn made his way to the bridge. He wasn’t actually invisible, but his camouflage was so perfect that he may as well have been. The only time you could truly see Nikky was when he moved. His camouflage lagged a bit in motion, making him seem like a faintly goblyn-shaped smudge against the background, but he was careful not to move when Kali was looking his way.

“He’s almost there,” Calabus whispered, sounding somewhat surprised. “Get ready.”

A loud series of crashes and metallic bangs drew their attention to the Junkyard at their backs. The initial cacophony was followed by the squeals and groans of something very old rising from the rubble. A shadow fell over them as Martin stood to his full height. Someone had painted a leering face with sharp triangular teeth on the Sentinel walker’s chest to make it more intimidating, like the fact that it stood several stories tall wasn’t enough. Doubler stared at Calabus and Bloodskull from a cockpit near the headless robot’s neckline.

Doubler made a show of bending over to inspect them. “Well, well, what do we have here?” he asked. Straightening to Martin’s full height, Doubler raised Martin’s foot and prepared to stomp them flat. “Fee Fi Fo Fum! Watch out, Dreads; you better run!”

Bloodskull and Calabus were way ahead of him. By unspoken agreement, they split up, forcing Doubler to choose his prey. He chose the one carrying the flag, of course. Having few better options, Christine headed for Bellamy Bridge. She hated running straight into the enemy’s hands – or coils in this case – but she was hoping that Nikky Napalm could help her come through it all right.

Seeing the Dreads’ flag, Kali grabbed the Hunting Horn of the Golden Gears and placed it to her lips. Nikky loaded a force phial into his slingshot and sent the alchemical weapon hurling toward the metal naga. The glass phial shattered. A wall of force slammed into Kali, knocking the horn from her grasp and sending her sprawling. Taking advantage of the moment, Bloodskull leapt over Kali’s prone body and darted into the covered bridge.

Outraged, Kali lashed her serpentine tail at the ogress, tangling Bloodskull’s feet. Bloodskull fell flat on her face. Kali lifted her tail and slammed it down, slapping Bloodskull’s body against the ground like a club. Nikky Napalm hit the naga in the back with a shock phial. Bloodskull was able to get to her feet during Kali’s brief but painful electrocution. Recovering from the shock attack, Kali searched about for her tormentor, bowstring taut and ready. Nikky launched his next phial. Kali zeroed in on the twanging slap of his slingshot. Her arrow shattered the phial a mere foot from his hand. Ice quickly covered the goblyn as the freeze phial did its work. For spite, Kali whipped around and lashed Nikky with her tail. He shattered on impact.

“No!” Bloodskull roared as Nikky Napalm’s game-death registered on her heads-up display. Nikky had been one of her few friends in this guild. Kali loosed an arrow after the ogress’ retreating form, reminding Christine that there was no time to mourn. The arrow missed, landing several yards behind its intended target. A moment later, Bloodskull exited the other side of Bellamy Bridge. She took a moment to breathe a sigh of relief before jogging towards the edge of the Fire Fields.

Her relief was cut short when she heard Kali blowing the Hunting Horn of the Golden Gears.

9 – Fire Fields

Bloodskull would’ve taken the full brunt of the blast, but Martin’s big hand was in the way. It shielded her from the eruption, but the force of the exploding fire jet caused Martin’s hand to scoop her up in its path. Bloodskull landed several yards away.

She immediately crawled out of Martin’s grip. As it turned out there was no need to hurry. All that as left of Martin was his severed arm. There was no sign of Doubler except a discarded metal top hat. Auric and Pod were hovering in midair nearby, courtesy of a rocket pack and helicopter prop respectively. Gunnar Gladi8r and EvilWeevil had managed to get clear of the blast range on foot.

All of this Bloodskull registered almost absently because at that moment Lucy was her sole focus. The monstrous vulcanopede towered over her in all her hellish glory. The creature seemed to be equal parts exoskeleton and fiery lava. She was obviously enraged at having been impeded by Helena Helstrom’s spell. Of course, Lucy had no idea Helena was responsible so she glared all of her hatred and blame upon the creature directly in front of her: Bloodskull. Bloodskull’s immediate instinct was to run, but the trouble with that option was that she’d dropped her battle flag and it was dangerously near the lava pool Lucy had emerged from. The fiery worm opened its mandibles wide. Bloodskull rushed toward the flag. She felt the heat seer her broad ogrish back as she passed under the jet of lava that erupted from the great worm’s maw.

Seeing she was after the Dread’s battle flag, Pod swooped down to intercept Bloodskull’s prize. Auric, Gladi8r and EvilWeevil took potshots at Lucy’s head to distract her while their buddy made his move. As he closed in for the kill, Pod retracted his helicopter prop and caused metal spikes tom erupt from his body. Bloodskull saw the spiked projectile in time to put on the brakes. Pod plowed up the dirt just in front of her. Getting to his feet, the spiked metal man lurched for the Dreads’ battle flag.

With no other options available to her, Bloodskull made a desperate grab for Pod. A big nasty spike went straight through her paw, but she stopped the metal magus cold. Pod brought out his wand efficiently, but whatever spell he intended was crushed in the grip of the ogress’ other hand. After ripping off his mangled arm, she hurled him into Lucy’s lava pool for spite. The battle flag was in her grip within seconds.

As she turned to flee, Pod burst out of the lava pool, glowing red and shrieking with pain and rage. As he emerged from the pool, a timer was exposed on his chest. The timer began running down. Pod began running toward her. It didn’t take a genius to comprehend his intent. Despite the blood loss she’d suffered from her hand injury, Bloodskull dug in and began running.

Auric dove down from the sky, raining cannon fire in her direction. A lucky hit knocked her off her feet. One of Killmore’s arrows blasted Auric out of air a moment later, but it gave Pod a chance to close the distance between them.

“Bloodskull! This way!”

Rosco was shouting at her from the top of a small hill. Bloodskull bounded in his direction with the running bomb at her heels. Pod was so intent on catching her that he didn’t see Tauvek Wraithfell and Apep closing in on him from either side. Both the minotaur and the reptilian ophidian were fast runners. The ophidian reached him first. Apep whipped his tail around and tripped Pod, but the magus kept rolling. With an enraged bellow, Tauvek brought his mighty war hammer down on the orb-shaped mechanical man, stopping him instantly. Pod’s timer was still very much operational. Tauvek stared at the timer in horror as it expired.

3. 2. 1.

Pod sparked. A think curl of smoke puffed out of his ruined shell. Tauvek raised his hammer in victory.

“Too easy!” the minotaur cried. “I need a real challenge. Where is Goldenboy?”

With a gurgling roar, Lucy descended on the minotaur. The vulcanopede’s white hot jaws swallowed Tauvek whole and then melted on through into the ground below.

“No!” Rosco cried. He stood there, monstrous jaws agape, as he stared at the spot where his comrade stood mere seconds ago, until something cold and resolute passed over his visage. His massive jaws snapped shut audibly. “Bloodskull! Let’s move!”

Bloodskull and Apep hurried to Rosco as fast as they could manage.

“Look.” Roscoe pointed one insectoid finger to a furrow moving off in the distance. At first, it was just the movement of earth as Lucy burrowed just beneath the surface, but as she picked up speed the path of fire jets began anew. “She’s coming back around. We need to hurry. Give me the flag.”

Bloodskull gaped at him. “You’re kidding me right?”

“I’m not,” Rosco said. The destruktir stood up to his full height. He placed the tip of his lobster claw hand under her chin. “You had a good run, kid. I could order you to do this. I outrank you. I could make you. You’re barely hanging on as it is; I doubt you could fight me. But I’m not gonna do any of that, because that wouldn’t be right.” He scoffed. “Frankly, you’ve impressed all of us.” He glanced at Apep, who nodded. Rosco sighed and shrugged. “But you’ve lost your weapons and a ton of blood. Time to pass the torch to a fresh runner.”

What he said made sense. Nodding wearily, she handed over the flag. “Now what?”

Rosco nodded toward Lucy who was now headed their way again. “Time to split up. I’ll make my way toward Trollbogies so we know the flag is safe. Apep will be my wingman.” He glanced down the field where Auric Lothario stood glaring at them. He was flanked by Gladi8r and EvilWeevil. Helena Helstrom was still in play and was flying to meet them. Calabus Adams had apparently dispatched Spring-heeled Jacque because his foe was nowhere to be seen. “We’ve got them outnumbered, but now is not the time to get cocky.”

“What do you want me to do?” Christine asked.

“Get Lucy’s attention. Lead her away.”

She raised an eyebrow.

“Good luck.”

Christine nodded wearily. Her character’s stamina wasn’t doing too good right now. She could really use some happy water, but she would do what she could. Taking a deep breath, Christine took off at a sprint, heading away from Trollbogies and the rest of her guild.

The ground rumbled behind her as Lucy approached. Bloodskull looked over her shoulder to see if the monster was following her. Frankly, she had no idea how she was supposed to get the vulcanopede’s attention if it decided to go after Rosco and Apep.

The Dreadknights were tumbling backwards across the Fire Fields, courtesy of Helstrom’s wall of force spell. Auric Lothario was on an intercept course for Rosco. Given the ground the Dreads had to make up, it looked like the Gears were going to reach Rosco well ahead of Trollbogies. Worse still, Gladi8r had broken off from his fellows and was making a beeline for the Gears’ flag.

Bloodskull growled. She couldn’t let Gladi8r reach that flag before she did.

Changing directions, Bloodskull ran for the lighthouse in the far corner of the Fire Fields. Gladi8r must’ve seen her new course and realized she was after the Gears’ battle flag, because he began tossing everything he had at her. Plate-sized discs, exploding shells and lightning blasted the earth around her, forcing her to cut away. In order to stay out of range of his artillery, she was forced take a less direct path to the lighthouse. She chafed at this delay but kept running as fast as she could. She already knew that Gladi8r’s tank treads could outrace her. She was hoping he was far enough behind that she could still seize the prize ahead of him.

Bloodskull almost cheered when she saw a line of fire jets begin erupting behind Gunnar Gladi8r. At her present rate of speed, Lucy would certainly catch the oversized juggernaut before he reached the lighthouse. Still, Bloodskull kept up her brutal pace, knowing full well that Lucy would come after her when she was done with the Dreadknight.

She reached the lighthouse first. Heading through the doors at its base, she quickly found the stairs and began bounding up them three at a time. As she passed a window, she couldn’t help but peek out to see what had become of Gladi8r. She was shocked to find him almost to the lighthouse with Lucy far behind. What had she missed? How did the Gears juggernaut reach her so fast?

Shaking off her confusion, she continued up the stairs. Without warning, an oversized morning star shattered the stone walls just above her, nearly decapitating her. Gladiator’s weapon effectively removed the entire top of the lighthouse, sending the lamp house and the Gears’ flag to the ground below. Bloodskull emerged from what was now the top of the stairwell to see Gladi8r reaching down into the rubble to pluck out his prize.

It couldn’t end like this, Christine decided. Not while she still drew breath. With an ear splitting roar, Bloodskull leapt from the top of the shortened lighthouse onto Gladi8r’s back. Once there, she grabbed hold of the juggernaut’s neck and began beating his helmed head with her ogre fists. She left dents in his helmet that would’ve killed a human combatant. Gladi8r batted at her in alarm and managed to swat her away. She landed on her back several feet away.

“Stay down, Ogress Bloodskull!” Gladi8r shouted. He held out the flag to taunt her. “It’s over. You have fought well, but you just weren’t good enough.” The disc shooter in his chest began whirring as he prepared to fire. “For the glory of the Golden Gears!”

Lucy erupted from the earth in white-hot fury. Gladi8r was able to scream just before her mandibles snapped shut around him, severing his hand in the process. The Gears flag fell to the earth between Bloodskull’s feet, still clutched in Gladi8r’s smoking hand.

She blinked at it in disbelief for a moment, while Lucy burrowed back into the earth. A grin split her ogrish face as she reached forward to seize the prize.

Everything froze with her fingertips just inches away.

“Game Over!” a voice thundered. “Victory goes to Auric Lothario and the Golden Gears!”

Christine couldn’t believe her ears. Much against her will, she was treated to an image of Auric Lothario waving the Dreadknights flag like some hero of old. The surviving Gears, Helena Helstrom and EvilWeevil, stood at his side, fist pumping and shouting wordless cries of joy. But even though they stood in the background of the scene, it was Rosco and Apep who held Christine’s attention. What were they doing there? Why weren’t they hurt or dead? How exactly did Goldenboy get the Dreadknights’ flag?

A sinking feeling of betrayal accompanied her fadeout as the nodal connection to the game ended.

10 – Capture the Flag

Bloodskull would’ve taken the full brunt of the blast, but Martin’s big hand was in the way. It shielded her from the eruption, but the force of the exploding fire jet caused Martin’s hand to scoop her up in its path. Bloodskull landed several yards away.

She immediately crawled out of Martin’s grip. As it turned out there was no need to hurry. All that as left of Martin was his severed arm. There was no sign of Doubler except a discarded metal top hat. Auric and Pod were hovering in midair nearby, courtesy of a rocket pack and helicopter prop respectively. Gunnar Gladi8r and EvilWeevil had managed to get clear of the blast range on foot.

All of this Bloodskull registered almost absently because at that moment Lucy was her sole focus. The monstrous vulcanopede towered over her in all her hellish glory. The creature seemed to be equal parts exoskeleton and fiery lava. She was obviously enraged at having been impeded by Helena Helstrom’s spell. Of course, Lucy had no idea Helena was responsible so she glared all of her hatred and blame upon the creature directly in front of her: Bloodskull. Bloodskull’s immediate instinct was to run, but the trouble with that option was that she’d dropped her battle flag and it was dangerously near the lava pool Lucy had emerged from. The fiery worm opened its mandibles wide. Bloodskull rushed toward the flag. She felt the heat seer her broad ogrish back as she passed under the jet of lava that erupted from the great worm’s maw.

Seeing she was after the Dread’s battle flag, Pod swooped down to intercept Bloodskull’s prize. Auric, Gladi8r and EvilWeevil took potshots at Lucy’s head to distract her while their buddy made his move. As he closed in for the kill, Pod retracted his helicopter prop and caused metal spikes tom erupt from his body. Bloodskull saw the spiked projectile in time to put on the brakes. Pod plowed up the dirt just in front of her. Getting to his feet, the spiked metal man lurched for the Dreads’ battle flag.

With no other options available to her, Bloodskull made a desperate grab for Pod. A big nasty spike went straight through her paw, but she stopped the metal magus cold. Pod brought out his wand efficiently, but whatever spell he intended was crushed in the grip of the ogress’ other hand. After ripping off his mangled arm, she hurled him into Lucy’s lava pool for spite. The battle flag was in her grip within seconds.

As she turned to flee, Pod burst out of the lava pool, glowing red and shrieking with pain and rage. As he emerged from the pool, a timer was exposed on his chest. The timer began running down. Pod began running toward her. It didn’t take a genius to comprehend his intent. Despite the blood loss she’d suffered from her hand injury, Bloodskull dug in and began running.

Auric dove down from the sky, raining cannon fire in her direction. A lucky hit knocked her off her feet. One of Killmore’s arrows blasted Auric out of air a moment later, but it gave Pod a chance to close the distance between them.

“Bloodskull! This way!”

Rosco was shouting at her from the top of a small hill. Bloodskull bounded in his direction with the running bomb at her heels. Pod was so intent on catching her that he didn’t see Tauvek Wraithfell and Apep closing in on him from either side. Both the minotaur and the reptilian ophidian were fast runners. The ophidian reached him first. Apep whipped his tail around and tripped Pod, but the magus kept rolling. With an enraged bellow, Tauvek brought his mighty war hammer down on the orb-shaped mechanical man, stopping him instantly. Pod’s timer was still very much operational. Tauvek stared at the timer in horror as it expired.

3. 2. 1.

Pod sparked. A think curl of smoke puffed out of his ruined shell. Tauvek raised his hammer in victory.

“Too easy!” the minotaur cried. “I need a real challenge. Where is Goldenboy?”

With a gurgling roar, Lucy descended on the minotaur. The vulcanopede’s white hot jaws swallowed Tauvek whole and then melted on through into the ground below.

“No!” Rosco cried. He stood there, monstrous jaws agape, as he stared at the spot where his comrade stood mere seconds ago, until something cold and resolute passed over his visage. His massive jaws snapped shut audibly. “Bloodskull! Let’s move!”

Bloodskull and Apep hurried to Rosco as fast as they could manage.

“Look.” Roscoe pointed one insectoid finger to a furrow moving off in the distance. At first, it was just the movement of earth as Lucy burrowed just beneath the surface, but as she picked up speed the path of fire jets began anew. “She’s coming back around. We need to hurry. Give me the flag.”

Bloodskull gaped at him. “You’re kidding me right?”

“I’m not,” Rosco said. The destruktir stood up to his full height. He placed the tip of his lobster claw hand under her chin. “You had a good run, kid. I could order you to do this. I outrank you. I could make you. You’re barely hanging on as it is; I doubt you could fight me. But I’m not gonna do any of that, because that wouldn’t be right.” He scoffed. “Frankly, you’ve impressed all of us.” He glanced at Apep, who nodded. Rosco sighed and shrugged. “But you’ve lost your weapons and a ton of blood. Time to pass the torch to a fresh runner.”

What he said made sense. Nodding wearily, she handed over the flag. “Now what?”

Rosco nodded toward Lucy who was now headed their way again. “Time to split up. I’ll make my way toward Trollbogies so we know the flag is safe. Apep will be my wingman.” He glanced down the field where Auric Lothario stood glaring at them. He was flanked by Gladi8r and EvilWeevil. Helena Helstrom was still in play and was flying to meet them. Calabus Adams had apparently dispatched Spring-heeled Jacque because his foe was nowhere to be seen. “We’ve got them outnumbered, but now is not the time to get cocky.”

“What do you want me to do?” Christine asked.

“Get Lucy’s attention. Lead her away.”

She raised an eyebrow.

“Good luck.”

Christine nodded wearily. Her character’s stamina wasn’t doing too good right now. She could really use some happy water, but she would do what she could. Taking a deep breath, Christine took off at a sprint, heading away from Trollbogies and the rest of her guild.

The ground rumbled behind her as Lucy approached. Bloodskull looked over her shoulder to see if the monster was following her. Frankly, she had no idea how she was supposed to get the vulcanopede’s attention if it decided to go after Rosco and Apep.

The Dreadknights were tumbling backwards across the Fire Fields, courtesy of Helstrom’s wall of force spell. Auric Lothario was on an intercept course for Rosco. Given the ground the Dreads had to make up, it looked like the Gears was going to reach Rosco well ahead of Trollbogies. Worse still, Gladi8r had broken off from his fellows and was making a beeline for the Gears’ flag.

Bloodskull growled. She couldn’t let Gladi8r reach that flag before she did.

Changing directions, Bloodskull ran for the lighthouse in the far corner of the Fire Fields. Gladi8r must’ve seen her new course and realized she was after the same thing, because he began tossing everything he had at her. Plate-sized discs, exploding shells and lightning blasted the earth around her, forcing her to cut away. In order to stay out of range of his artillery, she was forced take a less direct path to the lighthouse. She chafed at this delay but kept running as fast as she could. She already knew that Gladi8r’s tank treads could outrace her. She was hoping he was far enough behind that she could still seize the prize ahead of him.

Bloodskull almost cheered when she saw a line of fire jets begin erupting behind Gunnar Gladi8r. At her present rate of speed, Lucy would certainly catch the oversized juggernaut before he reached the lighthouse. Still, Bloodskull kept up her brutal pace, knowing full well that Lucy would come after her when she was done with the Dreadknight.

She reached the lighthouse first. Heading through the doors at it base, she quickly found the stairs and began bounding up them three at a time. As she passed a window, she couldn’t help but peek out to see what had become of Gladi8r. She was shocked to find him almost to the lighthouse with Lucy far behind. What had she missed? How did the Gears juggernaut reach her so fast?

Shaking off her confusion, she continued up the stairs. Without warning, an oversized morning star shattered the stone walls just above her, nearly decapitating her. Gladiator’s weapon effectively removed the entire top of the lighthouse, sending the lamp house and the Gears’ flag to the ground below. Bloodskull emerged from what was now the top of the stairwell to see Gladi8r reaching down into the rubble to pluck out his prize.

It couldn’t end like this, Christine decided. Not while she still drew breath. With an ear splitting roar, Bloodskull leapt from the top of the shortened lighthouse onto Gladi8r’s back. Once there, she grabbed hold of the juggernaut’s neck and began beating his helmed head with her ogre fists. She left dents in his helmet that would’ve killed a human combatant. Gladi8r batted at her in alarm and managed to swat her away. She landed on her back several feet away.

“Stay down, Ogress Bloodskull!” Gladi8r shouted. He held out the flag to taunt her. “It’s over. You have fought well, but you just weren’t good enough.” The disc shooter in his chest began whirring as he prepared to fire. “For the glory of the Golden Gears!”

Lucy erupted from the earth in white-hot fury. Gladi8r was able to scream just before her mandibles snapped shut around him, severing his hand in the process. The Gears flag fell to the earth between Bloodskull’s feet, still clutched in Gladi8r’s smoking hand.

She blinked at it in disbelief for a moment, while Lucy burrowed back into the earth. A grin split her ogrish face as she reached forward to seize the prize.

Everything froze with her fingertips just inches away.

“Game Over!” a voice thundered. “Victory goes to Auric Lothario and the Golden Gears!”

Christine couldn’t believe her ears. Much against her will, she was treated to an image of Auric Lothario waving the Dreadknights flag like some hero of old. The surviving Gears, Helena Helstrom and EvilWeevil, stood at his side, fist pumping and shouting wordless cries of joy. But even though they stood in the background of the scene, it was Rosco and Apep who held Christine’s attention. What were they doing there? Why weren’t they hurt or dead? How exactly did Goldenboy get the Dreadknights’ flag?

A sinking feeling of betrayal accompanied her fadeout as the nodal connection to the game ended.

Part 2: Neverdeath

[Back to Table of Contents]

11 – Suspended

When her nodal connection severed Christine found herself floating at her station, surrounded by the blue and greens of the aquatic farm tank. Toto floated nearby, grinning at her loss, until he disappeared between the shadows and strands.

It was all for nothing. All of the hours of gameplay, the fight with her family, braving Mr. Diggs’s wrath to play on the company’s nodal station. She just floated there, suspended in disbelief until one of her coworkers dove down to get her. They gently led her to the surface and got her some dry clothing.

Unsure whether she was welcome back at her family’s quarters, she just sat on a bench in the office with her back against a cool wall and her knees up to her chin. She’d heard that some people got so attached to their virtual lives that they committed suicide in the real world when their character died. This was a bit like that. She’d had such high hopes. And why shouldn’t she? Frankly, she’d never played better in her life. By rights, the Dreads should be moving to the next round of Guild Wars. The Final Round.

But they weren’t.

Because she made one mistake. One monumentally tiny mistake. She’d trusted Rosco. She’d should’ve seen right through it. All of that syrupy praise he’d poured on her to convince her to give up the battle flag was so obviously false when she thought back on it now. How could she be so stupid?

Someone in the office told her that her mom was on her way and then turned on the feeds, probably to break the uncomfortable silence or provide her with a distraction. Of course, the latest Guild Wars match was all over the feeds. Various game commentators were waiting for an official word from Guildmaster Trollbogies on behalf of the Dreadknights. Auric Lothario’s player, Axel Leroux, was already doing interviews. He was basically talking up the Monsters versus Metal angle to try to make himself out to be a hero. Goldenboy was represented by Wayne Enterprises, the same company the infamous vampyre slayer Copernicus Gallows was signed to. Copper was a member of the White Hand Club, a group of veteran gamers who’d outlasted pretty much everyone else in Impworld. Her childhood hero, Harper Angelos, was also a member of the White Hand and had even dated Copper at one point in the game. Some said that Goldenboy’s fame would someday eclipse Copper’s, but from the cocky way he carried himself during the interviews, Christine seriously doubted he’d ever be more than Wayne Entertainment’s second string. Especially since his poor strategy in Castle Odious had led to the decimation of almost his entire team! He was going to have to recruit heavily if he hoped to have enough members to qualify for the next match.

A part of her realized that what she was thinking could be characterized as sour grapes, but she couldn’t get past the fact that if Rosco hadn’t sold them out, the Dreadknights of Outland would have – Edgers Void! The Gears’ flag had only been inches from her hand! That should be Trollbogies onscreen giving a victory speech. And it would’ve been if it weren’t for Christine.

The next couple days went by in a depressed haze for Christine. She didn’t remember her mother coming by to take her home. Neither did she recall anyone bringing her meals, but the plate of cold food on her nightstand verified that they had.

Her room was small, barely big enough for the bunk she slept on. One wall was technically a big curtain. The holographic privacy curtain was unpredictable and went on the blink at the most inopportune times, so she opted for a more analog solution to the problem. The last thing she needed was her cousins leering at her as she tried to get dressed. A poster of Harper Angelos was displayed on one wall, along with the Dreadknights logo and her old Doomsmack banner. There were also two posters of Ogress Bloodskull and Wacky Jackie, her character from the Prometheus Initiative. All of the items on her walls were holograms. Hers was a paperless society. No one except the super-rich could afford to even use paper due to the ridiculously high taxes and penalties involved. Everything that once involved paper came in screen and nodal formats now. She took another look at her wall art and made a mental note to erase it all soon.

A ceiling display told her that she’d lost half a week somehow. Had she really just laid in bed all that time? She couldn’t keep doing this. Determined to emerge from her self-imposed prison, she swung herself out of bed. She recoiled against the chill of the hard floor against her bare feet, but forced herself to stand anyway. She waited for her bunk to recede into the floor. Afterward, her back wall scrolled away to reveal her clothes closet. Her stomach began rumbling as she gathered an outfit in her arms.

Despite her hunger, she paused before pulling back the curtain to her room. She didn’t relish the idea of facing her aunt and cousins. She was less thrilled over the prospect of seeing her mother’s face, no doubt creased with pity and worry. She took a deep breath and moved the folds aside. Her mother was there, but she was fast asleep at the table, her head lying across her folded arms, her optics resting nearby atop a tablet. The pose was so familiar that Christine forgot her cares for a moment. No matter what else happened, Glinda Johanssen was like a rock in the midst of the stream. Nothing less than mighty could move her against her will.

Christine tiptoed past her mother to the bathroom. After she stripped and placed her bed clothes in a hamper, she stepped into the shower area. The privacy holoscreen snapped into place. The first cycle coated her in warm sudsy water. She worked the lather through her hair quickly, knowing the rinse cycle wasn’t far behind. The desalinators on Platform 161 worked reasonably well but water still had to be rationed in order to accommodate the sheer number of people who worked and lived here. The drying cycle blew her shoulder length hair into a rat’s nest, as it always did.

Minutes later, she stood looking in a mirror with a toothbrush hanging out of the corner of her mouth. She sniffed at the sight of the freckles that dotted her face. Everyone always commented that they thought they made her look cute or like she had spunk (whatever that meant), the very opposite of the image she’d been trying to create with Ogress Bloodskull. She’d been able to go through her hygiene routine almost on autopilot, but now the thoughts and questions came crashing through the gates of her mind. She’d put a lot of her hopes into Guild Wars. What was she supposed to do now? Just give up on her dreams and become a farmer?

She smelled food cooking. She cringed at the thought of facing any of her relatives. She just didn’t feel up to it yet. On the other hand, her stomach turned traitor at the smell of bacon, so she didn’t see that she had much choice in the matter. She shrugged into her clothes and prepared to face the music.

When she emerged from the bathroom, her mother was sitting at the table, head bowed over praying hands. The sight startled Christine. Her mother was a Christian on paper, but the last time she’d seen Glinda at prayer was around the time her dad died.

Hearing Christine enter, Glinda looked up at her with red-rimmed eyes, her face betraying the mixed hope and worry she was feeling. Looking slightly embarrassed, Glinda blinked her eyes a few times and managed to resolve her expression into a state that Christine generally thought of as Glinda’s “mother look.” Two cups of tea were steeping in front of her. A plate with toast and soy bacon sat opposite her.

Glinda smiled and patted the table. “You’re up”

Christine nodded. “I am.” She glanced at the plate. “For me?”

“Figured you might be hungry if you were finally moving around.” Glinda paused, tapped her teeth with a fingernail and added, “You, um, haven’t eaten anything since the game, after all. Wanna talk about it?”

“Nope.” She glanced up at the clock. “What day is it?”

“Thursday.”

Christine sighed, relieved. Given the date and time, she wouldn’t be facing her aunt or cousins. Keegan was only fourteen, so he was still required to attend school. The Mountain was sixteen and was finishing up his electrical apprenticeship. Her Aunt Maggie was likely at work as well. “Why aren’t you at work?”

“Took a sick day. You had us all worried there for a while.”

“Sorry,” Christine said, mostly because she couldn’t think of what else to say. She folded a piece of toast in half around a few pieces of bacon and shoved it into her mouth in great gasping gulps.

Glinda chuckled. “Slow down. You’re gonna choke.”

“Sorry. Just. So. So. Hungry,” Christine said between mouthfuls.”

“You got a message from your guildmaster.”

Christine raised an eyebrow.

“You should read it.”

“Is it bad?”

Glinda sighed heavily. “Worse than you know. There’s no easy way to say this. You’ve been suspended.”

“What? Trollbogies suspended me? Tell me you’re kidding me.”

Her mother opened her mouth to speak, stopped herself and then opened it again. “I’m not talking about your game, Chrissy. I’m talking about your job. PanGen’s citing misuse of company equipment. You’re lucky you weren’t fired.”

“But Mr. Diggs gave me permission to –” Christine stopped herself. Mr. Diggs had told her he had a lot of money riding on her game. Was this his way of getting back at her? Pretending like he’d never given her permission to use the tank’s nodal station and letting her take the fall?

“Diggs is dead.”

Christine felt like her mind was going to explode. How could Mr. Diggs be dead? “What happened?”

“He was mugged. Right outside his office. Security is still looking into it, but…” She frowned and looked deeply into her daughter’s eyes. “Look, I’m sorry. You don’t need to worry about that right now. I just want you to know that the union has your back. We’re fighting the suspension.”

“Who cares about the suspension? A man died!”

“And life goes on!” Glinda shouted. “Wait. I’m sorry. Chrissy, I shouldn’t have yelled, but… Look, you’ve got some important decisions to make and, and this isn’t going to get any easier, so I’m just going to spit it out.” She took a deep breath. “The Dreadknights have suspended you too, baby.”

Christine felt like she was going to be sick. “But it was Rosco.”

“I’m sorry, Chrissy. You should probably listen to the message.”

Christine didn’t know what to say, so she just nodded.

12 – Farm Girl

Christine grimaced as she swatted at something buzzing in her ear. Probably a flier. The little alien bird-bug-whatevers were everywhere. They could be a nuisance but they were mostly harmless.

The thing she was after was anything but harmless. If she was right, there was a devilpede amidst the corn. Devilpedes were big, ugly menaces that basically looked like somebody crossed a centipede with a scorpion. They attacked pretty much anything that moved. And she was looking for it on purpose.

She heard a rustling sound off to her right, so she ducked behind a fallen ear of corn. An unnaturally huge ear as tall as a man and as big around as a barrel. The ear was partially exposed, revealing brown, dry kernels the size of baseballs. Even with her background in fantasy realms like Impworld, the fact that Earth plants really grew to fairy tale proportions in Tarak’s soil took some getting used to. There were huge vegetables like this in Impworld, of course, but all of that existed within the confines of the fictional planet of Obsidius. And it wasn’t always like that on Obsidius even! Impworld had only just seen the end of the MageWar, culminating in the supernatural blast that leveled much of the Highreach Mountains and formed the unholy Blight. The shockwave from the blast also radically changed the game at different levels. Some were very slight, but others were more dramatic. Entire races changed appearances in an instant. Plants and animals appeared that no one had ever seen before. And, yes, corn in some areas began to grow until the stalks were as tall as trees and the ears were as tall as a man. And so on and so forth.

Maybe that was the most difficult part to accept: that life in the Colony was like life on post-MageWar Impworld. Without the dragons and ogres and adventures.

Well, not for her anyway.

