Horror young adult Gaming

Blood & Armor

By Debra Jess
Sep 28, 2019 · 11,228 words · 41 minutes

octopus captured by a phone

Photo by jonas via Unsplash.

From the author: It's all fun and games until the game shuts down.

The tentacle slithered out of the Bog of the Badlands. The beast emitted a disgusting belch as its hundreds of animated suckers quivered in pulsed time with the music while it groped for its food. Using the faded keys on her keyboard, Sarah reacted with precision timing, her rotation of clicks sending her avatar into a furious set of moves. Smack Attack, first and always, with her Sword of Darisus, followed up with a Dry Mark spell which turned the bog snot into crusty yellow ash. Then finally, she hit the beast's weak spot — its globulous eyes — with a bright flash from her Stone of Waking Nightmares.

"Nice job." The words appeared in the corner of Sarah's screen, and a Druid Priestess she hadn't noticed before rushed up beside her. "Its Vitality stat is down to fifteen percent. I'll finish it off, you go get the Prince."

"I'm gone." Sarah brushed off her annoyance and checked the alarm clock sitting on the edge of her bedroom desk. Two hours until midnight. Two more hours until the game shut down forever. Damned corporate overlords, deciding that an old-fashioned, long-running, PC-based game like Battle Guards of the Northern Kingdoms didn't make enough money to keep around. Everyone else had moved onto gaming consoles and virtual reality systems. Not even the new expansion pack could generate interest in the game. The corporation had given the few remaining subscribers three days notice. Three days! How did you say good-bye to the world you'd loved since you were in grade school in three days?

With the beast's Vitality down to fifteen percent, her Demon Paladin should be fine during clean up if this twink in their lighter, but more flexible, leather armor kept their promise. Sarah had run this scenario a dozen times since the expansion pack's release right before mid-terms, but she could never finish it. Now, she might have a chance. A chance that wouldn't matter once the game disappeared.

It would help to have someone watch her back while she ran through the Bog to find the Prince of the Far West Kingdom. All of her other so-called friends could afford to play newer, shinier games. She ditched their traitorous asses and played Battle Guards every opportunity she had. She had even skipped all of her classes right after the shutdown announcement to play on an old tablet she filched from the school's supply closet.   

She had given so much of her life over to this game. The idea that a remote group of greedy faceless old bastards could shut down the one source of joy she had broke her heart. In the real world she was helpless, but in the game she had all the power she needed.   

Her avatar's feet, heavy with plate armor, sank into thick mud with a schurlp at each footfall, slowing her steps even as she clicked on the run function in rapid succession. It was the music that creeped her out though; the hum from an organ slithered down her spine, even though she'd turned the volume to its lowest setting. It made her fingers jumpy and she missed the run key twice.

A floor board outside of her bedroom creaked. A real-life warning pulsed from her brain. Sarah's fingers froze over the keys. It didn't matter if she was in the middle of a raid or just sitting in a tavern drinking mead. If her father saw her playing the game when she was supposed to be sleeping, he'd forget his fists and use his belt, all the while yelling at her until his face turned red and the veins in his neck bulged. Then he'd yank her computer out of her bedroom and into the living room so she could only use it for homework.

That's why she could never completely immerse herself this late at night. Even if her mother was the one who caught her playing past bedtime, she'd tattle to her father knowing how he'd react. She always took her husband’s side, no matter what. The holidays had been hell on Earth this past year.     

"Careful," the Druid Priestess typed on the screen. "I'm right behind you."

The Druid Priestess couldn't have already defeated the Beast of the Bog. Even at fifteen percent it should have taken them longer. Sarah's finger hit the chat key. The need for self-preservation distracted her from the quest again. She didn't have time for this.

"Who are you?" she demanded. If this Druid Priestess wanted her help with another quest, they should have asked her first. 

In the distance, she could see the Prince trapped under a veil of psychic energy. The Bog King pounded away at the veil with a spiked mallet, trying to break the Prince's magic and kill him.

"The game designer. Go ahead. Go rescue the Prince."

Nope, this Druid Priestess was a creeper. Had to be. The game designer? No way. The Druid Priestess thought Sarah was too young and too stupid to know it took dozens — if not hundreds — to design a game, even an older one like Battle Guards

Still, she wanted to finish this quest and level-up one last time. Sarah ignored her instincts and ran for the Prince, using repeated Smack Attacks to destroy the tree roots trying to trip her up. Even if what this Druid Priestess said was true, game designer could mean a lot of things. Were they a writer? A coder? The CEO? Anger burned through her fingers as she manipulated her Paladin through the thick bog snot. The CEO would have sat on the board. The board had voted to torch the game. No, the CEO wouldn't be playing the game. They'd be popping champagne and watching their profits grow while her life burned to the ground.

She made it to the edge of the moss-covered dais where the Prince lay flat on his back, his wrists and ankles wrapped in the same thorn-covered roots that had tripped her while she ran through the bog. The psychic veil remained intact.

Another cool effect. The veil shimmered like water cascading down from the ceiling. The Bog King didn't notice her hiding behind a scraggly bush. He paused his pounding, muttered that he had other ways of breaking the Prince, and walked away to get a bigger mallet.

Dialogue appeared on the screen, a plea from the Prince for help and a clue to her next quest. She didn't need to read it since she'd read it so many times before. She ran up, claimed the quest, and hopped off the dais before the dialog disappeared.

She needed to find all of the magical amulets the Prince dropped along the trail when the Bog King had kidnapped him. Find all of the amulets, and she'd have the power to defeat the Bog King, free the Prince, and claim her reward. Her last reward ever.

She'd have to backtrack through the bog to finish, and the Beast of the Bog would be waiting. She hoped the Druid Priestess had taken care of the Beast — that would buy her some time before it regenerated.

She checked her map in the opposite corner of the screen from the chat box. The Druid Priestess was nowhere to be seen. She had no idea if they'd kept their promise or not.

Nothing to do about it. If she had a real-life partner who would play the game with her, she wouldn't have so much trouble finishing the quests.

She stepped back into the bog with a loud schulp. Wet stickiness licked the bottom of her real foot.

What the hell?

She jumped away from her computer, knocking over her chair. Her reflexes, honed by years of trying to dodge her father, caught the falling chair before it hit the floor boards.

