Realm of the Nine Circles – Chapter 1

Chapter 1

Cold, red mist curled around the gnarled white trunks of the bone bark trees. It slithered across the ground and rubbed against Kalmond’s elven steel shin guards. Elven armor never seemed to quite fit dwarven proportions, and the mist sneaking around the gaps stated a clammy, undeniable fact. A slime mold colony was on the move in the Blood Forest. Kalmond forced himself to lift one foot, then another as he moved toward the treeline.

The dwarf waved his hand across his face to dismiss the glowing green HUD that read:

Level: 37

Class Effect: Woodlands, +3 stealth

Health 100%

Time trickled by unheeded as Kalmond lingered at the edge of the dark wood, transfixed by the sharp, silvery needles of the trees. He made no sound and left no footprints in the damp moss. Dwarves did very well in the forest, and coupled with the sneak spell, Kalmond hoped to be undetectable to the bone bark trees. He didn’t bother to check the status of the spell, hedging his bets. He could only guess that he had a slim reserve of mana left, otherwise the branches would surely have smashed him by now.

Shadows approached, blacker than the night sky. Gaps between the trees became cavern passages with infinite depth. His transit past the treeline brought the cloying sweet stench of rotting death, turning his stomach and sending a shiver of anticipation over his skin. He found it odd how old death smelled so sweet.

Kalmond carefully slid the battle axe from his broad back and brought the boar oak handle close to his chest. While his armor was elven, his weapons were nothing but the finest dwarven craftsmanship. The axe blade glinted in the last scraps of moonlight piercing the shadowy Blood Forest.

The sound of his own footfalls came as a sudden surprise when the sneak spell ended. The red mist was thicker here, appearing mostly black in the mutilated shadows. Bone Bark needles spared not even moonlight. He tried not to picture the sudden violent death that the bone bark trees would deliver should he wake them.

If the trees didn’t get him, the slime mold would. If he didn’t cut the heart colony from the slime mold and bring it to Keerna, the angry sorceress would make good on her threat to take the dwarf’s heart instead.

This was not a happy quest. User-generated quests rarely were. The only reason he’d agreed to it was the very credible threat Keerna posed. Few players had a reputation as deserved as hers, and though her clan was not large, it had a significant number of high-level characters who did not forgive transgressions. Kalmond had impaled himself upon the pike of his own filthy ambition.

He hissed a quiet breath through his teeth, berating himself once again for his own stupidity. He should have left the damned goblet. The image of the bronze cup flashed through his mind. Bronze. Not gold, not spiven crystal, not even silver was the object of his fancy. Kalmond had put the life of his favorite character at risk for a simple drinking cup that wasn’t even magical, much less valuable. Worse still, the theft only earned him Forty measly experience points. Another sigh puffed out into the still night air and hung there like a taunting recrimination. He’d only attempted to steal the cup to see if he could get away with it, and to test Keerna’s perception level. He’d found his answer among the deadly pines.

“Damn, I hope the Nameless don’t find out about this,” he muttered. If his clan, which was not a clan at all, found out about a misadventure born from a failed theft, he would never hear the end of it. While he lamented his plight, his attention wandered just for the briefest of moments. Of course, that’s when it attacked.

The slime mold, bigger than any he’d seen, peeled itself off the forest floor and rose above him like a black tidal wave. Kalmond jerked back with a yelp. Bits of moss and rotten clumps of log rained down around his feet as he raised his axe. The world went black.

He swung his axe to no effect. Heart racing, breath panting, Kalmond fought against the suffocating darkness. It was no use. In seconds, the slime mold enveloped him in its cold, stinging embrace, sucking away his hit points. Kalmond, the shrewd dwarven rogue, died sightless on the forest floor. Only the red glow of his diminishing stats populated his field of view as his HUD popped back up to announce:

Hitpoints: 0%

Mana: 5%

“Lights on!” Dante shouted. The LED ceiling fixtures flared to life, returning the lab to its normal operating-room brightness. “It’s too dark. I get the challenge of a realistic environment, but that was ridiculous.”

“OK,” Doctor Najeel Boussaid declared in his usual impatient tone, “but what about the overall experience?”

Dante was accustomed to the thick Persian accent, but it still took him a while to decipher Najeel’s words, especially when he was excited. The doctor held a notebook in a white-knuckled grip as he spoke. “What about the smell profile? I do not care about light rendering right now. The object of this test was the scent engine, not the light! I need data, I need to know–”

“Oh, simmer down, Al,” Martin Chauncy said, lifting his blond head from quad 21-inch monitors. “I have your data right here. His sensory lobes registered just fine, his brain lit up like a Christmas tree. My data showed full registry of all your smelly work.”

