Spellcraft Chapter 4: …But Mostly Punishment

I turned and grinned at my friend and frequent partner in crime. “It hurts me that you’d ever think that wouldn’t work.”

“Yeah, well sometimes your crazy schemes end up getting us in a lot of trouble without much to show for it,” Kristoph said. “I know we’re just marking time until Lotus Online comes out, but if we get kicked out of these Horizon modules we’re screwed for good content.”

I frowned. Kristoph had a point. There were some who speculated that Lotus had decided they weren’t even going to bother with their flagship game. The ultimate expression of the revolutionary hardware they’d created that allowed someone to step into a virtual world by putting in a simple pair of earbuds that attached to their brain via electrical impulses through the ear.

It was revolutionary, and they were making money hand over fist with the hardware licensing alone. There really was no need to make a game to go along with it. There’d been rumblings forever about how their game was going to change the world, how it was going to be the most amazing thing ever, and yet there’d been nothing from Lotus on the software side in the two years since the earbuds launched.

That’d allowed Horizon Online Entertainment to step in with their modules, and they were cleaning up.

Which led some people to speculate that the whole reason why Lotus Online was so much vaporware these days was because Lotus had decided it was easier to take the licensing fees from other people using their platform than it was to invest the time and money in making a truly revolutionary game that couldn’t possibly live up to the hype that’d been building since they first showed off their earbud tech. Sort of like what happened with Valve and Half-Life 3 back in the day.

It wouldn’t be the first time ravenous gamers were burned by developers who lost their desire to design anything once the money started rolling in and they realized it was way more fun to snort coke off of some hot young thing’s ass on their yacht in the non-irradiated western end of the Mediterranean than it was to spend countless hours holed up in front of a computer monitor making a game that most gamers were going to piss on once it released no matter how good it was.

“Might as well get our fun where we can take it, and if we can have our fun fucking with Horizon that seems like a pretty good deal to me,” I said.

I hated those bastards with a passion for what they did to Diana, and I was going to make them pay.

“You say so,” Kristoph said. He glanced around the throne room. “Um, did you notice the game is still frozen around us?”

“Well yeah,” I said. “But I hadn’t really thought past using the game’s rules against the gamemaster.”

“I still can’t believe that worked,” Kristoph said.

“I sort of can’t either,” I admitted.

It’d been a calculated risk. I’d watched plenty of videos of gamemasters at work in Horizon games, and I’d noticed a pattern. They always used powerful attacks when they were booting players from a game, but it was always a modified version of a powerful attack that already existed within the particular game the GM was patrolling.

After that it’d been a short logical leap to figure that maybe GMs were confined to using attacks from the games they were porting into, but with a little code injection that kicked the targeted player out and banned them on top of the impressive fireworks. And if they were using attacks from the games they were porting into to lay down the law then what would happen if one of those attacks was turned around on them using, say, an item that was designed to counter one of those attacks?

I’d just proved it killed the bastards. Maybe banned them, too. Which went above and beyond anything I’d hoped for when I first came up with this scheme. I’d thought I might give a gamemaster a bloody nose. I’d never dreamed I’d kill one.

“Well we should probably…”

The room turned a darker red around us.

“Attention players,” a voice boomed through the room. A disembodied voice that notably wasn’t attached to any gamemaster entering the game to pass judgment.

“Uh-oh,” Kristoph said, looking up. 

Though looking up wasn’t strictly necessary. That booming voice had come from both everywhere and nowhere at the same time, and that meant it was being piped directly into our heads. And out onto the live feed, which was gravy for me. I wanted the world to see this.

“We thank you for taking the time to play this fabulous module from Horizon Online Entertainment. The creation of this module helped to employ thousands of people working on entertaining the future!”

I rolled my eyes. That response was so rehearsed that I could practically hear the unspoken trademark that came at the end of “entertaining the future.” It was so canned that I could almost hear the cats meowing at the speaker’s feet as he opened it up.

All their customer service assholes talked like that, and that disembodied voice booming through the game was still a human customer service representative getting ready to spank the naughty players who’d now circumvented both their module and their attempt to ban us.