She was basically training to be a Colonist on the terraformed alien world where she would’ve been playing as Ogress Bloodskull if the Dreadknights had won the Guild Wars. Elsewhere on Tarak, those who made the final cut would be strolling through real life versions of places they’d only seen in the virtual version of the game. The fabled city of Cabon Gabrielle, City of Shields. Pirate-infested Port-au-Doom. The Orc Nation of Manitoba. Mot Hadrall, the City of Eternal Night. The winners of the Impworld Finals would rub shoulders with knights, magus, dwarves, ogres, elves, ophidians and all of the other Free Peoples of Impworld. Christine would be living the life of a medieval peasant serf in a remote section of the terraformed section of Tarak. A drudgery-filled section that would probably never see a hint of her former fantasy adventures.

That being said, the Colonial Trials were more interesting than she’d thought they’d be. Especially since her qualifying scores and her gaming experience got her into the Tarak’s colonial militia program. Basically, her days in the virtual world were filled with target practice, combat drills and patrols instead of hauling, harvesting and processing oversized produce. Still, there was no escaping the dreary fact that she was trading her days of dragonslaying and dungeon delving for a lifetime of guarding helpless Colonists against the scourges of batwogs, devilpedes and snakeweed.

Today’s patrol simulation was a bit different. Christine and her crew had been sent into the cornfield to investigate a furrybite sighting. Furrybites were cute but destructive. They looked like fur-covered snakes with kitten faces. They really seemed to enjoy chewing through power cables. Even though she’d only skimmed the briefing, as per usual, no one could’ve miss the bold print warning that furrybites were never alone. Not only did they come in packs of squirming, mewling, cable slicing squee, their presence also tended to precede a devilpede attack.

Thus far, Christine had seen neither furrybites nor devilpedes. The only thing out of place here appeared to be a stalk of snakefruit sticking out of the ground from beneath the fallen ear of corn. Snakefruit looked like a giant raspberry on a stick. It was technically the fruiting body of a snakeweed patch. She eyed the ear of corn warily, wondering just how much snakeweed was under it.

“What’s your status, Christine?”

Christine startled at the voice in her earpiece. Davis Crimmeans was her immediate supervisor. He took his job pretty seriously, but he wasn’t a bean counter. Sometimes he could even be fun. Davis was one of the few things about the Trials that she truly enjoyed.

“Still sweeping sector 15,” she said.

“Anything?”

“Does snakefruit count?”

She heard Davis chuckle. “Not usually.”

“I heard something a little bit ago. Something’s definitely here, but I haven’t seen it yet, so it could be anything really.” She sighed heavily for his benefit. “This would be a lot easier if we were fully equipped.”

Davis chuckled again. “You’re gonna break your fiddle playing that tired old song. Sorry, I know this isn’t what you’re used to, but we have a contractual obligation to maintain the appearance of our game roles. We can’t have peasants running around with magical swords any more than we can have them wearing powered mech suits.”

“Yes, but we could actually do this job if we had decent scopes and power suits. We might even do it adequately for a change. I mean, why do we need to maintain the façade all the time? Won’t GameComm be tracking players?” she asked.

“You know the rules,” Davis said. “Anyway just think of this as training for those times when players are nearby and you still have a farm to protect, right?”

“But they could disguise the suits. Think about it. Elves have most of the abilities of a power suit. Why can’t we –” She heard the rustling sound again. It was behind her now on the other side of the ear of corn. Right behind her. She crouched down low, laying nearly parallel with the ear in order to stay out of sight. Staying perfectly still, she looked up.

A devilpede was crawling across the top of the ear toward the snakefruit. She stopped breathing. This one was smaller than the ones she’d seen in the training videos. It was probably twice her length, nothing like the dragon-sized worms she was worried about. It still had two pairs of scorpion-styled mouth pincers that could shred her to bits. As it scanned the area for signs of danger, a gooey liquid dripped from its mandibles. It pooled and ignited in blue flames dangerously close to where she was hidden.

The creature inspected the snakefruit tentatively. For a moment, Christine thought the devilpede was going to eat it, but then it tensed up and held perfectly still. After a few tense seconds, it crawled off the ear of corn and started to make its way up a nearby stalk. It didn’t seem to know exactly where she was. Or maybe it just didn’t care. That in itself was confusing. The training vids made devilpedes out to be raging monsters that attacked every living thing in sight without the slightest provocation.

“Christine, come in,” Davis said. He sounded worried. “Is everything OK?”

The devilpede stopped moving.

“Christine!”

“Davis, shut up,” she hissed as quietly as she could.

The devilpede’s head was pointed directly at her. She tried to hold perfectly still. As if sensing her predicament, a frond of snakeweed emerged from under the ear of corn, unfurled and began trying to wrap itself around her leg. She gripped her fingers around the shaft of the spear they’d given her as she shied away from the grasping snakeweed and slowly rose to a sitting position. The devilpede slobbered more of its fiery goop.

She rolled to the right at the first hint of movement. The devilpede’s incendiary liquid splashed all over the dried kernels of partially exposed ear of corn. As Christine tried to get to her feet, the snakeweed struck. Intense electric shock competed with the pain of a lacerating wound as the frond exposed its “teeth” and pumped venom into her leg. She used the business end of the spear to chop herself free of the offending plant and then turned it around to defend herself against the devilpede. She threw the spear out of desperation. The spear tip glanced off the creature’s composite eye, resulting in a noticeable gash. The enraged devilpede reared back to spit more napalm at her.

That’s when she saw the furrybite come slithering around the base of the corn stalk the devilpede was perched upon. The devilpede lost interest in Christine instantly. If she didn’t know better, she would think the devilpede was afraid of the smaller creature.

Two more furrybites snaked into sight. True to Christine’s suspicions, the devilpede retreated rapidly up the corn stalk and disappeared into the upper canopy.

The ear of corn exploded behind her as the kernels expanded to the size of basketballs under the heat of burning devilpede slime. Christine was blasted forward, landing on her face. The ear of corn was thrown in the opposite direction as the giant ear of popcorn continued to violently explode in white, fluffy glory. When the ear moved, it exposed a big patch of snakeweed which writhed and lashed out wildly in defense. Electricity crackled and snapped with each undulation.

The furrybites attacked the patch without hesitation, gnawing at its fronds and roots with a ferocious zeal that belied their cute appearance. A stray popcorn must’ve rocketed upwards and hit the devilpede, for it fell into the snakeweed patch. Even besieged by the furrybites, the snakeweed managed to entangle the devilpede in a makeshift cocoon of fronds.

The furrybites were the ultimate victors. Impervious to the plant’s electricity, the tenacious creatures fought hard to get to the plants roots. When the snakeweed finally stilled, two furrybite survivors slithered off and out of sight. The devilpede and the other furrybite did not move again.

Christine waited until she was sure she was safe before she reported in.

“All clear.”

“Christine, what happened out there?”

“I found the devilpede. It wasn’t a big one. A juvenile maybe? Some furrybites scared it off and then they started attacking some snakeweed and then the snakeweed ate the devilpede and – Is this really what life is like on this planet? Because that was completely messed up! You’re inviting people here on purpose?”

“Oh, please, like you haven’t faced worse as Ogress Bloodskull,” Davis said with an audible snort. “Wait, you said it was chased off by furrybites? That’s… improbable.”

“I know, but that’s what I saw.”

“Must’ve been a truckload of furrybites,” Davis said.

“Actually, I only saw three.”

“Well, that makes even less sense.”

“You’re the expert. I’m still getting used to this place,” she said. “You’re welcome to replay the vid if you doubt me.”

“You can guarantee that,” Davis said, “but only because it sounds fascinating. Not because I doubt you.” There was an awkward pause. “By the way, which direction did the furrybites go off in? We might be able to root out the nest.”

Christine hesitated. She knew that furrybites were responsible for most of the farm’s electrical problems, but they’d also just saved her life. She didn’t exactly feel good about helping someone track down and destroy her saviors, even if they were just simulations. “Sorry, I didn’t really see.”

“That’s OK. We can check the vids on that, too.”

Christine frowned. “Why? I mean, what’s the point? Isn’t this just a simulation?”

Davis scoffed. “Right. You’re right. Sorry, I’ve been planetside,” he said, “so sometimes I forget. The simulation is very true to life, but you are correct: it is just a simulation, which is very good for you.”

“Why’s that?”

“You’ve got a snakeweed bite. If this had been real, you’d be experiencing a psychotic episode right now.”

Christine didn’t know what to say to that. She waited while the faraway world of Tarak faded away and her nodal connection brought a GameComm briefing room to life.

Davis Crimmeans sat across from her at a table, smiling broadly. “Anyway, snakeweed bites aside, we had a very good session today. Your scores are very solid,” he said. “I can pretty much guarantee your entrance into the Colonies at this point.” He paused and looked slightly uncomfortable. “If you’re still interested, that is. If you’re not, I’ll totally understand. Big fan.”

Christine scoffed. “What are you talking about? Where else would I go?”

Davis looked genuinely baffled. “Well, you are Ogress Bloodskull, aren’t you?”

She did her best not to sound cross, but the question annoyed her. “I am. I mean, I was.”

“I just assumed that you were just hedging your bets,” Davis said. “We all did. I mean, why would Bloodskull want to go to Tarak as an underpaid peasant security guard when she could go as a player, right?”

She slammed her fists down on the table. “Why are you messing with me? We lost!”

He blinked at her. It was hard to tell whether he looked more perplexed or afraid. Then he had an epiphany. “You don’t know. Christine, the Dreads are back in it.”

“What? How?”

“Haven’t you been watching the vids? The Golden Gears were involved in a rezz scandal. They were doping up before matches to increase their nodal reaction time.”

“You’re kidding me.”

“No, no, I’m not. If you watch the vids from the Castle Odious match, you can even tell that some of them are moving just a little too fast,” Davis said. “They totally cheated and GameComm disqualified them from Guild Wars.” He considered her with an expression of amused pity. “You know, your guildmaster shouldn’t have left you in the dark like that. You pee in her Pure or something?” With a wink, he picked up a bottle of Pure brand water at his elbow and drank deeply.

Christine sighed and placed her head in her hands. “Everybody was mad at me for trusting Rosco. Some of the guys thought we never would’ve been in that situation if I hadn’t gone off on that hare-brained plan I concocted.”

Davis snorted. “I thought that plan was brilliant.”

“Thanks,” Christine said, “but that doesn’t change the fact that the Dreads suspended me.”

“Sus – suspended you? Suspended Ogress Bloodskull? The leader in kills for the entire match? The player who was literally inches from the Gears’ flag when their quartermaster betrayed them? You gotta be kidding me, right?”

“I wish I were.” She sighed again.

He laughed. “I wish I could say I was sorry, but the only ones who are gonna be sorry are the Dreads.”

“That’s nice of you to say, but –”

“I’m not just trying to make you feel better,” Davis said. “I got a brother who’s been playing Impworld for years. Harley’s real good at it, too. You might’ve heard of him.” He paused for dramatic effect. “Does the name Baldur Splintershield ring any bells?”

A chill ran down Christine’s back at the mere mention of the name. Baldur Splintershield was an assassin whose loyalty was to the highest bidder. They called him the Dark Dwarf. He had a reputation for always bringing in his mark… sometimes in pieces. No one could claim to be his equal, except perhaps Lydia Blackthorn and that was purely a matter of opinion. No one had ever escaped either assassin.

“I’m pretty sure everybody knows who that is,” she said.

“Well, you don’t get to where he is in the game unless you know a thing or two. He’s got an inside scoop on Guild Wars. If his guy is legit, I’d expect a call from your guildmaster by the end of the day.”

“Why?” It all sounded too good to be true.

“Because you’re the key to the Dreadknights moving to the next round.”

“How?” Christine’s mind was spinning. Did she dare believe him?

Davis shrugged. “That I don’t know, but my brother’s almost never wrong about these things.”

13 – Trollbogies

The call came two hours later. Christine was reviewing the previous mission’s briefing on a monitor, looking for more information on devilpedes and furrybites when her V-mail chimed. The monitor said that it was a meeting notice from Guildmaster Trollbogies. The meeting was in two minutes.

Christine glanced at a clock display. She frowned. Why was Trollbogies asking to meet her at ten minutes till the hour? Why not just wait and have it on the hour like everybody else?

She glanced at Aunt Maggie. The old shrew was taking a nap in her quarters. Her cousins were at the kitchen table. Bryce and Keegan looked like they were eating way more than their share of the rations. As per usual. Christine walked over to the nodal station, trying to act casual.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Keegan asked with a leer. “You know the rules. No one’s to be on the rig without mom’s permission.”

“Unless it’s for the Colonial Trials,” she reminded him with a humorless smile. “I just got a V from my trainer. He needs to talk to me about today’s mission.”

“How do I know you’re telling the truth?” Keegan asked, eyes narrowed.

She scoffed. “Whatever. You can check my monitor if that’s what floats you, but I’m not missing this meeting.” She started walking toward the rig.

The Mountain stood up.

She stopped and glared at him. “You gonna try to stop me, Bryce?”

He looked at her smugly, but before he could say anything, Glinda walked in the door. “What’s going on here?” her mother asked.

“I just got a V about a meeting and these two are trying to stop me from using the rig,” Christine said.

Glinda raised an eyebrow and looked at Keegan. “Is that true?”

“She’s telling the truth,” Dorothy piped up from behind her brothers.

Keegan shot her a dark look. “Shut up, you.”

“Mind your manners, Keegan,” Glinda said. She walked over to Christine’s monitor and took a look. Christine watched as her mother’s face fell to worry. She held her breath, fearing that Glinda might try to stop her out of some misplaced desire to protect her from more hurt. Instead, Glinda looked her squarely in the eye and asked, “How do you expect this meeting to go?”

She remembered what Davis had said. “The inside word is that it’s supposed to go very well.”

Glinda nodded and turned off her monitor. “Then what are you waiting for?”

Christine hurried to the nodal rig before anyone changed their mind. Shaking off her nervousness, she dialed up the Guildmaster’s portal and waited.

Moments later, Christine sat in the guild’s Hall of Dread at a heavy iron table inscribed with the Dreadknights standard. A wiry old woman with black and silver hair sat at the other end.

“Trollbogies?”

The old woman smiled. “I thought perhaps it was time you finally met the man behind the curtain, if you will.” She rose from the table and began walking towards Christine. “My name is Olivia Ziegler. I believe I owe you an explanation and an apology.” She held out her hand.

Christine shook her hand, but still felt wary.

“May I sit?” Olivia asked.

Christine nodded. Olivia took the chair beside hers.

“First things first,” the old woman said. “You are one of the rare few to ever see my true face. I am a dreadfully private person, so I do hope you will keep the details of this meeting in confidence.” She took a moment to study Christine’s face as if searching for some hidden portent. At last, she smiled. “I have a granddaughter your age, you know. Little Elinor Gale. I actually started playing this game for my grandchildren.” She sighed. “I grew up listening to my grandmother’s stories. In the Nodal Age, no one tells stories anymore; we live them. So these were my bedtime stories, if you can believe it.” She laughed a dry, seasoned cackle.

“They’re all grown up now of course. Like you. Elinor was the youngest. But they’re all very big fans.” She smiled absently. Then she stared at Christine with a steel that she recognized as belonging properly to her guildmaster. “They’re very excited about my prospects of winning Guild Wars, but I cannot do that without you.”

“Someone told me you might be wanting me back,” Christine said.

“Back?” Olivia scoffed. “I didn’t fire you! I suspended you on purpose. I needed to make sure you weren’t part of Rosco’s treachery.”

“What?” Christine stood to her feet, her face flushed. “How could you –”

“Sit down, quartermaster!” Olivia roared, her face momentarily switching to her troll form for emphasis. Frankly, it was more the fact that she called her out by a rank Christine did not yet possess that got her full attention. “You’re clever and you’re strong but you don’t know everything, Christine. One day, perhaps, you shall be guildmaster and when you are, you will finally understand why my actions were prudent. Nevertheless, I apologize for the pain and anguish it must’ve caused you.”

Christine looked past Olivia to the pictures hanging on the walls. The Dreadknights had boasted a grand total of twelve guildmasters in its relatively long existence. Trollbogies had served longer than any other in that capacity. For her to even suggest that Christine might become guildmaster someday was high praise indeed!

“Let me get down to business,” Olivia said. “The Gamelords have disqualified the Golden Gears from Guild Wars. You would think that would entitle the Dreads to a walkover, but Neverdeath believes that their popularity score should have made them the top pick for the Gears’ vacant slot.”

“That’s Edger’s talk!” Christine said. “They lost their match fair and square.”

“Ah, but so did we,” Olivia said with a wry smile. “They have the advantage in popularity points and we both know that’s pretty much all GameComm cares about. You know the drill: Popularity points mean better ratings.”

“So they just get to take our spot?”

“Not exactly. There are precedents. If the Gamelords approve the match, we can contest the decision as a trial by combat.”

“So let’s do that.”

Olivia shrugged. “Our initial offer was rejected. Guild Wars has created a lot of turnover. We only left the Gears with three survivors. They would’ve had to recruit twelve more players to keep from forfeiting the Final Round.

“You mean five,” Christine said. “You forgot Rosco and Apep.”

Olivia laughed again. “Auric Lothario is represented by Wayne Entertainment. Aloysius Prather Wayne is a lot like his father was. He’d never let a traitor on his team. If you can buy a man’s loyalty, someone else can always outbid you! If Rosco’s betrayal taught us anything, it’s that the more we change the roster, the less we can trust everyone on our team. Think about it: a lot of these guys are from other guilds and, well, you can imagine the sort of back door deals that go on. Players defect to other guilds as sleeper agents basically. Or someone turncoats for profit. Doesn’t matter why. It’s just a fact of how the game is played. Neverdeath’s guildmaster is shrewd. Heinrich der Hexenhammer would never agree to a guild versus guild battle royale at this stage. I don’t really blame him either. He likes his current line-up and he wants to take them all to the Final Round. He certainly doesn’t want to risk losing men he might need against Doomsmack.”

“So what are our options? Is there anything we can do? At all?”

“The Gamelords have agreed to a player versus player match to settle the dispute. Basically, each guild will choose a champion to represent them. David and Goliath. Winner takes all.”

Christine gasped. “Wait. You want me to be your champion?”

“Yes and no,” Olivia said. She rose from her seat and began walking back to the guildmaster’s seat. “And this is why I wanted to meet with you before our official guild meeting. I might’ve chosen you if it were up to me. You certainly led us in kills in our last match and that’s not easy with Killmore on this team.” She shot Christine a conspiratorial wink. “He’s not happy about that, by the way. So you would’ve been a viable choice, but the choice was never mine to make.”

“I don’t understand. Whose choice was it?”

Olivia sat in her chair and steepled her fingers. As she took her spot, she became Master Trollbogies and Christine transformed into Ogress Bloodskull. In short order, the other guild members began materializing around the table.

There was an immediate commotion. “What’s she doing here?” “Traitor!” “Should we expect Rosco to show up next?” “We don’t need her!” “Get her out of here!”

Trollbogies nodded to Captain Belch Hammerhands. Belch slammed his fists on the table. “Order! Order! This meeting of the Dreadknights of Outland has now come to order! Fulfill your oaths!”

The table settled into brooding silence.

“Welcome, Dreadknights,” Trollbogies said. “I have good tidings to bring you today. The Gamelords have shown us favor. We have a chance to fight in the Final Round!”

Cheers erupted in the virtual guild hall. Trollbogies sneered at them indulgently before banging his trollish fists upon the table for silence. “Before we get down to business, we take time to welcome some new faces to our ranks. We lost several good warriors at Castle Odious.”

“And a few bad ones, too!” Mudflap said.

“But at least one bad one too few!” Killmore said, glaring at Bloodskull pointedly.

Trollbogies ignored the outbursts. “Rise as I call you names. Ugdug and Spike.” Two goblyns stood on their seats so they could be seen above the table. “Dark Mark. Ravyn Rattlebones.” Two ogres rose in their places. “Ogre O’Greg.”

“It’s just O’Greg actually,” he said. “It’s kind of the clerical error that wouldn’t die.”

Christine nodded solemnly toward O’Greg. It looked like they had something in common because her character’s name suffered from the same occasional game glitch. When she’d created the character, she’d wanted to just name her Bloodskull, but apparently the name had already been used too recently so GameComm provided her with the alternate of Ogress Bloodskull. She didn’t realize the switch had occurred until it was too late.

Trollbogies stared at O’Greg impatiently.

“Right,” O’Greg said. “Carry on then.”

“And finally, Gopherguts.” Another ogre.

“Who else?” Killmore asked. “Don’t we have one more spot to fill?”

“We do not,” Trollbogies said, giving her voice a growling timbre.

“Apologies, guildmaster, but we lost six and you’ve named only five replacements.”

“Allow me to address the dragon in the living room,” Trollbogies said. “Bloodskull was never fired. She was only suspended.”

“Maybe things are different in this guild,” Bandersmack said, “but in the Edger Angels, we’d still need someone to fill in for the member who was on suspension.”

“Exactly,” Sass-Quatch said, crossing her arms.

“Her suspension has been lifted,” Trollbogies said.

The outburst that followed was predictable. Trollbogies endured the siege with all of the care a mountain beset by the might of a raging anthill. When some of the more vocal members had the chance to vent their frustrations, she nodded to Captain Hammerhands, who pounded the table for silence.

“So is it my understanding that you would prefer to forfeit rather than remove Bloodskull from suspension?” Trollbogies asked.

Killmore, Sass-Quatch and Bandersmack exchanged a look. “I’m not sure what you mean, guildmaster,” Killmore offered finally.

“The Gamelords have decided to allow us to fight for the chance to play Doomsmack in the Final Round, but first we must face Neverdeath in a duel.”

“Then pick me as your champion!” Killmore said. “I lead this guild in all-time kills. I’m the obvious choice.”

“Look I to be dead to you, Killmore?” Trollbogies shouted. “I am still guildmaster! It is not up for a vote.” Forcing herself to calm down, she added, “Besides, it’s not like that. The Gamelords have decreed that each guildmaster shall choose the other guild’s champion.”

Sass-Quatch scratched her head. “So essentially, you’ve got to pick the Neverdeath player you’d like to see our champion fight but you don’t know who the champion is, right?”

“You know who Neverdeath chose,” Tantrum said, eyeing the guildmaster suspiciously. “That’s why Bloodskull’s off suspension. They chose her.”

“Can they pick a suspended player?” Bandersmack asked.

“The Gamelords have already approved Guildmaster Hexenhammer’s choice,” Trollbogies said.

“Who is the Neverdeath champion?” Tantrum asked. “Do we know that yet?”

Trollbogies sucked in air between her teeth before she spoke. “It has come to my attention that Neverdeath has necrotized a new member into their ranks. When I heard who it was I realized that we had an opportunity to not only get into the Final Round, but to grab a hero’s share of popularity points… and get us a little revenge all at once.”

She paused dramatically, until Ugdug finally blurted, “Who is it?”

“The very one who betrayed us has just joined Neverdeath. Bloodskull will duel against Rosco.”

The noise of the guild hall dimmed to brooding silence.

Killmore’s eyes were blazing when he spoke. “You chose well, guildmaster, but how do we know we can trust Bloodskull? Some have suggested that she was in league with Rosco the whole time.”

“It was Bloodskull who came up with a plan to try to get the Gears’ flag when everyone else was playing defense, just as Rosco desired,” Trollbogies pointed out. “Check the vids. Her fingers were literally inches from glory for the Dreadknights when Rosco betrayed us. Do these rumors make sense in light of these facts?”

Killmore rubbed his homely jaw as he considered her words. All eyes were on him now. At long last, he raised his head and leveled his gaze at Bloodskull. “Shake the pillars of hades, Bloodskull,” he said. “Come back in glory or on your shield.”

She nodded gravely, but then felt herself starting to grin. “Rosco will pay for his treachery,” she vowed. “Dreadknights forever!”

Trollbogies smiled broadly as the guild hall broke out into cheers and shouts. The rest of the meeting disintegrated into boasting and singing over ale and curdled milk, the latter being a notorious ogrish intoxicant.

14 – Rosco

Once the media caught wind of the Guild Wars grudge match, there was no way Christine could hide the fact that she was still playing Impworld from her aunt. Her aunt Margaret was simply beside herself. Frankly, it wasn’t the scorching fits of rage nor the smoldering dark looks that got to Christine; it was when she caught her aunt crying. On the rare times she’d been dumb enough to ask her what was wrong, Maggie let her have it with that acid tongue of hers. Whatever was going on, it was abundantly clear that Christine was still the designated scapegoat.

In any case, the duel was kind of a big deal. A lot of folks on Platform 161 followed Guild Wars and even knew that she was Bloodskull’s player, but GameComm was promoting the up-coming grudge match so heavily that now it seemed like everyone knew who she was. PanGen AquaFarms had re-instated her and granted Christine and her family unlimited nodal time, presumably to practice, but mostly to be able to toot their own horn for supporting an employee’s Cinderella story in the name of building company morale. Christine had overheard her mother complaining that PanGen was using the goodwill generated from that gesture to cover a multitude of corporate sins against its employees. Her employer wasn’t the only one hitching their wagon to her star. Her cousins had made a revival-style conversion from hateful bullies to enthusiastic Bloodskull fanboys almost overnight.

When the fateful day came, PanGen had a professional rig delivered to Platform 161, complete with holoscreens for everyone to watch the action on the big screen. Christine tried not to let it all go to her head. It was a new experience waving to a crowd of fans, friends and family before she stepped into her gaming rig. She indulged the moment, but made herself jack into the system a little earlier than she needed to just to shake off the butterflies and get her head straight.

As the virtual world materialized around her, Christine noted that Trollbogies was with her. For the moment, they were in the Dreadknights’ guild hall, waiting for the match to begin.

“You ready for this, Bloodskull?” her guildmaster asked.

She nodded.

“Good girl. I just wanted to give you some last second information, just in case you skimmed the briefing again.” She winked.

Christine smiled despite herself.

“This is basically a cage match. Hexenhammer won the coin toss so he got to choose the level. He chose Vertigo Bridge.”

Christine groaned. She really hated heights. Vertigo was a section of the floating Isles of Empyrion that had gotten separated from the main mass. Basically, it was just two masses of rock and earth levitating high in the clouds with nothing but a rope bridge keeping them together. If Empyrion were real, the flying islands would have to contain large deposits of levitanium, the mineral that made hovertech possible. In the real world, the only places you could find levitanium was in near-airless Martian mines and on the planet Tarak. In any case, Vertigo Bridge was a pretty well-known duel stage. Most veteran players tried to avoid it unless they had a distinct advantage like the ability to fly because a fall from that height would even cause the game-death of something as tough as an ogre.

“I know right?” Trollbogies said, chuckling. “Just make sure you don’t fall.”

“Rosco has the advantage here,” Christine said. Destruktirs were surefooted on almost any surface. Like many insects. They could even walk upside-down if they needed to.

“I know, but I still think you can take him,” Trollbogies said. “Besides, we’re really fortunate they picked up Rosco. If I had to pick from the rest of them, you would’ve ended up fighting a wraith or a death knight, because those were literally the best odds I could’ve given you.”

Christine tried not to let her surprise show too much. Neverdeath was tough. Everyone knew that. Lord Hexenhammer was once a monster hunter. He wasn’t nearly as good as Copper Gallows, but he was good enough to cause the Bloody Barons to put a price on his head. When they caught him, they had him bitten by a werewolf and a vampire at the same time, just to see what would happen. What happened was that Hexenhammer became infinitely more powerful. Neverdeath was born when he began giving the more powerful monsters he hunted the choice he never had: join his crusade or die.

Deciding that this train of thought was only psyching her out, she shook her head and said, “Let’s do this.”

Less than a minute later, her nodal connection caused the Vertigo Bridge level to form around her. It was sunrise. Petals blew in the wind from the blossoms of giant-sized peach trees situated on both floating isles. It was almost too pretty for a fight to the death.

Bloodskull peered across the rope bridge to the other island, where Rosco was standing. He looked a little different than the last time they’d met. Neverdeath necrotized their members, so he was basically an undead destruktir now. Which was a lot like saying he was all blackened exoskeleton. Rosco’s eye sockets glowed with an unholy light.

“Are you prepared to give your soul to Neverdeath?” Rosco shouted. It was the usual preliminary question asked by all members of the Neverdeath guild before battle. Rosco ended his challenge with a dry, mocking cackle.

Christine didn’t bother responding. Instead she selected Anthem’s “Spiral Down” from her playlist and marched across the bridge to meet her foe. Most of the boards attached to the rope bridge were secure, but some were loose or rotten. It wasn’t the best avenue for a solidly-built ogress to take, but there was really no other way. From the other side, Rosco made his way across on insect legs. It was apparent to anyone watching that neither opponent had any intention of stopping. This was going to be a head-on collision, a classic game of chicken.

They met with an audible impact. Hard ogre muscle and armor rattled against hard chitin exoskeleton. Bloodskull had opted for a right cross instead of ducking down for a lower center of gravity. Her hamfist nearly took Rosco’s ugly insect head off its shoulders. The only thing that stopped that from happening was the destruktir’s momentum. Bloodskull felt herself get steamrolled by her opponent as he passed over her. Fortunately, his underbelly did not sport those nasty six inch spikes that covered his shell. Rosco half tumbled, half rolled to a stop.

Breathing heavily, Bloodskull rose to her feet and faced her opponent. Both combatants sized each other up for a few seconds while they caught their breath. Bloodskull wiped blood from her lip with the edge of her fist. Rosco was bleeding some kind of glow-in-the-dark, look-I’m-really-undead-now goo.

Rosco snapped his lobster claw in quick succession and ran at the ogress. She avoided his first few wild swings while she backed up to give herself space to think. He lunged at her in an ill-advised attempt to skewer her on the point of his claw. She side-stepped him easily, grabbed the claw in both hands and have it a hard wrench. Rosco stared in disbelief as she held up his severed claw in victory.

The destruktir roared. As the unholy sound came out of his mandible, his eyes and mouthparts began to glow. The claw in Bloodskull’s hand disintegrated into dust and blew away. A few seconds later, the bone dust reintegrated to reform the claw at Rosco’s arm stump.

Bloodskull growled. She’d actually read the briefing this time, despite Trollbogies’ doubts on the matter. Neverdeath’s necrotizing process gave guild members the ability to regenerate. This was not unexpected. More like inconvenient.

As he stopped screeching, the glow dissipated. Bloodskull backed up a few paces and then ran at her adversary. Rosco dashed to meet her, but then tucked himself into a spiked ball and began rolling down toward her like a juggernaut. Christine bounded over him at the last second, somersaulted through the air and then twisted herself around at the last second so that she landed facing Rosco’s retreating form. Not wasting a breath, she thundered after him.

Rosco uncoiled and sprang to his feet near the other end of the bridge. He turned around to face Bloodskull just in time to catch her first punch. She hit him once, twice, three times, before he snapped his jaws around her fist. She tried to jerk her hand free, but he had a death grip on her. She was not going to lose to this traitor! Roaring with fury, she drove her fist in further into his mouth repeatedly until Rosco released his grip. With both hands free, she grabbed the front of his shell, hoisted him over her head and attempted to toss him over the rope railing of the bridge.

Rosco disappeared over the edge but the bridge jerked hard, testifying to the fact that he’d managed to get a grip at the last second. She waited where she was, watching for him to re-emerge. The bridge rocked back and forth with his movements underneath. His spider-like legs certainly gave him the advantage in situations like this. At long last, he swung himself back atop Vertigo Bridge. He was more than halfway back across. He used his talon hand to beckon her back into the fight.

Bloodskull wasn’t stupid. She knew he either intended to use that hedgehog move of his again or to lure her out so he could scuttle back under the bridge and attack her at random like some insane game of whack-a-mole. She also knew she couldn’t win the duel by attrition. The Gamelords made very sure that anyone who played things safely or was in any other way boring found a certain game death. The ratings were everything to GameComm and woe to the player who forgot that!

Bloodskull sprinted to meet her foe. As she’d predicted, Rosco curled up like an armadillo and began rolling down the center of the rope bridge toward her. The ogress put the brakes about a fourth of the way across. Grabbing the rope railings in each hamfist, she jerked hard, causing the bridge to sway and bounce. Rosco was once again nearly catapulted off Vertigo Bridge. He only managed to save himself by unfurling and hanging on for dear life.

Bloodskull couldn’t resist mocking his plight a little. “What’s the matter, Rosco? Out of ways to cheat?”

Rosco recovered his composure. “I don’t need to cheat to beat you, Bloodskull. How about you stop dancing and face me like a man?”

“Woman,” she corrected automatically.

He snickered. “Sorry, it’s always hard to tell with ogres.”

Bloodskull scoffed and struck a pose, placing a hand on her hip as she thrust out it out for emphasis. “I think my fan club would disagree. Besides, you should talk, insect. Tell me: are you a girl cockroach or a boy cockroach?” She waved her hand dismissively. “You know what? Who cares, right? All I know is I’m about to scrape you off my boot.”

