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Rowan parried a ruddy blade’s uppercut and decapitated a rotting head, but a broadhead arrow slipped through his guard. Blood splattered. Dungeon walls faded to black.

You have died.

He gazed into the darkness as a painful chill crept up his spine. Churning fatigue had long ago set into his skull, his vision blotched with shades of white. A debuff icon—a red exclamation mark—atop an empty health bar was flashing every second, counting down from sixteen seconds. He knew what it was.

Medical emergency.

His time was up. Long up. These were his final moments in this world, in this fully-immersive virtual reality MMO that he had most enjoyed since his late teens. And also now during his final hours. His last supper of gaming. Playing as the bad guy.

Oh, he loved being the baddie. The hated troll. Chuckles shook belly as he thought of the raid he had just crashed with Gabrielle. Their shouts echoed in his ears. Their agony curled his lips. Their red faces allowed him some warmth. Dying one last time and enduring the world’s reduced pain was worth it a million times over.

A shrill beep slapped the smile off his face.

You are now logging out. Thank you for playing Aeon Chronicles Online.

Damn. It’s over.

A dimly-lit hospital room faded in around him, white everywhere save for a potted fern in the corner. Bland as always. Two medical automatons chirped notes in rhythm with his heartbeat and other vital signs. Wireless sensors taped to his skin doubled as heating pads. And an IV fed painkillers into his arm, but it did nothing to help the numb voids in his chest, his stomach, his head. He shifted against the mattress, and a stabbing ache tore into his side—the stitches from the last round of surgeries. A hiss blew through his teeth. The automatons vibrated in alarm while the pain gradually dulled.

Flaxen hair whipped at the corner of his sight. Gabrielle dropped his matte black VR helmet next to her silver one, then spun around. Her lips wobbled. “Row? Ya okay?”

With strained effort he barely said, “Yeah. Just fi—” A cough flayed his throat, and sudden weakness blurred his eyes. He tasted blood.

She rushed over and knelt at his side, her palm on his forehead. “What’s wrong?”

He could just make out her beautiful features. He swallowed. “Nothing.” He tried to give her that coy smile she loved. “But your eyes are red again. Get that checked out. It could be a lump.” Those three sentences sapped whatever life force was left in his body. The corners of the room dimmed.

“Don’t worry. I will. Do ya see any lumps though?” she mumbled in a tiny voice that was lost to his ears. Her hand took his, and when he didn’t respond after several beats of his slowing heart, she shouted, “Row! Did ya hear me?!”

His voice came out as a dying wheeze, so he rolled his neck left and right instead. The darkness was encroaching, here in the real world. A part of him, refusing reality, was expecting a pop-up alerting him of his death. The rest of him told that part to shut up, for he needed to sleep. A good, long nap to recharge his batteries, then he could keep fighting his fate. Just a bit of a nap for a few minutes, no longer. He wasn’t going to give up on her.

Tears streamed down her reddening cheeks. “Come on! Stay awake! The doctors are coming. Uncle Vincent is coming. Stay awake!”

His fingers twitched against hers. Just a short nap, okay? The darkness demanded it. He needed it. Just for a minute.

Then she was hugging him. Her pineapple fragrance filled his airways. Her warmth seeped into his numb voids. “Oh my god. Dun’ die! It’s just a little bit of cancer. A tiny bit! Ya can pull through like aways, you and me, Row and Gabby till the end.”

See you in a minute. Goodbye.

“Come on! Ya have plenty of years left. Decades! Aeon Chronicles is getting an expansion next month. Don’t ya wanna play it with me?”

But he was already gone, the automatons silent.

“Noooo,” she whined into his chest neck. “Ya promised forever. This doesn’t count as forever! Ya meanie! Come—” Her voice broke as grief ripped her in two. She weeped and weeped and clung to his body, unbelieving of how this universe could be so mean.

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