They wouldn’t rely on an AI routine for something like this. Though to be fair they didn’t use AI routines for much of anything when it came to customer service. Not when they could make their wage slaves recite scripts for far cheaper than it cost to develop a customer service AI.

The end result was about the same in terms of actual customer experience: not great.

“We regret to inform you that we have determined your particular play style to be detrimental to the game experience that so many of our valued clients have come to expect.”

“Detrimental to the game experience my ass,” I shouted into the frozen room, some of the anger I’d kept bottled up over Diana finally exploding out. “Your play experience was going to have me beheaded and there was no way I could get out of it. You assholes are all the same! You kill people in your games and in the real world! My sister fucking died because one of your modules fried her brain!”

Whatever asshole was on the other end either couldn’t hear me, or they chose to ignore me. Again it’s not like it mattered. What I was shouting was getting out to the wider world, and that was my real audience.

Not to mention the Horizon assholes on the other end of this wouldn’t want to admit anything since the cases of gamers allegedly killed or turned into comatose vegetables while playing Horizon modules were still working their way through the courts.

Working their way through the courts very slowly, too, since the phenomenon of justice going to the highest bidder had only become more and more pronounced with each passing year. Yeah, a slick CSR wouldn’t touch an admission of liability like that with a twenty-foot wired headset.

“You are hereby banned from all future Horizon Online Entertainment games. Scans of your unique brainwave identification have been taken, and any further access to our systems will be met with harsh punishment.”

The pronouncement hung in the air. For a normal gamer it might’ve been the end of the world, but I wasn’t having any of it. If this was going to be my last chance to twist the knife at those bastards then I was going to twist it nice and good.

“A permanent ban? That’s getting off light considering some of the shit you’ve pulled. Did you had to stop lobotomizing and killing people with your brain zaps after all the bad publicity?” I shouted.

“The litigation for those accusations is still ongoing. There is no proof that the troublemaking assholes who broke into our systems were harmed by the stopgaps we put in place to stop them, and even if they were, they were poking around where they didn’t belong!”

I blinked. I hadn’t expected them to respond. Scratch that. I hadn’t expected them to respond honestly. That’d never happened before. They’d never even acknowledged the people they killed or turned into vegetables without at least a dozen layers of lawyers between them and whatever statement they were making on the subject.

The booming voice seemed even more angry than usual. I sensed something. It started as a tingle running along my arms and at the back of my neck. There was something new going on with the person behind the booming voice. 

I’d listened to enough recordings of those assholes doing their customer service thing, and been on the business end of their little spankings often enough for that matter, that I knew what they sounded like when they were on a script.

This didn’t sound like any script I’d ever heard. I sensed an opportunity, and I was going to seize it.

“Oh yeah?” I said. “I know what you assholes did. You killed my sister with your brain zap, and when the lawyers get done with you…”

“If that happened then she deserved what she got!” the booming voice said. “A lot of good people lost their jobs because…”

The sound of a struggle filtered through the line. The struggle sounded pretty damn funny from my end. Everything was pushed through the same filter that was used to give the asshole the big booming voice, with the practical upshot being that mundane office sounds like a keyboard being overturned and used as an improvised weapon were telegraphed through the filter. 

It made a scuffle going down in a cubicle sound like a couple of nerdy vengeful gods taking out their frustrations on one another.

“I think you really pissed them off this time,” Kristoph said.

“Yeah, well it’s the least the bastards dese…”

I paused as the epic struggle clearly came to an end. I thought I heard someone talking about being from security or HR in the background, but it was hard to make out since whoever was talking clearly wasn’t standing in front of the microphone.

“You are now being logged out of Horizon Online Entertainment,” a voice said. 

This voice sounded exactly like the previous voice with the booming sound modification, but the lack of emotion and clipped inflection made all the difference. I figured we were talking to someone a little higher up the org chart.

“Fuck you and your customer killing company,” I shouted, flipping a double bird into the air that I was sure the asshole on the other end could see. I glanced at the third person view of my live stream and saw my character flipping the bird at the camera in a glorious pose.

I grinned. Oh yeah. This shit was pure gold.