“Give it your best shot, dude.”

Once again, they ran at each other. Bloodskull lowered herself at the last second and lifted Rosco off the ground. She body slammed him to the bridge. Rosco’s dorsal spikes shattered some of the boards. He caught himself before he slipped completely through. Bloodskull brought her big foot down on his head, forcing him through the breach.

She watched as he plummeted, shrieking in terror and rage. Her grin began to melt when she realized he was glowing again. What new trick did he have up his sleeve now? Rosco was wrapped up in a web of light. Bloodskull groaned. The downside to a world of magic was that anything could happen. Just what exactly was happening was still undetermined. She leaned over the rail to watch his fall, but at some point he disappeared into a layer of clouds below. Was that it? Was the match over? Was that just a teaser that he could return at the Gamelords’ good pleasure at some future event?

“Neverdeath!” Rosco’s shriek came in sync with a loud pop and a blinding flash of light. Her eyes narrowed as she squinted to see her foe through the light. As it dissipated, she realized that Rosco was actually hovering above the bridge. He was flying! The destruktir that stood before her was far different from the one she’d fought just a moment ago. Rosco’s ugly head now sported a much bigger set of mandibles, but he now had a body that was more reminiscent of a dragonfly’s. Its abdomen ended in a long vertebral tail tipped with a nasty-looking ball of spikes.

Bloodskull didn’t know quite what to say at first. This changed the game dramatically. She’d overcome the advantages Rosco’s former body afforded him with ogre cunning and brute strength. Essentially, the game had been one of who could knock whom off the bridge first. Knocking a winged foe off a bridge didn’t exactly have the same effect.

“You know, something’s different about you, but I just can’t put my finger on it,” she quipped.

Rosco swooped in for his first pass. Bloodskull ducked beneath him, felt suffered a bludgeoning blow from Rosco’s dragging tail. It felt like being beaten with a morning star! Rosco banked hard and came back around for another pass. Bloodskull ducked again, but this time, she grabbed his tail before the spiked ball at the end reached her. Unfortunately, Rosco was going much faster than she’d calculated, so he ended up dragging her several yards before she let go.

As she got to her feet, he shrieked again. “Neverdeath!”

She grimaced. He was playing to the unseen crowd, boosting the popularity ratings of himself and his guild. The higher one’s overall ratings, the better one’s chances of success. The Gamelords rewarded winners.

“Dreadknights forever!” she roared back.

Affronted, Rosco began beating his wings faster and faster until even she had trouble staying on her feet. No doubt a human or goblyn would’ve been blown from the bridge long ago.

“That the best you got, bug brain?” she yelled.

Rosco answered her by diving below the bridge and out of sight. He buzzed by her a few seconds later, startling her but not really doing any damage. He flew to the end of the bridge behind her and whipped his tail in her direction. To her surprise, the spiked ball separated from the tip and landed between them.

“Your aim is just… so slaughter, Rosco!”

He cackled. The spiked pod burst open and three tiny destruktirs burst out. The baby destruktirs looked a lot like Rosco did before he got his wings, except their mouths were a whole lot bigger. At first, they began crawling instinctively toward the only meal in sight: Bloodskull. Then Rosco’s eyes began glowing green. The baby destruktirs’ eyes glowed in response. They immediately began chewing on the bridge.

Bloodskull started to run toward them to stop them, but Rosco rose high above and dove down upon her. His jaws snapped inches from her face as he flew past. The bridge jolted as one of the babies managed to sever something important. Rosco dove under the bridge and began bashing himself against the underside, causing Bloodskull to stumble. Two more cords snapped and Bloodskull found herself being pitched over the side of the bridge as it tilted. Somehow she got a handful of rope and managed not to fall into the abyss. Her reprieve was brief. There was only one major cord left, which meant all she could do was hang around until the babies severed it as well. She pulled herself up as high as she could go and wrapped her arm around the ropes of the ruined span. Taking advantage of her precarious situation, Rosco dove at her, mandibles gaping wide. To anyone watching, it was clear he intended to bite her head off.

The destruktir babies severed the last cord.

Bloodskull began fall. Well, swinging actually. Rosco was so close when the bridge snapped that he was actually entangled up in the ropes and swept along. The ogress gritted her teeth as she fell, feeling every bit of the vertigo the bridge promised in name. She felt like she’d left her heart way up there somewhere. She wondered what it would feel like when she hit the side of the cliff the bridge spanned. Would her ogre body survive that kind of impact? Would she just bounce out into the void where the fall to the ground way, way below would definitely give her a game over to remember?

Impossibly, she hit nothing. The span of Vertigo Bridge was actually longer than the height of the floating island it was still attached to. As a result, she passed under it and got entangled in the roots of the giant peach trees above.

Realizing Rosco was still ensnared in the bridge’s rigging, she started climbing toward him. If she didn’t finish him off before he got free, she doubted she’d get the upper hand again. A baby destruktir, the only one to ride out the fall bit her hand, nearly causing her to lose her grip. Gritting her teeth against the pain, she swatted the big mouthed bug off its perch. It squealed as it fell out of sight. Rosco was nearly free by the time she reached him.

But not quite. His spectral eyes seemed to widen as she grabbed hold of the rigging that still held him with one hand and bashed his skull in with the other. He snapped at her desperately with over-sized mandibles, while he got his lobster claw free. He managed to halt the arm that was raining down blows upon him by trapping it between his pincers. Bloodskull leaned in and bit his elbow hard enough to sever it. Rosco began shrieking.

“Oh no you don’t!” Bloodskull said. “This extreme makeover ain’t done yet!” She beat him in the face, until she managed to break off one of his mandibles with one powerful blow. The regenerative shriek stopped as Rosco began choking on the glowing ichor that spilled from his mouth. Desperate to get away, he increased his struggles to free himself, almost bucking Bloodskull off in the process. First he got one wing, then another free. He was shrugging off the last of his bonds when Bloodskull climbed up behind him, wrapped her legs around him and ripped both wings off. Rosco was so stunned at the loss that he lost his grip. Pitching forward, he fell, taking Bloodskull along for the ride.

Bloodskull held on tight to the destruktir’s body as they fell. She glanced upwards longingly, but the floating islands were getting further and further away. Rosco wouldn’t be able to save them because she’d so effectively stopped his ability to regenerate – including his wings! They passed through a layer of cloud, removing the floating islands from view.

As the ground came rushing for them, she realized there was really no escape this time. Neither of them were going to survive this fall. Would they call the duel a draw if that happened?

She wished she could just stop time right now. She wasn’t ready to face everyone back at Platform 161 with this failure. She just wanted a do-over. And lacking that, a big pause button.

Her eyes widened when she realized she had one last chance. With seconds before she hit the ground, she gripped Rosco’s body with her knees and drew back both arms for one last strike. Marshalling every ounce of power her ogress body possessed, she brought both fists slamming onto either side of Rosco’s head, crushing it instantly.

Everything froze just feet away from the ground.

“Game Over!” a voice thundered. “Victory goes to Ogress Bloodskull and the Dreadknights of Outland!”

15 – Tour

Christine Johanssen ended her nodal connection to the sound of rancorous applause. It seemed like everyone on Platform 161 had turned out to offer her congratulations on her victory. Faces she’d never even seen before were wearing shirts with Bloodskull’s face on them. Someone took up the chant of “Bloodskull!” until someone else challenged the cheer by shouting “Dreadknights!” Eventually someone on the other side of the room started shouting “Forever!” immediately after “Dreadknights!” Her fans – her fans! – made a game of it as they carried her along on their shoulders, parading her around like their own personal trophy. She let herself be carried along by the wave of well-wishers and back slappers until Glinda showed up to rescue her from the party crowd. She acted like her mom was a wet blanket but the truth was that she was just exhausted after her duel. All she wanted right now was a hot shower and to sit in front of the vids listening to game commentators talk about her triumph until she drifted off to sleep. And didn’t she deserve it?

Her Aunt Maggie met her at the door. “Well done, niece. You done this family proud out there today.” Her congratulations actually seemed sincere. If anything, she looked… surprised.

“Thank you,” Christine said. “I’m really beat. I think I’m just gonna take a shower and go to bed if that’s OK with everybody else.”

“Well, that’s just the thing,” Maggie said. “You’ve got a whole stack of Vs over there waiting on you. It looks like fan mail and interview requests. I only know that because I read the subject line,” she added quickly. “I didn’t mean to pry.”

Christine bit back a snarky comment. She knew full well that her aunt had no qualms about snooping around in her mail. “Oh. OK, I’ll check those out then.”

“Keegan, heat her up some of those pizza bites she likes and fetch her a bottle of Pure,” Maggie said. Keegan looked absolutely confused by the request, but to his credit he wasn’t fool enough to leave his mother waiting. “She’s got a busy night ahead of her.”

Christine smiled and shook her head. “What’s got into Aunt Maggie?” she hissed into her mother’s ear.

“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, Chrissy,” Glinda said. “The wind always changes back to its preferred course.”

Christine nodded and headed for the coveted family nodal station. Slipping on the visor, she made a connection to her mail. The first one was from someone who claimed to be her biggest fan. She almost ripped the visor off her head when the message came on. Apparently, her biggest fan was a big fat naked guy! Unfortunately, nodal technology made V-mail as immersive as any other virtual reality program. After deleting that particular V with no small amount of satisfaction, she took a moment to toggle the sex filters back on. She knew Keegan was probably the pervert responsible for turning them off.

The next one was from a cute little girl with her face painted red like Bloodskull. Adorable.

The one after that caused her to erupt in an involuntary squeal of delight. “I can’t believe it! It’s an interview request from Level Up! This can’t be real, right? Eddie Mondo wants to interview me. Can you believe it? This is so slaughter!” Honestly, the only thing that could’ve been better would’ve been the chance to be on Arcadium, but a girl couldn’t have all of her dreams come true in one night, right?

Christine continued to sift through the glut of Vs until her mom was forced to manually disconnect her and tuck her into bed. She went to bed with a grin on her face and the wry thought, I’m kind of famous.

~ Ø ~

She almost blew off the Colonial Trials the next day, but then thought better of it. Her aunt had been almost nice last night. Given how much Maggie cared about the Trials, playing hooky would probably set her off. Christine just wasn’t ready to return to their dysfunctional relationship just yet.

When she jacked in, she expected to see the familiar sight of the barracks. That’s where they usually started these missions. Sometimes it was in the middle of a cornfield. She was surprised to find herself standing in the street of a medieval village. An armored soldier stood by the gate of the walled village. He casually saluted her when he noticed her stare. Davis was nowhere in sight.

Instead, she saw farmers and merchants bustling along the cobbled streets on their various errands. There were horses and cattle hauling cart loads of hay, produce and wine barrels. A driver rode by on the shoulders of a lumbering rabdil, likely heading for the market pens. Rabdils were a genetically created species. They looked something like giant rabbits with long loppish ears, trunk-like feet and an armadillo’s plates and scales. Despite their elephantine size, they were basically big sheep. Rabdil meat was a common staple for the known universe, but the villagers mainly prized the lumbering brutes for their ability to produce rich fertilizer for the crops.

“What’s all this?” she asked, knowing Davis had to be monitoring her comms.

“This is what you’ve been training to protect,” he said. “If you complete the Trials, you’ll work in the fields, but this will be your home. This is Drackenwold.”

“I’ll be living here?” she asked. “I thought –”

“You’d been living on one of the farm communes?” Davis laughed. “You’re training to be a soldier, not a farmer, Christine. The barracks will be your home, but this is where you’ll buy your food, shop for clothes, go to church, all that.”

Christine took a moment to breathe it in. A bell began ringing. She tensed and reached for her weapon.

“Relax,” Davis said. “This isn’t a drill. Everything’s fine. It’s Sunday. They ring the bell to let folks know church services are about to begin.”

She relaxed. Exhaled.

“So no devilpedes today? No batwogs?”

“Hopefully not. By the way, I’m coming up on your left.”

She turned to see a handsome young man with sandy brown hair and a roguish grin. She was used to seeing Davis in his combat gear, but today he was dressed in ornamental leather armor. The tunic he wore over his clothes identified him as a member of the House of Dunwich. An emblem affixed upon his breast let everyone know he was one of the officers of the guard. She snorted.

“What’s so funny?” he asked, straightening his tunic self-consciously.

“You scrub up nicely.”

“Thank you,” he said, bowing from the neck.

“OK, so what’s on the agenda today?”

“Right. It has come to my attention that you have not taken advantage of the Trial’s initiation tour.”

She shrugged. “I didn’t see the point. I’m more of a jump in and discover it for myself kind of girl.” She flashed a quick grin.

“The point is to know what it is you’re fighting for.”

“And what is that?”

He shook his head. “Look around. These people look like Impworld non-player characters, but they’re very, very real. Their old lives may as well be a universe away. This world with its giant vegetables and hostile alien life forms is their new home. Our job is to protect them so that they can pass on a legacy to their children.”

“That was very poetic,” she said, “but there’s one little problem with your presentation: this is a simulation. These people aren’t really here. It’s a nodal walkthrough of a world I’ve never set foot on and people I’ve never met, people who probably don’t even actually exist.”

He opened his mouth to protest. She cut him off. “Don’t patronize me. I know how real a GameComm simulation can seem. I’m not stupid.”

He started chuckling.

Her brow furrowed. Was he mocking her? “What’s so funny?”

“I assure you this is all very real. This may be GameComm’s gameworld, but the people you see here in Drackenwold are as real as they come. They aren’t non-player characters; this is their life. They eat here, sleep here, work here, go shop at those stores, go to worship at that church –”

“So how does that work? Is it like a part of the job? Are a certain percentage of the Colonists required to go?”

“He raised an eyebrow. “I don’t understand.”

“Church,” she said. “I mean, does anybody still do that?”

He sighed and gave her a look that made it obvious he was humoring her. “I go to church. No one forces me to.”

“Do they pay you to?” she asked with just a hint of a smirk.

He scoffed. “You’re improbable.”

“You mean impossible.”

“No, you’re real enough.”

“OK, but seriously, what’s the appeal?”

He shrugged. “It’s a God thing.”

She laughed. “So let me get this straight: you live on an alien world and you actually still believe in God?”

“You don’t?”

She shook her head. “I dunno. I mean, sometimes, but not like from any particular religion. My mom’s a Christian, but I just don’t see how you can believe the Bible now that we’ve discovered alien worlds.”

“I don’t follow.”

“Well, doesn’t the Bible say that Earth is special or something?”

“It does. God created man in his own image on Earth. Christ came to die for man on Earth. I think that makes it pretty special.”

“So how can there be life on other planets?”

Davis grinned and shook his head. “This conversation is heading into deeper water than I intended to sail today.” He ran his fingers through his sandy hair. “OK. First of all, the Bible doesn’t say anything about extraterrestrial life.” When she started to protest, he held up his hands and quickly added, “Yes, I know there have been Shepherds who said that it did, but it doesn’t. The Bible simply concerns itself with Earth.”

“No, no. I distinctly remember hearing a shepherd say that exosapiens are impossible because that would mean that Jesus would have to be born and die on all those different planets to save them and the Bible says He died ‘once for all.’”

“I wouldn’t say impossible. More like improbable.”

“You keep using that word.”

“Christine, who says the aliens even need saving?” Davis asked. “Think about it: Tarak is the first place we’ve ever discovered anything even remotely interesting. So far as we know, the most intelligent thing on this planet are the dru,” he said with a conspiratorial wink, “and I’m pretty sure Jesus doesn’t have to come all the way to Tarak to save a bunch of space ants.”

She laughed. “OK, I guess you’ve got a point.”

“It’s been known to happen. You should give me and God the benefit of the doubt. Anyway, I have a treat for you today.”

She raised an eyebrow. “What is it?”

“Given your celebrity status, the powers that be – I believe you call them the Gamelords – have granted you full disclosure.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You’ll see. Initiate protocol Alpha Romeo Golf Uniform Sierra.” He smiled at Christine. “Time to take a look behind the curtain, Dorothy Gale.”

“You’re so weird.”

“You like me,” he said. “Now look at your hands.”

She was too curious not to humor him. To her surprise, she found herself looking at a pair of robotic arms. “What is this?”

“This is what you look like to me and everyone else here on Tarak,” he said. “You are remote piloting a training drone. They’re not as sophisticated as the biological robots ERL has designed for the Game itself, but these utilitarian throwbacks get the job done. Plus, they’re cheap to replace when one of our trainees gets one damaged by a devilpede or whatever.”

Her head still swimming from this new information, Christine started looking around with new eyes. Some of the other villagers of Drackenwold had also been replaced by training drones.

“So all these drones are being piloted by people who think they’re running the Colonial Trials simulation back on Terra Prime?”

“Exactly. We used to have waves of new arrivals and that, frankly, was a big ol’ mess. The Gamelords have found that it interrupts the flow of Colonial life less if we introduce new Colonists as sims and then seamlessly replace them with their live counterparts at some point. And, by the way, the Colonists have no real idea you guys are robots either.”

“So what do they see?”

“Holograms,” he said. “The whole thing is nanite-driven. Trust me: it looks very real. It’s the same tech they plan on using to pull off a lot of the magic in the live game.”

“Makes sense, I guess.” She’d been wondering how they were going to make the magic of Impworld happen in a live setting. Now that she knew, she couldn’t wait to see it in person!

“Only a few select trainees know the truth,” he said, “so don’t go blabbing around about it.”

She looked at Davis like he’d grown a second head. “Who’d believe me? I’m not sure I really believe it!”

“I’m sure it takes some getting used to,” he said with a wry grin.

“Why are you showing me this?”

“That’s a very good question,” he said. “It has a lot to do with your recent celebrity status. Good job fragging Rosco by the way. Harley told me to tell you that you might want to give yourself a little bit more wiggle room next time though.”

She laughed. “That was pretty close. If it hadn’t been a guild match, I would’ve bought the farm. Game over.” She blinked. “Wait. So your brother took the time out to watch that match? I’m flattered.”

He scoffed. “I think everyone in the Verse was watching that match, but make no mistake: Harley’s a big fan of yours. He tells me he even sent you a V after your big win to congratulate you, one gamer to another.”

Christine’s face flushed with equal parts pride and embarrassment. “Really? I don’t remember getting that.”

He shrugged and smiled. “That’s what he told me. I bet it’s in your spam.”

She groaned.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. I’ve just got way more mail than I ever thought imaginable over the past few days and most of it is just plain spam!”

“Ugh. I totally understand. All of this scientific progress and we still haven’t eliminated the common cold or spam, right?” He laughed. “Still, you might want to check for it anyway. My brother has the inside track on a lot of stuff and he said he had something for you.

“I’ll look for it, but I gotta warn you that I’ve started getting a lot more Vs over the past several days.” She beamed at the thought of being able to post actual fan mail from Baldur Splintershield’s player on her nodal wall of fame. “Nevertheless, I give you and your brother my solemn oath that I will give it my best effort.” She saluted for emphasis.

He laughed as he returned the salute. “Then it’s in the bag. By the way,” he said, “I thought about what you said before about disguising our militia here as elves. I took it to my superiors.”

“Really?” she asked. “What did they say?”

He sighed. “Unfortunately, GameComm says that elves are a no-go for this area. Apparently, it would be strange to find a lot of elves where we’re supposed to located.”

“Where is that exactly?”

“Uzzial,” he said.

Her eyes widened. “What??” She looked at the corn forest with new eyes. In the game, Uzzial was filled with wide open plains and guarded by mystical knights on horseback. She knew that the Magewar had made some major changes, but she didn’t know Uzzial was one of the affected areas. “That’s just messed up.”

He held his hands up in surrender. “Don’t blame me. I just work here. Anyway, they’re just going to have to work the game around it because Uzzial is now one of the major breadbaskets of Tarak.”

Christine shook her head and breathed, “Edger’s dice.” A mental image of the mystical Magnus Centarii thundering through cornfields made her laugh.

“What’s so funny?” Davis asked.

“Sorry. I was just imagining… Wait. What about the Magnus Centarii?”

“What about them?”

“What if we posed as Magnus Centarii instead of elves?” she asked. “Think about it. They’re mystic knights, so that would give us some extra tools to play with. Plus they use power lances which would have to be a whole lot more effective on a devilpede than a steel sword.”

He grinned at her enthusiasm. “We thought about that but devilpedes seem to have a real taste for horseflesh. You can’t have the Magnus Centarii without their noble steeds.”

“Yeah, but now they’re Magnus Centarii in a world of fairy tale sized vegetables. Who says they have to keep riding horses? What if they adapted to their new environment by, I dunno, riding giant dragonflies or grasshoppers or spiders or something?”

Davis scoffed. “You know, I’ll run that by my superiors. That might just work. You have a real knack for this. You’re going to fit in just fine.” His expression grew more serious. “Right. Here’s the thing. You’ve still got one match left and, well, I – that is, GameComm doesn’t want to lose you.”

She stuck out her chin. “They’re not going to. The Dreads are going to win the Guild Wars. I’ll make sure of it.”

“No one doubts your gaming skills, but they wanted me to talk to you about the other option.”

“What do you mean? Wait. Are they seriously asking me to choose between Ogress Bloodskull and a life of chasing furrybites out of cornfields?” she asked. She waved to the horizon for emphasis. Despite its gameworld appearance, there was no denying that Drackenwold was surrounded on all sides by an immense forest of gargantuan corn. “Not happening. Besides which, I’ve read the fine print. You may not know this, but my mom is the local heavy of the Human Workers of America. We know what these Colonists really are.”

Davis scoffed. “Here we go. And what is that exactly?”

Christine hesitated. For the first time since she’d met him, he looked genuinely angry. Still, she was her mother’s daughter. She wasn’t about to back down to anyone when she knew she was right. “They’re slaves… with no rights! Like medieval serfs.”

He sighed. “With respect to your mother, Christine, the adults are indentured servants, just like a lot of the folks who colonized the Americas. They work the land in exchange for passage to Tarak, but their children are Freeborn citizens. In fact, you see that guy over there?” he asked, pointing to a farmer talking to another man over a cup of coffee. “That’s Silas Hawkins. Works the Eastern Fields. Comes in town once a month for supplies and to trade gossip with his cronies. Has a son named Marty or Murray… I forget, but it’s something like that. Point is: his kid’s a Freeborn. He’s given his kid the opportunity to be whatever he wants to be. He can be a farmer, a merchant. He can even join the game if he likes. The sky’s the limit.”

“And what about Silas himself?” Christine asked pointedly.

“His dad signed the contract. He’s a Colonist for life, but we’re not exactly building the pyramids here. He’s got a good life.”

“Yeah. No thanks.”

“Hold on a second. What is this? You knew this when you started the Trials. What’s going on?”

“My family made me do the Trials,” she said.

He took a step back, “I didn’t realize that. OK, I get where you’re coming from now, but how is this life any worse than working for the Megacorporations on Earth? At least here, the air is clear and you can actually walk three feet in any direction without running into someone else. It’s a better life, Christine.”

“Yeah. Maybe.”

“Besides, you wouldn’t be in it for the long haul if you didn’t want to. You were a minor when the Trials began, so, while you’ll be eighteen when you sign the contract, you’re subject to the St. Christopher’s clause.”

“What’s that?”

He grinned anew. “Let me guess: you skimmed the contract.”

She cringed. “It was really long.”

“It basically means, you do your tour of duty and then you become a Freeborn. Just like I did.”

“You’re a Freeborn? Then why are you working as an over-glorified guard dog for the local farm co-op?” The words came out a lot meaner than she intended.

“Because I like it here, Christine. I like the people. I like the job. This is a great life, Christine. You just need to give it a chance.”

Christine looked into his eyes. She saw sincerity and something almost wistful. But she didn’t know if she was ready to just give up on her dream. “Let me be perfectly honest here. I’m going to win the Guild Wars. I’m coming here as Bloodskull and that’s final.

“For the record, I think that would be awesome, but the Gamelords wanted me to let you know that even if you don’t make it as Bloodskull, they want you here on Tarak. You’ve definitely proven yourself, both on the field and, well, in the field.”

She smirked. “That was corny.”

“Pots and kettles, Johanssen. Anyway, they just wanted you to know that even if the Dreads don’t win the Guild Wars, you still have a place on Tarak.”

Her eyes widened. “Wait! Does that mean I’m in?”

He nodded.

She leapt into his arms and hugged him fiercely. It immediately felt weird. On several counts. In the first place, the awareness that he was on an alien world hugging a robot was just… Stranger still was the epiphany that she really, really liked Davis. She pushed away.

She cleared her throat. “You know, it’s funny. The only reason I’m here today is because I needed a distraction.”

“I don’t follow.”

“I have a big interview with Eddie Mondo tomorrow and I thought kicking back with you would get my mind off it,” she said.

“Ogress Bloodskull? Nervous? That’s rich!”

She hit him playfully. “It’s not funny!”

“Sorry. So you needed a distraction. You’re sure that’s the only reason?” he asked.

“Maybe.”

“Then a distraction you shall have,” Davis said, proffering his hand. Giving it his best stage voice, he added, “Allow me to give you the grand tour of the splendor that is Drackenwold!”

She took his hand and laughed.

“Excellent choice, milady,” he said. “And it is no coincidence that I have chosen today for this auspicious tour.”

“Oh? Why is that?”

“Today, a travelling carnival has pitched its colors on the Green. Good food and lousy ale. Man-powered rides. Fortune tellers of questionable pedigree. Exhibitions of strength, skill and agility. Jugglers and fire eaters. I hear they even have a hot air balloon.”

“Oh, no, no. No balloon rides,” she said, waving a finger. “I’m not crazy about heights.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Is this the same Ogress Bloodskull who took out an opponent at Vertigo Bridge in free fall?”

She smiled sheepishly. “Don’t tell anyone, but there is a world of difference between Ogress Bloodskull and Christine Johanssen.”

“I will take that under advisement,” Davis said.

“Speaking of which, can we get rid of the robot. It’s a little weird.”

He nodded and spoke the command to return Christine’s view of the world back to the charade it was meant to be. She spent the rest of the day enjoying the carnival and Davis’ company.

16 – Jones

She found it difficult to sleep that night. Her interview with Eddie Mondo loomed in her mind like the promise of Christmas morning. Though she wasn’t as well rested as she would’ve liked, Christine determined to get herself in the proper frame of mind for the interview.

First, she checked the news to see if they were plugging her spot yet. She was pleased to hear her character’s Level Up interview being advertised liberally on the vids. As far as she could tell, the only news items getting more airtime was the announcement that Copper Gallows had escaped the Garden of Stone labyrinth alive and that Auric Lothario was now implicated in some sort of scandal involving his character’s levels. Despite the fact that the Golden Gears had been disqualified from Guild Wars, Goldenboy came out clean in the rezz scandal and was still in the running to qualify as one of the Champions of the Impworld Finals. Except now, folks were saying that his character’s levels were set higher than they should’ve been at the start, giving him an unfair headstart in the competition. Some were already saying he should be disqualified as a cheater along with his guild. Both Copper and Goldenboy were represented by Wayne Entertainment, so critics were already speculating on whether the scandal and Goldenboy’s predicted disqualification would affect Copper’s popularity points enough to rob him of the chance of making it to Tarak himself.

Even this news was quickly eclipsed by the announcement that Jarrod Seventhborn had returned from his mysterious absence to make a bid for the Impworld Finals. Jarrod was something of a legend in the game. He was also a walking, breathing Murphy’s Law. They didn’t call him the Luckbane for no reason. Most people had a hard time surviving Jarrod’s abominable luck; in fact, many gamers weren’t sure how he had managed to survive it himself! Nevertheless, Luckbane had risen through the ranks of Impworld’s players to become one of its elite. He was part of the original White Hand, a group of veteran players who teamed up because no one else seemed to be able to survive the level of difficulty required to keep them challenged. Then, quite without warning and certainly without explanation, Jarrod dropped out of the game. No one knew why. Or else they weren’t saying. Still even in his absence, Jarrod’s channel had remained one of the most-viewed player hubs, so his rather quiet return did not go unnoticed. Everyone was talking about it and the gamer shows filled with sensational speculations as to what Jarrod would do to make it into the Finals and whether this marked the return of the White Hand.

Her morning took an unexpected turn when Christine got a summons from her new boss marked urgent. Oddly, it was time stamped for the day before. How had she missed that?

Knowing she’d better not put it off, she accepted his nodal summons. A few seconds later, she found herself in the virtual office of the late Oscar Diggs.

Mr. Diggs was dead.

She’d kind of put that fact out of her mind lately, but now that she was sitting in his virtual office, it was hard not to think about it. Nothing had changed. The aquarium with the creepy little trilobite. The anachronistic bookcase behind the dark-stained wooden desk. The swords, pistols and models of wooden sailing vessels in their display cases. The quaint flag from the old United States on his desk next to the brass nameplate. When the Megacorporations took over, only Israel and Switzerland managed to keep their national identity. The territory once controlled by old Union was now part of the territories owned by the American Cooperative, aka AmeriCo. The Co-op was also called the West because they managed the western hemisphere of the Earth. The rest of the planet was divided amongst Imperial AsiaCorp, the Islamic Confederacy and the European Union. The fifth Megacorporation was Mars Colonies but all of their holdings were, well, off planet.

The fact that her boss’ office hadn’t changed a bit was weird bordering on morbid because the entire setting was virtual. Usually a new boss came with a brand new office, even if a temp took over. It was all nodal, after all; it wasn’t like there was any real furniture to move around. Mr. Jones hadn’t even changed Mr. Diggs’s nameplate.

She glanced at the clock on the wall. Mr. Jones was late.

She sighed. The trilobite sloshed around in its aquarium. Thank heavens that bug-eyed thing wasn’t real.

Fifteen minutes passed. Christine was about to disconnect the meeting when Jones entered the room through a side door. He walked straight to the desk. As he removed his shimmering jacket and laid it over the back of his chair, she noticed that he was thin, but obviously fit under his designer shirt. If this was really him anyway. You could look any way you wished when you were jacked in to the system.

“You’re late,” he said as he sat down. She didn’t like the way he stared directly into her eyes. It was a flat, expressionless stare that reminded her the way the sharks in the tank looked at her.

She frowned. Glanced at the clock again. “No, you are.”

He followed her gaze. He scoffed. “You got my V?”

She nodded.

“The clock says I’m late, but what you need is a calendar. I called this meeting yesterday.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t see it until today. I’ve been getting a lot of Vmails lately.”

He smiled tightly. “Fan mail, no doubt. Since you’re here…” He stopped smiling. “You’ve missed a lot of work. Where were you?”

She smiled in what she hoped was a charming manner. She remembered her mother’s rule of thumb for dealing with corporate: Give away as little as possible. “I had to take some personal time.”

“So in your personal opinion, is losing a guild match a good reason to knock off work?”

“I have unused days to cover my absence.” She repeated her mother’s answer by rote, but she was starting to sweat. Mr. Diggs had been a fan of hers. He never would’ve talked to her like this.

“I see. I will assume that since your mother is the local union heavy that you’ve dotted your i’s and crossed your t’s then. When did you discover that Mr. Diggs was dead?” he asked. “While you were holed up in your quarters feeling sorry for yourself or after?”

“After. My mom just told me yesterday.” She cringed and did her best to look apologetic. It wasn’t difficult. Jones was easily the most intimidating person she’d ever met.

“Have they told you how he died?”

“Mom said he was mugged.”

“That’s what we’re telling everyone.”

“Is that not what happened?”

“They took his head. Does that sound like a mugging to you?”

“His head? What do you mean they took his head?”

“They took it off –” He made a slicing motion across his neck with his finger” – and then they took it away. I’ve no idea where. They could’ve tossed into the ocean for all I know, though I have reason to doubt that.”

“Why would they do that?”

Jones made a dismissive gesture. He looked around and nodded toward a model pirate ship. “‘Dead men tell no tales,’ as they say, but their nodal implants sometimes leave residual traces of data. My guess is that whoever killed him didn’t want to take any chances.” He shrugged. “Unless they were just psychopaths. Could be both.”

Christine was starting to feel sick. “I don’t think I want to talk about this anymore.”

“Yes. You’re certainly looking a bit green around the edges.” He sighed and looked around the desk, as if searching for an answer that as yet eluded him. “Back to you then. Your superiors have decided to grant you a bit of grace based on your age and situation. Sudden tragedy can make shipwreck of even the most solid citizens. And you’re still a minor, so a fair bit of drama has to be taken into account at your particular stage of immaturity, right?”

Christine was sure she should be offended at his remarks, but at present she was just busy concentrating on not throwing up.