Fear spiked her heart rate into a staccato rhythm too fast for her to count. Taking on weird creatures in-game was one thing, but real life bugs made her freak. She sat on her too-small bed, her legs pulled up to her chest, bunching up her nightgown, the toes on her right foot slippery with whatever the real-life bug had spit at her. She grabbed her phone to shine the camera light on her foot. In the narrow beam, goop plopped from her big toe to the floor. What the hell type of bug spit out goop that looked like in-game bog snot?

The sound of a toilet flushing made her jump a second time. She doused the light. Was it her father or her mother using the bathroom? Her mother wouldn't have noticed the light. She would still be too drunk to care. Her father would notice. Nothing out of place escaped him. She listened for the dreaded thump, thump, thump of his footsteps stalking down the hallway.

She waited thirty seconds. Nothing happened. Sweat poured off her. 

On screen her avatar waited, stuck in the bog, vulnerable to more than just the Beast. She'd die if Sarah didn't get her ass back in the chair. The clock continued its countdown to midnight.

With quick strokes, she rubbed the bottom of her foot across the rough-cut throw rug, but her skin was still slick between her toes.

Already the slime was drying from the forced hot air wafting from the floor vents. The slime turned to flakes, just like the bog snot in-game when she activated her Fiery Flame of Transformation.

On her computer screen, the Druid Priestess was still nowhere to be seen. The twink had abandoned her. Whatever. She didn't need help. She could finish this quest on her own, but not before she searched for the real-life bug.

Sarah grabbed her phone again and activated the small flashlight. This bug must be a monster to have survived the heavy snowfall outside, but what kind of bug could cover the entire bottom of her foot with gunk?

She checked every inch under her desk. No bug. Not even a cobweb.

She slid back into her chair, ignoring the friction between her toes. If the bug came back she'd deal with it. Nothing mattered more than finishing this one last quest.

"You're not leaving so soon, are you? You're almost done."

The Druid Priestess slid up next to her.

She knew she shouldn't respond, but the Druid Priestess hadn't really done anything wrong. Sarah had been the one who was freaked out by imaginary bugs licking her foot.

Her hand touched the controls. Her avatar jumped as she was reactivated, her eyes flashing a demon red. "Bug in my room. Have to get rid of it. Shouldn't take long."

"But you're so close."

She was so close. If she could finish this one last quest she'd have all of the elements she needed to rescue to the Prince. She might even finish the quest before midnight. Before her screen went dark.

"One try to find all of the amulets. Then I need to log out and find the bug."

The Druid Priestess disappeared. Sarah clicked the run key. Her Demon Paladin slogged back through the Bog. The music started again. The crust between her toes itched. Maybe the Druid Priestess wasn't another player, but part of the game?

The organ hit a note low enough to send a vibration through the keyboard. Her avatar ran until she hit another veil. It was the same effect as the psychic veil around the Prince, like cascading water but much bigger. Sarah craned the camera view upward. The veil swirled down from the artificial night sky.

"What is this?"

The Druid Priestess reappeared.

"It's a surprise."

"A surprise?"

"Don't you like surprises, Sarah?"

Sarah's throat closed. How the hell did this creeper know her real name? Log out, log out, log out.

Frustration overtook her fear. She looked at the unrelenting clock.   

"Is this part of the expansion?" She typed. Maybe if she talked to the creeper, she could figure out who it was. "It looks like the edge of the game. The part not open to the players."

"You love this game, don't you, Sarah?"

Sarah ignored the question. Even if she answered, even if she demanded to know how the Druid Priestess knew her name, they wouldn't give an honest answer. Her school made all the students watch online safety seminars. She knew better. She had to control this conversation, keep the focus on the game. Creepers had ways of reading between the lines. 

"If I reach beyond the veil, will it destroy my avatar? Will it get absorbed into the game? Will I be able to escape? Will I have to create a new avatar and start from the beginning? I don't have time before the game shuts down."

"Why don't you reach across the barrier and find out?"

No way. Had one of her former friends turned into a game snob? Would they get off by entering the game just to destroy her avatar for kicks? Wreck her one last chance to be happy for a couple of hours, just for the LOLs? Maybe.

She craned the camera view upwards again. Yeah, the effect looked beautiful, but Sarah backed her Demon Paladin away from it. She had a dozen amulets she had to find before going back to the Prince.

The tentacles breached the veil before Sarah could hit the run key.

"Damn it." Her Demon Paladin was trapped in the tentacles. She activated her attack rotation without thinking. Smack Attack, first and always.

It worked until a thick, brown, goopy mess wrapped around her ankle and slid up her leg to her thigh. Sarah yanked her fingers off the keyboard. A scream built in her throat, but a second tentacle wrapped itself around her head, the suckers plastering her lips together. Her nightgown ripped as the suckers tugged at the material. 

Trapped, her instinct to fight took over. She yanked one arm out from under the beast's clutch. Red welts burned her skin. She grabbed a nearby pen and slammed it into the thinnest part of the tentacle that she could reach. The tentacle stiffened, then loosened.

"Do not stop. Grab her. Bring her to me. We need her."

Whose voice? The Druid Priestess's? From the computer's tiny speakers or in her head? Had she truly gone crazy?

The tentacle yanked her off the chair, dragging her under the desk. She kicked as much as she could, but the beast's grip tightened. She still couldn't scream. Her parents wouldn't hear her. No one could. 

The suckers on the tentacle made a clicking sound as they struck her, latching on, pulling her skin every which way. She slammed the pen down again into one of the suckers this time, harder, while jamming her foot against the baseboard of the wall. She had some leverage.

Through the haze of shock, she realized this wasn't insanity. This was real. How could this be happening? How could The Beast of the Bog escape the game?   

She squinted at the shadows from under the desk. The tentacle poured out of the wall's electrical socket, the unused one next to the computer plug.

"Stop fighting," the Druid Priestess hissed from somewhere, their voice harsh, real, and in her head.

Fuck you! Sarah slammed her foot against the socket. Maybe if she dislodged the computer plug. . . .Her vision grew hazy. She needed to breathe.

"No! Stop her," the Druid Priestess yelled.

The first tentacle slid higher up her thigh. Panic intensified her fight, but no matter how hard she kicked, she couldn't get the computer plug to dislodge.

The blood in her leg squeezed down into her foot. Her toes felt like balloons on the verge of exploding. One last kick.

"Take her! Take her now!"

Dizziness knocked her last kick off her target. Her head swam and the world around her blurred. She abandoned the pen and grabbed one of the legs of her desk. Her hand, slick with sweat, slipped on the harsh corners. Desperate to wake up her parents, even if it meant another beating, she opened her mouth against the tentacle wrapped around her head and screamed. The hated thump, thump, thump of her father's footsteps didn't materialize.   