That grin was the last thing I did before a searing pain started in my ears. Kristoph cried out in pain beside my and went to his knees.

I reached up to pull the earbuds out even as I knew trying to do that was an exercise in futility. Back in the real world my body was being flooded with the same paralytic nature had created and perfected to make sure people didn’t move in their sleep.

So while I was reaching in the virtual world for the pair of earbuds that gave me access to that virtual world my hands in the real world were as still as the dead.

Luckily for me, at least for certain definitions of “luckily,” the searing pain only lasted for a brief moment before the world went dark around me.

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<<Chapter 3Chapter 5>>

Spellcraft Chapter 3: Crime and Punishment

“Attention valued subscriber.”

The voice boomed like a god coming down from on high. Which, in game terms, was basically what this guy was for all that he was probably some neckbeard with anime figurines decorating his cubicle in the real world.

I grinned. We had the asshole here, after all, so why not have some fun with the prick? Besides, there was an undercurrent to that booming voice that said the gamemaster didn’t value me at all.

“Does it chap your ass that you have to kiss my ass like that when I’m breaking your precious rules?” I asked with a grin.

“My feelings are irrelevant. There is a violation of the game terms taking place in this simulation.”

“Um, excuse me,” I asked. “But could you tell me exactly what game term is being violated? I thought we were having a little fun here.”

Besides. I’d checked the rules. Sure what I’d done might be seen as an exploit from a certain point of view, but it’s not like I’d hacked them or anything. Everything I did to kill the king had used systems that were available to anyone.

I’d just been the one who figured out how to combine them in a unique way that let this exploit work. I’m sure some dev’s head was going to roll over that one.

The gamemaster, for that was the only thing this person could possibly be with that over the top entrance and ridiculous sense of style that lived in a fashion grey area somewhere between Liberace and Imperial Guard, stared down at us with open disdain. 

Though that disdain was more in the body language than anything I could see on the gamemaster’s face considering that face was covered by a mask that looked a little like a certain bounty hunter who’d gained a badass reputation despite his only professional claim to fame being a swan dive down an embarrassingly stationary monster’s gullet.

The similarities were close enough to get the idea across while at the same time being distinct enough that Horizon’s lawyers could make a case that it was different enough that the mouse’s lawyers could pound sand.

“You were breaking the game scenario,” the gamemaster said. “Your purpose in this scene is to die. You aren’t supposed to reach a victory condition in the defeat cut scene.”

For a moment the gamemaster lost some of their theatricality. Sure their voice still boomed across the room, but there was a subtle shift in the way they spoke that said they were astonished they’d even need to state something so mind bogglingly obvious.

“Excuse me,” I said. “But could you explain to us exactly where in the rules it says we aren’t allowed to win the game when we’re in the game over cut scene? Because I looked through your terms of service, that shit is a great sleep aid by the way, and I’m pretty sure it’s not against any rules.”

“Good one,” Kristoph muttered.

“I thought so,” I said, glancing at viewer numbers that were now in the millions. This was getting way bigger than I’d ever dreamed, and that question had been more for those viewers than for the gamemaster. I figured I’d let the asshole hoist himself by his company’s hypocrisy.

The gamemaster glared at me, but for a surprise he seemed to seriously consider the question. He cocked his head to the side, and I got the feeling the guy was listening to some communication from the higher ups at Horizon.

Management would be getting involved with this since it was streaming live, after all. Especially since it was getting so much attention.

They were already in the middle of a hell of a PR disaster, and no doubt my gamemaster friend had suits with fancy ties stepping in to try and micromanage their way out of the disaster.

The gamemaster finally came back to reality. Or back to unreality, as it were, since we were in a virtual reality simulation of a gaudy 1980s set designer’s idea of what a cross between the middle ages and the far future might look like. Assuming that at some point in the far future humanity lost all sense of taste and decorum.

“The terms of service contain a clause that states we may revoke your access to our modules at any time,” the gamemaster finally said. “And that clause is being invoked now. You are violating the spirit of the game even if you aren’t breaking the letter of the law, and you know it.”