Jones ignored her obvious discomfort and glanced at one of models on Mr. Diggs’s desk. He frowned and bent down to read the inscription on the model’s base. “The Queen Anne’s Revenge. Blackbeard’s ship. Are you familiar with the exploits of William Teach?”

“The generation ship? Sure, that’s the one that discovered Tarak,” she said.

He shook his head and rolled his eyes. “I meant the person that vessel was named for. William Teach was a pirate.” He made a point of scrutinizing the other model ships. “Whydah. Fancy. Royal Fortune. Adventure Galley. They’re all pirate ships. Did you now Mr. Diggs was interested in pirates?”

“Um, no,” she said, shaking her head.

“You just thought he was into old ships,” he said.

“I actually thought he was into wood,” she said.

“Wood?”

She glanced around the room. “Paper books. Wooden ships. A big wooden desk.” She took a deep breath. “Look, I have to ask: why are we in Mr. Diggs’s office at all? I mean, isn’t this a little disrespectful? The man is dead.”

Jones looked around the room again. “I just thought that seeing you in this setting might answer a few questions for me. What did Mr. Diggs see in you exactly?” Jones asked.

Her brow furrowed. What was this guy’s problem?

“I don’t mean it like that,” Mr. Jones said. “You seem personable enough. You just don’t seem to have much in common, but his office logs show that he spent more time with you than any other employee.”

She scoffed. “Well, he was a fan.”

“Of what?”

She frowned, trying to decide whether he was serious. “Guild Wars.”

“He was a fan of Guild Wars or you?”

She blushed. “I don’t – maybe a little of both. He’s the one who talked me into getting back into the game.”

Jones raised an eyebrow. “Really? That sounds like a story. How did that come about?”

“We were discussing my old exploits in Doomsmack,” she said, “and he just asked me if I’d ever considered tossing my hat back into the ring. I’d been playing the Prometheus Initiative, but it’d been a while, so I told him, yeah, I’d do it if someone would sign me.”

“I’ve seen you play,” Jones said. “Why did you think no one would sign you?”

“Well, think about it. The Finals were already underway. Lots of people were trying to get in as replacements. I’d been on hiatus and… well, look at what they’re saying about Luckbane. He’s so much better than I am but he took a break, just like me. Nobody really knows why he dropped out, but he’s probably the best player in the game. Even so, now that he’s back people are already talking about how crazy he is for thinking he can get a spot in the Finals.”

“Does he have a chance?”

“Maybe. If anyone can pull it off, he can.”

“So how did you managed to get signed by the Dreadknights?” Jones asked.

“Mr. Diggs convinced me to take a stab at the Tower of Perpetual Peril to see if I still had what it takes.”

“What’s that?”

She scoffed. “I thought everybody knew about the Tower.”

He shook his head.

“It’s an unwinnable level. Your game death doesn’t count against you because it’s just a testing ground,” she said. “Gamers run the Tower for bragging rights. You know, to see how far you can get versus the other guys. Like the gauntlets some thieves’ rings run to test their members. I don’t think anyone’s ever made it to the top.”

“No one?”

She shook her head. “Nope. There’s supposed to be something really cool at the top, too. Anyway, I did a lot better than I thought I would. Really good, in fact.”

“How good is really good?”

“I got within the top five floors.” She couldn’t help grinning proudly. “It was crazy. The Tower just kept throwing all this stuff at me, but I was in the zone, you know. But like I said, no one beats the Tower. I got fragged by a mirror monster.” She shrugged and grinned. “Anyway, I guess word got around because next thing I know Trollbogies is sending me an invitation to sign with the Dreads. The rest is history.”

Jones stared at her for a moment, until she started to grow uncomfortable again. The guy was seriously creepy.

“Did you and Mr. Diggs discuss Guild Wars often?” he asked at last.

“I guess. I mean, we talked about work, but we really didn’t have anything else in common. So, yeah, I suppose so.”

“Were you two friends?”

“I don’t know. Kind of.”

“Kind of?”

“Like I said, he was more of a fan, I guess.”

“He was a gambler. Did you know that?”

“Um, no,” she said. “Well, he did say he had a lot of money riding on the Gears match.”

“The Guild Wars match you played before he died.”

She hesitated. It was almost starting to sound like Jones thought she had something to do with Oscar’s death. “Y-yes, but that’s the only time he ever said anything like that. Again, I just thought he was a fan. Isn’t that something game fans do?”

Mr. Jones sighed. “Actually, I’m starting to think he saw you as more of an investment than a fan. Tell me, have you received any strange Vmails from the late Mr. Diggs?”

“Um, no.”

He considered her for a moment and then nodded. “I see. In that case, you may see yourself out.”

17 – Level Up

In the hours leading up to the interview Christine’s excitement slowly but surely transformed itself into paralyzing fear. All she could think about were the zillion ways she could screw it up. In front of billions of people. Level Up was one of the universe’s most popular game commentary shows. It was the type of high-level exposure that could make or break a player… something Trollbogies had been drilling into her head for the past twenty minutes as they waited in the Dreadknights’ virtual guild hall. Christine was still considered a minor at seventeen, so she had to be accompanied by either her mother or her guildmaster during official GameComm-related interviews.

“Before we get in there, you should know that getting an interview with Eddie Mondo is like having a dragon by the tail,” Trollbogies warned. “It can be a fun ride, but he’s been known to get hungry. He may act like a maniac, but he’s as shrewd as they come. Don’t let him get the scent of blood.”

“What do you mean?”

“It means that Eddie is a genius, but he has a nose for drama.” She smiled. “You know what? I’m probably just being a paranoid old woman. Just follow my lead and have fun, OK?”

Christine nodded.

At long last, the scene changed and they found themselves on the set of Level Up. The familiar faces of Eddie Mondo and Circe Maximus appeared at the other end of a short table. The wall behind them displayed the show’s familiar set design.

“OK, so, hi, I’m Eddie Mondo,” Eddie said, shaking her hand. Eddie was one of those game commentators who played a character, which was a pretty good strategy if you wanted to be able to do interviews within the game itself. GameComm wouldn’t let you do that sort of thing in realworld clothes, but a froggish hobgoblyn like Eddie was always welcome. Circe Maximum was also in character, dressed in her scandalous gladiator-slash-magus outfit. Professionally speaking, Christine didn’t find her outfit to be all that practical for combat.

“Ogress Bloodskull,” she replied. “I’m a big fan of the show.”

“Oh, I just love her,” Eddie said. “Not what I expected at all from your livecasts. This… this is even better. Tell me you’re wearing ruby slippers. You are, aren’t you? In your heart I mean.”

Christine raised an eyebrow. “I don’t understand.”

“It’s probably best not to. Master Trollbogies,” her guildmaster said as she took Eddie’s hand in turn.

“Oh please,” Eddie said. “Don’t act like we’re not old friends, Olivia. How’ve you been lately? Still in remission I hope.”

Trollbogies smiled tightly. “That’s off the record, Eddie, but yes. Speaking of which, I need to remind you, legally speaking, that Christine is a minor, so her personal life is also off-limits.”

“Ouch!” Eddie said, raising his hands in mock surrender.

“He’s teasing you,” Circe said. “Can we try to be professionals today, Eddie?”

“What? We’re old friends? Are you all formal and professional with your friends?” He scoffed and placed his hand to his mouth, adding in a conspiratorial whisper, “She’s actually much cooler off the clock.”

“I heard that Eddie,” Circe said. She turned to Trollbogies with a very professional smile. “This will be a short interview. Luckbane’s return has forced us to change up our agenda today. Having said that, we are very interested in hearing about your take on the Dreadknights’ chances of winning Guild Wars. Eddie’s been teasing it all week, so we expect a good show in the ratings.”

“So a standard buzz slot with no surprises,” Trollbogies said, looking at Eddie. “I like it.”

“What’s a show without a few surprises?” Eddie asked with a grin. “Me? I love surprises. And so does everyone else. Just look at the way people are reacting to the return of Jarrod Seventhborn.” He waved his arms dramatically. “Just as mysteriously as he vanished, Luckbane is back and ready to make his bid for the Impworld Finals! He’s terribly behind, of course. No idea how he intends to pull it off and that… that is what has people everywhere talking.” He took a breath, beaming widely, his chest heaving. Then he blinked as if something disturbing had just crossed his mind. He waved his hand as if to brush it away. “Anyway, Rogar Thunderhammer will be joining us right after your segment to talk about what he and Jarrod might have in mind. It’ll be so slaughter.” He was so pleased with himself that he began purring. “Say, I have any idea. Why don’t you two join me as a guest panel for that segment?”

Circe frowned. “Our itinerary is already pretty well stuffed. I’m not sure that’s –”

“Oh, stuff yourself!” Eddie snapped. “I swear if you didn’t fill out that outfit so well, I’d find another co-host yesterday. We can’t live our lives by tight schedules and programs and professional protocols. That’s not how you run an award-winning, uber popular gamer commentary show like Level Up! You have to adapt with the flow of the game and the game is always changing, Circe!”

Circe sighed and looked at him with the expression a teacher gives a naughty preschooler. “You can’t fire me,” she said. “This is what the board wants. Only they can fire me.”

“Well, this is what Eddie Mondo wants! I built this show from nothing! I don’t need a handler!”

Christine looked at Trollbogies, not really sure how to react. The troll rolled his eyes and shook his shaggy head.

“You really want this?” Circe asked.

The hobgoblyn stared at her, eyes bulging.

“Are you holding your breath?” she asked. “OK, fine. Would you two like to stay for the Luckbane segment?”

Christine looked at Trollbogies. Trollbogies shrugged.

“I’d love to meet Rogar,” Christine said, not bothering to cover her excitement.

“OK then!” Eddie said. “Let’s do this!”

“We have still have two minutes,” Circe said.

“Oh for crying out loud!” Eddie Mondo yelled.

Two minutes later, the well-known musical theme of Level Up sounded the beginning of the show and an end to Eddie’s bouncing leg under the table.

“Hello, I’m Eddie Mondo!” their host crowed.

“And I’m Circe Maximus.”

“And it’s time to Level Up! Today’s show will rock your socks off! Not only do we have the rising star of the Dreadknights of Outland!” He paused for a boisterous interruption of canned applause. “Yeah! Yeah! Right? Ogress Bloodskull is here! And that’s not all. Everybody’s talking about it. What am I talking about? What everybody else is talking about, of course: the return of Jarrod Seventhborn. The Luckbane. And we’re not just talking to anyone about this. Oh no! We’re gonna talk with his long time bestie, Rogar Thunderhammer about what they’ve got in store!”

More canned applause.

“So stay glued to this station. Put everything else on pre-record,” Circe said, beaming, “because now is the time to Level Up! And remember, when you need to Level Up at home, at school, at work, wherever, grab yourself a bottle of Pure! Shouldn’t the water you drink be Pure?”

“Our first guest has seen her share of attention in this year’s Guild Wars. Have you been keeping up with Guild Wars, Circe?” Eddie asked.

She nodded. “You can’t keep me away! So, so much is riding on the Guild Wars finals this year. The guild who wins, not only gets the crown and the glory, but a chance to play their characters live and in-person on Tarak.”

“ There’s a lot of good guilds battling for supremacy, but the Dreadknights of Outland have been really getting everyone’s attention in the past couple weeks. The team’s always been strong. It’s one of the few guilds that can boast over 40% of its original roster,” Eddie Mondo said, “and I happen to know that a good bit of their success as a team falls to the fact that they have a strong guildmaster. Please welcome to the show, a good friend of mine, Master Trollbogies of the Dreadknights of Outland!”

More canned applause. Christine had always assumed there was an actual audience making such noise when she watched the show nodally. In fact, you had the option of viewing the show as if you were sitting in the studio audience. Apparently a good portion of these shows were just smoke and mirrors.

Trollbogies stroked his long beard and grinned savagely as he waved to the non-existent audience. Christine was forced to stifle a laugh at the thought of Olivia Ziegler with a trollish beard. Trollbogies shot her a warning glance.

“You must be pretty happy with how the Dreads are positioned this year,” Eddie said.

“Doomsmack is the only guild that stands in our way. They’re an all-ogre crew. They’re gonna be tough to beat, but the Dreadknights are ready.”

“Well spoken,” Eddie said. “Our other guest during this segment is Ogress Bloodskull!” Christine dutifully waved to the viewers during the canned applause.

“Wow!” Eddie said, sizing her up. “You’ve really put a beating on the competition since you joined the Dreads. You were responsible for half of the kills during your match with the Golden Gears. I have to admit, that is impressive, especially after just coming back from hiatus like that.”

“Um, thank you,” she said.

“No need to be demure, although I do find that quite charming. You did your guild proud! I’ll be honest, until you decided to run the flag, I thought the Gears had you guys. Then you came along like gangbusters and you just would not stop! No matter what they threw at you. Kamizooki. Ninjeremy. Tank. Billhilly Bullroar. Sir Equinoxious the Bloody. What do you have to say for yourself?”

“To be fair, everyone was kind of after me because we ran the flag. Killmore managed to get two in. Tauvek got another.”

“And Goldenboy got one for us too,” Trollbogies said, laughing.

“Right!” their hobgoblyn host said, slapping his knee. “A good showing by the Dreads overall. No doubt about it. But if you keep up at this rate, do you think it’s possible that you might eclipse Killmore’s guild record?”

Trollbogies frowned.

“I’ve only been with the Dreadknights a little while, but I can tell you this,” Christine said. “We constantly push each other, sharpen each other, make each other better.”

“What she’s saying is that Killmore can hold his own,” Trollbogies said.

“We’re a team. He had my back when we fought Raiden Tesla and there again in the Fire Fields when Auric and his boys had me surrounded. I wouldn’t even be talking to you if he hadn’t,” Christine said.

“Well spoken,” Eddie said. His smile did not quite reach his eyes.

“So what do you think your chances are against Doomsmack?” Circe asked.

Trollbogies scoffed. “I think we’re going to crush –”

“Did you go through some sort of special training during your hiatus, Bloodskull?” Eddie asked.

“Um, what?”

“As I understand it, you were a former member of Doomsmack. Is that right?”

Christine nodded. “I was.”

“But you left Guild Wars for a while to play the Prometheus Initiative and only returned recently. Do you think your cross platform experience has improved your gaming skills overall?”

Christine shrugged. “Maybe. Playing another game does force you to approach things differently. I played an electrokinetic in the Prometheus Initiative. It’s a totally different skill set, but fun in its own way.”

“But how did you keep from losing your edge as an ogre warrior? Did you always intend to return to Guild Wars?” Eddie asked.

“I dunno. When I quit Doomsmack, I just needed a break I guess. As for the Prometheus Initiative, I enjoyed playing Wacky Jackie but my heart is in Impworld. Trollbogies picked up my free agent bid. The rest is history.” She paused and looked him in the eye. “As far as losing my edge as Ogress Bloodskull, I don’t think that’s possible. When I’m Bloodskull, I’m who I’m meant to be. I dunno. Something just clicks. Besides I wasn’t gone that long and it’s not like I wasn’t playing somewhere in the GameComm multiverse, right? I think the guys who lose their edge are the guys who quit altogether.”

“So what about Luckbane then? Do you think he’s lost his edge? Is this a pipe dream he’s asking us to believe in, the idea that he could just come back at the eleventh hour and seize his place in the Impworld Finals?”

“With all due respect, Jarrod Seventhborn is an Epic level player. Jarrod and his pals formed the White Hand simply to have the chance to keep playing the game they loved at a level that still challenged them without watching all of their lower level comrades fall like autumn leaves in the process. Luckbane, Harper Angelos, Rogar, Copper… all of them wanted to adventure alongside equals.” She shook her head. “I don’t think you can get that good and lose your edge in any way that would matter to the rest of us.”

Eddie smiled. “You sound like a fan. Did you come out of the White Hand split with Team Copper or Team Jarrod?

“Actually, I’m more of a Harper Angelos fan. Harper was my inspiration for playing the game.”

“Now that’s interesting,” Eddie mused. “At first glance, you two couldn’t be more different. She’s a beautiful angel-winged Valkyrie. You’re a monstrous face-painted ogress. What part of Harper appealed to you?”

“You don’t think Bloodskull is beautiful?” she asked with an impish smile.

“I didn’t – wouldn’t say that.”

“They’re both powerful women,” Circe said with a respectful nod of her head.

“Exactly, she’s powerful, popular and beautiful. Who wouldn’t want to be her?” Christine asked.

“So why an ogress? Why not an Icarri like your muse?” Eddie asked. “Do you feel powerless in your real life in some way perhaps?”

“Her personal life is off limits,” Trollbogies reminded him tersely.

“What? Oh, right? My mistake. Fortunately, the live cast is on a delay for just this reason. I’ll just cut that bit out,” Eddie said, “and we’ll just pick it up from… Why not an Icarri like your muse?”

“I dunno. Being an Icarri would’ve been amazing, but like I said, there’s just something about Bloodskull that clicks.”

“You know what would be fun? We should have her on the show the next time we have Harper on! Get these two great souls together,” Eddie said. “Better yet, would you like to meet a member of the fabled White Hand right now?”

“S-sure,” Christine said. Hadn’t they already talked about this?

“Well, you’re in luck, Bloodskull,” Eddie said, “because Rogar Thunderhammer has agreed to be on the show for our next segment. How would you two like to stick around and meet him? Maybe ask him a few questions?”

“We’d love to,” Trollbogies said.

“OK then, folks, Level Up will be back in just a moment with more of the Dreadknights and Rogar Thunderhammer, too!”

“And cue commercials,” Circe said. “You can all relax for a few minutes while we wait for the next segment to begin.”

Christine nodded, but her focus was on a new arrival to the virtual studio set. Rogar Thunderhammer had arrived.

Part 3: Doomsmack

[Back to Table of Contents]

18 – Rogar

“Rogar Thunderhammer!” Eddie crowed. “Welcome back to the show, old buddy.”

“Yes, yes. Much appreciated. I’ll be with you in just a second, if’n ye don’t mind. I just need a moment to get myself sorted.”

Eddie waved his hand and smiled. “Of course.”

The dwarf turned toward Christine and made a show of patting down his beard and tucking it into his belt. “How do I look?” he asked. “Blasted portal spells always put me in disarray.” He winked at his own joke.

“You look wonderful,” Christine said, smiling.

“A compliment from Ogress Bloodskull of the Dreadknights.” He winked. “Now that’s saying something. I caught that duel between you and that traitor Rosco. Good work.”

“Thank you,” Christine said, trying not to blush.

“No, I mean it. You’ve obviously got a really good head on your shoulders,” he said. “Why’re you wasting it on his lot?” he asked, nodding in Trollbogies’ direction.

“Be nice, Rogar,” Trollbogies said.

Rogar scoffed. He looked at Christine again. “He tell you about Reevetown?”

“The Dreads were involved in Reevetown?” Christine was genuinely shocked.

Trollbogies smiled quickly. “A couple of our guild members were freelancing. It wasn’t sanctioned. We even took a hit in popularity points. Needless to say, they were dealt with.” Trollbogies sighed deeply. “Please accept the deepest apologies of the Dreadknights, Master Thunderhammer. Bloodskull is actually a big fan of yours.”

Rogar smiled at Christine. “Aye, I watched Eddie’s last segment. I started out in Guild Wars. Did you know that? I was Captain of the lists for Fellblade Battalion.”

“I did not know that.”

“Have you ever even heard of Fellblade Battalion?”

She grinned. “Um, no. Sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it. It was a long time ago.” He nodded and stroked his beard. “Anyway, thank you for the kind words.”

“I meant every bit of it,” she said.

“You know, Luckbane and I are putting together a little adventure to vault us into the Finals. We’ve just started recruiting a team. You interested?”

Christine tried to control her enthusiasm, but she probably came off like a blushing schoolgirl trapped in a fearsome ogress’ body. “Um, yes! What’s the job?”

He grinned broadly. “Can’t give that away just yet. Gotta build some hype first. You know how it is. I can tell you: it’s big, it’s dangerous, and if it works it’ll guarantee you, me and anyone else who survives it a spot in the Finals.”

“Anyone else who survives it?” Trollbogies asked, raising an eyebrow. “Just how dangerous is this gambit of yours?”

“Extremely,” Rogar said, “but you’d be a fool not to sanction this one. The Dreadknights’ popularity points will go through the roof if she signs on.”

“Don’t you usually take on team members with more… experience?” Trollbogies asked.

“We prefer experience, but we won’t pass up someone with the right skills. I wouldn’t expect you to say yes until full disclosure,” the dwarf said to Christine. “I just wanted to put a bug in your ear. See what you thought.”

“I think I am very interested to see what you have in mind,” Christine said, smiling ear to ear. “It sounds like an incredible opportunity.”

“Fair enough.”

“I hate to interrupt, but we’re on in thirty seconds,” Eddie said.

“Less than that actually,” Circe said. “Hi, Rogar. You all set?”

“To gaze upon your beauty once again is all the preparation an old dwarf requires,” he said with a roguish tilt of his head.

“Flatterer,” she said, smiling.

“Tease,” he returned.

“Same ol’ Rogar,” she said.

“Any deviation from dwarven perfection would be a shame, I assure you.”

“Is that a fact?”

“And we are back!” Eddie Mondo said. “We’ve been backstage chatting with Rogar Thunderhammer and the Dreadknights of Outland!”

Canned applause.

“That’s catchy. I think I have a name for my new techno-freq band,” Rogar said.

“You listen to techno-freq? I did not know that about you,” Eddie said. “Who’s your favorite band?”

Christine was kind of surprised too. Techno-freq was like listening to whale song accompanied by impossibly fast drum beats. She had no idea why it was popular with some folks. Most people enjoyed music from the 21st Century Revival genres: basically bands cloned from 21st century performers or music performed in their styles. Bands like Anthem and BetterNchickN.

“I actually hate techno-freq,” Rogar said. “It was just a joke.”

“Ah. Well. Good one. You got me,” Eddie said.

“Because I totally look like a techno-freaker,” Rogar said dryly.

Christine was unable to stifle a snort of laughter.

“See? Even Bloodskull thinks it’s ridiculous. What kind of music do you like, Bloodskull?” Rogar asked.

“I’m Anthem. All the way.”

“Let your spirit fly,” Rogar said, quoting the band’s tag line. “Makes sense. I saw your duel with Rosco. You did a fair bit of flying there.”

She snickered. “Falling actually.”

“Next time you battle at those kind of heights, take yourself a bottle of Phat Phfanny’s Phfeatherphfall Phformula,” Rogar said, laying a finger to the side of his nose. “I get mine at Axel the Alchemist’s shop in Arcanum Alley. It’s much better than that diluted stuff they sell at Melborp’s.”

Christine smiled at the dwarf’s pluck. He’d actually managed to get in a product pitch in less than a minute of airtime. “Thanks,” she said. “If I mention your name will I get a discount?”

Rogar snorted. “Axel won’t even give me a discount!”

“Have you and Jarrod been in to visit Axel since he got back?” Eddie asked.

“Sure, sure. We had to pick up some of Jarrod’s alchemical phials and whatnot.”

“Anything else?”

“No, just the usual.”

“So you usually pick up a couple tubs of dragonburn balm?”

Rogar stared at Eddie for a moment, clearly upset that the show’s host had discovered this detail, but then continued as if nothing had happened. “We run out occasionally,” he said with a shrug. “We usually try to stay away from places where we’ll need it, but a lot of these castles you go into these days a-treasure huntin’ have these blasted lava moats! Course, it’s also good for lightning burns. Learned that when we went up against those storm giants. Works good for overexposure in the desert too.”

“But obviously it was designed to soothe actual dragon burns,” Eddie said.

Rogar turned to Christine with an expression of mock surprise. “Is that why it’s called dragonburn balm, you think?” He turned to Eddie and raised his forefinger. “You know, you are a very smart man, Mondo. I declare, I learn something new every time I’m on this show.”

“Thank you,” Eddie said. He vented an exasperated sigh. “OK, I’m just gonna come out and say it. We all know that you and Luckbane are planning something big. Care to let your old pal Eddie Mondo in on it?”

“Your old pal? Your old pal, is it?” Rogar shook his head. “Last time I was on your show, you told me you’d never have me on again! Or did you forget that, pal?”

“That was only because you wouldn’t tell me why Luckbane left the game,” Eddie said.

“He can tell you that when he feels like it.”

“Can you at least tell us why he’s back?”

“He’s back to grab his rightful spot in the Impworld Finals,” Rogar said. “That much should be obvious.”

“His rightful spot?” Eddie asked. “Are you implying that Jarrod Seventhborn shouldn’t have to compete for a spot in the Impworld Finals like everyone else?”

“It’s rubbish politics,” Rogar said. “Jarrod Seventhborn is practically an institution. Even during his hiatus, his channel remained one of the most popular in Impworld’s history. He’s done his time. I think that he and some of these other legitimately Epic level players should get the honor of playing the game live and in-person. We’ve done our time.”

“What do you say to those who would suggest your time is over?” he asked. “That Luckbane should’ve stayed retired? That he’s had his moment in the sun?”

“Auric Lothario can take all of that ‘It’s a new day’ jazz and shove it where no sun ever shines,” Rogar said. “That cheating sonofagoblyn wouldn’t last two seconds against me, Jarrod or even Copper! I’d bet my last bottle of happy water that even Jack Nabbit could give him a run fer his money! It used to be that folks fought their way to the top of the heap. Nowadays they take rezz and make back door deals like what we saw in Guild Wars.” He stubbed a thumb in the direction of the Dreadknights. “It’s cheating and it shouldn’t be allowed.”

“But Impworld has never been a purely hack-and-slash experience,” Circe said. “There have always been tricks and traps and treacheries to watch out for. For example, you’ve probably heard about what happened to Copper Gallows in the Garden of Stone, right?”

Christine leaned forward eagerly.

“Yes, but that…” Rogar gritted his teeth for a second and forced himself to calm down. “That was different. I may not like the fact that this technomancer he brought with him did what he did, but he wasn’t rezzed up and it wasn’t part of some back door deal.”

“I agree with Rogar,” Trollbogies said. “What Arthur Edgerton did might’ve been unethical, but it wasn’t cheating per se. You wanna talk about cheating, then you wanna talk about our match against the Golden Gears. And not just the rezz scandal, mind you. Did you realize that there is no game footage establishing the fact that Rosco ever made a deal with Goldenboy? It was done purely off grid. It actually created a continuity paradox that GameComm had to fix with retconned footage.”

“That is the epitome of a back door deal,” Rogar said. “Cheaters like that need to be straight up disqualified from the game.”

“I see,” Eddie said. He exchanged a glance with Circe, who shook her head. He smiled tightly in return. “Since we’re on the subject of cheating, I’d like to get you guys’ take on something else I’ve been hearing about. Allegedly, there are players who buy characters who are levelled up further than they ought to be. Have you heard of this?”

Rogar’s eyes narrowed. “Of course I have. There have always been a market for custom built characters. Even before companies came along selling custom mods, there was a certain amount of play we had when we created our characters. For example, dwarves and elves and other such long-lived races usually come levelled up a bit because, well, who wants to play through a childhood that’s hundreds of years old, right? The same concept applies to any adult character really, but at a certain point the levels are supposed to be capped. The problem is that there are mod shops and hackerjackers who’ve have found ways to tweak those levels way past what they’re supposed to be.”

“So you think they’re cheating?” Circe asked.

Rogar shook his bearded head. “Yes and no. There’s no question that the hackerjackers are cheating, but the mods I’m talking about are technically legal. They add levels by giving characters special items and histories and stuff.”

“So what’s the big deal then?” Eddie asked.

Rogar raised his eyebrows. “Frankly, it really wasn’t a big deal before the Impworld Finals. Maybe your levels were jacked but you still had to prove you deserved it. Now these jackers have what amounts to a head start that allows them to contend with guys who actually earned their way to the top for those Final spots. It ain’t right. Most of them are just a bunch of golden shields anyway. They look pretty but they just don’t have the mettle to stand up under the pressure. Not like they would if they’d been forged through experience like the rest of us. I know they want a chance to go to Tarak – everybody wants a chance at that – but if they had an ounce of integrity, they’d withdraw out of respect for the true champions of this game and sign up for the Colonial Trials.”

“I’m assuming you feel even more strongly about hackerjackers?”

“No question. Those guys are the worst!”

Christine nodded in agreement. Hackerjackers were level hackers who inserted an algorithm into their stats program that added a certain amount of extra score, say, a tenth of a percent, to the actual earned score as it tallied, eventually boosting one’s levels at a much quicker rate than they actually deserved.

“I see you nodding your head, Bloodskull. I take it you agree with Rogar’s assessment?” Eddie asked.

“Obviously.”

“I’m a little surprised.”

Bloodskull and Trollbogies exchanged a glance. “After what went down with Rosco,” Trollbogies said, his voice a rumbling growl, “why would that answer surprise you?”

“Well, Bloodskull, wasn’t your character levelled up with a hack over your hiatus?”

“What?!” Bloodskull rose to her feet. “That’s just a lie! I earned everything I’ve ever got!”

“So you didn’t have someone level hack Bloodskull while you were off playing the Prometheus Initiative? Because I gotta say your skills since you’ve come back are a whole lot more impressive than they were when you worked for Doomsmack.” He was doing his best to look apologetic, but she could see the gleam in his eyes.

“This is slander, Eddie!” Trollbogies said.

“Unless it’s true,” Eddie pointed out.

“Enough!” Christine yelled. “I did not level hack my character! To the best of my knowledge, I don’t even know any hackerjackers! Why are you accusing me of this?” Christine asked. “Did someone tell you I was hacked? Was it Havok?”

“She passed,” Circe said.

“What?” Eddie asked. “Edger’s dice! Edit all of that out. Quickly! And cut to commercial” He looked at his guests, red-faced. “I’m very sorry, my friends. My informant made this sound like it was rock solid, but she passed the lie detector. If this is in any way true, well, she’s not aware of it.”

“Aware of what? Who told you this?” Christine demanded.

“It doesn’t matter. I will deal with it. Somebody obviously set us up with a false tip,” he said, “but no worries. It’ll never air. No one’s using Eddie Mondo for this kind of dirty character assassination.”

“Not this time anyway,” Circe said, sounding a bit tired.

“This interview is over,” Trollbogies said. The rumble in his voice could have triggered an avalanche under the right setting.

“What? No, wait, we still have to plug that bit,” Eddie said. “People will wonder why the interview cut off.”

“That’s your problem,” Trollbogies said. “Now, who set us up? Was it Havok?”

“Be reasonable, Olivia.”

“Don’t pretend like we’re friends right now, Eddie. You just took a shot at my family. I’d expect this sort of thing at Gossip Gamer, but why are you of all people resorting to ambush journalism?”

“You don’t understand the pressure I’m under,” the hobgoblyn said. His voice was nearly a wail. “I got the board breathing down my neck. They even got me a handler. I love you, doll,” he said to Circe, “and don’t take this the wrong way but that’s like a teenager taking care of a college professor. I don’t need no babysitter. I’m Eddie edgin’ Mondo!” He threw his hands up in despair. “But that don’t mean nothing no more ‘cause I gotta compete with slick shows like Arcadium. Arcadium! And do you know who’s footing the bill over there at Arcadium? GameComm. That’s right; GameComm! So Darius Darwin over there at Arcadium gets all of the scoops before we do. They got Moog and Sir Stanley Dragonslayer and a whole bunch of other Epic level guys doing interviews on their show starting in two hours. Two hours! They’re billing it as a one-on-one with the top contenders for the Impworld Finals. Who’s gonna watch my show once that series starts? Who’s gonna remember Eddie Mondo and a little show called Level Up? They’re shoving the independents out and, mark my words, once they control the media, they’ll go after the talent agencies next until companies like Wayne Entertainment, Inconceivable Talent and Gothplay are just memories from the history books.”

“And you think all that makes it OK to assassinate a young lady’s career?” Rogar asked.

“No! Of course not. I’m not airing it already! That’s what the lie detector was all about,” Eddie said. “I was only gonna livecast it if it was true. I’m not a bad guy. I would never slander someone just for ratings. I’m not built that way. But you gotta understand something. If I wanna compete in this industry, I need some dish. Something so slaughter that it makes Arcadium stand up and take notice.” He took a deep breath. “So I hadda try. I’m sorry. I’ve just worked so hard to get where I’m at. I can’t just let them take it away.”

They looked from Eddie to Circe. “He’s not wrong,” she said with a sigh. “If his ratings dip much further, GameComm gets the option to buy the show. The board will sell. It’s easy money for them.”

“I’m begging you,” Eddie said. “Wrap up this show with me.”