Why didn't her father hear her?

It was her last thought before the Beast of the Bog sucked her into the socket and she blacked out.

Dad is going to kill me. Sarah whimpered against the imagined pain even before she opened her eyes.

She'd been hurt. The throbbing pain from her fight beat in time with her heart. Her left knee ached along with her right wrist. At least part of her body was warm, though — the half that lay buried in the slurpy ground. The other half froze in the winter air.

Her father would demand to know how she got bruised, and would keep on demanding until he received an answer, maybe wrapping his fist around his belt as a warning not to lie. Sarah raced through a multitude of excuses. Not the truth. It had to be an answer that satisfied him, a truth that made sense and had nothing to do with imaginary monsters and bog snot. Any other answer would only mean more pain and loss of game time until she made something up just to get him off her back.

She couldn't stop the grunt as she shoved herself onto her back, her nightgown plastered to her skin. Craggy trees decorated the sky above her, instead of the popcorn sprayed ceiling of her bedroom.

No. No. No. She hadn't crossed the line, she'd been pushed. The Druid Priestess. The Druid Priestess had the answers to questions Sarah didn't even know how to ask. Well, if they could push Sarah over the line, Sarah could damn well push right back.

Sitting up was another adventure. Her hands sank into the Bog, giving her scant leverage. It took every muscle in her body to get her to stand. Even then she had to keep her knees bent to maintain her balance.

The Bog. It surrounded her. She tried a few hesitant steps, and the spiky thorns of the carnivorous plants grabbed at her nightgown. It all felt real, but each object had the painted look of animation from the game. The colors had no depth or shadow. The shapes of the trees repeated in patterns the farther she looked into the distance. Yet, the Bog reeked of sour water and rot, just as she always imagined it would.

How could this be happening to her? How could this have happened at all?

A few fireflies zipped past her face. One smacked right into her. She slapped at another one, but missed.

"Where am I?" she called out to the endless dark.

"The Bog of the Badlands." The Druid Priestess ran up to her, the bog snot splashing with each step.

Duh. "No. I mean where am I? Why does it look like I'm inside the game?" Sarah took a few more steps forward, slipping on the slimy undergrowth.

"You are inside the game," they said. "Isn't this why you played every day? Isn't this why you disobeyed your parents to play the game? You tell them lies, you manipulate your teachers, you abandoned your friends — "

"I had no friends to abandon," Sarah said, fighting to keep her balance. It was all true. It was as if the Druid Priestess had read her diary, if she'd kept one.   

"You love this game. You love it more than anything else in the world. You played this game even as everyone else flocked to the new shiny. I thought your loyalty should be rewarded."

Rewarded her ass. Something slithered past her ankle. The Beast of Bog? "I could use a little less reward, and a lot more clothes."

What she needed was the Demon Paladin's armor.

"You haven't earned them yet. You need to finish the quest. You know how the game is played."

"That's bullshit. I've played this game for years. My Demon Paladin has more than earned her armor, her weapons, and her spells. You owe me at least what my avatar has. She doesn't play the game. I do. Give me her rewards, damn you."

Silence. Not even the background chirps of the Bog could penetrate the quiet envelop of darkness. Whatever the game designer had planned, Sarah at least had slowed them down. Maybe. How the hell could she be sure? How much time had passed? What would happen if the game shut down with her inside?

The swarm of fireflies returned. Sarah jerked her head back to avoid catching one in her mouth. She hadn't even realized how hard she was breathing until then.

Without warning, pain wracked her whole body. She looked down at her herself. Metal pierced her shoulders. She recognized the spaulders of her Demon Paladin. The armor grew out of her shoulders, through her skin. She looked down at her chest. A hauberk slithered around her nightgown. The pain sent her back to her knees, but instead of the sopping mess of bog snot, she heard the clang of metal upon metal as the couter rubbed against the vambrace.

The pain stopped. She had armor covering her from head to foot. Did her eyes glow like those of her Demon Paladin? Could she cast spells?

"Yes, you have become your Paladin." 

From inside her helmet, statistics poured across her vision. Health, Vitality, Hunger. It was all there. Everything she needed to play.    

Her joy crowded out her horror. She could play forever! Wasn't this a dream come true? No parents, no chemistry class, no stupid boys who would ignore her, or girls who would bully her. No one.

For the first time since she started gaming — all of the power she poured into the game was now hers for the taking.

Local time counted down the seconds in the lower left corner. No, she couldn't play forever. She could play for less than ninety minutes. Then the game would end.

She pushed past the Druid Priestess and ran, faster than she ever could in real life. What about weapons? She spied a bog bunny.

"Smack Attack!" Her Sword of Darisus appeared and her muscles followed a pattern, more or less, from what she'd seen so many times on the screen. The bog bunny died with the familiar death gurgle between its buck teeth.

She didn't care. In real life, she'd cried whenever she read about the death of someone's pet on Facebook or Twitter. In-game, where life wasn't really life and death was just the release of a bunch of codes, she could kill thousands of creatures without a second thought.

She looked at the remains of the bog bunny. The guts of the thing splattered across the surface of the bog snot. She waited. Nothing happened. It didn't de-rezz or anything.

Had it really been alive? Had she really killed such a harmless bog bunny? No one paid much attention to them outside of the starting zones. She would kill them for practice, and a few early quests required that you kill and skin them to create leather. As she advanced through the game, the less important the bunnies became.

The dead bunny just lay there. The tendrils of its intestines continued to lap on the dissipating waves she had created during her attack. One black eyeball stared at her.

The urge to puke bubbled up from her stomach. She fought to keep the bile down. Puking inside her helmet would only make a mess she didn't need right now, but her stomach wouldn't be denied. She dropped her sword, tugged off her helmet and retched against the nearest tree.

The stench of bog snot grew more foul as she gasped for air. She desperately wanted to clean out her mouth, but didn't dare reach down to scoop up the liquid she had trod through. Instead she picked up her sword.

"This can't be real. This can't become my life."

"Why not?" The Druid Priestess had found her again.

"Oh, shut up."

Low laughter followed her as she abandoned the dead body of the bog bunny.

"Isn't this what you wanted, Sarah?" the Priestess asked. "Isn't this what you wished for? You wanted to be a hero. Now you are."

"Killing helpless bog bunnies for target practice doesn't make me a hero."