“No!” Najeel bellowed, hammering his notebook on the metal desk hard enough to send some of his scent sample containers jumping. “Do not call me ‘Al Qaeda’ again!”

“I didn’t call you that,” Martin said in a grade-school tone of pure mockery. “I just called you ‘Al’.”

“I know what you mean! You make that short for Al Qaeda!”

“Yeah, Martin. Lay off. It wasn’t funny the first ten times you called him that,” Dante said. The joke was just mean. Maybe if Najeel laughed at it…but he didn’t. “Come on, Doc, you know he’s just trying to rile you up. It’s what he does.”

Martin gave a short laugh from across the room. “I can’t help it if he makes such an easy target.”

Dante winced at Najeel’s hurt look, then shrugged. “He’s got a point, Dr. Boussaid.” Despite a dual Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience and computer science, Najeel had missed out on every ounce of people skills a person could have. Still, Dante believed Najeel was a decent person who didn’t deserve the treatment he got from Martin. “Do you have to tease him like that?” Dante asked his boss.

“Where’s your gratitude, lab rat?” Martin asked “He was laying into you about his smell machine.”

“Scent engine!” Najeel barked haughtily.

“Nah, he’s just excited about his work. I don’t take it personal. Aren’t you excited about our work?” Dante asked. Dr. Boussaid made eye contact and gave him a curt nod. Dante understood that to be his equivalent of a smile.

“Yeah. I love our work,” Martin replied, “but I’m not a dick about it.”

Splotches of red marred the light brown skin of Najeel’s angular face. Dante shook his head and held his hand out, palm forward. “Doctor, stop taking the bait. He’s a child. Don’t give him the attention and he’ll get bored.”

“Next time,” Martin said with a wag of his finger and a wry grin, “I’m going to make the lights go out for real when you’re in-world.”

“Whatever, Martin,” Dante replied as he busied himself with removing the neural interface harness. Small squelching pops sounded as he dislodged it from the attachment points on his freshly-shaved head. It was often hard to believe that these two were his bosses. He enjoyed the casual rapport, but Dante felt like a recess monitor around them.

“Be careful with those!” Martin exclaimed.

“Come over here and take the damn things off then, hardware guy,” Dante fired back. He shot a quick glance at the clock. It was well past six. Dante’s shoulders slumped at the thought of battling rush hour in Northern Virginia. Highway congestion in the area was rated among the worst in the country for the third straight year since Dante took his job at the Plexcorp main headquarters. By this time of day, Martin’s juvenile games and Najeel’s high-strung obsessive genius made Dante itch to get out of the lab.

The harness refused to cooperate, the mess of wires tangling and sticking to each other as he tried to disengage it. “You know, if you keep adding wires to this thing you’ll never be able to miniaturise it.” Dante held up a hand to cut off Najeel’s impending lecture. “I know, I know. We need them. It’s just that every time you guys come up with a new idea like this scent input, it adds another jumble to what already looks like a big mess.”

Finally, unable to watch the harness suffer at Dante’s frustration, Martin left his chair and rose to the entirety of his five-feet, eight inch height. He crossed the room with a cocky grin and deliberate slowness. To hurry him along, Dante tugged hard at one of the thinner electrode wires fastened to the back of his skull.

“Don’t tug on that!” Martin slapped Dante’s hand away from the delicate equipment, then picked up a cotton ball and soaked it in rubbing alcohol. He applied it to the electrode pads with surprising care, and soon Dante shed the harness like a molting reptile.

Untethered at last, Dante was finally able to leave the reclined chair that resembled a space flight couch. The sight of the seat, with its polished aluminium tube frame, always gave him pause. He shook his head, unable to really believe that he went to an entirely different world just by laying back in that device.

“What?” Martin asked. “You always get a funny look on your face when you leave the VR interface.”

“Yeah, it’s just weird, is all. It feels like I’m really in that world, then I look back at where I’ve been and it’s just a chair.”

“You are in that world,” Najeel said. “What we experience makes our reality. When the suggestion engine creates the images, textures and sensations for you, it becomes your reality.”

“Oh geez,” Martin said, rolling his eyes. “Here he goes again.”

“You have no respect for what we are doing here,” Najeel replied. “We are forging a new reality for the human race.”

“I’m an engineer, not a philosopher.” Martin shot back. “We’re building cool game machines for bored people with disposable income. Call it what you want.”