“No,” Trollbogies said.

“I’ll do it,” Christine said. “I may not like what you tried to do, but it seems pretty clear you were set up. I know what that feels like.”

Rogar shrugged. “If you’re in, I am, too. If what you’re saying is true,” he said, looking at Circe in particular, “the Gamelords themselves could very well be behind whoever gave you this false tip. Ever think of that? That they were trying to undermine your credibility?”

“It was Havok,” Eddie said, “and I’m sorry but I don’t think this was about me. In fact, I got this impression that this is the first step in a bigger plan to get the Dreads disqualified from Guild Wars. I’m glad I’m not a party to it, but you deserve to know this may not be the end of it.”

“‘Fore warned is ‘fore armed,” Trollbogies said, nodding gravely. “I’ll consent to wrapping things up for Bloodskull’s sake, but you’re on a short leash, old friend,” he said, pointing at Eddie.

“Of course.”

“We’re out of commercials,” Circe said. “On the bright side, the sudden jump to break has the media buzzing. Looks like we’ll have the biggest rating spike we’ve had in three years.”

“Right then,” Eddie said, forcing himself to regain composure. “Onward. Welcome back to Level Up! For those of you who waited through the break and for those of you just joining to see what all the fuss is about, you are not going to be disappointed! We have with us today from the all-star Dreadknights of Outland, Guildmaster Trollbogies and Ogress Bloodskull! If you’ve been keeping up with Guild Wars – and I know you have! – you know that Bloodskull ran her guild’s battle flag to capture the flag of the Golden Gears and managed to take out five of her enemies in the process.”

Circe picked up the chatter so he could catch his breath. “And even though the Dreads were betrayed by one of their own, she reaffirmed the Dreadknights’ place as rightful contenders for the Final Round in a brilliantly played no-holds-barred duel with that very same turncoat.”

“She is, quite frankly, amazing,” Eddie said, “and I have a few more questions for her… but before I do I would be remiss if I didn’t introduce my third and final guest, Rogar Thunderhammer! Rogar’s good buddy Luckbane has come out of hiatus and he just confirmed that they are making a bid for the Impworld Finals. We’re not sure what they’ve got up their sleeves just yet, but we are assured that no one will be watching any other channels when they make their move. Is that right, Rogar?”

“That’s an understatement,” Rogar said. “When I tell folks what we’re up to, I don’t think they’re gonna be able to handle it. They’re not gonna be able to keep it to themselves. They’re gonna wanna talk about it at work, at the dinner table, in the school cafeteria.” He held up a finger. “People who don’t even watch Impworld normally are gonna wanna tune in for this and… Oh, I am saying too much already… They are not going to be sorry!”

“Three guests, three potential finalists for the chance to play live on GameComm’s terraformed alien world,” Circe said. “With more than ten billion viewers watching tonight, it’s time to Level Up!”

“T-ten billion?” Eddie said, his voice catching. “Well, that’s not enough! Tell your friends. Call them up. They don’t want to miss this!”

Christine felt herself getting swept up in Eddie’s hype, even if she knew it was completely lacking in substance. Eddie Mondo was whipping an entire galaxy of viewers into a feeding frenzy, preying on their need to know more details about the Impworld Finals. He had his audience hungry with the promise of bread, but he had nothing to offer them. Eddie was either a madman or a genius.

“Let’s start with the Dreadknights,” Eddie said. “Master Trollbogies, your proud guild has faced treachery and technical hurdles to get where you are today. But now the Dreadknights stand poised for victory. The only thing standing in your way is Doomsmack. Any thoughts?”

Trollbogies scoffed. “Only one. We took Doomsmack’s best warrior when we signed Bloodskull. Havok Hurtlocker and his guild of thugs have no hope against the Dreadknights of Outland!”

“Well said!” Eddie shouted. “Ogress Bloodskull, you know a thing or two about coming back from the brink. Coming straight off a hiatus, you’ve been instrumental in moving the Dreadknights to the Guild Wars Finals. As a former member of Doomsmack, do you have any worries that Havok is gonna single you out during this next match? That he’ll put you ‘in the hurtlocker,’ as he likes to say?”

“I’d like to answer that, if you don’t mind,” Trollbogies said.

“By all means, guildmaster.”

“Havok Hurtlocker is definitely going to be gunning for our girl. He has to,” Trollbogies said. “She’s been a strong player for the Dreads. For that reason alone, any sane guildmaster would make sure a star player like Bloodskull was covered. More than that, he’s a vindictive little bully who’s afraid of any real competition. He’ll be after Bloodskull simply because she now dares to stand up to him. None of that changes the fact that he and Doomsmack are going down in this Final Round.” He paused and grinned a trollish grin for dramatic effect. “And no matter what he throws at her, it is the Dreadknights who have her back and, on my guild’s honor, Bloodskull will still be standing at the end of this match.”

“Proud words from the guildmaster of the Dreadknights of Outland,” Circe said. “I think we’re all excited about this upcoming clash between the Dreads and the Dooms.”

“What about you, Rogar? Are you jacked into the Guild Wars Finals?” Eddie asked. “I heard you talking to Bloodskull during the break and you seemed like you two hit it off. Did she make a fan out you?”

“A fan of Ogress Bloodskull?” Rogar asked, winking at Christine. “Who wouldn’t be? The Dreads are lucky to have her. I see big things in her future.”

“It sounds like you already have something in mind,” Eddie said.

“Oh, I do,” Rogar said. “I’ve given Bloodskull here an open invitation to join me and Jarrod Seventhborn on our upcoming quest to slay Gargath the Merciless!”

Eddie placed his hands on either side of his head. “Gargath? That’s… that’s huge! Gargath is one of the biggest dragons in all of Impworld! You’re seriously going after him?”

Rogar nodded, grinning.

“That is a massive undertaking,” Circe said. “I’m sure you’ll have the entire universe tuning in to see how that turns out. Who else are you bringing with you? Harper? Sindel? Copper? Are we looking at the rumored return of the White Hand?”

Rogar scoffed. “That’d take more magic than Impworld has to offer. I can’t release the names of the other team members just yet. That is, unless Bloodskull is on board with us?”

“What do you say, Bloodskull? Are you going on a dragon hunt?” Eddie asked.

“Keep in mind, my delicate flower of an ogress,” Rogar said, “that dragons are very sure and horrible form of death.”

Bloodskull looked at Trollbogies. Trollbogies grinned and nodded. “Oh, I am in!” Bloodskull crowed.

The rest of the interview was a blur for Christine. All she could think of was that she was going on an adventure with Epic Level players like Rogar and Luckbane. She was playing in the big leagues now.

19 – Ogre’s Choice

“What the Void was that?” Trollbogies asked, slamming his trollish fist against the guild hall’s common table.

The outburst came on the very heels of her interview with Eddie Mondo. Confused by her guildmaster’s wrath, Christine backpedaled and held up her hands. “What was what?”

“You may’ve passed Eddie Mondo’s lie detector, but I need to know truth!”

“I’m telling you the truth,” Christine said. “I don’t know any hackerjackers, and I sure as stone don’t know how to do it myself.”

“Listen to me carefully, Bloodskull: if you ever want to make guildmaster, let alone remain a member of the Dreads, you’d better not ever lie to me. All it takes is a simple calibration by the Gamelords to confirm whether or not your levels have been jacked up. You don’t know Havok like I do. That worm will do anything in his power to get what he wants. If you’ve been jacked, you can guarantee he’ll use that against us – and you saw what the Gamelords did to the Gears for cheating!”

“I know! I know,” Christine said. “I get how serious this is.”

“With that in mind, I’m going to ask you one more time, is there any chance you’ve been hackerjacked? Maybe even without your knowledge?”

It hit Christine then. She gasped and turned away from Trollbogies, unable to face her guildmaster under the sudden shame of what she now suspected.

“What is it?” Trollbogies asked.

“Oscar Diggs.”

“Who’s that?”

“My boss at PanGen Aquafarms. He was murdered after our match against the Gears. It was ruled a suicide but someone told me it wasn’t.”

“I’m sorry, but what has he got to do with this?”

Christine took a deep breath. The words poured forth in a rush. “My new supervisor asked me about him. Said he was a gambler and that somebody killed me to settle his debts. He also asked me if Oscar had ever sent me any strange Vmails.”

“Had he?”

“Not to my knowledge, but the whole thing just seemed so strange. He only asked me that this morning; I haven’t even had time to process it, much less check my spam folder.”

Trollbogies took a deep breath. “Well, then make absolutely sure, child. You know as well as I do what a shady character Havok is. I could be wrong but my gut tells me he wouldn’t have given Eddie Mondo that tip unless he thought he could substantiate it somehow.”

I don’t see how,” Christine said. “You guys vetted me before I signed on. Wouldn’t your investigators have caught something?”

Trollbogies shook her head. “They should have. Our legal team rarely misses a beat. There was no evidence that anyone had ever tampered with your character’s levels. You definitely levelled up from the time you played for the Dooms, but that’s because you did so well in the Tower.”

“Then what could it be?”

“I don’t know, but we can’t afford to take chances this close to the Finals. Try to see if this Oscar guy actually ever sent you anything. Maybe your new supervisor can show you what he sent. Leave no stone unturned.”

~ Ø ~

Christine spent the next few hours sifting through her spam folder before she finally decided she needed some shut-eye. Even narrowing the field down to the few days before Oscar’s death did no good. There were credit offers, dating service ads, a bit of fan mail, some rather disturbing crazed fan mail, and other things that couldn’t be unseen.

She was about to unplug the session out of frustration when she remembered Trollbogies’ warning:

“Leave no stone unturned.”

The trash folder caught her eye. She opened it with a groan. Her diligence paid off. Scrolling back to the day of her match at Castle Obsidious, she found a visor mail from Oscar Diggs. How had it ended up in her trash folder?

Taking a deep shuddering breath, she opened it.

Christine found herself back in Oscar Diggs’s office. It was exactly the same as before. The aquarium with the creepy little trilobite. The anachronistic bookcase behind the dark-stained wooden desk. The swords, pistols and models of wooden sailing vessels in their display cases. The quaint flag from the old United States on his desk next to the brass nameplate that still bore Diggs’s name.

Mr. Diggs was sitting in the chair on the other side of the desk. He looked pained. He held a blood-stained handkerchief to his nose. His left eye was nearly swelled shut. There was more blood on his shirt.

The virtual Diggs considered her for a moment and then rose from his seat.

“Christine, if you’re seeing this, something has gone very wrong. I’ve gone missing or… worse.” Her former boss tapped his fingers on the desk in nervous repetition. “There’s something I need to tell you but I’m afraid to tell you too much.”

“For now, let’s just say I stacked the deck. For both of us really. If anyone comes around asking about me, tell them the truth: that you don’t know anything. In fact, that’s probably the safest thing you can do at this point.”

Mr. Diggs hesitated, clearly struggling to continue. “Still, I feel like you deserve to know ahead of time, just in case someone lets the cat out of the bag and it all goes south. So I’m gonna give you the classic blue pill, red pill choice here.” He opened his desk drawer and pulled out a small wooden box. When he opened the box, she saw the two pills in question. “Just know that there are certain consequences for knowing,” Mr. Diggs said. “It could destroy your career, but not knowing might not be enough to save you. I dunno. If you want to know the truth, just take the red pill – choice is yours. Again, I’m very sorry and I never meant to hurt you. I never meant for anything to happen.”

He pushed the box across the table toward her. “Anyway, the choice is yours, Miss Johanssen.”

Christine stared at the box in horror. She reached out her hand, but found herself unable to choose. How could she make that kind of choice? The blue pill came with plausible deniability. Everything was going so well. Frankly, her ignorance was the only thing that’d saved her from Eddie Mondo’s lie detector. Besides, Mr. Diggs looked like he was pretty beat up, and didn’t Mr. Jones say someone cut his head off after this Vmail? Maybe she didn’t want to know. Maybe knowing was too dangerous.

Of course, she might already be in danger. How could she protect herself if she didn’t know what she was up against? Only the red pill would give her the truth. Normally, she would’ve said that the truth was very important to her, but right now she just wasn’t sure.

She shook her head. What she had here was a classic ogre’s choice: the choice between a quick demise and a slow demise. Red pill or blue pill.

Just looking at the box took her breath away. “I can’t decide.”

She shut the box and ended the Vmail session.

20 – Maggie

Dorothy stared at Christine with big round eyes. “Are you OK, Chrissy?”

Christine rubbed her face in her hands and let go of a shuddering sigh. She nodded. “Sure, kid. I just saw something that shook me up. You can’t be too careful what you watch these days.”

“That’s what mom says.”

“Well, your mom is definitely right on that score.”

“So glad to hear that my wisdom is so highly prized,” Aunt Maggie said dryly. She smiled at her daughter. “It’s time for bed, little dormouse.”

“Aw! Can I have a story first?”

“Not tonight. I need to talk to your cousin for a bit.” Her aunt sized Christine up and said, “Don’t go anywhere. You’re gonna want to hear this.”

In short order, Maggie had Dorothy tucked away in bed. She joined Christine at the kitchen table and slumped down heavily in a seat.

“So what’s up?” Christine asked.

“You’re not going to like this, but I think there’s something you need to know,” Maggie said. Her expression was flat as if she’d already given up all hope of anything but the worst possible outcome. “I deleted one of your Vs.”

Christine’s eyes widened. “What?! You had no right!”

“I know. I was way out of line and I hope you’ll forgive me. I was angry at you for playing in the Guild Wars even after I unplugged you. I broke into your V account looking for… Well, I’m not really sure what I hoped to find, but I was sure there was something. Instead I found a V from Oscar Diggs.”

Christine could tell that her aunt was reading her face for any sign that she knew where this was headed. “So I take it you opened it.”

Maggie nodded.

“What did it say?”

“You’d probably better look at it for yourself… if it’s still there. Oscar… He said he’d done something without your knowledge that could end your gaming career.”

Christine took a deep breath. “Did he say what?”

“No. He gave you a choice to know what he did or not. I didn’t make the choice. It was meant for you after all.”

“Why did you delete it?”

“To protect you.”

“Protect me? From what?” The words came out with more venom than she intended. Years of pent up resentment mixed with her frustrations and fears, washing over her aunt in a swell of accusation. “I’d think this would be a dream come true for you. I mean, if my gaming career is over, I’d have no choice but to commit to the Trials, right?”

Maggie shook her head. “That’s not what I wanted. Not like this.”

“I don’t get it,” Christine said. “I don’t get you. You do everything in your power to stop me from playing Guild Wars – you even unplugged me from a Championship match! – but now you’re saying you deleted a potentially incriminating Vmail to protect me? Make up your mind!”

“That’s enough of your sass!” For a moment, Maggie was every bit the self-righteous wicked witch Christine had contended with ever since they moved to Platform 161; that posture of nostril flaring wrath and finger pointing indignation melted in a martyr’s sigh. “You have a right to be upset but… Edger’s Void, you didn’t ask for this and, and you wouldn’t even be here if I hadn’t asked Glinda to come here to settle that labor dispute!” She ran her fingers through her hair. “Anyway I don’t expect you to understand, but when I saw that V and thought about how Oscar used you to get ahead, no matter what it might mean for you… They killed him, you know. We’re lucky they didn’t come after you, too!” Christine was surprised to see genuine worry heavily lining her aunt’s face. “Anyway, I realized I’d been wrong to what I’d been doing. I had no right, Chrissy. I may’ve wanted what was best for my family, but…” She gave a shuddering sigh. Her eyes welled with tears. “I don’t expect you to forgive me, but I am sorry.”

She rose from the table and walked slowly toward her bunk.

“Wait. Why are you telling me this now?” Christine asked.

Without turning around, Maggie said, “It’s all over the news. Havok Hurtlocker’s accusing you of cheating. He says your character’s been illegally levelled up and that the Dreads should be disqualified from Guild Wars like the Golden Gears were.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me!”

“For the record, I do hope he’s wrong. I hope nothing comes of Oscar’s meddling and that you win the Guild Wars.”

“Thank you, Maggie.”

Maggie nodded and entered her quarters. A moment later the privacy screen zapped into place.

21 – On the Fence

Davis and Christine trekked in silence through the shadows of the corn forest until they reached their destination. She was exhausted from yesterday’s interview and the subsequent tedium of pouring through her Vmails. It had been an emotional day to say the least and she was having trouble processing everything.

Her aunt’s uncharacteristic behavior since Christine’s match against the Golden Gears made sense now – in a twisted sort of way. It was odd to think that her aunt might be anything more than a soulless witch bent on using her as a stepping stone. A part of her worried that maybe this was just part of some elaborate trick; that perhaps her aunt was just trying the carrot to get what she wanted instead of the stick. Another part of her wanted Maggie’s story to be true.

She’d made the mistake of watching the news before she went to bed. Havok Hurtlocker was doing his dead level best to drag her name through the dirt and get the Dreadknights disqualified. A terse V from Trollbogies warned Christine that her guildmaster was handling it and that she was not to respond in any way. Christine had to settle for shouting her imagined responses at the holoscreen.

She’d been too wound up to go to bed when she should have. She’d barely got out of bed in time to make her next session of the Colonial Trials.

Davis hadn’t spoken a word since they began this trek, which was very, very uncharacteristic for him. A part of her wondered if he’d seen the news and what he thought of it. Did Davis think she was a cheat?

Why did she care so much what Davis thought? Of course, she knew why and, frankly, she needed to let it go. While the physicality of nodal tech made all sorts of long distance relationships possible and she’d certainly entertained the fantasy of becoming more than friends, the fact was that they’d never met in real life. Unless she became a Colonist, she and Davis could never be together – maybe nodally – but not together together. The trouble was that she felt a real connection with Davis. Davis was the reason she stopped resenting the fact that she had to take the Trials. She enjoyed spending time with him. They’d been getting closer and closer with each session. She was sure he had feelings for her too, but he’d never come right out and said as much. That tour he’d taken her on the day before yesterday had almost been like a date.

She’d never figured him for the silent treatment type. What was he mad about? He acted like something was bothering him. Was it her? She worried again that he’d seen the news. Until now, it’d never occurred to her that Havok’s smear campaign might lose her both Guild Wars and Davis Crimmeans. If anything, she’d started to think of Davis as her consolation prize.

Except now, he wasn’t even speaking to her.

“OK,” he said at long last. “We’re almost there.”

“Almost where?” She wasn’t familiar with this part of the farm colony. They’d been trekking through the corn forest for hours. Up ahead was some sort of structure. It reminded her of a siege tower, only much taller.

He smiled at her for the first time since they’d began their journey. “What’s the matter? Don’t you trust me?”

“I told you. I’m not overly fond of heights.”

“This will be worth it. I promise.”

She shrugged and returned the grin. “Fine. Lead away.”

To her surprise, the tower was equipped with an elevator. She raised an eyebrow.

“Blasted technomancers,” he said with a smirk. “Always messing with stuff. Can’t trust ‘em.”

“We could always take the stairs,” she suggested.

He pressed the button for the top floor.

At the top of the tower was an observation platform. To the south, there were cornfields as far as the eye could see. To the north, was a much different view. Wide rolling plains became forested hills, then high majestic mountains. Train tracks were evident in the distance. A steam locomotive chugged along those tracks.

“Is that a dragonrail?” she asked. Dragon engines were similar to locomotives, but they were alive. Most of them were designed to look a bit dragonish. They were also temperamental.

“Yes,” Davis said, “and off there in the distance, those are the Dragon Mountains.”

“They’re so close. I had no idea.” In the center of the field stood a large, lumpy shape. “What’s that?”

“A drubulb.”

Christine knew enough about the alien life forms on Tarak to know what a drubulb meant. “So there are dru this close to the farm colony?”

He nodded, squinting in the sun. “We tried moving them. They won’t be moved. After our talk the other day, I figured you might want to see them for yourself.”

“Aren’t they supposed to be dangerous?”

“Unpredictable, yes, but if you leave them alone, they generally leave us be. Well, except drones. They attack most any robots that venture too near the bulbs, which is why we can’t exactly go knocking on their door in your condition.”

She snorted. It was still surreal to think she was remote piloting a robot on some alien world.

“The dru aren’t my problem,” Davis said. He took a deep breath.

Christine steeled herself for the worst. Had Davis bought Havok’s slander? Had GameComm found out about whatever Oscar did to her? Were they disqualifying her from Guild Wars? From the Trials? Both?

“The furrybites came back,” Davis said. “They shorted out power in three sectors before we managed to flush them out. Where there’s furrybites, there’s devilpedes. We haven’t seen it yet, but it can’t be that far away.”

Christine exhaled. “Thank God!”

He raised an eyebrow. “That is not the reaction I was anticipating.”

“I’m sorry. It’s just with the buildup, I thought it was going to be something much worse. I mean, have you seen the news?” She cringed as she awaited his answer.

He scoffed. “Havok Hurtlocker does this all the time. My brother thinks he’s a blustering coward. Oh, he’s not a total gold shield. He’s got skills as a gamer; I’m not denying that. But when you prefer to cheat or get your opponents disqualified than meet them on a level playing field, I’d say you’re probably not as good as you let on. Besides, it’s not like what he’s saying about you is true.”

She felt like a deer in the headlights.

He frowned. “Christine?”

“It’s complicated. My guildmaster thinks I’m being set up.”

He nodded. “My brother said you might want to watch out for something like that. He wouldn’t give me the details but it might be in that V he sent you.”

“I will do my best to unearth it then.”

“And don’t worry about it. I know you, Christine. You’re no cheater.”

Christine smiled at him fondly. Davis was quite simply perfect. Then she frowned. “Wait. Let me get this straight: you just brought me up here to talk about devilpedes and furrybites?”

“Um, no, actually. That was just… I just thought you’d like to know what you missed yesterday, and I have a little surprise for you.”

“Yes, I’m very excited about it and I think you will be too. It’s taken everything I’ve got to keep it to myself on the way over here.”

“Is that why you were so silent?”

He smiled. “Sorry. I didn’t trust myself not to let the cat out the bag too soon. Anyway, first a little mood music.” He pulled up a song from his playlist.

“I know this one. Isn’t this by Shotgun Wedding Cake?” She raised an eyebrow. “Huh. I always kind of figured you as more of a country fan.”

“What? Why would you…” He scoffed. “It’s the corn. People think that because I work in a cornfield that I naturally like country music. I mean, I do like BetterNchickN. Well, some of their songs anyway, like –”

“Shut Yo Mouth,” they said at the same time. They both laughed.

“So you’re into country then?” he asked.

“Actually, I’m more of an Anthem fan.”

“That… makes a lot of sense. Speaking of your uncommon sensibilities, I’m glad you thought of the Magnus Centarii. That is just the sort of level-headed yet outside-the-box thinking we need around here.”

“OK, just stop,” she said. He looked genuinely confused, so she added, “I know what this is.”

“What what is?”

She took a deep breath. “Look it was really clever and really, really sweet the way you brought me way up here with the view and the music and the surprise and everything, so I could choose between the Colonies and the game, but I think I made it pretty clear where I stand.”

He laughed. “That’s not why I brought you up here,” he said, smirking. He used a whistle he wore on a cord around his neck and then cupped his hand over his eyes as he scanned the heavens. Grinning, he pointed and said, “There!”

Two very impressively oversized grasshoppers flew down to the top of the platform, landing close by. As the horse-sized insects regarded them, Christine noticed they were wearing saddles.

“What is this?” she asked.

“These are skyhoppers,” he said, grinning. “They’re basically the insect equivalent of a Pegasus or griffin.”

“We get to ride these?”

He nodded.

“Wow. I mean, this is quite the upgrade. When did this happen?”

“Like I said, your Magnus Centarii idea was great. So great that the Gamelords approved it. We can change into our new armor in there,” Davis said, pointing to a door to one side of the tower elevator. “Actually, in your case, I think we just change your drone’s mod. That’s neither here nor there. The point is that now we’ll be able to give those devilpedes a run for their money.”

“This is so slaughter!” Christine said. She ran up to one of the giant grasshoppers and stroked its big head. It clicked its mandibles and leaned into it.

“Ebenezer likes you,” Davis said. “Oh. Almost forgot,” he said, patting his pockets. He fished out a whistle and handed it to her. “You’ll need that to call him. So? Surprised?”

“Very.”

He brushed his sandy hair out of his eyes. “You know, I may not have told you this, but I’m actually kind of a big fan of yours.”

“You may’ve mentioned that.”

“More than a fan actually. In fact, as cool as Ebenezer is, he isn’t the only reason I brought you up here.”

She raised an eyebrow.

“I also wanted to tell you that no matter what you choose, the Colonies” – he waved his hand toward the maize forests – “or the game” – he waved toward the Dragon Mountains – “I just wanted you to know that, even if you feel the same way I feel about you, that you don’t have to give up your dream. I’ll be right here in Drackenwold, running your fan club.”

She considered him for a moment. “How you feel about me..?”

He blushed. “Oh, come on, Christine. You must know.”

“Say it. If you mean it.”

“I love you, Christine Johanssen.”

“Aren’t you afraid that I’ll win the Guild Wars and we’ll never see each other again?”

“Well, that was what I was trying to say,” he said. “You’ll know where to find me. I’ll be right here. I thought you could visit if you want and see how things go…” He frowned. “Was that not clear?”

“It is now.” She leaned over and kissed him. She rested in his embrace for a few moments before an impish thought crossed her mind.

“You know, I could just as easily find you and drag you along on my adventures. Unless Bloodskull is a little too much for you?” She hit him playfully

“Don’t underestimate me, milady. I’ve fought devilpedes.” His smirk faded as his voice took a more serious tone. “The point is that you don’t have to give up being Ogress Bloodskull to be with me. She’s your Golden Ticket to fame and fortune and freedom, Christine. Take it!”

She laughed. “OK, I will.”

They held each other in silence for a while until Davis asked, “So someone’s setting you up?”

Christine groaned. “Yeah. It looks that way.”

“Is there any way out of it?”

“I dunno. Can I ask you a question?”

He nodded. “Anything.”

“You know what an ogre’s choice is, right?”

“Of course.”

“What happens if you don’t choose at all?”

He snorted. “Then the ogre’s choice becomes the ogre’s choice.”

She shook her head. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“Well, as I understand it, an ogre’s choice is where an ogre offers you the choice between a slow death and a quick one, right?”

“Right.”

“So the implication is that if you don’t choose, the ogre does.”

Christine sighed. “I was afraid of that. Look, I hate to bug out early but there’s something I gotta take care of. Something Bloodskull needs to do actually.”

“You’re not going to test ride Ebenezer first?” he asked. He was clearly disappointed despite the grin he flashed at her.

“I want to, but this is important. Please tell me you understand.”

He grinned. “Do what you gotta do.”

She kissed him and then smiled. “You’re awesome. You know that?”

He hugged her one more time. “Just hurry back.”

22 – Bitter Pill

Christine’s bravado melted away to stomach-churning anxiety as she dialed up the nodal connection for her guildmaster. She knew now that if she wanted to stay out in front of whatever Mr. Diggs had done to her, she needed to take the red pill. Even so, she also didn’t want to do this alone.

Trollbogies nodded a greeting as they materialized in the Dreadknights’ guild hall. “Bloodskull, was your mission successful?”

“I have a choice to make.”

The troll raised an eyebrow.

“It is best to show you. Hold on and I’ll patch you into my Vmail.”

“This does not bode well,” Trollbogies said, her face somber.

Christine didn’t bother answering. There was no denying that whatever they discovered, it would almost certainly be bad news.

Moments later, Christine found herself back in Oscar Diggs’s office. Trollbogies appeared a moment later and then melted into the form of the guildmaster’s player, Olivia Ziegler.

Olivia took a look around. “Where are we?”

“My old supervisor’s office. Mr. Diggs was murdered after the match against the Golden Gears. My new supervisor said it had something to do with his gambling debts.”

Olivia nodded. “We lost and you were his chalk horse.”

“His what?”

“His favorite.”

“That’s what Jones thought too.”

Olivia’s eyebrows raised sharply. “Jones?”

“My new supervisor. He met with me here of all places.”

Olivia frowned and shook her head. “You might want to double-check that, Christine. I was contacted by a Mr. Jones regarding you, but the man who contacted me was an Agent.”

The blood drained from Christine’s face. The Agency was AmeriCo’s espionage and security division. Agents had almost unlimited power to carry out their duties to protect the interests of the West. “I really hope you’re wrong about that.”

“Me too,” Olivia said. “Of course, I may be jumping to conclusions. Jones is a very common name.”

“Nothing about my life has been common lately.”

“That’s an understatement.” The older woman took another look around. “This Mr. Diggs really likes wood.”

“That’s what I said.”

The virtual Mr. Diggs materialized in his chair. Olivia took note of his bloodied and battered condition. “So this was sent just after the match but just before he –”

“– was beheaded, yes.”

Diggs stood up and began delivering his message.

“Christine, if you’re seeing this, something has gone very wrong. I’ve gone missing or… worse. There’s something I need to tell you but I’m afraid to tell you too much. For now, let’s just say I stacked the deck. For both of us really. If anyone comes around asking about me, tell them the truth: that you don’t know anything. In fact, that’s probably the safest thing you can do at this point.”

“Still, I feel like you deserve to know ahead of time, just in case someone lets the cat out of the bag and it all goes south. So I’m gonna give you the classic blue pill, red pill choice here.” He opened his desk drawer and pulled out a small wooden box. “Just know that there are certain consequences for knowing. It could destroy your career, but not knowing might not be enough to save you. I dunno. If you want to know the truth, just take the red pill – choice is yours. Again, I’m very sorry and I never meant to hurt you. I never meant for anything to happen.”

He pushed the box across the table toward her. “Anyway, the choice is yours, Miss Johanssen.”

“This is as far as I got before,” Christine said.

“I can understand why,” Olivia said. “I take it you’re ready now?”

Christine nodded. Before she could change her mind, she grabbed the red pill and swallowed it.

Everything went red for a moment. A few seconds later, dark shadows began outlining a new setting. Christine recognized the structure in front of her before it even fully materialized.

“It is as I feared,” Olivia said.

Christine shot her a look, but Mr. Diggs materialized before she could ask her guildmaster what she meant. “This is the Tower of Perpetual Peril,” he said, “but I don’t need to tell you that. What I do need to tell you is that you didn’t exactly do as well as you think you did.”

“What is he talking about?” Christine asked.

Olivia shook her head and put a finger to her lips.

“I was approached by someone, someone you know. He wanted me to hackerjack the Tower here. The idea was to use a proxy, a far more experienced gamer, to take on the challenge but make it look like you did it. We had to hack your nodes to make you think you were doing all that stuff that our proxy did. That’s why you did so well. If you don’t believe me, you’re welcome to take on the Tower again and see how well you do.” He offered up a raspy laugh.

“Anyway, you’ve probably guessed how it works. Our proxy was better than we anticipated. Seriously, who could’ve guessed that Jack Nabbit would make it within five levels of the top?”

Christine’s eyes widened at the name. Nabbit was a vexati, a sort of anthropomorphic rabbit. Apart from his involvement in the Reevetown fiasco, no one took him particularly seriously.

“Anyway, that boosted your levels pretty good and got you signed with the Dreads, which was even better for me. I bet a lot of good money on you and…” Mr. Diggs face twisted into an expression that was equal parts anger and despair. He choked back a sob. “It’s not your fault, kid. You played your heart out. I may’ve hackerjacked you into the Finals, but you definitely proved you deserved to be there.”

He wiped his eyes on his sleeve. “Anyway, I don’t have a lot of time. You should know that Mr. Favreau said that this was his insurance policy.”

Olivia and Christine exchanged a wide-eyed glance. Did he mean Owen Favreau, Havok Hurtlocker’s player? Diggs did say that it was someone she knew and she definitely didn’t know any other people with that last name.

“I wasn’t sure what he meant. I maybe suspected, but after he double crossed me with that deal with Rosco… I mean, he knew how much I had riding on you winning! He knew who I owed – knew what Mr. Gund was gonna – to me if I lost.”

“What’s going on?” Christine asked. “Why’s he breaking up?”

Olivia shook her head. Before her guildmaster could answer, there were a series of loud bangs that Christine recognized as gun shots.

All hope drained from Mr. Diggs face. “They’re here.” As if resonating with his mood, the background began dimming. “I –ta go. J – remember: I never –nt – any of this to – hope you can find a way – of this mess. –bye, Miss Johanssen and – luck.”

“We have to get out of here!” Olivia shouted. “We’re being blacked!”

Christine’s eyes widened. The virtual world was pixelating around her and fading to pitch black. She’d heard of people being blacked before. Though it was usually touted as a worst case security measure, it was well known that cyber assassins used this kind of malware to turn a person into a vegetable.

