The Artificer Sneak Peek

ONE:

Maintenance Sweep

Robert Osmark watched his death approaching in vivid ultrahigh definition detail on a 90-inch holotable display. Only a handful of people on the planet could see what Osmark saw, and most of them didn’t understand what they were looking at. Not even the smart ones. He zoomed in as close as the satellite’s telescopic lens would allow. He wanted to get a good look at his nemesis. When it filled the entire display, Osmark walked up to it and stared at its mottled surface.

213 Astraea was a nine-mile wide rock shot through by twisting veins of ice like burrowing worms, the whole thing wreathed in a halo of burning gas. Its surface was an irregular plain of drab and dreary gray pocked by flecks of white ice. “Never before has something so uninteresting held so many in awe,” Osmark whispered to himself.

It was a shame, really. But he wasn’t surprised. Humans weren’t impressed by the amazing and awesome things happening all around them—unless it was burning, naked, or life-threatening, most people wouldn’t notice a miracle if it bit them on the nose. Osmark Technologies had revolutionized life in every corner of the world, but that hunk of rock in the sky had eclipsed all of its achievements the second it revealed itself to the Arecibo Observatory, down in Puerto Rico.  In the end, the people of the world would be more impressed by an unfeeling, unthinking, hunk of stone hurled at their planet by an indifferent universe than by the countless technological miracles Robert Osmark had brought into their lives. Ingrates.

“Let’s go check on the New World,” he said to the empty room. Osmark left the asteroid behind. It didn’t care about him, or the billions of others it would kill along with him, so why should he care about it?

Besides, in many ways, the asteroid was the best thing that had ever happened to him.

He turned, heels click-clacking on the gray stone floors, hands neatly folded behind his back, and beelined for the gigantic, steel blast door separating his private quarters from the rest of the sprawling, underground facility. Leaving the comforts of his suite behind was always a shock and more than a little disorienting.

His room was a work of art: old gray stone walls, polished, dark wood floorboards underfoot, a massive fireplace with a mocha-brown leather sitting close by. Arched windows littered the room, overlooking a forest filled with an assortment of pines and firs. Halo projections, but the most convincing kind. Built in nooks and crannies held priceless sculptures—the L’Homme au Doigt by Alberto Giacometti here, the Tete de Femme by Picasso there—or world-changing paintings. Just over his fireplace hung a Nymphéas, by Monet. All works of art the world couldn’t stand to lose.

Testaments to human brilliance.

But one step took him from the luxurious and into a bland white tunnel lined with naked pipes and exposed conduits. At first glance, the walls appeared to be painted concrete, as was the floor and ceiling. A closer examination revealed the truth.

Salt.

When Astraea plowed into Central America and ended life as humans knew it, this bunker, carved into the world’s largest salt deposit, would preserve some of the world’s wealthiest inhabitants in a world Osmark had built.

Or, it would at least preserve their minds, at least.

He whistled as he walked down the tunnel, pointedly ignoring the mute and immobile weapon emplacements mounted at regular intervals in the walls and ceiling. Once the largest and deepest salt mine in the world, Osmark’s new home had also been a military installation of last resort before it found its way into his hands. He couldn’t help but wonder how the architects of this place, who’d built it to stand up to a nuclear assault that paled in comparison to the disaster heading toward earth, would feel about the improvements he’d made.

His first stop was the ventilation and cooling plant. Though there were technicians and engineers tasked with making sure every vital piece of the bunker’s machinery was in perfect order, Osmark wasn’t going to leave anything to chance. If he’d learned one thing as the head of Osmark Technology, it was that someone always missed something. Always. It was as certain as the turning of the seasons. If he wanted to be sure something was done correctly, he’d have to check it himself.

“How’s it going, Harry?” He asked the security guard stationed inside the clean room leading to the plant. Names were such a little thing in the grand scheme, but he’d found they held a tremendous power. He knew the name of every subordinate—he knew the names of their family members—because those small details cemented loyalty better than anything else.

The guard, a fit former Marine with beef-sab arms, stood a little straighter when he addressed Osmark. “Boring, which I guess is an improvement over what’s going on topside”—he jabbed a finger toward the roof.

A broadcast monitor mounted near the ceiling inside the clean room showed Osmark scenes of rising anarchy. With the literal end of life on earth approaching at an alarming rate, things were breaking down. With so little time left, people were doing exactly what they wanted, when they wanted, to whom they wanted. When you had no future, maybe the best you could hope for was to enjoy your present to the fullest.

Unfortunately, that meant your good day could turn into someone else’s very, very bad day.

Rioters rampaged across the monitor, weapons raised in mindless defiance. Fires burned in blackened storefronts. The wounded ran screaming, their mouths carved into black circles beneath the horrified caverns of their dark eyes.

An overhead view erased the individual rioters and pulled back to show the scope of the insanity. “Where is this?” Osmark asked.

“Dallas,” Harry said flatly. “I’ve never seen anything like it. The scary thing is what’s missing.”

Osmark zipped into his white Tyvek suit and raised his mask to his face. Before he strapped it on, he asked, “What’s that?”

Harry’s eyes narrowed as he watched the chaos dance across the monitor. “Cops. Firemen. Ambulances. No one’s trying to stop it. No one’s trying to help.”

I am, Osmark thought as he fastened his mask in place. “Show me Osmark Stadium.”

Frank nodded, hands quickly working at the control panel. The Chaos in Dallas was replaced by an interior view of a massive football stadium in San Diego. The difference was immediate. Ashen faced people milled around in orderly pockets, each clutching a lone suitcase with the last of their earthly belongings. Soldiers patrolled the perimeter and weaved their way through the crowd; their boxy, matte-black assault rifles kept the masses in check. These were the survivors. Well, potential survivors. The few lucky enough or wealthy enough to win A.R.C. lottery tickets, and a place in one of the deep-earth bunkers scattered around the globe.

The whole set-up was nice, neat, and orderly.

“And the Silicon Valley facility?” Osmark said, leaning forward as he inspected the monitor.

Once more the holoscreen flickered and morphed. A giant warehouse with concrete walls and harsh halogen lighting appeared. The space was filled wall to wall with state-of-the-art NexGenVR capsules—a sea of glossy, black plastic coffins. Here too, order reigned. Nurses, orderlies, guards, and tech service support personnel loaded people into capsules or carted bodies away for incineration. Five-thousand capsules per facility, and five-hundred facilities operating at max capacity worldwide. The greatest evacuation the world had ever seen.

I am, Osmark thought again as he waved to Harry and stepped into the plant.

The noise inside was incredible, deafening even. Even through the state-of-the-art earplugs protecting his hearing, Osmark could hear the plant’s unearthly racket. A steady bass drone underlined rhythmic hissing and an oscillating rumble. The bunker was close to 2 miles beneath the surface, hidden below the sleepy town of Independence, Missouri. Getting air that deep into the earth required a staggering number of powerful fans, which constantly buzzed in the background like never-ending white noise. And each one of those fans added heat to the air passing through its whirling blades.