Lightning flashed across what little of the sky she could see right before the deluge started — New game element, courtesy of the new expansion pack. Her armor, heavier than she was, couldn't stop the water from pouring down the gap between the gorget and her neck.

"Are you kidding me?" Sarah shivered against the cold.

"Put your helmet back on."

She did. At least it stopped the water from getting inside her armor.

"Why are you doing this to me?" Even she could hear the whine in her voice.

"I'm giving you a gift. This is what you wanted. It can be yours forever if you help me."   

Everything came with a price. Instead of answering the Priestess, Sarah slogged her way back to the Prince.

Forever. What did that mean? The clock continued its countdown. Fewer ninety minutes now, every second reminding her she had to escape back to a world she hated.

Her thighs screamed in pain, her back muscles strained under the weight of the armor. Why did a fantasy have to feel so real? This should have been heaven.

The Bog King pounded his mallet on the supine Prince whose failing magic wouldn't protect him much longer. Sarah counted down along with the seconds ticking in her helmet. The Bog King would keep pounding for twenty-two seconds; then he'd wander off to his dungeons giving gamers a chance to acquire the next quest from the Prince in an attempt to save him.

Sarah had exactly twenty-eight seconds to talk to the Prince. Except for Bog creatures and the Druid Priestess, she hadn't seen any other players. She'd created this instance in hopes of finding a way around the need for help with the Beast of the Bog. Maybe the Druid Priestess had manipulated it that way?

The Bog King wandered away from the dais issuing the usual threats. Sarah waited until she couldn't see him any longer before pushing her legs up the stairs.

The Prince stared up at her. His golden brown skin glowed with magic, and his green eyes were brighter than a normal human's in order to make them visible under all of the psychic shields he wielded.

"I don't suppose you know what's going on here?" Sarah asked.

"Game designer bitch got you, too, huh?"

Sarah blinked. She hadn't expected an answer. When the Prince spoke in-game it was with a very formal, mostly fake English dialect.

This Prince sounded like their next-door neighbor with a slight southern accent.

"Yeah, she did. Who are you?"

"Alan Milton. I'm a Senior Server Engineer. I was on call for the shut-down. One minute, I'm killing time in my office playing my Pirate Mage one last time. The next thing I know, the Beast of the Bog grabs my leg and I'm trapped here in the game as the Prince."

She stared at him. He looked just like the Prince. She could only imagine what she looked like.

"Did you wish you could be in the game itself?"

Alan frowned. "Uh, well, you know…"

The seconds were ticking down, she didn't have time to interrogate him nicely. "Did you wish you could be in the game itself?"

"I've played for years. I have no talent for story-telling or art, but getting this job was still a dream come true. The pressure is on because I don't know if I'll still have a job after the game shuts down. Family's on my back about the bills and my kid is sick again… I might have wished to escape into the game."

Thump, thump, thump.

"The Bog King returns." Sarah stepped away from the Prince, but not before she saw the panic in his eyes.

"Don't leave me here." Alan's eyes widened in fear.

"I won't go far. I'll be back. I promise."

Think. Think. Think. Sarah slogged through the Bog back to the dais after finding all of the amulets. It hadn't taken her long, since she'd memorized their locations the first time she ran this quest.

Now she watched the Bog King pound at the Prince's shield from her hiding place behind an evergreen shrub. If the scenario remained true to the game, Alan wasn't really in any danger. In the game, the Bog King pauses to roar his frustration and gives the player a chance to activate the amulets. Once freed, the Prince and the player attack the Bog King together.

If you and the Prince win, you run out of the Bog with the Prince. Later, when the Prince returns to his Kingdom, he gives you rewards: coins, armor, spells, and you level up.

On the other hand, if you die, the Prince returns to his place on the dais, using his psychic shield to protect himself from the Bog King. Nothing ever changes.

Until now.

She waited until the Bog King roared before activating the amulets, just like she would have done if she were playing at her computer. The filmy psychic shield dropped, the thorn-covered roots trapping the Prince's hands and feet retracted, and Alan climbed off the block of stone.

"Who dares interfere with my plans!" the Bog King roared.

No way around it. She had to protect Alan. Not that Alan was completely helpless. He still had his powerful magic, but did he remember what those spells were? Would he remember to use them in the right rotation?

No chance to ask. Her armored boots gave her some height, but it put her head right at the Bog King's crotch, which was covered by little more than the sphagnum moss he'd pulled from the ground. 

The Bog King raised his mallet. From below, its spikes looked longer than her arm. It would only take one blow to send her crashing to the ground. She knew that with her armor and spells her Demon Paladin could survive for several minutes, but what about plain boring Sarah?

The mallet dropped. Sarah raised her Sword of Darisus, pressing past the aches and pains of her body.

"Smack Attack!"

Her rotation was slower than when she sat behind a keyboard. She had to dive out of the way before generating a new spell. Behind her, Alan called out his spells. It took longer than it should have, but together they drove the Bog King back toward the edge of the dais.

Out of the corner of her eye, Sarah saw another shadow. The Druid Priestess watched from the Bog, damn them. They stood there, not helping, but not attacking either.

In Sarah's distraction, she lost sight of the Bog King. His last swing clipped her shoulder. Pain burned along her back, sending her to her knees. She could still hear Alan calling out spells as the Bog King ignored her in favor of his real target.

Sarah needed to try something that couldn't happen in-game if she was going to protect Alan and get them to safety. With every muscle she'd never exercised in real life, she pushed herself to stand and slammed the Sword of Darisus through the back of the Bog King's left knee.

Blood squirted all over her helmet, the red goopy mess splattering her eye slots, blinding her. The Bog King's howl of pain shook the dais, rattling her bones. She was going to die. She had no strength left to lift the Sword.

"C'mon. I got ya!" Alan grabbed her hand and hauled her to her feet.

"I can't see anything. The blood. . . ." 

"Run! I'll lead you!"

She followed him, her feet sinking back into the Bog with each step. Alan kept her gloved hand in his, almost tugging her shoulder out of its socket as they both strained against the muck of the bog.

"Keep us away from the heart of the Bog," Sarah reminded him. "The last thing we need is to run into the Beast."

Every intake of breath scraped her already sore throat raw. After what felt like hours, Alan pulled her up three rickety steps. She heard the squeak of door hinges, and another step brought her into a room. Behind her the door slammed shut.

Without wasting another second, Sarah yanked off her helmet. It took her eyes a moment to adjust to the dark interior.

