I try to look as irreproachable as possible.
“I didn’t have any other choice. I had to get Spider involved, otherwise I might be stuck in this game forever.”
He doesn’t look impressed.
“Maybe you should start involving me a bit earlier in the process. I did alright in the evil forest, right? Smart as I am, there’s no way for me to affect the world without you summoning me, and my advice is better when you get it before shit goes down.”
“I know, I know. I just.. Kinda wanted some company. The ambient magics here lets me keep you active without expending mana. If worst comes to worst, you can keep a record of what happens to me.”
I force a smile, trying to look optimistic.
“Worst comes to worst, and he’ll suck your mind dry, shred the remains and recycle you as a school of fish.”
My smile fades.
Time passes. We trade insults, play some games, he tells me some stories about the other people he’s guided. Without a warning, the large screen in front of us comes to life, static from wall to wall. Soon, the view splits into four equal parts, each showing a different image. Top left I see what must be Spider. Multiple eyes shine against the small screen, the rest of him too large to fit. Top right is just a glowing square. Bottom left is an angelic figure, beautiful beyond anything I’d ever seen. It takes concerted effort to tear my eyes away from him to the last square. A harlequin, floppy hat with bells on, cheshire grin under a white venetian mask. Her eyes were obscured, head looking around in twitchy motion as if following a fly.
“Why have you gathered us, Spider?”
A melodic voice echoed in the confined space.
“The voices have been dampened. I think Spider wants you to be able to follow the action. I don’t know if they can see or hear us.”
Ephraim spoke in a hushed voice before the titanic arachnid answered.
“You are here as the counterpoint to Erebus, Wisp. Trickster and Agathos are both here to answer for their insolence. Why did you break this mortals tether?”
Wisp and Trickster. Light and Chaos? So Agathos is the Fantastic?
“Is little Spidey grumpy because we stepped on his fragile toes?”
The a sing-song voice, mocking spider. While I can’t be sure who’s speaking, I know Spiders and Wisps voices. Between Agathos and Trickster, I’m guessing the latter, although neither of them moved while speaking.
“Stay quiet. Why are Erebus and Basilisk not here? If I am to be accused, I demand to face all the members of your court.”
“Erebus is hiding. Basilisk is missing. You are accused by this mortal. Her evidence is strong, and she knows about the things that you have tried to cover up.”
My face appears in the middle of the screen. The missing parts of my cheeks are filled in with a ghostly blue light, like I’m being haunted by my own ghost. I guess I kinda am. Wisp chimes in surprise. Agathos raises an eyebrow. Trickster keeps grinning maniacally, but stops moving about as much.
“Mortal. Tell us about the champions you met, and the problems with your tether.”
I tell them what they want to know. I start with Spiders abduction attempt, continuing to Huntex’s attack and the way Erebus had invited me to be his champion. I tell them about the way Telleran was consumed by the beasts following Basilisk, about my trip to his plane and finding Rinn and Huntex there, about the way Telleran sacrificed himself so we could escape. How Spinvil was unable to leave even though he was nobody's champion. When I finished, I looked down.
“Please, if Rinn is real, let her go home. Her father must be worried sick about her. Spinvil as well, he’s mostly innocent in all this.”
I could feel them all looking at me, like they were penetrating my soul.
“You did well, defeating the champion of Eudaemon, even if you had to consort with Darkness to do so.”
Agathos actually smiled at me.
“Siding with Erebus the way you did was unconscionably stupid. Your kind turns to darkness far too easily. I am not inclined to help you.”
Wisps melody turned discordant towards the end.
“I will admit fault. Taking her before led to the path she took. I will help.”
Spider for the win.
Tricksters head is frozen. Minutes pass with no reaction.
“Trickster. Your turn for judgement has..”
Spiders voice cuts out, as the world is plunged into darkness. From behind, I can feel hands touching me, sliding over my shoulders, past my chest, towards my legs. A head rests on my shoulder.
“I think I’m going to try you out, little fly.”
Tricksters hands trail up towards my head, and I can feel the cocoon holding me in place loosen. Her hands continue across my collarbone, leaving an icy trail up to my neck before they leave my body. I stand up, freed.
“I saw what you did to Huntex. I’m not making any deals with you.”
I can barely see her in the glow cast from my face and Ephraim. Her face doesn’t move as her head tilts from side to side, considering me like a dog would a strange new animal.