Olivia vanished, exiting the session. Christine tried to follow her, but something was trapping her in the disintegrating nodal environment. The black had her surrounded on all sides and was quickly closing in.

For a moment, she heard Havok Hurtlocker laughing.

Just when she thought all was lost, the Dreadknights’ guild hall re-materialized around them. Trollbogies stood before her. She exhaled heavily at Christine’s arrival. Christine was too stunned to speak at first.

“It all becomes clear now,” Trollbogies said, sounding more weary than Christine had ever heard her. “You were Havok’s unwitting Trojan Horse. He set us both up. He jacked your levels when he knew I was looking for fresh talent. All so he could pull the rug out from under us if Rosco didn’t pull through and we managed to win the match against the Golden Gears.”

“I had no idea,” Christine said. “You have to believe me.”

“I do. You passed Eddie Mondo’s lie detector… and Havok did just try to kill you, after all.” She steepled her fingers together. “I was wondering how he’d been sloppy enough to leave such an incriminating V behind. Apparently, he meant for you to find it to tie up loose ends, knowing you’d be curious enough to take the red pill.”

“But we still have the V,” Christine said.

Olivia scoffed. “Do we? I’m certain that you’ll find that V deleted itself as it tried to black us. You’ve been a pawn in a much bigger game than either of us could comprehend. My guess is that he chose you because you quit the Dooms. He chose Rosco because he could be bought. He chose your Mr. Diggs because he was desperate.”

“He also mentioned Jack Nabbit,” Christine said. “He was the proxy. Maybe he could back up our story.”

Olivia waved her hand dismissively. “If he even knows. Jack was involved in Reevetown of his own accord, so Nabbit’s not above a back door deal,” she said. “Even so, I can’t see him passing up the levels, not to mention the popularity points, the Tower would’ve gained him. I doubt he’s any more aware what transpired at the Tower than you were before you took the red pill. It would appear Nabbit was just as much a pawn as you were.”

They sat in silence for a moment, each trying to make sense of this mess.

Christine balled up her fists. “I bet Mr. Diggs had something to do with that little labor dispute that brought me and my mom to the Platform in the first place!”

“It’s possible.” Olivia shrugged. “It’s also possible that Havok just took advantage of the situation once it developed. He had to be actively looking for some way to make this happen if he wanted it to be you. And it had to be you,” she said. “The fact that you were a former Doom who might have some insight into how they played was one of the bigger reasons I signed you. Either way, Diggs is dead and I’m not sure we have time to track down Nabbit to see what happened. Our options are limited.”

“Are you going to fire me?” Christine asked, tears brimming her eyes.

“No, but the guild may call for both our contracts by the time this is over. We need a way to turn this around and clear your name. Does anyone else know about that V?”

Christine shrugged. “My aunt Maggie. She read it up to the part about the pills and then deleted it.”

Olivia raised an eyebrow. “She was in your Vmail?”

“She says she feels bad about it, but it’s not the first time she’s done something like that. She decided to tell me about it after she heard Havok telling the news that I’d hackerjacked my levels.”

“You do realize that the timing of your aunt’s revelation may not be coincidental.”

The thought had actually never occurred to Christine before. Giving it some thought, she shook her head. “No, I know my aunt Maggie. She’s a bit of a baba yaga, but I don’t think she’s necessarily in league with Havok.”

“What makes you so sure?” Olivia asked.

“Because of Glinda. My mom would pick up one of my cousins and beat her with ‘em.”

Olivia snorted. “You have a curious family, Bloodskull. Does your mother know about the V?”

Christine shook her head.

“Anybody else?”

“N-no… Hold on. There might be somebody,” she realized. “Harley Crimmeans.”

Her guildmaster looked genuinely stunned for a moment. “As in Baldur Splintershield? Why would he be involved in this? What haven’t you told me?”

“It turns out he’s a fan,” Christine said. “At least, that’s what his brother told me. Davis Crimmeans is my, um, supervisor in the Colonial Trials. After the Eddie Mondo interview, Davis said his brother had some inside information that Havok might be trying to set me up and that he’d sent me a V that might have more details.”

“And did he?”

Christine did her best to look apologetic. “I hadn’t had a chance to look for it yet.”

Olivia stared at her for a few tense moments. She was clearly angry at Christine. Maybe even angry enough to fire her. Curiously, Olivia smiled. “If what you say is true, I may have a way out of this mess.”

“How?”

Olivia smirked. “You’re not going to like it.”

23 – Gauntlet

Guildmaster Trollbogies knew her business. In less than an hour, she’d announced a press conference and invited Havok and Eddie Mondo to be a part of it.

In the meantime, Christine checked her Vmail once more. In light of recent events and Trollbogies warning not to jack into the system until the press conference, it probably wasn’t the best idea, but there was nothing to do and she was ready to climb the walls.

The message from Oscar Diggs was gone like it’d never existed. Trollbogies had expected as much, so Christine tried not to let that dismay her. She was lucky she hadn’t been deleted along with it!

She found the V from Harley. It turned out to be fan mail, more or less. No warnings of foul play from Havok or anyone else for that matter, but it did contain the surprising proposal that, if she made it to Tarak, that Baldur and Bloodskull team up. She wasn’t sure if Davis would find that out of line, so she didn’t immediately respond to the offer. Besides, she wasn’t even supposed to be online right now.

She was about to unplug when she noticed a new V from Davis. Deciding she could use some good news, she opened the message.

Davis was suited up as a full-fledged knight of the Magnus Centarii. He was walking toward his monstrous grasshopper mount, helmet held in the crook of his arm. “Christine, we got a sighting on the devilpede. It attacked an outpost on the border of the Southern Fields near where you saw that smaller one the other day and a caravan of weeders enroute to Drackenwold. It’s big. Maybe the biggest we’ve ever encountered. If you get this in time, grab Ebenezer and meet me in Drackenwold.”

He vaulted himself atop his insect steed and then looked at her one last time and grinned. “See you there, Christine. I love you. Davis, out.”

She unplugged. Whether she was flushed from the thought of battling the devilpede or the fact that Davis had once again said he loved her was up for debate. Maybe a bit of both.

Still, she couldn’t afford to go rushing off into battle with him just now. Trollbogies said that she needed to be ready when the moment came. No distractions.

Just when she thought she was going to jump completely out of her own skin, she got the summons. Jacking back in, she found herself in the Dreadknights’ guild hall. The common table was gone. Instead, Christine ala Bloodskull found herself seated at a short table beside her guildmaster, Captain Belch Hammerhands, Killmore, MikeMonkeyMike and Tantrum Bloodfire. The other end of the room was filled with media representatives. At the center of the room was an octagonal raised dais, which was empty at present.

At her arrival, Trollbogies nodded at Captain Hammerhands. Belch slammed his fists on the table. “Order! Order! This meeting of the Dreadknights of Outland has now come to order!”

Bloodskull steeled herself. Trollbogies hadn’t really told her what she had in mind, so she was basically going into this blind.

“Welcome to the Hall of Dread!” Trollbogies intoned. “It is Trollbogies, guildmaster of the Dreadknights of Outland who speaks before you today!”

“You are guests of the Dreadknights of Outland!” Belch shouted. “Do not forget your place!”

“The Dreadknights recognize Eddie Mondo of Level Up,” Trollbogies said, her voice a deep rumble.

The hobgoblyn bowed deeply. “Thank you for this truly unprecedented invitation inside the Hall of Dread, Guildmaster.”

“Charges have made against the Dreadknights of Outland.” Trollbogies gestured toward Bloodskull. “Havok Hurtlocker seeks to discredit one of our own.”

“For those tuning in,” Eddie said, “Ogress Bloodskull has been accused of hackerjacking her levels by none other than her old guildmaster, Havok Hurtlocker of Doomsmack. Trollbogies, the question first and foremost on everyone’s mind is: is there any truth to Havok’s allegations?”

“Bloodskull is no hackerjacker,” Trollbogies said. “She passed Eddie Mondo’s lie detector, did she not?”

“Indeed, she did,” Eddie said, beaming widely. “With Trollbogies’ permission, Level Up is about to show our viewers exclusive deleted footage from yesterday’s interview.” As the holographic footage appeared above the center dais, Eddie set the scene. “This was during our joint interview with Rogar Thunderhammer and the Dreadknights. Rogar had been giving his take on the leveljacking scandal that Goldenboy is now enmeshed in and I asked him this follow-up question.” He gestured toward the holographic replay.

“I’m assuming you feel even more strongly about hackerjackers?” the holographic Eddie asked Rogar.

“No question. Those guys are the worst!” Rogar shouted.

Christine nodded.

“I see you nodding your head, Bloodskull. I take it you agree with Rogar’s assessment?” Eddie asked.

“Obviously.”

“I’m a little surprised.”

“After what went down with Rosco,” Trollbogies said, “why would that answer surprise you?”

“Wasn’t your character levelled up with a hack over your hiatus?”

Bloodskull rose to her feet. “What?! That’s just a lie! I earned everything I’ve ever got!”

“So you didn’t have someone level hack Bloodskull while you were off playing the Prometheus Initiative? Because I gotta say your skills since you’ve come back are a whole lot more impressive than they were when you worked for Doomsmack.”

“This is slander, Eddie!” Trollbogies said.

“Unless it’s true,” Eddie said.

“Enough!” Bloodskull yelled. “I did not level hack my character! To the best of my knowledge, I don’t even know any hackerjackers! Why are you accusing me of this? Did someone tell you I was hacked? Was it Havok?”

“She passed,” Circe Maximus said.

“What?” Eddie asked. “Edger’s dice! Edit all of that out. Quickly! And cut to commercial. I’m very sorry, my friends. My informant made this sound like it was rock solid, but she passed the lie detector. If this is in any way true, well, she’s not aware of it.”

“Aware of what? Who told you this?” Christine asked.

“It doesn’t matter. I will deal with it. Somebody obviously set us up with a false tip,” he said, “but no worries. It’ll never air. No one’s using Eddie Mondo for this kind of dirty character assassination.”

The replay ended. Christine had to force herself not to mouth Circe’s deleted coda of “Not this time anyway.”

“Bloodskull speaks truth when she says she is no hackerjacker,” Trollbogies said.

Eddie Mondo nodded and then assumed an expression of feigned reluctance. “But it is my understanding that we have reason to believe Bloodskull was hackerjacked against her knowledge. Is that correct?”

Everyone was looking at Bloodskull. She looked at Trollbogies, who nodded.

“It is,” Bloodskull said.

There was a great commotion as the assembled press representatives each clamored to ask her questions about the breaking scandal.

Belch pounded the table. “Order! Order!” When they had quieted, he added, “Bring forth the accused!”

To everyone’s surprise, the dais split in two and a pair of figures rose from the opening. A dwarf clad in black armor held a hand cannon to the back of a chained, hooded prisoner who, given his size and musculature, was certainly an ogre or troll.

“The Dreadknights recognize Baldur Splintershield.”

Baldur bowed his mohawked head. The Dark Dwarf, was clad in black armor and covered in tattoos. He managed to look formidable even in the presence of ogres and trolls.

MikeMonkeyMike walked toward the Dark Dwarf with a good sized treasure chest and laid it at Baldur’s feet. “You want to count it?” Mikey quipped.

“No need,” Baldur said. “I have a standing deal for those who cheat me. For each coin I’m shorted, I’ll take a head from the shoulders of someone you love.” He offered Mikey a ghastly grin.

Mikey stared at him mouth agape. Glancing back at Captain Hammerhands, he asked, “Somebody did double count this, right?”

At a sharp glance from Trollbogies, he hurried to resume his post.

Baldur hit his prisoner in the gut with the pommel of an iron mace. As his captive doubled over in pain, he snatched the hood off his head to reveal the incredibly angry ogre.

“The Dreadknights recognize Havok Hurtlocker,” Trollbogies said, letting a hint of amusement slip into her rumbling voice.

“How dare you –”

“The Dreadknights have no fear of your threats,” Trollbogies said. “The Dreadknights have no fear of you at all. It is you who fear the Dreads.”

“You wish,” Havok said. “I have to admit, this is cool. Having Baldur kidnap me. The Hall of Dread. Very bold.” He looked around the room, grinned at the sight of the press and settled his gaze on Bloodskull. “Hey you. Miss me?”

Bloodskull stood up. Trollbogies waved for her to sit down.

“You didn’t arrange all of this just because of little ol’ me, did you?” Havok asked with a leer.

“You’ve been accusing Bloodskull of being a hackerjacker.”

“Because she is.”

“No, you set her up.”

Havok scoffed. “I was wrong. This is just sad. Now you’re just making stuff up.”

“Am I?”

“Where’s your proof?”

“You have the vexati?” Trollbogies asked Baldur.

“Mr. Nabbit is waiting in the wings,” Baldur replied.

The look of smug confidence on Havok’s face faltered.

“And I too am willing to testify of what I know,” Baldur added, stroking his braided mustaches, “even to the Gamelords themselves, if necessary.”

Havok growled. “What do you want, Trollbogies?”

“We know what you’ve done. We don’t care about that. We’re here to throw down the gauntlet. Here is the Dreadknights’ challenge to Doomsmack: Stop hiding behind these games and let the Dooms and Dreads face each other at last in glorious battle!”

Havok didn’t immediately respond.

Killmore spat and crossed his arms. “Coward! The snake plays these games and hopes to disqualify the Dreadknights because he is afraid to face us. Behold!” He smote his breast with one ogrish fist. “Before you stand the cream of the Dreadknights of Outland. Your whole guild could not hope to stand against us!”

“Are you proposing that the six of you could take all fifteen members of Doomsmack?” Eddie Mondo asked. “Wow! You’d really face the Dreads in the Finals at those odds?”

“The Dreads have no fear of the Dooms,” Killmore said. “Bloodskull was their best player.”

Havok scoffed. “You sorely underestimate us. As you say, Bloodskull is a former Doomsmack member, and she practically carried your entire team during the match against the Golden Gears! The Dreadknights are nothing!”

“Then you accept our challenge?” Trollbogies asked, hands steepled before her.

Havok hesitated.

Trollbogies sneered. “Even with the odds we give him, look how his fear of the Dreadknights causes him to hesitate.”

“Fine!” Havok said. “On one condition.”

Trollbogies cocked her trollish head to the side. “I’m listening.”

“I pick the venue and the contest.”

“You have one advantage. Now you ask for three? Behold the towering confidence of Doomsmack!”

“I don’t need no advantage,” Havok said. “”You’re throwing down the gauntlet… well, so be it. It’ll be my best six against you lot here running the gauntlet.”

“Wait!” Eddie Mondo said. “Are you saying you want the final match of the Guild Wars to be a gauntlet-style competition?”

Havok nodded.

Trollbogies raised a bushy eyebrow. “Best overall score or aggregate?”

“Aggregate. Two at a time. One from each guild. Head-to-head. Me and Bloodskull go last.”

Openly scoffing, Trollbogies looked over the assembled Dreadknights and then back at Havok. “When and where?”

“Midnight tonight,” Havok said. “Meet us at the Tower of Perpetual Peril.”

Bloodskull’s heart sank. She tried not to show her despair, but the scorn in Havok’s eyes let her know that her former guildmaster knew he’d hit his intended mark. The whole world thought she’d gone within five floors of the Tower’s top. Unless she got really lucky, there was no way she could do anywhere near as good this time. He was going to make an open show of her.

“Midnight then,” Trollbogies said. “This meeting is adjourned.”

“Out! Out! Out before I beat you out!” Captain Hammerhands shouted. For emphasis, he picked up the table and tossed it into the assembled media representatives. “The Hall of Dread is closed! Get out!”

In less than a minute, the guild hall was empty of all but six Dreadknights.

“It worked,” Killmore said. He glanced at Bloodskull with his usual scorn. “I hope it was worth it.”

“We shall see,” Trollbogies said. “Havok accepted our challenge to save face on a live broadcast, but he may yet try to get us disqualified.”

“You told them?” Bloodskull asked. Her face flushed with embarrassment.

“They deserved to know,” Trollbogies said.

“Besides, it’s not like you did anything wrong, Bloodskull,” MikeMonkeyMike said. “This was a setup from the start.”

“Either way, I suggest you all get some rest,” Trollbogies said. “The match is only a few hours away.”

“Shouldn’t we take advantage of this time to practice then?” Tantrum asked.

Trollbogies shook his head. “It’s too late. You’d only tire yourself out. Besides, there is no practicing the Tower. The very point of it is that it’s different every time.”

“She’s right. I’ve ran the Tower a few times,” Belch said. “There’s no learning curve because it’s different each time.”

“I’m not liking the part where we go in two by two,” Killmore said.

MikeMonkeyMike scoffed. “It’s like Noah’s Ark in reverse.”

Killmore rolled his eyes at Mikey. “What I’m saying is that it’s bad enough trying to survive the Tower without having to worry about a Doom buffoon trying to off me.”

“And you know they’re going to cheat,” Mikey said.

The others nodded.

“It is what it is.” Trollbogies took a moment to survey them. “Do you have anything to add, Bloodskull?”

Bloodskull hesitated. “He picked the venue for a reason.”

“I need a moment alone with Bloodskull,” Trollbogies said.

After the others left the session, Trollbogies looked at Christine and smiled. “I know what you’re thinking, but know this: I’ve seen veteran gamers not get past the first ten levels and I’ve seen novices spend their entire lives trying to recreate that lucky run where they reached the top twenty. The Tower is completely random. A bad run tonight would prove nothing.”

“Then why pick it at all?”

Trollbogies shrugged. “My guess is that he picked it was in the hopes that he could psyche you out. That’s probably why he paired himself against you. Well, that and the ratings.” She shook her head. “Havok is clever in all the worst ways.”

“I remember,” Bloodskull said. “I just didn’t think he was capable of all of this.”

“He capable of far worse. I don’t know if you picked up on it or not, but he nearly turned the tables on us during that press conference. Do not underestimate him.”

“I won’t,” she said. She sighed heavily. “His timing wasn’t great either. I was supposed to join Rogar and Luckbane tonight.”

“I see,” Trollbogies said. “There’s no way you can do both. I know you really want to join their adventure. Let’s be honest: who wouldn’t? Even so, the Dreadknights need you tonight. I can’t let you go until the match is over. I’m sorry.”

“I believe you,” Christine said. She shook her head. “I need to let Rogar know what’s going on, so he has a chance to refill his roster.”

Trollbogies gave her a sad sort of smile. “You know what? You have enough on your plate. I’ll talk to Rogar for you. And I’ll do everything I can to keep you in his good graces.”

Christine put on a brave face and tried to bury the soul-sucking disappointment she was feeling right now. “Thanks. That would be slaughter of you.” Tell him I –”Without warning, the world around her began to fade in and out, alternating between a clear image and a red haze. “Edger’s Void! I’m getting an emergency flash. I gotta go!”

“Take care of your emergency, but let me know what’s going on. If you need to cancel, I need to know sooner than later.”

“Understood,” Christine said.

24 – Devilpede

When Christine terminated the nodal connection, her Aunt Maggie was standing over her. Her aunt’s face was flushed with emotion.

“What have you been doing?” Maggie asked. The words came out between clenched teeth. Her aunt was really mad this time.

“The Dreadknights called a press conference. I was contractually obligated to attend.”

Maggie seemed confused by her answer. “Oh, of course.” She took a deep breath. “There’s been another attack, Chrissy. A devilpede. We’ve almost lost everything. Everything we’ve worked for in these Trials is just… That demon had its way with the rabdils and it’s killed a lot of people, too. Killed me! Do they fail you if you die? They’re going to fail us. I know it. You need to do something!”

“What do you expect me to do?”

“I don’t know!” her aunt wailed. Maggie slumped down to the floor and sobbed. Christine moved instinctively to comfort her, but was brought up short when her aunt’s head snapped up to glare at her. “We’re going to lose everything! Everything! You don’t care. You got the Guild Wars! But what about me and my boys? What about us? If we fail the Trials, that’s it. We’ll just be stuck on this floating prison until it rusts away! Is that what you want?”

“No,” Christine said. She took note of the whiskey bottle on the kitchen counter. Things started to make a little more sense.

Maggie sneered. “Oh, sure you don’t. I bet you’re just loving it, seeing me like this. Aren’t you? After the way I treated you…” She despaired for a moment. She looked so lost. Then she started cackling. “Why did I even try? It was never gonna happen! You knew that, didn’t you? Yes, smart girl. Clever girl. You knew. You knew!” She stabbed the air with her finger to accent her accusation.

“Aunt Maggie, are you drunk?”

Her aunt stared at her, the very picture of pickled offense. Then her eyes rolled back into her head and she passed out.

Christine shook her head. Her aunt was never much of a drinker. She must’ve been really and truly upset to get this snockered. Davis had said he and the rest of the militia were after a devilpede. It looked like things had gotten out of hand.

Pangs of worry gnawed at the pit of her stomach. A lot of the people of Drackenwold were real live Colonists. If that monster was on a rampage…

She decided to check in with Davis and see what was going on.

Putting thought to action, she jacked back into the system and dialed up the Colonial Trials. As the town of Drackenwold materialized around her, she received a transmission.

“Christine Johanssen, stand by for further instructions.”

“Who is this?” she asked. She looked at her hand. She wasn’t wearing her usual armor. Instead, she was dressed as a member of the Magnus Centarii. In her hand, she held a power stave. She took a quick inventory of her other weapons as she waited.

“I am called John. Drackenwold is under attack. A devilpede of unprecedented size has killed –”

“I know about the devilpede,” Christine said. “I was briefed on the situation when it started.” Drackenwold was truly under attack. In fact, the building she found herself standing in was so damaged that it took her a moment to realize she’d spawned in the barracks as per usual. Even through the fire and smoke, she could see that only a few walls were still standing. Fiery pools of Devilpede spit littered the ground. She threw herself toward the door and crashed out of the building to save herself.

After Christine picked herself off the ground, she looked around. Half the buildings of Drackenwold were burning. Villagers were running around in a panic. Most of them appeared to be trying to find a place to hide. A lumbering rabdil rounded the corner up ahead of her and began stampeding down the cobbled street. The be-tusked creature was wild-eyed with fear. Christine dashed out of its way and readied herself to face whatever was chasing it.

To her horror, more rabdils began pouring into the street. The elephant-sized mutants were in a full panic and were trampling everything in her path. A child ran into the street, intent on reaching her mother on the other side.

“Is this armor fully operational, John?” Christine asked. “Including shields?”

“Yes, but –”

Christine dashed into the path of the stampede and scooped up the child. Turning toward the rabdils, she held up her hand and shouted, “Mystic force!”

Her armor glowed bright blue for a moment and then a forcefield of the same color formed around them. When the herd reached her, there was a big crash and the sound of an explosion. A second later, rabdils were flying away from the mystic forcefield in every direction, crashing into the buildings and rubble on either side of her.

The shield faded as the threat neutralized. The little girl broke from Christine’s embrace and ran to her mother. Christine smiled. She was really glad right now she’d convinced Davis to outfit the guard as mystic knights.

“Congratulations,” John said. “Your bravery has cost us the lives of seven rabdils and injured several humans. You’re lucky you didn’t kill anyone else.”

Christine’s blood boiled at the criticism. “I saved the girl. We can eat the rabdils. Where’s Davis Crimmeans? He’s my supervisor. I need to meet up with my team.”

She was met with silence.

“Where is he, John?”

“Hi, this Barclay Reiter,” a new voice said. “I’m the head of GameComm’s security here on Tarak. You’ll have to excuse John. He’s a mutant and you know how they feel about rabdils.”

“Um, sorry. I didn’t mean – I didn’t know.” A lot of mutants wouldn’t eat the meat of any other genetically-created creature on principle. Apparently John was one of those who valued all mutant life with equal sanctity, animal or sentient.

“Look, I’m going to try to walk you through this. This thing is on a rampage. We are sending in a team, but they will not arrive for another ten to twenty minutes.”

“Great. What do you want me to do?”

“We need to contain it somehow. We tried to lure it into the rabdil pens but it just made a mess. Devilpedes don’t really have a taste for rabdil meat.”

“They prefer horses. I don’t suppose you can tell me where I can find one of those?”

“Maybe. Hold on. There’s one in a barn two blocks to your right. Think you can get to it?”

“Um, sure, but we got a problem.”

The town’s water tower had been severely damaged during the rabdil stampede. It began groaning and buckling until it was obvious that it was about to collapse. A man and woman were hiding in its shadow. Christine began running toward them.

“Save the man,” Barclay said.

“I can save them both.”

“Don’t waste your energy. The woman’s a drone.”

“Right.”

Christine rushed in, but it was too late. The tower collapsed on the helpless pair. A moment later, a water bomb hit the cobbled streets, washing Christine backwards with the force of a tsunami wave. In its wake, she sputtered to her feet. Looking back at the tower’s base, she asked, “Did they make it?”

“The drone is functional. It’s administering CPR. The Colonist should be fine.”

“No thanks to me.”

“Look, shake it off. I’ve read your file. Even if you’re not Ogress Bloodskull down there, you have a gamer’s instincts – and you’re a damned good one at that. I can’t think of anyone else who would’ve just pulled that stunt with the rabdils.”

“Yeah, but we both know I got lucky. I saw that move on a livecast once. I was hoping we’d get to train a bit more. As it stands, I know way more about being an ogress than being a Magnus Centarii.”

“I know where you’re coming from but you’re literally all I’ve got right now, ok?”

Christine sighed. “Where’s the devilpede now?”

She heard Barclay groan. “Um, it’s headed for the barn. It’s got the horse’s scent, I think. Might beat you to it.”

Christine began running. “Not if I can help it. Look, what happened back there can’t happen again. I could’ve got to that guy if I’d know the other one was a drone. Davis had a way of showing me the drones. Can you do that to me?”

“Good idea. Initiate protocol Alpha Romeo Golf Uniform Sierra. That better?”

“It certainly can’t hurt things. How close is my skyhopper?”

“Ebenezer is too far away to be of assistance, but I can summon Improbable to your location.”

“Improbable?”

“Davis Crimmeans’ skyhopper.”

She shook her head and grinned. Of course he’d named his something like that. That was just like him.

She slowed down when she reached the barn. The streets were empty now. Was the devilpede already inside? Taking a chance, she bolted for the barn’s entrance.

It was darker inside, but she could see the horse restlessly pawing in its stall. Hurrying toward it, she opened the stall doors. The horse was obviously spooked, so she took a deep breath and forced herself to walk towards it slowly. “Hey, big fellow,” she said, speaking to it gently to calm it. She kept her hands at her sides. “I just need you to calm down so I can get you out of here. That’s it. Nice and easy.” She placed her hand on the horse’s forehead. It relaxed visibly.

Suddenly, it snorted and its ears pricked forward. Christine looked over her shoulder. The devilpede was snaking down out of the upper levels of the barn.

The horse reared up, knocking Christine aside. As it fled the barn, the devilpede gave chase.

Getting to her feet, Christine ran out of the barn. “It got away.”

“We might be able to get it back,” Barclay said. “Your ride’s here.”

Improbable darkened the skies above her. It landed heavily and clacked its mandibles in greeting. In short order, she’d mounted the skyhopper and they were airborne once more.

It took less than a minute to spot the horse and its monstrous pursuer. “Found it. Now what?”

“You’re going to grab the horse with the skyhopper and use it as a carrot on a stick.”

“How do I do that?”

“Just get close to the horse and I’ll do the rest.”

“What? How?”

“The skyhopper’s a simulacrum. I’ll just program it to grab the horse.”

Christine shook her head. It’d never occurred to her, but, of course, the skyhopper wasn’t really a giant insect. It was a biological robot. “On it,” she said.

She urged her mount to dive down over the horse. Sure enough, it grabbed the very alarmed horse with its forelimbs and carried the struggling animal skyward. The devilpede screeched in outrage.

“Don’t go too high,” Barclay said. “Stay just out of reach.”

“OK, fine,” she said, “but where am I going exactly.”

“Head for the windmill. You’re going to need to give yourself a little bit of a lead if we’re going to do this.”

“Do what?”

“We’re going to trap the devilpede inside the windmill. You’re going to keep it there until my team arrives.”

“Wouldn’t it be better to lead it away from Drackenwold entirely?”

“It’ll just come back. We need to trap it somewhere so we can deal with it.””

She landed in front of the windmill well ahead of the devilpede. The skyhopper held the horse gently yet firmly in its grip. Grabbing its reins, she led it toward the front doors.

“Um, Christine, we have a problem,” Barclay said. “The devilpede’s lost interest.”

“What? But they love horses!” she said.

“Not apparently more than they love furrybites.”

“You’re kidding me. Where is it headed?”

“The church.”

“There are furrybites in the church?” She let go of the horse and mounted Improbable once more. In seconds, she was flying back toward the church.

“Checking. Ah. Thermal imaging shows a probable nest under the building. That must be what it’s after,” Barclay said. “Good grief. Some of the Colonists have barricaded themselves inside.”

Christine arrived at the church shortly. The church was a dependable structure made of stone. The doors were made of solid oak banded with iron. Apparently, the doors were locked because the devilpede was scurrying across the tiled roof toward the bell tower. Spotting her, the monster shot a long stream of fiery goop at her. The flamethrower nearly caught Improbable in its path. The skyhopper banked out of the way, Christine took a few shots at the devilpede with her powerlance. It shrieked as bolts of energy splashed across its hard exoskeleton. Another flamethrower attack forced Improbable to the ground to avoid being barbecued.

Christine urged her skyhopper back into the fray. It used its long legs to jump onto the roof. Vaulting off Improbable, Christine ran along the rooftop with the ninja like grace of a Magnus Centarii, powerlance blazing. Overwhelmed, the devilpede slithered into the bell tower.

Growling with frustration, Christine remounted Improbable and took to the skies. There was no point in following the devilpede into the bell tower. In fact, that was good way to get ambushed. Still, she couldn’t leave it in the church with the villagers who’d barricaded themselves inside.

“Good work, Christine!” Barclay said. “Now make sure it doesn’t leave.”

“What? What about the people inside?”

“I’m sorry, Christine, but this is our best chance at containing this problem. Just make sure it stays put until my team arrives.”

Christine growled with frustration. She thought of Davis. She had no idea where he was or if he was even alive, but she knew she couldn’t just let the devilpede have its way with the people he called friends and look him in the eye. She needed a way in. The very fact that they’d barricaded the doors prevented her from using them too. Fortunately, there was a rather big stained glass window…

Improbable burst through the window in a shower of glass, startling the devilpede. She flew over the heads of the villagers, who were hunkered down near the altar. The devilpede had entered the sanctuary via the bell tower at the front of the chapel causing a panicked stampede toward the opposite end of the church. It was in the act of surging forward to pick off a few stragglers when Christine burst through the window. It grabbed a drone up its scorpion claws and shredded it into pieces. Christine was really glad she wasn’t seeing the full effect right now, because she imagined the carnage was pretty gross if you were seeing the drone as a colonist.

The devilpede backpedaled at her entrance.

As the skyhopper landed, she took a quick survey of the villagers. There were a few drones amongst the Colonists. Staying atop Improbable, Christine pointed her lance at the monster. The devilpede arched up like a cobra, fiery goop dripping from its jaws while its scorpion-like mouth pincers clacked in anticipation. They stared at each other, each waiting for the other to make a move.

“What are you doing, Christine?”

“You need to give me a chance to save these people,” she hissed into her commlink. Speaking louder, she said, “I need everyone to get out now, except you, you, you and you.” Christine pointed to the drones in turn, all the while keeping one eye on the monster.

“Why us?” one of the drones asked as the flesh-and-blood colonists hastily exited through the hole she’d made on her way in.

“You guys are in the Trials,” she said. “This is a test of loyalty.”

They looked at each other. Finally, one of them nodded. “We’re ready to lay down our lives for Drackenwold.” The others nodded agreement.

“Find a weapon,” Christine said.

“Christine, those drones are programmed as peasants. They don’t stand a chance against that thing. What are you doing, Christine?” Barclay asked.

“I saved your colonists but I made a big hole in your church. Now, I’m going to keep this demon busy long enough for your team to get here.”

“The Marshall and his team are still a few minutes away.”

She glared at the devilpede. “Keep me posted.”

The devilpede hissed and crept forward on countless legs.

“It’s moving,” Christine said. “Form a line on either side of me,” she barked to the drones. “Help is on the way, but it must not leave this place.”

The devilpede was staring at her with those alien compound eyes in a way that was still somehow unmistakably malevolent. One of its eyes had a long scar across it.

Suddenly, Christine knew.

“Oh no,” she said. “This is the devilpede I ran into the other day.”