"Where are we?" The room had the look of a cabin, but much larger and decorated with cabinets, crates, and a simple wooden table with chairs. Sarah sat in one of the chairs. The chair creaked when her ass hit the seat, and rocked back because one of the legs was shorter than the others. Nice detail, but she was too exhausted to appreciate it.

"A hunting shack," Alan explained. "New feature. With all of the extra quests they were adding to the Bog area, players needed a neutral space to rejuvenate without having to return to the starting zone. Nothing from the outside should get in here. There was supposed to be extra food for Vitality. Eventually, there would have been a non-player character to fix your armor."    

"Not anymore," Sarah said. Seventy minutes left. She flipped her helmet in her hands. The Bog King had left a dent in the right temple area. "How do you know all this?"

Alan grabbed a hunk of the Prince's long hair and examined the dreadlocks like they were snakes. "Employee perk. We get to alpha and beta test the game before the subscribers. I've heard there's a new game in the works. First-person shooter, I think."

Lucky guy. For the first time, Sarah considered life after high school. Graduation was simply a goal to get herself out of the house and away from her parents. Maybe if she stuck around for college she could get a job that would allow her early access to a game. Or, maybe recreate Battle Guards.

She shuffled that thought far away. Battle Guards would go black in sixty-nine minutes. Would she die too if she were still inside the game? 

"Are there any cloths in the crates, so I can clean this up at least?" she asked, flipping the helmet in her hands.

Alan opened one of the crates and tossed her a rag. Blood always made her queasy, but her father didn't tolerate bad behavior at the doctor's office either, so she faked being brave when she had to get blood drawn. She pulled on that same ability to fake not needing to barf as she cleaned the blood off her helmet. 

From outside, she could hear the rumble of the Beast. Had it attacked someone else in her instance? Had the Druid Priestess activated it to intimidate them? 

"Do you know why they're doing this? The game designer? Who are they?"

Alan huffed. "She's no game designer. Her name is Jocelyn Harford. She's the teenage daughter of the original developer and company founder."

"No, kidding?" Oh, man, to have a game developer for a father. Bet he never hit his daughter because she gamed too much. 

"Her father gave her a job as a gofer about a year ago. I don't know if she dropped out of school or what the deal was, but it looked like she mostly just played the game all day."

Heaven, in a nutshell. So much heaven. 

"Every once in a while she'd send out these ranty emails to the whole company about storylines she didn't like, or demand a redesign of a character she thought was too ugly. Daddy would indulge her and mess up our workflow. This last expansion got delayed by almost a year because of her."

Sarah's heart bled. Though, she too had written ranty emails to the company wanting them to fix bugs, she had never actually demanded they change the game for her. To be able to game all day should have been enough. Why did Jocelyn have to interfere with the game itself?

Sarah ignored that question too. It wouldn't matter in sixty-eight minutes. "She must have known more than you thought about how to create in-game scenarios, if she's figured out a way to pull live humans into the game. I mean, either we're crazy, or this is real and we're about to die if we can't figure out how to get out."

Alan shoved off the table and started to pace. "I can't die here. I've got a wife, kids. They need me. I'd already started looking for a new job in case we all got laid off after Battle Guards went offline."

"They'd fire all of you?" That didn't make sense. "I mean, I just assumed you'd work on the new game."

Alan stopped pacing long enough to kick the crate. "I wish that was how it worked. Everything changed when founder — Jocelyn's father — died. The company got bought out by a bigger overseas corporation. They want to move the entire operation to another country where their own people can work on it."

"Well, that sucks." The bitterness burned deep. Sure it was awful that Alan was losing his job, but what about all of the subscribers who still loved the game? Didn't anyone in the company care about how much time and energy and money the subscribers had spent over the years on Battle Guards

The shack's door slammed open, making her jump up and grab her sword. Somehow, the movement had become familiar, even comfortable. She knew what to do with her sword.

In the door, the Druid Priestess stood, a bloody bog bunny dripping in her hands. Jocelyn Harford. Not the game designer, but the game designer's daughter.

"Aren't we all having fun yet?" she said, before letting the carcass fall to the floor.

"Why are you doing this?" Sarah's helmet was still on the table. Alan had backed away, toward the nearest wall. Not the best defensive position, but he was a caster of spells, not a warrior. "How are you doing this?"

Jocelyn didn't look that much older than Sarah herself, and not much taller. Her face was smooth and thin, her dark hair a tangled riot of sweat-soaked curls. Sarah couldn't see much else in the low light.

"Oh, you know," Jocelyn said as she stepped over the bloody bunny and into the shack. "A little bit of coding, a little bit of black magic."

A little bit of crazy. Sarah kept that thought to herself. There were plenty of kids at school who whispered worse about her behind her back, but this one — you could smell the crazy over the stench of the Bog.

"Yeah, but why?"

Jocelyn's face crumpled. "They're shutting down the game. The expansion pack became too expensive. Almost all of our subscribers have moved on to our competitors. Our investors were angry, sending my dad all of these horrible threats. He had to sell his dream to keep it alive. Then the new company decided to shut down the game anyway."

Even in the low light, Sarah could see Jocelyn's tears. Tears she too had shed, when she first read the news. Tears she had to hide because no one else cared like she did. At least she hadn't thought so until now. 

"It broke my father's heart, right there in front of me. He collapsed. I tried CPR, but I was losing him. I'd been playing with magic anyway, so I added the magic to some coding I'd been working on to fix a bug in-game. Presto, change-o. My dad is alive and living as the Beast of the Bog."

Everything else in the cabin faded except Jocelyn. It sounded too crazy to be true, and yet she stood in the middle of a Bog Shack that looked more real to her than her own bedroom.

"I still have to stop the corporate bastards from shutting down my father's dream. After I saved my father, I had to figure out how to join him here. The game meant so much to him. Without the game, he — we have nothing."

Save the game. Hope sprang alive in Sarah. Reality fractured into a shattered mirror where every emotion Sarah had ever faked to survive outside of the game no longer mattered. Inside the game she didn't have to pretend to care about anything she didn't want to care about. She didn't care about anything other than the game. That truth broke open a sense of freedom she'd never experienced before. She grasped it tight and hugged it close. Could Jocelyn really do it? Save the game? 

"Saved us!" Alan shoved off the counter he'd been leaning against. "You dragged me away from my family. Away from reality. I can't stay here. You have to bring me back to the servers. I have to be there before the game shuts down. We'll die if the game shuts down and we're still in here."