The mine’s engineers had dealt with the heat by adding enormous cooling chambers between the fans. Exhaust vents dissipated the heat through narrow channels leading back to the surface. It was an impressive feat of engineering, and if it ever failed, everyone in the bunker would die through a painful combination of suffocation and slow broiling. There was no chance of it failing anytime in the next hundred years, however. Osmark had seen to that personally. He’d hired the best engineers on the planet to improve the system, pushing it far beyond the capacity its creators ever imagined. Standing on the catwalk overlooking his End of the World air conditioning system, Osmark couldn’t help but smile.

Everything was working exactly as he’d planned, and it would keep on working, long after he died.

“Perfect,” he whispered, leaving the plant behind for the last time.

Briskly, he marched down a dozen different hallways after he left the cooling and ventilation plant—left, right, left, left, straight, right—taking each turn without the least hesitation. The broadcast monitor scattered around the mine kept him apprised of the situation on the surface. He did his best to tune it out because it pained him to see people behaving like animals. He was living proof that they didn’t have to be that way. A little effort, a little luck, some brains, and one man could move the world.

Several levels down from the ventilation plant, Osmark reached his next stop. With a wave of his hand, another steel blast door swung open on silent hinges, revealing a stark white hallway, which connected to a darkened chamber. The security guard was half out of his chair before he recognized Osmark.

“I didn’t know you are coming today, sir.” The man said with a sheepish grin.

“Relax, John,” Osmark said. “I’m just making the rounds.”

His last stop and been all about cooling things down, but this room was for heating things up. OLED panels lined the walls, each displaying information about a critical subsystem. The center of the far wall was what drew Osmark’s attention, though, because it gave a readout of the whole system at a glance.

That display had a tiny pictogram representing the salt mine at its top. A thick tube led from the mine down to the earth’s vast darkness. The mine’s geothermal well. It descended more than 10 miles below the earth’s surface to a vast lake of superheated, pressurized water. That water, almost 500°F temperature, was pumped up to the power plant under intense pressure. The steam generated turned turbines, which generated electricity. As the water cooled, it flowed back to the lake that provided it. The closed-loop was efficient, nearly perfect. It would keep electricity flowing until the end of time, powering the Overmind servers which ruled Viridian Gate Online

The central display was a solid shade of blue, telling Osmark everything was running as expected.

“Of course it is,” he whispered to himself, “I made it.”

Satisfied, he turned and left, waving goodbye to John for the last time, as he headed deeper into the earthen bunker, past the food stores and clean water wells, the housing quarters for the transition team, and the drone vaults. The drones were Osmark’s final project. After Astraea did its dirty work and debris stopped falling from the sky, the bunker’s artificial intelligence units would direct the drones to the surface. There, they’d clear away rubble and debris from the entrance just in case one of the mine’s residents needed to head outside. But, more importantly, the drones would be able to deploy a sophisticated solar cell system once the atmosphere shed the worst of Astraea’s pollution. Those cells would allow the drones to recharge on the surface so they could continue exploring the dead world left behind.

Osmark paused, then, rubbing his suddenly sweat-slick hands over his pants. There was only one last area to check before he made the plunge: the servers themselves, buried in an area the staff jokingly referred to as the Underworld. No one liked to go down there. Not the techs. Not the engineers. Not the guards. And if Osmark were honest, he’d include himself on that list. Still, this was the most important check—the one the whole world of Viridian Gate Online rode on—and he couldn’t put it off any longer. Reluctantly, he made his way down the catwalk to a stainless-steel elevator, which plunged even deeper into the earth.

When the elevator door dinged opened, the trio of guards standing at attention didn’t apologize for pointing their weapons in Osmark’s direction. It wasn’t until the lead guard recognized Robert that he motioned for the others to relax. “One last check, Sir?” The guard, a whip-thin man with a crew cut named Marcus, asked.

“Better safe than sorry,” Osmark said, giving the men each a nod as he passed them.

The black door they were guarding had no handle or lock. A single glowing green panel marked its center. Osmark placed his palm on it and spread his fingers wide to give the sensor a clear view of his prints. Red light flashed in each of his eyes, scanning his retinas and confirming his identity. Without a sound, the door vanished into the wall.

Osmark licked his lips. He wasn’t afraid, not of a machine he’d helped create, but he couldn’t hide his apprehension. What he’d accomplished here wasn’t just a feat of technology. It was miraculous.

And that made him just a little nervous.

The black box was 10 yards on a side, and 5 yards tall. It looked like a chunk of polished obsidian resting on the salt floor. Thick cooling tubes descended from the ceiling to connect to the box’s sides and top like metallic umbilical cords. The faint whooshing of forced air was the only sound inside the sacred chamber.

Osmark approached the room’s only other object: a black monitor resting on top of a short pillar. When he stopped in front of it, a low, mechanical voice droned, “Hello, Robert.”

The monitor flickered to life, displaying a dizzying array of charts and graphs. None of them were labeled because no one would ever see this display other than Robert. He knew what each line and bar chart meant; he understood intimately what every colored pixel was telling him.  This was an overview of the world he’d created. The virtual reality realm where close to 4 million men, women and children would live after Astraea wiped out the rest of humanity—not to mention the other 8 million or so NPCs, generated by the Overminds. Like everything else, it was close to perfect. So close that the imperfections rose to the surface like jarring notes struck in an otherwise melodious orchestra. “Damn it,” Robert snarled.

The Chinese had assured him their donation would work flawlessly. And it had, until recently. There was something off with the Thanatos Overmind. There were no severe anomalies, but almost constant fluctuations above and below normal operating thresholds disturbed Robert’s otherwise flawless system.

“Maybe it’s the reflection core, I could just tweak —“ Robert muttered absently, then bit his tongue. With only a little more than eight days remaining before Astraea plowed into the earth, there was no point in tinkering with the arcade built. He’d done the best he could, and it would be more than good enough.

He hoped.

 

TWO:

Upload

Osmark’s most trusted ally, Sandra Bullard, glared at him as he entered the transition chamber. She was a slight woman with a severe face, emphasized even more so by the tight bun fixed at the back of her head. She leaned casually against the sleek black tube that would soon be his grave and tapped a pen against her chin. “You’re late.”

“For a very important date?” He chuckled and shook his head. “There’s still plenty of time.”

Sandra frowned at Robert. “What has been your favorite saying since we began this project?”

“The end of the world isn’t an excuse to slack off,” he said with a sigh. “And that’s true, but I wasn’t slacking.”

“Robert, we have highly qualified staff to check all of those systems. Let them do the work you hired them to do.” She raised her clipboard and turned it toward him. “You have a schedule to keep.”