“Say again?” Barclay asked. “How’s that possible?”

“I read the report on that incident,” John said. “I specifically recall it because your encounter was unique. The devilpede was smaller than anticipated.”

“Well, it’s a lot bigger now,” she said. “And I think it recognizes me.”

“It must be a coinc–”

Christine didn’t hear anything else he had to say because the devilpede chose that moment to strike. Surging forward, it sprayed Improbable down with fiery death. Christine just managed to leap free of her mount.

One of the drones ran forward with a war cry on her lips and a brass candlestick in her hand. She never got to use her makeshift war club. The devilpede scooped her up in its pincers and threw her remains against opposite walls of the sanctuary.

The drones looked at each other uncertainly.

“Attack!” Christine yelled, firing her powerlance at the creature repeatedly. The devilpede screamed as energy blasts rippled across its body. The drones ran in to harry the creature. It grabbed a pew and then another, tossing them at the drones, crushing them beneath their weight. Then it dove under another pew and began rapidly crawling toward Christine.

From Christine’s perspective, it looked like a tidal wave of disintegrating wooden pews was coming at her. She couldn’t get a clear shot at the thing until it tossed the closest pew to the altar.

She got in a single shot, further damaging its scarred eye. The monster screeched. Through a haze of pain, the devilpede still managed to knock her weapon out of her hands during its enraged thrashings. Christine was knocked backwards into the sacramental table. It came after her, hoping to take advantage. One of the drones had grabbed the big brass cross that usually rested on it as a weapon, but the big metal plates they used for Eucharist were still present. She grabbed one and used it as a shield against the demon’s pincers and then shoved it into its open mouth. While the devilpede gagged, she dashed away from it.

Drawing her sword, she waited for the monster’s next attack.

“Christine, you’ve done your job. You need to get out of the church,” Barclay said. “Our team is in range.”

“They’re here?”

“No, but there’s a rocket heading your way.”

A rocket?! Apparently they were through with keeping up appearances. “That’s just great,” she said.

“It was your choice to go in,” Barclay said. “I told you to stay outside and keep it contained.”

Christine didn’t respond. She didn’t trust herself to keep a civil tongue. How could he be so cold? Her mom was right. GameComm did not care about these Colonists at all. If she hadn’t intervened, Barclay would’ve just let that devilpede have its way with the Colonists. Even worse, any survivors would’ve been blown up along with the church.

The devilpede hissed, bringing her attention back to her present predicament. She started making her way to the back of the church where she’d entered through the stained glass. The devilpede moved in quick. She was forced to swing wildly to bat it away. “You know, this would be a whole lot easier if I were Bloodskull!” she complained to no one in particular. “How much time do I have?”

“Less than twenty seconds. Get out now!”

She shook her head. “I can’t. It’ll just follow me out.”

“Fine,” he said. “At least go down fighting. Request granted. Look at your hands.”

Christine looked down at the hands and arms of an ogress. She grinned savagely. Tossing the sword aside, she leapt at the devilpede. The monster was surprised by the sudden turn of events. Bloodskull grabbed one of the devilpede’s claws and ripped it out of its socket like she was pulling apart crab legs. The creature screeched and locked her body in the embrace of its other scorpion pincers. As it opened its mandibles to take a bit out of her she rumbled, “Nope!” and punched it in the head.

Shrieking with pain, it tossed her aside like a ragdoll. She hit a far wall and tumbled to the floor. Getting to her feet, she asked, “How much time?”

“Five seconds.”

Nodding, Bloodskull ran for the front door of the cathedral. The devilpede gave chase, crawling over wrecked pews and then the walls themselves to reach her. She reached the vestibule at the front of the church. The door was barricaded from the inside. It was no match for a charging ogress.

Bloodskull exploded through the door as the rocket hit its target. The blast shot her out the front doors like a cannonball, sending her through the wall of a nearby building and out the other side.

When she got to her feet, her ears were ringing and everything in her body felt broken or bruised. She turned to the smoking crater that was once the church. “Did we get it?”

“No signs of movement,” Barclay said. “No signs of life. Good job, Bloodskull.”

“Thank you very much.”

“You really do have a gamer’s heart. Me? I would’ve just unplugged before the rocket hit.”

“I know that.”

“So why didn’t you?”

She sighed deeply. “Because I want to know what happened to Davis,” she said, “and I got the feeling I’d never get to ask you if I unplugged.”

“Christine, I –”

“Don’t sell me a jabberwocky, Barclay,” she said, fighting back tears. “Davis loves Drackenwold, but he wasn’t here. He should’ve been here fighting that devilpede with his last breath! He wouldn’t leave these people to face this alone… unless he didn’t have a choice. It doesn’t make sense.”

“He’s gone, Christine.”

Christine’s mind reeled, refusing to accept what he was saying. She felt disconnected from reality. Her body betrayed her with tears. “That’s not true.”

“I’m afraid it is.”

She sunk to her knees in despair.

Barclay disconnected her session.

25 – Doomsmack

Her mom found her curled up in bed, her face still wet with tears.

Glinda’s expression was a mixture of worry and surprise and she reached up and stroked her cheek. “Christine? What wrong? What happened?”

“He’s dead.” Her voice sounded hollow. Distant.

“Who’s dead?”

“Davis Crimmeans,” Christine said. “There was a devilpede attack. He wasn’t there. He’s gone.”

Glinda frowned. “Are you talking about one of your games?”

“No, I’m talking about the Colonial Trials, mom,” she said. “Davis was my… supervisor.”

Her mother smiled kindly. “Oh, Chrissy, I know those simulations can seem so real, but you have to shake it off. You have a big game to get ready for.”

Christine sat up and looked her mother in the eye. “You don’t understand. The Trials are real.”

“Christine, are you OK? You’re starting to worry me. The Trials are a simulation. Everyone knows that.” She placed a hand on her daughter’s shoulder. “I don’t know what happened to you tonight, but it wasn’t real.”

Christine opened her mouth to protest.

“What were you even doing logging into the Trials right before the biggest match of your life?” her mother asked.

“Maggie said that –”

Glinda’s eyes blazed. “So this is my sister’s doing. I think it’s high time I took care of this situation once and for all.” Before Christine could say anything, Glinda stormed off.

Christine struggled out of bed after her. When she caught up to her mother, Glinda was hauling Maggie off her cot and tossing her to the floor. Glinda pointed an accusing finger down at her sister’s sprawled frightened form. “Margaret Mombi Hamilton! I have had enough of your meddling in my daughter’s affairs!”

“Mom, stop!” Christine placed a hand on her mom’s shoulder.

Glinda jerked her shoulder away “No, Chrissy. I came here to help you, Mags! I passed up a promotion in the union to come here and make sure that you and your boys had a place to work and live. And this is how you treat me?”

Maggie looked from Christine to Glinda, clearly bewildered. Being woken up in such rough manner was almost certainly sobering, but she still had no idea what was going on. “What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about the way you treat my daughter. I dragged her off to this godforsaken rust bucket on the ocean, away from her friends and everything she knew to help you. The one thing she gets pleasure from, the one thing she’s really good at, you keep trying to sabotage.”

“I’m not trying to sabotage her!” Maggie screeched. “I’m proud of what my niece has done in Guild Wars.”

“No thanks to you!”

“And she knows that,” Christine said, placing herself between them. “Me and Aunt Maggie have already talked about this. She apologized and everything and, you know what? I believed her. So can we stop this already? I don’t need the drama right now.”

Glinda looked like she’d been slapped. “I can’t believe you’re defending her, after everything she’s done.”

“Mom, drop it.”

Glinda looked from her daughter to her sister and then threw her hands up in the air. “What the Edger’s Void is going on here?”

“You were right,” Christine said. “About the Colonists. If what I just went through is any indication, the lives of the Colonists mean exactly squat to GameComm.”

“Chrissy, what happened?” Maggie asked.

“They were going to blow up a church full of Colonists just to kill that devilpede, Maggie. I saved them, but they were gonna do it.”

“Christine, it was just a simulation,” Glinda said.

“What kind of GameComm simulation shows GameComm as the villain? They showed me. We were running remote-controlled simulacrums. They said it makes it easier to transition live recruits into Drackenwold.”

“There were rumors,” Maggie said. “I mean, we weren’t allowed to say anything that even suggested we weren’t really there. It was supposed to be practice for life on the real life Tarak, but you’d slip sometimes. It’s only natural. I remember talking to someone from the Eastern Fields. Silas was his name. I was just joking around and I told him I couldn’t wait for all of it to be real and he just gave me the funniest look. There were other things too.” Suddenly the dreamy half-drunken look on her face was replaced with an expression of utter despair. She staggered to her feet. “Oh, no, no, no! No!”

It looked like she might swoon. Even Glinda reached out to steady her.

“What is it?” Christine asked.

“I was right, wasn’t I?” Maggie asked. “If you die in the Trials, you’re out. I mean, they can’t exactly transition you in if everybody else thinks you’re dead, can they?”

Christine looked at her feet. She knew how much the Trials meant to her. “I’m sorry, Aunt Maggie. I don’t know.”

“But they’ll still let my boys go, right?”

No one answered, until Glinda stepped forward. Holding her sister by the shoulders, she smiled confidently and said, “They’ll have to. You’ll have the union on your side. We’ll make it happen.”

Maggie fell into her sister’s arms, sobbing. Glinda held her for a moment and then turned to look at Christine over her shoulder. “We can talk about all of this later, Chrissy. You have a game to get ready for. I was coming to tell you that your guildmaster wants to talk to you.”

Christine wiped a tear from the corner of her eye and sniffed. “Right. You guys will be OK?”

Glinda nodded.

A few moments later, Christine found herself once more in the Hall of Dread. She was the last to arrive.

Trollbogies nodded at her arrival and then looked at each of them in turn. “Tonight, we face our toughest challenge yet. We six are all that stand between Doomsmack and glory. The Tower of Perpetual Peril is an unforgiving place.”

She waved her hand toward the center of the iron table. A hologram snapped into focus, showing the dread tower. “Only one thing about the Tower does not change: there’s only one way in.” The hologram zoomed in to show the portcullised entry at the tower’s base.

“I will not sugarcoat this. Most of us will last minutes if we’re lucky, especially with Doomsmack looking to kill us on the fly.”

“I still don’t like the part where we’re paired with a Doomie,” Killmore said. “Won’t that just lead to a fight at the gates for each of us?”

“There is a 30-second grace period,” Trollbogies said.

“That’s not much,” Tantrum said.

“It will basically get you inside. Since we’ll be going in without any weapons or artifacts, it is tantamount that you use those precious seconds to find a weapon inside.”

MikeMonkeyMike scoffed. “We’re going in unarmed? This should be pretty quick.”

“He’s right,” Belch Hammerhands said. “That may put us on equal footing with the Dooms but, even if they don’t cheat, the Tower will just pick us off that much quicker.”

“And they are going to cheat,” Mikey said.

“Cheating of any sort will lead to immediate disqualification of the party involved,” Trollbogies said. “Even so, yes they will and they will be sneaky about it, so be on your guard.”

“Who’s up first?”

“Tantrum, then Mikey, myself, our Captain, then Killmore, and lastly Bloodskull.”

“We know Bloodskull’s got Havok,” Killmore said. “Did they tell us who the rest of us have been paired with?”

“Not yet. We’ll be assembling at the base of the Tower as soon as the Gamelords patch us in, so I need you all to be at the top of your game tonight. Distance will be the deciding factor. Each of you needs to get as far as you can tonight to give Bloodskull all the edge she can get for the final run. Understood?”

They nodded agreement. “Then come back in glory or upon your swords,” Trollbogies thundered. “Dreadknights forever!”

The wait seemed to last forever, until finally the Hall of Dread dissolved around them. In seconds, they found themselves standing at the base of an imposing tower. A short drawbridge separated them from the front door.

The chosen members of Doomsmack stood off to their right. Havok had his arms crossed over his massive ogrish chest. He looked as if he was about to say something when a bright red cardinal swooped down out of nowhere and materialized into a bearded wizard in red robes.

Christine recognized the magus instantly. Everyone knew who Kryptos the Pretty Good was. Not only was he the most powerful wizard in all of Obsidius, veteran campaigners had learned that he was a foil for the Gamelords. He only showed up when your character ambled into one of the major events or plot points of the game.

“Now if memory serves me, it should be right around –” Kryptos stopped up short at the sight of the two guilds. “Oh dear.” He straightened up somewhat and patted his robes down. “I hope I’m not interrupting. I take it you’re about to try your luck with the Tower of Perpetual Peril, hmm?”

Trollbogies started to speak, but Havok cut his rival off. “You came at a good time. Doomsmack is about to show the good people of Obsidius how it’s done.”

Kryptos raised his eyebrows. “Do tell?”

“Not if the Dreadknights of Outland have anything to say about it,” Trollbogies said.

“So this is a contest?”

Havok scoffed. “Surely, such a one as Kryptos the Pretty Good has heard of Guild Wars.”

Kryptos bowed his head. “Let’s dispense with the ruse. I’ve certainly heard of your little spitting contest. In fact, the Gamelords have sent me to ensure that all proceeds fairly.”

“So you are their lackey,” Havok said.

“Not quite,” Kryptos said. “I am sent because I was already coming to pay the Tower a visit. You see, someone has stolen something from me. Something that may hold the key to unraveling a mystery that has been plaguing the Magus Council for some time.”

“How can the Dreadknights be of assistance?” Trollbogies asked.

“Please,” Havok said, sneering. “If you really want help, you should be asking Doomsmack.”

“Well, as it turns out, I can use all the help I can get,” Kryptos said with a wry grin. “The thief stole the ring of truth.”

“You want us to go in there and look for a ring?” Havok asked.

“The ring of truth,” Kryptos said. “And yes, that’s exactly what I want you to do. I realize the task seems impossible, but your efforts will not go unrewarded.”

“What’s the prize?” Havok asked.

“What would you like?”

Havok didn’t even hesitate. “A nexus.”

Kryptos studied him for a moment and then shrugged. He looked at Trollbogies. “That is a kingly prize. Its value to the right buyer…”

Trollbogies stroked his trollish beard. “I think I might know someone in the market for such an item.” He winked at Havok for spite. “Of course, it’s gonna cost him.”

“Then it is agreed,” Kryptos said. “The one who can bring me the ring of truth will receive the nexus.”

“Any idea where this ring might be stashed?” Havok asked.

“Our thief was a sarcogyps named Calvus,” Kryptos said.

Christine made a face. Sarcogyps were a vile race of vulture men from the Razak desert.

“The ring will not be far from him,” Kryptos continued. “And, yes, he’s still inside.”

“How is that possible?” Trollbogies asked. Victims of the Tower were automatically teleported back outside.

“We believe he has an aegis. It will keep him hidden so long as he does not move or make a sound. The Tower cannot kill what it cannot see.”

“If the Tower can’t find him, how are we supposed to?” Havok asked, sounding very much like a whiney brat asking why he has to clean his room for his allowance.

“The Tower doesn’t exactly see as we do,” Kryptos said. “It detects movement, life auras, that sort of thing. The aegis confounds the Tower’s sensory mechanisms so long as he does not give himself away. You simply have to find a means to make him give himself away.”

“But I think Havok’s point is that the aegis will hide this thief from our sight as well,” Trollbogies said.

“Yes, well, the aegis will do the best it can to conceal him, but given the fact that the Tower was probably trying to kill him, I’m rather hoping he called upon it in a hurry and there will be something that gives him away.” He shrugged. “Besides, it’s not like he can stay in there forever. And I’ll be here waiting for him when he comes out. I would simply prefer not to wait, so I’m willing to pay to expedite the process.”

“Anyway, your primary concern right now should be this spitting contest you’ve assembled for, so just think of it as a bonus if you find Calvus in there. So then,” he said, slamming his staff into the ground, “here are the rules: No cheating of any sort. That includes transformations and resurrections.” He tapped Havok’s breastplate for emphasis and no one supposed it was on accident. “No magic, weapons or tools of any sort actually. There is a thirty second grace period at the start of each set during which you may not touch or impede your opponent in any way. Cheating of any sort will result in immediate disqualification of the one responsible and their progress will be thrown out.” He glanced at Havok. “That means you’ll be a run short if you’re caught cheating.”

“It’s only right,” Havok said. He snickered at Christine.

“While I do not doubt your considerable skills, I am invoking a piggyback rule to allow you to progress further into the Tower than you likely would separately,” Kryptos said.

This announcement result in a bit of clapping and backslapping. Kryptos was basically allowing each runner to pick up where the last one left off.

“It will also make it more obvious to the Gamelords and everyone else who the real victor is,” Kryptos said, “allowing us to avoid all of those post-Guild Wars accusations of foul play that we’ve all grown so weary of.” He looked at Christine this time. She flushed. How much did the Gamelords know?

Kryptos turned toward the Tower of Perpetual Peril. “Speaking of which, I’m sure you’re tired of waiting. Guildmasters, are your teams ready?”

“Bring the Doom!” Havok shouted.

“Dreadknights forever!” Trollbogies’ roar sounded like an avalanche.

Kryptos winced. “I’ll take that as a yes. The Gamelords have paired BRZRKR and Tantrum Bloodfire up first, so they can take their places at the edge of the drawbridge.”

“Here goes nothing,” Tantrum said. Nodding a farewell to Trollbogies, she stepped up to the line. BRZRKR trotted up next to her, took a moment to stretch and took his place to her left without so much as acknowledging her presence.

“On my mark,” Kryptos said. “Ready? Go!”

26 – Tower

Tantrum and her foe took off across the wooden drawbridge, each sprinting as fast as they could. Thinking of the contest as a race turned out to be a mistake. Tantrum was forced to brake hard when a giant circular saw cut across the bridge in front of her. BRZRKR was ahead of her, so the first blade posed no danger to him, but then he had to stop short of the next saw blade to keep from being sawn in half. Unfortunately, he was between the two cut lines. As the cut out section fell, so did he. He ghosted out as he landed in the midst of the blades of a technomancer’s sawbridge trap below.

Taking a deep breath, Tantrum leapt over the gap and kept running. She managed to dodge another circular saw as it shortened the span further. She tried to beat the next one but ghosted out when it caught her halfway.

Two phantom lines, representing the progress Tantrum and BRZRKR had made, glowed atop the drawbridge. The Dreadknights were definitely in the lead, but nothing was certain. The drawbridge changed. It was whole again but now it was made of iron mesh. A moat of hot lava bubbled beneath it.

“Next will be the ogress Flower versus the troll MikeMonkeyMike,” Kryptos said. “If you will take your places at the end of the drawbridge, you will be teleported to your team mate’s progress point. On my mark. Ready? Go!”

As soon as they began running, Mikey and Flower were magically whisked away to the place their team mates had perished. Mikey was slower than the ogress – ogres were faster than trolls as a rule – but neither was Mikey rushing into things headlong. Instead, he was looking down through the iron mesh, watching the lava for signs of trouble. Flower laughed as she passed him. Seconds later, Mikey stopped cold. A jet of fire blasted up through the metal bridge, melting through the mesh. It would have incinerated him in mid-run if he hadn’t stopped.

Flower wasn’t so lucky. She ghosted as a jet of flame burst through the drawbridge beneath her. Taking a deep breath, Mikey jogged forth, keeping a careful eye on the lava below. He avoid three more jets in this careful manner and soon he was past Flower’s ghost point and nearly at the front gate itself.

A jet of fire erupted behind him with an audible roar. Mikey turned at the sound only to find himself staring into the face of an elemental fire snake. The creature of living flame began winding itself around the drawbridge, forming a circle of fire that began steadily gaining on Mikey. As the elemental monster continued its work, the metal bridge began glowing red. Mikey’s feet began smoking even through his boots. Christine wasn’t sure how he was managing to continue through the pain.

Suddenly, everyone felt a chill. The whirlwind flames of orange and yellow the elemental had been creating turned white and blue. Snow began to fall. The elemental’s snake head transformed into the head and upper body of a beautiful woman made of ice.

“That’s no fire elemental,” Trollbogies noted aloud, his voice filled with wonder. “That’s an elementus, an elemental wyrd.”

MikeMonkeyMike dared breathe a sigh of relief as the bridge cooled and soothed his hot boots. He slipped and fell as the bridge began to ice up. Hearing rippling laughter, he turned to see that the elementus was reaching out for him with both hands, a smile on her perfect lips. She kissed him. Christine thought she saw a smile on Mikey’s trollish lips just before her kiss turned him into an ice statue. Stepping away from her victim, the elementus returned to her fire snake form. Mikey ghosted as he and the drawbridge melted away under her fervent heat. Still, he’d made it within a few steps of the main gates.

“Hamm Phist and Master Trollbogies, you’re up next,” Kryptos said.

“Think you can at least make it inside this run?” Havok asked with a sneer.

Trollbogies looked toward the drawbridge. The elementus was gone. Instead of a drawbridge, there was an unadorned earthworks. The Dreadknights’ progress line was practically at the door. The Doomsmack line was much further back than that. Trollbogies scoffed. “Think you Dooms can?”

“Just in case either party make sit inside,” Kryptos said, pointing his staff in the air, “I think we should all like to see your progress.” With a word of magic, he caused a hologram to appear in the air, showing Trollbogies and Hamm Phist at the starting line. “That’s better. Now as before, on my mark. Ready? Go!”

Trollbogies teleported to Mikey’s terminus and reached the gate within two trollish steps. He was forced to somersault forward to avoid a crashing portcullis. On the holoscreen, Christine could see that he had three choices: go up the spiral staircase or head into one of two rooms, one directly ahead and the other to his left. He hesitated for a second and then ran for the stairs. A few seconds after he got started, a section of the ceiling fell and littered the place where he’d hesitated. Apparently, the Tower didn’t like it when folks mulled things over too long.

Halfway up, the stairs retracted and formed a slide. Trollbogies tried to stop himself, but he ended up tumbling and sliding to the bottom. A loud bang brought his attention back to the closed portcullis. Hamm Phist was ramming it with all his ogrish strength. Judging from the dust he was stirring up, he’d be inside in no time. Trollbogies headed through the door on the left.

It opened onto a slim ledge. Trollbogies had to really make an effort not to fall. The door slammed shut and locked behind him. With the door at his back, he could see brackish water below and a few hanging vines just out of reach. It was obvious that he needed to grab the vines and swing across to the other side.

Just as he was about to leap for the nearest one, Hamm Phist burst through the door, knocking Trollbogies into the water. Apparently, the door was only locked from one side. Trollbogies rapidly disintegrated into bones and ghosted. Whatever the “water” was, it was magically toxic. Hamm Phist was unable to recover his own balance after the collision. He too ghosted when he hit the water.

“Now that is surprising,” Kryptos said. “Halfway through and you’re at a draw. This spitting contest of yours is certainly going to be close.”

On the holoscreen floating above their heads, the room the latest contestants had perished in transformed itself into a kitchen.

“I need Average Savage and Captain Belch Hammerhands,” Kryptos said. “Since you will be in close quarters, I will remind both parties that you are not even permitted to touch until the grace period is up.”

Moments later, both competitors materialized in the kitchen. The ogres exchanged a wary glance and then began a frantic search for weapons. In short order, Belch Hammerhands was armed with a cleaver. Additionally, he’d picked up a heavy cauldron to use as a bludgeon. Average Savage had picked up a handful of knives. For a moment, it looked like they were just going to wait around and fight it out.

Then the oven door opened with an unnerving creak. A tentacle unfurled. Then another. Then several more. Both competitors backed up as far as the kitchen walls would allow. An eyeball on a long stalk emerged from the oven to peer at them. Neither ogre dared to move.

After what seemed like forever, the tentacles and the eyestalk receded back into the oven.

“The grace period is up,” Kryptos noted to no one in particular.

Average Savage breathed a sigh of relief. From the ugly leer that darkened his face, Christine guessed he too realized the grace period was over. Without warning, he raised a fistful of knives, intending to throw them at Captain Hammerhands. The Dreadknight’s attention was still focused on the oven door, which had not quite closed completely.

Seconds later, a handful of Average Savage’s knives were sticking out of Hammerhands’ chest. He stared down at the weapons with an expression of surprise and confusion that was almost funny. Then he toppled heavily – and loudly – to the floor.

At the sound, tentacles flooded out of the oven, the cabinets and drawers and even the kitchen sink. They grabbed both ogres and pulled them into the darkness. They both ghosted.

Kryptos sighed. “No progress, I’m afraid. Maybe Captain Howler and Killmore will fare better.”

The kitchen vanished. Captain Howler and Killmore materialized in a wide square chamber that seemed to stretch upwards for eternity. A long pendulum hung in the center of the room. It began swaying back and forth, increasing its momentum with every pass over their heads. High above them, they could hear machinery cranking. Chains also hung down near the pendulum.

A bell tolled. The tiled floor at the edges of the room began to fall away, revealing nothing but the cold grip of celestial space beyond. Instinctively, each competitor ran for a chain and began climbing. Seconds later, the entire floor was gone.

Until the grace period was up, there was nothing but the climb. Both ogres knew that the advantage lay with being above the other. Hand over hand, the ogres climbed. Honestly, both Killmore and Captain Howler were strong, even as ogres went. Neither broke a sweat as they steadily made progress.

They were almost at the top when the grace period ended. Killmore reached the end of his chain first. His chain was actually the tongue of an iron gargoyle sitting on the edge of the top level. He almost lost his grip when it took a swipe at him. Taking the offensive, he grabbed the creature’s lower jaw by the teeth and jerked it forward before it could bite his hand off. The gargoyle toppled over the edge into oblivion below. Killmore hauled himself up and took stock of the situation. He was in a large room full of gears. One wall made of stained glass and the light shining through it revealed the opposite face of a giant clock. It appeared that the Tower of Perpetual Peril was now a clock tower.

Captain Howler managed to overcome his own iron gargoyle. He beat his oversized chest with one massive ogrish fist. “Killmore!” he shouted. “Behold! Your Doom awaits!”

Killmore scoffed. He’d spotted a door. Unfortunately, it was only accessible via a gauntlet of giant moving gears and oversized cams.

“What are you waiting for?” Howler asked. “Are you a coward?”

“I think you’d better keep that talk to the kid’s table where you belong,” Killmore said.

“Such boasting! But is the mighty Killmore all talk and no action? I could beat you with one hand tied behind my back.” Indeed Christine saw that he did have one hand behind his back. What Killmore couldn’t see from his angle was that the Doom was holding a plate-sized gear in his hidden hand. He wanted Killmore to come in close so he could bludgeon him over the head with it. And there was no way she could warn him!

Killmore started walking toward the beginning of the gauntlet of gears. “My record speaks for itself,” he said. “Now if you’ll excuse me, the grownups have things to do.”

“Face me, you coward!” Howler yelled.

Killmore hesitated. At first, Christine thought he was going to take the bait. Then she saw what had arrested his attention. A black feather.

It didn’t take Christine long to make the connection. The sarcogyps was nearby!

Captain Howler saw it too. “Oh no you don’t!” he yelled. He tossed the gear like a discus thrower. It sailed across the room. It certainly would have smashed Killmore’s head in like a melon – if Killmore hadn’t caught it in one hand.

Killmore cast the gear aside with obvious contempt. Howler ran at him, hoping to shove him into the gauntlet of gears. Killmore stepped aside at the last second. Caught in the mechanism, Howler ghosted away.

Peering about carefully, Killmore spotted another black feather. He must’ve seen something else that convinced him the vulture-man was near because he quickened his pace and climbed atop a gear that brought him upward. He leapt off onto a maintenance catwalk.

As he moved forward to seize his as-yet-unseen prize, the gears and other machinery below began rapidly assembling themselves into a man-shape mechanical giant. The gearbot had big feet and oversized fists. It also had a mouth full of grinding gears. It swatted Killmore off the catwalk with ease. He almost bounced and slid off the level entirely into the oblivion below.

It ran at Killmore. It raised a metal foot to stomp him at the last second. He rolled out of the way and dashed for the doorway he’d seen. The only good thing about the appearance of the clockbot was that it was made of the very gears which once posed an obstruction to that doorway.

Seeing its prize get away, the gearbot shot three gears at Killmore in quick succession. He managed to avoid each one with a skill Christine hadn’t known he possessed. Giving the gearbot a jaunty salute, Killmore stepped through the door.

Perversely, the door led right back into the clock tower room. Before he could recover from his confusion, the clockbot lifted an enormous foot which ghosted Killmore when it came down.

“Well, that was exciting!” Kryptos said. “I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that there was some sign of our thief in that room. Will he still be there when the room changes I wonder?” He glanced at Havok and Bloodskull. “And so it comes down to you two. Master Havok Hurtlocker will face off against Ogress Bloodskull. Are you ready?”

Bloodskull nodded.

“Bring the Doom!” Havok shouted.

“Good then,” Kryptos said. “In that case, it being the final round and all, what say we dispense with the grace period altogether? On my mark. Ready? Go!”

27 – Hurtlocker

Christine tried not to panic as she felt herself being teleported to the end of Killmore’s progress line. The room had changed again. The walls had reshaped themselves until she was in a narrow corridor. The doorway which had confounded Killmore was in front of her. Quickly, she entered it.

It dumped her back in the corridor. What was the trick here? How could she get past this?

She tried again with the same results. She searched the door for some clue as to how to gain entrance. All she saw was a fish-shaped glyph near the top. She had no idea what it meant. Growling in frustration, she realized she was going to have to give up on it and find another way out. She crept down the corridor until she came to an intersection. She peered around carefully. There was no sign of Havok. Just a long rows of doors.

She peered behind her to make sure Havok wasn’t on her trail and saw that the hallway she’d come from was also lined with doors that hadn’t been there before. What new devilry was this?

One of the doors ahead opened a crack. Remembering the kitchen, she watched the door warily. As she watched, a tiny imp, no more than a few inches tall, walked out of the door. It was followed by several more. They crossed the hall to the opposite side and formed a living ladder to reach the doorknob. After opening the door, they slipped inside and shut it.

She heard a cawing sound coming from the corridor to the right. Shaking her head at the nebulous doings of imps, she slipped quietly into the corridor in the direction of the bird noises.

Halfway down the hall, a door opened just in front of her. She froze. As before, an imp opened the door and led its fellows to another door. When they opened the door this time, a monstrous eye was staring at them from the other side. Screeching in panic, they slammed the door. More doors began opening. The imps looked noticeably terrified. Suddenly, a dragon-sized skeletal claw reached through a door and snatched an imp. As they fled up the corridor, another skeletal talon claimed its victim. And then another. And so on, until all the imps were gone.

Bloodskull stood staring at the empty hallway in horror until she heard a creaking sound. She turned to see a giant eyeball staring at her from an open door.

“Edger’s abyss!” she muttered. Slamming the door shut, she ran down the corridor, hoping to get away from these infernal doors. A door began opening to her right. She put her shoulder into it, shutting it again with prejudice. She made progress in this manner, barreling into doorways to her left and right to keep them shut as she passed.

At long last she reached the end of the hallway.

She found herself in a den or living room of some sort. Animal heads and portraits littered the walls. Some of the heads weren’t animals at all; there was an orc, an owlbear and a minotaur head mounted on the wall alongside the other trophies.

Havok Hurtlocker sat in a tall backed chair by the fire. He grinned at her and motioned for her to sit in a chair across from him near the roaring fireplace. Slowly and cautiously, she came to stand across from him. The fact that he wasn’t speaking was really bothering her.

Havok motioned for her to sit down again.

“No thanks,” she said. “I’ll stand if it’s all the same to you. I really don’t like you.”

There was a metallic ringing sound.

Havok stood up, crossed his arms across his chest and transformed himself into Bloodskull. She took a step back. There was no way Havok was cheating with Kryptos watching. This had to be a doppelgänger. If it had taken Havok’s form, it must’ve already encountered him, but where was he?

She backed up to give herself some more room. It walked toward her slowly, forcing her to retreat until her back was against the wall.

She steeled herself for its attack. Just when she thought she was going to have to fight herself, a halberd came descending out of seemingly nowhere to separate the doppelgänger’s head from its body. Havok raised the halberd again and looked at her coldly.

“Um, thanks?” she said.

He scoffed. “Don’t thank me yet. I just got the wrong one.”

She heard the ringing sound again.

“Now hold still,” Havok said.

He brought the halberd down swiftly. To her surprise, he apparently wasn’t aiming for her. The owlbear trophy head to her right fairly tripped over itself to dive out of the way. As it moved, it stopped being an owlbear head, wooden plaque and part of a wall. Instead, a very terrified sarcogyps began taking shape as the aegis’ magic was undone.