“You have a lot to learn about us, cutie. That was Ashlad, not me. The fool, the happy go lucky hero, the violent drunk when his glory days fade. I’m much more basic, generous to a fault, disastrous when it counts. I’m the Trickster.”
I reach out with my planeswalker abilities, finding nothing.
“I told you I was going to give you a chance, why are trying to escape like that?”
Her voice is pouty, contrasting her exaggerated smile.
“You told me yourself, you’re the trickster. How could I possibly trust you?”
She rests one elbow on her hand, tapping her cheek with the other hand.
“How indeed. I thought you understood how this worked by now. One group sets you up to be the sacrificial lamb, the other redirects you. Before you know it, the only thing you’re certain of is that the next move will get you closer to whatever trap will finally get you.”
She moves closer to me, putting one arm around my waist, pressing into me with her side. Bowing her head towards me as if sharing a secret moment.
“Darling, I like you a lot. You’re so eager to follow, so deep in denial. But this isn’t actually about you. I’m pulling a fast one on someone much more fun than you. Whaddya say?”
She punctuates her sentence with a kiss on my nose. Her arm prevents me from recoiling while my hand digs through my backpack for something to use. She moves again, putting a hand behind my head, holding my forehead to hers.
“You know the admins are coming. The bastard Asphani told the truth about that.”
My hand closes around a bottle. If my memory serves, it’s acid. I get ready to smash it across her face.
“No baby, not there, a little bit further to the right.”
I lose my grip on the bottle. Involuntarily, my hand moves with a twitching motion further into my pack. Another hard object.
“Oh yeah, that’s the spot. Now all you have to do is make sure he’s holding that when they find him. If you do, I’ll get the others to do their best for you and all your little friends.”
I’m about to withdraw it, but she stops me.
“Nu-uh. Don’t whip that out in here. We’ll be taken in for indecent exposure.”
She turns away from me, swinging her hips as she walks into the grasping darkness.
“I’ll put you back where you came from, you saucy little thing. They are on their way, so make sure you’re ready. Last chance to get it right.”
She fades into the dark, leaving a brief impression of the backside of the mask and cheshire grin, leaving me stunned.
I blink, and I’m back in the village. It’s daylight now, and the grave in front of me is disturbed, like someone just got up and left it. I look away, not wanting to think about her. Around me there’s silence, even the hut is quiet. Inside, there are less people than there were when I left. Scragh and Rinn are gone. Spinvil is still there, snoring in a chair. I leave him to rest, going into the town proper. The barricades have been dismantled in places, allowing people to go back to their homes and their fields. People nod when they see me, some even seem happy. Seeing Loe in the distance, I catch up to him. We exchange pleasantries, and he grills me on what I’ve been up to. I avoid telling him the serious stuff. We part as I ask him to fetch the village leaders. The ones who are left at least. As I instruct him to meet me at his home, I punch him playfully in the shoulder.
When we meet up, he begins preparing a nice meal for all of us. Dry roasted fieldrunner legs, stewed vegetables with herbs, baked armourfax and a dessert of candied grasshornet. We begin our meal with great enthusiasm, cleaning up the dishes as fast as Loe can plate them. The mood is high, until Spinvil is the first to disrupt our general happiness.
“Did you find out how to get us back home?”
Dark bags adorn his eyes, a look of resigned hope flickering as I meet them.
“I did, and I didn’t. I have an idea, but I’m not sure how to implement it.”
Rinn squeals in laughter at Scragh as he tries to fit an entire segment of armourfax in his mouth. Spinvil doesn’t say anything else, letting the heavy silence do the job of making me continue.
“Look, I can’t reveal too much yet, it’s still too uncertain. All I know is that any moment now, the clock is going to run out, and then we’ll have to make a move, no matter what happens. Then you’ll be able to go home. We’ll all go.”
He doesn’t seem very relieved, but he stops his line of questioning. Another hour passes, and we go on to play charades. It takes a few tries for us to teach the Weke about it, but we soon find out Hakat is a natural. He stands up, holding his arms above his head, making an evil face.
We all turn to look at him for a moment before we continue. Hakat shows us two fingers.
He touches his nose pointing at Loe, just as the comforting silence is broken by a loud droning noise. I pick up Rinn and nod at Spinvil.
“I think it’s time. The rest of you, stay here until it’s clear.”