“But you put these mechanics in the damn game,” I said. “If you didn’t want people to do something like this then why make it possible in the first place?”

Sure doing this had involved a little skullduggery, but if there was one thing I’d learned in my fight against Horizon it was that perception mattered more than truth. It was an unfortunate truth of the post-truth era of the information age.

Besides, there were enough people rooting against Horizon these days that it’s not like anyone would give me shit for taking advantage of some dev forgetting to put in an inventory failsafe that prevented me from carrying that crystal into a game over screen where it definitely shouldn’t exist. The game let us do it. It’s not my fault no one else ever thought to try it. It’s not like it was my fault that some overworked dev didn’t think of that use case while they were working hundred hour weeks in one of Horizon’s infamous crunch times.

There was another pause. The gamemaster’s head cocked to the side again. Oh yeah. This dude was definitely having a consultation with a social media team or something. 

“Your feedback about the game systems has been noted,” the gamemaster said. “Please be assured that our development team is already hard at work patching the features that you used to manipulate this scenario.”

“Manipulate is such a harsh word,” I said, but the GM rode right over my protests.

Not that I cared. Again, those protests were more for the viewing audience at home than they were for the gamemaster or anyone who might be watching at Horizon.

“Also be assured that you will have a chance to enjoy these features after your seventy-two hour ban from this module has been lifted. Thank you for playing a Horizon Online Entertainment property. Power to the gamers.”

I rolled my eyes. I was impressed that this asshole was able to stick to the script even though he was dealing with a situation that was a little more difficult than your typical tier one Horizon game support puke was used to. Maybe they’d patched in someone from management to handle this one.

The gamemaster held his hands up readying a well known high level attack. The official name was balefire, and I couldn’t decide if that was because the scenario designers were ripping off mythology or The Wheel of Time. Either way, it sent a blast of multicolored blinding light at a target and, if it hit, rapidly reduced that target to a state of nonexistence. 

My scalp tingled. This was the last part of the plan. There was a chance this wouldn’t work. If it didn’t then we’d already accomplished a hell of a lot, but I really wanted this next bit to work. It was the piece de resistance of this whole thing.

Besides, I never thought we’d get this far with this scheme. Maybe we’d keep getting lucky and take it all the way.

A blinding multicolored light appeared at the tips of the gamemaster’s fingers and blasted out at me. I pulled another little something out of my inventory that totally shouldn’t be available in the game over scenario.

Oops. He’d said they were patching the oversight that allowed me to carry things I shouldn’t have into the game over scenario, but that didn’t apply to things I’d already brought with me.

In this game all I had to do was hold my hand up and think of the item I wanted. No rummaging around in stupid inventory squares in an active battle like you’d have to in an old fashioned MMO. I could still look at those inventory squares if I wanted to, but it wasn’t necessary to bind them to an action bar or anything primitive like that from the old days.

A translucent pink shield that matched the “ancient weapons meet anachronistic cyberpunk Vaporwave aesthetic” look everything around here had materialized on my arm and reflected the beam back at the gamemaster as I did my best Link vs. Guardian impression. I had to take a couple of steps back as the beam hit, but the important thing was the beam bounced back to its source instead of instantly incinerating me.

I’d been hoping that’d happen, but I couldn’t be sure it would work until I actually tested it in combat. Which meant provoking a gamemaster to come down from on high to lay down a little bit of the law on us.

This shield was another one of those items I wasn’t supposed to have, but when we’d stolen the cyber army control gem I went ahead and raided the good king’s weapons storage. So a shield that was meant to help out the old king, a raid boss who was usually far more spry and dangerous than his old visage would make him seem, at least when he wasn’t getting surprise ganked in a Game Over screen where that shouldn’t have been possible, was now mine to use as I pleased.

And it pleased me very much to send the gamemaster’s ban beam blasting back on the asshole.

The beam hit the prick. I liked to think there was a moment of surprise, though of course it was impossible to see that surprise considering the asshole was wearing that helmet that looked like something someone picked up at a garage sale at Skywalker ranch back in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s when the world very briefly didn’t seem to give a shit about Star Wars.