“Ah, mom,” Osmark said with mock exasperation. “I don’t wanna die, yet.”

His assistant tried to hold it together, but she couldn’t suppress a single giggle. She covered her full lips with her clipboard until the fit had passed. Though both of them were aggressive, high-performing personalities, their long-standing relationship gave them a firm enough foundation to occasionally let loose with one another. With the stakes so high, and the need to keep up appearances so great, Robert couldn’t resist sharing an occasional joke with his chief operations specialist, personal assistant, and primary bodyguard.

“Let me give you a rundown on our current situation,” Sandra began. She ran her finger down the single sheet of paper on her clipboard and tapped the conductive ink with the micro transponder embedded in the lacquer covering the nail of her right index finger.

In a blink, the transition chamber’s northern wall transformed into a deep black tapestry. One by one, photographs of Osmark’s primary contributors to the VGO Project floated up through the darkness and into view. “As you can see, most of our esteemed guests have already arrived at the bunkers assigned to them. Transitions are already in progress, and I don’t foresee any difficulties with those guests I’ve highlighted.”

Robert noted two photographs that were not highlighted. “Carrera and Sizemore are already stirring up trouble?”

“You’re half right,” Sandra corrected. “Carrera’s being a good boy. I doubt that’s going to remain true for long, but at present he’s minding his manners and doing as he’s told. He’s a pragmatic man, and he understands that his survival rests in other hands. Your hands.”  Robert couldn’t hide his smile. Though he’d achieved far more in his life than any of the guests who’d contributed to his project, most of them had not viewed him with the respect he deserved. Once the money had changed hands, his genius disappeared in their eyes. He’d been paid, and now he was the help.

Be a good boy and build us a new world to conquer.

He’d let them believe that. But Osmark was more than prepared to show them the truth after the transition period was over.

“If he’s playing by the rules, why did you flag him?” Osmark asked.

A grim smile tightened Sandra’s lips. “To remind us both to keep an eye on him. He’s being nice now. But once we’re all inside, the gloves will come off. Remember that.”

Osmark nodded and raised his hands in surrender. Sandra had made her point, and he wasn’t about to challenge her on it.

“And Sizemore? What’s he up to?” His eyes narrowed as he spoke. Sandra leaned her head up against Osmark’s high-tech coffin. The way she treated it with such indifference annoyed him, though Osmark would never let it show. He was going to die in that capsule, but that didn’t mean anything. His superstitious dread of the grave was embarrassing, and he chewed on the inside of his lip in frustration.

“Are you listening?” Sandra asked.

Osmark cleared his throat. “Sorry, just a little preoccupied.”

“As I was saying,” Sandra said, annoyed at having to repeat herself, “Senator Sizemore has contacted several of the other guests. Including our Chinese contingent.”

Robert clenched his teeth and forced a deep breath through his nostrils. He’d needed Sizemore to get the project off the ground. Without the Senator’s help, they wouldn’t have the salt mine and all the goodies that came with it. More importantly, Osmark would never have received the Yama system from the Chinese. Sizemore had greased those international political wheels so smoothly and efficiently that Robert had immediately taken a dislike to the man. Anyone who could get concessions from the Chinese in less than 12 hours couldn’t be trusted.

“I should’ve known,” Osmark said. “He was too close to Peng. I assume you have some idea of what they’re discussing?”

Sandra sketched an abbreviated bow. She grinned and said, “I know you love to watch.”

The transition chamber’s east wall displayed a crystal clear still shot of Sizemore handing a drink to the Chinese contingent’s spokesperson. It lurched into motion, and immersive audio made Osmark feel as if he was standing in the room with the men.

“You understand we cannot allow him to control our destinies once we transition,” Peng said as he accepted the drink. “We must forge our own paths.”

Sizemore’s trademark smile flashed like a megawatt laser, his teeth immaculately white and straight. At 50, the senator was just a few years older than Osmark, but he looked a decade younger. His tanned skin showed no wrinkles, and his dark hair had just the right amount of gray peppering its temples. The man would’ve been as at home on a movie set as he was stalking the halls of Congress. A classic politician in every way.

“I couldn’t agree with you more, sir,” Sizemore said with a deferential bow. “Osmark’s brain is valuable, and he’s done us a great service, but if he thinks I’m going to let him run the place, he’s got another thing coming.”

The Chinese spokesperson shot Sizemore a dubious glance. “Surely he has contingencies in place to deal with those who would rise against him. The man who built the world will have given himself insurmountable advantages.”

Sizemore drained his glass in a single long pull. For a moment, he didn’t speak, instead refilling his glass as he considered his next words. “You’d think so, but it doesn’t work that way. Osmark has advantages, the same as the rest of us, but he’s not a god. No matter what he wants us to believe, the truth is the simulation can only be stretched so far. It has rules that can be bent, but breaking them is impossible. He’s formidable, but not indomitable.”

Peng tapped the rim of his glass with one lanky finger, his lips pursed into a thin line. “You have a plan, then?” he asked.

Sizemore touched his glass to Peng’s. “I do. And I’ve already told it to my allies.”

“Ah, but it appears you have forgotten one of your allies.” Peng smiled. “It seems we have much to discuss.”

Sandra killed the replay with the tap of a finger. “Once you begin your transition, I have a plane standing by to take me to Sizemore and Peng’s bunker. My credentials will get me inside, and the transition team won’t stop me. If he has bodyguards, I’ll deal with them. And then —”

Robert raised his hand, shaking his head in protest. “No, that won’t work. As much as I’d like to agree with your plan to deal with Sizemore before he transitions, that’s not going to be possible.”

“There’s plenty of time,” she protested, hands placed on her hips. “There’s room in the schedule for me to adjust my transition time. I’ll arrive a couple of days after you, but it’s worth it to deal with this problem before it can blow up in our faces.”

Robert crossed his arms over his chest and closed his eyes. What he had to say next was almost as embarrassing as his fear of the grave. “No, that’s not what I mean. You can’t kill him. To get what I needed from Sizemore, I had to throw him a bone.”

Concern flashed across Sandra’s face like a raven’s shadow. “What did you do?”

Osmark raised his hands defensively. “It’s not a big deal, okay? He asked to have his successful transition tied to certain contingencies. He has to make it across. Otherwise, things are going to get complicated for me once I arrive.”

Sandra wanted to press him for more details, Robert could see it in her flashing jade eyes, but she held her tongue. They’d been together long enough not to question one another in certain areas. When it came to his safety and the operation of his company, Sandra was more than welcome to challenge Osmark.

But on this project, his iron will and snap decisions were the only forces guiding them to the finish line. She couldn’t afford to doubt the choices he made. “Fine. Peng has been in contact with Bulger and Whitehead. That connects them to Modhi and the rest of the subcontinent billionaires. If they do plan a coup, you’re going to have your hands full.”

