I had died before in the game, of course. Back when the servers were fully functional, death had been easy. Everything would go black, it would hurt for a few seconds, and then I would awaken above my respawn unit in my apartment. Sometimes I would have a headache, other times I would feel fine. Mostly, I woke up tired and hungry, eager to get a snack and head back into the game.
When I died in front of King Ahmose II’s castle, pinned to the door by five magical arrows, it wasn’t anywhere close to the same experience. It was instantly harrowing, and the flood of memories it brought racing to my mind was nearly too much for me to handle. Being dead, I had no escape. I couldn’t get the images to stop, couldn’t even close my eyes or look away—my only option was to stare in unmoving horror. I didn’t know how much my mind could survive.
The first thing I saw was the crushing darkness of absolute void. There was simply nothing. I could think, I knew I could see, but wherever my eyes looked was just more infinite nothing. The darkness was ceaseless. It felt oppressive on my shoulders, my head, my chest, though it didn’t actually bring any pain. Perhaps my physical body did not yet exist. In truth, I wasn’t sure if the spell Xollmomath had placed upon me would be successful. Without the respawn mechanic being active in the game, would my soul still be captured and returned to my body?
I had no idea.
The thought of dying for real didn’t scare me at all. When it really came down to it, the only thing still fueling me was revenge. I hadn’t killed Vic, hadn’t even figured out where to look for him, but that was all I had left. My wife was dead. She’d been dead for years. My daughter was dead as well. My parents had died more than a decade ago when the medicine started running out. I didn’t have any brothers or sisters. Everyone I had ever loved was dead.
In the soul-crushing darkness, I wondered if that was even true. Did I love my underlings? Did I love the handful of players who served me at Undercroft Citadel? Maybe. I wasn’t sure.
Elyk was too unhinged for me to use that kind of powerful language when describing our relationship. The man was a faithful servant and a powerful warrior, but what we had felt more like the standard trappings of friendship and mutual reliance, not love.
Helvegen was really the only one who had ever opened up to me. I felt a connection to her that was different from the others. Did I love her? No. Could our friendship turn into something more than it was? Potentially. Perhaps I would come to view her as the sister I never had. I knew she looked at me with admiration—at least that’s how I interpreted it—and I also knew that something was missing from my entire life. Ingrid’s death had left a massive, painful chasm in my heart that demanded to be filled.
If I would ever find that kind of fulfilment at Undercroft Citadel, I could not say with certainty.
Staring into the abyss, I felt my emotional pain far stronger than any physical pain the arrows pinning me to the door could ever cause. I had nothing, I loved no one, and I knew it.
The crushing void of infinite darkness seemed to last forever. I had no accurate perception of time, no way of knowing how long I had been caught in the cruel space between life and death, and every second that passed by was nothing short of an eternity.
Finally, something started to change. I couldn’t tell what it was at first, just that I was beginning to feel a little different, and then I saw it: the pure black curtain I had been relentlessly gazing into was starting to lift. Shapes were taking form in the darkness, and though they held no meaning that I could discern, they gave me comfort. They were something I could latch onto to anchor me in space and time.
Hours ticked away, and the shapes gradually became clearer and clearer until I could start to assign them names and descriptions based on things I had known in life. Identifying the things I saw was kind of like finding constellations in the sky. I had to look both at what was there and what was not there in order to actually see anything, and even then I was still applying a significant amount of my imagination.
As the shapes continued to sharpen in my vision and become more concrete, my terror escalated further. I saw the outline of a woman, one I instantly recognized, and I could not look away. I had no eyelids to close, no neck to turn, and no hands to block my vision. I stared in horror as my wife slowly faded into view. She was lying down as she had in her final days and weeks, plastic tubing running from a myriad of places on her body to disappear into the void above her head.
Instead of seeing her in the hospital bed where she had lived out her last several months, I saw her half-covered in inky slime, partially submerged beneath the fetid waters of a rancid swamp. She was looking away from me, or I was simply approaching her from the side, and the water level rose up almost to her head. Her arms and legs stuck up from the black morass as well. They almost resembled fallen, rotten branches that hadn’t quite been pulled into the liquid depths of the swamp.
I watched, and my wife was unmoving. She just stared to the side, to my left, and I could not turn my head to see what it was that had so captivated her attention. I wanted to call to her and try to offer her some measure of comfort, but I had no voice. I could not call to her. I could not speak her name, not even a whisper, and she did not turn to see me. She only stared, and I was utterly powerless.