“You guys both wear me out,” Dante said. “I’m amazed you get anything done.”

“The best creativity comes from conflict,” Martin declared with a sage expression. He folded his thick arms across his barrel chest to demonstrate his conviction. Dante was surprised that Najeel seemed to agree. The doctor nodded his head slowly with eyes set at some distant focal point.

“Holy crap, you guys are completely insane,” Dante declared. As he left the lab, Martin and Najeel sat down and began to discuss their next moves. When they talked about immersion VR technology, computer science and engineering, they sounded like old friends. It was their discussion of every other subject that made them seem like bitter enemies. Dante often thought of Martin as an ornery warrior dwarf and Dr. Boussaid as a cantankerous elven sorcerer.

Dante trotted through the parking lot, his ache to get back to the game almost palpable. His mind turned over the slime mold quest and its dismal failure. He’d have to use the public version of the game, a 3-D world rendered by monitor, keyboard and mouse, but he could still continue–that is, once he’d resurrected his character and made his way back to the Blood Forest, this time a flatter, sub-par version of it.

Dante chuckled at himself. Before he started working for Plexcorp, he’d thought the game and graphics quality were the best he’d ever seen. Now? It was like stepping back a decade, using slow, outdated equipment. The next-generation system he was working on would make all other game tech seem like eight-bit graphics.

That was the other element he found so cool about his work. The studio was developing the VR tech in real time, using it on the existing servers. The immersion engine was live and in full secret beta out there in the world. It gathered massive amounts of data as it interacted with millions of gamers around the globe. A stack of non-disclosure agreements prevented him from telling anyone about it yet, but once the immersion VR prototype was complete, Plexcorp planned to announce the release of the very first total immersion VR platform.

“How cool is that?” Dante asked himself for the fifth time that day as he unlocked his compact Prius.

Before he placed his phone on the suction cup mount beside the steering wheel, he checked his messages. He saw a phone call from his Mom, one from his friend Larry and seventeen text messages from his fellow gamers. He read the text messages, smiling as a new one popped up just before he put the phone down.

Confirmation of payment sent. Type: Salary. Details: Junior Developer. Standard rate.

Dante’s job paid well–more than any other entry level job he had a chance of getting. Better yet, it was supplemented by the in-game economy created by the very company he worked for. As a top-tier quester, selling loot and magical items had paid his college expenses and more. Getting a weekly paycheck on top of that, in return for testing out the new equipment, writing code and reporting a few bugs? That was just icing on the cake. Oh, sure, Boussaid and Martin could be hard to deal with at times, but he liked them both. In many ways, working for them taught him more about computer science than his years in college.

Dante plugged the phone into the driver console and pulled out of the company lot, fiddling with the radio to find a traffic report.

“Congestion on the Reston Parkway backed up to the Dulles Toll Road…”

Dante cursed. “Come on, I’ve got stuff to do!” Stuff that included, for the most part, a dozen quest opportunities, ones that the Nameless Clan wouldn’t necessarily wait for him to accept before going out on their own. That made completing the Blood Forest quest that much more important.

The drive home was torturous. Traffic moved at a crawl and the drivers around him were just as impatient as he was, tooting horns and yelling at the aggressive morons who tried to cut people off to get ahead. Dante took the time to go over the message from one of his oldest friends, ‘Thuglife666.’ It was a title that always made Dante laugh, but Thuglife was always there for him in the game, though they’d never met in person.

Thuglife was willing to hurry to the Blood Forest and help slay the slime mold.

“I won’t even ask for circ up front,” his text read. That made Dante chuckle. Nobody worked for free in the game world, at least not for long. The “nice” players were the ones who got taken first. People generally had to burn through a few characters and get murdered for their loot before they realized that nothing in the game should be done for free. It was a harsh world where alliances and friendships meant everything. Survival depended on how well one gamed with others or how ruthless one was in going it alone. In spite of the nature of the game world, Dante was sure Thuglife was a friend as well as an ally. The two often shared important parts of their real life through the game.

It took forty-five minutes to cover the five miles of suburban sprawl between Plexcorp’s Reston, VA campus and home. Dante bolted from his car and ran up the three flights of stairs to his apartment. Going straight to his den, he turned on his computer, cycled through the bathroom, to the kitchen to microwave a burrito, then back to his computer again. By the time he unlocked his desktop and started the game, the burrito was ready. A few seconds later, Dante was in front of his computer with his dinner and forty-eight ounces of Blam Cola. He had the makings of a perfect evening.

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