“That’s why am bringing you along. Somebody’s got to kick all the ass.” He said.

A quiet chime rang through the transition chamber.

It was time to die.

Sandra clutched her clipboard to her chest and stepped around Osmark’s coffin. For a moment, the two of them stood silent and motionless. Their eyes locked. He wanted to reach for her, to wrap his arms around her shoulders, and pull her across the narrow gap that separated them. They’d always been professional, but this was different. If everything went as planned, they would both be dead before they saw one another again.

“On the other side,” she said quietly. “Safe travels.”

And then she was gone, her flats whispering across the floor as she swept from the room.

A trio of nurses swooped into the space left by Sandra like air rushing into a vacuum. They wore blood red surgical gowns and caps, and their faces were professional masks. Without a word, they helped Osmark disrobe and guided him to the NexGen VR capsule. The lid swung open and carefully, slowly, he climbed in, conscious of the eyes securitizing his every motion. He lowered himself down, adjusting and readjusting his body on the conductive memory-foam, then slipping a modified VR helmet into place. The lid automatically closed, leaving Osmark in a claustrophobically tight space filled with pulsing blue light.

As he lay there, Osmark doubted everything. Everything.

There was no going back now, though. This was the way forward, the way of survival. And he would survive the transition—the highly trained nurses would ensure that.

“Initiate Viridian Gate Online,” he said to the trio of nurses.

“Of course, Mr. Osmark,” came a curt reply, from the lead nurse. “Please lie as still as possible.”

The capsule let out a click-buzz—the lid locking mechanism—followed by the whoosh-whoosh-whoosh of a whirling MRI. Abruptly, everything went black as the VR headset engaged, quickly replaced by a white loading screen as anesthetic gas hissed into the capsule. The gas was an added precaution to help with the upload and the transition. Osmark breathed deeply and began the long process of dying as the machine kicked into overdrive, the whirling picking up in intensity. WHOOSH, WHOOSH, WHOOSH, WHOOSH.

“Traveler,” boomed a hard-edged male voice, “prepare to enter Viridian Gate Online!”

 

 

THREE:

V.G.O.

The all-encompassing white loading screen faded from Osmark’s vision as his consciousness transitioned into the world he’d created. He stood on a grassy hillock; long blades of green bent beneath his feet, giving the ground a cushioned, almost springy, feel. The grass spread in every direction like a sea of rippling emerald. The air was so thick with the scent of growing vegetation, Osmark could taste it on his tongue and feel it against his skin, carried by a stiff breeze slapping at his face and tugging on his rough garments.

He lifted one foot, examining the flattened grass below. Flawless.

The rolling plains stretching beneath the cloudless, azure sky were stunning not just for their sheer size, but for their amazing detail. Osmark had known the world of VGO would be impressive—he’d seen plenty of footage from the beta runs—but he hadn’t understood the scope and magnitude of his creation. Not really. Not until this moment. Guided by AI-curated algorithms, his technology had woven a creation more enchanting than he’d imagined possible. The graphics quality—if such a crude term could even be used—were indistinguishable from real life.

This world was better than reality.

Osmark took a tentative step; his legs wobbled uncertainly beneath him, then gave way. He landed on his hands and knees, scraping one palm along a jagged piece of rock protruding from the grass. A muted flash of pain zigzagged up his arm, there then gone. Curious, he turned his hand over, inspecting the flesh. Vivid green streaks from the grass stained his skin along with a few splashes of red. Incredible. He shook his head, and turned his attention to a small army of ants scurrying along nearby with scraps of leaves and tiny clods of earth in their mandibles. A flock of ravens with glossy blue-black feathers, cried out to him as they flew high overhead, and unseen ground squirrels and chipmunks chattered in annoyance at his presence.

“How is this even possible?” Osmark asked himself. The NexGenVR capsule’s NerveTech was amazing technology. He knew that from his time developing it, but the cold measurements of the technical specifications and design diagrams could never have conveyed just how stunning the result would be. A surge of pride welled up inside Osmark. He’d made this. The worries he’d had about VGO seemed so petty and insignificant in light of this fantastic experience. The transition would be agonizing, there was no getting around that, but this world was so much more perfect, so much purer, than the disaster Osmark had left behind.

He couldn’t wait for Sandra to join him here.

But, before that could happen, he had a ton of work to do. As beautiful and enthralling as this peaceful little slice of paradise was—and it was—he didn’t have time to sit around and take in the sights. Osmark’s enemies had a small, but significant, head start on him and that couldn’t stand. No doubt they were already on the move. Already forming their factions and building their defenses. If he wanted to beat them, he needed to get moving and do what he did best: outwork the competition.

With a grimace, Robert gained his feet and brushed his dirt-stained hands on his trousers.

First, he needed an avatar.

The simulation responded to Osmark’s desire instantly. A semi-translucent image of himself materialized into view. His dark hair and lean figure were the same, as were his hawkish features and smooth-shaven jaw, but his custom-tailored clothing was gone, replaced by a rough burlap tunic, matching breeches, and ill-fitting canvas boots, which covered his feet and the lower half of his calves. A coarse rope around his waist served as a belt. The clothes irritated Osmark immensely. They were uncomfortable and ill-fitting, but that wasn’t what bothered him most. The tattered clothing made him look weak. Poor.

Appearances were critical. If Osmark wanted to be respected, then he had to look like someone who should be respected. New clothes moved to the top of his to-do list.

The thought fade as a glowing white interface bar with a variety of options—race, build, sex, face, name—blinked to life around his character’s image.

Osmark focused on “race” and a series of new options popped up, showing Osmark all of the choices available to player characters. The elves topped the list, Dokkalfar and Hvitalfar representing the dark and light side of the fey races, followed by the stocky, bearded dwarves, known as the Svartalfar. Where the other elves were lean and graceful, the dwarves were built like cubes of muscle, fat, and gristle. Their natural crafting abilities and aptitude with Smithing and Enchanting would be a huge plus in the advanced profession Osmark had in mind, but he could never be a Dwarf.

He could never be comfortable in that body.

His eyes flashed over the Dokkalfar and the display shimmered and changed to show him what he would look like as a Murk Elf: brown hair gave way to black, and the avatar’s skin took on a dusky, gunmetal-gray tone. Though he approved of the Dokkalfar’s rugged physique and mysterious appearance, he wasn’t fond of the murk elf’s favored class, Rouge. A common thief simply wouldn’t get the job done. Besides, he had his sights set on the Viridian Throne, and taking that seat as a rebel Murk Elf would be next to impossible. He’d need an Imperial-friendly race.