The gamemaster’s colors reversed. It was a neat little effect, and I’d only ever seen it being used on players who were being either temporarily suspended or permanently banned in Horizon games. A moment later there was no gamemaster.

“Holy shit,” Kristoph breathed. “That actually worked.”

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<<Chapter 2Chapter 4>>

Spellcraft Chapter 2: Hail to the King, Baby

The king eyed me with the sort of suspicion usually reserved for monarchs staring at a bunch of assholes talking about things like republicanism or guillotines. Which is to say he was annoyed, but cautious since I was confident in a spot where I had no right to it.

“How could you possibly help me retrieve my sword?” the king asked.

“Easy. You’re doing the whole summoning thing wrong.”

“I’m doing it wrong?”

“Yup. You just hold your hand out like this,” I said, holding my hand out just as the king had a moment ago. “And give your fingers a little wiggle like this.”

I wiggled my fingers just so. It wasn’t necessary, but I liked a bit of theatricality for the people watching my stream at home. The more I hammed it up the more they’d tell their friends they needed to get a look at the asshole who was about to get beheaded by the cyberguards.

The more eyes I had on my livestream the more fun the big reveal would be. Because someone was losing their head before this was all over, but it sure as hell wasn’t going to be me if I had anything to say about it.

A bright red light set into the cyberguard’s chest, the one holding the king’s sword, turned a more soothing blue color. The not-quite-man and not-quite-machine obligingly turned and handed the king’s sword over to me. 

The king stared, flummoxed, as I held the thing high and got a feel for the weapon. Yeah, that was the sort of look monarchs got when the revolutionaries stopped talking about the guillotine and started setting up their beheading implements of choice.

Though in this case my beheading implement of choice was the king’s own sword. The thing was a real cyberpunk masterpiece. Translucent blue with circuits running all through it. It was light to the touch even though it was the most powerful weapon in this game. The sort of weapon a player wasn’t supposed to get their hands on under any circumstances.

“How did you… What did you… That’s impossible!”

“That’s only impossible if you’re not the king,” I said, turning to the former king with a wink. “And thanks to some well placed bribes in all the right places I’m the king now.”

I whirled around and sliced the cybernetic sword through the cybernetic guards who’d been poking and prodding me all the way up the stairs, then finished by shoving the sword into the former king’s stomach. Surprise remained on the old man’s face until the light went out of his eyes.

Like it literally went out of his eyes. He had obvious cybernetic implants that made his eyes glow a dull purple. At least until he pulled a Terminator and that glow slowly went dead. 

It would’ve been a pretty cool effect if it wasn’t a shameless ripoff of something James Cameron had done better decades ago.

Meanwhile I was more impressed with how easy it was to gut the old king like a fish. I’d hoped it would be that easy, but I’d also figured there might be something in the module to stop me from doing what I’d just done despite all my preparation for this oh-so-sweet moment.

Horizon wasn’t above shoddy game design that involved invisible walls to stop gamers from doing what they weren’t supposed to do, and killing the king in the Game Over cutscene was, after all, right at the top of the list of things players weren’t supposed to be able to do.

Whatever. Long live the king, and right about now that meant long live me.

“Hail to the king, baby,” I said, then I jerked the sword up to where the old king’s heart should’ve been, assuming it hadn’t been replaced by some cybernetic implant at some point.

Best to be sure. The king might’ve gotten in a bar fight with some Nausicaans in his youth, after all.

Something dropped down from the walkway above. Kristoph, his shoulders wide and massive, stepped forward looking like pure death. I figured it was a damn good thing Kristoph was on my side considering just how unhappy he seemed.

“Did you have to kill him?” he asked in a whine that didn’t at all jive with the looming brooding look he had going.

“Well yeah?” I said. “That’s sort of the point.”

“But I was about to launch my big distracting attack!”

I sighed and set the blade into the floor. The tip sank into the fantastical bone because it could cut through anything in the game.

“Yeah, but I’d rather do it my way,” I said. “After all, I’m the one who figured out we could dupe the control crystal and use it to take control of the cyberguards.”