"No, wait, listen to her first." Sarah recognized Alan's outrage. It was the same outrage her father used to justify hitting her over every little infraction. Jocelyn knew how to get into and out of the game. She needed that information and Alan would screw it up if he kept attacking Jocelyn.

"Why?" Alan pushed away from the wall. "She's a child. A child playing with our lives. . . ." 

Sarah flung her hand at Alan and shouted, "Mute!" 

Alan's lips moved, but he had no voice. It took a few seconds for him to realize what happened. He put his hands to his throat, his eyes wide, angry. He took another step, advancing toward Jocelyn. Sarah had to stop him.

"Be still," she commanded, "and listen to her."

Alan froze in place mid-rant.

"Ignore him for now," Sarah said, turning away from Alan. She needed to get Jocelyn to calm down and talk to her. "He's a father. It makes him emotional. You can understand how he might get upset about his family. He needs time to adjust. I'm sure your dad got emotional, too."

Jocelyn looked away from Alan. "Oh, yes, all the time. Now he can be as emotional as he wants, but he can't really do anything more than what I tell him to do."

"What do you tell him to do?" Sarah sat down again, forgetting about Alan, her sole focus on Jocelyn. 

"Right now he's gathering the faithful." Jocelyn scraped the chair back opposite Sarah so she could sit too. 

"Gathering the faithful? Like me?"

"Yes. The gamers who stayed, who were loyal. The stats based on the number of players. If I can keep the faithful in-game, our stats will never go down. The game will be saved."

"But we barely have an hour left. The board's not paying attention. They're asleep, or with their own families. They've moved on. The game is probably set to automatic. It's too late, Jocelyn."

"No. No," Jocelyn moaned, rocking forward, pulling at her hair. "Sixty-four minutes? I lost track of time. I've been in-game for so long. I should have left, directed my father from the outside, but I didn't want to leave. The real world is so hard to control. I can't be too late. I just can't be. . . ."

She started to cry. Sarah reached across to clasp Jocelyn's hand in hers, but then remembered her gauntlet, so she yanked off the armor and tossed it aside first. Saving the game meant stopping Jocelyn from wasting her time on tears. 

"I couldn't get the spell to work at first," Jocelyn said, not even noticing Sarah's hand covering hers. "I took too much time gathering the elements while I was keeping my father's heart beating. They didn't even call him to warn him and it was too much for him. This has all been a waste. I should have called 911 instead of bringing him in here."

"We can fix this." Sarah released Jocelyn's hand and jumped out of her chair.

She shoved her gauntlet back on and grabbed her sword, the action of arming herself becoming more natural as the seconds ticked by. "The corporate board doesn't care about the game or the players. They only care about making money. They rely on statistics and math and economics. Nothing else matters to them. If you really can keep the statistics recording actual gamers playing even after they were sucked into the game, then maybe we can still save it. We just have to stall the shut-down."

Sarah looked back at Alan, his eyes bulging in frustration. "Unfreeze, Unmute," she said.

"Don't you ever do that again!" he yelled.

Sarah flinched. He sounded just like her father when he yelled, but she forced herself to face him. She was done being scared of old men. Well, older men.

"We can't stay in the Bog Shack forever. We have to figure out how to stop the game from shutting down."

Alan slammed himself back against the nearest wall, not happy, but not yelling either. Sarah ignored him and leaned across the table toward Jocelyn.

"Tell me more about your magic."

Alan said nothing while Sarah interrogated Jocelyn, who didn't seem to mind answering Sarah's questions. In fact, the more she talked, the more in sync Jocelyn's goals appeared to be with Sarah's own.

"So, you can leave the game," Sarah confirmed.

"Yes," Jocelyn nodded, her eagerness obvious. "I programed nodes inside the three Bog Shacks so I can come and go as I need to."

She pointed to a wallet-sized crate, sitting in a far corner, almost invisible. "I didn't include animation, so no one else would notice them. I open the box and the fireflies carry me back to where I started."

"That's it? It's that easy?"

"Of course. But once you leave, the game numbers will fall. I can't let that happen. This game is the only thing that matters. I need this game to survive. So do you, Sarah. You know it."

Sarah did know it. "Do we have to stay in the Bog? Can we go elsewhere?"

"Oh, of course. You should see the Southern Realm and the Bangolini Palace. They're amazing in 3D. The Iron Crush quest is fantastic when you can wield the Grand Mallet in your own hands."

It sounded too good to be true. And, yet, here she was, sitting in a Bog Shack with the Sword of Darisus in her hand. Even with the innards of the bog bunny rotting near the door, this was the world Sarah had dreamed about.

"I have a plan. Jocelyn, your father would have the information we need to stop the shut-down, wouldn't he?"

Jocelyn shook her head. "I already got the information from him. It's no good, though. Security caught me when I tried to stop the shut-down. They threatened to have me arrested. If I try again, the board will have me arrested. There won't be a countdown next time. No chance to say good-bye to the game. It'll go dark — " she snapped her fingers " — just like that."

"Alan won't get caught, though." Sarah nodded at Alan, still looking sullen. "He's a Senior Server Engineer. He's the one who was supposed to shut down the game anyway. Send him back to headquarters. He can change the clocks on the servers. Buy us time. A few hours at least, maybe a few days. While he does that, use your father to grab the executive board members and pull them in-game. They can't have you arrested if they've disappeared."

Jocelyn was listening to Sarah with rapt attention. Warmth coated all the cold spots in Sarah's heart. This was her quest. It was what she was meant to do.

"But the statistics." Jocelyn said. "The game — "

"I know others who can replace him. I have lots of friends." Liar. You have lots of enemies. Bring them here where they can't escape. You will have all the power then. "I'll give you the names. You'll have time to pull them in later. With the board missing, the company will have to elect a new board. There will be confusion, arguing, politicking. Stuff we don't care about. This isn't a solution, but a stop-gap measure. We stall the shut-down until we can pull enough people into the game to prove it can survive."

Jocelyn's eyes narrowed. "I'll have to leave the game after we pull in the board members. Someone will need to call the police and report the board members missing. We need to make sure the world knows as soon as possible that the board is missing. The news media will draw attention to it. The mystery will spread. It'll create more advertising for the game. More people will be interested and start playing again. This could work."

Sarah knew she had scored big with Jocelyn's buy-in. Jocelyn listened to her because they thought so much alike. But Jocelyn was only half the battle. She still needed to convince Alan. The plan wouldn't work without him.