The next selection, Wodes, was a big step up. Wodes were much taller and more muscular than the murk elf, with a lustrous golden hair and pale skin. Osmark was struck by the Wode’s impressive appearance. Their raw size could be very useful in impressing his future followers—that or intimidating his enemies. Osmark took a closer look, and an information panel shimmered to life:

Wodes (Human): The most numerous of Eldgard’s races, the Wodes are a flexible and resilient people known for their impressive stature and steadfast nature. Though Wodes are not blessed with any particular affinity for one class or another, they also suffer no penalties to any class. This adaptability has allowed the Wodes to spread far and wide, making them as at home in the mountains as the forests or plains. Where you find men, you will find the Wodes.

Wodes could be a good choice, but not the best.

Not for what he had planned. The Accipiter, or Winged Race, looked like an option that would be a lot of fun to try, but he knew it would get old in a hurry. The ability to fly was impressive, certainly, but there were plenty of downsides balanced against a powerful skill like that. By design, the Accipiter were physically weaker than most other creatures, their class choices were severely restricted, and worse of all? They all spawned in the Barren Sands, which was about as far West in Eldgard as an adventurous player could go.

That was no good, since he needed to be on the Eastern-most side of the continent.

He dismissed the Risi—half orge creatures with powerful frames, thick muscles, and green-tinged skin—without a second thought. They were scary and intimidating, true, but they were also suited almost solely for up-close physical combat—tanking—something Osmark had zero interest in. Not to mention, he refused to look like a damned monster for the rest of the foreseeable eternity.

There was only one reasonable option left. The only real option, in the grand scheme of things. He scrolled over to the Imperials.

The avatar twirling in the air before him changed from the dark-skinned Murk Elf to a human Imperial. The Imperial’s features were similar to Osmark’s natural appearance, though they were more chiseled and refined—made sharper and more perfect through virtual reality magic. Without his glasses to hide them, his eyes had become an intense sapphire blue, burning with a fierce intelligence. Osmark’s brown hair was a touch darker and a bit longer than he was used to, but otherwise looked more or less like it always had.

If it’s not broke, he thought, why fix it?

Imperials (Human): Though less numerous than the Wodes, the Imperials have carved out their place in the history books. Their military might and political strength have no equal, and their Empire stretches from one horizon to the other. Imperials are not gifted with any resistance bonuses, but all initial stats begin at 12, except for Intelligence which begins at 15. As with other humans, Imperials are not restricted in any way as to the classes they may pursue as they advance.

“Perfect,” Osmark whispered, casually lacing his hands behind his back.

He spent a few moments making minor refinements to his avatar’s appearance—he made his shoulders a touch broader, his chin a bit more defined, and removed the stubble from his cheeks—and then clicked the “Create” button.

A new prompt appeared. “Please select a name.”

Osmark considered his options only for the briefest moment.

“Robert Osmark,” he said. If he changed his name he might be able to fly under the radar in these crucial early days, but the minor benefit wasn’t worth it. Not by half. He’d clawed his way up from the bottom of a Brooklyn gutter, and he wasn’t going to give that up. Not for some political gnat like Sizemore and his cabal of sycophants. Everyone in VGO knew who Osmark was, and what he’d done. They were all alive because of his initiative. That was a reputation boost he couldn’t afford to throw away, even if it did plant a target on his back.

“Are you sure you would like to create Robert Osmark the Imperial?” A booming baritone voice asked. “Once you create a character, you will not be able to change your racial identity or name. Please confirm?”

“Confirmed.”

Though Osmark had designed the opening cinematic, that didn’t prepare him for the explosion of music that surrounded him. A powerful orchestral anthem crashed through the air like a thunderstorm. Drums rumbled, cymbals clanged and clashed, and a host of warbling stringed instruments washed through his head.

“The year is 1095 A.I.C.—Anno Imperium Conditae,” the disembodied announcer bellowed over the music. “Dark power and the stirrings of war ride upon the winds of Eldgard, the provincial outpost of the Great Viridian Empire.”

Suddenly, Osmark soared above a massive lorica-clad army led by a man in golden platemail riding a black stallion. The troops’ armor gleamed in the sun, and the marching column shone like a great steel serpent winding its way across the landscape. A cloud of dust rose behind the horses, blotting out the horizon behind the army as if their hooves had obliterated the roads they traveled and left nothing in their wake.

“Imperial legions,” said the announcer, “allied with the forces of light, march from the east, bringing the natives of Eldgard to their knees through flame, magic, and steel. Bringing progress. Building roads. Cities. A kingdom. Civilizing the dark-natured Wodes, the swamp dwelling Dokkalfar, and the Accipiter of the far-western deserts, enlightening them in the ways of the ever-victorious empire.

“But the natives of Eldgard are not so quick to give up the old ways—to heel for foreign masters. Though the rebellion is yet small, they fight on. Hour by hour, day by day …” A massed throng of howling Wodes surged from the forest lining the wide road and charged toward the Imperial forces. The enormous blonde warriors hoisted oversized battle axes above their half-naked bodies. Their muscles writhed beneath her skin, coiling like serpents preparing to strike.

The Imperials held their ground, faces hidden behind metal helms, weapons held steady as their horses pawed at the earth. The forces slapped together with the ring of metal on metal and the cry of horses. For a moment, it appeared as if the Wodes had won the battle before it even began: The front ranks of the Imperials vanished beneath a swarming tide of flashing steel and tattooed flesh. For a moment, the warcry of the Wodes drowned out all other sound.

A pang of doubt speared through Osmark’s gut. Had he made the wrong choice? In his designs, the Imperials were the dominant force on Eldgard, but the Overminds were more than capable of adjusting the game world as needed to keep it challenging and interesting for the players. An unavoidable part of the content design.

A second later, the wave of barbarians swallowed the golden leader and his black stallion.

Osmark’s heart stopped.

And then, in the blink of an eye, everything changed.

The Imperial foot soldiers formed a tight wedge of interlocking shields and thrust out barbed spears that pierced the main body of the encroaching Wode force like an arrowhead through unarmored flesh. An imperial cavalry contingent slammed into the side of the barbarian army, trampling their opponents beneath steel-shod hooves. The golden Imperial commander emerged amidst a circle of dead Wodes. His rugged face covered in blood, a wicked, victorious grin splitting his face as he raised his sword high and unleashed a piercing battle cry.

The soldiers responded with furious warcries of their own as the Wodes broke, fleeing the field for the safety of the treeline. The Imperials showed no mercy, however. The barbarians had raised arms against the Empire, and now they’d pay the price.

A galloping line of armored knights circled the fleeing horde, brass horns blaring, the ground reverberating as they mounted a charge. Shining steel lances pierced rough hide armor and burst through Wode backs in showers of blood and gore. Heavy maces and blunt-headed warhammers smashed bones and caved in steel helmets.  Hooves crushed men into the earth and churned their guts into reeking bloody mud. Even knowing this wasn’t real, didn’t make it any easier to watch. Eventually, the cavalry pushed through the dying mob to rejoin the rest of the Imperial troops.