As we get outside, I tell them to stay low to the ground, and move stealthily. Rinn hides under her cloak, while Spinvil drinks a potion, making him sort of translucent. I lead them to the barn, as giant eyes in the sky search the valley. I don’t know if we’re seen or not, but there’s no reaction from the ocular intruders. In the distance, I can see trees being torn up by invisible hands, thrown about like they were matchsticks. The swamp is being ransacked as the admins are looking for the glitched control centre. As we get to the barn, we find it in the same dilapidated state as before, without any guards. I told them there wasn’t any point in staying here, that taking care of the wounded was more important. I hug Rinn tight after we get inside the doors, quietly handing her my crown.
“Keep this safe and out of sight for me, okay?”
My voice is barely a whisper. She nods, taking it from me, and we continue inside. The walk feels longer than before, in the oppressive silence between the booming noise from the sky, from the admins looking for.. Looking for us. Too late to run and hide now. We enter the chamber of the elders, and the two others gape at the weirdness of the large room. I tell them to stay by the door as I walk towards the pool, towards the lone figure kneeling on the floor. He looks up as I get close.
“Did you finish the job?”
He stands, looking at me. Is there confusion in his eyes?
“I went to Spider. He told me he might help me. I don’t know if he’ll be here in time.”
He closes his eyes, blows a deep breath through pursed lips.
“That really isn’t good enough, Shae. I needed you to create a real distraction. How did you even get away from them? Even if he decided to help, he should have kept you restrained until you could leave the game.”
I look him in the eyes, acting casual.
“I told him you were the one who orchestrated it all. He got really excited about that.”
He tries to hide it, but his eyed reveal some surprise.
“You did? That’s amazing! I never took you for someone who’d sell your friends out like that. I bet he completely ignored it, insisting that you belonged to him.”
His words confuse me a little, but the feeling slips into anger quick.
“Friend? You’ve manipulated me since I came into this village. Hell, I bet you’re the one who planted Lesiraxans tomb where someone like me could find it in the first place. You know, fuck this, and fuck you.”
I removed the crown from my head, throwing it at him. He catches it in one hand with wide eyes.
“You can have this back. You’re the one preventing it from working anyway.”
He chuckles softly.
“Oh Shae, do you think I’m that stupid?”
He raises the crown up in the air.
“That I can’t tell when a low level illusionist like yourself is trying to pull a fast one? Please.”
He holds the crown high, crushing it in his hand. The sound of shattering glass fills the room, and his mottled skin is covered in acid. Whatever magic protected him from the liquids in the elders pool doesn’t seem to be active anymore. His confusion is momentary, then he screams as he falls to his knees, futilely grasping at his face. I calmly walk over to him, watching him for a moment before kicking him squarely in the chest, knocking him to the ground. Kneeling on his good arm, I place the glowing source of energy in it, quickly wrapping it with all the rope I have left, locking it in place. Then I stab him through his shoulder for good measure, pinning him to the mouldy floorboards. His screams reach new heights as I leave the room, spending all the mana I have broadcasting my thoughts to the world.
“Come and get it.”
By the time we’re in the bone room, hiding in a corner, the roof of the barn has been torn off. Right above us is a set of eyes, focusing on the chamber of elders. The droning sound stops as suddenly as it started, and the eyes fade away, leaving a beautiful view of the three moons, Paraton shining it’s reddish glare over the world. I stand up, helping Spinvil and Rinn get to their feet. She holds out the crown to me, but I wave her off.
“No sweetie, you can keep it. If you ever come back here, it’ll be the coolest accessory ever.”
She smiles and puts it on. Spinvil is still looking worried, so I give him an awkward pat on the back.
“Oh my, are you trying to make me jealous, babe?”
The others look nervous as the weird Harlequin walks in from the fungus room. I turn towards her, placing myself in front of my team.
“Children present. Keep it PG.”
She tuts, folding her arms across her chest. Her frozen grin was scary, but she conveyed mild disappointment, not fear or anger. Some kind of mind effect or ability maybe?
“Fine, fine. I’ll be.. Appropriate. You managed to fulfil your end of the deal. Not exactly the way I thought you would, but physical violence is fine when it gets the job done. The admins will have a field day with him. With their attention focused on that task, we can take our time covering our tracks. By the time they come back to clean the place up, the residents will be hidden somewhere else. But without the admin dungeons and evil mushroom puppets I think.”
I smile at her as I take a hold of Rinn's hand.
“So, can we go back now? I’d really like to get a good night's sleep again. Feels like I haven’t been out there in forever.”
Spinvil comes up next to us, putting his hand on Rinn's shoulder.