Sarah stood and slipped her helmet back on. "Of course it'll work. I'll stay in-game to make sure the board members can't cause any trouble. You can also start rumors online about all the new stuff that can be found in-game — Bog Shacks and the Beast of the Bog, the new quests. We need to start building a new subscriber base, even after we pull in the faithful."

"You two are crazy." Alan shoved his way between them. "You're feeding off each other's madness. Even if I could stop the shut-down, this plan — it's nuts."

Sarah could see Jocelyn's anger building, the way her shoulders tightened, her hands rising to cast a spell. If Alan couldn't be convinced, she'd lose both of them.

"Alan, think about it. You can bring your family in-game. You can live here with them. You won't have to worry about all of those things your wife thinks are so important. You don't have to bring them into the Bog. You could have the Realm of Hanumekia to yourself, an entire castle where you and your wife can raise your kids."

"You mean the castle that gets raided every ten minutes by Marauding Bandits?" he sneered.

She was losing him faster than the countdown. "No. Think about it. You can create your own instance. One without the raids or the creatures. We can control what happens in-game, can't we?"

Sarah looked at Jocelyn for confirmation.

"It could work." Jocelyn frowned in thought. "With some programming from the outside. Alan, I'll create the instance for you. We can make it happen right from your work station. We'll have plenty of time to create the details after we stall the shut-down. I'll personally make sure there will be nothing in your realm that can hurt you or your family."

Alan started to respond, then stopped. Sarah could see his face change, soften, the idea of living here starting to take hold. She had to say something to make sure he would see the brilliance of the idea and commit to the plan. "Your wife will never have to worry about bills here, or schools, or insurance, or anything. You and your family can live in peace forever."

Alan face turned even more thoughtful. "Forever," he whispered.

"Do you understand? Do we have a deal? If you do this, everything will be perfect for you and for us," Jocelyn said.

Sarah backed up so she stood shoulder to shoulder with Jocelyn. Jocelyn's hand found its way to her shoulder. Sarah embraced the surge of comfort without breaking eye contact with Alan.       

Alan looked down at the floor, probably overwhelmed by the sudden control he had over his own life. "I shouldn't let you two do this. I'm the adult here. How can I justify letting the two of you make this decision for other people? No matter how much you love this game, you can never truly escape reality. It will find a way to intrude. Reality always does."

"We'll give them the option to leave." Sarah could feel Jocelyn's hand slip from her shoulder, but she grabbed the hand and held it tight, willing Jocelyn to not react. "Once we've saved the game, once we have a guaranteed base of support, we can start giving the faithful the option to leave. I'll never understand why anyone would want to, but if they have the choice to leave after we take back control from the current board, will that make it better for you?"

Alan sighed and closed his eyes. Sarah wasn't sure if she had convinced him. He opened his eyes and knelt so they had to look down at his face. No, not his face. The face of the Prince.

"You two still don't get it," he said. "It'll take hundreds of thousands of subscribers to save this game. You can't possible bring that many people here and expect no one to notice. It's kidnapping. You do understand that, don't you? Kidnapping is a serious crime and someone on the outside will figure it out and stop you. Do you really want to spend your lives in prison because you thought you could make your problems go away by running away?"

"We're not running away." How could Sarah make him understand when she didn't understand all of the changes her life would undergo? "We're taking back control. We want to control our own destiny. We want to control our lives and we can only do that here, inside Battle Guards. You can have that same control too, Alan. All you have to do is agree to change the clocks on the servers and delay the shutdown. Jocelyn will take care of the rest. You and your family can have that perfect life you want for them here. Do we have a deal?"

Alan looked back and forth between the two of them. Sarah held her breath, not understanding what Alan was seeing when he looked at the two of them. The clock continued its countdown.

"Deal," he said.

Alan said nothing else, which was perfectly okay with Sarah. There was so much to do, so much to plan. After they took care of Alan and his family, she would have to make her own choice, her own instance. Her programming skills weren't up to Jocelyn's level and she knew nothing of black magic. For the first time in years, Sarah didn't feel sick at the idea of having to talk to someone her own age. Working with Jocelyn would make staying in-game feel less like she was running away from her old life and more like she was running toward a new one.

"Let's do this," Sarah said, her voice strong. When had that happened? Being in-game had changed her from the mousy wimp who never talked because there was nothing she wanted to talk about except Battle Guards. Talking about the game at school would only lead to more bullying she didn't need. Talking about it at home only led to another beating she would never have the power to stop, not without leaving the game behind.    

"We can't stop the shutdown from here." Jocelyn nodded toward the shack door, blocked by the dead bog bunny. "My dad can get Alan back to headquarters through the Veil. I'm the only one the fireflies can carry through the crates I created inside the shack."

The countdown continued in the corner of Sarah's internal screen. Thirty-two minutes left. "Let's get moving."

Alan followed them back into the bog without a word. A worm of doubt about his cooperation niggled Sarah, but she ignored it. Jocelyn would keep an eye on him until he returned with his family. This was a win-win for all of them.

Nothing attacked their group, not even the Beast. How was Jocelyn controlling the game? Did she truly wield this much control over the environment? Sarah couldn't wait until she could sit down with Jocelyn and map out a plan for after they succeeded. The things they could do to make life perfect here. Well, not here in the Bog, but back in one of the kingdoms. 

Alan still had that look on his face, the one that made Sarah think he wasn't really paying attention, but then he said, "Once the police investigation starts, whoever steps into the leadership role will more than likely keep the game going until the police can pull their experts in and check the game for tampering. They'll be looking for clues and will trace the tampering back to me, so you'll have to pull me back in-game right after."

"No worries." Jocelyn stopped right in front of the veil. The shimmery light pulsed as the waves of protons fell from the sky. Sarah's heart beat in time with the waves. "It won't take long to get you and your family safe inside one of the Castles. It doesn't have to be Bangolini. You can pick whichever one you want. It'll work. Trust me. Once we get the statistics up and prove that the game can still make money, the new board will have to keep it operating."

Sarah looked away from the veil. "We have no more time left to lose. Jocelyn, call your father."

Jocelyn looked across the animated landscape. "Father, I need you."

He must have been waiting nearby, because a second after Jocelyn called, the tentacles of the Beast of the Bog rose like squiggly towers out of the muck. The tentacles waved around in wild fashion. Sarah stepped back by instinct, but instead of running, she pulled her sword ready to activate a Smack Attack.

Jocelyn again put her hand on Sarah's shoulder. "Stay still. Don't fight him." Alan still backed up toward the veil. "Careful, Alan. Don't cross the veil without him. He can control where you go. If you cross the veil without the Beast of the Bog, you could wind up on the other side of the planet."