They left a gory trail of dead and mortally wounded in their wake. Their lances dripped red as they wheeled into position.

The Imperial army marched on.

The scene faded, shimmered, and changed as Osmark rose higher and higher above the marching army. He watched in awe as the Imperial forces transformed the untamed wilderness. Roads carved their way across the plains to connect the Imperial outposts that sprang up in strategic locations. As he watched, those first meager settlements swelled and expanded their borders to become villages, then walled towns, then gleaming cities.

“But even as the Empire spread, the natives learned and adapted to their strange and deadly ways.” The announcer narrated as Osmark’s point of view sped east like a steel-tipped bolt fired from a ballista. The scattered forces of the defeated Wodes joined with Murk Elf war bands. They transformed from ragged bands of isolated tribesmen into organized troops with one purpose in mind: Destroying the Empire.

“For even the mightiest armies cannot do battle without teaching their enemies how to resist them. The Empire is a power to be reckoned with, but their enemies grow in strength and numbers with every passing day.”

A great map unfurled before Osmark, showing him the current lay of the land. Crossed swords marked battlefields. Thick dashed lines stitched along territorial borders. Though much of Eldgard had fallen beneath the shadow of the Empire’s banners, the days of explosive expansion had reached their end. Now, every inch was hard fought and soaked in blood. The rebel forces rallied by the natives held the Empire in check. Neither side could risk pushing their advantage in one area, as the enemy was always poised to steal back any territory left unguarded.

“The war continues, but its fires have cooled. Cooled until one side can gain a decisive advantage. But while the Imperials and their enemies struggle for dominance, a greater evil is rising.”  Without warning, the scene exploded in a shower of light and Osmark found himself deep beneath the earth, craggily stone pressing down all around him. Burly, heavily bearded Dwarfs labored in a mining tunnel. Their bodies were slick with sweat and darkened by the powdered stone they created with their hammers and pickaxes.

“In the far north, the Svartalfar ignore the strife beyond their borders. Their illustrious Merchant’s Council pushes them to ever greater feats of engineering. They delve deep into the earth, uncovering riches undreamt of by the other races.” The narrators tone grew solemn, and a chill cut through Osmark like a winter breeze. “But the dwarves have uncovered something dark. Something which should have remained untouched and unknown.”

A stout man with a massive potbelly lashed out with his pick, sinking it deep in black stone. Chunks of rock crumbled from around the pickaxe, and the earth groaned in protest. The gap widened, and a foul stench gushed through the cleft. The dwarf who’d breached the earthen wall collapsed, his face turning purple, his hands clawing frantically at his throat. The other dwarves backed away in horror as a guttering green light emerged from the crack, dancing in the air like a plume of smoke.

Osmark knew he was watching a scene from the past, but he couldn’t convince himself there was no cause for fear. An eye appeared, glaring at him through the gap in the stone. A venomous green iris, shot through with visceral red streaks, split in half by a vertical pupil filled with an abyssal black.

“A great darkness is coming. Serth-Rog, Daemon Prince of Morsheim has awakened. The dwarves have breached his long-forgotten prison and woken him from an ancient slumber. The great evil cannot yet escape from the vault that holds him. But his whispers infect the minds of those who worship evil and coax them to work toward his dark ends. Soon, much too soon, it will be freed.”

A malicious grin split the face of one of the Svartalfar. She dropped her hammer and snatched the pickaxe from the hands of her fallen brother. The monstrous demon laughed, a guttural grinding sound like a rockslide, as the pickax took on a bloody red hue. The corrupted Dwarf wheeled around and buried the pick in and the head of the dwarf next to her.

The scene collapsed around Osmark.

Darkness consumed the dwarves—dissolving the stone around him—and left him standing in a formless void.

The narrator’s voice thundered through the darkness. “It is an age of heroes. It is a time of great villainy. A new battle looms on the horizon. Imperial. Rebel. Light. Dark. Living. Dead. Which side will you choose?”

The darkness erupted in a swirl of opalescent light and violent motion, wind whipping at Osmark, snatching his breath away, as he tumbled and fell. Down, down, down.

 

FOUR:

Ambush

A gentle rocking and the creak of wood dragged Osmark from the depths of unconsciousness. He didn’t open his eyes as he came awake, instead letting his other senses feed him bits and pieces of information about his surroundings. After the emotional introduction to VGO and the terrifying fall, Osmark felt as wrung out as an old dishtowel. He wasn’t ready to face the world just yet.

Maybe I should’ve made that entry a little less intense, he thought, his fingers slowly tracing over the rough burlap beneath him.

He breathed deeply, filling his lungs with clean, fresh air and his nose with the rich scents of turned earth and recently picked produce. He’d been to more than his fair share of farmers markets—Silicone Valley was bursting with snobs who swore by locally sourced produce—but he’d never smelled anything so fresh or enticing as the aromas tickling his nostrils. What was that?

Osmark reluctantly cracked open one eye to get a look at his surroundings. He was lying in a lurching box with low wooden walls and an arched canvas ceiling supported by curved bows. Bulging burlap sacks overflowing with ears of corn, mounds of wheat, lumpy dirt-smeared potatoes, and gleaming red apples surrounded him. Sturdy wooden crates pressed against the soles of his boots, which forced his knees to bend at an awkward angle. He must have been in the same position for too long because his back and calves ached and burned.

It took Osmark a moment to realize where he was, and then he couldn’t suppress a wide grin.

A covered wagon, he thought. Maybe all those years messing around with that ancient Oregon Trail game will pay off after all.

“Finally, awake, are you?” A woman’s voice teased from across the wagon. “I was starting to think you’d sleep through the whole trip.”

Osmark opened both eyes and gave the woman a thorough once over through a narrow gap between a rough sack overflowing with beets and another bulging with its load of apples. She was a handsome, though short of beautiful, with a strong nose, blue eyes, and dark hair so common to Imperial citizens. Unlike Osmark, she wore clothes of finely-woven linen dyed a deep red and edged in silver thread. If that wasn’t enough to mark her as a member of the Empire’s merchant class, the gold hoops dangling from her earlobes and the elaborate silver necklace coiled around her throat certainly made her wealth apparent.

The necklace shifted, and Osmark spied a splash of golden ink glowing at the hollow of the woman’s throat.

Ability: Keen-Sight

A passive ability allowing the observant adventurer to notice items and clues others might not see.

Ability Type/Level: Passive / Level I

Cost: None

Effect: Chance to notice and identify hidden objects increased by 6%.

He dismissed the notification with a wave of one hand and squinted, studying the mark: a tattoo of three gold coins. Interesting. That mark, he knew, identified her as one of the Empire’s favored mercantile interests. She was an important person, and a good first impression could make his life much easier going forward, at least in the short term. On the other hand, a bad first impression could cause him all sorts of problems down the road. The starting scenario was unique to each player, painstakingly crafted by the Overmind loving called Sophia, to test the person. Basically, a hyper-advanced Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, used to determine what type of class and quests each player would be best suited for.