“Yeah, but I was the one who…”

Kristoph paused. Scratched his head. Which very nearly took that head off considering he was carrying a cybernetic handaxe that looked like the less dangerous younger brother of the badass cybersword I held. 

“You’re going to take your head off doing that someday. You know that, right?” I asked.

“Maybe, but that day isn’t today. Speaking of taking some heads off?”

I followed Kristoph’s gaze to the gathered court who were clearly getting more and more confused. Though some of them were looking at that cybersword in my hands as though they were wondering if the king was the only noble who was going to have his back against the wall by the time the revolution was over.

I double checked the numbers on the live stream. They’d paused in the low four figures, and now they were starting to tick up again. I grinned.

Recordings of what I’d just done would be going out all over the Internet at this point, which meant more and more people tuning in to catch what was next on the live show.

“Told you they’d come back,” I said in group chat where the livestream watchers couldn’t hear.

“Showoff,” Kristoph muttered.

“Right,” I said, raising my voice and speaking in general chat where the assembled NPC toadies and livestream viewers could hear me just fine. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but your kingdom just came under new management. That means things are going to change a bit around here, and we’re going to start from the top down!”

I held up the control crystal I’d been hiding in my ratty robes. The one we totally shouldn’t have at this point in the game, but there it was. The thing glowed bright pink. Not exactly the blood red that seemed appropriate for an object that could control the nastiest cyborg army this game world had ever known, an army headed by an asshole who called himself the Blood King, no less, but as long as it did the trick I wasn’t going to complain.

There was a collective intake of breath from the gathered nobles below as a good chunk of them realized how collectively fucked they were if I was in a bloodthirsty mood. Sure some seemed to still anticipate something that wasn’t their impending doom from the way they eyed me hopefully. 

Maybe they thought if there was a new power in town then they could get ahead by being the first to attach their lips firmly to my ass.

I grinned. It wasn’t a pleasant grin. It was the sort of grin that said a bunch of AI NPCs were about to have their lives cut short. At least until the next time someone played this module, at which point they’d be booted up from their parent object or whatever it was Horizon’s devs used to program these assholes.

One thing was for sure. They’d come into this room anticipating blood, and boy were they going to get some blood. Just not from the source they’d expected.

“Kill them,” I said.

The cyberguards throughout the room moved into action pulling out their cyberpunk cutlery and raising it. They were poised on the verge of teaching the gathered masses the dangers of being too close to the top when the revolution comes when the room flashed red. 

I looked up in annoyance. What the fuck?

“Crap,” Kristoph said.

The cyberguards around the throne room were frozen on the brink of laying into the crowd of nobles. Those nobles were frozen in a mixture of terror and confusion. It would’ve been a hell of a sight, but it looked like the game wasn’t going to let us have our fun.

“You knew this was going to happen,” Kristoph said. “They don’t like it when people break their games.”

“They really don’t like it when people break their games and broadcast it to the world,” I muttered, glancing at the subscriber count again and blinking when I saw that it’d reached six figures and was climbing so fast that the numbers were a blur.

I grinned. If we were getting this kind of attention then maybe that red flashing was a good thing. Maybe we wouldn’t need a bloodbath to get Horizon’s attention.

I’d just taken the ultimate no-win scenario and turned it around on the pompous developers at Horizon who’d claimed no one could cheat their system, and chances were they were pissed.

Though I didn’t consider it cheating if I was using a system they’d been stupid enough to put into the game. Even if I was using it in a way Horizon hadn’t anticipated. I was smart enough to know they wouldn’t see it that way, and them not seeing eye to eye with people not playing their modules in the way they intended had turned deadly in the past.

For all that they denied it and tried to hide behind their fucking lawyers.

A roiling ball lightning storm appeared in the middle of the throne room slightly above the crowd of toadies frozen on the brink of death, and a figure resplendent in bright red robes floated out of said storm.

I was supposed to be terrified by that display, but I had a shit-eating grin plastered on my face. Holy. Fucking. Shit. It worked!

“Huh,” Kristoph grunted. “Not the sort of weather you typically get in an enclosed space like this.”