“I’ve pulled some strings. Spider is fixing your tethers as we speak. There is a problem with the little girl and the comatose guy. His body isn’t any better than his avatar. Even when his ripcord is available, he won’t be able to pull it. If he could pull it, he would just resume being.. Well, a lump of meat.”
I look at Rinn, squeezing her hand tighter.
“What about her.”
“I don’t know how Basilisk managed to get a hold of her, but she’s in a secure facility. She’s been there for a long time now, and her body hasn’t been cared for. She’ll live, probably, but it’ll be a long way to recovery.”
I nod, relieved.
“Can you make sure emergency services get there? Or can you give us the address so we can call them?”
She nods, giving us what we need. Spinvil touches my shoulder, getting my attention.
“It’s back on, it’s working. I can even message my friends. Jakoph is okay, he’s saying the valley’s been blocked by a force field since Telleran was defeated. We can go home.”
I hug him.
“Go on. I’ll make sure Rinn goes too.”
He vanishes as soon as I let him go. I kneel to look Rinn in the eyes. It takes me a few moments to explain what the ripcord is and how to use it. Then she hugs me tightly. I hug her back, closing my eyes until her presence is gone. I stand up.
“We’re not done yet, are we?”
She shakes her head.
“We haven’t found out what happened to Basilisk and Erebus. The others will want to know. It could be a job for you maybe?”
I laugh, louder that I’d meant to.
“No, thank you. I would really like to relax for a bit. When I come back, I’m going to spend some time with the Weke, helping them rebuild. I’ll work on my skills, try out trading and diplomacy. Maybe we’ll be able to shape these furballs into a real presence in this world.”
“Now that we’re alone, do you wanna..”
I step back, holding up my hands.
“What is wrong with you? I’m not into.. Whatever you are. You’re really good at ruining moments, you know?”
She giggles, waving goodbye as I look at the ripcord handle. I take a quick step forwards, hugging her.
“Nobody will ever believe I got this close to an avatar of Chaos.”
I pull the cord before she replies, and the world around me shatters.
Everything goes black. Strobes of white light flashes through the emptiness as I feel myself pulled upwards, then falling downward. I can hear a tearing sound cutting through the deafening silence, and a scream. It takes me too long to realise it’s me. It keeps going, faster and brighter and louder, moment by moment, until I know I can’t handle it anymore. Then it keeps getting worse. Finally, a blessed shattering sound breaks the world, and my mind can rest.
“Joshua Peters. I’m here every day, look, just call Dee, she’ll vouch for me.”
The surly guard finally waves him through. Parking his car, he picks up his folder before heading inside.
A large sign adorns the side of the building.
“Golden heights institute for neural research.”
In smaller text underneath, it read
“Funded by Primacor”
His badge gets him in. His years of first recruiting for experiments, then falling victim to one has given him a degree of access few others have. He was planning on using the leverage to get a nice retirement package in a few years, but that’s out of the window now. This is more important.
The wards are filled with comatose patients. Victims of random mishaps, injuries, pre-existing conditions. The stuff they know might happen. They’re here for research, not for any humanitarian reason. Next are private rooms, where the VIPs are placed. Sons and daughters of rich people who went a bit too far. Drugging themselves before entering the game, various attempts at going perma. Pointless waste.
In the far end of the wing is the locked ward. His pass gets him through here as well, after a thorough search. These are the people which the company can’t afford to let slip. The cases where liability is easily established. There aren’t a lot of patients here. A lot of them had next of kin who wanted the world to know. Primacor has power though, power and resources. The ones who wouldn’t play ball just vanished. He finally reaches her door.
He takes a deep breath before opening the door. She looks straight at him. Her hair is brushed, put in a ponytail. Her mother must have visited today. She felt worse than anyone about what happened. Nobody told her what really happened, blaming it on the hardlink, on the hardware, on the day they had Sharon moved. He sits down across from her. The padded furniture feel insulting somehow. She isn’t violent, hardly ever moves. She has to be fed by hand, or she’ll waste away. But rules are rules, no hard surfaces.
He opens his folder, one side of the binder up, blocking her from seeing the three shapes hanging on it. A star, a square and a circle. He snaps his fingers to get her attention. Others have mentioned how rude it is. He doesn’t tell them it’s only part of the reason he has such good rapport with her. He talks soothingly to her for a little while, letting her get used to his presence, his voice. Then he gets down to business.
“Which shape is next.”
She holds up two fingers. Square.
One finger. Star.
She holds up four fingers.
“There are only three shapes.”