The starting scenario ramifications could be sweeping.

“I’m awake,” Osmark said. “I think.” He offered her a charming, lopsided grin.

“Then maybe it’s time to sit up. The rest of us would like a little room to stretch our legs, too.” The woman’s impish grin took the sting out of her words, but the underlying tone of command told Osmark she wasn’t making a request.

Osmark scrambled up to give the woman room. He cracked his head against one of the wagon’s wooden bows and immediately plopped back down with his legs crossed. Sparks of pain danced behind his eyes and a thin splinter drove itself into the palm of his hand as he shifted position to try and give the merchant as much space as possible. The wood beneath his hands was rough, and Osmark felt its grain rasp across the tips of his fingers.

Once more, he was amazed at how real everything felt. He didn’t enjoy pain, of course, but the sensation was astounding. The fact that he could actually experience pain at all made it almost enjoyable. The algorithms had far exceeded even the lofty goals he’d set for his team. Make the game better than the real world, he’d told his developers. Make the players so happy to be there, they never want to leave.

The woman’s shrewd gaze drew Osmark’s attention. He must’ve looked like a complete moron, staring off into space and rubbing his hands over the wagon’s floor.

“I was asleep,” Osmark explained. “I mean, I was alone when I went to sleep. If I’d known…”

She sat up straighter and grinned at him over the top of a crate. “That’s better,” she said and slithered her slim legs through the gap between two burlap sacks. “I’m not usually this cranky, but my calves have been curled up under me for the past hour, and they’re killing me.”

Osmark had no idea where the wagon was headed, but he didn’t want to tip his hand. “Where are you coming from?”

She gave him another grin, glancing down and absently picking imaginary lint from her dress. “From the south,” she finally offered.

“And you’re headed to?”

Her grin widened as she glanced up. “Same as you. North.”

His smile slipped a hair. It wasn’t as much information as he’d hoped for, but the woman’s teasing tidbits gave Osmark something to go on. If he was an Imperial, and he’d started on the plains, it stood to reason he was in West Viridia. The game map he’d stared at a thousand times during the design phase took shape in his head. The wagon was loaded down with goods, which meant it was heading to market. He couldn’t see any mountains, which meant they were in the southern portion of West Viridia, likely headed from a port town toward an interior city. The only port that made sense if they were in West Viridia was Alaumhylles, and the closest large town would be Tomestide. Perfect. Everything was going according to the plan Osmark had settled on before beginning his transition to VGO.

While most of the other players were scampering around chasing after the familiar and predictable base classes like rogue or warrior, Osmark intended to beeline for one of the most advanced classes offered to players of Viridian Gate Online. He had his sights set on the Mechanical Artificer profession, which would grant him a host of unique skills and powers. A tricky class to play, but profoundly powerful if managed correctly. Osmark couldn’t cheat the game’s systems without endangering the whole virtual world, but with his knowledge of VGO’s designs and its many secret classes and quests, he wouldn’t need to break the rules to gain a significant advantage.

And if he was near Tomestide, he was ahead of schedule. Even better. The caravan he’d been lucky enough to join would deliver him right to the doorstep of his allies and the training he needed to put his plans into motion.

“You seem awfully pleased with yourself,” the woman said with a wink. “Copper for your thoughts?”

Osmark chuckled and licked his lips. He didn’t know this merchant, and he wasn’t going to tell her even a fraction of the truth about his thoughts. She might be nothing more than an NPC, but tipping his hand to anyone this early in the game could be a fatal error. And VGOs NPCs were far from the standard MMO fare. Though the NPCs were procedurally generated by drawing on a host of information from all over the internet—history books, Facebook profiles, novels, movies, games—each one could pass the Turing Test with ease. They could be just as cunning and just as dangerous as any of the player characters.

“I’m just glad I woke up in the same place I fell asleep,” he replied with a shrug. “How far to Tomestide?”

She grinned. “So you do know more than you’re letting on. For that, I’ll tell you what the driver told me this morning. We’ll likely reach Tomestide by nightfall.”

Osmark grunted and glanced at the sun, dipping below the horizon, painting the land with streaks of gold, red, and deep purple. Another hour until full dark, at least. That was an awful lot of precious time to waste in the back of a wagon. “I’ll just check with the driver. Maybe we’re running ahead of schedule,” Osmark said, gaining his feet and squeezing past the woman.

The wagon wasn’t more than 15 feet long, but walking through it took Osmark most of a minute. Between the uncertain footing caused by the wagon’s wheels bouncing through ruts and the jumbled cargo occupying almost every free inch of floor space, it was far more of a challenge than Osmark would’ve liked. He’d almost reached the driver’s bench when the wagon suddenly veered hard to the left, the horses shrieking in protest up ahead.

Osmark lunged, grabbing at the back of the bench before he crashed to the wagon’s floor. The pain filter was amazing, but he wasn’t too keen to experience any more pain than strictly necessary. His fingers closed over the rough wood, earning him a few more splinters. “What the hell?” he shouted, a flash of anger swelling in his chest.

The driver turned to Osmark and shouted right back at him. “Get down! There’s—”

Blood jetted from the man’s mouth and splattered across the Osmark’s chest. The guard slumped to the side with a thick arrow jutting from the side throat, dead. The smell of fresh-spilled blood panicked the horses, and they reared back, legs flashing in the air, as they crashed into one another. Osmark tried to grab the reins from the dead driver’s nerveless fingers—to restore order to this mess—but the leather was slick with blood. It slithered through the guard’s hands and vanished over the lip of the driver’s bench. Gone.

Bestial howls filled the air.

The terrified horses screamed and bolted from the road, but in their blind panic, they tangled in their traces and lost their footing. The horse on the left, its hair black as midnight, crashed onto its side and dragged its partner, a chestnut brown, down on top of it. The screaming beasts slid down the grassy embankment next to the road in a jumble of kicking legs, gnashing teeth, and thrashing heads.

Osmark saw the disaster coming but was helpless to stop it. The falling horses dragged the wagon hard to the left, pulling it down the hill behind them. The wheels dug into the dirt like plows and broken earth mounded up before them. The wheels on the wagon’s downhill side burst under the pressure, splinters of wood and bits of iron flying free like sharpnel. The front axle lurched and dropped, burying itself in the dirt as a thick wooden pole bucked up against the bottom of the wagon and momentum did its work.

In seconds they were airborne, the wagon flipping onto one side with a groan.

Osmark sailed away from the driver’s bench and toward the field beside the road, tumbling head over heels before crashing into the dirt with bone-jarring force. The impact knocked the wind out of his lungs in a muffled bark. Everything went black, and then a new game message floated into view:

Debuffs Added

Stunned: Movement reduced by 75%; duration 1 minute

Concussed: You have sustained a severe head injury! Confusion and disorientation; duration, 1 minute.