“Yeah, I think we just summoned a shit storm,” I said.

The figure would’ve been impressive, a sort of cyberpunk meets medieval armor chic look that was the sort of thing that appeared in the fever dreams of people who used pop culture to replace their social life, but the whole image was ruined by the stupid “H” logo emblazoned on the asshole’s chest.

I tried to replace that shit-eating grin with the appropriate amount of terror, what this asshole would expect, but it was hard not to grin. 

This was what I’d hoped for. Prayed for. What I’d devised this whole scheme to accomplish.

A representative from Horizon Online Entertainment was coming down from on high to pay us a personal visit and spank us for being naughty and exploiting the game.

It was go time. Killing the king had only been the first part of my plan, after all. Now that the in-game personification of Horizon had finally arrived it was time for the real fun to begin.

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<<Chapter 1Chapter 3>>

Spellcraft Chapter 1: Captured

Chapter 2>>

“Ow! Y’know I’m perfectly capable of walking up these stairs without you jabbing that spear in my back!”

The guard grunted and jabbed me in the back again. Not a pleasant feeling, all things considered.

I double checked that my live stream was going. If I was going to suffer for this then I wanted to make sure it was all worth it. I grinned as I saw my usual few thousand viewers, though the numbers were going… down.

Fuckity fuck fuck!

“We’re losing eyes,” Kristoph said, his voice appearing in my head in our group chat even though he was nowhere to be seen and I didn’t have any obvious headset in.

No matter how long this game went on that was still a hell of a mindfuck.

“Just wait,” I said, my voice only carrying in that group chat and not to the NPCs all around. “They think they know what’s going to happen here.”

“I’m worried they do know what’s going to happen here,” Kristoph said.

“Yeah, well we’ll see about that,” I said.

Those numbers would start going up soon enough. I hoped.

The guards poked and prodded me all the way to the top of the long ivory stairs. I winced to think of the number of elephants who’d been sacrificed to get that much material, then reminded myself this was, after all, a video game where it’s not like any real elephants had been harmed in the making of this staircase.

We reached the top step. The smell was the first thing I noticed. Incense of some sort burning and wafting across my nostrils.

“Smells like a head shop up here,” I said, glancing around.

The creation of the Lotus hardware had necessitated the creation of a whole new form of art: Nasal Foley Artists. Which might seem like an interesting job until you stop and think about the necessity of enduring not only the pleasant smells that went into a simulation like Lotus, but all the unpleasant smells that had to be painstakingly researched until the developers knew exactly which neurons to tickle in someone’s brain to, say, give them the impression they were sniffing dragon fewmets.

Go ahead and tap that to bring up the dictionary on your reader. I’ll wait here for you.

I didn’t envy those poor bastards that job. Still, I could appreciate the hard work that’d gone into making me think I was smelling anything at all.

One final prod and I was at the top of the throne room appreciating an impressive view along with a few small holes in my back that I didn’t appreciate.

I could see the entire throne room from up here. It was a massive gaudy thing. All white with glowing crystals. Like the sort of Star Wars ripoff high fantasy that’d been in vogue back in the 1980s. 

I hadn’t been close to being alive back then. My parents talked about that decade with fondness, even though they were born years too late to even be an itch in their dads’ balls when the ‘80s were a going concern.

The crowd was even more impressive. If the room looked like something out of a Conan/Star Wars hybrid knockoff then the people down below were right at home. The only word that came to mind as I got a look at them was resplendent. The artist who’d designed this room had gone a little hog wild doing the costumes. 

The rich assholes down there who usually spent most of their time with their lips firmly connected to the king’s ass in this game world were looking up at me with looks I’d describe as “rapacious anticipation.”

They knew what was about to happen, and they were looking forward to it. I rather liked having my head attached to my neck, but it looked like they were rather excited about its impending removal.

The guards threw me roughly to the ground. I felt every bit of pain as I hit that ground. This was all in my head, but wasn’t everything in your head, technically speaking? If your head was where the world was processed then where did the line get drawn between something between your ears being fake and real?

It was an existential question that’d vexed gaming journalists and real journalists alike since the Lotus hardware launched and started to rapidly change civilization as humanity knew it, but none of that was my concern.