Alan still flinched when one of the tentacles grabbed him and slammed him through the veil. The pulses beat out-of-time as the arm wiggled, half inside the Veil, the rest of the Beast wiggling outside, right in front of Sarah. She held her breath, waiting as the wild gyrations increased in violence. Then the tentacle pulled out of the veil, empty. The pulses calmed to a steady rhythm, and the Beast of the Bog slithered back down into the muck.

"Jocelyn, you're next," Sarah said. "You need to keep an eye on Alan. First, let him change the clocks on the servers. Then get him and his family inside the game. Once they're secure, start pulling the board members. We can do it together.

Sarah removed her helmet as she spoke, taking the physical weight off her shoulders. "I never thought about how heavy real armor could be. I just need a minute to catch my breath."

"You can remove all of it," Jocelyn said. "Just say armor, but say it with conviction. Like when I called my father, I addressed him first, then spoke with a strong voice. If you say armor again it will reappear."

Sarah cleared her throat. "Armor."

Her armor disappeared. Bog snot rose around her legs, but the blessed relief of not having to carry the heavy armor almost made the stench of the bog worth it. "That feels so good. What about your father? How can I control him?"   

"You can't," Jocelyn said. "He only listens to me. I never thought I'd find someone who believed in the game like I did. I mean, I knew the faithful were out there, but to find someone who loved it as much as me, who would stand by me? Help me? I never expected to find someone just like you."

Sarah's heart expanded to near bursting. Not even her former best friend had ever said anything like this to her. She grabbed hold of Jocelyn's words and tucked them away so she could hug them later, handle them with care.

"I never expected to meet you. My folks, they hate this game. They hate me. My father is always beating me, and making feel like I'm worthless. I always wondered what it would be like to have a father who loved this game as much as I did, to understand what it means to me."

Jocelyn nodded. "I get it. My father loves this game, which is why I'm going to save it for him. Without my dad, this game would lose its soul. The board members think they can just turn off someone's heart and soul if it doesn't make them money. I'm going to show them what happens to people who mess with my family."

"I can't wait to see this — " Sarah was interrupted by a rumble that almost knocked her off her feet.

"What was that?"

Even without music there should have been the ambient noises of the Bog, birds chirping, the gurgle of the bog turtles, the distant wail of the Bog King, the light slop of the bog snot. What had happened to it all?

"Are earthquakes part of the new expansion?" Sarah had to ask to be sure, but she didn't think so.

"Something must have gone wrong — "

The Veil started to expand, its base moving toward them.

"The game! It's shutting down!" Sarah grabbed Jocelyn's hand and tugged her away from the animated Veil. "Alan betrayed us. He's moved the time backward instead of forward. We have to run for it."

"But why?" Jocelyn yelled. "I thought he wanted to bring his family in-game. Why? Why? Why?"

"He got scared. He didn't really believe we could live here forever. He's not one of the faithful. Or maybe because he's a dad. He thinks all kids should have to suffer through school and homework and and beatings just because he had to."

Sarah yanked Jocelyn's hand and ran, wishing she hadn't removed her armor, cursing the vines that scraped her bare legs and caught her thin nightgown. There was no time to call her armor while she ran.

"Where are we going?" Jocelyn screamed. "The whole game is going dark."

Sarah kept tugging at Jocelyn, but she was right. There was nowhere to run. They had only made it a dozen or so yards when the Beast of the Bog rose from under the muck again. One tentacle grabbed Jocelyn away from Sarah.

"Give her back!" Sarah screamed, but it was too late. A second tentacle grabbed Sarah.

"Wait! What are you doing?" Sarah didn't know which of them yelled, but she thought it was her. The suckers stung so bad. Her skin burned as if she were on fire. Her arms were pinned to her sides. A tentacle wrapped around her head, so she couldn't call on her sword, or her spells, or her armor.

Somewhere in the distance she heard Jocelyn still yelling something. "Send her home. Send Sarah home."

No! Sarah tried to yell back. Send her anywhere but home. She had no home without the game. She had nowhere safe to run.

"I'll find you," Jocelyn yelled. Hope for Sarah to cling to.

The tentacles squeezed her tight, the burn becoming sharper, her blood pooling in her arms and legs, trying to find a way to escape the pressure, but there was no escape unless she lost a limb. From between the suckers, Sarah watched the Veil expand, the shimmer drawing closer and closer until there was no avoiding the inevitable.

The Veil swallowed her with a snap of electricity biting the exposed areas. In the dark, numbers floated by, coding from the game. The tentacles loosened, but Sarah had nothing to stand on, nothing to grab.

"Don't let me go!" She couldn't believe she had just asked the Beast of the Bog, Jocelyn's father, to keep her in his slimy grip. "Keep me with Jocelyn."

It was too late. The tentacles spun her away. With a sharp spank to her backside, Sarah tumbled head over heels into a black hole.

Sarah's tumble slammed her into something hard with sharp edges. A confined space, dark with a familiar scent. Not the bog, but the slight burn of a heater in winter. Only the sound of her gasps penetrated her consciousness. The Beast of the Bog had deposited her back in her bedroom. Had Jocelyn made it out?

Thump. Thump. Thump.

Oh, dear God, no. Even before her feet hit the cold floor, Sarah knew what those footfalls meant. Not that it mattered anymore. The game was gone. She had nothing to lose.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

If only she could have her sword back. Armor would be better, but at least with her sword, she stood a chance.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

She remembered what Jocelyn, her new best friend, had told her.

"Armor," Sarah said in a quiet, but forceful command.

The armor appeared without another thought, the metal piercing her skin, taking shape around her, protecting her. A gift from Jocelyn. She knew what Alan had done and had used her magic to give Sarah a gift from the game.

"Sword." The Sword of Darisus appeared in her right hand. Sarah clutched the sword, her muscles remembering her attack rotation. Smack Attack, first and always. She had the power now. She knew how to use it.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

The door to her bedroom slammed open. The Bog King had returned, but instead of swinging his mallet, he threatened her with a belt wrapped around his fist. Sarah pulled her sword into fighting stance.

She'd killed the Bog King once before. She would do it again. Then she'd find Jocelyn. Together, they'd both find Alan and make him pay — after they made him recreate what he'd taken from them.

All that mattered was the game.

This story originally appeared in Fragments of Darkness.

Debra Jess

Risk. Reward. Romance.