Blunt Trauma: You have sustained severe Blunt Trauma damage! Stamina Regeneration reduced by 30%; duration, 2 minutes.

Osmark lay on his belly and struggled to fill his lungs with air. A high-pitched ringing filled his ears. His vision drifted out of focus, snapped back, and then drifted away again. His body felt like someone had dumped him into a burlap sack and then kicked him for a few hours. Lying in the grass seemed like the best idea he’d had in a long time. His eyes slipped closed, and he took a deep breath of the cool air. But the smell of burning hair curled in Osmark’s nostrils like a barbed wire noose and immediately brought him back into the moment. The stench ignited a primal fear that screamed for him to move.

To run, before he, too, was burning.

Osmark fought to gain his feet, but his current debuffs made it almost impossible. Crawling was all he could manage, so that’s what he did. He wormed away from the wagons and the screams and the fire. Pulling himself along an inch at a time, his fingers and knees scrambling for purchase, while his head throbbed and his thoughts bounced around inside his ringing skull like rubber balls thrown against a brick wall. What the Hell had happened back there?

When Osmark reached the tall grass a few yards from the road, he turned back scanning the road and the chaos. Most of the wagons had crashed and spilled over in the road or beside it, their dead horses still tangled in their rigging. A frightening number of arrows had punched through the faithful beasts’ hides, and the pooling blood had turned the dirt into a muddy mire.

Figures moved through the bloody wreckage in the red light of the sinking sun, their faces lit by the dancing flames of the torches they clutched in their meaty fists. Some were human, their golden hair and pale skin marking them as Wodes. Their allies, however, were much too large to be men. Standing a good foot taller than their human compains, these creatures’ bodies bulged with misshapen muscles. Their faces were distorted by massive tusks that jutted from the sides of their mouths beneath their wide, upturned noses and piggish nostrils.

Risi.

Osmark inched forward another inch, then two, watching the unfolding carnage with wide eyes.

The Wodes and their Risi allies stalked through the wreckage, kicking at burlap bags, smashing open wooden crates, and butchering any survivors they came across. Wicked axes and pitted-steel swords scythed through the merchants and guards who tried to stand their ground and fight. It was a hopeless battle; the guards and merchants were outnumbered five to one, and most were injury from the wreck to boot. Quickly, Osmark surveyed the battlefield for any signs of the female merchant from the wagon. He saw dead guards and slaughtered horses, but there was no sign of the woman.

Had she run? Maybe.

That hopeful notion died when he saw one of the few remaining guards break and flee into the night. Shaggy maned wolves, larger than any Osmark had ever imagined, exploded from the shadows to pursue the fleeing guard. They were massive creatures with gray hair, oversized jaws filled with far too many teeth, and beady yellow eyes. They were almost hyena-like.

Fifteen yards from the road, the wolves caught up to the poor man., circling him like sharks smelling blood in the water, their lips pulling back in silent snarls. The obvious leader—a great white beast with a black blaze marking his forehead—howled. Then he lunged and his pack joined in the slaughter. The man’s screams went on far longer than Osmark would have believed possible.

He was torn to shreds before his cries faded away.

Despite the horror of the situation, Osmark had to admire the artistry of the scene. He’d created this, even if only indirectly. His tools, his machines, his programming, had fashioned this barbaric scene from the nothingness of electronic space. It was amazing, in a cold, pragmatic way.

And it would’ve been even more amazing if those impressive beasts his programming had spawned didn’t turn and head in his direction.

The bulk of the bandits were busy divvying up the spoils of their attack, but a lone Wode had split off from the rest of the group to search for survivors. He followed a trio of wolves, their great black noses pressed to the ground. Sniffing. Searching.

They have my scent, Osmark thought. Fear, real and primal, took root in his guts. He froze, unable to run, unable to even think. The wolves were less than thirty feet away, now. If he moved, they’d see him and run him down in seconds. If he stayed put for much longer, they’d stumble right over him, then shred him into dog chow. He needed to do something. Anything was better than lying there like a terrified rabbit waiting to die.

But what to do? He didn’t have a weapon. He didn’t have any skills.

The search party drew nearer to Osmark.

Osmark eyed the towering Wode leading the little party. The blond thug had a massive battle ax resting on his shoulder and a blazing torch in his offhand. Sapphire blue tattoos curled from under his mane to frame his face in intricate and fearsome designs, which made him look almost as monstrous as the Risi. The Wode’s blonde hair was plaited into elaborate braids that dangled down his back like a golden rope, swaying past his belt as he turned his head from side to side in search of prey. His armor was nothing more than crude hides that revealed almost as much of his skin it covered.

The lead wolf threw back her head and howled. She lowered her muzzle, and her eyes blazed like swamp fire in the last rays of the dying sun. The wolf charged.

Straight at Osmark.

His paralyzing fear shattered.

He hadn’t come this far, accomplished this much, to be gutted on his first day in VGO. He leaped to his feet and ran, only realizing his host of debuffs were gone when he didn’t immediately fall to his knees again. His head still ached from the wreck, but he wasn’t injured. Now, he just needed to stay that way. Before he’d taken three steps, however, a jolt of savage pain tore through his calf as jagged fangs clamped down, puncturing skin and digging deep in the muscle below. With a guttural snarl, she jerked him off his feet and tossed him away with a twist of her head. Stars flashed across his vision as his head bounced off the dirt road.

The wolf snarled again and curled back onto her haunches, muscles tensed to lunge.

Osmark stared into her feral eyes. Blood stained her muzzle and slicked her dagger-like teeth.

His blood.

So, this is how it ends, he thought. He wasn’t even scared anymore. He was disappointed and disgusted by his failure. He’d had it all planned out, and now his new life was going to be ended by some low-level forest bandits and their mangy dogs.

The wolf leaped for his throat, its slavering jaws spread wide.

And then it yelped, as blood splattered across Osmark’s face. The hot and sticky spray blinded him, but temporarily blinded was better than permanently dead. Osmark cleared his eyes with the palms of his hands and stared in disbelief at the dead wolf sprawled in the dirt, its yellow eyes already glassy.

A lean man wearing burnished leather armor loomed over the fallen wolf, his feet spread wide, his gaunt face tense, a gleaming silver sword raised and at the ready. In an instant, he lashed out at the next animal, splitting it almost in half with a two-handed chop that caught it mid-leap. The third wolf, surprised and off balance, didn’t have a chance. The man feinted left, shot right, then lunged, driving the bloodied tip of his blade through the wolf’s gray hide and into its heart.

“Don’t just lay there gawking, lad,” the man said, jerking his weapon from the dead wolf’s twitching corpse. “My name’s Horan and I’m here to help. But if you want to live, you best get ready to fight.”

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