I had a king to depose, and the people who made this game weren’t going to be happy about what I was doing considering I was supposed to die here.

“Your majesty,” I said, trying to hide the pain and the wince that came along with speaking. “So nice to finally meet you.”

“Nice?” the king growled. “You’ve been causing me far too much trouble, youngling, and it’s high time we take care of that. I’m going to enjoy dealing with this. Personally.”

The low hum from the assembled court below rose to a dull roar. Clearly they thought they were going to get a hell of a show today. Clearly this was the sort of bloodthirsty thing they were used to.

Basically they were reacting like some unpaid English major intern’s idea of a bloodthirsty rabble because said intern had skimmed a couple of books about the French Revolution and maybe went through the Cliff’s Notes for A Tale of Two Cities while coming up with the backstory for this scenario, then channeled that thirdhand knowledge into the assembled throngs below.

Of course I well knew how bloodthirsty the Blood King’s court was. With a hack name like Blood King the whole bloodthirsty thing sort of followed naturally. Plus I’d seen plenty of play throughs from players who got to this point in the module. It never ended well for the unlucky bastards stupid enough to get captured.

This was supposed to be a fail state, after all. The ultimate middle finger from the Horizon developers where you were supposed to walk with a hop, skip, and a jump to your in-game death. The sort of sequence you couldn’t back out of, because the assholes who made this module apparently had a sadistic streak a mile wide.

Which was about par for the course for Horizon. Sadistic or dangerously incompetent was their MO. Except for the times when they went for sadistic and dangerously incompetent.

The king, an aged dude who looked like he’d kicked some ass when he was younger to get his ass on that throne in the first place, stood. Nowadays his once wide shoulders had trouble holding up his voluminous crimson robes that looked like the Lucasfilm costume department had a rummage sale after filming wrapped on Return of the Jedi. If those shoulders were having trouble with robes then it didn’t seem reasonable or realistic that he could hold up a weapon, but he held a hand out for his sword regardless.

“Moving in,” Kristoph said. “Give the word and I’m in the fight.”

“Got it,” I said, pointedly not glancing behind the king. I hoped to take care of this without Kristoph’s backup, but it was nice to know my friend was there if I needed it.

I caught a hint of movement behind the king, but I avoided looking at the conveniently wide walkway that ran behind the throne. That walkway wasn’t a great design for a king who spent a great deal of time terrified of assassins, but this whole room was built to the specifications of game designers who wanted to provide their players with an interesting experience and not to the specifications of a mad king who was obsessed with preventing assassinations. Which meant there had to be a convenient method of reaching the king to assassinate him that would be obvious even to gamers who had all the intelligence and personality of a box of rocks, and fuck whether or not that convenient method of assassination was internally consistent with the rest of the game lore.

The king’s hand twitched. He hit the guard beside him with an irritated glance. The guard, a cyborg resplendent in deep purple robes that were also reminiscent of a certain emperor’s guards while being different enough that the people who made this module couldn’t get the pants sued off of them by the mighty mouse, stayed still.

“What are you waiting for?” the king croaked. “When I hold my hand out like this it means I want my sword. And if I wiggle my fingers it means you’re one step away from the scrap heap unless you do my bidding. Now what’s it going to be?”

I couldn’t help but smile just a little at the king’s irritation. After all, if he was this irritated it meant I was doing something right.

I stood, which earned me some irritated hisses from the guards. They raised their spears, and I winced as I anticipated more pokes to get me down on my knees again. 

The king turned and eyed me with open disdain, but blessedly he held up a hand to stop the guards from sticking me like a pincushion. Which I was grateful for, even if I wouldn’t let on how grateful I was. I knew I’d have to endure pain to do this, but I wasn’t all that jazzed about it.

“Would you like me to help you with that?” I asked, desperately hoping he would rise to the bait.

Even though the good king rising to the bait might very shortly result in my untimely demise. Thems were the breaks when you were trying to break all the rules in the interest of fucking over a soulless murdering multinational entertainment conglomerate.

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Chapter 2>>