Four fingers again. He smiles, reaches into his pocket, pulls out another piece of paper. Triangle.
The words were meaningless of course. She didn’t have the ability to speak. Moving her fingers was the only interaction she made these days, and he had started to suspect it was a red herring. But she was always right, she always knew the next shape he was thinking about. The tests continued for a while, just another way to keep her active, socialised. When he finished, he stopped by the door, turning towards her. She was looking straight at him.
“Rinn sends her love. She’ll come visit soon. Thank you for bringing her back to me.”
She was motionless. He left the room. A quick detour to the orderlies station before leaving, chatting to them, offering them treats, joking a bit. It made things easier when the staff liked him.
“Can you show me the latest tape please?”
The lead orderly, Dee, leaned over the desk, flipping some switches on the console.
“Sorry sir, against company policy. Can’t show the tapes to anyone but management.”
She winked as the tape started playing. A video from inside Sharon's locked cell. She was sitting nearly motionless, blinking intermittently. Suddenly, her eyes fixed on the wall. Panning slowly towards the door, her gaze landed on Joshua as he opened her door. Fast forward. As he left, her head turned to follow his progression down the hallway.
“We also noticed this.”
Dee pushed another button, and the video went to live feed. Sharon looks up at the camera.
“And then we do this.”
She turned the video off, waited a moment, then brought up the recording. Sharon stopped looking at the camera as soon as the live feed turned off.
“What does it mean?”
“I don’t know Dee, but I’m going to find out.”
Loe was running ahead, pretending to be useful without much success. His prosthetic leg was amazing, nearly indistinguishable from a real one. The new valley was beautiful. The winter frost had coated everything in fine dust, making the world feel clean. Trickster had kept her word, and everyone was moved before the admins came back to finish cleaning up. Now, life continued slowly but steadily. Scragh had organised all the able bodied Weke into work teams, and the new village was coming along nicely. They’d all decided to build their dwellings above ground this time around, as it fit better with the climate here. Nevertheless, Loe had expressed a wish to dig a nice cellar to sleep in. It was telling that nobody argued. Everyone shared the wonderful sense of optimism after the gruelling challenges of the last few weeks.
Only 150 Weke survived the calamities. Most of the guards and all of the scouts had been killed. Enough children and civilians survived that continuing their society would be hard, but feasible. It was still important to branch out a little, join the wider community. With the resources here so easily available, it should be possible to set up some lucrative trade routes.
Spinvil had come by to visit, as had Jakoph. They both had made formal apologies, pledging their service to the village for their sins. Jakoph turned out to be an architect in real life, lending his skills to the reconstruction effort. Spinvil was a highschooler, a latchkey kid. Nobody to look for him when he was stuck in the game, and nobody to greet him when he made it out. Apparently, rescuing Rinn had made him a minor hero in the local media. He declined a hardware upgrade from the company, citing addiction worries if the experience was too good. In reality, he was terrified of being stuck again. I didn’t remind him that he got stuck with his current gear. No point in ruining a perfectly nice work session.
As for me, I was doing better. I was feeling numb the first few days, like a part of my soul had gone. I knew it was only a part of my mind, of course. I didn’t really think too hard about what that meant for the nature of consciousness. The others told me I’d vanished completely from above. My parents had moved to a neighbouring town, the house released to the apartment pool. I kinda hoped my body was still alive out there, that she made it fine and was happy. We deserved that. We reach our destination, my town hall. A real government building, with a stone foundation, pine and oak wood and heavy shutters. Three fireplaces made it nice and toasty when needed, and a large kitchen gave me the chance to play around with cooking.
It all felt like a vacation, a well earned one, but I could still feel the clouds on the horizon. If this was going to be my home from now on, I had to take care of business. My missing adversaries, the neighbouring kingdoms, my lingering quests.
I distract Loe with a small illusion, stealing an apple from his pack. Responsibilities could wait. For now, I rest.
- Stranger in a strange land
Software developer by trade. Games developer by uni course. Shopkeeper in a previous life.. don't ask.
I took a look at my life recently, and realised I read too much. I watch too much tv. I play too many games. I consume too much. It was time for me to create instead, improve the balance of things. So I wrote, and I wrote, and I managed to finish a first draft. Then I went back to the beginning and started rewriting it, while working on the sequel.
If you like my work, or are a fan of litRPG/Gamelit, please check out https://greatlitrpg.com
You'll find my book there, and a bunch of other authors worth your time. Vote for what you like, and help make it a definitive collection of unbiased reviews.