The scene before me eventually cleared enough that I could make out the water in which my wife sat so motionless. Or rather, I could start to see what was underneath the water, and a fresh wave of fear and nauseating helplessness rushed through my consciousness. Just beneath the water’s black surface lurked a collection of faces, each of them missing a body.
I instantly recognized the faces. Chief among them was Ingrid, her eyes full of pain and begging me to help. Surrounding her tormented visage were at least two dozen others, and I had killed every single one of them. I recognized faces from the members of the Pyreborn Legion. They wore scowls, staring intently at me from just below the surface of the murky water. The people I had killed in Whitechapel were there as well. Their faces held the same expressions—judging, searching, and finding me unworthy.
In addition to Ingrid and the faces of everyone else I had killed, I saw King Ahmose II’s daughter. Her face was next to the decapitated head of Briggan, the paladin I had butchered in the king’s castle. There’s were the only faces showing blood on them. It wasn’t overly grotesque, just a faint smattering of red across their flesh, but it was enough for revulsion to consume my consciousness.
My mind floated close enough to the swampy scene for me to smell it. Part of my consciousness regarded the addition of the new sensory information to be a good thing, perhaps some indication that I would soon awaken, but the rest of me dreaded it. If I could smell, I knew my hearing would return as well. I didn’t want to hear.
I didn’t want to hear my wife’s voice asking me to kill her so she wouldn’t have to endure another round of chemo or another disfiguring surgery. I didn’t want to hear her screams of pain as the doctors performed another spinal tap, her hand desperately crushing mine within its grip.
I didn’t want to hear Ingrid crying in pain as magical poison coursed through her body.
More than anything else, I didn’t want to hear my daughter’s cries as she clung to her mother’s body, the droning sound of a flat-lined heart monitor ringing in my ears.
Ever so slowly, my wife’s face turned. Little ripples radiated out from her body as she moved, gently obscuring all the faces gathered beneath the surface. My wife faced me, and I saw the right side of her body. It was torn and tattered, the skin hanging loosely from the bone underneath, and her eyes looked sad. She was crying. Everything about her countenance spoke only of fear and pain. Of ruin.
If she could see me—whatever I truly was in that space between life and death—she did not give me any indication.
Her eyes were vacant and soulless. They bored into me, but they were not the eyes of a person with life. They lacked all their former luster and sheen, all their spark… they were just as dead as she was.
All I could do was watch. My fear was at its apex, sorrow the only emotion competing with it, and my mind threatened to slip away. I felt like my only anchor to reality was deteriorating. My mind couldn’t handle the images I saw combined with the infinite darkness surrounding me. If I ever awoke back in Wonder, I had no idea if I would be sane—or even alive.
Perhaps I would never awaken. If I stayed in the space between life and death for eternity, I would lose whatever shreds of my sanity remained. I would lose them quickly, and then none of it would matter. Desperate to cling to whatever sanity remained within the darkest trappings of my mind, I forced myself not to break. I stared at my dead, rotting wife, and I willed myself to survive. I had told her to be strong hundreds of times, and now it was my turn.
Pain shot through the intangible part of space where I imagined my head must have been, and then my sense of touch returned all at once. I could feel the swampy, stagnant water covering my entire body, though I had no physical form to see, not even a reflection coming from the surface.
Sound came next. I heard insects clicking and buzzing in the black void comprising the distance. I could hear the water as it slowly lapped against my dead wife’s legs. I heard my breathing as well, which gave me pause, for I could not choose to hold my breath or otherwise control my lungs in any way.
I wished beyond hope that I would not hear anything else. The sounds of the swamp were enough.
Sadly, my hope was poorly placed. My wife, her eyes still looking past me rather than at me, started to speak. Her rotten jaw unhinged at an odd angle, drooping down more on the right than on the left. “You have served Lady Kalma well, Ben Hales, Defender of the Necropolis. You have earned her favor, Ben Hales.”
“You’ll bring me back to life?” I asked, my voice coming from every bit of air over the swamp at once.
My decaying wife nodded, and her jaw unhinged a little more. “You have been blessed with Lady Kalma’s shroud. Such blessings are not offered often or without deep deliberation, and you have earned the fruits of your labor. But do not take your tasks lightly, Ben Hales.”