Havoc took another swing at the vulture-man thief. Bloodskull plowed into him, knowing she couldn’t let him get the kill – and the prize. She’d been thinking about it and it was obvious that if she got her hands on this nexus Havok so highly prized she might be able to use it as leverage to convince him to leave her alone.

Both ogres struggled to get to their feet. The ogress was quicker. She kicked Havok in the face for good measure and then took off down the hall after Calvus.

She caught up to him quickly. Having nowhere else to go, he tried opening one of the hallway doors. He screamed as a giant set of jaws roared at him from the other side. She grabbed him and slammed the door shut.

“Give me the ring of truth!” she shouted.

“How do you know about that?” Calvus asked.

“That doesn’t matter right now,” Bloodskull said. “What matters is that the big thug with the halberd wants it too and he’s willing to kill you for it.” She heard the ringing sound again.

As if to accent her point, Havok came charging up the hallway. He was momentarily impeded when a skeletal talon burst out of a door and tried to grab him. He brought his halberd down on the monster’s wrist, shattering the bone to pieces.

“Save me!” Calvus wailed.

“Give me the ring of truth!”

“Say it! Say you’ll save me!”

“Fine! If you give me the ring, I will do my best to save you!”

She heard the ringing sound. Nodding, he put his hand inside his coat and pulled out a silver ring on the end of a necklace. He thrust it into her hands. “Now get me out of here!”

Wordlessly, she grabbed the sarcogyps in one hand and ran away from Havok as fast as she could. Her luck ran out when she rounded an intersection and found herself staring at a door. She instantly recognized it as the reversing door.

She started to go back but the vulture-man slipped from her grip. “This way!” he said, heading for the devious door.

“That’s not the way out!” she yelled. “It’s a trick.”

“Only to those who don’t know how it works,” Calvus said. “Any thief worth his salt knows how to pass through a red herring.”

“A what?”

“The door is marked with a glyph. The red herring. Means it’s a reversing door.”

Still weaponless, she had no choice but to trust him.

By the time they reached the door, Havok had them blocked in. He laughed. “Fools! You can’t get out that way.”

“I’m not going down without a fight,” Bloodskull promised. She felt the ring vibrate as it rang out again. Her eyes narrowed. So was the ring of truth like a lie detector of some sort?

“By all means,” Havok said, stalking toward her. “It won’t be as much fun otherwise.”

“I expected more, you know.”

He stopped.

“I could say the same about you. Didn’t you get within the top five floors the last time you ran the Tower?”

“Let me ask you something, Havok: Do you seriously think no one’s ever going to find out that you hacked me?”

“I never did any such thing.”

“Or that you hacked Jack Nabbit?”

He scoffed. “I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about.”

“He’s lying,” Calvus hissed. “The ring will not speak for him.”

“I know,” Bloodskull said.

“You promised to save me, but it appears I must save you,” the vulture-man said. “Just do what I do.”

Calvus turned to face Havok, waved goodbye and stepped through the door backwards. Bloodskull waited, expecting him to reappear. She and Havok exchanged a glance. Bloodskull stepped backwards through the door.

She found herself in another room. Calvus was already across the room at another door. “Where now?” she asked him.

He shook his head. “I’ve never been in this one.”

“Don’t just stand there. He’s coming!”

Calvus hesitated and tapped a scratch on the door. “But there’s a water glyph.”

“Do you see any other doors?” she pointed out. “Move!”

The sarcogyps opened the door and a wall of water washed him back into the room. Bloodskull braced herself against the coming wave. Havok came through the door while she thus distracted. The last thing she saw before she ghosted was his leer in the reflection of the halberd.

Bloodskull found herself in the Hall of Dread. She looked to each face, expecting to see only disappointment, anger and despair. Instead, she saw hope, confusion and tentative smiles.

Trollbogies clapped her on the back. “You did it!” he said.

“I don’t understand,” Bloodskull said. “I thought we just lost.”

“We did lose,” Killmore said. “Guild Wars is over.”

“Then?”

“I convinced the Gamelords to investigate Havok,” Trollbogies said. “That’s what that whole bit with the ring of truth was about. They caught your little session with him in the Tower. They know he was lying about hacking you and Jack Nabbit.”

“Does that mean Doomsmack is disqualified?”

“I don’t know,” Trollbogies admitted. “All I know is that they’ve told me to stand by and await further instructions.”

28 – Farewell to Impworld

The view from Seneschal Tower was amazing. The sprawling city was laid out before her like a map. The Everwylde River cut through it like a ribbon and then cascaded into the Sea of Gabriel. The skies were filled with many-sailed merchant vessels and fantastical hot air balloons heading to and from the city’s Sky Docks. Piloted by elite war wizards, the Seven Shields flew lazily over the fabled city of Cabon Gabrielle as they guarded her from all harm. The Shields had never failed. Christine had always promised herself she’d come here for real when the Dreadknights won the Guild Wars.

“Unless you’re planning on doing that head-first, you’re going to need to find someplace higher,” a voice said.

“What?” She turned and saw Kryptos the Pretty Good staring at her, shaking his head.

“You’re an ogre. You think a little tumble like that would be enough? Oh, you’d make a decent-sized hole…”

“I wasn’t –”

“Really? Even after the week you’ve been having?”

“I didn’t do anything wrong,” she said.

“Indeed, you did not,” Kryptos said. “The Gamelords have received affidavits from Eddie Mondo, various members of your guild, Baldur Splintershield – a fascinating character witness, I must admit… I even had an Agent send me proof of your innocence!” He shook his head and sighed. “Furthermore, while Havok did not outright admit he was responsible for this mess, you did get him to perjure himself to the contrary in the Tower, so we cannot ignore that.”

“What are you going to do?”

“The Gamelords have decided that the Dreadknights are going to Tarak.”

Bloodskull could hardly believe her ears. “That’s great!”

“It’s good news for you Dreads at any rate,” Kryptos said. “The Gamelords have also decided to let Doomsmack come as well.”

“What?! How can you do that? He cheated!”

“Quite probably. He certainly couldn’t pass a lie detector; however, we have no solid evidence. Whatever he did, Havok was careful to cover his tracks. If we deny him his prize, he will just tie us up in the courts.”

“That’s not fair,” Bloodskull said.

Kryptos scoffed. “Whoever said the Gamelords were interested in what’s fair?” He grinned mirthlessly. “Make no mistake, young lady: you Dreadknights haven’t done the Gamelords any favors here. What they had before your guildmaster pushed the issue was blissful ignorance and plausible deniability.” He shook his head. “While I believe you were a victim in this game, the fact remains that you aren’t the first to be treated like this and you won’t be the last. People are cheating and hacking and manipulating each other any way they can to get to Tarak’s brave new world. You want to talk about fair? Thanks to some of that behind the scenes shenanigans I mentioned, the Gamelords now have to tell a player they’ve already given the nod to that they have to… revise his invitation a bit. Meanwhile they assure me that their offices have been flooded with Vs to the effect that Jarrod Seventhborn should’ve had a Melborp’s Multipass into the live game.” He made a sour face. “In the interests of fairness, mind you.”

“Then why?” She hesitated, fearing that if she finished the complete question, she’d push her luck too far.

“Why what? Why do the Gamelords let the Dreadknights go to Tarak if they’re not interested in fairness?” He smirked. “Because they are interested in ratings, and having the Dooms and the Dreads together on Tarak will make the fans go insane.”

He turned to go.

“Wait! Can I ask you a question?”

He hesitated.

“Look, I know the Gamelords don’t owe me anything but I have to try: my aunt game-died during the Colonial Trials and –”

He waved his hand dismissively. “That’s between you and the Gamelords; however, as I understand it, your Player contract allows you to bring family as guests. She can sign a Colonial contract the moment she arrives if she so desires. Or not. It’s really none of my business. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I really must go.”

With that Kryptos transformed himself into a cardinal and flew away.

Bloodskull watched the bird’s progress until she lost track of him with distance. She was about to log out and contact Trollbogies with the good news when she felt a presence behind her.

“Relax,” a black-bearded mohawked dwarf said. “It’s just me.”

“Baldur Splintershield,” she said. “What brings you here?”

He stroked his braided mustaches. “I got wind that the Dreads might be back in it and I, um, came to tell you the good news. I didn’t expect the Gamelords to deliver it to you personally,” Baldur said.

She frowned. “Come to think of it, that was odd. You’d think they’d tell Trollbogies first, right?”

“Well, congratulations anyway. You Dreads deserve it as far as I’m concerned.”

She nodded. She felt awkward around Davis’ brother. Did he even know what happened yet?

As if hearing her thoughts, he looked at his feet and said, “So I heard about Drackenwold.”

She sighed. “I’m sorry about Davis,” she said.

“Don’t be. He told me all the time that he would gladly die for those people. You’ve been down there. You know what it’s like. The Colonists… well, they ain’t getting a fair shake.”

“You sound like my mom.”

“She sounds like a smart lady.”

“Thanks,” she said, “and thanks for all that back in the Hall of Dread.”

“I figured Davis would want me to do something, all things considered,” he said, “and I don’t really like Havok that much anyway. Speaking of which, I heard they let you keep the nexus. You need to be careful with that thing. A nexus is a pretty valuable commodity to the right buyer.”

She raised an eyebrow. “I don’t suppose you know a buyer?”

“We both know a buyer.”

“I’m not selling to Havok Hurtlocker.”

“I wouldn’t expect you to,” Baldur said, “any more than I would expect him to actually buy it. But mark my words: now that he knows you have it, he won’t rest until it’s his.”

“I’ll be ready for him,” she said.

“Well, I don’t do this often, but if you need any help, Baldur Splintershield is at your service.”

“Um, thanks,” she said, blushing slightly, “but I wasn’t planning on putting a hit out on him.”

“Of course not, but the offer stands if you change your mind.” Glancing at her, he returned his attention back to the view.

She nodded, not sure what else to say.

He looked at her again and started to walk off. He stopped again. “One last thing. Did you love him?”

She nodded. “Yes. Very much.”

He smiled. “He’ll be glad to hear that.”

Before she could say anything, he stepped off the tower. A wyvern swooped in and caught him on the way down, just like she’d seen him do on the livecasts.

~ Ø ~

Later that night, Christine discovered a V that stood out from all the fan mail. The sender was a Mr. Improbable. It simply said, “Gone. Not dead.”

Christine went to sleep, dreaming of Otherworld and Davis.

~ Ø ~

Ogress Bloodskull and the Dreadknights will return in Dreadknights 2: For the Love of the Guild

[Back to Table of Contents]

Read the first few chapters of Luckbane

In a dystopian future, online gaming is the ultimate escape… until one corporation gives a few lucky players the chance to play their favorite sword, steampunk and sorcery game live and in-person on a distant planet. In the inaugural Otherworld campaign, the Champions will face monsters, magic, steampunk machines, dragons and betrayal as they quest to find a weapon capable of stopping the dread Firelord and his Infernal armies. For one lowly janitor-turned-alchemical adventurer, the stakes are much higher. Someone wants him very, very dead and has hacked into the system to carry out his execution. If you die in this game, there are no extra lives! In a world where no one is who they seem to be, Jarrod Luckbane has no idea who he can trust. Otherworld: Everything is NOT under control.

Chapter 1 – Thief

Scorched earth surrounded the monster’s rocky lair for miles. Nothing lived here, not even a single blade of grass. Nothing dared.

“Sane folk stay far, far away from dragons,” master thief Jarrod Seventhborn said, watching Gregor carefully. Truth be told, Jarrod wasn’t overly concerned about the dragon. Fighting the dragon would almost be welcome right now. No, his chief concern at the moment was diversion, pure and simple; as the company’s rearguard, there’d been nothing much to do except look at the backs of everyone’s helmeted heads. The scenery wasn’t much better.

He glanced at his dwarf friend, Rogar Thunderhammer, to see if he’d also noticed Gregor’s reaction. Given the fact that the dwarf spent his time alternately chuckling and humming some tuneless song, it was safe to say that Rogar’s mind was far afield. Knowing him, the dwarf was already counting the dragon’s hoard. This whole dragonslaying gig was Rogar’s idea. The dwarf had a knack for getting them both into trouble, which was half the reason Jarrod kept him around. Of course, Rogar was usually a little more observant…

Jarrod picked up a pebble and pinged it off the dwarf’s helmet. The humming ceased. Jarrod continued. “…especially dragons which clearly wish to be left alone.”

The dwarf grunted in response.

“And do you know why, Rogar?”

The dwarf glanced at the thief, managing to look both amused and annoyed. Jarrod flashed his eyes toward Gregor. Frowning, the dwarf turned around, but Jarrod could tell he was watching Gregor now, too.

Wiping a grin from his face, Jarrod got back into character. “Because dragons are a very sure and horrible form of death!”

Gregor flinched again. The master thief found this reaction intriguing – especially since Gregor, a heavily armored fellow whose lineage was suspected to be at least half ogre, seemed perfectly suited for such rough business as dragonslaying when they’d hired him. Jarrod was starting to think Gregor was far less capable than his shamelessly sculpted muscles, meticulously polished armor and flowing wheat-colored tresses would lead one to believe.

“What’s your point, Jarrod?” Rogar asked.

“We’re all going to die.”

Gregor flinched again.

Rogar chuckled. “Not today.”

Jarrod quickened his pace to march alongside the dwarf, speaking in a terse whisper. “Tell me you saw that?”

“He’ll be fine,” the dwarf said.

“Really? Look at him, Rogar,” Jarrod hissed. “Gregor’s coming apart at the seams. I’ve never seen somebody so jumpy.”

The dwarf didn’t answer.

Jarrod wasn’t ready to give it up. Raising his voice, he waved his hand toward the scenery. “Look at this place, Rogar: Not a single shrub nor tree, nor even a single, solitary blade of grass to hide our approach. Any rock big enough to provide cover has been smashed to shards, pal. You think that’s a coincidence? No, sir. If that dragon comes out of its lair before we reach it… it’s only a matter of whether that monster prefers us rare or well done.”

Both Jarrod and Rogar watched Gregor throughout the monologue. The muscle-bound warrior’s reaction was a picture of craven cowardice. Gregor looked ready to flee at the sight of his own shadow!

“OK, I see it,” the dwarf admitted in a hushed voice. “I never should have hired him. What do you want me to do about it now? We’re already here.”

Jarrod’s eyes gleamed. “I want his daggers.”

The dwarf flinched. “What?”

“We both know he’s as good as gone. Why should it be a total loss? I want his daggers.”

The dwarf rolled his eyes. “You’re incorrigible. We’re here to hunt a ‘very sure and horrible form of death’ and you want to pick his pocket?”

Jarrod patted the dwarf on the back, grinning. “I’m bored. Just go with me on this,” he said. “Now, tell me I can always turn back.”

The dwarf heaved a heavy sigh and bellowed in his best stage voice. “We can always turn around and go back, Jarrod.”

“No, it’s probably too late to do the sensible thing. Even so, I’d feel a whole lot better if we still had the horses,” Jarrod said. Like vampires at the church doors, the horses had stubbornly refused to cross the oily swathe of grass that marked the far edge of the dragon’s domain. “We won’t stand a chance on foot.”

“That’s why we have to kill it afore it catches wind that we’re here,” his friend said with a wink.

Jarrod scoffed. “Do you seriously think we can pull this off?”

“As long as we don’t get roasted or eaten in the process, I don’t see why not. Which reminds me: try not to stab it when it’s a-breathing fire. I’ve heard they explode when you do that.”

“Are you serious?” Jarrod asked, honestly intrigued.

“Dead serious.”

Jarrod shook his head. “See? Like I said, sane folk do not attempt to sneak up on fire-breathing dragons in the first place. And this isn’t just any dragon, mind you. This is Gargath the Merciless we’re talking about here! Gargath is just… huge! We’re as good as dead if we–”

“Shut up back there, Luckbane,” Gregor said, stopping dead in his tracks.

Jarrod scowled. He hated that nickname.

Gregor stomped toward Jarrod. It was obvious that the big oaf was using this display of anger to mask his fear, but it was an impressive sight nonetheless. Jarrod wouldn’t have been surprised if smoke started pouring from Gregor’s nostrils. “I’ve heard enough of your whining for one day,” Gregor warned. “No one forced you to come. Frankly, some of us would have been happier if you’d stayed behind.” Jarrod’s accuser looked to the two remaining members of their would-be troupe of dragonslayers, but the goblyn and purple-haired elf maiden remained wisely neutral.

“Stay behind? It’s bad enough that I’m behind you,” Jarrod shot back. “Do you seriously expect us to believe that stench is all coming from the goblyn, Sir Farts-a-lot?”

The goblyn growled. Goblyns unnerved some folks. Like all his kind, green-skinned Hogarth was a stooped and scaly caricature of humanity. A goblyn’s ability to blend into its surroundings until it popped out at you like the proverbial Boogeyman didn’t help matters much.

“No offense,” Jarrod assured Hogarth with a grin. Nonetheless, it was an unfortunate and undeniable fact that all goblyns stank. Horribly. Not even goblyns enjoyed being downwind of another goblyn. Given their camouflage abilities, their signature odor was usually the only warning adventurers had of a possible ambush. For his part, Jarrod had consoled himself for much of the journey with the thought that if the dragon did pick up their scent, it probably wouldn’t be able to smell anything but Hogarth. Since dragons weren’t overly fond of goblyn meat – apparently they tasted as bad as they smelled – there was a good chance that Gargath would ignore them until they were at the monster’s very door.

Fortunately, the goblyn was chosen neither for his good looks nor his pleasant aroma. This mission called for a reliable warrior who wasn’t afraid of much, and Hogarth fit the bill. Like Gregor, the goblyn came with a lot of accessories. In addition to a crossbow, the scaly fellow carried an impressive array of daggers, a long crooked spear, and a nasty spiked club.

“That’s it!” Gregor yelled. He pushed Jarrod down. Jarrod got to his feet and pushed back. Gregor reached for his sword.

Rogar came to Jarrod’s defense. “Gregor! Jarrod! That’s enough, the both of you! Are you seriously gonna get into a fist fight when there’s a dragon lurking about?”

“He started it,” Gregor complained.

“Gregor, you’ll be shutting yer pie-hole or I’ll be shoving my axe into it!”

“He’s spooking us all.”

Rogar snorted. “Oh? The fact that we’re trying to sneak up on a dragon out here in the great wide-open doesn’t bother you? Just the talking about it: that’s the part that gets you. Give me a break, Gregor.”

“No, Rogar,” Jarrod said, doing his best to look remorseful. “Gregor’s right. I got carried away. There’s a lot riding on this and, well, I guess I just lost my head. We have enough to deal with without me setting everyone’s nerves on edge. So I apologize,” the thief said, extending his hand.

Gregor stared at Jarrod’s hand, made a show of mulling it over and then shook it at last – albeit with a patronizing grin. “I guess we’re all a little bit stressed. No harm done. Just keep your worries to yourself from here on.”

Jarrod nodded contritely.

Rogar hid a grin, knowing Jarrod had likely just slid a ring off Gregor’s finger.

“Can we get back to what we came here for?” the elf maiden asked, tapping her crossbow impatiently.

Jarrod frowned at the weapon. Like most elves, Lydia Blackthorn was a master archer, although her kind generally preferred the longbow. Her rapid-fire crossbow – the machine gun of the archery world – was usually the type of weapon wielded by low-level grunts with poor aim. In the skilled hands of an elf, each and every bolt could be lethal. This knowledge was unsettling to the thief, especially given Lydia’s admitted connection with his accidentally-earned enemy, Rand. If Rogar hadn’t insisted they needed a sniper of her caliber on this dragon hunt, Jarrod would have ditched her in a heartbeat.

“Could you not point that at me?” Jarrod asked. His roguish smile did not reach his eyes.

She lowered her weapon and blew him a kiss. Jarrod and Rogar exchanged a worried glance, eliciting a ripple of laughter from the elf maiden. With a sly wink, she turned, causing her violet hair to bounce playfully as she resumed her post as scout.

Jarrod and Rogar waited until the march resumed in earnest and the others were out of earshot before speaking again.

“I think she likes you,” the dwarf said.

Jarrod shook his head. “I think she’d like me stuffed and mounted over her fireplace.”

“That, too.” The dwarf glanced at Gregor. “So?”

Jarrod grinned. “Got ‘em.”

“Good, now give me back my happy water,” the dwarf said.

“Your happy water is missing?”

“Don’t play dumb,” the dwarf warned. “I know you. You took the bottle when you slapped me on the back.”

Jarrod’s grin widened as he returned the dwarf’s property. “You know, Gregor has a right to be spooked,” he said. “This is probably one of the most dangerous things we’ve ever attempted. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were trying to get me killed.”

“Wanna turn back?”

“Not on your life.”

“I didn’t think so,” the dwarf said. “Anyway, how could we pass it up?”

Jarrod kicked a rock. “Doesn’t that bother you a little bit? If you think about it, it’s all just a little too tailor-made to our situation. The timing couldn’t be better.”

“Meaning?”

“I think we’ve signed up for a trap.”

The dwarf shrugged. “Of course it’s a trap. The question is who’s behind it. Rand? The Firelord? With that price on yer head, it could be anyone, maybe even that witch doctor we ran into back in Thoren.”

“What witch doctor?”

“The orc feller. The one with them snake eyes.”

Jarrod scoffed. “I forgot all about that guy.”

“That doesn’t mean he’s forgotten about you.”

Jarrod nodded, conceding the point. “If it is a trap, it’s very likely that at least one of us is a traitor.”

“Thought of that already,” Rogar said. “Keep your wits about you.”

Chapter 2 – Dragon

Gargath the Merciless was among them before they could even register surprise. Bursting out of the overcast skies, the dragon landed with such impact that all but the sure-footed dwarf were knocked to the ground. The monster roared a challenge from jaws big enough to swallow a man whole.

Lydia reacted first, firing several bolts from her crossbow while still lying on her back. Gargath snatched up the elf maiden in its claws, pinning her arms to her side, neutralizing their sniper for the moment.

The dwarf let fly a pair of throwing hatchets, aiming for its wing membrane. The dragon snapped its wings shut, thwarting Rogar’s attempt to ground it. Undaunted, Rogar unhitched an oversized warhammer from its back harness.

The goblyn got to his feet and heaved his crooked spear with all his might. The unlikely weapon sailed true, but clattered harmlessly off the dragon’s thickly-armored hide. With a sharp hiss, the monster’s head snapped around to face Hogarth. Hogarth quickly camouflaged himself to escape retaliation. The dragon’s spiked tail was already whipping towards him. It crushed through armor and bone before the near-invisible goblyn could scurry away. Hogarth de-camouflaged at death. The unlucky goblyn landed several yards away, flung like a lifeless ragdoll by the force of the blow.

As one, Jarrod and Rogar attacked the monster. From a bandolier slung over his shoulder, Jarrod tugged off a cigar-sized glass phial with a metal band around it. He tossed the force phial at the dragon’s chest. The alchemical weapon exploded on impact, rocking Gargath backwards on its haunches. Rogar hefted his out-sized warhammer – one of the thunderhammers his clan was famous for – and slammed it down on the dragon’s foot with all his might. The weapon delivered a nasty electric shock on impact. Gargath’s plate-sized eyes widened in pain. Rogar lifted his weapon for another attack. The monster kicked him hard enough to knock the weapon from his grasp. Rogar dutifully picked himself back up and readied another weapon from his ever-present arsenal.

Meanwhile, Jarrod noticed that Gregor was patting himself down, searching for something he’d lost. “What are you doing?” the thief shouted.

Gregor sputtered. “My daggers…”

“Use your sword!” Jarrod yelled. If the dragon noticed Gregor’s fumbling, the muscle-bound warrior was as good as dead. Deciding he couldn’t have that on his conscience, Jarrod fired a few quick potshots from his wrist crossbow to distract the creature, aiming for its eye. The dragon moved its head at the last second, avoiding the bolts. Snapping viciously, it tried to swallow Jarrod in one bite. Jarrod pulled another force phial off his bandolier and threw it into the dragon’s face. The dragon recoiled from the explosion. Disoriented, Gargath backpedaled, shook itself free of the dwarf – who was trying to jam a long dagger between its scales to hamstring it – and leapt skyward, its elven prize still grasped firmly in its claws.

Chapter 3 – Bait

A few minutes after the attack, both humans stared down at the goblyn’s mutilated body.

Rogar made a face as he joined them. “And I thought he was ugly before.” Without further ado, he began searching the departed for valuables.

“What are you doing? Have you no reverence for the dead?” Gregor asked.

Rogar weighed a pouch of gold coins in his palm with a grin. “None at all. The dead cain’t help me, and I sure as stone cain’t help the dead. It’s the living and staying alive that concern me.”

“This mission’s a loss,” Jarrod said, making a sour face at Rogar’s grave-robbing. The master thief had long ago decided he would only rob the living, unless he had no other options. Still, he kept careful inventory of the items Rogar discovered, just in case he needed to “borrow” some of them later.

“Not yet, it isn’t,” the dwarf said. He sniffed an unlabeled bottle and tossed it aside in disgust.

Gregor was beside himself. “Yes, it is! You saw that thing. We’re no match for that. Think about it: We just lost both of our archers. It can just pick us off whenever it pleases.”

Jarrod eyed the overcast skies. “I hate to say it, Rogar, but he’s probably right. We should cut our losses, live to fight another day.”

“I’d be the first to agree with you,” the dwarf said soberly, “except I don’t think the monster killed our lady Lydia. Are you willing to abandon a damsel in distress?”

Jarrod groaned. Rogar knew full well that the thief’s personal code of honor prevented him from doing such a thing. “She’s bait then.”

“Bait? You mean the dragon expects us to rescue her?” Gregor asked.

Jarrod and the dwarf stared at him meaningfully.

Gregor took a few steps backwards, shaking his head. “Oh no! You can’t be serious! That’s suicide!”

“What if it was you?” Rogar asked. “Would you want us to just abandon you to that creature?”

“Hey, I’m not heartless, guys. It’s just that it’s… it’s….hopelessly insane! What good will our deaths do her? She’s going to die anyway. Let’s not join her!”

Rogar stared at him with obvious disgust.

Jarrod began reloading his wrist crossbow. “Do what you will,” he said. “We’re going after her.”

Gregor stared at them in disbelief, clearly torn between going and staying. Finally, his face resigned, he muttered, “You’re both fools,” and began walking back.

The friends watched him for a few precious moments, before setting off for the dragon’s lair. Jarrod continued to scan the heavens, but also kept a bead on Gregor.

“Well, now I’m glad I nicked his daggers,” Jarrod said. “Think he’ll make it?”

“I don’t give him much chance. He made an incredibly bad choice.”

Jarrod cocked an eyebrow.

“Who do you think the dragon’s gonna pick off first?” the dwarf asked. “I think one lone human makes a far better target than two ready warriors.”

“Point taken,” Jarrod said. “Still, even if he is an incurable coward, I wish him the best of luck.”

“Oh, luck he’ll have, I reckon. All bad.”

~ Ø ~

Purchase your copy of Luckbane today at Amazon.com

[Back to Table of Contents]

Guild Rosters

DREADKNIGHTS OF OUTLAND

Vs. Golden Gears

Master Trollbogies/Olivia Ziegler [Guildmaster] – Troll

Belch Hammerhands [Captain of the Lists] – Ogre

Hannibal [Quartermaster] – Pachyderman – Killed by Skuttle.

Rosco [Man-at-Arms/Promoted to Quartermaster at Hannibal’s death] – Destruktir – Former Member of Doomsmack

Ogress Bloodskull/Christine Johanssen [Vanguard/Promoted to Man-at-arms at Hannibal’s death/Demoted by Rosco] – Ogress – Former member of Doomsmack

MikeMonkeyMike [Vanguard/Promoted to Man-at-Arms at Bloodskull’s demotion] – Troll

Calabus Adams [Auxiliary Vanguard] – Catlord

Nikky Napalm – Goblyn – Killed by Kali

Tauvek Wraithfell [Auxiliary Raider] – Minotaur – Killed by “Lucy” [monstrous vulcanopede]

Apep [Raider] – Ophidian

Mudflap [Raider] – Ogre

Killmore [Vanguard] – Ogre

Tantrum Bloodfire/Elinor Godard-McIntire [Raider] – Ogress – Olivia Ziegler’s granddaughter.

Sass-Squatch [Raider] – Ogress

Bandersmack [Initiate] – Ogre – Sole surviving member of the Edger Angels guild

Members added after Castle Odious

Ugdug – Goblyn

Spike – Goblyn

Ravyn Rattlebones – Ogre

O’Greg – Ogre

Gopherguts – Ogre

Dark Mark – Ogre

GOLDEN GEARS

Master Auric “Goldenboy” Lothario/Axel Leroux [Guildmaster] – Mechanical knight

Helena Helstrom [Captain of the Lists] – Mechanical Icarii/Magus

Pod [Quartermaster] – Mechanical magus – Killed by Tauvek Wraithfell

Gunnar Gladi8r [Man-at-Arms] – Juggernaut – Killed by “Lucy” [monstrous vulcanopede]

Skuttle [Vanguard] – Mechanical Flamecrab – Killed by Calabus Adams

Kamizooki [Raider] – Mechanical bird – Killed by Bloodskull

Spring-heeled Jacque [Vanguard] – Mechanical anthropomorphic grasshopper form – Killed by Calabus Adams

Ninjeremy – Mechanical ninja – Killed by Bloodskull

Doubler [Quartermaster] – Mechanical technomancer – Pilots Martin. Killed by “Lucy” [monstrous vulcanopede].

Sir Equinoxious the Bloody [Man-at-Arms] – Mechanical centaur – Killed by Bloodskull

Billhilly Bullroar [Vanguard] – Mechanical Minotaur – Killed by Bloodskull

EvilWeevil [Raider] – Mechanical Beetle [large]

Raiden Tesla [Vanguard] – Mechanical warrior monk – Killed by Killmore

Kali – Mechanical naga – Killed by Auric Lothario

Tank – Mechanical soldier – Killed by Bloodskull

NEVERDEATH

[Named]

Lord Heinrich der Hexenhammer [Guildmaster] – Vampyre

Rosco – Necrotized Destruktir

DOOMSMACK

[Named]

Guildmaster Havok Hurtlocker / Owen Favreau – Ogre

Howler [Captain of the Lists] – Ogre

Average Savage [Quartermaster] – Ogre

Ham Phist [Man-at-arms] – Ogre

BRZRKR [Vanguard] – Ogre

Flower [Vanguard] – Ogress

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

[Back to Table of Contents]

Tony Breeden is an author, creation speaker, apologist and Gospel preacher from West Virginia. He is the founder of DefGen.org, CreationLetter.com and CreationSundays.com. He got the writing bug as a child when his late aunt Sharon helped him make his very first book about dinosaurs, vigorously illustrated in crayon.

Johnny Came Home, published September 28, 2012, is his first book. He is currently writing the next John Lazarus adventure, John Lazarus: Mann from Midwich, as well as the first novel in a new sci-fi series called Øtherworld and a children’s book called The T-Rex and the Fuzzy Bunnies: A Bedtime Story for Boys.

You can find out more about his books at http://TonyBreedenBooks.com

Also by Tony Breeden:

Three years after the fire that took his home and his family, John Lazarus returns to the town of Midwich searching for answers to why he can do extraordinary things no one’s ever seen outside of a comic book. Is he human? Alien? Something more? The answers lie within Titan BioTech, mysterious complex that overshadows Midwich. But someone else wants Titan’s secrets too and will stop at nothing to make sure that she alone possesses them.

What would a world of men and women with superpowers mean for humanity? Would they represent the next stage of human evolution? Or might there be a different explanation?

Three years ago, John Lazarus left Midwich, vowing never to return. But today… Johnny Came Home. Available at Amazon.com.


Dreadknights

Experience the glory and drama of Impworld's Guild Wars! The future can be a dark place, but when a teenage girl gets the chance to play her Ogress Bloodskull character for the Dreadknights in Guild Wars, she also finds that she has a shot at a real future playing the game she loves on a terraformed alien world. Of course, nothing is a sure bet in Guild Wars. To win the prize, Bloodskull and her teammates will have to beat out rival guilds like the Golden Gears, Neverdeath and her old cronies in Doomsmack. Through betrayal, friendly fire, sabotage and impossible odds, Christine must prove she has what it takes both in and out of the game. But will she seize the prize or wind up toiling away in her aunt's earthbound dream of farm life? Shake the pillars of Hades! The Dreadknights are coming!

  • ISBN: 9781310398322
  • Author: Tony Breeden
  • Published: 2016-01-26 19:20:13
  • Words: 63896
Dreadknights Dreadknights