“What does Lady Kalma ask of me?”
“You have taken on her mantle, Ben Hales, and you must stay within Lady Kalma’s favor if you are to survive. She demands conquest and more corpses to add to her endless stench. Go and conquer the seven worlds of Wonder. Bring Lady Kalma’s abyssal message to all the people of Wonder. Kill any who resist. Prosthelytize for the true goddess, Ben Hales!” Her voice was animated and powerful, though her body did not move to match her passion.
I didn’t really understand exactly what kind of message I was supposed to deliver. As far as I knew, Lady Kalma didn’t have shrines or temples like the other gods of Wonder. Hell, I wasn’t sure anyone other than those of us who lived at Undercroft Citadel had even heard Lady Kalma’s name. Perhaps that was the message. I needed to bring back the goddess’s name from Wonder’s ancient history.
“What would you have me do? Build temples?” I asked.
The dead woman laughed. “Lady Kalma has blessed your necropolis with a chapel. Further her name, and conquer in her stead, Ben Hales. Spread her chapels throughout the land, and Lady Kalma will provide you with infinite reward.”
“All I want is another day with my wife… with my daughter…” I quietly replied.
No matter what the strange images promised me, I knew it wouldn’t be possible. The game didn’t understand that the respawning module had been corrupted, so it had no way of knowing what death truly meant. Maybe that was for the best. If the AI changed too much in response to the attacks on the servers, the results could be cataclysmic. I shook my head. Or I tried to shake my head, but of course my physical body did not exist, and nothing happened.
“Lady Kalma is a god!” the swamp-covered image of my dead wife cheerfully announced. “Anything you desire can be yours! All she asks is for your service! And your soul!”
Before I had a chance to ask the strange image what exactly she meant, everything returned to black once more. I floated through time and space, through the vast expanse of nothingness that existed between life and death, for what felt like a second lifetime. My brain had no practical way of coping with the trauma of my own death, and my ability to perceive time—or anything else—accurately was beyond destroyed.
Eventually, I felt my real eyes begin to flutter open. They were crusted with blood, and it took a significant effort to pry them open even the tiniest fraction.
I still couldn’t see. Even when my eyes were fully open and I was blinking once more in the real world, my vision had not returned. Or… was I blind?
When players had obtained resurrection spells before the server corruption, something altogether rare to come by, the mechanic had simply dropped them off in a new version of their body right at the nearest portal. Since the portals were closed, the magic had decided to return me to my own body, presumably because it could not generate the needed code to produce a new one at any portal.
Everything hurt more than I could process. My senses were overloaded beyond reason, and for a long moment I simply hung on the wooden door and struggled to get my body once more under my control. It took a concerted effort, but I eventually managed to reign in enough of my consciousness to get my eyes and ears working once more.
I could hear the sounds of people coming from behind me, from the throne room. Their voices sounded sad. What exactly had happened? The last thing I remembered… was an arrow slicing through my right arm and holding it against the wood of the door.
But before that… things were fuzzy. I blinked several times, and the castle bailey in front of me started to come into focus. I must have bled from my scalp at some point, because everything was coated in a red tint that reminded me of blood. As I looked out at the bailey, the events leading up to my death started to come back to me in bits and pieces. I remembered fighting Kevin, one of the most powerful rangers in all of Echelon, but… I couldn’t remember where my armor had gone. Had the guild looted my corpse? If they had taken the armor, I didn’t have a chance. Undercroft Citadel would fall.
No, the memory of taking off my armor started coming back, and I knew I had given it to my party before I had died. Always thinking ahead.
The door I was pinned to started to move. Someone was pushing it outward.
I hung my head back down and pretended to be dead. It didn’t take much effort to effect the ruse, as covered in blood and mired in pain as I was.
Whoever it was that came out was female, I could tell by her voice, and she cursed me. She was crying, and it felt like she even spit on my legs, probably standing with her hands on her hips and shaking her head. “You fucking bastard,” she sobbed. “You didn’t have to kill Ophelia, you jackass. She was just a girl! Barely old enough to play the game!”
The woman spit on me again. I thought back to my own dead wife and child. There was no sympathy in my heart. Not a single drop. Whoever the woman was, she would know more pain before I was truly gone from the game. Her first taste of loss was nothing.
I opened my eyes.